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WisBusiness: Entrepreneurs’ Conference looks at tackling global economy

By Patrick Fitzgerald

The Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference brought business leaders, investors, and others to Milwaukee Tuesday, offering a variety of panel discussions focused on how state business leaders can sustain themselves in an increasingly globalized marketplace. The gathering continues today.

One of the conference highlights Tuesday was the naming of Vector Surgical as winner of the Governor’s Business Plan Contest. The company’s prize is $50,000 in cash and in-kind services. (See the WisBusiness story: Vector Surgical wins Governor's Business Plan Contest)

Dan Brink, an attorney from Reinhart, Boerner, and Van Deuren, led a morning panel discussion identifying trends on the horizon for southeastern Wisconsin companies doing business abroad.

The panel focused in particular on China and Brink isolated the automotive, technology, and aerospace sectors as the three areas that will dominate the Chinese economy in the imminent future.

"Over the next ten years, aerospace is going to be the biggest growth engine in the Chinese economy," said Brink.

Cheryl Perkins of Innovation Edge expanded on Brink’s China comments, pointing out that the red tape hampering the fluidity of Chinese and American business interests lies within our borders.

“Its very quick and their systems are very speed driven,” Perkins said of Chinese procedures. “The bureaucratic bottlenecking goes on over here.”

Whatever the current trends in Chinese business ventures, Brink said that it is almost impossible to truly stay ahead of what will happen in the Chinese markets.

“I’ve been to China 34 times, and I still believe I don’t know China.”

During the afternoon portion of the conference, a panel moderated by Greg Lynch of Michael Best & Friedrich explored how Wisconsin companies can tap into and become the center of the burgeoning biofuels market. He also lamented the lack of initiative shown by the state.

Panelists Eric Apfelbach of Virent Energy Systems and John Biondi from C5-6 Technologies delivered particularly harsh criticism of the state Legislature on the issue, taking it to task for a lack of political will that he said holds the state back from becoming a major player in the biofuels market.

"There is a lack of political will," said Biondi. "Not from the governor's office, but generally from the state Legislature."

Apfelbach and Biondi cited Kansas to illustrate of what they called Wisconsin’s self-defeating lack of imagination. They said they were surprised that Kansas, with a state government that largely rejects stem cell research and has battled over the teaching of evolution in schools, can have the vision to offer venture capital to attract biotech firms while Wisconsin’s Legislature continues to lag.

Biondi followed that “the short term question is, can we bring together the political will and money?”

“The state has to be more aggressive to reach that tipping point,” said Biondi. “At some point the state has to say ‘we’re going to win this thing and get it done.’”

Both panelists likened the potential for a booming biofuels market in the Midwest to what Silicon Valley meant for California 30 years ago, citing in particular Wisconsin’s inherent advantages such as its strength in the private sector, world-class research labs in the biotech core, and a consistently high-ranking educational system.

Yet despite a lack of venture capital and political deadlock, they expressed optimism that the state would shed its ignorance and capitalize on the spate of progress seen in areas such as Milwaukee and the Fox Valley.

“It doesn’t pay to be second,” said Apfelbach. “The investments they make will have effects many rings out.”

Biondi was just as direct about the necessity and prospects to turn the region into the braintrust of the biofuel industry, pressing the need to go beyond paying lip service and addressing the reality of the energy industry.

“As we shift from a petroleum to a biofuel-based economy, the Midwest has to be the center of it.”


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