Lofty plans vie for cash: Leaders push ideas for urban research center
(Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Jun. 2--Two competing proposals to create an urban technology research campus in Milwaukee that launches start-up companies have begun to circulate among civic leaders in recent weeks, marking a flurry of new economic thinking in a city with a short tradition of university-driven research and entrepreneurialism.
"We need a working innovation center that's focused on the commercialization of technology," said John T. Byrnes, executive managing director of Mason Wells, a Milwaukee venture capital firm.
Byrnes proposes a 10-year effort to build a $250 million Milwaukee Institute that he calls "a new, independent research institution that will combine scientific research and corporate technology development in a unique organization, unlike anything else of its kind."
It would feature a chief scientific officer, its own fund-raising foundation and endowment, and an advanced data-processing center to support its stable of young companies. Byrnes envisions state-of-the-art facilities, meant to lure talent and commercial research projects, on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs grounds near Miller Park.
A more cautious plan emerged almost simultaneously from TechStar, a local organization that lends management support to early-stage technology companies.
TechStar aims to stimulate collaboration among existing academic research institutions such as the Medical College of Wisconsin and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee while recruiting talented researchers to the city. If those steps speed up the city's entrepreneurial growth engine, TechStar would take the final step and begin work on a shared tech campus, culminating a five-year, $165 million plan.
"To build buildings using the available resources, without building the entrepreneurial and research culture, I think that's a mistake," said TechStar director Lane Brostrom. "We don't have the critical mass of resources yet, so the question is: Where do you start?"
Both Byrnes and Brostrom are seeking political support for their respective plans. Given tight public finances, both have potential to stir controversy with their ambitious spending plans. Authors of both plans met last month in an effort to reconcile their aims.
Assuming that a compromise can be agreed upon, the question remains whether the plan can complement other efforts under way in Milwaukee, or whether it will overreach the city's capacity to generate patents and start-ups.
"The more of these organizations we have, the better it will be. It will raise the profile of the city," Byrnes said.
UWM has embarked on a $300 million effort to expand its research and business incubation efforts along the lines of Stanford University in California or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.
Meanwhile, the Medical College is nearing completion of a new research building. An investment group called Silicon Pastures is at work to import MIT-style networking, which it calls Innovation Mondays, to coax researchers out of their labs to network with investors and entrepreneurs.
UWM Chancellor Carlos Santiago has not seen the Mason Wells proposal, which Byrnes calls a draft. But Santiago said he supports all research infrastructure that Milwaukee can sustain. "It complements what we're trying to do," he said.
Byrnes' "Project Enterprise" departs from the academic model that has worked in major university towns such as Atlanta, Boston and San Francisco.
"I want to build an organization that's designed by business for business, as opposed to an academic thing," Byrnes said. "It's not encumbered by the history of academic research. It would have the freedom to try to make money."
Most funding for the Mason Wells campus would come from private companies and federal grants. To get the Milwaukee Institute off the ground, however, Byrnes floated the idea of a regional sales tax, said Tom Hefty, an economic development activist who is familiar with both proposals.
TechStar, by contrast, relies on a consortium of five existing institutions. In addition to UWM and the Medical College, they include Marquette University, the Milwaukee School of Engineering and University of Wisconsin-Parkside. Jointly, they collaborate under the banner of the Biomedical Technology Alliance, creating economies of scale that the five schools alone could not muster.
The BTA has solicited 25 research grant proposals from the five schools and disbursed grants to 11 of them. To qualify, each project needed to show commercial potential and jointly conduct research at a minimum of two of the schools. The state government contributed half of the $1 million for the BTA grants and the five schools provided the rest.
Proponents on both sides agree on what Milwaukee is missing.
Cities with a strong research-driven innovation economy -- unlike Milwaukee -- can point to a chain reaction that begins with researchers and their ideas; risk-friendly investors who seed those projects in their earliest stages; entrepreneurs who incorporate the ideas into start-up firms; and venture capitalists who invest at a later stage and help those fledging firms grow into public companies.
"This deal flow continuum is disconnected in Metro Milwaukee," TechStar wrote in its proposal.
Mason Wells, which presides over a half-billion dollar investment portfolio, brings a critical element of venture investment and risk.
Wisconsin lags by wide margins the volume of venture capital investment on the East and West Coasts, which in turn has been essential in their research-driven growth strategies.
"There's nothing wrong with the Wisconsin economy," said Byrnes, who grew up in Walworth County. "I'm a native, but I just don't think like everyone in Milwaukee does. Everyone is hung up on where the money comes from. If you have ideas, the money will come."
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