Start Us Up

What the biotech world in Madison can learn from the high-tech world in Austin

High-tech is fast. Think mobile apps and 3-D printers. Biotech is slow—think cultivating stem cells and clinical trials. A light bulb went off when Madison Magazine columnist and economist Rebecca Ryan characterized a key difference between the two economic sectors this way. We were spit-balling about my trip to Austin for a story on their recipe for economic success. While its tech boom went bust for a time in the early 2000s, Austin, the eleventh largest city in the nation, bounced back and now leads the country in job growth.

To be fair, the larger Texas economy is humming along and Wisconsin’s isn’t so much, making the “why we aren’t Austin or Silicon Valley or Research Triangle” game a hard one, as I detail in my article. It’s also one that a lot of folks around here don’t like to play. Why do we want to be anything other than Madison, because Madison is pretty special, they ask.

That’s true. I moved here from the East Coast twenty years ago based solely on the city’s great reputation, and today my job enables me to explore and tout the best of Madison early and often. I’m raising a smart, civically engaged kid whose worldly childhood experiences at the ripe old age of twelve have vastly exceeded my modest, small-town upbringing. I’ve seen smart growth and dumb growth in my time here, but I’ve never been a fan of no growth.

Do I want us to be Austin? Of course not. Like any big city, they’ve got their share of problems—terrible traffic congestion, homeless people wandering the streets, and a strained water supply. I wouldn’t want to live there this month of the year, when July’s average high is 96 degrees; in Madison, it’s a more manageable 83.

Madison is a great city to live, work and play in for a whole heck of a lot of us, but if we don’t roll up our sleeves every day to feed and water what’s great and to work on what could be better, just like Austin did ten years ago, we’ll be the victims of our own success in maintaining the status quo. Resisting complacency is a message I heard loud and clear when I was in Austin. (In fact, it felt like a warning.)

Take the high-tech versus biotech economies for example. While Austin was growing and luring the now 4,500 high-tech companies to the region, Madison was pioneering stem cells, spinning off  life sciences and biotechnology companies from campus research labs, and building a case for venture capitalists to invest in the health care tools and treatments of the future. UW–Madison opened the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, Wisconsin Institutes for Medical Research and Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.

Austin opened its doors to the Samsungs and Freelance Semiconductors (spun off from Motorola in 2004) of the world and now that their reputation precedes them, they leveraged those investments to accelerate growth in an emerging biotech sector. On a much smaller scale, Madison is taking similar steps with high-tech, which is why a recent newspaper column panning the Chamber of Commerce for its ambitious idea to help the city become an innovation hub that’s recognized globally seemed so short-sighted and disappointing.

Wisconsin State Journal metro columnist Chris Rickert bemoaned the “constant cheerleading by business-backers and policymakers for start-ups, innovators and entrepreneurs.” 

Really? Since when did the notion of starting your own business become tiresome, even depressing. Years ago Pleasant Rowland launched a small company that grew up to be American Girl and her philanthropic contributions to this community are legendary. Judy Faulkner’s little start-up became Epic and her contributions to both health care and this region’s economy are extraordinary.

It’s not silly for this great little city to aim high. It’s silly not to.

Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine.

Find more of her columns here

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