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This month, Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council discussed with us the importance of developing partnerships within the community and media to advance Wisconsin’s advocacy efforts and assist in the development, growth and success of technology-based businesses in Wisconsin.
Q: I understand you have some unique state partnerships that have helped to advance your state’s advocacy efforts, can you describe them?
We really do have some great partnerships and, in some ways, it’s hard to think who we’re not partners with – starting from the top; we are a partner with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, otherwise known as WEDC. In many states, it might be called a Commerce Department. They work with us a lot to try to do things in and around the tech sector. In the past, we have also been a part of organizing different coalitions around specific issues. A good example is the Wisconsin Growth Capital Coalitionorganized a couple of times, both in 2009 and 2013. It was essentially to help promote some changes in Wisconsin’s tax-credit laws as it applies to angel investors and venture capitalists. Operationally, that coalition comes and goes. It’s organized on an ad-hoc basis, as needed, essentially as a trade association and run separately from the Tech Council itself.
We have really good relationships with higher education in Wisconsin. In fact, leaders from independent colleges to the UW system to the tech colleges are represented on our board. I think our board itself is emblematic of the partnerships we’ve formed because it ranges from companies as large as GE Healthcare and Rockwell Automation and Johnson Controls down to relatively small emerging companies. It includes investors of all stripes, as well as education leaders and research leaders.
It’s all a part of our philosophy—we see the Tech Council as truly a statewide organization and we are very ecumenical in how we approach technology. You will see members of our board as well as our membership, coming from all facets of technology. It’s not just information technology, but the life sciences and advanced manufacturing, in some cases clean tech and natural-resources technology. We like to think that we really cover the tech landscape.
Q: How have you leveraged the media to keep the public and industry informed about your efforts? What is the most important piece of advice you’d give a Council when working with the media to further their advocacy agenda?
We work with the media in a variety of ways. We have partnerships with several online news organizations. One is called WisBusiness.com. We produce an online news show every two weeks that is in collaboration with them called WisBusiness: The Show. It features a commentary section, which are thoughts from me, an interview section, usually featuring somebody who’s in the news and in the business world, and then some other segments that are kind of newsy, as well.
We also publish two newsletters. Our main newsletter is through our Wisconsin Innovation Network, our broader membership arm. That newsletter is produced once a month and goes to 14,000 people. We have another newsletter, called the eVestor, which is produced for one of our other programs, the Wisconsin Angel Network, aimed at early-stage investors.
I spent a lot of time in journalism before coming to the Tech Council, and so I continue to write a couple of weekly columns for various papers. One is syndicated broadly around Wisconsin and some other places, and then one is very specifically for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which is the state’s largest newspaper. I also write in the Sunday section for the Wisconsin State Journal, which is the second largest paper. The target area I see for these columns is technology, business, and public policy. Somewhere in that triangle is where I always try to hit.
I have also been working with the Wisconsin State Journal for the past year in organizing business roundtables, which are interviews around a particular topic with business leaders.
We’re also pretty good at getting news releases out about things that we’re doing. I think it’s reached the point where most of the reporters, editors, and news directors in Wisconsin know that when they see something from us, it’s going to be interesting and credible. They may not always choose to run it, and that’s fine, but we want to remain on the radar screen so that they know that we’re active and are a big part of what’s going on in the news in and around technology and business in Wisconsin.
We also write other things that are done more on an annual basis or every two years. Our whitepapers, which are policy reports, include a variety of different things that we think are shaping the tech-based economy. Those go to the Governor, the legislature, and anybody else who will listen, every two years. We published those white papers this January in advance of the state budget session.
Every year, we also publish the Wisconsin Portfolio, which is really a compendium of all the deals and the angel investments that have been done in the state for that year. We have, from time to time, published special reports. We twice reported on the economic value of academic R&D in Wisconsin. In it, we traced the actual dollar value and jobs value of the entire R&D that is allocated on in the academic institutions here. That’s considerable, because the University of Wisconsin in Madison is perennially in the top five R&D universities in the country, in terms of dollars raised and spent.
Q: What kind of advice would you give to other councils when working with the media to further their own advocacy agenda?
It has to be a constant relationship. News reporters, editors, and news directors are unlikely to want to pay attention to what you have to say on an episodic basis. You should get to know them and find out what their interests are, what their deadlines are, what their various mediums are, and help them do their jobs. You obviously want to be credible. You want to be interesting, and you want to be truthful. We view ourselves at the Tech Council as being a credible and unvarnished source if there are some difficult issues to be addressed.
The other bit of advice I would say is to examine all different mediums. First of all, don’t think that newspapers are dead. They’re not. Some metro papers took a bigger beating than others, and there are some parts of the country where they’re struggling more, but in most states, newspapers are still the largest single source of information for most people, and they have the largest collection of editors and reporters of any medium. That’s not always true in television stations and radio stations, for example.
I also think television, radio, online, social media, your own websites—all of those are vehicles—can help tech councils get their message out in a variety of ways. We try to think about news across that spectrum and how it would play in different mediums. Sometimes, there might be something that lends itself better to a video approach than a print approach or a social-media approach. We try to think about that.
Q: Have you had many challenges in terms of advancing some of your technology policy, and what were they?
I think the challenges at the state level revolve around the fact that Wisconsin, in some ways, is a pretty traditional state in terms of its economic makeup. It’s obviously a big agricultural state. It’s a pretty big tourism state, but most of all, it is a really big manufacturing state. Any survey you look at would put Wisconsin somewhere in the top three states per capita for employment in the manufacturing sector. That is still true today despite the recession and despite a long downturn in some manufacturing sectors.
Now, our job, as advocates, often boils down to making sure policy makers understand that all of those sectors, while still very important, are not necessarily producing the jobs that they once did. Agricultural employment is pretty flat. Manufacturing employment declined steeply in Wisconsin from March of 2000, when there were about 600,000 jobs, to today, when there are about 460,000 jobs in that sector. The jobs that remain are pretty darned good because they’ve become tech-based jobs in many ways. We like to remind policy-makers that technology is leveraging our traditional sectors and creating new sectors, and it makes sense to pay attention to the new sectors in technology because those could be producing the jobs of tomorrow.
It’s much like Wayne Gretzky, the former hockey player, who once responded as to how he scores so many goals— he said, basically, “I don’t skate to where the puck is. I skate to where the puck is going to be.” We encourage policy-makers to skate to where the puck is going to be in this economy.
Q: Describe some of the legislative wins that the Wisconsin Technology Council has been involved with to foster growth and opportunity for the states technology sector?
In 2013, we advocated for creation of a state fund of funds, which is a state investment fund that would be matched with private dollars. The Governor and the legislature created a $25 million fund to be matched on a 2-to-1 basis. That’s being organized now and should be up and running very soon. That passed with huge bipartisan majorities. It wasn’t a close vote. It was 91 to 2 in the State Assembly and 29 to 3 in the State Senate.
Then in 2014, we advocated for passage of a bill that would allow the UW system to pursue classified research projects in a more facilitated way.—hat bill passed unanimously in both houses.
Going back in time, we were among those who pushed for the creation of investor tax credits in Wisconsin that remain in place today. Those took effect in 2005 and were updated in 2009, 2013, and there are some suggestions that we’ve made for improvements this year. The Governor has included some of those in his budget bill.
The creation of the Wisconsin Angel Network is a result of some advocacy work that we did. There were some changes in different business laws to help, in some cases, repeal some really old laws that discouraged investment. We helped push for some things over time that have been a part of workforce development in Wisconsin.
I would say the kinds of things we’ve pushed for fall into four main categories: investment capital, human capital, technology development, and infrastructure.
Q: How does participating in CompTIA as an alliance partner help your organization be successful?
The alliances we’ve formed with other state councils have made this experience more attractive and useful for us, in the sense that we definitely feel like we’re part of a larger network.
We know that we can turn to the folks at CompTIA and TECNA for advice and information regarding federal issues. We’re really good about tracking state issues, but not necessarily so at the federal level, certainly not to the depth of what CompTIA provides. I think that’s a really useful alliance for us.
I was also very happy to be part of CompTIA’s Fly-In in February. I visited 8 out of 10 of our congressional offices from Wisconsin. I think it was really good for them to hear about priorities that we collectively have and for us to hear from them as well about the kinds of things they’re dealing with in Congress.