A foreign delegation featuring 47 government ministers from 28 countries spent Wednesday touring Madison-area centers of technology and entrepreneurship, starting with a tour of healthcare software giant Epic Systems Corp. in Verona and moving on to many examples of UW-Madison-related innovations.
“It’s an opportunity to show off the Madison region,” said Paul Jadin, president of the Madison Region Economic Partnership, which authored the application to include the area in the three-state exchange tour highlighting sectors such as agriculture, information technology and biomedical devices. “We want to show what we’re doing with respect to our partnerships in economic development, and also with respect to the extraordinary research and development going on at the university.”
Organized by the U.S. Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration and other federal partners, the six-day exchange tour was to include 41 sites in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois, with Wednesday’s Madison-area events being day four. Known as the third annual Americas Competitiveness Exchange Tour, the first two tours were last year in Mexico and the southeastern region of the United States.
In a phone interview Wednesday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce Jay Williams said the exchange tours were an opportunity for delegates “to see first-hand on the ground” examples of successful innovations between government and private business, as well as plant seeds “to increase the prospect of trade and commerce” between the participating countries.
“Out of the sharing of ideas come actual, concrete actions and partnerships and investment opportunities,” Williams said.
Delegate Michael Singh, chief executive officer of the Ministry of Trade and Investments for the Belize government, said Wednesday before the Epic Systems program began that he hoped to hear ideas on the tour that would help his country create more jobs for the 70 percent of its population that’s now under the age of 25.
“We’ve got a mass of young people coming into the workforce,” Singh said, noting Belize was rich with natural resources but sparsely populated, with a small tax base and little practical experience in partnering government with academia and business to improve the economy.
So Singh said he relished the chance to see successful examples of such collaborations, singling out one he saw on last year’s tour of the U.S. Southeast, where he was impressed by the ability of government leaders in Greenville, South Carolina, to lure a large BMW plant, helping to revive the town’s depressed textiles-based economy in part by working with Clemson University to start a new slate of automotive engineering programs.
“I was inspired by that,” Singh said, noting he’d already taken steps to help set up a similar collaboration with the sugar industry and the University of Belize in Belize City, featuring a food technology incubator on campus and new classes that may lead to more sugar-industry jobs.
Another delegate, Helene Joncas, is a senior manager with Canada’s National Research Council, where she’s in charge of a program to invest $100 million in federal funds into 15 business incubators and accelerators.
Joncas said she wanted to pick up tips on new ways to make business accelerators work better, adding she’d already heard some good ideas during a tour stop at a food incubator in the village of Gays Mills on Tuesday, before the group arrived in Madison on Tuesday night.
“I was very impressed with what I saw,” Joncas said. “To me, what that demonstrated is that it’s all well and good to have government funding, but if you don’t have the creativity to make good use of it, it’s not enough.”
Over lunch on Wednesday at UW-Madison’s Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, the delegates were to hear from Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank and Williams from the Commerce Department.
The group also toured WID, heard a presentation by the Wisconsin Energy Institute and visited the UW Center for Dairy Research and University Research Park. At the park, delegates took a bus tour and heard from its managing director, Aaron Olver, along with business leaders from Cellular Dynamics, Exact Sciences and Epicentre Technologies, which are all park tenants.
For all the emphasis on university-related advances and innovation hubs Wednesday, little mention was expected of the $300 million budget cut for the University of Wisconsin System in Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget that university leaders have called devastating.
"If it comes up in our one-on-ones (with delegates), we'll certainly mention there's a budget dialogue happening," Jadin said Wednesday morning. "But you're probably not going to hear it any of the speeches."