• WisBusiness

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Biotech's international show is good time for Wisconsin to shine


By Tom Still
The annual biotechnology convention is a time when Wisconsin gets to strut its stuff in front of a global audience.

Fortunately, we have the right stuff to strut.

Held this year in Washington, D.C., next week's BIO International Convention is where 15,000 or more scientists, business leaders, pharmaceutical companies and investors come together to talk about the latest industry trends and challenges.

Wisconsin will be among the faces in that crowd through an 800-square-foot pavilion on the floor of the Washington Convention Center. Gov. Scott Walker will be among a dozen state governors in attendance, and more than 40 nations will be represented.

The theme of this year's BIO convention is "Heal, Fuel and Feed the World," and Wisconsin can make the case is has ingredients to help with all three.

Its resources include the abundant natural resources needed to produce bio-products – such as clean water, healthy forests and productive farms. It also has the research laboratories needed to produce world-class ideas. Wisconsin attracts $1.2 billion in academic research and development grants each year, and the UW-Madison has been ranked among the nation's top five research universities for 20 years in a row.

Wisconsin has a healthy infrastructure for entrepreneurs, including the largest network of angel investors, pound for pound, of any state in the nation. It has a strong system of investor tax credits, especially for angel investors. A bill that would dramatically expand Wisconsin's venture capital capacity is pending in the Legislature.

Wisconsin has long been known as a pioneer in technology transfer, with organizations such as the Wisconsin Alumni research foundation, the UW-Milwaukee Research Foundation and others leading the way. The Wisconsin Institute for Discovery and the Morgridge Institute for Research, which began operations this year, are among the world's premier inter-disciplinary research centers.

Because Wisconsin knows how to translate ideas into commerce, the state is home to more than 600 life sciences companies in sectors such as drug discovery, diagnostics, medical imaging, agricultural biotechnology, biofuels, electro-medical equipment, medical records, genetics, regenerative medicine and genomics. While many states have larger concentrations in some areas, few states have a life sciences portfolio that is so complete and diverse. Wisconsin events during the BIO event are designed to help highlight that diversity. Among the three-dozen or so groups represented in the pavilion are companies, universities and research organizations from across Wisconsin.

Former U.S. ambassadors Mark Green and Tom Loftus, and former Peace Corps official Tony Carroll, will speak during a luncheon focused on Wisconsin's capacity to help address global health challenges. All three are Wisconsin products with extensive background in global health issues.

A reception with delegations from Minnesota and the Canadian province of Manitoba will highlight cooperation within the region and beyond. Some 400 people are expected.

Throughout the convention, company leaders from Wisconsin will take part in "bio-partnering" sessions with other firms from across the globe – sort of a high-tech version of speed dating.

When it comes to "healing, fueling and feeding the world," Wisconsin researchers, companies and investors have what it takes. This month's BIO International Convention is an ideal time to show others that when it comes to biotech, Wisconsin offers a complete package.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison. To learn more, visit http://www.wisconsinatbio.com and http://bio.wisbusiness.com.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A detour in the ethanol debate


By Bob Sather
Last week, Wisconsin’s ethanol blenders kept a close eye on the Senate as they twice voted on whether or not to continue the existing Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC) for ethanol producers.

Though the first attempt to end VEETC was not successful, a second amendment was passed late last week. Wisconsin’s state Senators remained consistent in their view of the amendment, with Senator Herb Kohl advocating for continued support of the ethanol industry and Senator Ron Johnson rejecting such support.

The votes cast by Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson in support of eliminating the VEETC is a concerning one to this essential state industry. The votes do not take into account the economic impact of the existing ethanol industry in Wisconsin or its future growth and potential.

Wisconsin ranks ninth in the nation in ethanol production with overall capacity of more than 500 million gallons. There are nine large-scale ethanol plants in the state. In 2010, Wisconsin’s $1.168-billion ethanol industry produced 462 million gallons of ethanol.

Members of the Wisconsin Bio Industry Alliance are open to and seek proactive, constructive debate on the issue of subsidies and welcome a dialogue with our elected officials. A vote to discontinue this subsidy without equal consideration for long-time subsidies in place for Big Oil is very troubling. From a fiscal standpoint, the attack on ethanol is arbitrary and shows a lack of long-term vision for the American bio fuel industry.

The ethanol industry welcomes the opportunity to operate on a level playing field with Big Oil. For that to happen, however, all subsidies must be addressed. We import nearly $1 billion in oil each day, meaning that in one week, we spend more on imported oil than on an entire year of biofuel-related tax incentives. On an international level, global-fossil fuel subsidies reached $312 billion in 2009.

The VEETC was originally created as part of the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004. It provides a $0.45-per-gallon tax incentive to qualifying ethanol blenders of pure ethanol blended with gasoline. Through a market-based approach, the VEETC enhances the sustained, cost competitiveness of ethanol with gasoline, and provides long-term protection against a volatile petroleum fuel market. As such, VEETC has been a major factor behind the spectacular increase in ethanol use, production and continued innovation in the industry.

Together with the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires a certain amount of biofuel to be blended into the nation’s existing transportation fuel supply, VEETC helps ensure that the goals of energy security and job creation are met with the production of clean, renewable, home-grown alternatives to foreign oil.  While the RFS encourages the use and consumption of ethanol, VEETC ensures that those volumes are met with domestically produced ethanol, rather than imported ethanol.  By ensuring that U.S. ethanol is used to satisfy the volumes mandated by RFS, VEETC allows our nation to achieve the intended goals of energy independence and domestic economic development.

The VEETC is also a critical part of the ethanol industry in our own state. This credit helps Wisconsin’s ethanol producers and blenders focus on further economic development efforts, opening up further opportunities, not just for physical expansion but also in adding more good-paying jobs to Wisconsin’s employment base.

According to a recent study, termination of the VEETC would result in an ethanol production reduction of nearly 38 percent nationwide, and a reduction of nearly 5,000 jobs in the state of Wisconsin alone.

It’s time to bring the debate back to a collaborative discussion between ethanol producers, industry representatives and our elected officials. This is not the time for knee-jerk reactions based on short-term impacts. Investing in ethanol production through producer subsidies requires a longer-term view, and we look forward to working with our state’s elected officials on this issue.

-- Sather is president of the Wisconsin Bio Industry Alliance and is the director of government relations and member of Ace Ethanol LLC, based in Chippewa Falls, Wis.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

GreenBiz: Clean Energy Coalition addresses western Wisconsin energy issues


By Gregg Hoffmann
Bill Katra admits he ruffles “feathers on all sides” of energy, environmental and business issues.

“At times, I get the political action groups upset; at times traditional energy businesses. But, at times, they also agree with what we are saying,” said Katra, who is the “energy person” behind the Clean Energy Coalition of Western Wisconsin.

Katra , a former professor and owner of a heating and air conditioning business, believes by trying to report on energy and environmental issues from varying perspectives CEC can play an educational role and also bring groups that seem to be in opposition into a dialogue.

“The issues often are controversial,” he admits. “But, if we don’t gather information from all sides and discuss it we might not move forward in the best direction.”

As its name implies, CEC is concerned about getting energy through methods and sources that are as clean as possible. It began as a group that explored alternative energies and environmental issues. At first, it spawned smaller groups interested in specific issues. Many of those groups still exist on their own today.

CEC has also hosted seminars, with experts on a variety of energy and environmental issues. It has evolved into primarily an information gathering and dissemination vehicle, with Katra filling much of those roles.

Much of its focus remains in the environmental and green energy areas, but Katra also believes in taking a “realistic” approach to energy issues and reporting on them in a “neutral, fair” way.

“I’m proud to say that people with the political action and environmental groups will get back to me, as will those with some of the large energy corporations,” Katra said. “I believe they respect the approach we have taken with CEC and in my writings.”

Katra sends out periodic email reports to several hundred sources about various issues. His latest was on “Wind Energy in the Midwest.”

In it, he maintains, “In the Midwest, by far the most important sources of renewable energy is wind."

“If renewable Dakota wind energy is the goal of a populist politics, it -- ironically -- will be delivered primarily by huge corporate issues,” Katra wrote. “Unfortunately, the impact of ‘community based’ or ‘distributed” renewable generation is almost negligible in the Midwest.

“Instead, the new wind farms are primarily developed by powerful corporate interests that venture their capital in our Midwest. In case after case, idealistic citizens have failed to garner sufficient local finances and have failed to interest local agencies in order to guarantee local control over the region’s wind resources.”

Katra believes CEC and others should work to make sure the wind farms and transmission lines for the energy from them be developed with sound environmental principles.

Transmission lines have become a major issue in parts of western Wisconsin, with American Transmission Company seeking a route for a line to connect between Minnesota and the more populated areas to the south and east of the region.

Katra also believes that CEC and others should make their viewpoints known to politicians. In Wisconsin, this means Gov. Scott Walker, state legislators and members of Congress. “They can’t take a business as usual approach on these issues,” Katra said. “They can’t ignore climate change or act as if it does not exist. That‘s putting their heads in the sand.”

Katra calls for the Wisconsin Renewable Portfolio Standard to be raised from its current 10 percent to the Minnesota level of 25 percent. He said federal or state legislation must provide utilities with incentives to “retired old and antiquated coal-burning power plants that continue to poison our environment.”

At the same time, Katra acknowledged that coal will still be used to provide much of the nation’s power for decades, but said movement should be made to more efficient plants and to more renewables.

To the question, “What will be Wisconsin’s role in the Midwest’s new energy future?,” Katra answered, “minimal.”

“We are an energy-challenged, sparsely populated state whose fate is to be geographically situated between areas of high electricity production (the wind area of the Dakotas) and areas of high electricity consumption (urbanized areas of southeast Wisconsin and Chicago)."

He added that CEC and other groups must remain active in plans for transmission of that electricity, “otherwise, the powerful economic interests that largely control both the production and consumption of energy might be tempted to re-baptize us, ‘The Transmission State‘.”

-- Hoffmann has written many columns and features for WisPolitics.com and WisBusiness.com over the years. He writes GreenBiz column monthly. For more CEC reports on other issues, contact Katra at billkatra@hotmail.com.

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Monday, June 13, 2011

Effort to help rural telecoms shouldn't endanger university research networks


By Tom Still
It’s hard to think of an academic research field today that isn’t driven by the ability to analyze, send and receive huge sets of data.

From genomics to astronomy, and from biotechnology to medical imaging, scientific research today is inexorably linked to high-end computing and network connections.

That’s why a proposal pending in the state budget to restrict the ability of the UW System to take part in network consortia such as Internet2, BoreasNet and similar data pipelines makes little sense. It would hamper the ability of researchers in Madison, Milwaukee and across the UW System to do what they do best – make discoveries and push those ideas closer to the marketplace.

On the one hand, it’s understandable why a trade group representing rural telecommunications companies is upset that the UW System won a $32.3-million federal grant to pay for community networks and to improve broadband service for public entities, such as schools, libraries and municipal buildings. Those companies view it as the UW System competing with private carriers who need a mix of large and small customers in order to stay afloat.

If the UW System “cherry-picks” the larger customers, those carriers could be left to serve residential customers and small businesses only. In real-estate terms, they’re deprived of their anchor tenants.

If that’s as far as the state budget proposal went, it would seem like a classic case of drawing clear lines to prevent government from competing with private industry.

But the language recommended for inclusion in the state’s 2011-2013 budget appears to go much further, threatening long-standing contracts between the UW’s research centers and cutting-edge networks that were specifically designed to handle massive amounts of data.

“The implications for this are so dire, as to be unbelievable,” said Ed Meachen, chief information officer for the UW System. “We would have to resign from Internet2 (and) BoreasNet. These are huge federal government research networks that are mandatory for many of our federal grants. We have a billion dollars in grants at UW-Madison. We don’t know how many tens of millions of dollars we won’t be able to get because we are not members of Internet2.”

At the UW-Madison, for example, the language could jeopardize projects such as large as the international IceCube neutrino observatory at the South Pole or as small as start-up companies in University Research Park that require reliable access to large amounts of data.

In a sense, today’s research networks that connect major universities across the nation go back to the dawn of the Internet itself. Those networks were created because commercial carriers could not provide cost-effective, high-speed connections.

Being able to extend broadband to a library in Medford is one thing; transporting “bursts” of data through a secured national network is quite another.

Consider the Morgridge Institute for Research, which recently opened as the private R&D arm of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. Its research projects are all “interdisciplinary,” meaning they involve a mix of sciences: biotechnology, medical devices, medical imaging, information technology and nanotechnology.

“At the Morgridge Institute, we’re very dependent on our ability to connect with leading-edge networking technologies,” said Dr. Sangtae Kim, director of the institute. Kim was once a division chief within the National Science Foundation, which worked to build high-end cyber-networks for researchers.

What began as an effort to ensure that rural telecom companies have a fair shot at competing appears to have evolved into a threat to the UW System’s research engine, which helps to drive innovation and economic development statewide.

As lawmakers complete their work on the state budget, they should be careful to distinguish between creating a level playing field for commodity broadband services and killing networks that exist to move massive amounts of scientific data.

-- 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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