Take Five with Paul Soglin: Washington enlists innovation ambassadors

In May, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin and several Madison business executives attended a program in Washington, D.C. The presenters included Todd Park, chief technology officer of the United States, and Ari Matusiak, a Wisconsin native who serves as executive director of the White House Business Council. They are recruiting citizen “change agents” across the nation to serve as Presidential Innovation Fellows, and among the Madison-area recruits who attended the program were Kevin Conroy, president and chief executive of Exact Sciences Corp.; Jane Clark, chief operating officer of QTI Human Resources; and Kaleem Caire, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison.

Among the goals of the Fellows program is to spread important projects and concepts faster with the help of agile citizen teams. In this Take Five interview with Mayor Soglin, we explored some of the takeaways from the program, and how they apply to building Madison’s economy.

What are some of the takeaways from that program in terms of building a technology economy here, or perhaps using technology to better deliver government services?
One of the takeaways had little to do with the content of the meeting. Those of us who participated got to know one another a little better. We’re going to attempt to continue meeting to exchange information and see what we can do to improve Madison’s access to technology, to improve the business climate, even to improve raising capital for technology companies. The folks who attended the meeting came from a variety of areas, from finance, from traditional manufacturing, and from new technologies and real estate. It was a pretty broad base of both old and new companies.

Do you have an informal group or a city committee in mind?
We’re just informally getting together for lunch once in a while.

Have you mapped out how you will transfer this into action?
The idea at this point is to discuss the challenges that Madison businesses have, and then to use that information and share it with the private sector and with existing city committees. I’ll give you one good example. Small start-up companies are simply not interested in traditional real estate leases. They certainly are not going to sign a three-year lease, let alone a 10-year lease. They are interested in month-to-month. They are interested in flexibility. They are not necessarily interested in fancy space, and they are interested in space where they can grow. I think one of the takeaways is that if you want to go the route of renting to new technology companies, you don’t have to be an incubator but you do have to have flexibility and you have to do a little risk-taking.

Now for somebody who has got a significant amount of commercial space, one option for them is to look for someone willing to sign a three- or five-year lease, which means that commercial space stays vacant for years. On the other hand, if the owners are willing to take some risk, they can bring in one of these companies who may take only 2,000 to 5,000 square feet, and do it with a 30-day notice. If you get the right company, it could be someone who wants to sign a long-term lease and will want to expand, and you will also attract similar companies to your space. These are adjustments that the commercial real estate business has to make, given the changes in the nature of modern businesses.

Have you talked about this with local real estate people and, if so, were they receptive to the idea?
Yes I have. We won’t know if they are receptive until they start doing it.

Did you have any other takeaways from the program in Washington?
Another of the takeaways was the reinforcement of what we knew already – namely that in Madison and in Wisconsin, we have not done enough to attract venture capital. We will have to work with the financial-services industry, and we’re going to have to work both inside and outside the state, to encourage more capital formation and then investment in some of our businesses. When we look at small companies in the Madison area that gross $100,000 to $300,000 a month, we see a significant amount of the capital acquired from outside the state.

Do you have an opinion on the Legislature’s attempts to create a state venture fund to make early-stage investments in companies that operate in core Wisconsin industries?
The state made that effort, and it died in the Assembly. That is one area that needs some help.

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