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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Tom Still: A Thanksgiving appeal to the great CIO in the sky


By Tom Still
A techie's Thanksgiving prayer:

As we gather this Thanksgiving to share time with family, friends and food, let us count the blessings of our digital age… using zeros and ones only, of course.

We are thankful for some of the big-name companies, devices and software – Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, Apple, Dell, HP, IBM, Bluetooth, Skype, Android and more – that have practically become a part of our language.

We are grateful for Facebook, Faceparty, Faces.com and Facetime.

We are thankful for the iPhone, iPod, iTouch, iCloud and "the cloud," which still seems a bit ephemeral and even heaven-like to some of us.

We are grateful for software, hardware, middleware, shelfware, but not vaporware.

Thank you for sending us Steve Jobs, insourced jobs, open-collar jobs and even "new normal" jobs.

We are grateful for hackers (the white hat type), gamers, programmers and coders, but not scammers.

Thank you for meetups, startups, scaleups and recent stock market "ups," which have been setting records.

We are thankful for bytes, gigabytes, terabytes, petabytes and pizza bites for hungry coders who stay up all hours making the latest applications work. However, the jury is still out on bitcoins.

Thank you for Yahoo, Yammer, Yelp, Yippy and YouTube, for Ping, Pinterest and Plaxo, and for Bing, Ning, Zynga and XING.

We are grateful for Flickr, Tumblr and Raptr, and hope that someday in your infinite wisdom you supply them with that missing "e," which we can only imagine was taken away as punishment for something.

Thank you for inventing "selfies," those funny self-portraits people take with their mobile phones or tablets – usually after a couple beers.

We are thankful for .net, Netflicks, NetLingo, networks both human and virtual, and Netscape, a web browser that was one of the industry's first initial public offerings in 1995, and which helped pave the way for others.

Speaking of browsers, we are thankful for Explorer, Safari, Navigator, Sunrise and Cruz, all of which have names that make you think you're going on a really nice trip.

We are thankful for Cyber Monday, which follows Black Friday and seems to extend throughout the holiday buying season.

We are somewhat less enamored by cyber-theft, cyber-bullying, cyber-punks, cyber-stalkers, cyber-terrorism and cyber-attacks.

We are thankful for Dogpile, Firefox, Sea Monkey, Flock, Orca, Lynx, Lobo and other browsers and social media that remind us there's actually something called "nature" out there somewhere.

We are thankful for USB, VPN, 4G, http, SSL, URL, SQL, MUMPS, B2B, B2C, YOLO, FOMO, DHCP, CPR and many other computer-age acronyms that few people understand but still use every day.

Finally, and perhaps most of all, thank you for a few days in which we can choose to disconnect and contemplate what's important in life.

-- 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, November 25, 2013

Tom Still: Fifty years after his death, JFK’s science and technology legacy endures


By Tom Still
The wave of remembrances tied to the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination have necessarily stressed his role in pushing the frontiers of space exploration, but his contributions to innovation in other realms of science and technology reach well beyond.

From human health to telecommunications to environmental studies, Kennedy left his stamp on a nation that was on the verge of economic transition – from a manufacturing and agricultural model to a society grappling with the challenges of a new information age.

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth," said Kennedy in a May 25, 1961, address to a joint session of Congress.

It was an audacious goal, influenced more by the urgency of the Cold War than pure scientific inquiry. (Later that same year, JFK advised American families to build bomb shelters and Ok'd resumed atmospheric testing of atomic weapons.) His "man on the moon" speech was nonetheless galvanizing for a generation of scientists and engineers who were thrown into a mega-project that required more innovation than most people thought was possible.

The commercial spinoffs of the space race are almost legendary, from memory foam to free-dried food and hundreds more. A larger legacy may be that the space race validated the concept of interdisciplinary science, the notion that scientists and engineers from varied backgrounds could collaborate to meet common goals.

That idea was taken to the next level when Kennedy established the White House Office of Science and Technology, a nod to the fact that policymakers should hear from different disciplines and find ways to channel or even exploit their ideas for public good.

He also understood that American science was global science. Speaking to the National Academy of Sciences in 1963, Kennedy noted: "As science, of necessity, becomes more involved with itself, so also, of necessity, it becomes more international. I am impressed to know that of the 670 members of this Academy, 163 were born in other lands."

As a U.S. senator in the 1950s, Kennedy became convinced that physicians could benefit from greater exchange of information, especially those practicing in parts of the nation that were removed from urban centers and universities. That led to the creation during his presidency of the National Library of Medicine. It featured one of the first examples of "health information technology," a state-of-the-art computer system called MEDLARS, which stood for Medical Literature Analysis and Retrieval System.

Kennedy also helped to change how the nation studied and treated mental illness and developmental disabilities. In early 1963, he proposed a national program to combat both. It's a program that led to the birth of the UW-Madison Waisman Center.

In fact, just two days before he was killed in Dallas, Kennedy sent a telegram to UW President Fred Harrington to mark the opening of the Joseph P. Kennedy Medical Laboratories at the UW Medical School. "My special good wishes go to Dr. (Harry) Waisman on the culmination of his dream and to the many young people who, through his efforts and that of the University of Wisconsin, will now be able to enter and soon conquer the vast field of mental retardation and its attendant problems," Kennedy wrote.

Kennedy also signed a bill creating the world's first commercial communications satellite system and advocated for more vigorous environmental studies, particularly those tied to bodies of water. The Cape Cod National Seashore Act in 1961 indirectly led to the designation of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in 1970. That campaign began with Kennedy's helicopter tour of the region in 1963.

He was no scientist or technologist himself, and history has and will record many of his foibles. But Kennedy's sense of how science and technology can drive innovation was instructive – even a bit prescient.

As he told a group of scientists a month before his death, "I can imagine no period in the long history of the world where it would be more exciting and rewarding than in the field today of scientific exploration. I recognize with each door that we unlock we see perhaps 10 doors that we never dreamed existed and, therefore, we have to keep working forward."

-- 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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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Bryan Renk: Patent legislation threatens the very system it is supposed to protect


By Bryan Renk
When we think of all the innovative technologies and modern conveniences of our daily lives today, most of us do not connect the integral role our patent system has played. However, many of the revolutionary advances we now take for granted – checking e-mail, surfing the Web, lifesaving medications and medical devices – were all made possible because of our strong patent system that encourages and rewards innovation. Unfortunately, that system is under attack right now by some who are pushing legislation in Congress that would reduce the value and enforceability of patents.

BioForward represents 250 Wisconsin companies in the biotechnology and medical device fields. Lifescience businesses now have a presence in 53 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties and produce an annual economic impact of over $7 billion. Combined with job growth of 5 percent during the period from 2007 – 2010, Wisconsin’s bioscience industry affects close to 100,000 jobs, resulting in Wisconsin’s ranking among the top 15 bio-clusters in the United States, the top 10 for the medical device sector, and in the top five for medical imaging.

Most of our member companies started with an idea hatched by researchers who spent countless hours in the lab perfecting their product with the clear understanding that their work, if deserving, would be protected by a patent.

Legislation is being considered in Congress that includes provisions that could undermine our patent rights and have negative, unintended consequences on U.S. inventors and our economy. These changes to the patent system would result in a shift in the balance of patent ownership, favoring large and better financed companies over start-ups, investors and inventors who, since the beginning of time, have been responsible for some of the most historic and groundbreaking discoveries.

One of the most concerning consequences of legislation that would marginalize patent rights is the potential chilling effect it could have on funding for research and development efforts at both start-ups and mature companies. Developing lifesaving medical breakthroughs often requires patience and the willingness to invest millions and even billions of dollars. Patents provide those investors with the assurances they need to commit those significant resources.

The investments necessary to develop patent-worthy technology are substantial, and those with an idea and the motivation to realize it must have some assurance that their time and investment are worth the cost. Without patents, the fruits of inventive labor could be easily exploited, diminishing any incentive to take a risk on innovation.

Patents serve as both an incentive to innovate and a promise that investment and hard work up front will pay off down the line. Congress should act cautiously to preserve the integrity of our patents for the good of our economy and the future of innovation.

-- Renk is the executive director of BioForward..

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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Tom Still: Philippines typhoon shows need for better storm prediction science


By Tom Still
WASHINGTON – Two days after Typhoon Haiyan left a trail of death and destruction in the Philippines, some of the nation's leading climate scientists gathered at a higher education conference to talk about how to better predict the next mega-storm.

Their conclusion: Whether or not people and policymakers buy into the notion of man-made climate change, the science of forecasting the strength, target and frequency of such storms must qualitatively improve.

Accurate short- and long-term storm predictability is not just a priority for people who live near seacoasts, they noted, but for those who live, work and farm thousands of miles inland in places such as the American Midwest, where such storms can disrupt other weather patterns and affect freshwater systems such as the Great Lakes.

"Even if everyone in the world agreed climate change is a problem, and that humans are behind it, they wouldn't necessarily agree on how to fix it," said Thomas Bogdan, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. But they can fall back on "shared values" about saving lives, reducing economic damage and employing scientific inquiry to improve predictive technologies and response systems.

Robert Detrick, a top administrator in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, agreed there is a need for improvement in U.S. storm prediction, especially in an era when hurricanes and typhoons (the Pacific Rim equivalent) may be getting more severe. In fact, he told an audience at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities conference, some European models for predicting the severity of Hurricane Sandy were better than American models.

Nancy Targett, head of the Delaware Sea Grant program and dean of the University of Delaware's College of Earth, Ocean and Environment, said a growing area of study is "coastal resiliency." That includes storm prediction but also a review of how storms affect ports, trade, tourism, flood mitigation, the health of fisheries and even saltwater intrusion into groundwater and farmland.

"We certainly have seen the need for this kind of information in the agricultural Midwest, as well," she said, because coastal weather patterns can affect the Great Lakes and widespread drought.

An emerging concern is how to better protect coastlines when more and more people insist on living as close as possible to them. Geography, meteorology, poverty, shoddy construction, a booming population and, to a much lesser degree, climate change combine to make the Philippines the nation most vulnerable to killer typhoons, according to several studies.

However, the problem isn't confined to the Philippines, as people who lived through Sandy and Katrina can attest. It can take place anywhere where vast expanses of warm water act as fuel for storms and where there are few pieces of land to slow them down.

Part of the global effort to predict storm behavior is being conducted through the UW-Madison Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies. With support from NOAA, university scientists will work with data from NOAA satellites, current and future. The team will collaborate to improve satellite-based products that monitor weather and climate while enhancing sensors planned for future spacecraft.

With better data comes better decisions, explained Bogdan, who gave the example of the atmospheric "ozone hole." Scientists reached a consensus in the 1980s that the hole in the radiation-protection shield was due to release of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs. An international agreement banned their use over time and today, he said, "the ozone hole is well on its way to recovering."

Policy action was taken quickly to close the ozone hole, he said, because solid data helped drive political consensus. The same can happen around storm behavior, he said, "because the value of scientific inquiry is widely understood" and the goal of protecting people and property should be universal.

Even if you don't believe humans are contributing much to climate change, it's possible to agree that humans can and should figure out better ways to manage its impact.

-- 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, November 11, 2013

Tom Still: Investor George Mosher is example of ups and downs of angel investing


By Tom Still
Angel and venture capital investing in Wisconsin has many faces. They range from sophisticated fund managers, inside the state and out, who handle multi-million-dollar deals to the casual investor who may join a hometown angel network and take part in one five-digit deal a year.

One of the most familiar and humble faces belongs to George Mosher.

Mosher, who was inducted Nov. 4 into the Wisconsin Investor Hall of Fame, was an angel investor when very few people even knew the term. He's made 150 investments over time and remains remarkably active today – investing in about 20 deals in the past year. Mosher is also a wellspring of knowledge about what works and what doesn't when it comes to early stage investments.

Speaking to fellow investors on the eve of the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium, Mosher said one of the biggest lessons he learned over the years should have been self-evident to him from the start: Angel investing is harder than he thought it would be.

"We all know it's fun to talk about the successes," Mosher told a crowd of investors during a pre-conference meeting in Madison. He quickly added, however, that failures often teach investors and entrepreneurs alike a lot more.

A long-time Milwaukee resident who got his start in the furniture business, Mosher said his early investment in BuySeasons, a Milwaukee-based online retailer of costumes and other supplies provided a 10 times return on his investment. The company was sold to Colorado-based Liberty Media Corp. in 2006. Mosher was one of the about 35 investors in Prodesse, a biotech company that was one of the state's biggest exits. It was sold for $60 million in 2009 to Gen-Probe, bringing a return of about eight times Mosher's initial investment.

Among the 15 other winners Mosher said he's had over the years was BioSystem Development, a Madison-based biopharmaceutical tools company. The company, which first gained notice in the 2004 Governor's Business Plan Contest, was acquired by Agilent in 2011. Mosher said he tripled his investment. "But there were also losers – in total, I've had 45," he noted.

Mosher said he currently has exactly 100 open investments. Of those he outlined several he saw as having potential for strong returns, including a Wisconsin company that repairs wind turbine gearboxes.

A member of Golden Angels Investors and Silicon Pastures in Milwaukee, Mosher also outlined some challenges confronting all early stage investors. Among them:

* A strong "headwind" in the economy from regulations and a reluctance to try new ideas, including among potential buyers.

* Innovative software products are hard for non-technical people and investors to understand.

* Intense competition in the market and the ability for people to quickly swarm to a new idea that is gaining traction.

Mosher also noted that some entrepreneurs who seek funding from investors focus on the wrong selling points.

"There is too much focus on the technology. Entrepreneurs have to build their own market and build customer relationships," Mosher said. He added it has become too easy for entrepreneurs to become distracted and "respond to every opportunity that shows up in an email."

Some of Mosher's themes were echoed during the two-day conference, which drew 550 entrepreneurs, investors and others to Madison. Panel discussions drilled down into whether or not Wisconsin has the right investors for the times – meaning, in some cases, are the investors tech-savvy enough? – to the challenges of attracting out-of-state investment. Perhaps most important, how can Wisconsin incubate more homegrown early stage funds to pick up where Mosher and other angels like him leave off?

There are signs of progress. A state-leveraged early stage capital fund is likely to begin making investments in early to mid-2013, and so will a $30-million fund launched by the State of Wisconsin Investment Board and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. The Brightstar Foundation in Milwaukee is organizing a fund, and Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele has announced plans to put $10 million of his own money into a fund. There are rumblings of other investor activity from outside Wisconsin's borders.

It all starts with individual investors, however, like George Mosher – people who take the initial risk and learn to roll with the punches. Wisconsin could use a lot more like him.

-- 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, November 4, 2013

Tom Still: Cities, states and regions must ultimately map own routes to success


By Tom Still
It's rarely a bad idea to compare-and-contrast when it comes to business development, whether it's city to city, state to state or region to region.

It can be a really bad idea, however, to get hung up on it.

Unfortunately, the latter seems to be the case these days in Wisconsin, where a slow recovery from the Great Recession has sent business, government and economic development leaders scrambling for answers wherever the grass looks greener.

In Milwaukee, historic suspicion of Madison as a place populated by eggheads, hippies and assorted liberals sometimes splashes over into the economic development world. "What is Madison doing right that Milwaukee can't do better?" the city's thought leaders sometimes ask. The answer is "nothing" – except, perhaps, celebrating eggheads, hippies and liberals who have innovative business ideas. (Think Epic Systems and Promega.)

Better comparisons for Milwaukee are places such as Louisville, Kansas City, Cleveland and Pittsburgh – all cities in the nation's heartland, all roughly the same size as Wisconsin's largest city and each working hard on its economic future.

The same holds true for Madison, which has been obsessed with measuring itself against Austin, Texas, since the mid-1980s – but for reasons that don't always add up.

Yes, Austin is a state capital. Yes, it is home to a major research university. And, yes, it's got the same eclectic ambience and cultural mojo that helps to define Madison. In fact, the Austin independent business alliance adopted the motto "Keep Austin Weird" to… well, help keep the place weird. But the checklist of comparisons shortens after that.

Austin has always been a much larger city than Madison. Austin boasted 346,000 city residents and 585,000 metro residents in 1980, when Madison stood at 171,000 and 324,000, respectively. The gap widened as time marched on. Austin today has about 843,000 city residents and a metro population of 1.8 million. It's the nation's 11th largest city.

Madison stands at 240,000 city residents and a metro population of about 570,000. It is the nation's 82nd largest city.

Learning why Austin grew faster than Madison, even if it was twice as large to begin with, is instructive. It's also important, however, not to aspire to be copycats – as a visitor told a group hosted by Madison magazine and the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce in late October.

Hugh Forrest is director of the South By Southwest Interactive Festival, a week-long festival of music, technology, film and more that launched in Austin in 1987 to drive business to bars and restaurants during college spring break week. It was "started by a bunch of hippies," Forrest said, and "struggled for a long, long time" before becoming the iconic event it is today.

With an estimated economic impact of $218 million per year, SXSW is what other tech-savvy, culturally creative cities like to think they can emulate. But it's a lot harder than it looks, Forrest said. That was evidenced by the experience of Portland, Ore., which flopped in its effort to build a "North By Northwest" event – even with guidance from SXSW veterans.

"Events like South By Southwest can be … replicated in other cities," Forrest said, "but it's best when they grow organically. Find what everyone thinks is a weakness and turn it into a strength... (And) be prepared to fail on a very small scale for years and years."

In short, cities need to build their identities and economies based on indigenous strengths and needs versus what they envy about others. While it always makes sense to learn about best practices over the horizon, it makes sense to translate that knowledge to what is most likely to work locally.

Within Wisconsin, regional economies vary in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Milwaukee isn't Madison and vice versa; the same holds for comparing Kenosha to Appleton, La Crosse to Eau Claire, Wausau to Racine and so on. The best ideas for how to move those communities ahead are likely to come from within those cities – informed by best practices elsewhere, but not carbon-copied.

-- 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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