Many business incubators and accelerators concentrate on the
start-up “gazelles,” companies that are poised to leap ahead quickly
in revenue, jobs and market value.
Dan Steininger and his team at BizStarts Milwaukee Inc. are just
as happy hunting for deer.
“Deer” is how Steininger affectionately refers to a
different breed of start-up company — those that can run hard when they need
to, but which aren’t fixated on becoming the next Google or Facebook.
They’re often classic mom-and-pop businesses, social
entrepreneurs or lifestyle businesses that add value to the economy, but which
aren’t often investment targets for angel investors or venture capitalists
seeking a 10-times return on their money.
“Our goal is to get businesses through the ‘valley of
death’ that lies between two mountains — the product development mountain and
the company launch mountain,” Steininger said. “It’s a reality check
on starting a real business with real customers.”
Working with more than 100 businesses in southeast Wisconsin,
BizStarts is an example of a growing array of services for emerging companies
in the region. Some are focused on start-ups and some work with more mature
companies seeking to scale their operations. Others are tied to specific
industry clusters such as water or energy, and some work mainly with
Read this commentary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here.
The combination is providing a healthy mix for business
formation in the Milwaukee area, something that didn’t necessarily exist a
decade ago or even five years ago. While the scene could shake out over time as
organizations evolve, it’s a significant change in a city that once looked upon
the start-up culture in Madison as a curiosity vs. an economic necessity. Here
are just a few examples:
■BizStarts Milwaukee was created in 2008 and reports serving
more than 500 entrepreneurs from seven counties, including about 160 currently.
Its BizForge launch process takes entrepreneurs through customer identification,
marketing strategy, team development and connection to financial resources.
■Gener8tor was ranked this month as one of the nation’s top 15
accelerators, based on an independent assessment announced at the annual South
by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. With offices in Milwaukee and Madison,
gener8tor recruits, mentors and trains entrepreneurs in high-tech ventures.
Since 2012, it has graduated 28 start-ups from five accelerator
classes, and those companies have gone on to raise more than $40 million in
financing while creating more than 300 jobs.
■The Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp. has been a
fixture for nearly 30 years, providing business education classes, technical
business help and access to capital — usually in the form of competitive loans
up to $100,000.
While it has historically focused on women- and minority-led
businesses, hundreds of men have been among WWBIC’s clients and its 3,500
business borrowers over time.
■Scale Up Milwaukee was created to answer the question: Once
you’ve created your company, how do you achieve sustained growth?
Scale Up is based on a model developed through the Babson
Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Project, and Milwaukee was the first U.S. city to
adopt what had previously been an international program. Its “Scalerator”
program has 27 graduates that project 30% growth, on average, for 2015.
■The Water Council was formed to develop Milwaukee’s potential
as a hub for water technology businesses. Its programs for emerging companies
include the BREW, the Pilot Project and its Center of Excellence.
It has ties into the academic research sector through the
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Science, a unique
■The Energy Innovation Center is a project of the Midwest Energy
Research Consortium, which works with the energy, power and controls industry
in Wisconsin and well beyond. Emerging companies in those fields may find a
home in the center, which is under construction and expected to provide a range
of services — including neutral lab spaces and a prototyping center.
■UW-Milwaukee has been a recent hub for company formation and
assistance, including the technology transfer work of the UWM Research
Foundation, the Student Startup Challenge and the Innovation Campus off Highway
45 in Wauwatosa. Companies as large as GE Healthcare, ABB and more have
partnered with the university, but so have plenty of one-person start-ups.
Similarly, Marquette University, Concordia University and Carroll University
are examples of campuses with a growing emphasis on faculty and student
■The Wisconsin Innovation Network, through its parent, the
Wisconsin Technology Council, also produces events and programs for young
companies. A prime example will be Monday’s Tech Summit at the GE Healthcare
Institute in Waukesha, where 16 major companies will engage in 175 “speed
date” meetings with more than 50 emerging companies.
The good news: Space doesn’t permit listing everything that’s
happening in the region, which wasn’t the case all that long ago. Milwaukee,
feel good about your culture for emerging companies. It’s stronger than ever.