• WisBusiness

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Taking a regional view of economic growth: There's gold to be mined in the Midwest


By Tom Still
CHICAGO – A few years back, I came up with the name “I-Q Corridor” to describe the 400 miles or so that extend from Chicago on the south to the Twin Cities of Minnesota on the north, with much of Wisconsin in between. It’s a way to highlight the technology assets of a larger region versus a single state: Innovation, intellectual property, investment make up the “I” and quality of education, workforce and life comprise the “Q.”

Brands can come and go, of course, but the notion of a world-class corridor of technology-based development has endured. In fact, it’s becoming more tangible as time passes.

The I-Q Corridor is home to more than 16.5 million people who live within a short commute of 1-90, 1-94 or 1-43 in Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. It’s also a region with major research universities that account for nearly $4 billion in academic R&D projects, federal laboratories, companies in all technology sectors and financial centers with the ability to invest in emerging industries.

But it’s also a region with a common problem: No enough venture capital.

When the Brookings Institution studied the supply of venture capital in the Midwest, it concluded the region’s financial institutions and major investors provide about 40 percent of the venture dollars available in the United States – but the region only attracts 13 percent of total venture investments.

Why the huge gap? Much of the Midwest money invested in venture capital winds up on the East and West Coasts, mainly because too many institutional investors can’t break out of the mindset that all investment-worthy tech ideas emanate from California and Massachusetts.

That’s true despite the fact the Upper Midwest is the center of the nation’s medical device industry, home to major pharmaceutical companies such as Baxter, Abbott and Eli Lilly, and a hub for emerging energy technologies.

A Wisconsin investor likens it to the gold prospectors who are too late to the game. “People have always panned for gold in the rivers and streams around where others have found it before. They continue to do so long after those streams become crowded and the returns diminish to the marginal players,” said John Neis of Madison-based Venture Investors LLC.

Others are beginning to figure out there’s “gold” in the largely unpanned tech streams of the Midwest.

The State of Wisconsin Investment Board, which has about $80 billion in assets under management, issued a 2008 report that identified the Upper Midwest as a region rich in potential deals for investors. Most recently, SWIB signaled it may create a “catalyst portfolio” to attract top-tier venture capital firms looking for co-investment possibilities in Wisconsin and the I-Q Corridor.

The Midwestern Governors Association, meeting last month in Columbus, Ohio, spent the better part of two days discussing strategies to increase the supply of venture capital in the region. That meeting highlighted some best practices throughout the region, from Ohio’s Third Frontier to the Wisconsin Angel Network and beyond. Better yet, it attracted investors who wanted to learn more.

Other regional efforts are also focused on highlighted the assets of the I-Q Corridor. The Midwest co-Investment Network and the Midwest Research University Network have held three events, the latest of which was held Oct. 14 in Chicago, to foster better connections among angel investors who may want to invest jointly in some deals.

The Midwest co-Investment Network is comprised of 16 angel networks and funds that regularly share investment deals across state borders. The Midwest Research University Network connects leading R&D universities to discuss best practices surrounding “technology transfer,” which is the process of moving technology out of the labs and into the marketplace. Both groups have Wisconsin roots.

Other forums for highlighting a regional perspective include the MidAmerica Health Investors Network and the I-Q Corridor Investors’ Forum, a video conference link-up of investors reviewing investment deals from across the Midwest. Conferences such as the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium, to be held Nov. 10-11 in Madison, historically attract investors from across the Midwest and beyond.

In an economic world defined by “knowledge-based” regions rich in research, innovation and talent, the I-Q Corridor can compete. There’s gold in those Midwest hills and streams – and it’s just waiting for more investors to discover it.

-- 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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