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Top trends in Wisconsin industry

Research Park 3

Wisconsin’s business sector is as diverse as its landscape. From biotech companies and large manufacturers to cheese makers and service providers in the financial, insurance and health care sectors, finding a couple of unifying themes – or even one – can be a challenge.

But it is not impossible. Looking around the state, here are four trends taking shape across the Badger State.

Export growth

When it comes to finding customers, Wisconsin companies are taking a global view. In 2015, state businesses exported $22.4 billion worth of products, with industrial machinery leading the way at 26 percent of that total, followed next by medical and scientific instruments at 10.8 percent.

Park Esker Software
Park Esker Software

More businesses are exporting their products because the next 10 years will see the majority of middle class growth happen outside the United States, said Katy Sinnott, vice president of international business development for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC).


“Those growing middle classes are going to be hungry for goods; consumption will really grow outside of the United States,” she said. “There is global demand for the products we make here in Wisconsin.”

The state’s biggest trading partners are Canada, Mexico and China, and the WEDC leads trade trips to those and three additional countries every year.

“We strategize and look at what countries need the products we make in Wisconsin,” Sinnott said.

In addition, the WEDC provides grants to businesses that take self-guided trade trips and sets up meetings with foreign trade reps. It also runs ExporTech, an educational program in partnership with the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership (WMEP) that helps companies develop a successful export strategy.

“Right now when we travel, we see a lot of interest in the freshwater technology being developed in Wisconsin. That is definitely a huge potential area in exporting,” Sinnott said.

Regional industry hubs

Intentionally spread throughout the state in areas of like-industry concentration, regional industry hubs not only facilitate growth for the established companies involved, but also spark innovation and encourage the development of new businesses, making that region a stronger competitor in specific verticals.

Each industry hub looks a little different. The pioneer and reigning flagship is the world-renowned water cluster around Milwaukee. The area around Green Bay and Manitowoc has created a successful defense manufacturing hub. Southeastern Wisconsin also has a mature food production hub, Food and Beverage (FaB) Wisconsin.

Other hubs are in the works, including a biotech cluster in the Madison region. The New North IT Alliance is formalizing, with an office at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton and a paid manager. Elsewhere in the Fox Valley, an aviation and aerospace hub is developing. Others are currently developing or are in the planning stages.

Meghan Jansen, director of marketing and membership for The Water Council in Milwaukee, said when related businesses and organizations locate near each other, they can take advantage of the same skilled workforce, supply chain providers and technology.

“Clusters allow for growth, since they are feeding each other,” she said.

Urban repatriation

During the 1970s and 80s, corporations looking for more room moved their headquarters to the suburbs. Now the tide is turning, as businesses once again are returning their headquarters to downtown areas. With plentiful attractions and desirable places to live, active cities have become great employee attraction and retention tools, especially as businesses compete for the millennial workforce.

Several businesses, including Plunkett Raysich Architects LLP, SafeNet Consulting Inc., ad agency Bader Rutter and Hammes Co., recently announced plans or moved their headquarters from the suburbs to downtown Milwaukee. Those companies were reaching out to the 37 percent of millennials who said in a Public Policy Forum survey of Milwaukee-area young professionals that downtown is where they want to work.

Research Park 3
Research Park 3

The downtown migration is not limited to the state’s largest city. Madison, Green Bay and Appleton have all seen an influx of empty nesters and young professionals to their downtown areas, and smaller communities like La Crosse and Hudson have taken full advantage of their main street charm.

In Neenah, Plexus Corp., an electronics engineering, manufacturing and aftermarket services provider recently moved its corporate headquarters from Interstate 41 to downtown Neenah, and will move its design center as well in 2017.

“We’re moving the Neenah Design Center to take advantage of the great amenities the community has to offer,” Todd Kelsey, Plexus’ executive vice president and chief operating officer, said when the move was announced.

Commercialization of IP

Wisconsin’s universities and medical facilities are fertile ground for startups as researchers look to commercialize patents resulting from research.

University Research Park in Madison is one of the top destinations for students and researchers seeking to turn their discoveries into a marketable business. Named by Forbes as one of the top 20 research parks in the nation, University Research Park allows entrepreneurs to rent anything from a single desk to an entire building.

“We’re part of the broader UW startup ecosystem,” said Aaron Olver, managing director of the Research Park. “We are a neighborhood for innovation, with 125 firms employing nearly 4,000.”

UW researchers come to the park after presenting their idea to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation or the university’s Discovery to Product Program.

“We are here to help the companies that are spinning out of the minds of UW researchers and students,” Olver said. “It’s an amazing place we’ve built for people to develop their ideas.”

Similarly, Innovation Campus is being developed by UW-Milwaukee in Wauwatosa.

Beyond University Research Park, several Wisconsin health care systems are looking for ways to commercialize their own research. One example is TAI Dx, which was created with help from the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Office of Technology Development. TAI Dx is seeking to commercialize a rapid, non-invasive, targeted genetic diagnostic test to determine if a patient may reject a transplanted organ. So far, the company has raised more than $8.2 million from investors. 

Wisconsin employment by industry


Healthcare/social welfare…..406,306…..15%



Education services…..212,772…..8%

Administration/waste services…..146,462…..5%

Public administration…..136,929…..5%


Wholesale trade…..121,463…..4%



Professional & technical services…..104,558…..4%

Other services…..83,704…..3%





Real estate…..25,490…..1%


Mining & quarrying/Oil & gas extraction…..3,452…..<1%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

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