09 Jun WTN exclusive interview with Tom Still, Wisconsin Technology Council
Editor’s note: Recently the Wisconsin Technology Network sat down with Tom Still, the president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, to discuss the basic tenants and initiatives Still and others are putting forth to help Wisconsin’s technology space grow. This is the first portion of a two-part series exploring the technological challenges Wisconsin faces and how the Wisconsin Technology Council is working to overcome them.
Wisconsin Technology Network: Could you describe the fundamentals of the
Wisconsin Technology Council? What is its purpose? What are the services it provides?
Tom Still: The Wisconsin Technology Council is a science and technology advisor to the governor and the legislature. It’s not that old of an organization; it was created in the fall of 1999, in the budget that passed that year. It was one of the few things in that budget that was passed with bipartisan acclaim. The governor and the legislature at the time had taken a look around the nation and seen that there were other states, other regions that had come together to create similar kinds of bodies, whether they were called tech councils or something else, and Wisconsin was lacking in that.
There had been past efforts. If you go back to the 1980s, there was an effort in Wisconsin called the Wisconsin for Research and it was an effort to try to enhance tech transfer. It was around for a while but then it went away. There was a Governor’s Science and Technology Advisory Board in the early ’90s that was around for a few years and then it passed on. But people recognize the continuing need to have some kind of umbrella organization to help speak with one voice, if possible, for technology in Wisconsin. So the Tech Council was born in that fall of ’99. It didn’t really get up and running until the spring of ’01, and that’s after the articles of incorporation were done and the bylaws and a variety of things – there was some initial fundraising for it – and that’s when it really was launched. The first president was Dick Leazer, the retired director of WARF … [It was] a short-time thing for him, just to get it up and running. I became president in August of ’02 and have been in that role since.
The Tech Council operates in three areas. First is policy. That’s the statuary role that we have. It’s actually written in state law that this council help supply policy advice to the governor and the legislature and to others – the UW System, tech colleges, wherever we can try to be of help in terms of reasons to cross those lines that’s what we try to do.
And we’ve fulfilled the policy part in a lot of different ways. The Vision 2020 report, was first published in the fall of ’02 and then again in the fall of ’03. We published a white paper in the summer of ’03 that really was more specific and drilled down into some the thoughts that were contained in [Vision 2020] in terms asking the legislature and the governor to do some specific things around investment capital, human capital, the infrastructure in the state. So those are some of the things we’ve done in the policy area.
We have an economic development role; that is fulfilled in a lot of ways. …The Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference, that’s one, where we really try to provide a lot of how-to information for entrepreneurs in all stages and takes on what they’re doing. The Wisconsin Life Sciences and Venture Conference, which this year will be held Nov. 16 and 17 in Madison. The Governor’s Business Plan Contest … we set out to do three things there. One was to provide an avenue through which entrepreneurs could bring their ideas forward and actually work on them. We’ve heard from so many of these contestants that “This is what I needed to get organized! And to sit down, and get this out of my desk drawer and move ahead.” That was one thing.
Second, a very tangible reason was to help increase the deal flow in Wisconsin. We figured if we had a significant number of plans submitted, that a portion of them would be of the quality that investors, whether they’re angels or venture eventually, might want to take a look and might want to add this to their consideration list. We think we’re accomplishing that.
And third, and this is more perception than anything, but we wanted to dispel the myth that Wisconsin lacks entrepreneurs. We really wanted to do something that would send the message that “Yes, entrepreneurs do exist in Wisconsin, they have great ideas and they will come forth if they’re given the chance.” So that’s what the business plan contest is aimed to do.
Our third major area is networking. The Tech Council has a subsidiary, called the Wisconsin Innovation Network. We now have chapters in four cities: Madison, Milwaukee, Fox Valley area and the Chippewa Valley area. It started with one chapter here and that chapter merged with the former Wisconsin Venture Network in Milwaukee and that became the WIN Milwaukee chapter and we started up the other two after that. We have plans to have more in areas of the state where there’s significant interest. And the reason for this is if you look at the really successful technology states, regions and communities around the country, they’re highly networked. They’re areas where people are talking to one another in all kinds of settings all the time. And I guess that’s more of challenge in Wisconsin because we don’t have the really big metro areas – Milwaukee as big as it gets and that’s really a small metro by anyone’s definition. And then comes Madison, and then it sort of falls off from there. It’s really a state of small cities. In terms of trying to bring that geographic spread closer together, we hope the chapters provide that.
And then of course, the networks try to do things to work with other organizations that are in the technology space or economic development space all around the state.
Those are the three primary missions of the Tech Council: To provide some policy guidance, to help with tech-based economic development and to provide a network for people across many lines to get together and create ideas and contacts.
WTN: Do you feel the stigma attached to Wisconsin as a state that lacks entrepreneurs is related to the conviction that Wisconsin also not well known for venture capital? Are these directly related?
TS: At least indirectly related. For a variety of reasons, some of this is just history, there is this impression that Wisconsin was pretty much an ag and manufacturing state in the old-line sense, the traditional sense. It was a state that had grown up on those industries and seemed perfectly content to just stick with them. And there is probably something to that on a couple of different levels. But what’s happened is reality and the world caught up to us, that Wisconsin is fully realizing it can’t live by manufacturing alone, it can’t live by agriculture alone, or at least in the way manufacturing and agriculture was framed in the past. It has to be those industries, just like any others, have to be enhanced by technology. They need to really use innovation at all levels to produce more globally competitive goods and services. The days in which Wisconsin could survive Wausau competing with Steven’s Point, or Milwaukee competing with Madison are over. We’re a global economy and it’s all about Wisconsin and this region, I would say from Chicago to the Twin Cities, what I call the I-Q Corridor, competing on a global basis.