The Next Jobs? The Next Zuckerberg?

UW-Madison’s Computer Science program broke new ground this fall by offering its first class ever aimed at student software developers who want to start their own businesses. Profs Paul Barford and Remzi Arpaci-Dusseau are so committed to helping these kids that they  taught the class on top of their normal instructional load without added pay.

Here’s a chunk of what I wrote:

“These are really bright, really hardworking kids,” says Barford. “We heard some wonderful pitches, everything from social networking, to gaming, to educational solutions. Some were a little bit out there, but others have real possibility for commercialization if they’re given a little more guidance and the right environment to blossom.”

Underline that last point. UW-Madison is one of the world’s great research universities, and the computer science department, as one of the stars in the UW constellation, has its share of illustrious graduates. They include Epic’s Judith Faulkner, John Morgridge of networking giant Cisco Systems, Ramu Sunkara of Qik video sharing, and Carol Bartz of Yahoo.

But the surprise is that UW-Madison, despite bringing in more than $1 billion a year in research grants, hasn’t fared particularly well in spinning off businesses. A new report by the Association of University Technology Managers notes only four university-related startups in Wisconsin in 2011. In contrast, Illinois had 20, Michigan 11 and Minnesota nine.

This modest state of affairs has consequences for the shaky Madison and Wisconsin economies. The Capitol City hasn’t added any new jobs over the past year, while the stagnant state economy isn’t even close to recovering the jobs lost in the Great Recession.

Experts say that startup businesses are key to turning things around. But a 2011 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis had bad news on this front: All of the upper Midwest states have been hit with job losses in startup companies over the last 15 years and “none harder than Wisconsin, which has seen employment at startup establishments drop by almost 50% since 2000.”


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