Panelists agree state should do more to support startups, research

Panelists at a recent discussion on research investment agreed the state should do more to support startups and related research.

“We’re not the job creators; we’re not the ones doing the research, but what we can help with is the climate,” Sen. Alberta Darling said Friday at a event in Wauwatosa. “We have to create a better climate for these connections.”

Legislators question why the state should fund research and development or other initiatives for startups, Darling said, when there are other priorities such as education, Medicaid and corrections.

“But if we can show there’s a definite asset to doing that for the taxpayer, there’s a payback in terms of higher wages, more jobs, greater economy,” said the Republican co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee. “All ships will rise.”

Laura Strong, founder and CEO of Propagate Health in Madison, says she and others in industry think about the concrete outcomes of research investment.

“In an academic environment, you get to that point where you have this really interesting thing, and then what do you do with it?” she said. “How do we better connect people in industry who need new products, who need to transform health care — how do we connect those people to what the researchers are doing?”

Wisconsin Technology Council President Tom Still estimates about $1.7 billion is spent on public research in the state each year, about $1.1 billion of which is at UW-Madison. He says the Medical College of Wisconsin makes up about $300 million, while UW-Milwaukee makes up $60 million.

Most of those dollars come from federal sources, and Still notes there is “limited” state funding for research other than some supportive initiatives. Some private funding comes from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which serves UW-Madison.

UW-Milwaukee also has a research foundation, and the WiSys Foundation works with the rest of the four-year UW campuses.

Deyang Qu, a professor studying battery technology at UW-Milwaukee, said the state could make a profitable investment by funding renovations to scientific facilities.

“Lots of our infrastructure is really aging,” he said. “State money invested in those I think will be doubled or tripled, because the money invested into a student will be better allocated. And also the student will feel that the state is very serious about access to science and technology.”

Qu believes this will incentivize talented students to stay in the state after graduation.

During the audience question portion of the event, another idea was floated with the same goal. Terry Shelton, vice president of curriculum for the Wisconsin Academy of Global Education and Training, says young people might be more likely to start a business if they were guaranteed health insurance.

“These young folks, they say one thing that would help them is to give them some health insurance, so they can go do some of these things,” he said.

Darling said the research triangle in North Carolina shows the potential of the triangle in Wisconsin formed by Eau Claire, Milwaukee and Madison. She says her vision could include the Appleton area.

The Tech Council’s Still pointed to some challenges standing in the way of commercializing breakthroughs such as aging facilities, and time-consuming development timelines. But he thinks Foxconn’s impact alone will “dramatically ramp up” research in the state.

“That’s going to be a really interesting catalyst for what’s going on in technology,” Still said.

Darling said the state will need to “key up our education system” to fill the opportunities presented by Foxconn’s $10 billion planned investment in the state. She highlighted the importance of higher education being “nimble,” and responding to shifting workforce needs.

“If we don’t see this super highway between Madison and Milwaukee as a tremendous opportunity for innovation and success, I think we’ll miss an opportunity,” she said. “I’m optimistic we won’t miss that opportunity.”

Qu has seen Wisconsin’s economy adapt dramatically in the past three decades, from traditional heavy industry into advanced manufacturing. That refers not just to screens, but to health tech, pharmaceuticals and electronics, he said.

“How can we train students for that new industry, for advanced manufacturing? I think that’s one of the challenges,” Qu said.

Listen to audio from the event here:

See a recent op-ed on supporting innovation, co-written by Sen. Darling and UW-Madison Emeritus Professor Rock Mackie:  


–By Alex Moe