In the 15 years I’ve been working with Wisconsin early-stage companies, I’ve always done so in the shadow of Madison. The conventional wisdom is that Madison is the end-all and be-all of technology, innovation and entrepreneurship in Wisconsin. And as a two-time UW-Madison graduate, you will get no argument from me on the importance of UW-Madison as a driver of research and innovation and the role played by the University and its tech-transfer and licensing entity, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Fund (WARF). In the 20 years since I left Madison, the City and region have been transformed by the efforts of the UW-Madison and WARF and the start-up activity that has grown out of those institutions.
The flip side of that conventional wisdom is that Milwaukee and the rest of the state lags far behind Madison in technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. But if you take a closer look beyond Madison, this State has an extraordinarily active culture of entrepreneurship and a plethora of resources for entrepreneurs.
The Madison/Milwaukee comparison is based, in large part, on the dominance of UW-Madison relative to the size of the other research universities in Wisconsin. However, university-based researchers in southeastern Wisconsin have four major research institutions (UW-Milwaukee, The Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW), Marquette University and the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE)) which assist faculty with tech-transfer, licensing and start-ups. Combined, these institutions do not approach UW-Madison’s overall research size, but they significantly exceed $200 Million in the aggregate and have actively been looking for ways to collaborate in research and commercialization.
UW-Milwaukee, in particular, has dramatically increased its focus on entrepreneurship through the creation of the UW-Milwaukee Research Foundation (UWMRF) and the significant investment by the University in new faculty hiring – particularly in the School of Engineering. In the four short years since creating UWMRF, invention disclosures, patent, licensing and start-up activity are dramatically up at UW-Milwaukee, and I can tell you from my work with UWMRF that the research conducted at UW-Milwaukee is both groundbreaking and commercially valuable. Long-term, these efforts will spin-off start-up companies which create jobs, wealth and new start-ups, through the sale of those start-ups to larger companies. A recent example is the sale of an MCW start-up, Prodesse, to Gen-Probe. Many of those investors are busy reinvesting sale proceeds in new Wisconsin-based start-ups.
Outside the university context is where it gets interesting (and from the entrepreneur’s standpoint, unconventional). For many years, “conventional” organizations like the Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC) and the Milwaukee Metropolitan Association of Commerce (MMAC) have been working on economic development for the region by creating organizations which directly impact entrepreneurs and early-stage companies. Examples are the creation by the GMC and MMAC of the “Milwaukee 7” to foster economic development within the seven county southeastern Wisconsin region. In turn, these three groups and their members spawned the Milwaukee Water Council and BizStarts Milwaukee, each of which (in very different ways) focus on research, economic development and the promotion of new business.
More recently, the Wisconsin Energy Research Consortium (WERC) was launched to foster research, collaboration and economic development in the energy, power and controls fields. WERC includes university partners (UW-Madison, UW-Milwaukee, Marquette and MSOE) along with some of Wisconsin’s leading energy, power and controls companies (including Rockwell Automation, Johnson Controls, WE Energies and American Transmission Company). WERC and the Water Council are unique models nationally – what makes them most exciting for the region is the way they attempt to leverage traditional areas of the region’s strength in “old school” manufacturing as way to promote new business initiatives based on technology and advanced manufacturing.
On the funding side, the market for funding for early-stage companies in southeastern Wisconsin has never been more active – Silicon Pastures and the Golden Angels have been active in the area for many years, and remain so today. More recently, Capital Midwest Fund and Successful Entrepreneur Investors have launched financing resources for very early stage companies.
Every region has its strengths and weaknesses. While it is true that the academic research dollars in Southeastern Wisconsin are not as plentiful as in Madison, we do have strong research universities and the research dollar gap with Madison is shrinking. Where Milwaukee really distinguishes itself in the state is through the use of its more traditional resources – partnerships with industry in particular – to leverage our growing university research. So as an entrepreneur, you sometimes need to look beyond the obvious resources and get the broader picture of what exists in your region. Here in Southeastern Wisconsin, those resources are plentiful and growing, and the excitement surrounding our region’s approach to entrepreneurship is palpable.