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High-Tech Economic Development in Southeastern Wisconsin

MILWAUKEE - The challenges and opportunities that Wisconsin technology companies face was the subject of a series of in-depth economic development presentations at the eForum conference held last week and produced by eInnovate, a local technology networking association.

Conference speakers focused on the role of innovation and technology in Wisconsin's economic future by addressing the issues facing technology businesses in the seven-county Southeastern Wisconsin region. The meeting coincided with the release of the 2004 Southeastern Wisconsin Directory of Information Technology and Biomedical Companies, sponsored by We Energies. Research contained within the directory is the result of a series of surveys and focus groups designed to assess the region's business landscape for technology and biomedical companies. The vendor and resource listings in the report are designed to assist the region’s information technology (IT) and biomedical companies to connect with one another and allow them to leverage resources.

John Griffin of Ohio-based Taratec Corporation, who managed the research effort and accompanying report, highlighted the findings. Found in the directory. The research revealed that Southeastern Wisconsin supports 500 IT and 75 medical-device companies that already bring in about 50% of their revenues from outside Wisconsin. Nearly three-fourths of the companies plan to grow, and most plan to stay in the area, which should stimulate economic growth.

TKO Awards

The symposium included a presentation of the 2003 Technical Knockout (TKO) awards to 10 Milwaukee area companies. (See winners below.) The TKO awards recognize the most innovative and well-positioned companies in Southeastern Wisconsin. Award winners use and/or produce exceptional technology to deliver their goods and services. After assessing the more than 500 high-tech companies in the region, the selection committee invited 50 firms to apply. Each applicant was judged on the caliber of its technology; the clarity and compelling nature of its value proposition; the quality of its business plan, vision, management, focus and entrepreneurial courage; and the value of the advice it offered to other entrepreneurs and legislators.
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Wisconsin’s Economic Future

Ross DeVol, Director of Regional Economics at the Milken Institute, communicated to the gathering of 350 attendees’ issues related to Wisconsin's economic future.

According to DeVol, the high-tech sector has been the fastest growing sector of the U.S. economy for the last 25 years, and accounts for about two-thirds of the growth in metropolitan areas. Wisconsin ranks 27th among the states for science and technology components of the economy. Technology-based businesses have yet not reached their potential to fuel the state's economy.

DeVol further commented that Wisconsin must commit resources toward risk capital, infrastructure and skilled workers in order for the for the state to improve its rankings in the high-tech sector as tracked by the Milken Institute research on economic development. Devol added that by fostering transfer of academic R&D to commercial products, assisting start-up companies with obtaining venture capital and grants, supporting business's recruiting efforts by slowing the 'brain drain,' and focusing on attracting 'anchor' technology companies to the state, Wisconsin could drive high-tech economic growth.

Marketing and Flexibility

Speakers throughout the conference agreed on a goal of amplifying effective marketing and expanding business development in the region. Presenters discussed developing and retaining a strong workforce, the capital needs of technology companies, enhanced networking and the importance of tracking business activities and adapting quickly and efficiently to variable market conditions.

Craig Schiefelbein, CEO of Paragon Development Systems (PDS) noted that "PDS has reinvented itself multiple times" in response to market changes. Starting as a memory chip wholesaler in the mid-80s, the company added computer components, and then moved to building PCs and marketing through resellers in the early 90s. The business model shifted to selling direct in the mid- to late 90s. PDS now concentrates on helping large companies utilize their IT assets more effectively, and is expanding into providing help desk services.

A panel discussion on the importance of innovation and technology in economic success concluded that Wisconsin must create a successful entrepreneurial culture and promote economic success in the region.

The panel further recommended that industry and academia must work together more closely. Universities and colleges can offer training in entrepreneurship and sponsor technology transfer, following the WARF and WiSys model.

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Kafryn Lieder is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wisconsin. She can be reached at Kafryn@wistechnology.com.



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