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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Tom Still: Science, information can help farming survive tough regulatory, consumer climates

By Tom Still
The challenges facing agriculture, especially animal agriculture, are evident in news reports almost daily.

* A report by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism uncovered concerns about estrogen in well water in Kewaunee County, where the combination of big dairy farms and porous bedrock may be threatening groundwater in a previously unexpected way.

* A video that appears to show workers physically abusing dairy cattle in Brown County has renewed criticism in some quarters of "concentrated animal feeding operations," or mega-farms that have grown in number in Wisconsin from 97 in 2003 to 245 last year.

* The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has put in place a major new policy to phase out what it believes is the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in cows, pigs and chicken raised for meat, a practice that experts believe has increased human resistance to antibiotics.

In a state such as Wisconsin, where agriculture was a $61 billion industry last year and dairy accounted for nearly half ($26.5 billion) of the total, those kind of headlines have combined with worries about the next federal farm bill, ever-changing consumer trends and more to create a sense of unease about the future. In a society where fewer and fewer people have any ties to farming, even a generation or two removed, how will agriculture meet its many challenges?

Managing information better and using science and technology to solve problems will be part of the answer.

Whether it's producing tasty, low-sodium cheese, exploring new ways to ensure food safety, learning how to better manage manure, finding less invasive ways to keep animals healthy or helping dairy farms leave a smaller carbon footprint, science and technology are weighing in.

It's also helping farmers here and elsewhere to supply a world with 7 billion hungry people and climbing.

Some examples of that kind of innovation from the UW-Madison Dairy Science Department, arguably the best in the nation according to an independent study in 2012, were reported in "On Wisconsin" magazine by senior editor John Allen.

"It's a very information-intensive field," said Kent Weigel, chairman of the dairy science department. "We're using modern technology to monitor diet and activity and rumination and the composition of milk. We're learning how to do what we do better and more usefully, and that requires more understanding of DNA and management of big data. Using information is the future of dairy farming. It's not a straw-hats-and-bib-overalls thing anymore."

One particular study is centered on feed efficiency. Using an explosion of knowledge about bovine genetics, researchers are looking into whether one or more of a cows 22,000 genes controls feed efficiency. Can a better understanding of data and science translate to more productive cows and more efficient investments by farmers in feed?

Another study is examining how the dairy industry can reduce greenhouse emissions by 25 percent by 2020, an effort that will require looking at the full cycle of production, from cows that burp 4.4 pounds of carbon dioxide for every gallon of milk produced, to manure handling and land use. That study is tied to a larger memorandum of understanding between the dairy industry nationally and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The search for answers through science and technology is also taking place through campus arms such as the Center for Dairy Research, the Center for Dairy Profitability, the larger College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the UW Extension, which helps get information to farmers and others in the food industry.

Agriculture represents about one-fifth of Wisconsin's gross domestic product. Its future and the jobs it support may well rest on using science and information to fix problems close to home – and to address consumer and regulatory trends that will affect markets thousands of miles away.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Tom Still: Striking an energy generation balance: Will Wisconsin be late for dinner?

By Tom Still
Matt Neumann's Pewaukee-based company, Sunvest Solar, is running hot these days. It has more than 210 solar energy projects in some phase of installation, he told attendees at a recent conference in Madison, but only one in Wisconsin.

Why? Perhaps because Wisconsin, unlike other states, has yet to officially bless third-party owned electric systems. Under this model, the contractor owns the solar panels and leases them to the building's owner, whether a business or a home owner, thus dramatically reducing initial costs to the consumer.

In case you think Neumann is a classic enviro-liberal, think again: He's the son of former Republican member of Congress Mark Neumann and a firm believer that the economics of solar power have improved to the point that it now makes sense – as in dollars and cents.

"Any conservative should be in favor of free-market competition," Matt Neumann said. "It's the energy industry competing for who can provide power for the lowest cost."

One speaker after another at the Renew Wisconsin Policy Summit cited examples of how other states, often Midwest neighbors but also politically "red" states around the country, are forging ahead with strategies that involve solar, wind, biomass and other renewable generation sources.

While state officials in Wisconsin are cautious about getting too far ahead of the market's ability to absorb such energy – and to get that energy where it needs to go – the industry trend is toward a portfolio that includes more renewables. In Wisconsin, which has a strong reliance on coal and natural gas from other states and nations, that trend may be unavoidable over time.

Not all renewables are created equal, however. Wisconsin has surprising advantages in solar energy and waste-to-energy digesters, for example, but not a lot of available wind energy sites large enough to support massive wind farms.

While solar energy has high upfront costs, the return on investment can be seven to 10 years, and the solar panels continue to provide energy for years to come.

Wisconsin is the nation's leading state when it comes to building digesters that convert dairy farm waste into energy – think tons of available cow manure – although other states are closing the gap. A Chilton-based company, DVO, is the state's leading producer of such digesters, but much of its work these days is spread from Vermont to Vietnam.

As pressure builds to contain farm waste from reaching groundwater and surface water, especially in parts of the state where the soil is relatively thin, digesters may help provide answers that keep the dairy industry and smaller farms in business. Wind power sites sometimes encounter local opposition, especially if they're big enough, and the power they produce can be intermittent. But many supporters of renewable energy think a logical solution is to tap into wind energy produced more steadily elsewhere, such as Minnesota, Iowa and across the High Plains, through transmission lines.

One such project on the docket in Wisconsin is a joint venture by Xcel Energy and American Transmission Company to build a high-voltage line, called the Badger Coulee line, to transport low-cost electricity produced by wind farms into the state's electric grid. Supporters say it will enhance reliability throughout the system while tapping into a renewable source.

Other factors may influence Wisconsin government and businesses over time. A coalition of Eastern states is petitioning for lower carbon and particulate emissions from Midwest states, and major companies everywhere are expecting other policies, such as a low-carbon fuels standard or a revenue-neutral "carbon tax," that will affect bottom-line performance.

Renewables won't be the only answer for Wisconsin, of course. Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling are producing vast amounts of oil and gas elsewhere, and plans for next-generation nuclear plants are being touted as safer and less expensive. One thing seems certain, however: Wisconsin cannot afford to sit still while others around us embrace more comprehensive and economically sensible energy strategies.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Reggie Newson: Job Center of Wisconsin: UI claimant registration helps employers, too

By Reggie Newson
Last fall, the Department of Workforce Development made a renewed push to require Unemployment Insurance claimants who legally must search for work to do so by registering with JobCenterofWisconsin.com.

When claimants register, they also build a job match profile and create or upload a resume. And, they have immediate access to tens of thousands of online job postings, as well as a direct link to resources, programs and locations across Wisconsin that can help them prepare for and find a new job.

But even as mandatory registration has helped thousands of UI claimants in their search for new opportunities, this registration requirement is also benefiting employers as they look to fill job openings with skilled workers.

If you're an employer facing a skills gap, the UI-JCW registration effort dramatically expands your pool of available workers. As new UI claimants from across multiple industries register with JobCenterofWisconsin.com and list their skills and work experience, you as an employer can sign up with the website, review individual profiles, screen dozens of resumes, and connect with an expanded base of job seekers.

DWD's recommitment to work registration on JobCenterofWisconsin.com helps employers in another way. From his first day in office, a priority for Governor Walker has been putting Wisconsin back to work, providing employment opportunities that help individuals move from unemployment to employment. When we help the unemployed return to work faster, we also reduce the number of weeks UI benefits are paid. This indirectly helps employers, who pay UI taxes into the unemployment system, and it helps our economy overall.

Whether they run a huge manufacturing plant in an industrial area or a small business on Main Street, successful business executives know little things can prove as important to their success as grand, strategic plans spanning several years.

Something as basic as requiring UI claimants to fulfill federal requirements and register for work – through JobCenterofWisconsin.com – can seem like a minor step, but it adds tremendous value in matching employers that have job openings with workers who have a variety of skills.

Under Governor Walker's leadership, we are seizing every opportunity to build a workforce to move Wisconsin forward, from simple, common sense solutions as ensuring UI claimants register for work to the innovative, comprehensive approach that the Wisconsin Fast Forward worker training program represents.

I invite employers to visit JobCenterofWisconsin.com and experience the added value that this resource will bring to your talent recruitment efforts.

-- Newson is secretary of the Department of Workforce Development.


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Tom Still: Book captures comical interface between technology, health care codes and art

By Tom Still
Imagine you're a doctor with a patient who was bitten by a dolphin. The precise code for reporting that medical calamity is W56.01.

Triaging some poor soul who was sucked into a jet engine? There's a code for that, too: V97.33xD.

Treating someone who was injured by an explosion on board a sailboat? Yep, that's V93.54xD.

There are also medical reporting codes for "inadequate social skills, not elsewhere classified" (Z73.4), "other contact with shark" (W56.49), "forced landing of spacecraft injuring occupant" (V95.42xA) and, of particular Wisconsin interest, "burn due to water skis on fire" (V91.07xD).

Welcome to the arcane, often humorous and yet entirely serious world of computerized medical codes. These codes are used countless times daily by medical professionals across the United States to classify patient ailments and how much those patients, and their insurers, should pay for a specific treatment.

They're also used to track medical threats and trends – flu outbreaks, for example – and analyze what treatments actually work and which don't.

A new set of federal codes, known as I.C.D.-10, will take effect Oct. 1, with 68,000 separate codes for diagnoses and 87,000 more for procedures. That's compared to about 17,000 total in the current I.C.D-9 code system, which means ailments as "pedestrian on foot injured in collision with roller-skater" (V00.01xD) and "struck by a non-venomous lizard" (w59.02xA) will get their very own codes.

The build-up to I.C.D.-10 is why a group of Madison-based health IT experts and artists combined to produce "Struck by Orca," an illustrated guide to some of the more obscure and often hilarious situations that have found their way into the federal code.

Niko Skievaski, a former Epic Systems employee who has helped launch the 100state co-working space for entrepreneurs, has sold about 2,000 copies since it was published in November. The idea was born during a light-hearted conversation with other health IT coders and software experts during an outdoor concert on Madison's Capitol Square, and grew into matching whimsical art with obscure codes.

"I really thought finding the art would be the hard part," said Skievaski, but once the word began to spread among some of the group's contacts, enough original art to illustrate about three-dozen or so codes were collected. Often, the artists were other young, health IT professionals who happened to be visual artists on the side.

The result is a 66-page book (http://icd10illustrated.com) that appeals to medical professionals, coders and others who find the humor in a situation that affects their lives every day. Some health-care groups have ordered bulk copies, there's a poster and a countdown calendar is in the works. Some copies of "Struck by Orca" have been sold overseas, where I.C.D.-10 is already in place in many countries.

None of this takes away from the fact that the rollout of I.C.D.-10 is causing heartburn in some corners of the U.S. medical profession, where doctors and others are worried about keying in the wrong codes or learning a new system that could take time away from patient care. Others wonder about the botched start to http://www.healthcare.gov and whether the new code system will prompt similar confusion.

Supporters liken it to the introduction of the nine-digit zip code versus the original five-digit code: People who needed to adjust did so.

For his part, Skievaski believes the technology behind I.C.D.-10 will work and sees its overall value in a world in which data-driven medicine is vital to quality of care as well as controlling costs.

"Some of it is the human nature of confronting change," he said. "But any time regulations change, that can also be an opportunity for entrepreneurs to help solve problems."

It apparently can also be a great excuse to pull together some techy friends, "crowd-source" some art and have a little fun with a waiting-room book.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.


Friday, January 3, 2014

Tom Still: It all starts with an idea: Business plan contest offers entrepreneurs a way to build

By Tom Still
There may be as many ways to get a company up-and-running as there are startups.

The lean startup methodology works for some, especially if the goal is to produce a "minimum viable product" that allows entrepreneurs to learn from potential customers before they build something the market doesn't really want.

For others who operate in regulated environments, the pathway to a commercially appealing product may be more methodical and require step-by-step validation.

Some 'treps prefer to go-it-alone, others prefer working in a team, and still others think the only way to innovate is to find a cool co-working space with a ping-pong table.

It all starts with an idea, however, and a plan to take it from cocktail napkin notes to reality.

That's what the Wisconsin Governor's Business Plan Contest has done for hundreds of entrepreneurs since its inception in 2004. The 11th annual contest is open for entries through 5 p.m. Jan. 31 at http://www.govsbizplancontest.com. All you need to get started is an idea – and the time it takes to write a first-round entry.

The contest will once again offer more than $100,000 in cash and service prizes, but many past contestants say the real "prize" was the plan-writing process itself. Here are some reasons to enter:

* You don't have to be Tolstoy. The first phase entry is about 250 words (or 1,400 characters with spaces) spread among four criteria, so there are no stresses about writing "War and Peace." At least, not right away.
* It's free. There is no cost to enter, other than your time.
* No stamps? No worries. All entries are accepted through http://www.govsbizplancontest.com. The second and third stages of the contest also take place through that website, culminating in a 15- to 20-page plan. Up to 12 finalists will present live at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs' Conference in early June.
* Entries are made in one of four categories: Advanced Manufacturing, Business Services, Information Technology or Life Sciences. Entrepreneurs may enter multiple ideas, so long as each idea is separate and distinct.
* Your chances of winning something are pretty good. If past contests are any indicator, roughly one in 14 entrants will reach the top 25. That's about the same odds Las Vegas is giving for the Green Bay Packers to win the Super Bowl.
* Contestants meet some interesting people. The 50 semi-finalists may attend a half-day "boot camp," where they'll meet potential investors, successful entrepreneurs and others with startup experience.
* Your idea will get some valuable exposure. Semi-finalists may post their executive summaries on the Wisconsin Angel Network web site for secured review by accredited investors. Also, leaders in Wisconsin's business press may see news value in your story.
* Finally, and most important, many past winners have been successful. About three-quarters of finalists from 2004 through 2012 report they're still in business and attracting investors, partners and clients to their ideas.

Some "graduates" of past contests include BioSystem Development, WiRover, NitricGen, RoWheels, Eso-Technologies, Vector Surgical, My Health Direct, Platypus, Green 3 and scores of other finalists. Collectively, those finalists have raised at least $70 million from investors over time.

More than 2,600 entries have been received from 280 Wisconsin communities since 2004. Also, more than $1.7 million in cash and services (office space, legal, accounting, information technology, marketing and more) have been awarded. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. is among the major prize sponsors.

What about those entrepreneurs who believe they don't really need a business plan to get started? After all, they argue, building that "Minimum Viable Product" may test the market as well as anything. True enough, but even experts who like lean startups find merit in writing a plan.

"The process of creating a business plan—at least a credible one—demonstrates that the entrepreneur is capable of thinking about his or her idea in business and investment terms," wrote Paul Jones, a veteran entrepreneur, investor and lawyer who helps lead the emerging company practice at Michael, Best & Friedrich. "(It demonstrates) the entrepreneur can conceive of his or her baby, so to speak, as a tool rather than a child; as something that has to serve crass commercial and financial masters, as well as a prerequisite to serving any higher values."

So, support your "baby" by entering the Wisconsin Governor's Business Plan Contest. Who knows? It may grow up into the company of your dreams.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, which produces the Wisconsin Governor's Business Plan Contest. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.


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