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Wisconsin a Land of Innovators, Not Just Cheeseheads

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in a 10-by-15-foot wooden shed in Milwaukee 110 years ago. It’s now the iconic American motorcycle manufacturer, with a global brand so strong that the pope has blessed its products, as I reported for The Business Journal Serving Greater Milwaukee.

Warren Johnson, a college professor in Whitewater, WI, invented the first electric room thermostat in the 1880s. The business he founded, Johnson Controls (NYSE: JCI), is now Wisconsin’s largest publicly traded company—$42.7 billion annual revenue, $34.5 billion market cap, 168,000 employees worldwide—and a world leader in advanced car batteries and energy efficiency products and services for buildings.

Not to mention the entrepreneurs who put Milwaukee on the map in the 1800s, brewers like Frederick Miller, Frederick Pabst, and Joseph Schlitz.

Some of Wisconsin’s most influential innovations in more recent decades originated in and around the state capital of Madison. James Thomson, a University of Wisconsin-Madison cell biologist, created the first human embryonic stem cells. Computer scientist Judy Faulkner founded a top electronic health records software company, Epic Systems, and became a billionaire.

I’ve only lived in Wisconsin for a few years, but from dozens of conversations with entrepreneurs, researchers, and tech geeks, I get the sense that the next generation of Wisconsin innovators believes that with a great idea and that good, old-fashioned Midwest work ethic, they too can leave a mark on the world.

Life sciences and biotechnology are among Madison’s strengths, with the state’s flagship university playing a key role in feeding the innovation pipeline.

Madison, WIUniversity of Wisconsin-Madison research and researchers have formed the nucleus for companies like Cellular Dynamics International (NASDAQ: ICEL), which was co-founded by Thomson and completed a $46.2 million initial public offering this year, and Propeller Health, which has raised more than $6 million from California investors for mobile products that help people manage chronic respiratory diseases.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee has long been the state’s economic engine, but like other Midwest industrial cities it is still trying to recover from thousands of manufacturing job losses in recent years, a broader trend that has particularly devastated the inner city. Advanced manufacturing will remain crucial for the region even as it evolves, but industry, academia, and government are beginning to form more partnerships and invest in clusters like energy, power and automation, and water technology.

I plan to keep a particularly close eye on the water sector and whether it can live up to the hype of some anointing it the Moses that could lead Milwaukee’s economy to the promised land in the 21st century.

To wit: The Water Council is a Milwaukee-based group that wants to make this region the world’s epicenter for water technology research, education, and economic development. Its accomplishments thus far include opening the Global Water Center in a renovated building near downtown Milwaukee, with tenants including water technology startups, research and development teams from more established companies like Badger Meter (NYSE: BMI) and A.O. Smith (NYSE: AOS), academic researchers, and government and support organizations. Partners in the effort include University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which in 2009 launched the nation’s first graduate school for studying fresh water, and University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, which created the nation’s first water business institute.

It’s companies and projects like these that helped convince Xconomy’s editors that we should be on the ground in Wisconsin. And even though observers won’t mistake Milwaukee or Madison for Silicon Valley or Boston, members of Wisconsin’s startup community would likely be the first to say they don’t necessarily want to be compared with anyone else—they want Wisconsin to forge its own innovation identity.

I’m thrilled to have an opportunity to follow that process up close and help drive the conversation about Wisconsin’s innovation economy locally and nationally, while asking the tough questions every step of the way.

Will Wisconsin raise its level of entrepreneurial activity?

How should it go about boosting the flow of venture capital, and is that really the main hindrance to growing its startup community?

Can Wisconsin foster a culture of embracing risk-taking and failure as much as success?

Who will step up and be Wisconsin’s William Harley, Arthur Davidson, and Warren Johnson for the 21st century?

I don’t know the answers—yet. But I do know that Wisconsin is much more than brat and cheese eaters, beer drinkers, and Green Bay Packer lovers. And by the time we’re done here at Xconomy Wisconsin, you will, too.

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