By Tom Still
Good riddance to 2009, a bruising year for the Wisconsin and national economies; welcome to 2010, which can hardly be more punishing – and which may even bring renewed vigor to the innovation economy. Here are 10 trends to watch in 2010:
* Entrepreneurs as job-builders. Even as other economic indicators rebound, it will be months or longer before the unemployment rate falls and people get back to work. But the definition of “back to work” may have changed. More people may employ themselves as they pursue entrepreneurial ventures launched when their 9-to-5 careers blew up. There were signs in 2009 that more people were starting businesses in Wisconsin, and 2010 may indicate if a true cultural shift is taking place.
* Connecting more venture capital to Wisconsin. The state has a growing number of companies that have boot-strapped their way into early success, and some have found angel investors to speed them along. Wisconsin needs more venture capital, however, to turn promising young companies into bigger enterprises. A mix of private and public initiatives are aimed at generating more homegrown capital and attracting more outside investors, but they must swim against a tide of grim national venture capital trends.
* Building a “green economy” without scaring business. If any state should focus on breaking its reliance on oil, natural gas and coal, it’s Wisconsin, which holds no fossil fuels. The state has the research base to bring alternative energy sources and conservation technologies to market, but some in the business sector worry that regulations absent incentives will hurt long before they help. Look for a statewide conversation about how Wisconsin can position itself as a “green economy” state – without frightening manufacturers who can’t afford another hit.
* Jim Doyle’s legacy lap. Wisconsin’s governor isn’t running for re-election but his body of work will hover around the candidates vying to succeed him. There will be no shortage of critics, but Republicans and Democrat(s) alike will be compelled to explain how they will build upon Doyle’s record of support for the innovation economy. Wisconsin’s investor tax credits are nationally prominent, academic research and development spending has been sharply targeted, and an infrastructure to support entrepreneurs has been built. Look for Doyle to highlight that record in 2010 whenever he gets the chance.
* Stem-cell technologies finally come of age. The promise of stem-cell research was oversold in the short run, as most researchers realized it would be years before products and therapies reached the market. But its long-term potential to revolutionize medicine is likely understated. Wisconsin-based companies such as Cellular Dynamics International, co-founded by Wisconsin stem-cell pioneer Dr. James Thomson, have broken into important markets of late and more progress will follow. Wisconsin has an edge in this field. Let’s not lose it.
* Will ‘Big Pharma’ continue its shopping spree? Major pharmaceutical companies engaged in a frenzy of mergers and acquisitions over the last year or so, in part to make sure their R&D pipelines are stocked with promising drugs. That trend includes shopping for biotechnology therapies and diagnostics being developed outside their own labs – often in smaller companies such as those found in Wisconsin. While some worry about Big Pharma buying up technologies and moving jobs elsewhere, the recent pattern has been to keep facilities and workers in place.
* Making health-care reform work for Wisconsin. Single-payer advocates don’t like the Senate’s health-care bill because it doesn’t give the federal government enough power; most conservatives oppose it because they think it goes too far and contains too many vote-buying pork barrel deals. The fact remains that the status quo isn’t working and change is coming. The Senate bill could help Wisconsin in at least two ways: changing a 40-year-old Medicare payment disadvantage and protecting the intellectual property behind biotech drugs.
* Learning from the Mercury Marine deal. A combination of state, local and private incentives kept Mercury Marine’s manufacturing operations in Fond du Lac. While the state can’t afford to save every company that threatens to move, the same formula used to keep Mercury Marine could be used to attract expansions by larger high-tech companies, particularly in data and medical device fields.
* Educating tomorrow’s workers now. Most colleges and universities in Wisconsin saw enrollment surges in 2009 as more people realized education is the pathway to knowledge economy jobs. The trick is starting the education process earlier, which is why public and private projects are encouraging more middle- and high-school students to take science, technology, engineering and math courses. Some states have committed to STEM education in major ways; Wisconsin should do the same.
* Competing globally; collaborating regionally. Gone are the days when Wisconsin could prosper solely by competing with neighboring states, or through intrastate rivalries that pitted Milwaukee against Madison or Stevens Point against Wausau. Wisconsin must continue to compete on a global stage while seeking natural alliances close to home. Regional economic groups within Wisconsin are gaining traction, as are interstate efforts with states such as Minnesota and Illinois. Expect more of the same.
Here is to a happier, more productive 2010!
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.