If you think you’re having trouble making sense of this year’s presidential election, imagine being a visitor to the United States this fall.
About three-dozen people from Germany – members of the federal parliament, business leaders, academics and a few journalists – received a short but intensive course in American politics last week in a tour that passed through Wisconsin.
By the time they reached the end of their journey Thursday, the group had heard enough about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. They wanted to talk about why companies should set up shop in Wisconsin versus the East or West coasts.
It was a discussion that touched on some of the state’s strengths, as well as a few of its enduring challenges.
The group visited as part of a program sponsored by The Congressional Study Group and Atlantik-Brucke e.V., a German association that promotes trans-Atlantic relations. Former U.S. Rep. Tim Petri, R-Wis., was the study tour host on the American side.
At University Research Park in Madison, the group heard from executives from four tech-based companies on why those firms decided to put down roots and grow in Wisconsin. For some of the German visitors, it was a surprise to learn that companies with international reach can launch and grow in the nation’s heartland.
The conversation touched on differences and similarities between the German and U.S. financing systems for early stage companies; a comparison of entrepreneurial cultures; examples of how companies attract and retain workers; and the role of academic institutions and state government in creating a business climate that supports innovation.
“In Wisconsin and Madison, in particular, it tends to be a community effort with a lot of different players contributing to the success of startups and emerging companies,” said Joe Kremer, chief executive officer of Isomark LLC, a medical device company based in Madison.
“We have our drawbacks here – especially when it comes to early stage financing – but it’s encouraging to see that some people in Germany see trends in Wisconsin worth following,” added Kremer, who once worked in Munich and Dusseldorf.
In an election year characterized by disagreements over trade pacts, immigration reform and U.S. relations abroad, it’s important to remember that Wisconsin and 49 other states function in a global environment.
Wisconsin represents about 2 percent of the Gross National Product and a fraction of the world economy, given the United States produces 17 percent of the Gross World Product. Within those parameters, however, Wisconsin companies must compete to sell goods and services abroad. Exports from Wisconsin have hovered around $23 billion per year of late, a reflection of the fact that the world needs the state’s agricultural products, manufactured goods and technologies.
A prominent Wisconsin example in biotechnology is Promega, which has about 1,400 employees, 16 branches and 50 distributors serving 100 countries. Based in Fitchburg, Promega competes in fields such as genomics, genetic identity, protein analysis and drug discovery, the Germans were told by Chief Technology Officer Randall Dimond. Some of the visitors were surprised to learn that about a third of the law enforcement agencies in Germany use Promega’s DNA testing tools for human identification.
The economic pathway works both ways. Companies with global ties in University Research Park include Stratatech, which is being acquired by Mallinckrodt; FujiFilm, which acquired Cellular Dynamics International; Roche NimbleGen Inc.; and Kikkoman USA R&D Laboratory.
Across Wisconsin, foreign direct investment in state companies is significant. There are 1,537 foreign-owned establishments in Wisconsin, according to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., and those firms account for 86,440 jobs.
Wisconsin cannot afford to be overlooked in a global economy. National political rhetoric aside, the state’s economic doors must remain open to a more prosperous future.
Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.