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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Book review: 'Rich -- The Rise and Fall of American Wealth Culture'


By Terri Schlichenmeyer
“Rich: The Rise and Fall of American Wealth Culture” by Larry Samuel
c.2009, Amacom $24.95 / $32.50 Canada 308 pages, includes notes

A million bucks.

That’s all you’d need to be happy. A measly million ... no, wait, TWO million dollars. Imagine all the great things you’d be able to do with those kind of bucks.

But the problem is, believe it or not, that million or two doesn’t go very far anymore, as you’ll see in “Rich: The Rise and Fall of American Wealth Culture” by Larry Samuel. Sometimes, big money isn’t big enough.

Barely 150 years ago, being a millionaire was rare: not only were there just three of them in the U.S. in 1861, but the word itself was brand-new.

Within three generations, wealthy Americans were firmly ensconced in industry, philanthropy, and society. The Have-Nots (meaning, most of the country) were quite fascinated by the European servants, hundred-room mansions, furs and jewelry of the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Astors, and their peers.

But then the stock market collapsed, which brought vilification upon the rich. Influential religious leaders spoke against flamboyant displays of wealth, which caused more than a few rich citizens to downsize their homes (or the number of homes). In Washington, a “wealth confiscation bill”, designed to seize and re-distribute big money, actually passed in the Senate (but, obviously, didn’t go into effect).

Post-Depression, a curious shift took place: millionaires were suddenly showing up, not in New York, Boston, and Washington, but in Appalachia and Texas, due to a nation-wide change in energy needs. Following World War II, luxury became something Everyman could have, and the distinction between “Old Money” (wealth from a long line of rich forebears) and “New Money” (fortunes made more recently) became a sticking point within the wealthy class. It was obvious, through attitudes about money, to figure out who was Old and who was New.

In 1966, more than five hundred Americans were millionaires. By 1968, over 100,000 people belonged in that income level. That number doubled by 1970, and for the first time, women, gays, and African Americans were in that category. The introduction of wide-spread lotteries in 1974 made easy millionaires. By the time Forbes magazine introduced “The Forbes Four Hundred” in 1982, there were a dozen billionaires on the list.

Do you scratch your head at the excess of the wealthy? Look askance at those who have “too much much”? Believe it or not, “Rich: The Rise and Fall of American Wealth Culture” puts a lot into perspective.

Author Larry Samuel shows how the average citizen’s perception has changed the way the Rich and Famous behave (and vice versa), and how both have actually altered society and policy. Along the way, Samuel muses about over-the-top ostentation, wealth in politics, and the finer things money can (or can’t) buy. He also gives his readers a subtle clue: most millionaires made their money through stocks and real estate, not by scrimping and saving.

If the lives of the Definitely Haves have always fascinated you, pick up “Rich: The Rise and Fall of American Wealth Culture”. For historians, cash collectors, upper-crusters, and wanna-be’s, this book is right on the money.

-- Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

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Latest roadblock to embryonic stem cell research hurts everyone -- even its opponents


By Tom Still
Erik Forsberg, the executive director of Wisconsin’s WiCell Research Institute, may soon be running the scientific equivalent of a homeless shelter.

If a recent court ruling forces some of Wisconsin’s stem-cell researchers to abandon their federally funded laboratories and equipment, those researchers may find temporary quarters in WiCell’s research center near the UW-Madison campus. Because the WiCell lab isn’t backed by federal dollars, it could serve as a safe harbor for researchers whose labs run short on money.

“We’re debating what we can do if this legal situation is prolonged, but we can be a bridge for a period of time for some people,” Forsberg said. “We can be a stop-gap solution for some, for a while.”

Uncertainty has returned to the field of human embryonic stem-cell research, which has lived most of its short history in a stop-and-start environment uncharacteristic of almost anything else in science. The latest twist came in late August when U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth issued a temporary injunction blocking the federal government from implementing National Institutes of Health guidelines governing embryonic stem cell research.

The injunction, which is being appealed, puts at risk more hundreds of research projects nationally – including many in Wisconsin, where UW-Madison researcher James Thomson was the first in the world to keep embryonic stem cells alive and unchanged indefinitely.

The ruling came after adult stem cell researchers and other plaintiffs protested President Obama’s 2009 order lifting federal funding restrictions. The judge concluded that federal funding for embryonic stem cell research violates a 1996 law that prohibits use of federal money for research in which an embryo is destroyed. The ruling drew sharp dissent.

“The injunction threatens to stop progress in one of the most encouraging areas of biomedical research, just as scientists are gaining momentum – and squander the investment we have already made,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. “(The ruling) could cause irreparable damage and delay potential breakthroughs to improve care for people living with serious diseases and conditions such as spinal cord injury, diabetes or Parkinson’s disease.”

The NIH director also disputed the plaintiffs’ claim – accepted by the judge – that more federal funding for embryonic stem cell research means less money for adult stem cell work. Collins confirmed that NIH still funds about three times as much adult stem cell research as it does research with embryos.

Opponents say the ruling means scientists should go back to using adult stem cells, which have been researched since the mid-1960s, or speed the development of reprogrammed adult cells that have been genetically engineered to revert to an embryonic form.

Science doesn’t work well by rolling back the clock. Adult stem-cell research has gotten a second wind due to breakthroughs with embryonic stem cells, and the reprogrammed adult cells (called “induced pluripotent” stem cells) have yet to prove as stable or as pliable as embryonic stem cells. It may take more years of work to make the induced pluripotent stem cells work like embryonic cells, if it can ever be done at all.

“The decision is a deplorable brake on all stem-cell research,” said Alan Trounson, president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. “Many discoveries with other cell types, notably the so-called reprogrammed iPS cells, would not happen without ongoing research in human embryonic stem cells.”

Expect California’s CIRM, which has already spent $1 billion on stem-cell research and is poised to spend $243 million more, to recruit researchers who may lose federal funding and whose states don’t offer state support.

“For now, the damage is mostly psychological,” said Forsberg of the court ruling, “but a lot depends on how long it takes for a reversal. We live in a competitive world, and if others see an advantage because of what’s happening in the federal courts, they’ll push ahead.”

The federal court ruling hurts researchers, who are once again mired in uncertainty. It hurts patients, who are losing time in the race for treatments and cures. It hurts states such as Wisconsin, which could see its researchers lured away by other nations or California. And, strangely enough, it hurts opponents, who wrongly believe adult stem cell research and iPS research can move ahead without human embryonic stem cells for side-by-side comparisons.

Let’s hope the on-again, off-again world of stem cell research soon reverts to on again – and stays there.

-- 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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Monday, August 30, 2010

Got the campus blues? Ways to trim your college costs



By Kevin Reardon
Here's a new twist on an old saying. There are three things in life that are certain: death, taxes, and college costs that go up every year, even during a recession. How can students and parents avoid the "extreme borrowing" phenomenon that can lead to years of burdensome loan payments? They can start by looking for ways to trim college costs so they won't have to borrow and/or pay as much in the first place.

Easier said than done, you say. Perhaps. But here are some practical steps you can take to ease your bottom line college experience:

Pick a college with a lower sticker price


Pricey private colleges often like to point out that the majority of their students don't pay the full "sticker price." The problem is, you never quite know how much, exactly, their students are paying. Every student's aid package is different, and the presence of merit aid awards makes the picture even murkier. Private colleges with the biggest endowments can afford to be the most generous (replacing loans with grants in aid packages, for example, or guaranteeing merit aid for all four years), but not every private college can do this. Even if a college takes $15,000 or $20,000 off its sticker price, that may still leave $30,000 or more to pay each year.

In the past few years, enrollment at public colleges has soared due to their lower sticker prices. Typically, public colleges are half the cost of private colleges and, for in-state residents, the savings can be even greater. Education experts often debate the benefits of spending more money to attend a well-known, more prestigious private college vs. a public college. But it's generally agreed that motivated, bright students can succeed anywhere, and that after a certain period of time, job experience matters more than where you went to college.

Consider taking a year off

The number of students taking time off between high school and college is growing in a measurable way. This period, commonly referred to as a "gap year," is typically spent volunteering, traveling, working, and/or interning. One of the main benefits of a gap year is the increased maturity and focus that comes from engaging in new experiences. These traits can help students get their money's worth in college by sharpening study habits and career goals. Another benefit is the potential to earn money to pay for college. For example, working full-time for 42 weeks (10 months) at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour equals about $12,180 before taxes. Or, for the volunteer-minded, the AmeriCorps program currently provides a modest living allowance and a stipend in 2010 of $5,350 in exchange for service work (future stipends will be tied to the maximum federal Pell Grant). In addition, more than 80 colleges now offer matching grants to students who earn an AmeriCorps stipend (see www.americorps.gov for more information).

Tweak the typical four-year experience

If your child doesn't mind forgoing the typical four-year college experience, here are some ways to trim costs:

* Attend a community college for one or two years, then transfer to a four-year institution

* Take AP high school courses to earn college credit and reduce the time in college

* Look at colleges that offer three-year accelerated degree programs

* Consider living at home and commuting to school to save on room-and-board costs

* Research online education options (check out www.distance-education.org)

Research scholarships

After your child fills out the federal government's financial aid application (the FAFSA) and the college's financial aid application (the standard PROFILE application or the college's own form), he or she should set aside as much time as possible to research and apply for scholarships. With online searches, students can easily input their talents and background and get a filtered list of relevant scholarships (try www.fastweb.com or www.collegeboard.com). Also, don't forget to check with your employer and the local chamber of commerce for scholarships.

Budget well during college

Encourage your child to look for deals on mandatory items like books, supplies, and other personal dorm room items. For discretionary items, establish guidelines for a reasonable amount of monthly spending money, but build in flexibility. If you do co-sign a credit card application with your child (a co-signer is now required in most cases for applicants under 21), make sure your child doesn't succumb to the temptation of easy money. According to a study last year by Sallie Mae, the average college student has $3,200 in credit card debt. Discuss your expectations of credit card usage and make sure your child understands how interest accumulates on unpaid monthly balances.

Trimming college costs will require some discipline and thorough planning. However, the financial savings will be well worth it.

-- Reardon is a financial planner and president of Brookfield-based Shakespeare Wealth Management Inc. He is also a member of the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA).

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

GreenBiz: Manufacturing summit looks to spread awareness of green practices


By Gregg Hoffmann
Organizers are expecting the third annual Green Manufacturing Summit to let smaller businesses take advantage of environmentally friendly tactics already used by Fortune 500 companies.

Jon Dommisse is vice-president of marketing and product development for The Bradley Corporation, which is a sponsor of the event along with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Focus on Energy.

He says the summit is a way for his company to “give back to the business community” and highlight some of the green practices that have worked.

“I think a lot of business people think some of these energy saving practices and efficiencies are meant primarily for the Fortune 500 size companies,” Dommisse said. “We can demonstrate some of the things that have worked for us as a mid-sized company and bring in other small and mid-sized companies that are doing things.

“It (the Summit) really grew out of feedback from customers and tours people take of our plant. When they saw what we are doing with green initiatives, they wanted more information. So, we initiated the idea.”

Now in its third year, the summit has touched on a variety of "green" issues.

“I think one of the things attendees have appreciated about the summit is that we have brought in different people each year and have had a couple themes every year,” Dommisse said. “We’ve kind of mixed it up and have touched on a variety of areas of the green initiatives.”

Organizers say the summit will focus on encouraging efficient manufacturing that benefits “both the environment and bottom line.”

“Today’s manufacturing businesses are going through an evolution on several fronts,” said Mike Sipek, COO of Bradley Corp. in a press release. “While managing the new challenges brought by the current economic climate, many businesses are adopting sustainable practices to remain competitive in the marketplace.

“Green manufacturing practices fit hand-in-hand with fiscal responsibility. Companies are finding that the operational savings resulting from reducing the use of energy, water and other natural resources clearly outweigh any upfront investment of going green.”

Sipek added, “In today’s marketplace, a sustainable company is a viable company with a competitive edge. It’s clear that companies that adopt sustainable practices are making real strides in strengthening and growing their businesses."

Tom Eggert of the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council at UW-Madison will serve as the opening speaker for the summit and plans to trace the top 20 trends in sustainability for manufacturers.

In making a similar presentation before the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council, Eggert has contended: “This moment in history might be unique in that our systems have largely been upset and much greater change is possible.”

He says the economic crisis might be creating opportunities in green business that “we have not seen in the last 25-30 years.”

People have not changed their “environmental shopping habits” during the recession, according to surveys cited by Eggert. A growing percentage continue to want green products. “This is here to stay,” Eggert said.

Some of the specific trends to watch included movement from energy excess to energy efficiency, reduced landfill wastes, concerns about water conservation, development of more industry standards for energy efficiency and movement from fossil fuels to renewables.

Eggert also said branding of manufactured products, and communication with customers, will continue to move from printed paper to digital and online.

After Eggert addresses the group, breakout sessions on several green manufacturing issues will be held. Rachel DeSmidt and Scott Biba of Design Concepts will address a session titled “Designing for Disassembly.”

DeSmidt, an industrial engineer, and Biba, a senior mechanical engineer, will discuss the importance of considering the end of a product’s life cycle when designing the product. They’ll share reasonable, practical steps to move manufacturing practices toward this sustainable ideal.

Kerry Bailey of Menasha Packaging Company will address sustainable trends in packaging. Menasha Packaging has signed a license agreement with Smart Planet Technologies to offer the planet-friendly packaging material Earthboard. The material is made with recycles fibers and stones.

The company’s Folding Carton Group prints with inks made of 61 percent soy and vegetable-based byproducts. Menasha Packaging operates under the premise that “working toward optimum sustainability requires a careful understanding of raw materials, processes and impact metrics, and how they all combine and transform into products that reduce their impact on the our planet.”

A panel discussion on driving energy efficiency for manufacturers will wrap up the summit.

Nate Altfeather, the Industrial Sector Market Provider Coordinator for Focus on Energy will address Energy Assessment Basics.

“It can be difficult for business owners and operators to understand energy use and all the costs associated with it,” Altfeather said. “The intent of the Focus on Energy program is to provide expert, no-cost assistance to Wisconsin businesses to help them identify energy-saving opportunities, as well as help quantify savings and provide financial incentives to help offset project costs. We want to help businesses make smart energy decisions that will help them save energy and money.” -- Hoffmann, a veteran journalist, has written on a variety of topics for WisPolitics.com and WisBusiness.com. He writes the GreenBiz column monthly.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Beyond a presidential photo opportunity, energy research is federal priority


By Tom Still
MADISON, Wis. - Every president, Republican and Democrat, likes to visit Main Street businesses. It’s a guaranteed news story in the city or state where Air Force One lands for the day, it usually helps local candidates of the same party, and the story often goes national if the president uses the setting to make a larger point about his administration’s policies.

Sometimes, of course, it’s little more than a “photo op,” but there’s usually more substance than not behind the typical Bring-a-President-to-Work Day. President Obama’s recent stop at ZBB Energy Corp. in Menomonee Falls was just such an example.

Among other Wisconsin stops more political in nature, Obama toured ZBB Energy Aug. 16 to underscore his support for the search for sources of alternative energy. The size of the federal investment in energy research and development suggests it’s no casual commitment.

ZBB builds energy storage systems that link with renewable energy systems, which allows electrical power to continue flowing when wind turbines aren’t spinning or solar panels aren’t collecting rays from the sun. ZBB Energy is expanded production of its rechargeable zinc bromide flow batteries (hence the ZBB name) and intelligent power control platforms with the help of a $1.3 million state energy loan. That loan, financed by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, will be repaid over seven years.

Obama’s 10-minute talk with ZBB employees and suppliers was a reminder of the growing federal investment in energy research and development – and the potential for that investment to revive the manufacturing economy in states such as Wisconsin.

“We expect our commitment to clean energy to lead to more than 800,000 jobs by 2012,” Obama said. “And that’s not just creating work in the short term. That’s going to help lay the foundation for lasting economic growth.”

The feds are placing a big bet and spreading it across the table. From advanced batteries to next-generation biofuels, the federal government has become one of the largest investors in a sector that many traditional private-sector investors find too futuristic and more than a bit risky.

The ZBB loan is an example of money distributed through ARRA, the main stimulus bill. But federal investments are also taking place through other Department of Energy grants, especially those made through the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. Known as ARPA-E, this agency is patterned after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a Pentagon research arm that has been credited with seeding projects as large as the Internet.

With a $400 million budget over two years, ARPA-E is funding projects that range from renewable replacements for oil-based fuels, better batteries and much more. Wisconsin has the know-how and the basic resources to attract its fair share of those R&D dollars.

In addition to ZBB, Wisconsin-based Johnson Controls is in the forefront of the U.S. effort to regain prominence in the battery market. Johnson Controls received a $299.2 million stimulus grant in 2009, the largest of its type awarded, to build domestic manufacturing capacity for advanced batteries for electric-drive vehicles. From a sliver of the market for advanced batteries for hybrid and electric vehicles, the United States could amass 40 percent of the world’s capacity within a few years.

Wisconsin is also well-positioned to provide answers in the search for biofuels. The Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center in Madison was one of three centers of its kind funded by the Department of Energy a few years ago. It is focused on unlocking energy-bearing sugars in cellulose, the basic structural component of plant cell walls. While freeing sugars from cellulose can be done, the trick is doing so at a price and at a scale that allows biofuels to compete with gasoline and diesel.

Some Wisconsin companies may have an edge in the race to produce “next-generation” biofuels, which are biofuels other than corn-based ethanol. One such company is Virent Energy Systems, which is already producing modest amounts of a “green gasoline” that could be delivered through today’s gasoline pumps. Wisconsin is also rich with potential sources of raw materials for biofuels, from plants to trees to agricultural and paper industry wastes.

Presidential plant tours come and go, but long-term policies have staying power. The federal investment in energy research is huge and becoming more substantial by the day. If Wisconsin’s members of Congress and candidates for governor are looking for a stimulus program they can support, the need look no further than federal energy investments that are tailor-made for the state’s strengths in research, natural resources and manufacturing.

-- 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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Book review: “The No-Gossip Zone”


By Terri Schlichenmeyer
“The No-Gossip Zone” by Sam Chapman with Bridget Sharkey c.2009, Sourcebooks $22.99 / $28.99 Canada 186 pages
The office gossip made his rounds this morning for his daily Pass It On. You had mixed feelings about this.

He oozes into your cubicle like an oil spill, wolf-grinning with glee over what he’s about to say. You really don’t have time for him and you don’t know where he gets this stuff, but one thing’s for sure. The only thing better than hearing office scuttlebutt is repeating it. Truth be known, gossip is fun.

Until you’re the target.

But did you ever think that gossip might be making your workplace toxic? So, without sounding like a grouch, how can you stop the sniping? Start by reading “The No-Gossip Zone” by Sam Chapman with Bridget Sharkey.

Why get rid of gossip? Doesn’t it motivate people? According to a survey done a few years ago, more than a week-and-a-half of each work year is wasted on gossip, much of it untrue. Gossip is clearly hurtful and unproductive.

Although it sounds like a daunting task, you can make a difference in your whole office. Start small: stop listening to gossip and tell people not to gossip in your presence. Own your 100% of every situation, thought, and emotion, which means taking responsibility for what happens to you. Lastly, live a balanced life.

Now imagine a workplace where communication is open and “real”. By eliminating gossip, either through verbal agreement or written contract (making all new hires sign an agreement), and by fostering completely open communication, Chapman believes there would be no need for anyone to prattle. All “dirty laundry” airing is done directly and face-to-face, and questions are allowed to be asked of any employee.

To further open communication, encourage everyone to understand and acknowledge their emotions and to act on them in a safe way. There is no “wrong” emotion, Chapman says, and even sexual feelings can – and should - be acknowledged.

And that should be enough of an indication as to why this book needs to be taken with a whole mines’ worth of grains of salt.

While “The No-Gossip Zone” has lots of great ideas for fostering camaraderie and for eliminating backstabbing gossip – including several really fun, common-sense plans that will make employees clamor to work for you - I had real issues the whole “open communication” thing.

Yes, it’s good to get problems aired but authors Sam Chapman and Bridget Sharkey barely acknowledge the devastatingly-hurt feelings that inevitably come with the brutal honesty they advocate.

Furthermore, to encourage employees to partake in screaming sessions, fits of anger (beating a pillow with a baseball bat), personal attacks-by-group (no matter how supervised) and - in a sexual situation - “retreat[ing] to a private moment in which you feel a little zing or say a little ‘woo-hoo!’” sounded pretty unprofessional to me.

If you’ve got time to assess what’s right and respectful for your workplace, you might find a few worthwhile ideas on getting rid of gossip in “The No-Gossip Zone”. Overall, though, this book about not passing it on should just be passed up.

-- Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was three years old and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Asian carp threaten Wisconsin economy, environment


By J.B. Van Hollen
One of the most serious economic and environmental threats to Wisconsin in recent years is the imminent invasion of Asian carp into Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes. This invasion must be stopped.

The bighead and silver carp, more commonly known as Asian carp, are prolific and voracious. The non-native Asian carp, which can consume up to 40% of their weight in food per day and compete directly with commercial and sport fish for food. In some stretches of water, it is reported that up to 97% of the biomass is Asian carp. Commercial and sport fish are crowded out, jeopardizing the future viability of these native fish and causing commercial and sport fishing to go elsewhere. Waterfowl production, too, can be adversely affected by Asian carp.

Not only do Asian carp threaten the health of the ecosystems they invade, but they can be dangerous to people as well. By now I am sure you’ve seen videos of leaping silver carp. Fishermen, boaters, water-skiers: beware. These and other recreational pursuits become dangerous when fish that can grow to 100 pounds come hurtling through the air after being startled by motors. Research fish biologist Duane Chapman of the United States Geological Survey likens the impact of being stuck by a 20-pound flying fish as similar to being hit by a bowling ball. A fortunate boater who escapes injury may nevertheless be repairing broken windshields.

If these fish enter and take hold in the Great Lakes, they will irreversibly change the ecosystem. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources acknowledges that the Asian carp are “well suited to the water temperature, food supply, and lack of predators of the Great Lakes and could quickly become the dominant species.”

The Asian carp invasion into Lake Michigan would surely adversely affect Wisconsin’s and the region’s commercial and recreational industries that depend on a healthy lake. The Great Lakes fishery is valued at $7 billion annually. In Wisconsin, sport fishing alone in Lake Michigan and Lake Superior is estimated to generate 5,000 jobs and $419 million annually. This doesn’t include the Great Lakes considerable value to other industries or other states, and it doesn’t account for the loss of recreational opportunities Wisconsinites enjoy today that will diminish if the Asian carp invade the Great Lakes.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assured us that monitoring, electrical barriers, netting, application of pesticides, and reduction in commercial river lock operations would keep the carp from getting too close to Lake Michigan. These measures, we were told, would protect the Great Lakes while the Army Corps and other federal agencies continue to “study” solutions.

Their assurances don’t hold water. In December 2009, a bighead carp was recovered from the Canal north of the Lockport Lock, and eDNA collected for the Corps indicates that Asian carp are present at multiple locations lakeward of the Barrier System: in the Canal; the Calumet-Sag Channel; the North Shore Channel; the Calumet River; and in Calumet Harbor in Lake Michigan. This June, a bighead carp was recovered from Lake Calumet, approximately six miles from Lake Michigan. Nothing stands as a barrier between Lake Calumet and Lake Michigan. Yet the Army Corps’ response? More study.

The voracious Asian carp are at the doorstep of the Great Lakes. Before the turn of the 20th Century, the door was created when the Great Lakes were artificially linked with the Mississippi River system to allow Chicago to send its sewage west and south. Today, with its leisurely response, the United States government is holding that door open, simply hoping the problem will go away.

It won’t. It is time to shut the door.

That is why, on behalf of the State of Wisconsin, I filed a lawsuit with the Great Lakes States of Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania. We are asking the court to order both immediate preventive and long-term solutions. In the short term, we want certain locks closed, effective barriers created to prevent continued fish migration, and Asian carp killed that have already passed the Barrier System. Long-term, we think the best solution is the one nature once provided: the physical separation of the Great Lakes basin and the Mississippi river systems.

It is time to stop another environmental catastrophe from occurring before it is too late.

-- Van Hollen, a Republican, is Wisconsin's attorney general. The federal district court in Chicago is hearing the first arguments on the states' motion for preliminary injunction on Monday.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

Challenges aside, Wisconsin’s biotech sector positioned for growth


By Tom Still
MADISON – If black crepe came in DNA double-helix swirls, some pessimistic analysts would hang it over the still-breathing body of the nation’s biotechnology industry.

After nearly two decades of unbroken success, biotech has spent the past two years dealing with one crisis after another. Its problems include scarce venture capital after the collapse of the financial markets, continued backlogs in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, regulatory delays at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, uncertainty over congressional renewal of a 28-year-old small business grant program, attacks on a 30-year-old federal law that accelerated university research, and passage of a health-care reform bill deemed anti-innovation by some critics.

What better time for Wisconsin’s biotech community to hold a conference?

The annual Wisconsin Biotechnology Vision Summit will be held Aug. 25 in Middleton amid a Dickensian “best of times, worst of times” atmosphere. Some in the state’s biotech industry remain worried about a nagging collection of threats – but others look ahead to the promise of a brighter tomorrow.

“While it’s an uncertain time, it’s still a time of opportunity in the biotech sector,” said Bryan Renk, executive director of BioForward, a statewide association that is producing the annual conference.

Renk, who came to BioForward with a deep background in agricultural biotechnology and business development, believes current challenges to the industry will give way in time to renewed growth.

His optimism isn’t Pollyannaish. Biotechnology has only begun the search for diagnostics and cures for most major diseases, especially in the developing world. Other frontiers of discovery include opportunities to create more and better foods, fuels and environmental solutions.

Biotechnology was an infant industry 30 years ago; today, it has a collective market capitalization rate of $350 billion, with 55 biotech companies showing market caps of $1 billion or more. The much-celebrated “BioCentury” remains in full swing, thanks to changing demographics, growth in markets outside the United States and a recent shopping spree by major pharmaceutical companies.

Big Pharma was slow to come around to research and development of so-called “large molecule” biotech drugs, preferring to stick to traditional “small molecule” compounds. That has changed virtually overnight, with major pharmaceutical companies acquiring biotech companies in order to replenish their drug R&D pipelines.

And while the storm has yet to pass in the venture capital industry, Renk believes mounting supplies of cash will eventually give way to more investments as the markets readjust.

Other trends that bode well for biotechnology include innovation in fields such as regenerative medicine, genomics and “bio-greentech.” And it’s hard to think of a global challenge – climate change, energy security, sustainability, pandemic control, food production and safety and improved healthcare – that cannot be addressed, at least in part, through biotechnology.

The Biotechnology Vision Summit will address those issues through discussions on topics such as biodigesters, personalized health care, innovation in agricultural biotech and a speech by Jim Greenwood, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

The conference will also feature company partnering exercises that will match Wisconsin firms with companies and others from outside Wisconsin, including representatives from the Canadian province of Manitoba. Renk said it’s a way to build the “I-Q Corridor” that connects biotech companies, researchers and investors ranging from Chicago to Minnesota’s Twin Cities and beyond.

Hold the black crepe for now, Mr. Undertaker. Biotechnology in Wisconsin and elsewhere has its troubles, but the industry’s future is very much alive.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. To learn more about the Biotechnology Vision Summit, visit www.bioforward.org.

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

The role of the experienced health care project manager


By Tom Burzinski
Amidst all the talk in health care circles lately about improving outcomes through the deployment of advanced information technology (EHRs, clinical business intelligence, e-prescribing, etc.), little mention has been made about the critical role that the project manager plays in the success of these complex and costly projects.

Traditionally, health care organizations have lagged behind other industries in adopting formal project management methodologies, as well as in engaging people (as full-time employees or consultants) with the training and experience needed to successfully plan, execute and monitor large enterprise-wide projects.

Health care organizations instead have relied on in house clinical or technical resources, with limited formal project management experience, to lead projects. While these people may possess health care and/or technical subject matter expertise, they seldom have the training, experience, or temperament required of a senior project manager. Too often, this has led to projects that are poorly implemented (if they’re implemented at all), fail to meet patient or clinician expectations, and cost way too much.

The “perfect storm,” of health care projects coming out of ARRA/HITECH and health insurance reform will only exacerbate this already serious weakness. A recent survey by the Health Information Management Systems Society (HIMSS) suggests that US health care organizations will require up to 25,000 experienced project managers over the next five years to meet the project management demands of these initiatives. Make no mistake; an experienced project manager is a critical success factor for any large health care project.

If current trends continue, by 2018, health care will account for $4.4 trillion or over 20 percent of US gross domestic product! One way to check this unsustainable rate of growth is by implementing innovative health care technology projects, along with the underlying process and organizational change, in an on-time and on-budget manner. And one way to ensure that these innovation projects actually get done is by hiring people possessing the skills required to lead them to a successful outcome.

The art and science of project management is applicable to every aspect of health care -- whether deploying tools to accelerate revenue, setting up new departments, implementing an EHR, expanding outpatient services, managing the ICD-10 upgrade, or deploying clinical business intelligence. Health care managers at every level and functional area from nursing department managers to information technology leaders to hospital administrators need solid health care project management skills in order to succeed and advance the work of their organizations.

Managing stakeholders is arguably the most daunting task for anyone charged with managing a health care project.

Any significant health care project involves dozens of competing stakeholder interests. There are highly educated doctors with strong opinions about how various processes should work, medical software and equipment vendors who have sunk huge amounts of money into their products and need to recover these costs, and insurance companies constantly looking for ways to attract and retain only the most profitable people.

The experienced health care project manager collaborates closely with administrative staff, physicians, caregivers, technical staff, and regulatory agencies when planning a project in order to enhance patient safety, quality of care, and the patient’s experience. The project manager must do this while taking into account increasing patient numbers and acuity levels, staffing shortages, and ever tighter budgetary constraints.

Getting stakeholders to engage, and stay engaged, on a health care project requires leadership, effective communication, and a deep knowledge of various project management techniques and approaches. It also requires someone with the ability to build strong sustainable teams. A project manager with the experience to do this will usually succeed.

The successful health care project manager also needs to have significant practical expertise in planning, cost management, contract negotiations/procurement, technical writing (proposals, etc.), research, technical development, information systems management, business development, corporate/administrative management, and time management.

The health care project manager is a critical resource for any care delivery organization. Elevating the level of health care project management by hiring the people who know how to manage projects, is one way to control rising health care costs, thus keeping more money in the budget for the primary function of the organization - the optimal delivery of health care services to patients.

-- Burzinski is a an IT executive and senior consultant specializing in business intelligence and IT/business alignment. In his 25-year career he has worked for several Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Wisconsin. Burzinski and his family live in Green Bay.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

First clinical trial with embryonic stem cells based on Wisconsin research


By Tom Still
MADISON – It’s an enduring complaint about human embryonic stem cell research, often but not exclusively voiced by people opposed on moral grounds: If this research is so promising, why is it taking so long to produce treatments?

The long-term answer may emerge in a human clinical trial of a stem-cell therapy for spinal cord injuries – a therapy developed from a line of cells first cultured in Wisconsin.

Geron Corp. announced July 30 that a new drug, derived from human embryonic stem cells, has been cleared to begin clinical trials in patients stricken by acute spinal cord injuries. The trials were delayed last year by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration when one batch of mouse experiments showed cyst growth around the spinal cord injury. Additional animal trials convinced the FDA it was safe to proceed with Phase 1 trials, the first of three phases required before the drug is marketed. Those trials will begin soon in up to seven U.S. medical centers.

In addition to its potential to heal crippling spinal cord injuries in patients with fresh injuries, a dramatic result of the animal trials, Geron’s GRNOPC1 compound may eventually be tested for other applications: Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis and Canavan Disease, which can be fatal to children.

While it’s possible Geron’s drug won’t work in humans, the start of testing will likely break the logjam for other trials of drugs and therapies derived from human embryonic stem cells.

“It’s great and important news for the whole industry,” said Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. After UW-Madison professor James Thomson pioneered human embryonic stem cell research, WARF obtained defining patents on that work and has since licensed federally approved stem cell lines to researchers and companies around the world – including California-based Geron.

Thomson was the first in the world to isolate human embryonic stem cells and keep them alive indefinitely in culture, a 1998 discovery the journal Science later described as one of the major milestones in the history of science.

His discovery ushered in a new era of human biological research, providing scientists with “blank slate” cells capable of becoming any of the more than 200 specialized cells in the body and offering researchers a rare view into the earliest stages of human development.

The blank-slate cells used by Geron are from WARF’s federally approved H1 line, which Gulbrandsen described as “a very, very safe line” used by researchers worldwide. The FDA go-ahead for Geron’s trials means others are now eager to sign licensing agreements with WARF, he said.

“We’ve seen another uptick in licensing activity because of (the FDA clearance for Geron),” Gulbrandsen said. “We’ve seen people who have been working for a long time in this field saying, ‘OK, let’s get this done’.”

As a result, other embryonic stem cell therapies may now move closer to clinical trials. Therapies on the horizon target diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, cardiac disease, eye disorders and even production of blood.

“Because this FDA hold has now been lifted, I suspect you’ll see more (Investigational New Drug) applications filed for human embryonic stem cell trials,” said Gulbrandsen, who credited Geron for addressing FDA’s concerns through a “a ton of hard work.”

It took 12 years to move from discovery to the first human trial. So, don’t critics have a point when they say human embryonic stem cells are largely a giant research project?

Not so, countered Gulbrandsen, who noted most non-stem cell drugs require a decade or more to move from the laboratory to the marketplace.

“This is essentially a new industry. If you look at a traditional pharmaceutical, it easily takes 10 years or more to get it approved,” he said. “This is far more complicated… it has required the development of entirely new tools and techniques.”

A successful trial using embryonic stem cells would also hasten the day when trials can begin for therapies from “induced pluripotent stem cells,” which scientists believe can perform in the same ways. Again, Wisconsin holds an edge thanks to next-generation work by Thomson and others who have reverse-engineered IPS cells without destroying embryos.

Why is it taking so long to produce therapies from human embryonic stem cell research? It’s hard scientific work and opponents haven’t made it any easier. If the Geron trials succeed, however, all that work may begin to pay off for patients and researchers alike.

-- 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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Monday, August 9, 2010

Learning from other states about economic growth -- as others learn from Wisconsin


By Tom Still
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Much like Wisconsin, Kentucky is a “flyover state” to many business people on the East and West coasts. And, much like the Wisconsin economy, Kentucky is best known for a few iconic products: Bourbon, tobacco and horses are Kentucky trademarks; beer, cheese and Harley-Davidson motorcycles (for now) are familiar Wisconsin brands.

The coastal image of states such as Wisconsin and Kentucky is understandably limited, especially when it comes to how those states are incubating jobs in high-growth sectors of the economy. It’s barely noticed outside the Midwest, for example, but business leaders in “Flyover Country” often exchange information about what works – and what doesn’t – when it comes to stimulating tech-based economic growth.

Such an exchange took place last week at the Venture Club of Louisville, which asked me and Joe Kremer of the Tech Council’s Wisconsin Angel Network to describe the entrepreneurial culture in Wisconsin. Members of the club – which includes angel and venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and more – wanted to learn about the Tech Council, Wisconsin’s network of angel investors, the Governor’s Business Plan Contest and the state’s tax credits for investors in early stage companies.

The Louisville crowd seemed impressed by Wisconsin’s renewed emphasis on entrepreneurism, its commitment to higher education, and its ability to attract research and development dollars to its major universities and colleges. It’s a message that often resonates in other mid-continent states, as well, including Illinois and Minnesota. Both states have recently adopted tax credit programs modeled after Wisconsin’s investor credits.

Then again, people and programs often seem more impressive when viewed from afar. As Mark Twain once observed, an expert is “an ordinary fellow from another town.”

Two days before the Louisville event, the Wisconsin Economic Summit held the first of three meetings to discuss ways to invigorate the state’s economy. A report commissioned by Competitive Wisconsin Inc., the Wisconsin Economic Development Association and the Wisconsin Counties Association was unveiled, and the consultants who wrote the report painted a dreary picture of the state’s economy.

Deloitte Consulting and Newmark Knight Frank recommended dismantling the state Department of Commerce and creating a quasi-autonomous board in its place. The report confirmed what many already suspected: Wisconsin lags the U.S. average in per capita income and job creation, and has invested sparingly in economic development over time. In fact, the consultants noted, some U.S. counties spend more each year on economic attraction than Wisconsin.

The report described the state’s approach as “a scattered broadcast of ideas and hopes instead of a well-rooted strategy for change.”

So, which is it? Is Wisconsin a model for other states to follow – or an example of how not to grow a state economy?

It may be a little of both. The Deloitte-NKF study properly raised questions about Wisconsin’s approach to economic development over time and recommended some aggressive solutions, including creation of a state development fund that would attract outside investment from private equity firms. That’s consistent with recommendations by the Tech Council in its July 2010 report, “Looking to the future: A case for bold action.”

Such funds have been established in a number of Midwest states, including Ohio, Indiana, Minnesota and Kansas. The Ohio fund, which is part of its Third Frontier program, has helped create thousands of jobs in hundreds of new companies – mostly in the technology sector.

The Deloitte-NKF study also recommended repositioning Wisconsin’s brand through a targeted marketing campaign; aligning state economic development efforts as well as its educational institutions around promising industry clusters; and more. It wasn’t difficult to see the report was written by site selection experts, however, as it also called for a statewide “shovel-ready” sites program with expedited permitting processes.

Some leaders of the Wisconsin Economic Summit process have argued the state’s best bet isn’t a renewed focus on luring companies from other states and countries. Instead, they contend, the state should create the right conditions for homegrown companies to flourish. That includes hands-on assistance for entrepreneurs, attracting more early stage capital and creating a “knowledge economy” workforce. And, as those companies grow, they will be more likely to stay if the tax and regulatory climate is hospitable.

Wisconsin has been doing a much better job of that in recent years. While it’s still very much a work in progress, so are similar business start-up efforts in most other states.

Policymakers and economic development leaders in Wisconsin should not be afraid to learn from others outside the state. In fact, the current economic crisis demands it. The good news is that other states are learning a thing or two from Wisconsin, as well. -- 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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