February 10. 2014 11:17AM

New wings, new leaders are lifting Milwaukee

By John Torinus

  
When people think about the Milwaukee region, first to mind might be a muscular picture of heavy industry, or a great place to live given its location on the Lake Michigan and the inland lakes, rivers and rolling terrain of the Kettle Moraine, possibly a center of education or a lively locale for entertainment, sports and the arts. They may think of the daunting challenges of its central city.

But there is another profile that has come to the fore over the last decade, that of Milwaukee as a technology hub. Some may scoff, but the evidence is very real that our region can more than hold its own on the technology front.

Every advance in that arena has been the product of energetic and innovative leadership, the first requirement for any societal progress. Here are some bullet points that make the case, with credit to the leaders who are creating a new game plan for prosperity:

  • Academic R&D in the region passed the $300 million mark several years ago, led by the Medical College of Wisconsin, the University of Wisconsin –Milwaukee, the BloodCenter of Wisconsin and contributions from Marquette University, UW-Whitewater, MSOE and UW-Parkside.
  • UWM has stepped forward as big player in marrying academic advancements with the region’s business muscle. Mike Lovell and the two chancellors before him have led the way in redefining UWM a technology player in fresh water science, energy storage and management and advanced manufacturing. Lovell and his team have pulled in research grants from Johnson Controls Inc., General Electric, Rockwell Automation Inc. and We Energies.
  • Following Lovell’s concept of co-location of technical resources, JCI , with leadership from Mary Ann Wright, vice president technology, has put an energy lab right in the engineering school on campus, not far from its new division headquarters and lab in Glendale.
  • The fresh water technology strategy, launched by Rich Meeusen, CEO of Badger Meter Inc., and Paul Jones, former CEO of A.O. Smith Corp., is gaining a head of steam on the south side. A just-launched Global Water Center on the south side will be supported by UWM’s new School of Freshwater Sciences.
  • Information technology continues to grow as an anchor for the region, with big time growth at companies like FiServ, GE Healthcare (which just acquired Hartford’s API), Connecture, Zywave and FIS. There is plenty computer science horse power here, a reality brought home by the naming of Satya Nadella, who got his IT master’s degree at UWM, as the new CEO of MicroSoft.
  • Rockwell’s Keith Nosbusch, who also holds a UWM degree, and CTO Sujeet Chand have positioned Rockwell as a leader in what’s known as “the Internet of Things,” a world where web-enabled devices control big hunks of the real world.
  • UWM’s Innovation Campus is arising on a site next to the Medical College, and ABB is co-locating an R&D operation there. Other technology shops are asking for space in UWM’s Accelerator Building.
  • The new UWM Research Foundation, with leadership from David Glibert and Brian Thompson, have taken the university from essentially ground zero on patents eight years ago to 25 issued patents, 125 patent filings and more than 250 inventions disclosed. Faculty has launched six startup businesses. Catalyst research grants have brought in $13 million. And UWM is just out of the starting blocks as an R&D university.
  • The region is spawning one high-growth startup per month, thanks to support from BizStarts Milwaukee and financial backing from a seed fund and three early stage funds that didn’t exist a decade ago. County Chris Abele funded one of them. Cool! Executive Gale Klappa, We Energies’ CEO, has been the biggest backer of a burgeoning startup economy. More than 500 new jobs have been created since 2008 in 53 high growth startups.
  • The region’s biggest employer, Aurora Healthcare, has created a new research institute under the leadership of Randall Lambrecht and Kurt Waldhuetter. It will engage some 800 research projects in the hands of its 3600 doctors. It is just getting its arms around the breadth of its applied research, but Aurora has already invested in two promising medical ventures. Clinical tests are only a stone’s throw from a marketable product. Dr. Lambrecht pegs Aurora’s R&D at $25 million.
  • Despite ankle biting, Tim Sheehy of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce and Pat O’Brien of Milwaukee 7 have persevered with a regional strategy that revolves around export driver industries, also known as clusters. It takes time for bold, big strategies to gain traction, but definitive progress can now be appreciated in energy, freshwater, advanced manufacturing and food and beverage.
  • The other major clusters in the Milwaukee region are also technology based. That includes health care, insurance and investment management, all long suits that have helped Milwaukee avoid the severe, downward spirals of other troubled Midwestern cities.

In the context of slow job growth numbers for the Milwaukee region, there is a growing realization that moldy-oldy economic development strategies – real estate subsidies and out-of-state recruiting for companies – are not cutting it.

So the cadre of great leaders in the region is shifting gears to expansion of the great companies in our strong clusters – think NML and its $400 million investment downtown – and to a high growth startup economy married to those mature and emerging clusters.

This is a far better game plan, technology research plus industry muscle. That marriage paints a bright image for the region. Calatrava’s solar wingspread at the Milwaukee Art Museum is the right symbol for that new view of our region.

John Torinus is chairman of Serigraph Inc. in West Bend. He is involved with several business and civic organizations and is the author of "The Company That Solved Health Care." His blog appears regularly at www.johntorinus.com and is republished with his permission by BizTimes.

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