Technology becoming the fifth ‘T’ in the north woods economic portfolio

The Lake Superior region’s economy will likely always rest on some traditional pillars — timber, transportation, tourism, and taconite ore — but technology is becoming a fifth “T” in the jobs creation lineup.

At the Aug. 8 Lake Superior Business and Technology Conference, a collection of communities, educational institutions, and business leaders will drill down into the economic bedrock of Ashland, a city of about 10,000 people on the shores of Lake Superior.

It’s an annual event organized by the local chapter of the Wisconsin Innovation Network, the Wisconsin Technology Council, and others in the region to focus on innovation, business attraction, and retention.

In the Ashland area, community leaders have decided against chasing shadows in business sectors where they have little or no foundation. Attracting medical biotechnology companies and researchers probably isn’t in the cards. Instead, leaders in Ashland and Bayfield counties are committed to building on existing strengths, such as a strong educational system, a solid telecommunications infrastructure, environmental entrepreneurism, and advanced manufacturing.

It’s an attempt to answer the question: What’s working in rural Wisconsin — and what’s needed? Every community in Wisconsin is different, of course, but here are a few statewide strategies that may help:

  • Promote rural Wisconsin as a “farm-shoring” location for tech-based companies. Farm-shoring, or the outsourcing of work to domestic rural locations, is gaining visibility among companies that would prefer not to ship U.S. jobs overseas. The cost of living, wages, and work ethic in rural areas can compete with the cheap labor touted by offshore providers, especially when other advantages are considered. Those factors include avoidance of cross-cultural confusion, transnational legal issues, some security problems, and time-zone differences. A nearby example is Duluth, Minn., which has attracted companies such as Citon, Saturn Systems, and Compudyne.
  • Encourage educational institutions to work together on workforce issues. It’s hard to live more than an hour’s drive from a four-year college, a two-year college, or a technical college in Wisconsin. In most of rural Wisconsin, one of each is within range. Those institutions can do a better job of collaborating to address workforce issues, which often trouble business owners in smaller communities. Cooperation with K-12 districts is also essential, as those schools can set the tone.
  • Improve broadband and cell phone penetration. Higher broadband penetration allows small businesses, which account for 60% of new jobs in Wisconsin, to expand to national and even international markets. It creates more opportunities for creation of businesses related to information technology, one of the fastest-growing sectors in the U.S. economy. Cell phone coverage may be just as important: A poor cell phone signal is at least an annoyance and often a deal-killer for most business location specialists.

The Lake Superior conference will feature presentations by business leaders and researchers, including Jim Hagstrom, an Ashland native who built Mirus Bio in Madison, later acquired by Roche. Hagstrom’s latest endeavor is “Blue Wave on the Bay,” a $1.5 million development on Ashland’s shoreline. Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch will also address the conference.

The afternoon will include presentations by the finalists in the 2014 Business Idea Contest and feedback from a panel of business professionals, investors, and economic developers. Conference attendees may vote for their favorite presentation. Finalists will be competing for $6,500 in prize money.



Arjun Sanga, the executive director of the WiSys Technology Foundation, spends most of his time looking for solid ideas on University of Wisconsin System campuses outside of Milwaukee and Madison. A veteran of technology transfer groups in Texas and Kansas, Sanga is bullish on the prospects for innovation in Wisconsin’s less-populated communities.

“One thing I have learned from the 18 years that I have been doing technology transfer is that a great idea can come from anywhere,” Sanga told The Show. “It’s just a matter of providing the right amount of resources and support to make that idea turn into something that [can be commercialized] and something that can be used by other businesses and people.”

It’s hard enough for a medium-sized city such as Madison or a recovering “Rust Belt” icon such as Milwaukee to grow and maintain an innovation-based economy, and even more so along Wisconsin’s less-traveled roads. That’s why communities such as Ashland are working hard to establish an image — and a reality — of collaboration.

Welcome to the new north woods, where efforts to redefine the economy involve companies large and small, as well as a broader community that understands the need to secure the region’s long-term prosperity.

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