Wisconsin a Land of Innovators, Not Just Cheeseheads

12/16/13Follow @XconomyWI

Wisconsin: the land of beer, brats, and, yes, cheese.

Ask a random person on the streets of New York or San Francisco what they know about Wisconsin, and that might be the sort of answer they would give. In my experience, folks on the coasts sometimes can’t even point out Milwaukee or Madison on a map.

Wisconsinites are sick of hearing the same old stereotypes about their state. Even this native Michigander grows tired of it. In my young career as a reporter in the Badger state I’ve seen firsthand its pockets of innovation, from my time reporting on business and healthcare in the central Wisconsin city of Marshfield—population 19,000, but home to a well-respected research and medical institution, Marshfield Clinic—to covering manufacturing and technology in Milwaukee, the state’s largest metropolitan area and economic engine. (The above photo depicts the renowned Milwaukee Art Museum facing east over Lake Michigan.)

At a certain point, the question becomes: Is Wisconsin doing enough to establish itself firmly in the national discussion on innovation?

We here at Xconomy believe it warrants inclusion. As editor of Xconomy’s new Wisconsin bureau, I plan to dive deep into the state’s innovation economy, shining a spotlight on the interesting stories that deserve to be told. I will also examine the weaknesses holding the region back from being mentioned in the same breath as America’s foremost innovation hubs.

Wisconsin has its challenges. For starters, it ranked third-worst nationwide for entrepreneurial activity per capita in 2012, tied with Michigan, according to an April report by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

One of the obstacles cited by local entrepreneurs, investors, and trade groups is a lack of available capital. Wisconsin has built a robust angel investment environment over the past decade, aided by a tax credit and a statewide angel network, but venture capital remains scarce.

Various government-backed VC proposals totaling between $200 million and $400 million failed to pass the state legislature in recent years, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. This year, state lawmakers approved a bill to invest $25 million in a venture capital fund that would leverage another $50 million in private VC money.

The legislators who wrote the bill admit that pot of money is just a start. But let’s not kid ourselves; those tens of millions are dwarfed by funds on the coasts that number in the billions with a “b.”

Starting a business inherently brings risks, so I also wonder how much the conservative Midwest culture holds back startup activity in Wisconsin. Entrepreneurs and even some investors have told me they wish this state embraced failure more, instead of treating like pariahs the entrepreneurs with failed startups on their resumes.

In any case, this Midwestern state isn’t in the same league as hotbeds on the coasts when it comes to startup formation and mega-investment deals. And Milwaukee at times suffers from an inferiority complex born of frequent (and perhaps unfair) comparisons with its much larger neighbor 90 miles south, Chicago.

But the Badger state has a strong history of innovation that continues today.

Consider this: Harley-Davidson (NYSE: HOG) started … Next Page »

Jeff Engel is the editor of Xconomy Wisconsin. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @XconomyWI

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