By Tom Still

MADISON – Was 2003 a year in which Wisconsin’s “real-time” economy gained time – or lost it? A review of the year’s top technology news stories suggests the state is becoming 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.

A year-end survey by NorthStar Economics of Madison and the Wisconsin Technology Council, combined with an inventory of top stories by the Wisconsin Technology Network, paints the picture of a state on the move. Yet Wisconsin still lags in some important indicators of economic dynamism, such as its ability to quickly transfer research to the marketplace.

Six of the top seven stories in the NorthStar/Tech Council survey were tied to longstanding efforts to close Wisconsin’s venture capital gap. Historically, Wisconsin has trailed the U.S. average in attracting venture capital, or equity capital invested primarily in early-stage companies. In 2003, however, the story turned. Wisconsin’s investment capital picture began to improve.

 Successive buyouts of Cobalt by Wellpoint and Anthem raised the value of stock being held by a medical foundation that will invest heavily in research. At today’s stock prices, the University of Wisconsin Medical School and the Medical College of Wisconsin could invest up to $200 million in research and development over time.
 The State of Wisconsin Investment Board allocated nearly $100 million for investment in venture capital firms in Wisconsin and the Midwest.
 Robert W. Baird raised a $100 million venture fund aimed at investing in high-tech, business services and health companies in Wisconsin and the Midwest. Baird Venture Partners is one of the SWIB fund managers.
 Frazier Technology Ventures, a Seattle-based firm, established an office in Madison to manage its portion of the SWIB venture capital allotment.
 TA Associates, a private equity firm from Boston, announced it will invest $72.5 million in Logistics Health Inc. of La Crosse.
 Angel investor networks were formed in the Chippewa Valley and in St. Croix County.

That money won’t be invested overnight, but the rise in activity shows Wisconsin is finally catching the eye of equity investors. The Wisconsin Legislature can enhance that trend by passing bills to leverage private investments.

The year’s headlines also included the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation marketing its extensive technology and patents to Wisconsin companies, the launching of the first Governor’s Business Plan Contest at the first Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference, the largest Wisconsin Life Sciences and Venture Conference in 20 years, and the expansion of the Wisconsin Innovation Network. All of those developments help create capacity and opportunities for entrepreneurs.

Private companies also dispelled the myth that Wisconsin isn’t tech-savvy, as some of the stories reported by WTN demonstrated.

 NovaScan, a Milwaukee firm with a novel diagnostic imaging technique, became the first company to sign a deal with WiSys Technology Foundation, a WARF subsidiary.
 Cray Computers in Chippewa Falls began production of a new super-computer.
 Epic Systems in Madison won the biggest healthcare information contract ever with its deal with Kaiser Permanente.
 Oshkosh Truck’s Pierce Security Vehicle was ranked in the top 100 Technological Innovations for 2003 by Popular Science.
 Johnson Controls introduced new technologies for the auto industry.
 GE Medical acquired more companies, announced more breakthroughs and created more jobs.
 Two Wisconsin companies, Eragen and Prodesse, were among the first in the world to produce a test for the SARS virus.
 Five Wisconsin companies, including Harley-Davidson and Lands’ End, made the Computer World ranking of the top 100 “Best Places to Work in IT.”
 Mentor Corp., a California company, announced it would open a facility in Madison to develop proprietary botox products using UW research.

The list goes on. But so does the list of challenges. Surveys released in 2003 by the Corporation for Economic Development and the Progressive Policy Institute ranked Wisconsin fairly high for producing ideas – but back in the pack in terms of turning those ideas into jobs. At this month’s eForum in Milwaukee, Ross DeVol of the non-profit Milken Institute told much the same story, but he also credited Wisconsin for systematically attacking its problems.

Wisconsin technology had a good year. But it will take even better years in 2004 and beyond to put the state on a bigger map.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.