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How a healthy tech-based economy helps others in Wisconsin

Madison, Wis. - How does a tech-based economy help parts of Wisconsin that aren't destined to become the next Silicon Valley or to attract millions of dollars in medical research grants? For an answer, let's take a virtual tour of Imago Scientific Instruments in suburban Madison.

Imago is a shining example of Wisconsin's growing expertise in nanotechnology, which is unlocking the chemical, electrical, and optical secrets of molecules and atoms. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, or about 1/80,000th the diameter of a human hair. Viewed another way, a nanometer is about 10 times the diameter of a hydrogen atom.

Nanotechnology is a catch-all description of activities at the level of atoms and molecules that have applications in the real world. In short, nanotechnology is a platform for advancing other sciences. The applications in genetics, industry, robotics, artificial intelligence, and physics are so vast that scientists believe they're only now scratching the surface.

Some nanotechnology applications have already found commercial use. Nanoscale materials are being used in products as diverse as sun-blocking lotions, plastics, lubricants for heavy machinery, tennis balls, computer displays, paneling on cars and men's pants.

Imago's role in all this is making world-class nanotech tools such as its LEAP atomic probe microscopes, which provide 3-D micro-structural information. Imago's award-winning products are being used in eight countries on projects that range from analyzing containment vessels for Japan's 30 nuclear power plants to researching “blast-resistant” metals.
76,500 reasons to work here

So, what does this mean to Wisconsin? For starters, it means some good jobs. Imago has 51 employees and the average wage is $76,500 per year, more than twice the state's per capita average. Its sales are growing steadily ($4.1 million in orders in the fourth quarter of 2006 alone) and the future looks bright with the global nanotech tools market predicted to reach $27 billion by 2008.

The technology, electronics, and even the metal fabrication required to make one of Imago's grand piano-sized LEAP microscopes is impressive, and most of it requires buying materials and systems from suppliers.

“We buy from about 100 Wisconsin-based firms,” said Timothy J. Stultz, Imago's president and CEO. “We buy a lot of things in Wisconsin, we hire in Wisconsin, we pay taxes in Wisconsin - but we sell and compete globally.”

While many Imago suppliers and vendors are in the Madison area, others can be found in Milwaukee, Eau Claire, and beyond. Those suppliers may not consider themselves “tech” companies - but they're part of an emerging technology cluster that often corresponds with Wisconsin's historic ability to turn out high-quality products for global production.

Studies have confirmed that a growing, tech-based economy in Wisconsin helps communities outside the well-known tech centers.

A study released late last year by University Research Park in Madison, one of the state's largest and oldest tech parks, showed it is a driving force in the state's economy. The study found that the park contributes more than $680 million to the economy annually, supports 9,100 jobs, and generates state and local tax revenue of more than $46 million each year.

Research renaissance

University Research Park is not the only research park in Madison, which is also home to the Fitchburg tech center that includes Imago, Old Sauk Trails on the far West Side, and the TEC Center on the East Side - to name a few.

Another study by the Wisconsin Technology Council looked at the economic value of academic research and development funding statewide. In 2004, about $883 million in academic R&D helped generate 31,000 jobs directly and indirectly, based on an economic formula used by the U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Whether it's a nanotech company such as Imago, biotech firms or emerging companies in the biofuels sector, technology is helping to propel Wisconsin's economy in ways that reach most parts of the state. In a global economy, Wisconsin needs more companies that sell goods and services around the world - and suppliers that help make it possible.

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Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC.

WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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