Overlooking Lake Michigan in Mequon, Concordia University seems from all outward appearances to be a classic liberal arts college with a compelling waterfront view. On closer inspection, the picture emerges of an entrepreneurial campus tied to the economic future of the Milwaukee region.
Concordia is an example of how colleges and universities in southeast Wisconsin are stepping up efforts to produce students who can take ideas and help turn them into products and companies. It’s a process that engages other universities, public and private, as well as businesses and institutions with a stake in expanding Wisconsin’s start-up culture.
Overnight success isn’t the goal, but long-term progress in building a supply of innovative workers and entrepreneurs is within reach.
Read this commentary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here.
During a recent campus visit by members of the Wisconsin Technology Council, Concordia’s “CULaunch” program was described by Daniel Sem, a pharmacy professor and business school dean who has started his own companies in California and Wisconsin.
The program, which is also offered at Concordia’s sister campus in Ann Arbor, Mich., mentors students on the basics of starting and building a business. Through workshops, networking events and competitions, CULaunch helps students write business plans, follow “lean start-up” principles, prepare investor pitches and more. Concordia also offers a master’s in business administration degree in Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
It’s aimed at contributing to what Sem calls the larger “entrepreneurial ecosystem” in the Milwaukee area, a region that didn’t have much of a start-up culture of any size 15 years ago.
Milwaukee doesn’t have a single research university the size of UW-Madison, which routinely ranks among the nation’s top five academic research centers. However, the region is home to about two-dozen public and private campuses that grant four-year and two-year degrees and spend about $300 million per year on research. They range in size and scope from UW-Milwaukee, the Medical College of Wisconsin and Marquette University to smaller, often more specialized, campuses.
Increasingly, those schools recognize the value of entrepreneurship and innovation to the economy as well as educating students who can succeed in that world. It’s a necessity in an era when job creation is being driven by younger companies.
While no single college or university in the region is large enough to shoulder that burden alone, there is strength in numbers. The area’s higher education institutions collectively educate about 180,000 students across a spectrum of disciplines, including virtually all of the so-called “STEM” fields — science, technology, engineering and math — needed in today’s innovation economy.
Concordia is a member of The Commons, a collaboration of area colleges that provides students with chances to work with area businesses in real-world settings. It has space in the UW-Milwaukee Innovation Accelerator, works with private accelerators such as gener8tor, and turns to groups ranging from SCORE to the Small Business Development Centers for mentoring. Its business plan contest is modeled after the Governor’s Business Plan Contest, which is produced by the Tech Council.
While the effort by Concordia and other campuses is substantial and growing, a natural question is to what end? Are campus-based efforts in the Milwaukee area contributing to the region’s economic stability, diversity and growth?
The early and tentative answer is “yes.” At schools such as UW-Milwaukee and Marquette, larger partnerships with companies such as GE Healthcare, Johnson Controls and ABB are helping students, faculty and the companies.
At Concordia, CULaunch has attracted 44 potential start-ups with ideas that range from restaurants and a party bus to computer apps, a compounding pharmacy and psychiatric counseling services. Participants in CULaunch attend a nine-month program through which they receive training and mentorship from experienced entrepreneurs. They also can compete for seed funding for their business ideas.
Campus-based entrepreneurs at the Medical College, UW-Milwaukee and elsewhere also are competing at a higher level. For example, the list of finalists in this year’s statewide business plan contest includes a dozen companies from southeast Wisconsin, more than in any of the previous five years. A number of the 2016 finalists are current or just-graduated students.
Milwaukee has yet to match Madison as a start-up hub, but many of the ingredients are in place for steady progress. If just 1% of the students currently enrolled in a Milwaukee-area college or university started businesses close to home, that’s more than 1,500 new firms. That’s a source of economic dynamism not to be overlooked.