Wis. lawmakers back $25 million for startup fund

Wisconsin lawmakers introduce bill backing Walker's plan for $25 million startup fund

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- A group of state lawmakers put forward a plan on Wednesday to help fund startups and companies that are growing in Wisconsin.

The bipartisan legislation sponsored by Republican Rep. Mike Kuglitsch, of New Berlin, would put $25 million into a fund that invests in agriculture, technology, energy and other targeted industries. The fund also will include $50 million in investments from private sources.

Lawmakers and business owners said at a news conference that Wisconsin has lagged behind other states in creating private-sector jobs and the $25 million would provide initial funding to boost economic growth.

"This bill will not only improve our job growth," Kuglitsch said. "But more importantly, it will keep our best and brightest minds in Wisconsin."

The $25 million was already included in Gov. Scott Walker's proposed budget. Under the proposal, the State of Wisconsin Investment Board and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. would hire a fund manager to attract private investments and direct them to young companies that are in their early growth stage and have a large potential.

The state provides oversight for the fund but does not manage it.

Walker and the Republican-controlled state Legislature created WEDC in 2011 to lead job-creation efforts for the state as Walker promised to create 250,000 private-sector jobs over four years.

Part of their job-creation agenda has been to bolster the amount of money, known as venture capital, available to help new businesses grow in the state.

But reality shows Wisconsin is still quite far from reaching that goal, as the state has recently dropped to 44th in the nation for creating private-sector jobs. Kuglitsch noted that states with similar workforces, such as Indiana and Minnesota, have had more venture capital investments than Wisconsin in the last five years.

Toni Sikes, co-founder of the Art Commission, a Madison-based firm connecting working artists, said many startup companies left Wisconsin for the East Coast or Silicon Valley over the years because they couldn't find enough capital in the state.

"Young companies hire people," Sikes said. "The more we grow, the more people we hire."

Janet Phillips, CEO of Waukesha-based medical device developer Vector Surgical, said even a small amount of help is critical to any startup companies. As an example, Phillips pointed out her company benefited from multiple state grants and low-interest loans when it first started in 2007. The company now sells operating room products to more than 3,000 hospitals among 48 states and also in Canada and Europe.

The legislation also drew concerns from two Democratic lawmakers who said it is not enough to guarantee long-term return on investment in Wisconsin.

Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca of Kenosha, along with Sen. Julie Lassa of Stevens Point, announced they are also introducing separate venture capital legislation. Lassa, a longtime supporter of efforts to boost venture capital, said Kuglitsch's proposal doesn't require companies who received funds to have offices and staff in Wisconsin and therefore cannot ensure sustainable growth in the state.

"It's a good starting point, but it should not be an end," Lassa said.

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