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Monday, April 28, 2014

Tom Still: Dairy innovation alive and well in Wisconsin as industry adapts to change


By Tom Still
If you don't think technology has been a part of Wisconsin's dairy industry since its humble beginnings, consider the story of Professor Stephen M. Babcock and his butterfat test.

You may know Babcock's name if for no other reason than the iconic dairy store on the UW-Madison campus that is named in his honor.

It's where visitors can buy ice cream, cheese and more in seemingly endless flavors and forms, all within a setting that speaks to the university's historic role in defining Wisconsin as "America's Dairyland."

Babcock's contributions to that image and reality began in 1890, his first year on campus, with the publication of a straight-forward chemistry experiment. He discovered that all of the compounds of milk – except for the fat – dissolve in sulfuric acid.

He devised a test that involved adding sulfuric acid to a known quantity of milk, centrifuging the sample to condense the fat, and calculating the milk fat or "butterfat" content based on the amount of fat recovered per volume of milk tested.

It was an easily conducted field test that revolutionized dairy farming because it set a reliable standard for production, since milk without sufficient butterfat could not be made into many of the dairy products we still enjoy today.

Babcock's test laid the foundation for an agricultural industry built on quality, science and innovation, from the laboratories and "Dairy Short Courses" of a still-young university, to the barns of Wisconsin and to the tables of a growing nation.

Roll forward nearly 125 years and Wisconsin's dairy industry faces new challenges to its continued prosperity, from environmental pressures on the land and water that sustains it, to consumer trends that compel product innovation.

Fostering that kind of innovation is the goal of a new project within the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, one of the world's leading centers for discovery within an industry that has become international in every way.

That global presence was on display last week in Milwaukee, where about 3,000 people took part in the International Cheese Technology Expo and related events hosted by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association.

That expo was a fitting backdrop for the launch of CDR's TURBO project, which is an acronym for Tech Transfer, University Research and Business Opportunity.

The goal for TURBO seems simple enough: Use principles common to business accelerators to ramp up commercialization of novel dairy technologies and products.

It's aimed at removing speed bumps that often slow the process of "transferring" technology from the lab bench – where too many ideas remain stuck – to companies and consumers.

Potential users of TURBO could include companies interested in incorporating more health-oriented dairy ingredients in their products, companies looking for more efficient production processes, and entrepreneurs with their own dairy technologies that could benefit from the center's testing and development capabilities.

Large companies and individual entrepreneurs alike can also license technologies from the Center of Dairy Research's patent portfolio, or otherwise gain access to other technologies that may not be patentable but are otherwise available.

What's on the idea shelf? Here are a few examples:

* A process that can be used to separate beta-casein for more efficient commercial use. Applications include use as a food ingredient, coffee whitener, whipping and foaming applications, infant formula and even pharmaceuticals.

* Technology that can accelerate the ripening or "aging" of cheese while improving texture and extending shelf life.

* A process for manufacturing a high-protein, cheddar-like cheese snack with a minimum of 36 percent protein. Applications include a school lunch program, snack sticks, athletic snacks and weight management programs.

* Technology that can produce a low-fat mozzarella-type cheese with improved texture and baking properties, with applications for pizza, frozen meals and school lunch programs.

Agriculture was a $61 billion industry last year in Wisconsin, representing one-fifth of the state's gross domestic product, and dairy accounted for nearly half ($26.5 billion) of the total. Even modest amounts of new product innovation and production efficiencies will add significantly to that bottom line.

Wisconsin's dairy industry has come a long way since Babcock's butterfat test, but changing consumer, production, energy and environmental demands mean science and technology are just as vital to the industry today as they were at the turn of the 20th century. It makes good sense to stay on the cutting edge of the world's cheese board.

-- 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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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Jennifer Sereno: Demand for IT skills signals next advance in modern manufacturing


By Jennifer Sereno
Wisconsin has been staking its claim as a center of skilled manufacturing since the 1860s. And Blackhawk Technical College intends to help the state build on that legacy for generations to come with a groundbreaking program to develop the new workforce skills Wisconsin manufacturers need to remain competitive in the global economy.

While some of the state's earliest skilled manufacturing businesses emerged in Milwaukee -- steam engine producer Allis Co. (later Allis Chalmers) was founded in 1861 -- manufacturers in Rock County were not far behind.

Thanks to the arrival of rail lines in the 1850s as well as the proximity to Chicago, Rock County's industrial base grew steadily, starting with an iron works, a paper mill and agricultural equipment producers. Parker Pen Co., which ultimately became a global pen manufacturer, was founded in Janesville in 1888.

More recently, Rock County has weathered a number of manufacturing-related challenges, including closure of the General Motors assembly plant in 2008. However, manufacturing remains the county's third-largest source of employment, accounting for some 14 percent of jobs, according to the state Department of Workforce Development.

Blackhawk Technical College plays an important role in maintaining the region's skilled manufacturing leadership. With locations in Janesville, Beloit and Monroe, the technical college offers more than 75 programs that can lead to associate degrees, technical diplomas, certificates and apprenticeships in fields such as business, manufacturing, health sciences, computers and more.

Those offerings will expand in an important way this fall when Blackhawk launches a two-year program that trains students as information technology specialists for advanced manufacturing jobs. The program will complement the technical college's new Advanced Manufacturing Center, the first phase of which is scheduled to open in Milton this fall.

"The face of manufacturing is changing nationally, regionally and locally," says Gary Kohn, Blackhawk's marketing and communications manager. "Modernization is critical for survival. And what's happening with respect to modernization is improved techniques in the plants – new quality management systems, robotics, other intelligent systems."

In the modern manufacturing environment, skilled workers are needed for more than just operating the increasingly complex machines, Kohn says. They need to be able to integrate, program and fix the machines, as well.

Today's manufacturing equipment is being linked together through sophisticated computer networks and operated from remote workstations. Kohn says the shift to this new, lean environment puts a premium on workers skilled in information technology with knowledge of both hardware and software.

College officials are quick to credit regional business and community leaders who serve on various advisory groups for identifying the need for such cutting-edge training. Among them is SSI Technologies of Janesville, a privately held company that designs and manufactures sensors, sensor-based monitoring systems, digital gauges and powdered-metal components for automotive and industrial applications.

"Our instructors are constantly getting feedback and seeking input" from industry, workers and community members, Kohn says. "We've heard about the need from our community advisory groups … This is going to be a program that should really gain a lot of traction because these jobs are applicable in so many areas."

In developing new educational offerings that align with the emerging needs of the manufacturing sector, Blackhawk Technical College is bettering opportunities for its students while building workforce capacity for the future. If history shows anything, Kohn says, it's that manufacturers and workers need to be adaptable.

"We use that word 'adaptability' with a lot of our programs,'' he says. "We want our welders to be familiar with precision machining and we want our industrial mechanics to be able to weld. Our HVAC students don't just fix air conditioning units; sometimes they have to build things requiring machining."

If Wisconsin is to maintain its heritage as a global center of skilled manufacturing in the New Economy, advanced training such as the manufacturing information technology program offered by Blackhawk Technical College will be key.

-- Sereno is a former business editor of the Wisconsin State Journal who has written about new economy trends for various publications. Send email to sereno.jennifer@gmail.com.

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Friday, April 4, 2014

Jennifer Sereno: Startup Weekend, Wisconsin Technology Summit, NeXXpo events put good ideas in motion


By Jennifer Sereno
Startup Weekend kicks off series of entrepreneurial events

Ever had a great business idea over a cup of coffee or dinner with friends?

Maybe you've even discussed it -- and everyone has agreed it's terrific -- but after heading back home, your busy routine takes over. It becomes another case of "woulda, coulda, shoulda."

Startup Weekend offers the perfect antidote. Hosted in the MGE Innovation Center at University Research Park by a collaborative group including UW–Madison's Office of Corporate Relations, Startup Weekend brings participants together to quickly identify, develop and validate entrepreneurial ideas. The event starts this Friday evening and is open to community participants.

It's one of three high-profile gatherings in coming days that celebrate the region's growing entrepreneurial base.

Allen Dines, assistant director for new ventures with the Office of Corporate Relations, has been involved with Startup Weekend since the inaugural event. Now in its third year, the three-day program format emphasizes the "lean" approach to business formation.

Instead of focusing on a detailed business plan, Startup Weekend encourages people to concentrate on good ideas for needed products or services that can be tested with consumer feedback. Dines notes that some would-be entrepreneurs find themselves spending so much time pulling together business plans and pro forma projections that they miss out on early opportunities to test their concepts with actual customers.

"Startup weekend is really about execution," he says. "It's a 54-hour session that really provides a compressed experience of what starting a business is like."

It's also part of a larger, international phenomenon. More than 100,000 entrepreneurs – including developers, designers, marketers, product managers and the like -- have attended similar events in cities around the globe in recent years.

Participants gather on Friday evening with an initial session on business ideas. Everyone is welcome to pitch their startup ideas and receive feedback from peers. After a vote on the top ideas, teams organize to pursue those with the greatest potential.

From there, Dines says, the event switches into high gear as teams work to establish a business concept, a value proposition and in some cases, an actual prototype. Participants often find themselves heading to one of the nearby malls to do a quick consumer survey or reaching out to family and friends for feedback.

"They do research right here from the site," Dines says. "Then we bring in mentors Saturday afternoon. So, it's really an execution exercise in developing an idea and fleshing it out to the point where you have (at least) a minimally viable product that you can focus on."

The event's structure tends to favor information technology startups, phone or Web applications and software-related businesses. In past years, some scientific concepts have gained traction, as well.

On Sunday evening, each team gets a five-minute window to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges. Prizes include a year's worth of Web hosting from Drifty, a Web application development firm, and for the best women's team, a one-year membership in Doyenne Group, a women's entrepreneurial support organization.

Dines says the prizes aren't really meant to spur a sense of competition – that happens anyway thanks to the high-energy personalities of the participants involved. In fact, some of the participants are actually serial entrepreneurs, folks who have successfully started other businesses and can't help but attend in case an amazing new idea pops up. Their experience adds to the creative mix and helps fuel the aspirations of others.

"We have members of Capital Entrepreneurs (and others) who often come to these things because they just enjoy the thrill of the race," Dines says. "Some of these people have five or six ideas they're going to pitch. But really the crux of it is people we've never heard of -- the people who just come out of the woodwork because they are intrigued."

Other organizers of the event include leaders from UW–Madison, Edgewood College, Capital Entrepreneurs, Sector67 and Madworks Coworking.

Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, says the success of Startup Weekend highlights the fact that the region holds more entrepreneurial energy and talent than ever before. Following Startup Weekend, the Tech Council hosts the daylong Wisconsin Technology Summit on Monday, April 7 at GE Healthcare in Waukesha.

The event brings together major companies and emerging firms in a setting that allows them to meet and explore potential relationships ranging from vendor agreements to business combinations, Still says. Even though some of the businesses may operate in similar industries, large and small companies often travel in different orbits, rarely coming into contact with one another.

In addition to Startup Weekend and the Wisconsin Technology Summit, the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce hosts the NeXXpo event on Tuesday, April 8 at the Alliant Energy Center's Exhibition Hall.

"Together, these events really speak to the vitality of the tech-based economy,'' Still says. The events also represent another important step forward in bringing visibility to the ideas and talent powering the New Economy.

EVENT INFORMATION

Startup Weekend
Time: Event runs from 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, all day Saturday and all day Sunday.
Location: MGE Innovation Center, University Research Park, 505 S. Rosa Road, Madison
Registration information: http://www.eventbrite.com/e/startup-weekend-madison-042014- tickets-10598080143

Wisconsin Technology Summit
Time: Monday, April 7, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Location: GE Healthcare Institute, N16W22419 Watertown Road, Waukesha
Registration information: Joy Sawatzki, , (608) 442- 7557 or visit http://wisconsintechnologycouncil.com/events/community/?ID=2129

NeXXpo
Time: Tuesday, April 8, 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Location: Alliant Energy Center Exhibition Hall
Registration information: Kennedy Cullen, kcullen@greatermadisonchamber.com, (608) 443-1954 or visit http://greatermadisonchamber.com/programs-events/nexxpo/



-- Sereno is a former business editor of the Wisconsin State Journal who has written about new economy trends for various publications. Send email to sereno.jennifer@gmail.com.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Jennifer Sereno: Individual impact shapes new economy


By Jennifer Sereno
Walsh's unsung roles demonstrate importance of behind-the-scenes work in building a knowledge economy

Entrepreneurs deserve high praise for putting themselves on the line to start a business.

Yet the spotlight rarely shines on the investors and board members who contribute to the success of technology startups by providing critical capital and strategic advice. It is this behind- the-scenes work that is increasingly necessary for a fertile entrepreneurial ecosystem.

A distinguished lawyer and a member of the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents, David Walsh may be creating his most important legacy through such unsung work. As a retired partner with Foley & Lardner; an investor and board member with companies including Quintessence Biosciences and FluGen; and philanthropist dedicated to fighting blindness, Walsh represents a prime example of how individuals can shape the New Economy.

At a time when some consider the latest economic development initiatives to be signs of an improving business climate, Walsh offers a longer-term prescription for fostering business vitality. In his view, investment in education and basic research hold the key.

Through his service on the Board of Regents – he was appointed by Gov. Jim Doyle -- Walsh recalls a long history of efforts to engage the business community in education, including the successful series of statewide economic summits held under UW System President Katharine Lyall. Yet he's concerned that in recent years, the state's own contribution to higher education has declined as a percentage of the total UW System budget.

"The university has always been great…year in and year out on peer-reviewed grants from the National Institutes of Health," and other federal research agencies, Walsh says. "That's starting to dry up. And what's happening is we're not getting reinvestment from the state in the basic scientific areas."

"This is going to be a serious problem if we don't keep feeding (the research and innovation cycle) from the beginning because that is our strength," he adds. "I am probably more passionate than anything about the need for this state to invest in knowledge. Not commercial exits, but knowledge."

Through the years, Walsh has been willing to commit his own money to the challenges of basic science with support for research into retinitis pigmentosa as well as startup companies involved in the development of research tools and therapies. For Walsh, the need for such basic research hits close to home; he has two sons affected by early vision loss.

For more than a decade, Walsh has supported research into blindness including the work of Dr. David Gamm, a University of Wisconsin–Madison associate professor of ophthalmology and director of the McPherson Eye Research Institute. Walsh has raised significant funds on behalf of the Foundation Fighting Blindness, which focuses on treatments and potential cures for macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa, Usher syndrome and other retinal diseases.

Thanks to $900,000 in funding from the foundation (which raised some $250,000 from Madison's first Dining in the Dark event), Gamm is now collaborating with stem cell pioneer Dr. James Thomson of the Morgridge Institute for Research and Cellular Dynamics International. Using induced pluripotent stem cells, blank slate cells reprogrammed from adult cells that can be differentiated into any cell in the human body, the team is working to create key elements of a human retina that could be used as a patch for patients with degenerative eye diseases.

Importantly, Walsh notes, the cells being created for the project also could be used as a means of testing other potential therapies – an important market opportunity that offers a more certain path to commercialization than developing cells for transplant. The life sciences test market has emerged as an important industry sector in the region thanks to the leadership of companies such as Cellular Dynamics, Promega and others.

Yet even among technology companies with proven management and solid market opportunities, maintaining success is never a sure thing. Walsh cites TomoTherapy, now part of Accuray, as an example of a company with a leading technology that has nonetheless encountered significant swings in its business through the years.

"It's a good example to me of a product that you really have to keep investing in to stay ahead," says Walsh, who was involved in the company' second round of funding. "It's considered a home run, especially for those who were in at the beginning. (But) it's why we have to be careful and why we have to focus on knowledge and when we do commercialize, we've got to be nimble."

Walsh offers high praise for Judy Faulkner, who years ago sought his legal assistance in establishing medical records giant Epic. Although he eventually referred her to another law firm with more experience in the field, Walsh says her mission-driven commitment and determination left him with a strong impression about the role of individuals in establishing environments that breed further success.

"We can all go off on our own and do our best until we wear ourselves out, but if we don't leave the legacy of a group or an organization or a business plan, we haven't really done much other than be a Band-Aid for a short period of time," Walsh says.

Through his own efforts to invest in technology startups, support the university's research enterprise and establish important channels for philanthropy, Walsh has set his own powerful example of the ways in which individuals can help shape Wisconsin's knowledge economy.

-- Sereno is a former business editor of the Wisconsin State Journal who has written about new economy trends for various publications. Send email to sereno.jennifer@gmail.com.


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