Archive for the ‘Tech’ category

We Need A Generational Change In Leadership

September 23, 2014

I spent a lot of time in early 2014 researching and pondering how Wisconsin’s economy stagnated after rising to pre-eminence in the 1970s. Among other things, I found Wisconsin’s leadership was resolutely stuck in the past while the national economy had moved on.

[T]hose old fights define Wisconsin, economically and politically. It’s as though our leaders are historical reenactors at Old World Wisconsin. They fire their muskets and shout the old-time shibboleths. Most of this is just spectacle — not really connected to resolving Wisconsin’s precarious economic position in the 21st century. But old habits don’t easily die.

Looking back at old glories, Democrats embrace the unions. Indeed, nothing rallies the base like a pledge to repeal the union-gutting Act 10. But unions are a declining force and face a questionable future in an era when worker-filled assembly lines are disappearing. Nationally, only one in nine workers is a member. In Wisconsin, union membership plunged from 33.5% of the non-farm workforce in 1965 to 12.4% in 2013, according to the economists at the Unionstats.com website.

The future is not bright. The expanding IT field, with its mix of collaborative teams, creative work and 1099 workers, seems particularly ill-suited to old-school unionism.

Republicans, meanwhile, embrace big business, especially traditional manufacturing, and have decisively tilted the state’s tax, regulatory and development initiatives to its benefit. That’s a king-size problem. Manufacturing jobs may have led Wisconsin’s modest recovery from the Great Recession. And Wisconsin does rank with Indiana as one of the top two industrial states in the nation. But Wisconsin’s glory days of manufacturing have decisively passed.

In 1979, manufacturing and its high-paying unionized work accounted for 33% of the jobs in Wisconsin. By 2012, it was 18%, according to the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS).

Reality is that Wisconsin never recovered economically from the crushing recession of 1981-82. The bloody harbinger of Rust Belt de-industrialization, it laid waste to the huge manufacturing base in the eastern half of the state that runs from the Fox River Valley through Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha and out to Janesville and Beloit.

I make the case that we sorely need of a generational change in leadership. Both the techies and the Millennials are the sort of pragmatic idealists Wisconsin needs.  You can read a lot more here. Also, posted below is a related piece that ran in the same issue of Isthmus.

Who Speaks For Tech?

September 23, 2014

So if Wisconsin is trapped in yesteryear politics and economics, as I argue in the story posted above, the business group Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce is the exemplar of this thinking.  Here’s how I began this related piece, also in Isthmus:

This is a problem.

The state’s most powerful business voice has conspicuously little contact with Wisconsin’s rising technology industry.

Wisconsin Manufacturing & Commerce, which claims more than 3,500 businesses as members, brags that “the success of the WMC government relations team in projecting and accomplishing a proactive business agenda has been second to none.”

Well, yeah. On the surface, WMC has never been stronger. The support WMC has thrown to small-government, pro-business Republicans has paid off big time, to say the obvious.

Wisconsin has a Republican governor, a Republican Assembly, a Republican Senate, a Republican-favoring Supreme Court and a Republican-dominated congressional delegation.

But critics say that WMC’s success is mostly in pursuing a savvy political agenda — not a savvy growth agenda. And the group’s legislative wish list tilts heavily to helping Wisconsin’s legacy manufacturers. The problem: These venerable corporate citizens usually burnish their bottom lines by adopting strategies that emphasize tax avoidance, lessened regulatory costs and dampened labor costs.

Do they add new jobs to the payroll? Not so much.

To read more, including how the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce has embraced the tech industry, please go here.

This Startup Could Be Big For Madison

May 22, 2014

MdotLabs, the fraud-fighting startup that detects faked page views of online advertising, captures a lot of what’s good about the Madison tech scene. Co-founder Timur Yarnall moved his internet company here from New York in 2005 because he liked the Madison action. His partner, Paul Barford, is a tenured professor in UW-Madison’s Computer Science program and the co-teacher of CS’s groundbreaking entrepreneur class. Their company, founded in mid-2013, has an office in Palo Alto, but expects to keep its main office  in Madison because the town is so deep with code-writing talent. What could be better?

Well, that MdotLabs strikes it big and becomes a major player in the Madison economy. It could happen, observers say.

 “Anytime someone can develop a heavy technology solution to a complex problem that has large market opportunities, that interests us, and that’s what these guys have done,” says John Philosophos, whose Great Oaks Venture Fund is one of the startup’s seed-stage investors.

Philosophos sees online ad sales fraud as “a massive problem,” but also puts his finger on MdotLabs’ challenge: The industry may not be ready for reform. For some, scammery is simply a cost of business. And paying for it might even seem easier and cheaper than subscribing for MdotLabs’ validated data. Besides, he muses, are the ad agencies prepared to tell their national brands how much money they’ve wasted paying for robot-generated page views?

….

Zach Brandon, president of the tech-minded Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, says MdotLabs is a local startup to watch. He sees it as a game-changer in a lucrative industry. He compares MdotLabs’ potential to that of Exact Sciences, the local biotech company that is piloting a noninvasive test for colorectal cancer. He even compares its potential competitive position to Epic’s with electronic health records.

“I think MdotLabs could be not just a success story,” says the chamber chief, “but the creator of a new employment base in Dane County.”

To read more, please go here.

Neil deGrasse Tyson Would Dig This

March 8, 2014

The tech world’s hard split between information technology  and biotechnology is perplexing.  Despite their kindred values, these really smart people seem to live in parallel universes.  I found myself puzzling over this last year while attending the International Bioethics Forum sponsored by Promega’s  educational institute. Despite a stirling assemblage of speakers on the nature of creativity, none of those brainy ITers seemed to be present.

Perhaps this year’s topic at the forum will draw some venturesome folks from the software world. Here’s how Promega founder Bill Linton describes this year’s convocation:

When we recently talked, Linton explained that the annual forum always picked topics — What is the nature of life? What is the nature of death? — in which the answers weren’t settled. “Sometimes people would leave with more questions than they came in with,” he says with a laugh.

This year’s forum — “3.8 Billion Years of Wisdom: Exploring the Genius of Nature” — promises more of the same. Nothing conventional, but an examination of the “many beautiful examples of life forms accessing information that we simply cannot explain, but call ‘instinct,'” as the promo material says. It runs May 1-2 on the Promega campus.

This is the fifth year the forum has burrowed into consciousness. “There are different points of view of consciousness in nature and taking it a step further — not just of consciousness, but also of intelligence. Does the very embodiment of matter, particularly as expressed in life forms, exhibit a form of intelligence that doesn’t quite fit the human definition of IQ?” Linton asks.

“Nature seems to have evolved with the ability to combine intricate, amazing complexity in ways that are astounding and that we don’t understand,” he adds. The great controversy, he continues, is whether evolution is a blind, random process that sometimes produces advantageous mutations. “Or is there something else happening that is not totally blind randomness?”

This question certainly stopped me in my tracks.

Linton points to the statistical unlikelihood of a light-sensitive organ like the eye evolving in nature eight or nine times from completely different origins. “The fact is, it seems like nature wants to enhance its ability to take in sensory information, and then do things with that information. Some people say that the nature of the universe is trying to find a way to ask the questions: Who are we? What’s out there? Why do we exist?

“In a way, when we ask those questions, it’s nature [expressing] itself, because we are a product of this natural process. That’s pretty amazing for nature to have brought in this element of consciousness.”

The forum runs May 1-2 on the Promega campus in Fitchburg. To read more, please go here.

An Economy for the 21st Century

February 26, 2014

The past few years almost all of my writing has focused on documenting the rise of Dane County’s technology industry. This cover story for Isthmus begins:

This is the big question: How far can Dane County ride Epic’s success?

Done right, we’re talking about the foundation for Dane County’s 21st-century economy being built on the medical software industry: lots of good-paying information technology jobs that fuel an expanding housing market, a glittering downtown with hip restaurants and music clubs, a rising tax base to fund new community services and a lot more resources to deal with the serious problems of poverty.

Call it the “Epiconomy.” Madison advertising executive Andy Wallman, who coined the name, should trademark it. “Epiconomy” nails the fact that Epic now drives the Madison area’s prosperity.

Founded in 1979 by its mastermind Judith Faulkner, Epic Systems Corp.is the world leader in the burgeoning health-care software market. The privately owned Epic has 6,800 employees at its Disney-like headquarters in Verona and recorded $1.66 billion in sales in 2013. The company is renowned — notorious, say its critics — for hiring only the smartest young people and working them hard. Salaries for these twentysomethings range from an estimated $60,000 to $100,000 a year.

More are coming. Lots more.

“They could have as many as 10,000 employees by 2018,” says Madison planning chief Steven Cover, who was among top city officials briefed by Epic’s chief administrative officer Steve Dickmann in mid-January. (The media-shy company declined to be interviewed for this story.) Epic expects to add 800 positions a year for the next four or five years, Cover notes.

“They have an international operation that is growing very quickly. This will fuel their continued growth,” he says.

As heartening as that message is, the good news doesn’t stop there. Epic will continue to run its worldwide operation out of its nearly 1,000-acre Verona complex.

“There won’t be a European headquarters,” says Cover. “Their international operation will be staffed and operated from here.”

It’s big news that Epic will not decentralize its operation with regional headquarters. But for Dane County, the even larger payoff hinges on the answer to that opening question: Will Epic’s success give birth to an even larger health industry?

To read more, please go here.

I’ve written on Epic over the years.

For my 2002 story on how Epic wound up in Verona, please go here. You’ll see that back then the campus was valued at only $45  million.

Here’s another story from 2002 that describes how real estate speculators cashed in when they sold Epic the land for its new campus.

This cover  story from 2008 cited Epic as an example of “green sprawl”.

Here is a timeline up to 2008 that details Epic’s growth over the years.

This column from 2010 details how strikingly ignorant city leaders were when they lost Epic to Verona.

And here a mayoral candidate Paul Soglin talks about his Epic regret .

You Must Remember This

December 6, 2013

In this story for Isthmus, I examine the Oct. 16, 2012, complaint issued by the federal Food and Drug Administration against the Madison manufacturer of a memory supplement  called Prevagen. The feds say that unverified claims have been made on behalf of the various Prevagen products, and  that makes them not supplements but “unapproved new drugs.”

The manufacturer, Quincy Biotechnology, has taken steps to deal with the FDA warning, but denies that its flagship product is being marketed as a drug. The FDA says that–14 months after the warning was issued–the case is still “open.” But Quincy President Mark Underwood reports that the regulators are satisfied that Quincy has resolved all problems.  No word from the FDA on that.

I write:

Today, Prevagen is available at more than 20,000 retail locations, including Walgreen’s and CVS drugstores, and it’s sold online as well. Inc. magazine says Quincy’s annual revenue has grown 234% from 2009 to 2012 — from $5.3 million to $17.8 million.

Graying baby boomers are driving the demand.

“People are desperate to believe in something, because they don’t want to get Alzheimer’s,” says Dr. Cynthia Carlsson, a UW-Madison Medical School geriatrician and memory researcher.

Underwood denies that Quincy is targeting Alzheimer’s patients. “There are five million Alzheimer’s patients, but there are 80 million baby boomers. As businesspersons, we’re much more interested in helping the 80 million baby boomers long before they have any diseases of dementia,” he says.

Alzheimer’s, however, is not a disease of age, according to Dr. Mark Sager, who is the principal investigator of the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention. This well-regarded longitudinal study of adult children of parents with Alzheimer’s is trying to detect the early markers of the disease.

“People think Alzheimer’s is a disease of aging,” he says. “But it’s a disease of a lifetime that only becomes evident in older adults.”

Sager says Alzheimer’s manifests itself for both genetic and environmental reasons, much as a person’s genetic propensity for heart disease can be exacerbated by smoking and lack of exercise.

“We find that diet, exercise and lifestyle — stress, for example — are all associated with Alzheimer’s,” says Sager. “If you’re overweight and don’t exercise in midlife, you have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s later on. ”

Sager, who runs the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute, says it does not recommend taking Prevagen “primarily because there’s no evidence it does any good.” He suggests people worried about Alzheimer’s would be better off adopting the Mediterranean diet, which he says has proven benefits.

To read more, please go here.

Hearing Out The Tech Center Skeptics

October 28, 2013

StartingBlock Madison, the proposed tech home for an incubator/maker space/etc. could prove crucial in growing the downtown startup scene. That is, if it’s built and financed smartly. In this Isthmus column I look at  the arguments made by skeptics who question the $15-20 million it might cost to build the complex at the old Mautz paint factory site.

[Tech leader Matt Younkle  says:] “When you look at this kind of money, you have to ask how many startups could you invest in for that? You really have to start asking questions about the profits and cost of that kind of capital. I think the community could do this on a leaner basis.”

Joe Boucher, a tech industry attorney who chairs the city’s Economic Development Committee, worries about StartingBlock’s proposed location, which is a mile from the Capitol Square. That’s too far away to catch the downtown buzz the tech crowd likes, he feels.

“These kids want to be within two or three blocks of the Capitol for practical matters,” says Boucher. The Mautz site “is just a little too far away for 25-years-olds. I know it sounds crazy, but they don’t want to go out eight or 10 blocks — a mile out on East Wash.”

He adds: “If they don’t hit the sweet spot on location, they better hit the sweet spot on everything else — the quality of the building, the cost of the rent. That has to be perfect.”

Craig Stanley, a commercial real estate broker with Broadwing Advisors, shares Boucher’s concern. He can’t see why tech companies would lease market-rate space on East Wash for $18 per square foot when they could pay the same rate for space one block off the Square and be moments away from five cool restaurants.

Stanley says he likes the concept of StartingBlock, but adds, “I don’t see the demand to fill the space.” The veteran broker describes a very soft downtown office market with high vacancy rates. Overall it’s at 17.2%, but even higher at 21.2% for the class B space StartingBlock would offer, he notes.

To read more, including the rebuttals from project advocates, pls go here: http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=41227

And for an  update over the Mautz site negotiations, pls go here: http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=41243

UW Startups Get a Boost

October 14, 2013

Yup, things are happening. A New York venture capital fund has pledged to invest $500,000 in student startups. The UW Research Park has made move some moves to help software startups as well. I write in Isthmus:

Great Oaks’ investment in student startups coincides with an uptick in entrepreneurial ferment on campus. Mark Bugher, who’s retiring on Nov. 1 after a long run as director of the University Research Park, noted several new moves in a recent wrap-up interview.

This includes the decision to redesign the Metro Innovation Center, the Research Park’s startup site at 1245 E. Washington Ave. Regarded as the park’s “stake in the ground” on the east side, the site has never taken off, despite occupying only 6,000 square feet in the old Gisholt factory complex. Just two of 10 suites are occupied. Bugher and his deputy Greg Hyer expect the space to be redesigned along a more open concept with cheaper rents than the current $700 to $800 a month.

The bigger news is the Research Park’s purchase (with funding from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation) of the old Luther’s Blues building at 1401 University Ave. Hyer put the price at “more than $2 million.” Perhaps better known today as “that purple building,” the site is strategically placed for tech incubation — next to the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery and near the computer science building.

“It has some real interesting entrepreneurial opportunities for the interaction of students, faculty and the private sector,” notes Hyer, adding that student coworking space will be installed.

To read more, please go here.

In a sidebar, I report that Bugher feels that the Legislature complicates the UW’s efforts to commercialize its biotech research.  Find it here.

Promega: The Epitome Of A 21st Century Company

September 8, 2013

The great thing about being a reporter is the license it gives you to ask questions.  For this Isthmus cover story, it meant I could learn about one of Dane County’s signature high-tech companies, Promega biotech.

“Capitalism with a soul” is how Huffington Post recently described the Promega operation in a lengthy appreciation of its philosophy. Allen Dines, who works in UW-Madison’s Office of Corporate Relations, put it another way: “Promega is the epitome of a 21st-century company.”

Credit founder Bill Linton, whose fascination with life at the cellular level is matched by his curiosity over the meaning of life itself. François Ortalo-Magné, dean of UW-Madison’s Wisconsin School of Business, puts Linton in the very top rank of business leaders he’s met.

“They all share a passion for deep, long-term questions,” says Ortalo-Magné. “It’s beyond strategy. It’s beyond operations. It’s about what makes us unique as humans.”

Not without his critics, Linton ranks with Epic’s Judith Faulkner as Dane County’s signature entrepreneur. And as with Faulkner at the privately held Epic, there are concerns what happens to Promega when Linton, 66, passes from the scene.

To which Linton’s matter-of-fact reply is: He’s working on a 100-year plan for Promega.

To read more, please go here.

Helen And Toni’s Excellent Tech Adventures

August 13, 2013

This edition of my Isthmus tech column hits several topics, including  web startups by former state Rep. Helen Kelda Roys and serial entrepreneur Toni Sikes. Here’s a chunk:

Roys’ passion and hard work (she knocked on more than 20,000 doors in her first election) are two of the reasons venture capitalist Troy Vosseller cites for his investor group, the well-regarded (and oddly spelled)gener8tor, backing Roys’ venture. OpenHomes offers a software platform that connects homebuyers and sellers in a way that promises to save big bucks for both.

Cofounder Scott Rouse, who worked at Shoutlet, StudyBlue and Asthmapolis, handles the tech end. Roys, who is an attorney and real estate agent, knows the business end.

“I started selling real estate at 19,” she says. “I was in college in New York City and had to earn money.”

Roys wound up graduating from New York University in three years (her major: drama, politics and cultural studies) and then attended law school at UW-Madison.

The OpenHomes game plan proved beguiling enough to attract a $20,000 gener8tor investment and three months of mentoring from the edgy investment group, which runs “accelerator” shops in Madison and Milwaukee for its portfolio of startups.

To read more, please  go here.

These are the other items:


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