08 Jun Innovation expert says Milwaukee has all the tools
Madison, Wis. – Dr. Lou Tornatzky, co-author of a white paper that spells out an innovation strategy for growing Milwaukee’s economy, said the city has all the pieces in place for an innovative economic transformation.
Tornatzky, who will present his ideas here during a July 10 luncheon program of the Wisconsin Innovation Network, said Milwaukee has even more in place than did some of the nation’s more notable technology locales when they began their economic renaissance. One of those areas, he said, is Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.
“The pieces are definitely in place in this region,” said Tornatzky, a nationally known advocate of linking urban universities with regional economic development. “If you look around the nation over the past 20 or more years where technology development has occurred, some of those areas have had less going for them than Milwaukee has right now.”
Tornatzky, who currently is with Select University Technologies, Inc., a technology business accelerator in California, is familiar with technology development in the southern United States. He once served as director of the Southern Technology Council, a 15-state consortium of government, industry, and university technology interests that was charged with raising the technological profile of the region.
He has been involved in bench marking the role of universities in economic development, and recalls the territory around Research Triangle Park, established in 1959, as a low-wage agricultural area that has been completely transformed. “They had much less to go on than Milwaukee,” he said, noting existing strengths like medical device manufacturing and research universities.
Papering over problems
The white paper that Tornatzky helped develop is titled “An Innovation Economy Strategy for Metro Milwaukee.” The study recommends spending $165 million over the next five years on several initiatives, including more funding for the Biomedical Technology Alliance’s Collaborative Grant Program. It also advocates hiring additional faculty at BTA institutions, establishing sources of seed capital for metropolitan Milwaukee, developing institutional technology transfer programs, and hiring a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant coach.
A long-term goal, one that would be pursued if resources were found for the aforementioned initiatives, is to develop plans for a shared campus of commercial facilities. Sharing the campus would be the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the Medical College of Wisconsin, Marquette University, the Milwaukee School of Engineering, and the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. All are BTA member institutions.
Ultimately, the effort is not about facilities, it’s about building a culture of innovation in metropolitan Milwaukee, said Lane Brostrom, managing director of TechStar, an organization that provides management advice to early-stage technology businesses. Citing the white paper, Brostrom noted that Milwaukee ranks 48th out of the nation’s 50 largest cities in per capita measures of the innovation commercialization index. Those measures include venture capital investment, Initial Public Offerings, and SBIR/STTR grants.
“How do you develop a culture of innovation?” Brostrom asked. “It has to do with a pipeline of innovation that originates in research institutions.”
One of the area leaders identified as a prospective backer of the white paper is John Byrnes, executive managing director of Mason Wells, a Milwaukee venture capital firm. Byrnes has proposed that metro Milwaukee develop a $250 million urban research center called the Milwaukee Institute. It would feature a state-of-the-art data processing center to support the commercialization of technology.
Brostrom downplayed any hint of competition between the shared campus and the Milwaukee Institute. He said a good deal of work has to be done before the region would need to move beyond existing facilities at Milwaukee County Research Park, the Medical College of Wisconsin, and the Center for Advanced Technology & Innovation (CATI) in Racine.
The leader of the state’s most prominent research park advised regional officials to come together on one plan for the research center, and exercise patience. “It’s important that the community come together on a single effort,” said Mark Bugher, director of University Research Park in Madison. “It’s also important the community resolve to have extreme patience in developing a facility.”
University Research Park is home to more than 100 companies, and houses its own innovation center for entrepreneurial firms spun out of University of Wisconsin-Madison research. The park has been developed to the point where Bugher now is planning a second campus in Madison.
Bugher said the development and construction of incubation facilities is expensive, and it takes time to develop them into successful ventures. He noted that University Research Park is more than 20 years old and has a positive cash flow, but historically such facilities don’t cash flow very well initially.
“If there is a lack of patience and political will, it won’t be successful,” he warned, noting that Milwaukee has more political “players” to please. “If they are in it for the long haul, it can work.”
In Milwaukee, the crux of the issue will be funding. After the bruising battle over a regional tax for Miller Park, trial balloons submitted for other regionally financed projects have quickly been pierced, and additional state funding for the Biomedical Technology Alliance has been caught up in the debate over human embryonic stem cell research.
Abbas Ourmazd, dean of research for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said any activity that would pump funding and focus, in that order, into regional entrepreneurial activities would be important. “We would certainly work in a complementary fashion with any regional entity focused on innovation,” he said. “The key problem has always been funding, not ideas.
“Unfunded initiatives discourage the participants, and detract from our credibility as a region.”