Strength, diversity of Wisconsin’s innovation economy on display at Early Stage event

With the Wisconsin Legislature huddled in the Capitol to debate ideas for improving Wisconsin’s economy, it’s only fitting that some of the companies actually shaping the state’s future will be gathered two blocks away next week.

The annual Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium, which matches up-and-coming companies with potential investors and other partners, will be held Wednesday and Thursday at Madison’s Monona Terrace Convention Center. It will serve as a reminder that Wisconsin’s innovation economy is cranking out ideas that can compete anywhere.

Nearly 40 emerging companies from a mix of industry sectors – biotechnology, software, advanced manufacturing, medical devices, and consumer products – will tell their stories to angel and venture capitalists from across Wisconsin and beyond. The conference also features a number of hands-on panel discussions and speakers such as Rich Bendis of Innovation America, one of the nation’s leading start-up catalysts.

But the true stars of the event are the companies, which will show up fingers crossed that investors will pay attention to what they have to offer – and actually have the money to invest.

Finding investment dollars for young companies is one of the nagging problems in Wisconsin these days, despite the rise of an innovation economy driven by world-class research, strong talent, and a culture that increasingly values entrepreneurism.

While Wisconsin has one of the strongest networks of angel investors in the country, it routinely lags most states in venture capital investments. These are private equity investments that typically bring companies beyond the seed and start-up stages and into growth stages that produce enduring economic value and jobs.

Seeding the clouds to attract more private venture capital is an idea that has attracted bipartisan support in the Legislature, but lawmakers now have to wrestle with the fine print of how that can be accomplished. If they want firsthand testimonials about the need, however, they could do no better than to talk to a cross-section of entrepreneurs who want to build their companies in Wisconsin.

The conference lineup includes a lot of what one might expect in a state renowned for its medical technologies. Companies on hand for presentations are developing novel drugs or treatments for cancer, schizophrenia, and diabetes; better diagnostics for viruses; advances in ultrasound technologies; and new techniques to relieve muscle pain. Two presenting companies believe they have found a better way to produce a commonly used medical isotope, molybdenum 99, which is at risk of encountering shortages worldwide.

The conference also includes companies that represent other sectors of Wisconsin’s tech-based economy – sectors that sometimes get overshadowed.

Companies selected to pitch next week include:

  • A water purification firm that may hold the key to safe extraction of natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” of shale rock.
  • A company that converts customers’ music from CDs into digital files that can be downloaded, sold, and traded.
  • A company that has produced a new energy drink under the curious name of “Flatt Cola.”
  • Two firms involved in producing construction materials that can be used in developing nations, to cope with natural disasters, or to make use of wood that would otherwise go to waste.
  • A company that has produced a flame-retardant material that doesn’t harm the environment.
  • A software firm that has already sold one popular mobile video game and will soon release another.
  • A company that has developed nano-crystalline diamond coating technology for use in manufacturing and other industries.
  • A campus-based company that has developed an online way to change how people give and receive confidential peer support.

Wisconsin entrepreneurs are producing marketable ideas, but getting those companies off the ground isn’t easy. It takes perseverance, the right management and scientific talent, a community of peers who understand the challenges facing startups, and enough money to grow.

With the debate over venture capital coming to a head in the Capitol, Exhibit A for why action is urgently needed will be on display next week a short walk away. The Legislature shouldn’t pass a venture capital bill to benefit investors, but it should do so to propel companies that will provide tomorrow’s jobs.