Posted tagged ‘Kevin Conroy’

UW Tech Transfer: Challenge and Promise

October 15, 2015

Few things are as important for energizing the listless Wisconsin economy than capitalizing on the great research conducted at UW-Madison. I write in this Isthmus cover story:

A game-changer is what UW-Madison sorely needs. Historically one of the nation’s leading research schools, the campus secures more than $1 billion a year in research grants. Yet between 2009 and 2014, Wisconsin ranked 42nd among the states in patents issued, according to federal data. And we were dead last in a survey of entrepreneurial activity taken by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Reality is that despite Dane County’s tech-led boom, the Wisconsin economy is in parlous condition. The state suffered the largest percentage decline of middle-class households in the nation between 2000 and 2013, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts study. Median Wisconsin household income in this period dropped from $60,344 to $51,467 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Obvious questions follow: Why isn’t all this UW research igniting a wave of business and tech startups across the state? Why hasn’t the UW dynamo reversed the state’s economic decline?

UW-Madison, it’s fair to say, is feeling the heat.

The hostility of the ruling Republicans at the Capitol is as plain to see as the UW System’s $250 million budget cut and Gov. Scott Walker’s initial plan to gut the Wisconsin Idea, the university’s once sacrosanct pledge that its “beneficent influence” would extend statewide.

But that notion of “the boundaries of campus are the boundaries of the state” draws a sharp retort from skeptics who think UW-Madison’s reach seems to abruptly end at the Dane County line. Local folks may be proud that Dane County claims 73% of the new jobs created in Wisconsin over the last 10 years, but outstate observers see this as evidence of how UW-Madison beneficence is highly parochial.

Enter UW-Madison’s Discovery To Product program. I write how this bootcamp for campus entrepreneurs has nurtured a potential breakout campus discovery. Researchers Mark Cook and Jordan Sand have come up with a technique that could dramatically reduce the pervasive  use of human antibiotics in animal feed. That farm industry practice is blamed for producing deadly drug-resistant superbugs.

To read more about their discovery and the complaints that insiders make about UW-Madison’s hostility towards commercializing research, please go here.

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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.

Handicapping the Recall Election

April 9, 2012

I offered my take on the upcoming gubernatorial recall election for the blogger David Blaska. You can find all of the responses here.

Here’s what I had to say:

            Who’s going to win the recall? I don’t know.

I will venture this: For that sliver of the electorate that is undecided, the recall won’t pivot on the union issue, but on the condition of the Wisconsin economy.

Scott Walker could have a big problem here. It’s not just that the job numbers were so bad in his first year, but the Republicans fumbled two key economic development issues–creation of a venture capital fund and writing viable mining legislation.

Who would have guessed they would be so inept on fundamental business issues?

Walker’s best hope requires a twist worthy of an O’Henry  short story: Will there be enough of an Obama economic recovery to lift the floundering Badger economy?

As for the Democrats, their chances of beating Walker will almost certainly decline once they pick a candidate. Their leading hopefuls are palookas–the scarred losers of  previous statewide races.

Perhaps party chair Mike Tate can persuade the Democratic candidate to put a brown paper bag over his or her head. It could help.

But wait…if  Herb Kohl miraculously changes his mind and runs, game over.

Everyone knows that the wild card is the John Doe probe. All hell breaks lose if Walker is indicted for the shenanigans that occurred while he was Milwaukee County executive.

What the Democrats need — and probably won’t get — is a business-savvy candidate like Kohl who understands the utter centrality of growing the Wisconsin economy.

Bar none, there is no more important issue in Wisconsin today.

Kevin Conroy, the biotech innovator (and the son of a former Democratic Michigan state senator) who briefly considered a gubernatorial run in 2010, might have filled the bill. But his Exact Sciences start-up is at a critical point of development.

Finally, given the chaos of Wisconsin politics, I don’t rule out an intervention by space aliens.

Bat-crazy weirdness–this is the new norm in Wisconsin politics.


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