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Commentary: Is our “Biosphere” too cheesy?

A great perk to traveling – getting to see what the rest of the world is doing. Last week I was in Phoenix vacationing with the family for spring break, content to play a few rounds of golf and see a ballgame, when I was confronted with a barrage of hype over Arizona’s biotech efforts. While I managed to accomplish my vacation objectives, I could not escape the buzz over Arizona’s efforts to invest in technology.

First, there was the handful of social and networking meetings, all of which mentioned the upcoming Arizona Bio Expo (April 25-26) and legislative promises to commit more than $400 million to Arizona’s universities for high-tech research laboratories. No, I was not talking to scientists or politicians eager to boast about their worlds. Instead, I was speaking with bankers, attorneys, and business people who, like me, do not have a life science degree. In addition, I was bombarded with press coverage on these events throughout the week.

Since moving back to Madison three years ago – after spending 13 years in California and 4 years in Arizona – I have sincerely tried to capture the pulse of Wisconsin’s real-time economy efforts, especially here in Madison. I have attended many of the biotech and high-tech conferences and meetings and networked with hundreds in the community.

There are a couple of obvious takeaways from my Arizona visit. First, how can Arizona invest $400 million in its universities when it is also in the midst of a 10-figure budget deficit? The answer is how can they not make this investment. Economists predict that every dollar drawn from research grants will yield approximately $6 annual return on investment, according to The Arizona Republic’s article “University research funding deal near” (April 16, 2003). Why, then, is Wisconsin slashing $250 million from the UW System per the Governor’s budget proposal for the 2003-05 biennium?

Arizona also draws large companies and sponsorships from outside its borders. For example, IBM Life Sciences, which does not have a corporate presence in Arizona, is a key corporate sponsor at this week’s Bio Expo. They are expected to announce a strategic alliance with the new Translational Genomics Research Institute, according to The Arizona Republic article. This begs the question of whether we are doing enough with our conferences and marketing to draw regional and national interests. Or are we marching to the same tired speeches and themes we have all heard before?
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Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must find a way to spread “the buzz” beyond the traditional circles of scientists, net-workers, and politicians to include the general business community both within and outside the state.

As a loyal Badger I hope we have the stamina and wherewithal to fuel our economic development dreams. It will take much more than “hope,” and indeed some bold commitments and leadership from all of us, if we truly intend to remain among the “creative class.”


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Ron Kral, CPA CMA., is a guest columnist for the Wisconsin Technology Council. Please comment or contact Ron with your ideas and feedback at ron@wistechnology.com.

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