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Budget axe could cut SE Wisconsin tech alliance funding

MILWAUKEE - A group of business and technology leaders is asking Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle to preserve $2.6 million in pledged state funds for the Biomedical Technology Alliance (BTA), which seeks to increase collaboration between academic researchers and private industry in southeastern Wisconsin.

The funding was previously approved the Joint Finance Committee by a margin of 15-1, and endorsed by the Doyle administration, but is in danger of being cut as the governor makes changes to the state budget that is expected to be delivered to him within the next several days, said State Sen. Ted Kanavas (R-Brookfield), who initially proposed the state funding.

"The governor can't have it both ways. He can't say he is supportive of this effort, and then turn around and cut all the funding," said Kanavas, who is chairman of the legislature's Committee on Job Creation, Economic Development and Consumer Affairs.

According to Kanavas, members of the governor's administration have been calling BTA principals in recent weeks to suggest that the funding for the alliance would be cut significantly.

"The state was supposed to be an equal partner," Kanavas said Wednesday. "He [Doyle] had members of his administration who were supportive of this, including the Secretary of Commerce. What it's going to be? You can't make headlines and issue press releases, then turn around and cut the funding for it."
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A letter signed by eight principals of the BTA was sent to Doyle on Tuesday asking him to preserve the critical seed funding, which would help attract matching grants from academia to fund collaborative research between academic researchers and the private sector, said Thomas Hefty, finance chairman of the BTA.

"We are hopeful; and it's important for metro Milwaukee to continue its growth in technology businesses," Hefty said. The state seed money "is important for collaboration among the major academic institutions. I think we are fortunate that the collaboration is starting to take place, but it needs that support form the state."

Founding institutions of the alliance include Marquette University, the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW), Milwaukee School of Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), University of Wisconsin-Parkside and TechStar, which helped found the BTA.

The alliance was formed a year ago with the goal of enhancing southeastern Wisconsin's regional strengths in medical imaging, health-related informatics and rehabilitative engineering. Within those fields, the BTA will provide a network of intellectual, physical and financial resources to facilitate collaboration between researchers.

"All of the partnering institutions have strengths in those areas, and that's where we feel Milwaukee, as a region, could carve out a niche for itself," said Dave Gilbert, senior adviser to UWM Chancellor Carlos Santiago.

The BTA is an effort to guide the economy of Wisconsin from industrial to research-based pursuits. Since the organization was founded in 2004, it has sought to bring together researchers so they can undertake bigger projects and find critical mass to apply for grants.

The schools would match the state money to in order to provide research grants with the goal of developing technologies that could grow large enough to seek federal funding from agencies such as the National Institutes of Health.

"The university is the engine of high-tech research in Wisconsin - that's the governor's line," said Hefty, who also serves as co-chairman of the Governor's Economic Growth Council. "In Madison, that is true, but it is not true in Milwaukee, which is why it is critical that we build these alliances."

The focus of modern-day economic development is in developing industry clusters. And, with construction of the new GE Healthcare building at the Milwaukee County Research Park, the MCW research building right across the road, and the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin expansion, it is apparent that the biomedical field is southeast Wisconsin's major high-tech cluster, Hefty said.

The first effort to support early-stage technology companies in southeastern Wisconsin was the establishment of TechStar, which helps foster entrepreneurial development for early-stage Wisconsin technology and life science companies. The next step in that evolution was the formation of the BTA, which would bring together scientists from MCW, UWM and the other participating institutions, and spin off the technology that comes from that research.

"Previously, there was no activity, no financial inventive for that collaboration," said Hefty. "I believe in the importance of it, not only for the health and science aspect, but for economic development of the region."

Kanavas says if the governor is committed to economic development, then it is critical to leverage as much intellectual property in southeast Wisconsin as possible.

"They [the participating BTA academic institutions] all have different levels of expertise," Kanavas said. "If we are going to innovate, we need to have innovative tools to allow people to collaborate."

The governor was not available for comments on the potential funding cut.

John Rondy is a correspondent based in Milwaukee. He can be reached at jrondy@wistechnology.com.

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