Madison in the National Spotlight

Believe or not, Madison will attract national attention this year, and none of that attention will have anything to do with a Badger sporting event.

Thanks to the efforts of hundreds of academicians and business people alike, the Capital City will welcome two national conferences for the first time in 2011: the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) National Conference and the 19th Congress for the New Urbanism.

SBIR: Creating Bridges of Opportunity

First up, in April, will be the SBIR Conference, first announced by former Gov. Jim Doyle at last year’s Chicago’s BIO 2010 International Convention. The U.S. Small Business Association’s office of Technology administers the SBIR (and the STTR, Small Business Technology Transfer) programs each year, and its spring and fall conventions provide small, high-tech businesses access to representatives from 15 federal agencies which are required each year to dole out 2.5% of their research budgets in small business grants. That amounts to $2 billion in funding each year, driving home the importance of establishing connections between small businesses and federal contacts. This year’s SBIR Conference, scheduled for April 11-13, is more than a nod to the region’s thriving high-tech industry, it is a win-win for all industries.

Pat Dillon, the Northwest Regional Director at the Wisconsin Entrepreneur’s Network in Eau Claire, Wis., submitted the initial conference proposal to the SBA in 2009, but she said the conference would not have been possible without the enthusiastic support of hundreds of others. The sell seemed relatively easy. “There were so many good stories to tell here,” she said, “between Monona Terrace, the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, the Entrepreneur’s Network and a plethora of technology-based companies. It’s really been wonderful to see the excitement that’s been generated.”

At the center of that excitement is the University of Wisconsin’s new public-private beacon, the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. “This is a great opportunity to highlight innovation in Madison, in Wisconsin, and in the Midwest,” said Zack Robbins, Associate Director of Development and SBIR Conference Coordinator at the Morgridge Institute. “[We] exist to bridge the gap between discovery and delivery in biomedical sciences. We’re supposed to help companies cross the ‘valley of death,’ … in other words, help them get off the ground based on university research that creates jobs, therapies and medicine.”

Drs. Sangtae Kim, executive director of the Morgridge Institute and Dr. Laura Strong, President and COO of Quintessence Biosciences, are co-chairs of this year’s conference.

Key to landing the Madison event was an organized effort to collaborate with other Midwestern states, which Robbins said makes this year’s event a bit unusual. “Often, [these conventions] are developed and handled by one state. But the environment and funding sources don’t pay attention to state boundaries,” he said. “It’s important to have infrastructure set up throughout the Midwest to be successful. We can’t grow and compete with the costs unless we have a critical mass that’s regional, consistent, and coordinated.” The Midwest’s collaborative approach puts the region on a more even playing field, when competing for funding against the more populated right and left coasts. “We don’t have the population mass and frankly, the capital (investors) that you see concentrated in places like Silicon Valley, for instance,” Robbins said. But few would argue the area’s ability to compete in areas of intellectual innovation and discovery.

While the biannual SBIR convention typically focuses on government funding, Robbins said the Madison convention will expand on that theme by involving groups such as the Wisconsin Entrepreneur’s Network, BioForward, and the SBDC (Small Business Development Center). “Some entrepreneurs fund their companies through personal funds, some ask angel investors to help get them off the ground, some seek licensing, some receive venture capital,” Robbins said. In other words, government is just one source of funding.

Historically, SBIR conferences average 400 people or more, but organizers here are hoping for larger numbers this year. “Because [the conference] is in the Midwest, because of the regional collaboration we’re bringing, and because of the strength of this year’s program, we hope to attract between 850 and 1,000 attendees, including exhibitors,” Robbins said. “We’re reaching out to each of the state’s SBDCs and using our own networks to try to get entrepreneur groups from around the Midwest to participate.” Monona Terrace will be the host site, and area hotels are gearing up for the onslaught of arriving business innovators and owners.

“From my point of view, Madison is an excellent place to hold this meeting,” said Dr. Charles Cleland of the USDA, and the SBIR’s National Program Leader. “There is the University of Wisconsin, the state capitol, and excellent federal facilities,” he said.

So what are the chances of a repeat performance in the future? “That will depend on how successful we are,” said Robbins. “When the federal SBIR directors come from all the agencies and they see the quality of the small companies and entrepreneurs here, and the research going on here, they’ll be pleasantly surprised. We want them to come back.”

19th Congress for the New Urbanism

Two months later, in June, the 19th Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) blows into town. Established in 1993, CNU, a nonprofit organization based out of Chicago, promotes sustainable, bikeable and walk-able communities and healthier living conditions. It is an organization supported by Mayor Dave Ciezlewicz, who is co-chairing the event with Jane Grabowski-Miller, Project Director of Middleton Hills, and Vice President of Urban Design and planning for Erdman Development Group.

Like the SBIR Conference, CNU is a national conference making its first trip to Madison. The decision to venture to the capital city was made three years ago, and the mayor’s support was a deciding factor. Said John Norquist, former Milwaukee mayor and now President and CEO for the Congress for the New Urbanism: “Portland was in the running, but we’d already been there in 2000. Buffalo was interested, but they didn’t have their Mayor involved. That really made a difference,” he said. “Dave had been to our meetings a long time ago,” he said, admitting he’d known Cieslewicz for years.

Having a local tie always helps when trying to attract new conventions. “It’s hard, when you’re sitting in a room, competing against [other cities],” said Deb Archer, president of the Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau (GMCVB). But Madison was lucky. In addition to the Mayor’s interest, Andres Duany, considered by many as the leader of the new urbanism, was the developer of Middleton Hills, one of CNU’s first new urbanist projects. In fact, even a long-deceased John Nolen might have affected the decision to hold the conference here, according to Norquist, who said the intellectual idea behind Middleton Hills was Nolen’s plan for University Heights in Madison. “That’s another reason why we wanted to come to Madison,” he said, “because Nolen, a new urbanist, did a lot of work in Madison, and lived there. Though I’m not sure he’d like the road his name is on,” he laughed, saying Nolen would probably be happier if John Nolen Drive were a boulevard.

The new urbanist concept isn’t necessarily new, explained Grabowski-Miller (Middleton Hills/Erdman). In fact, she said, the idea of walkable communities existed long before World War II, when cars were scarce. But during and immediately after the war, the architectural emphasis became one of technical design, and as federal money became available to returning GI’s for housing, new developments, and suburbs resulted in the modern day concept of urban sprawl.

The “new” new urbanist movement, she said, is fundamentally against urban sprawl, preferring planned designs that emphasize smaller lots and higher density. When designing new urbanist communities, Grabowski-Miller said, the idea of a five-minute walk is often used a yardstick, meaning the average person living in a new urbanist development should be able to walk to their most common destinations (school, grocery) within five minutes. If it takes longer, chances are, the person will opt for their car.

Grabowski-Miller has been involved in the Middleton Hills neighborhood for 16 years, which she said is an example of infill within a suburb. And while the Congress will be an excellent showcase for the community, it is not the only example of new urbanism in town. She lives in Shorewood Hills, for example, where residents can walk to Whole Foods or a coffee shop relatively easily, and University Heights and the Monroe Street areas, as well as most downtown areas, are great examples of new urbanism. But overall, she said, Madison is one of the most pedestrian-oriented, walkable cities in the Midwest, with good planning principles in urban design.

The Congress for the New Urbanism has been held in Milwaukee and Chicago, but never here. In fact, Madison will be the smallest city to serve as host, and that’s just fine with Norquist (CNU). “Our best conventions have been in smaller towns,” he said, adding that this year, the Congress is especially interested in studying the food-to-table concept, and how agriculture and the city work hand-in-hand.

It’s a good fit, according to Archer (GMCVB). “CNU matches a lot of the sensibilities of Madison,” she said, “discussing how to use urban spaces, densities, transportation and development management, sustainability, bicycling and other ways to get around cities, and urban agriculture.” At the very least, she hopes a residual benefit will be to spark dialogue.

Hosting the event doesn’t come cheaply. CNU is a nonprofit organization, and the Congress is one of its main revenue sources, according to Grabowski-Miller, who, with Cieslewicz, sung Madison’s praises in a presentation to the Board of Directors several years ago. She and the Mayor have just begun to fund-raise in an effort to cover the $280,000 host fee, and will target developers, engineering firms, the building trades, and biking organizations. Thus far, Trek, Erdman Holdings, the City of Madison and Saris have signed on as sponsors, she said, though more sponsorships are available. Countless others in the business community are volunteering their time on committees to help make the event the best it can be.

When the last visitor leaves the city, Grabowski-Miller hopes people will gain a better understanding of what new urbanism is and how they can promote it and benefit from it, and, she hopes those attending will take with them something they saw and learned while here. And they’ll see a lot. Over 20 tours will be available, from bike rides to tours of Middleton Hills, Monona Terrace, the Farmer’s Market, and even Milwaukee. An impressive lineup of speakers includes Andres Duany himself.

Set for June 1-4, the Congress for the New Urbanism is expected to attract about 1,600 attendees including vendors, according to Archer, and will have an economic impact on the city of about $1.4 million. That’s “our sweet spot,” she said, saying the event is perfect for a city the size of Madison.

For more information on either conference, check out the following links:

  • The 19th Congress for the New Urbanism
  • The 2011 National SBIR/STTR Spring Conference

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