Deron M. Curliss: Cry for capital will resonate at the Wisconsin Life Sciences & Venture Conference
Wisconsin's economy is closer to the page that organizers of the Madison Venture Fair envisioned in 1984, the year that work on a partnership between research scientists, government and the business community began to make technology an economic force.
Twenty years later, there are some familiar themes. Wisconsin is in a recession, like it was then. Manufacturing jobs are disappearing. While the state's venture capital position has improved, craving persists.
Deron Curliss, a partner who leads the Wisconsin technology industry practice group for the accounting firm Grant Thornton in Madison, says the Wisconsin Life Sciences & Venture Conference Nov. 3 to 5 at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center continues to be a vital event in the life of Wisconsin's economy. He spoke recently with WisBusiness.com editor Brian Leaf about the conference.
Leaf: So Grant Thornton is again a conference sponsor.
Curliss: We've been a sponsor for many years. We really do see this as our responsibility and commitment to the state, to be supportive of the venture conference.
Leaf: This is the 20th year of this conference. Why has this one kept going?
Curliss: It's had tremendous support within the community. People realized the potential that was here in the state, with the research institutions, the companies here that have fantastic technologies. It has the support of professionals working in the city, state government, the chamber of commerce. Certainly Bob Brennan (retiring president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce) was one of the initial founders of the conference and a supporter. It ultimately gets back to the fact that people see technology-based businesses as the future of the state. They provide the high paying jobs and quality of life that people expect and want in the state.
Leaf: Back then the cry was. "We need more venture money." Today the cry is, "We need more venture money." What has changed between cries, now and then?
Curliss: It is the same cry, but it's not just about venture capital. When people talk about what it takes to start a tech-based business, you have to have the technology. You have to have the research that is going on. You certainly have to have the money, but you also have to have the entrepreneurs. And once companies start scaling up, you have to have the experienced management teams to take the companies to the next level. So it's not just venture capital.
I will say that venture capital is certainly getting better. The money the State of Wisconsin Investment Board allocated to Baird Venture Partners and Frazier Technology has provided a boost to the state. There are various initiatives going on. Even though it isn't where it needs to be, we still lag behind Minnesota and Illinois, it is definitely improving.
Leaf: When this conference started 20 years ago, those were a lot like cries in the wilderness. When you look at 1984, manufacturing was still king. It was coming out of a recession then, but I think everyone was thinking then of manufacturing as the engine that was going to take Wisconsin into the future. And it did.
Curliss: Manufacturing and agriculture and other industries are still a huge part of the economy, but I think that the state should focus on where the jobs will be coming from in the future. They will be coming from tech-based, tech-driven businesses and new technologies within existing businesses. That's what's going to drive the economy in the future. We have to be competitive. The manufacturing jobs are leaving the state; they're leaving the country. The economy has to reinvent itself to find the companies that are going to drive the economy in the future.
Leaf: How important is branding the state in this effort, to come up with a Wisconsin brand that will rival the others?
Curliss: You look at our historical industries; they have been agriculture, manufacturing, timber, the pulp and paper industries. Those are still big industries in the state. But if we're looking out 20 years Wisconsin should be very interested in branding. Does a company want to be remembered for the past or are we going to focus on the future and where that company is going 20 years from now? But it's hard to make that transition and cultural shift, especially when those industries are still the dominant industries in the state.
Leaf: Wisconsin is only one part of the country trying to develop this sector. Everybody else is trying to do it, too. Everybody seems to have the same problems.
Curliss: Yeah, I attended a national biotech conference in Washington this past June. It was amazing to see the efforts states, counties, cities, countries, are putting into life sciences and the biotech industry. All of them are putting a lot of money into these initiatives. Wisconsin needs to do everything it can to keep up. We have such a great opportunity, with the research institutions, the existing companies. We really do have tremendous opportunities to move forward. But there is competition.
Leaf: What is our edge in this competition among the regions? Maybe that's rhetorical. Is the University of Wisconsin enough?
Curliss: It is a good question. We have the No. 3 research institution in the country, based on federal expenditures. We have the Medical College of Wisconsin and Marquette University in Milwaukee. Is it enough? I don't think it is. It has to be a collaborative effort of state government, city country governments, professional service providers who are focused on the industries. And the leaders in our various communities across the state need to really get behind this and push it forward. Wisconsin has a great quality of life. We've done a fantastic job of creating a great place to live. That does attract talent and that's essential, but we really need everybody working together to make this happen or it is not going to happen because of the competition.
Leaf: So how does the Venture Conference fit in?
Curliss: It is a forum for our best and brightest companies to present their business plans and really to get the word out about their business models and their technology is to the investment community. The Venture conference is a regional conference. It has transitioned to that from a Wisconsin conference. If you look at the companies that are presenting, there is good diversity among the seven state region. But a large number of those companies are from Wisconsin.
It's a regional event to better attract the investment dollars, to better attract the venture capital firms, the angel investors, where they really do see the best companies in the region.
The WisBusiness Interview
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