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Friday, September 7, 2012

Tom Still: Finding Wisconsin is becoming easier for investors, technology scouts

By Tom Still
One of my favorite pop quizzes for people outside Wisconsin, especially those who understand the tech-based economy, is to ask them to name the nation's top five academic research universities. The answers invariably include the likes of Stanford, Yale and Harvard, but rarely does anyone outside the Midwest guess that UW-Madison is perennially on the list.

(Want to play along? Read on to learn which other universities rank in the top five.)

Maybe the Harvard and Stanford guesses are evidence of bicoastal bias… but more likely it's an enduring marketing challenge at home. Wisconsin is known for the Green Bay Packers, beer and cheese – all great things to be known for – but we're still building the brand when it comes to technology.

Some recent and upcoming events demonstrate how Wisconsin's tech sector, from its researchers to its emerging companies to its investors, is making its way on the national radar screen. The state's tech brand won't be built overnight, but there's been more than anecdotal progress as investors and others discover its assets. Some examples:

* This week's Resource Rendezvous in Madison attracted federal technology scouts from the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, the Department of Homeland Security and the Army's Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center. Also on hand to meet with researchers and young companies were representatives of General Dynamics, a defense contractor with interests ranging from vehicles to medical simulation to cybersecurity. They came to Wisconsin knowing they might find some of the tech-based items on their shopping lists.

* Milwaukee and Madison are among a handful of stops planned for a U.S.-China Investors' Week in late September. The PiYi Investment Management Co. Ltd., which represents private investors in China, selected the state for a stop on its national tour of emerging companies. It's a tangible result of a recent trade mission to China that involved the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

* The Association of University Research Parks will hold its international conference in Madison in late September, drawn by the presence of University Research Park. Representatives of 200 research parks in the United States and beyond will take part. "University Research Park is viewed as the gold standard for university-affiliated research parks, and we're thrilled others will have a chance to see why," said Mark Bugher, the park's director.

* The Medical College of Wisconsin continues to draw international attention for its sequencing of the genes of a young Monona boy who suffered from a mysterious gut disease. In one of the first cases of its kind in the world, the Wisconsin team used information from the boy's genetic code to treat his illness. The case has been featured on NOVA, the Public Broadcasting System's science series, and cited in congressional testimony by Francis Collins, who heads the National Institutes of Health.

* Four Wisconsin companies with ties outside the state reported encouraging news in the last week alone. Madison's NeuWave Medical raised $14 million in a round led by H.I.G. BioVentures, which invests globally, and NorthStar Medical Technologies raised $5.2 million in a round led by Illinois investors. Epicentre, which was acquired by California-based Illumina in 2011, announced it will expand its footprint in Madison. So did Aldevron, based in Fargo, N.D.

* Some of Wisconsin's oldest companies, such as GE Healthcare and Johnson Controls, have become technology leaders in their fields. So are some more recent additions to the fold, such as Epic Systems, Promega, Logistics Health and Orion Energy.

As Wisconsin policymakers renew the debate over creating a state-leveraged fund to lure private dollars and invest in early stage companies, they can draw comfort from the fact it won't be a "build-it-and-they-will-come" exercise. The foundation for increased national and global attention in Wisconsin's young tech and knowledge-based companies is there. All that's needed are more success stories to keep building the brand.

Now, the quiz answers: The UW-Madison ranked third in academic R&D spending in the latest report from the National Science Foundation, joining Johns Hopkins (1st), the University of Michigan (2nd), the University of Washington (4th) and Duke (5th) at top. Stanford (9th), Yale (24th) and Harvard (31st) were down the list.

-- 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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