Archive for the ‘Development’ category

UW’s Missed Opportunity

December 16, 2018

I wrote early about UW-Madison’s Discovery 2 Product program. I was mostly impressed by what I saw as a serious effort to turn UW discoveries into viable  businesses. Given the UW’s paradoxical standing as a top-tier research industry with a ho-hum record  for entrepreneurialism, D2P seemed like a crucially needed step forward.

Three years later I checked back to find that, despite some successes, D2P had fallen out of favor and now “exemplifies what the campus keeps getting wrong on entrepreneurialism.”

From the story:

Over the past five years D2P has — at different times — been heralded, well funded, disparaged, put on ice, reconfigured and revived at a far more modest scale than originally envisioned.

Along the way D2P also became an archetype of both the university’s talent at spinning a good story (UW is flush with publicists) and of UW-style Game of Thrones palace intrigue that sometimes leaves blood on the floor.

The program was created to assist both seasoned faculty researchers and ambitious students to get their bright ideas to market. Its boosters included campus notables Paul DeLuca, spotlighted in our story on UW med school innovations, and Mark Cook, a revered ag school researcher and serial entrepreneur. D2P’s decline, in part, can be connected to DeLuca’s retirement as campus provost in 2014 and Cook’s death in 2017 at age 61. Two important D2P sentinels were gone, and the effort suffered.

“It was slow death by a thousand cuts,” recounts former D2P staffer Will Robus. He cites how budget cuts, a hiring freeze and the overt hostility of its campus overseer, Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education Marsha Mailick, crippled D2P. (Mailick, now retired, declined to be interviewed for this story.)

To find out how D2P went wrong, please go here.

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UW Success… And Failure

November 12, 2018

In this dispatch on UW-Madison’s struggle to champion its groundbreaking discoveries and inventions, I frame the issue in these terms:

“UW-Madison is one of the great universities in the world, spending more than $1 billion in research funding a year. But increasingly there are complaints of sclerotic bureaucracy hampering research, indifference or hostility to business-supported projects, and an undistinguished record of launching tech startups from that bounty of research.

This story holds up the UW medical school  as a campus leader in commercializing  research, particularly with GE medical scanning devices. I explain how the creation of a health-care cluster in the west end of campus has paid off in better medical care by bringing together researchers, UW Hospital clinicians, patients and medical students.

This is the good news.

The bad news is how [other] business relationships continue to vex the campus. More typical is UW’s failure to reach a research agreement with the Ford Motor Co.

The auto giant had wanted a “master agreement” with UW-Madison that set the terms for joint research projects not just for a particular department or center — as is the Madison custom — but across the full campus, which has upwards of 200 separate research entities.

Ford’s interest is potentially huge for UW. The auto industry is facing an existential crisis as Silicon Valley disrupters — including Google’s Waymo, Uber, Lyft, Tesla, and others — try to push their way into the car industry’s driver’s seat. Led by a TED-talk kind of innovative leader named James Hackett, Ford continues to look for more strategic/holistic relationships with top-tier universities for research….

In late 2017, Susan LaBelle, then head of the UW’s Office of Corporate Relations, cited the failed Ford contract in a candid memo to her boss, Charles Hoslet, in explaining the “stagnant corporate sponsored research at UW-Madison.”

….That’s a big problem for Ford. “Almost all top-tier research universities are now willing to negotiate cross-campus master agreements,” says Ed Krause, Ford’s global manager for external alliances. He describes negotiating with the campus as “uniquely difficult.”

To read more, please go here.

Questions for Candidates

May 7, 2018

Not long ago, the Wisconsin Policy Forum released a seriously wonky and widely ignored paper on levy limits. Even the mention of this arcane tax issue would send most people scurrying to FaceBook for relief. But while the topic is boring it is also important.

Since 2006 Wisconsin has dampened the state’s high property taxes by limiting  municipal property tax increases to the rate of new construction in the community. At first, the consequences were muted because virtually all parts of the state were enjoying a building boom. But very quickly, the WPF researchers found, the state was hammered by two recessions, and new development was “increasingly isolated, with relatively few communities experiencing even modest growth.”

This core truth was the starting point of “The Two Wisconsins” series I wrote last year for Isthmus. It  highlighted how a vast swath of the Dairy State is still mired in recession. I followed up with a recent column that argued the state’s gubernatorial candidates need to be challenged on how they would help the state’s left-behinds get on their feet.  I wrote:

The heart of the Wisconsin gestalt in 2018 … is the economic chasm dividing the state. Simply put, the good times celebrated in Dane County, the Milwaukee suburbs, the Fox River Valley and a few other lucky communities are not shared in the forgotten precincts of rural and inner-city Wisconsin….

Lost in the huzzahs of Wisconsin’s record-low jobless rate and other benchmarks of success is the stubborn fact that the recessionary downturn that took hold at the turn of the century never ended for the state’s left-behinds. Too often, these are neighborhoods of troubled schools, dead-end or non-existent jobs, broken dreams and lots of drug overdoses.

The candidates need to be judged on how they would create broad-based Wisconsin prosperity.

To see how I lay out the issues, please go here.

Big Ideas For A Startup Culture

January 9, 2018

Yikes, I’m late in posting this story from October 2017.

Consider it a postscript to my two-part series on the “Two Wisconsins”. In researching how Wisconsin might create a vigorous 21st century economy I sat down with startup maven Troy Vosseller. He had  strong, specific ideas. The piece begins:

The question put to the venture capitalist was: How do you juice up the Wisconsin startup scene when the state is judged the absolute worst in the nation for fostering new businesses?

Troy Vosseller, 32, who’s a sure-footed Madison entrepreneur, was in an expansive mood as he held forth on the evils of non-compete clauses and Wisconsin’s bad-news rankingfor startups by the entrepreneurial-focused Kauffman Foundation.

He also made a forceful case for upgrading and expanding UW-Madison’s computer science program, arguing that Wisconsin is critically short of tech talent.

We were in the temporary Gorham Street offices of gener8tor, the new-business incubator Vosseller runs with partner Joe Kirgues and others to nurture the ventures they invest in. Next spring, gener8tor moves up to Madison’s signature spot for startups — the new StartingBlock complex on East Washington Avenue.

“I can’t name a single venture-backed startup founded by any ex-employee of the Wisconsin Fortune 500 companies,” he tells me. These companies include giants like Rockwell Automation, American Family Insurance, Northwestern Mutual, Harley-Davidson and Johnson Controls.

“Yet if you look at robust startup ecosystems like Silicon Valley’s it’s extremely common. You have people who, say, worked at Yahoo who have a great idea, leave their job to create their own company, have their ex-manager who made a lot of money in her own startup invest in theirs, and later the company is bought by Microsoft or who knows who.

“The virtuous cycle continues in those ecosystems,” Vosseller explains. “It’s commonplace. Yet here in Wisconsin I can’t think of one example [of a startup spinning off from a major corporation]. This speaks to a cultural risk-aversion we have, but some of the blame also rests with corporate restrictive covenants.”

Ah, yes, the non-complete clauses that Epic employees face when they leave the Verona campus and have to cool their heels.

To read more, please go here.

The ‘Two Wisconsins”…On Radio

November 2, 2017

I spent 20 minutes or so discussing the “left-behinds” of the Wisconsin economic recovery with co-hosts Veronica Rueckert and Rob Ferrett of Wisconsin Public Radio’s Central Time program.

You can hear it here.

A Better Wisconsin Growth Strategy

October 25, 2017

I wound up writing two Isthmus cover stories on the Wisconsin economy. In the first piece I detailed how our recovery was starkly incomplete. Sure, the overall economy led by Dane County had bounced back from the Great Recession. But too many of us were ignoring a less pleasant reality: There is is a broad swath of  economic “left-behinds” in rural Wisconsin and inner-city Milwaukee.

My second story outlines an economic strategy that could turn things around.

The problem is that the state’s commitment to manufacturing, even with its smart nod to high-skilled manufacturing, is one-sided and overwhelming. Part and parcel of the yesteryear economics that holds up the chimera of mining as the savior of northern Wisconsin.

And consider that the Foxconn package is the costliest manufacturing subsidy project in Wisconsin history by a factor at least 10. And that payback in new taxes generated by Foxconn, assuming the campus develops as proposed, won’t come until many of us are dead and buried. No less than in 2043, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau….

Here’s the point: Government does best when it sticks to the basics. Infrastructure! Education. Transportation. Safety. Health. Parks. And if it does incentivize certain economic behaviors government should do so carefully and in a way that provides public good and not private payoff.

And there has to be a vision. Or as hockey legend Wayne Gretzky famously put it, you need to skate “to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” That isn’t happening. Wisconsin tenaciously holds on to the economics of nostalgia.

You can find the details here:

Wisconsin’s “Left Behinds” Are Ignored

October 14, 2017

The Badger State’s celebrated comeback from the Great Recession has been incomplete. I argue in the first of a two-part series in Isthmus that rural Wisconsin and inner-city Milwaukee remain mired in economic and social pain:

Call it “the two Wisconsins,” as the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance presciently did in 2006 when the nonpartisan budget group documented Wisconsin’s split reality even before the Great Recession soundly fractured the state economy into winners and left-behinds.

Today, while Dane County booms and the bigger cities in the Fox River Valley and western Wisconsin prosper, the rest of the state is largely mired in a downturn that is a recession in all but name.

Wisconsin is not alone. This dichotomy is also America’s story, as the Economic Innovation Group, a centrist research group in Washington, D.C., first documented in May 2016. The EIG study — widely ignored and fraught with political implications, as pundit Harold Meyerson has argued — detailed how painfully limited the economic recovery from the Great Recession (the magnitude of job destruction earned its adjective) was compared to post-recession periods in the early 1990s and early 2000s.

“The 1990s recovery was powered by small counties, small cities, rural areas. It was very much a grassroots recovery where the entire U.S. landscape experienced a blossoming of enterprise,” says Kenan Fikri, EIG’s research and policy manager.

The early 2010s’ recovery was brutally asymmetrical. By the time the U.S. economy pulled out of the recession, the split was extreme between America’s prosperous and left-behind counties.

So it is in Wisconsin. My story tries to define the problem and suggests that our political leaders have yet to come to grips with it. You can read more here.


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