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Bugher: University Research Park adding companies as Wisconsin's reputation grows

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

Most of Wisconsin’s economy may be in the dumps, with companies announcing layoffs almost daily and the state’s unemployment rate topping 9 in recent months.

But it’s been a very good summer for the University Research Park on Madison’s west side and its affiliate, the Metro Innovation Center, only a few blocks east of the Capitol Square.

Ten biotech and IT companies have opened offices at the two sites, with the latest one announcing plans to move from Boston on Aug. 12.

“The economy is challenging for most businesses in Wisconsin, but I’m quite pleased with our numbers and we continue to talk with other firms on a daily basis,” said Mark Bugher, director of the non-profit University Research Park.

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“We’re pretty bullish on the future,” he added. “Not only for the research park, but also its cousin, Research Park II, which we are getting ready to launch pretty soon.”

It will be built on 2,000 acres near the corner of Junction and Mineral Point roads on Madison’s far west side. He said the first companies could locate there in 2011 or 2012.

Bugher said the biotechnology sector is flourishing in the Madison area and the park is providing the infrastructure to help young life science and IT companies thrive.

“That’s not to say that it’s not hard for them to raise money in these times," he said. "But I think because many of them are focused on health care – and that’s very important to people across the country – therefore these companies are expanding.”

Bugher said two of the companies at the Metro Innovation Center are student-founded, something he wants to encourage.

“That’s a great sign that there is a vibrant and healthy climate on the campus at UW-Madison that inspires student entrepreneurship,” he said.

“The leadership of the university from the top on down continues to promote technology transfer as a vehicle for economic development and job creation in this region and that can be done through faculty, staff or even students.”

He said the Metro Innovation Center is mainly for computer scientists and engineers who are focused on medical devices and other technologies, as well as student entrepreneurs coming off campus who want to start web-based product company, computer or software design firms.

“These are the kinds of companies that we hope to see there and we’ve structured the layout of the facility to accommodate them,” he said.

He said the Metro Innovation Center, which currently has 10 suites, now has four firms, including one which transferred from the MG&E Innovation Center at the University Research Park because it liked the location.

Bugher said he hopes it will be filled by the end of the year, though he knows that may be difficult in this challenging economy.

With four biotech companies moving into the University Research Park, Bugher said that’s a sign that Madison has become something of a hot-spot.

“The reputation of Wisconsin and more certainly Madison as a place for high-tech companies in the life sciences is spreading across the country. Of course, that is something we’ve known, but it’s taken a while for other regions to recognize this.”

He said as firms run up against high infrastructure and personnel costs on the coasts, they will find Madison even more attractive.

“We have a world-class research university here that is among the best in the country and that attracts a lot of people,” said Bugher, who noted that Entrepreneur Magazine recently lauded the Madison region for its supportive environment for nascent companies.

Bugher said the park – which he called “ground zero for life-science companies – now has 115 firms and 4,000 employees earning around $62,000 a year.

“We are pleased to participate in creating jobs that pay better than the Wisconsin average because that’s one of our goals that we want to continue to pursue,” he said.

Even though some start-ups are having a hard time raising money, Bugher said none have have closed their doors at the park.

“We monitor our companies’ performances quite closely,” he said. “We can be quite flexible if they have a temporary cash flow issue or a dry spell in financing. We will work with them and encourage them because we believe we provide the tools to help to be successful.

“But by and large, the vast majority of the companies continue to pay on time,” he said. “Many of them are forward funded and have a plan that goes out a year or more beyond, so they are not quite as susceptible to the ebb and flow of the consumer-based economy.”

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