Three ways to keep Wisconsin’s tech-based economy on track

Economic Trends 2017

Last updated on July 2nd, 2019 at 09:19 pm

Crystal balls can be notoriously cloudy. Just ask all the pollsters who predicted President-elect Hillary Clinton.

Given that caveat, here are three of my many hopes for a happy, prosperous 2017 for Wisconsin’s tech-based economy, in no particular order:

There will be peace in the (Silicon) Valley: One worry for the tech world is President Donald Trump’s war of words with Silicon Valley. Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos were among tech titans called out by Trump during the campaign over issues such as immigration, off-shore manufacturing, taxes and terrorism. He also questioned the tech industry’s push for an increase in high-skilled H-1B immigration visas.

tech-broadband-internet-wire-shutterstock_296720156On the other hand, Trump has generally praised entrepreneurs and innovation and spoken directly to the value of academic research and development.

“Scientific advances do require long-term investment,” he told ScienceDebate.org, a coalition advocating for science to be debated in the presidential race. “This is why we must have programs such as a viable space program and institutional research that serve as incubators to innovation and the advancement of science and engineering in a number of fields.”

Such statements did not come with specific positions on federal R&D funding, technology transfer and commercialization, support for startups and small businesses, Internet governance, and reform of the patent system. Trump was basically silent on each, yet all of them matter to Wisconsin. State policymakers in Madison and Washington must watch closely and weigh in.

The broadband logjam will be broken in rural Wisconsin: Only California, among the 50 states, will receive more federal dollars than Wisconsin between now and 2020 to enhance broadband downloads and uploads in places that are isolated and otherwise underserved.

About $570 million will be allotted through the “Connect America Fund 2” to three providers – CenturyLink, Frontier and AT&T, in order of competitive grant size – to augment private investments in broadband by those same companies.

About 40 percent of the money must be spent by the end of 2017 and 20 percent per year must be put to work in 2018, 2019 and 2020. The goal is to efficiently bring broadband, at a market price, to about 230,000 Wisconsin homes that don’t have solid access today.

Adequate broadband connections can help stem the loss of rural population and jobs. It can enhance e-commerce for businesses large and small, bolster public safety, improve health through telemedicine, boost tourism by encouraging visitors to stay longer, entice millennials to stay put and connected, and improve education for kids who otherwise lose their Internet connections once they leave the school grounds. If this program doesn’t work and attract state government support, rural Wisconsin may lose its last best chance to connect.

“BigCos” will invest in southeast Wisconsin: There are solid examples of major companies in Wisconsin investing directly and indirectly in startup economies close to home. In Milwaukee, the next stage should be forming what is commonly called a “fund of funds,” a vehicle for pooling capital and investing in emerging firms.

One model in a comparable Midwest city is Cintrifuse. Established by the business community in Cincinnati, Cintrifuse is a nonprofit organization that has created a syndicate fund to invest in venture funds, with an interest in backing young companies in the region and beyond. It has nearly 30 corporate, foundation and academic investors, including Procter & Gamble, Kroger and Western & Southern.

It grew out of business community leadership and a sense that Cincinnati’s future rested not only with legacy companies, but with new companies that might arise in their backyards.

Milwaukee has that cadre of major companies. It has experienced investors in the angel and small fund end of the venture capital spectrum. Increasingly, it has the right technical talent and ideas. What’s needed is a shared sense of urgency about reinvesting in the city and the region.

Wisconsin’s tech sector continues to produce value and jobs, usually at pay scales well above the statewide per capita average. As the state enters a new year, my biggest hope is for more of the same.

-Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, which includes the Wisconsin Innovation Network, the Wisconsin Angel Network, and the annual Governor’s Business Plan Contest.

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