Posted tagged ‘Development’

UW-Madison’s Research Challenge

November 9, 2018

I’m late in posting the stories I’ve written for Isthmus on UW-Madison’s struggles as a great research university to get its inventions and discoveries into the broader world.  Here’s how the first story begins:

It’s a story that Madison loves to hear.

Two plucky entrepreneurs, Kevin Conroy and Manesh Arora, are hired in 2009 to revive a moribund health-tech startup in Boston. They have the temerity to move it from the best-known metropolis in the country for medical innovation to the much smaller Madison, where Conroy had run Third Wave Technologies. Their company had but two employees.

“Without the UW-Madison, Exact Sciences would not be in Madison,” Conroy says flatly. “We came here because the UW’s biochemistry program is one of the top in the country. It enabled us to hire really strong Ph.D. level scientists.”

Flash forward nine years: Exact Sciences has about 1,600 employees, 200 job vacancies, a stock market valuation of around $8 billion, and a fast-selling non-invasive colorectal cancer test called Cologuard. Other cancer tests are in the works.

Exact Sciences personifies the rise of the new Madison. It rides a wave of tech innovation that is closely tied to the UW’s fabled research prowess. But Cologuard was not tested at UW Hospital and Clinics, as you might expect, but at Mayo Clinics, which is Exact Sciences’ long-time partner. Exact’s other medical trials were conducted at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Three years ago, when I wrote a mostly upbeat Isthmus cover story on technology transfer at UW-Madison, Conroy was a brooding presence. Doing clinical trials with the UW School of Medicine and Public Health was just too complicated, too prone for delay with the clinical trial review board, he complained. Both Anderson and Mayo were easier to work with “for a company operating at the speed of light.”

Conroy was heard. Exact Sciences is now doing preparatory research with the UW med school, but not yet a full-blown federally approved clinical trial.

Conroy sees progress. He considers himself a UW-Madison booster. But his impatience remains, and he’s definitely not alone in feeling the campus doesn’t yet have its act together on embracing the 21st century innovation economy. “C’mon, we can do better,” he says, sounding like a football coach at half-time.

To read more, please go here. And while you’re at it keep an eye out for other stories in the series.

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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 .

What Next For Sector67?

November 23, 2012

Sector67, the tinkerers’ workshop at 2100 Winnebago St., is a key component in Madison’s emerging entrepreneurial  subculture.  I write in this Isthmus story about its successes and search for new space.

There’s a deep literature on creative spaces like Sector67. Most famously: MIT’s Building 20, the Bell Labs and the legendary Homebrew Computer Club that helped catalyze Silicon Valley. At UW-Madison, David Krakauer is trying to unleash that creative juice at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery.

Matt Younkle, who founded the cloud-based music storage and sharing service Murfie.com with [Preston] Austin, thinks Sector67 has bottled the magic. He says when he was an engineering student at UW-Madison, “it was hard to walk into the lab and say, ‘I have this great idea, and I want to build it.’ That’s the beauty of Sector67. It’s a totally open door, and there are people there to help you turn your ideas into a prototype.”

Younkle’s assessment underscores why finding a new home for Sector67 is so important. The most logical site is in the city redevelopment zone known as the Capitol Gateway District. It contains many of the old industrial properties along the east rail corridor. Indeed, Meyer says he would love to relocate across the street from the two business incubators run by Commonwealth Development. The Metro Innovation Center, operated as a startup site by the University Research Park, is close by.

“I know a lot of what we’re doing fits in well with what the UW is doing and hopefully with what the city wants in furthering the entrepreneurial spirit,” [founder Chris] Meyer says. Unfailingly upbeat, he adds, “I love it when someone takes the world by the ears and starts a business. Every day I get up I want to help someone do that.”

To read more, please go here.

Doubts About The Edgewater Subsidy

September 25, 2009

I don’t cover City Hall much anymore, so most of what I knew about the proposed Edgewater Hotel expansion I read either online or in what remains of Madison’s newspapers. Frankly, I was puzzled why the mayor was prepared to offer a $16 million subsidy in the form of tax-increment financing.

Madison’s TIF policy is notoriously tough…as in a Dick Cheney kind of way. First, city staff waterboards the developer-applicants until they confess all their financial details and then the Common Council and city committees subject them to months of hostile interrogations. Often blood is spilled, and projects die.

A classic example involved Gary Gorman, one of the state’s premier builders of affordable housing, killing his $84 million mixed-used project on East Washington Avenue in 2006 when the penny-tight, pound-foolish city offered him $2.2 million in TIF for first-phase construction when he asked for $4.2 million.

So I was puzzled why the Edgewater developer would seemingly be showered in subsidy. To learn more, I attended one of the project’s public presentations and talked to ten or so City Hall insiders and business leaders. I basically ran down my concerns and asked them to agree or disagree.

No one gave me what I consider a convincing case for such a deep-pocketed public investment in the Edgewater expansion. This is what I wrote for a guest opinion column in Isthmus.


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