More than a century ago, Wisconsin served as the birthplace for a series of blue chip industrial giants. The likes of Harley-Davidson and Johnson Controls, or engine makers like Fairbanks Morse and Briggs & Stratton, were the bold startups of the day.
We believe that living the Wisconsin Idea is about using our skills at the university as inventors and engineers and in the trades as machinists, electricians and other specialties to revitalize this industrial heritage in a modern context. To achieve that it is a priority to teach our local children, at universities and in technical schools, and encourage science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
We share a love of manufacturing and faith in the capabilities of Wisconsin, even though we had very different pathways to this partnership.
Dan was born in and raised near Beloit, once home to a great manufacturer of papermaking machines. A core part of his identity was attending local fairs and hearing his grandparents reminisce about the Midwest at the peak of its industrial might. He dreamed of one day contributing his engineering skills for something productive, and now that has become his life’s work.
Cecil, originally from Sri Lanka, was trained as a mechanical engineer in Russia and as an electrical engineer in Germany. He moved to the United States and with his wife Irina started Velicon in Milwaukee to make high-performance electric motors for testing and other special applications.
We are collaborating on a project that is a prime example of the Wisconsin Idea in action.
We are trying to leverage old manufacturing techniques with a high-tech twist to get rid of the need for rare earth magnets that are almost entirely sourced from China and really bad for the environment. We aim to improve the design and performance of electric motors via techniques, such as replacing the magnets and using wireless power transfer.
Another university project to build better electric motors is testing electrostatic force to power them, and has been spun into a startup. Most of the funding is from government grants and support from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). The Moore Inventor Award offers a nice infusion of cash and validates Wisconsin’s creativity.
Compared to 1990, when Velicon just started, Wisconsin today offers a much more positive business landscape for high-tech manufacturing. But it’s still hard to get local funding. A hardware startup is a slow burn by nature, requiring capital expenditures for machines to make physical things.
Fortunately, we can find the right partners right here in Wisconsin.
This brings us back to the importance of preparing our next generation of technicians, engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs. We look for students with a good GPA who also worked on a farm or a factory, or made something with their hands as a hobby.
We must encourage them to invest their skills here at home. Our investment in their education should be teamed with investment in their ideas for business development. That is the continuum we should adopt if we are to ensure a skilled, entrepreneurial workforce in Wisconsin.
The respect we hold for the industrial heartland may sound somewhat romanticized. Yet heritage is a powerful force, and Wisconsin is well-positioned to create a 21st century version of a manufacturing industry that we can pass on to future generations in our state.