Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation

Warf News & Media

Seeking begins with an idea

WARF logo over graphic of two jigsaw style puzzles pieces interlocking with 3D cities on top of each
Photo of Zach Brandon
Zach Brandon
Photo of Tim Sheehy
Tim Sheehy

As business leaders of Milwaukee and Madison, we bet every day on the future of this great state. Our members are among the most innovative and dynamic businesses in Wisconsin and are creating jobs at a robust pace in important sectors like advanced manufacturing, bioscience, food production, digital technology and water.

Our economy is built on a strong foundation of industry and agriculture that has produced a high quality of life and made Wisconsin a great place to raise a family. That has been our brand for generations, but we are now becoming equally known as a place where innovation thrives.

That innovation and the state’s future talent flow from the University of Wisconsin System, forming the genesis of the Wisconsin Idea. The idea is based on producing seekers – lifelong learners, makers and problem-solvers who possess a relentless curiosity and are dedicated to taking the uncharted path forward. A plaque mounted on the front of UW-Madison’s Bascom Hall reads, “We believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.” Nothing defines the seeker better than that.

Seeking is the foundation of entrepreneurship and Wisconsin is an entrepreneurial state, exemplified by companies like Harley-Davidson, Kohler, Briggs & Stratton, Oshkosh Corporation and Culver’s. All of them were named after either their founders or the communities in which they were founded. It is a good bet that the next great entrepreneur will emerge from the UW System. Others agree, which is why UW-Madison ranks 14th in the nation for venture capital-backed entrepreneurs.

The UW System provides important connectivity among our regions.

While Milwaukee and Madison have distinct business communities, we are both working to build robust regional economies by driving advanced industry growth, Milwaukee through its rich tradition of manufacturing that is evolving through advanced technology and Madison through digital and health technologies. We can find commonality in research and development, with strong research institutions as significant contributing factors toward transferring technology into the private sector. A 2017 Atlantic Council report highlights the direct correlation between public investment in basic research and universities and economic growth, and we cannot take that for granted.

That sentiment applies not just to Milwaukee and Madison, but also to places like Green Bay, La Crosse and Eau Claire. We would venture that our counterparts in those areas of the state feel the same way. All these communities benefit from great universities and are also working to build vibrant regional economies. What happens in the rest of Wisconsin has a significant impact on Madison and Milwaukee, and vice versa. Strengthening collaboration among all regions of the state is a key step in achieving and maintaining success statewide.

These partnerships can leverage opportunities for business and talent alike. America Online co-founder Steve Case has visited Wisconsin multiple times as part of his Rise of the Rest tour that highlights businesses in non-coastal cities and invests in emerging startups. He has argued that the next generation of innovation in real-world sectors will occur in places you would not expect. Case is betting on places like Wisconsin, and we have proven to be a good bet.

With a low cost of living and high level of opportunity, if we get people to visit here, we can sell them on this state. Wisconsin used to be described as a place for “boomerangs,” a place where young talent would get an education before making a career elsewhere and then returning years later to start a family. Now Wisconsin is increasingly a place of acorns – a place where young talent takes root – and thanks to our world-class universities, those acorns do not fall far from the tree.

This is the right place at the right time, and we have the right Idea. The Wisconsin Idea. Bet on it.

Zach Brandon is President of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce. Tim Sheehy is President of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. This commentary is part of a series of articles organized by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). For over 90 years WARF has promoted a cycle of innovation through advancement of University research discoveries to the market and reinvestment in research at UW-Madison. Comments on this piece are encouraged at [email protected]. See warf.org or WARF’s Cycle of Innovation for more details on WARF.