By Tom Still
MADISON – Wisconsin’s “real-time” economy kept pace with a globally paced clock in 2004 as the state became better known as a place where innovation, intellectual property and investment are welcome.
Don’t pop the champagne corks just yet: Wisconsin still has a long way to go before its economy is creating as many high-wage jobs as the state lost in the three-year manufacturing recession. The chasm between ideas and the creation of globally competitive companies, while closing, is still wide.
Here are 10 New Year’s resolutions that could help spur an even more successful 2005, provided we’re all diligent enough to keep them.
Resolved: Keep Wisconsin’s technology assets in the national eye. Mostly due to the hustle of key people in the private sector and the news media, Wisconsin technology became more than a blip on the national radar screen in 2004. The Forbes magazine ratings that placed three Wisconsin cities in its top 100 places for business and careers (Madison was No. 1) was one example. But how long can Wisconsin rely on a marketing strategy that rests on personal connections and luck?
Resolved: Continue building the “I-Q Corridor.” Old feuds between Madison and Milwaukee won’t define the 21st century economy. What’s needed is more cooperation within Wisconsin’s portion of the I-Q Corridor, the 400 miles that connect the economic powerhouses of Chicago and the Twin Cities. The “I” stands for ideas, innovation, invention, intellectual property and investment, and the “Q” is shorthand for quality of life, environment, workforce and education. Regional approaches to common problems, such as venture capital creation and sharing of medical research, are emerging.
Resolved: Celebrate the value of academic research and development. When the final numbers are counted for 2004, Wisconsin’s academic R&D institutions will have received more than $880 million in research grants. That creates 30,000 jobs statewide, directly and indirectly, and it’s good for 15th in the nation. Investing in academic R&D is good business and consistent with a century of Wisconsin tradition.
Resolved: Compete for federal homeland security dollars. Traditional R&D grants for Wisconsin universities and research centers are vital, but the budgetary hand-writing is on the wall. The federal government is spending less on merit-based grants through agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and more on research tied to homeland security. If its gets organized, Wisconsin can compete for those dollars because of its leadership in key technologies.
Resolved: Politicians should think twice before beating up on drug companies. While they sometimes invite the abuse, drug companies and their research pipelines aren’t the most evil force on the planet. In fact, Wisconsin has many scientists and technologies hard at work on life-saving therapies and diagnostics. Why do so many consumers and politicos think that knowledge comes for free?
Resolved: Build upon Wisconsin’s entrepreneurial culture. It’s no California, where risk-taking is as commonplace as a drive on the Santa Monica Freeway, but Wisconsin is finally becoming entrepreneur-friendly. Gov. Jim Doyle and the Legislature have created statewide entrepreneurial centers; the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference and the Governor’s Business Plan Contest have grown; and support networks such as the Wisconsin Innovation Network are up and running. Now, if only Wisconsin’s CEOs can become more tech savvy.
Resolved: Spread technology development to rural Wisconsin and the inner cities. Strategies are emerging to ensure tech jobs are created outside the usual places. Rural Wisconsin, for example, can attract information technology businesses if there is reliable, high-speed access to the Internet. The challenge is more complicated in Wisconsin’s inner cities, but logistics and workforce potential makes progress possible.
Resolved: Attract more venture capital to Wisconsin. Major state institutions such as the State of Wisconsin Investment Board have signaled they may invest more in emerging tech sectors. Such a move will persuade other institutions to forge ahead – and attract outside capital, as well.
Resolved: Help “angel investors” spread their wings. Angel investors account for nearly as much private equity investment nationally as do venture capitalists, and angel money is much more focused on early-stage companies. Wisconsin has a small but growing number of angel networks; stronger links to entrepreneurs with good deals is the next step.
Resolved: Cooperate on improving the infrastructure. While other hot-button issues got more ink, Doyle and the 2003-2004 Legislature did a good job of holding down state taxes, cutting red tape for business, improving the energy grid and underscoring the importance of a good telecommunications system. More bipartisan cooperation, even in the face of sometimes strained relations, will help everyone in Wisconsin.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.