Lessons from abroad

Back from Puerto Rico, Michael Gay talks business, dairy innovation, and earthquakes.
0423 Editorialcontent Exec Profile

Three years after leaving Wisconsin for a job in Puerto Rico, Michael Gay is back and working with the Center for Dairy Research (CDR) at UW–Madison. His title — dairy science strategy/business development/capital/blue sky — means he’s leading CDR’s efforts to identify new funding and business development opportunities to drive innovation that supports Wisconsin’s agricultural industries.

Gay was the acting CEO at the Madison Region Economic Partnership (MadREP) when he accepted a position as chief business development officer at Invest Puerto Rico. We spoke with him recently about his decision to relocate, Puerto Rico’s economy, and reconnecting with his beloved farm.

Welcome back, Michael! Can you tell us how the Invest Puerto Rico position came about?

MadREP had gone through several changes, and while I was acting CEO, I was more interested in working on projects, not being CEO. Madison is the most resilient regional economy in the United States with a major research university with all sorts of technology and high-paying wages. We’re really blessed here, and many people don’t realize that. But at that point — call it a mid-life crisis — I was reflecting on my earlier life as a student living in Bogota, Columbia and researching my college thesis. I’m fluent in Spanish and recognized that I still had a desire to work in a developing country.

In 2019, Puerto Rico hosted the Americas Competitiveness Exchange (ACE) conference, which is the economic development, innovation, and entrepreneurial network of the Americas, and I attended. Madison had hosted the conference previously. Long story short, Invest Puerto Rico — a relatively new organization at the time established by the Puerto Rican Legislature — contacted me and over several interviews, I agreed to become its chief business development officer and moved.

What was your role there?

I created an economic development strategy and put together all the systems processes, using all the best practices that I knew from 30 years of doing this. I profiled all the assets, hired, and trained the staff to create all the systems and processes and protocols. Unfortunately, I greatly resent the impact COVID had because we could have done so much more.

What can we learn from Puerto Rico?

They have a very resilient population and an amazing industrial base throughout the entire country that works hard together. They have strong industry associations that are organized, connected, and listened to. Its economic development program is strong because it looks at a global economy and has a foreign, direct-investment focus.

Overall, I believe I made a mark during my stay. I gave it my best, applied all my career experience, and I’ve made colleagues and friends for life. I’d like to think Invest Puerto Rico will be better off from the time I spent there.

Did you have any unique experiences while there?

Well, I was on the 20th floor of a condo building in April 2020 when an aftershock from a January earthquake hit. It was my first earthquake and it freaked me out, but the building was built on springs and swayed.

There were hurricanes too, but many businesses would be and up and running a day later because they build redundancy into their power systems. Businesses don’t rely on the government at all. That’s the future of Puerto Rico, by the way. The entire transmission and distribution system is privatized. The goal is to be 100% off the grid or renewable by 2050 and they’re investing tons of money into that. Energy is a huge deal there.

Here, your partner in economic development might be MGE, Alliant Energy, or the cooperatives in rural areas, but when you get to Puerto Rico, you learn that the energy company is the government, and it’s bankrupt. These are things I didn’t know until I got down there.

You joined UW–Madison’s Center for Dairy Research in November. Tell us about that decision.

I wanted to work for a leadership team that was going in the right direction and innovating. CDR is building a $73 million dollar facility in Madison, and I wanted to be involved before its opening to help address the major issues critical to the dairy industry.

We do $1.4 billion in federally funded research every year, and most of that is foundational research critical to the knowledge base of humankind. Applied research is solving immediate problems, like, ‘I’ve got too much gas in my cheese,’ or, ‘my cheese is turning this color,’ or, ‘I’m getting this molecule and I don’t know where it’s coming from.’ These things need to be figured out.

So, CDR focuses on education, training, innovation, and technical support not just on the science side, but also on the business side. We help companies grow, innovate, succeed, be more productive, solve problems, get better prices, and make a bigger impact on rural America.

If we do this right, we can solve some of the problems the dairy industry faces, like getting farmers more money for their milk on these high-value products and ultimately stop the loss of farms. We’re down to almost 6,000 farms left in Wisconsin!

We have to embrace the circular economy and climate-smart technology. Every industry needs to be worried about it; every industry customer is demanding it. CDR can be a driver for that innovation to make sure all of our dairy farms and dairy processors are state-of-the-art and as green as they can be. I’m excited to be here because I think the potential is limitless and the impact of CDR can be global.

What’s your current focus?

I’m on the business development side of things, technology transfer commercialization, strategy, business development, and capital. Hopefully, five years from now, the Governor’s Business Plan competition will include at least three companies that are in the dairy science, crop science, or meat science space. Hopefully there are venture capitalists and angel investors that have invested in these technologies and are making money. They could be part of the judging to make the ecosystem stronger.

We have work to do, but there’s so much promise and opportunity and hopefully we will have the new facility in the middle of all of that, churning out ideas and innovations, scaling them to commercialization, and solving problems for the dairy industry, the food industry, and the beverage industry.

Outside of work, what’s keeping you busy?

I’ve re-engaged with my farm near Governor Dodge State Park. Sometimes I miss my farm more than my family and friends! I’ve worked in the concrete jungle, so the farm is my reprieve. I’ve planted 12,000 trees so all of the politicians have enough oxygen to pontificate — just joking! — and I’m restoring it to the oak savannah that it was in the 1850s. I’ve done stream bank stabilization on the river that
runs through my property. I’ve built trout habitat protection areas and a wildlife area.

This year, I want to relocate an apple orchard that’s getting crowded over by the oak savannah.

Eventually, I’d like families and children to come out to enjoy nature, hike, and explore the property.