The tech startup sector hardest-hit by the Great Recession was life sciences, meaning biotechnology, medical devices and health care in general.

For nearly five years beginning in the late 2000s, investors shied away from companies with long regulatory runways and high capital costs in favor of quick hits in software, mobile devices and gaming.

The upcoming Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium in Madison will provide the latest signal that health-tech is back.

Of the 28 companies slated to present during the main pitch track of the conference, 11 are biopharmaceutical or medical device companies. Another seven are engaged in health information technology, such as digital health record innovations or similar platforms.

In the Elevator Pitch Olympics portion of the conference, six of 17 companies selected for 90-second pitches have ideas related to health technologies.

That means more than half of the 45 presenting companies selected for the two-day conference that begins Tuesday are engaged in health care, one way or the other.

Why the surge after years of drought? The story begins at the top of the food chain, where healthcare is once again hot.

Read this commentary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here

Increased investor confidence is speeding up the fundraising-to-exit cycle and freeing up more capital to invest. The healthcare venture industry nationally is on a three-year streak of producing strong exit activity in the form of initial public offerings (IPOs) and mergers and acquisitions – which typically means strong returns for investors.

According to a recent report by Silicon Valley Bank, healthcare venture funding grew 56 percent in 2014 over 2013 levels – and 2013 was up 30 percent from the previous year. So far, it appears 2015 is on track.

Those trends are reflected in the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium, one of the oldest and largest venture conferences in the Upper Midwest. Investors from across Wisconsin, the region and nationally will descend on Madison to see and hear emerging companies, not only in health-tech, but other high-growth sectors.

While most of the companies that will pitch at the conference are a long way from exits, they stand a chance to benefit from the recent success of others in the life sciences.

Life science-related IPOs rocketed from 11 in 2012 to 37 in 2013 and a sizzling 79 in 2014. While 2015 won’t likely match 2014 totals in the healthcare space, it’s already well above 2013 with more than 60 IPO pricings.

Wisconsin has long been a hub for biotech, medical devices, health care and, lately, health information technologies. That’s the result of at least of century of investment in research, development and technology transfer.

That was the subject of my recent conversation with a gathering of journalists who cover health care for national publications and broadcast operations, as well as some of Wisconsin’s leading outlets. The group, which included reporters and editors from the Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, Modern Healthcare, FiveThirtyEight and more, toured Wisconsin as part of a visit organized by the Kaiser Media Fellowships.

They learned the latest about Wisconsin’s approach to public health care, electronic health records, telemedicine, rural health care and more from experts at the Medical College of Wisconsin, Aurora Health Care, Epic, the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, the Marshfield Clinic and state government.

I helped to detail Wisconsin’s historic accomplishments in the life sciences, from the development of Vitamin A, B and D therapies to medical imaging, and from stem cell research to the milk butterfat test. That led to a discussion of today’s diverse landscape of research centers and emerging companies in Wisconsin, which might seem like an accident to outsiders unless they know the state’s scientific prowess didn’t begin yesterday. It was built on the shoulders of others.

A prime example is the ongoing 90th anniversary celebration of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. Founded in 1925 as an independent patent and licensing office for the University of Wisconsin, WARF began with the campus discovery that ultraviolet radiation can produce Vitamin D in food. That led to Vitamin D milk and the virtual end to rickets, a disease that once scourged millions of children. Today, WARF is the oldest academic tech transfer organization of its kind in the United States, and has returned more than $1 billion over time to the UW-Madison campus.

It is also a major reason why so many of the discoveries launched in UW-Madison labs find their way into the marketplace, either through intellectual property licenses or startup companies. In fact, a recent survey by Pitchbook ranked the UW-Madison 16th in the world for venture-backed entrepreneurs.

Many factors have made Wisconsin a crucible for life sciences over time; the recent bounce in the health-tech market is helping now. There are only so many “unicorns” in the tech world, but you might just spot one at next week’s Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium.