The neo-Gothic
building on N. Broadway across from the Milwaukee School of Engineering was a
hub of activity for the city that existed a century ago. Built in 1891, its
first life was as the German-English Academy at a time when Milwaukee was known
as the “most German city in America.”

generations later, the former language academy is evolving into a different
kind of learning center — a place that will help build Milwaukee’s 21st-century
innovation economy.

Expanding this
summer into the second of the historic building’s five floors is Direct Supply,
the Milwaukee-based company that provides “senior living” services,
equipment, software systems, building expertise and more to about 36,000
communities across the United States.

It’s not a
production facility in the classic sense, but a combined innovation center and
accelerator that will incubate some of the best ideas coming from inside Direct
Supply as well as ideas from young companies outside the firm.

With plans to
accommodate about 250 employees and entrepreneurs within six years, the Direct
Supply innovation center is the latest effort to build upon a natural cluster
in Milwaukee: expertise in serving the needs of seniors and the providers who
care for them once they move into assisted living centers or skilled-care

Read this
commentary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here.

You’ve heard of
Milwaukee’s emerging water cluster and its power, energy and controls cluster.
Welcome to the “senior living” cluster.

very much committed to doing whatever we can to attract and create innovation
in Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin,” said Tom Paprocki, director of
development and innovation for Direct Supply. “We see our work here (in
the innovation center) as contributing to that in many ways over time.”

The building
was nearing the end of its physical use when MSOE, which owns the property at
1020 N. Broadway, entered into a partnership with Direct Supply for its
renovation. It’s a two-way street because Direct Supply has access to MSOE
interns and graduates, and MSOE has a proven landing spot for some of its

“It was a
question of how do we attract the best and brightest,” said Bill Avery,
Direct Supply’s executive vice president and leader of its technology services.
“We felt a downtown location was the right fit for corporate culture
reasons as well as a way for us to better contribute to the innovation economy
here in Milwaukee.”

Not only is the
Direct Supply location in the old academy a stone’s throw away from MSOE, it is
close to other sources of talent at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee,
Marquette University and the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design.

About 80 people
work on Direct Supply’s renovated first floor and construction on a second
floor is well underway. That’s where the company will operate a “customer
experience lab” and suites for in-house innovation as well as start-up
suites for companies outside Direct Supply.

The idea is to
create an environment in which companies working on some aspect of “senior
living” innovation can work independently and collaboratively, depending
on the need. It also brings software engineers and technicians from Direct
Supply’s main campus into a setting where they work as a team on solving
customer problems.

The timing is
right, say members of Direct Supply’s innovation team, because the U.S. is
facing unique demographic challenges and health care is rapidly changing — not
just in hospitals and clinics, but within senior living settings.

Layer on the
changes precipitated by the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as
Obamacare, and the need to address questions of quality, safety, price and
delivery is urgent.

“It’s a
great opportunity to solve problems that affect millions of people,” Avery

If the plans
unfold as scheduled, the Direct Supply innovation center will join a small club
of accelerators in the senior living industry. Those include Aging 2.0 in San
Francisco and Innovate LTC in Louisville, Ky., with Aging 2.0 focusing more on
the consumer side. Aging 2.0 is tied to Formation Capital, a $6 billion private
equity firm focused on senior housing and care and related real estate

Direct Supply
does not operate an early stage fund and has no plans to do so, but members of
its innovation team hope to connect young companies to investors with which
they have existing relationships. More important, Direct Supply hopes to help
young companies by making space, technology and a talent-rich environment

innovation economy is still early in its maturity (in Milwaukee), and we want
to be a part of contributing to that revitalization,” Avery said.

What better
location than a building that was a symbol of the city’s past — and which is
poised to become a part of its future.