• WisBusiness

Monday, February 1, 2016

MaryBeth Matzek: Dairy industry looks to angels

By MaryBeth Matzek
Angel investors could be a catalyst to fund innovation in the dairy industry.

That’s an idea put forward by a team from the UW-Madison’s Department of Dairy Science, Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc. and Bunker Labs. Those groups debuted the idea during Dairy Strong 2016: Partners in Progress, an industry event held last month in Madison.

When Stacy Williams and another colleague from Baird attended Dairy Strong in 2015, they saw the potential to gather financial support from both within and outside the dairy industry to fund industry innovations. They then spent the past year thinking about ways to do just that and meeting with people to see if the idea is possible. Williams thinks it is and hopes a fund dedicated to financing industry innovation is up and running by this time next year.

“We’re just starting a dialogue now with the dairy industry and others to see what the interest could be in something like this,” she says. “What’s different about this from some other investment concepts out there is that the potential investors would be the ones to benefit the most from the discoveries.”

While Wisconsin is weak in venture capital funding compared to other states, it is a national leader in angel investing and is already home to an innovative investment model in the BrightStar Wisconsin Foundation. The not-for-profit foundation accepts charitable donations to an evergreen fund that then makes equity investments in early-stage companies.

Michael Ertmer of Bunker Labs thinks something similar to BrightStar could be started for the ag industry.

“What we’re proposing is unique -- invest before a company is even formed,” the group’s executive director says. “The current models of investing in research aren’t working the best.”

Heather White, a UW dairy science professor, says it’s all about creating a competitive advantage for Wisconsin and the state’s dairies. Right now, she says other states are investing more heavily in research, whether it comes from industry check-offs or through direct industry support of endowed faculty positions.

“In the current way of doing things, too much time is spent by faculty chasing funds, which slows research productivity,” White says. “We need a major reinvestment to revitalize dairy production and animal production so we can get quicker flow from idea to application.”

White says creating and managing researchers’ intellectual property will be an advantage to all Wisconsin farmers since the time from developing an idea to commercial implementation will be shorter.

“I can also see this as a great way to attract and retain graduate students and researchers” in Wisconsin, White says.

Another possibility is to piggy-back on BrightStar and have an ag-focused fund within that organization, Ertmer says.

“There’s a lot of different ideas and models out there about how we might work it and do the funding, whether it’s a progressive phase model or something else,” he says. “The dairy industry would have input into the problems being looked at and they would be the ones to benefit.”

Williams has already reached out to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which would help with patent development, and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. Both organizations have shown interest. The next step is to see if individuals or businesses are interested in investing. “We’re still in the exploratory stage, but it’s very exciting,” she says.

Continued high-tech growth:
The Fond du Lac metro area was ranked 8th out of 201 small U.S. metros by the Milken Institute in 2015 for five-year growth in the category of high technology Gross Domestic Products. In 2014, the area ranked 34th out of 179 metro areas.

Local business leaders say the ranking shows a strong and steady growth in high-technology processes being used to produce goods and services. Manufacturing remains strong in Fond du Lac, which is driving that growth, but other industry sectors are also using more technology in their business operations, says Steve Jenkins, president of the Fond du Lac County Economic Development Corp.

Long shipping season: The 2015 shipping season on the Bay of Green Bay came to an end Jan. 15, making it the second longest shipping system on record. An early start and late end to the season -- thanks to ideal weather conditions -- and an improving economy helped the port take in 1.97 million metric tons of cement, coal, limestone, petroleum products and salt. That’s down from the 2.3 million metric tons that came through the Port in 2014, says Dean Haen, Brown County Port and Resource Recovery director. But he added anything close to 2 million tons is still a very successful year for shipping.

-- Matzek, a freelance writer and editor, is the owner of 1Bizzy Writer. She has worked in the past as a news editor at Insight Publications and as business editor at the Appleton Post-Crescent.

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