• WisBusiness

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Coveting greener grass: Wisconsin's start-up economy is tied to a larger region


By Tom Still
Forget Saturday's football showdown between the Wisconsin Badgers and the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Ignore the Monday night football game between the Green Bay Packers and Brett Favre's Minnesota Vikings. The real cross-border game these days is all about biotechnology.

At least, that's the view from the newsroom of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, which recently published a two-part series headlined "A bio border battle" and "Badger state tech boom." The stories call attention to Wisconsin's emerging technology sector -- and even declare Minnesota an "underdog" in terms of catching up.

While it's human nature to perceive grass on the other side of the fence as greener, the Star-Tribune series (and a related blog item headlined, provocatively, "Wisconsin kicks out butt") is emblematic of a growing awareness about Wisconsin's ability to transfer research into start-up companies. After years of building a more entrepreneur-friendly economy, Wisconsin is finally moving beyond Rodney Dangerfield status and gaining respect. Other examples in recent weeks:

* Nineteen Wisconsin companies were selected by the MidAmerica Healthcare Venture Forum to make on-stage pitches to investors who will attend the group's annual conference, which will be held Nov. 11-12 in Madison. The next largest contingent of companies from any one state is eight from Ohio.

* Springboard Enterprises, a national group dedicated to connecting women-led businesses with private equity capital, held its "All Things Life Sciences" conference this week in Madison, attracting investors from across the United States.

* A recent gathering of tech-based organizations in Chicago examined Wisconsin's experience with a five-year-old investor tax credit law in hopes of persuading the Illinois Legislature to follow a similar approach.

* The Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium, which annually gives start-up companies a chance to pitch their companies to investors, received more than 50 applications this year -- including 10 from Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. This tech-based matchmaking event will be held in tandem with the MidAmerica Healthcare Venture Forum in November.

* The premier of Manitoba, who will soon become the next Canadian ambassador to the United States, will visit Wisconsin in Oct. 15 to sign a protocol agreement with the state that highlights opportunities for growing tech-based businesses.

The Star-Tribune series was sparked by the move of several Minnesota tech companies to Wisconsin, which, while hardly an exodus, highlighted the lure of Wisconsin's investor tax credits and a generally healthy system of launching homegrown early stage companies. Some members of the Minnesota Legislature are now hoping to emulate Wisconsin's tax credits law.

There's some irony in Minnesota looking to Wisconsin as an example -- because for years, Wisconsin's tech community looked with envy upon Minnesota. It is a state that built a medical device industry around companies such as Medtronic, Guidant and St. Jude, and which continues to attract far more venture capital in any given year than Wisconsin. Most important, per capita incomes in Minnesota and Illinois still outpace Wisconsin by at least $4,000 per year.

But outsiders sense momentum in Wisconsin, and perceive the process of creating and nurturing start-up companies here is more cohesive. The Star-Tribune quoted Pete Bianco of Halleland Consulting, a Twin Cities firm with corporate experience in Wisconsin, as saying: "You just get this sense of forward motion. Wisconsin is doing something right. I would like to see Minnesota do the same."

It's reassuring that people in Minnesota, Illinois and beyond are taking note of Wisconsin's tech-based economy, which has always boasted some of the world's best academic research and now has some impressive companies to match. But the end game in Wisconsin should not be about gaining a leg up on Minnesota, Illinois or any other neighbor. The real imperative is competing on a global stage.

The region that includes Chicago to the south and the Twin Cities to the west is the "I-Q Corridor," a place where ideas, innovation, intellectual property and investment combine to create interstate quality. It's a region that can compare itself with many others nationally -- and which must compete with emerging economies in China, India and beyond.

It's productive and even flattering that some people in Minnesota and Illinois see Wisconsin's grass as being greener. But let's remember the real goal is a lawn big enough and green enough for everyone to play, work and prosper.

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

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