By Tom Still

WAUWATOSA – Atop a hill that overlooks the core of Milwaukee’s largest health-care hub sits a gleaming symbol of investment by the UW-Milwaukee and its partners in a different kind of university.

It’s the Innovation Accelerator, part of the surrounding Innovation Campus and a piece in the larger research and development puzzle at UW-Milwaukee, one of many Wisconsin campuses hoping to build stronger industry connections, incubate startup companies and train young entrepreneurs.

The effort does not come without risk – financial and otherwise – but it is consistent with a larger nationwide trend that has expanded the notion of campus entrepreneurism from a relative handful of enterprising faculty to thousands of students.

“We have put the pedal down even further … when it comes to R&D and entrepreneurism,” UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone told 75 people who gathered for a Jan. 14 forum at the Innovation Accelerator. The event was produced by the Wisconsin Innovation Network, part of the Wisconsin Technology Council.

Mone’s “no-turning-back” commitment to research, industry ties and educating future company founders comes at a time when UW-Milwaukee, like many campuses in the UW System, is absorbing state budget cuts. He’s persuaded that commitment – which began in the late 1990s during the tenure of then-Chancellor Nancy Zimpher – will pay dividends to the campus and the region over time.

Mone is not alone in Wisconsin or elsewhere. The UW-Madison remains one of the nation’s research powerhouses and was ahead of the curve in offering pathways for entrepreneurs. But even that campus has experienced a post-2000 explosion in programs for students and faculty who want to convert ideas into businesses or other ventures.

Across the rest of the UW System, most four-year campuses have committed to undergraduate research, industry connections and entrepreneurship training and built support systems to match. The same goes for many of Wisconsin’s private colleges and universities, notably many in the Milwaukee region, as well as the state technical college system.

The story is much the same across the United States. In 1985, U.S. college campuses collectively offered about 250 courses in entrepreneurship, according to recent report by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. By 2013, about 400,000 students were taking such courses – and the number has likely grown since then.

What’s driving student interest in entrepreneurism? Images of launching the next Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram is certainly part of the appeal, but for most students it’s less about the home-run startup than acquiring skills that keep them nimble in a fickle job market.

In a world where company lifespans are shortening, economic downturns often lead to major company layoffs and job migration is more commonplace, knowing how to “think like a ‘trep” builds transferable self-employment skills.

That notion is being imbedded in UW-Milwaukee’s educational mission, said Mone, who believes campus entrepreneurship programs are not just for business students but “absolutely integrative” and applicable to a full array of physical and social sciences as well as the arts.

That concept is reflected in the Innovation Campus off Highway 45 in Wauwatosa, where the accelerator is already full, as well as other new or planned buildings on UW-Milwaukee’s main campus.

The Lubar Center for Entrepreneurship will serve as the “gateway to our campus” when completed in 2018, Mone said, as it will include a welcome center in addition to space for entrepreneurial classes and workshops. A $10-million Lubar family gift made in mid-2015 is well on its way to being matched this year and next, Mone said.

The Kenwood Interdisciplinary Research Complex opened last fall. The $80-million facility will house a laboratory for applied and analytical chemistry, a high-resolution transmission electron microscopy center, a high-performance data computing hub and a small business collaboration backed by the National Science Foundation. It is also home to the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves, backed by a $14.5 million, five-year NSF grant to study certain sets of waves and pulsars throughout the Milky Way.

For UW-Milwaukee and other schools, the risk is financial in the sense that many more campuses are chasing entrepreneurial students and faculty – and federal R&D spending has leveled off. That means there’s a chance of a market bubble. Some observers also worry that entrepreneurial programs must move beyond startup tactics to include critical thinking skills that are part of a traditional liberal arts education.

For Mone and his team, the risk is worth it because the payoff appears so large: Better research programs, more productive industry relationships, a stronger community and students who are prepared to deal with an ever-changing world. After all, one way to reduce “brain drain” is to help students find – or make – jobs close to home.