IWisconsin’s North Woods: building the base for a tech-based economy

ASHLAND – Determining how technology can help drive a community’s
economic future often begins with an honest assessment of what doesn’t
make sense.

Unless a community or region has a major medical research institution in
its backyard, it simply won’t become the nation’s next biotechnology “hot
spot,” even if free land and tax incentives are thrown on the table. With
40-plus states, including Wisconsin, scrambling to find the right niche
within the growing medical biotech market, new players must proceed with

But many communities have other foundations upon which to build a
tech-based economy. That exercise is under way in Ashland, where the first
Lake Superior Region Technology Conference will be held Aug. 10 at the
Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College campus.

Ashland sits at the foot of Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay, a
picturesque area within easy reach of Superior-Duluth, Minn., Bayfield,
Hayward and Hurley-Ironwood, Mich. A somewhat longer drive connects the
region to the Twin Cities, Eau Claire-Chippewa, Marshfield and Wausau.
While predominantly rural in character, Ashland isn’t isolated. Its
economy has been historically based on logging and paper products, but
it’s also home to call centers, health care institutions, tourism, a
private college and light manufacturing.

Like any community in rural Wisconsin, Ashland wonders what will happen
next to its economy. It has some attractive assets – a well-educated
workforce, strong high-speed telecommunications capacity, and a quality
life style – but it must leverage those assets in ways that will create
more high-paying jobs.

Two years ago, leaders in the Chequamegon Bay chapter of the UW Alumni
Association invited the Wisconsin Technology Council to hold its board of
directors meeting in Ashland. That led to the creation of a chapter of the
Wisconsin Innovation Network, the Tech Council’s membership subsidiary,
and the beginnings of a networking and fact-finding process.

The latest step is the Lake Superior Region Technology Conference, where
participants won’t hear discussions about bringing the medical biotech
economy to the North Woods – but they will be able to attend workshops
designed to build on existing economic sectors.

With crude oil prices hovering at $75 per barrel, bio-energy has moved off
the back burner to the forefront of corporate planning and policy
discussions. In some parts of the country, corn-based ethanol and
bio-diesel are emerging industries; in the North Woods, might wood
byproducts and switchgrass production lead to the state’s first
cellulose ethanol plant? That’s one of the goals of a recent statewide
report on bio-energy and bio-products, and it will likely be discussed in

Panels on Forest Products will feature the director of the UW-Green Bay
Paper Technology Center and a representative of the U.S. Forest Products
Laboratory in Madison. Discussions on Bio-Energy will include experts who
have worked on alternative energy systems and the Governor’s
Consortium on Bio-Based Industry. The panels on Organic Farming and
Aquaculture will include entrepreneurs, academics and the president of a
leading market-based conservation group. Workshops on light
manufacturing will include private company executives and the director of
the Northwest Wisconsin Manufacturing Outreach Center.

A closing panel will feature the UW System’s expert of federal funding,
the director of the Wisconsin Angel Network, the general manager of WiSys
Technology Foundation, the director of the Center for Advanced Technology
and Innovation and an expert on intellectual property law. They’ll talk
about possible next steps for the region.

Tech-based economies aren’t just for big cities. With the right mix of
resources, both natural and man-made, smaller communities can find their
place in the market. In northwest Wisconsin, the process of determining
“what’s next?” is under way.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former
associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison. To learn more
about the Aug. 10 Lake Superior Region Technology Council, go to