By Tom Still
MILWAUKEE, Wis. – The casual ‘trep attire is the same, the conversations about launching and growing young companies are similar, and the worries about raising money are frequently shared.
Parts of the startup and scale-up scene in Milwaukee, however, don’t much resemble the environment that has propelled Madison into being a hotspot for entrepreneurs. That’s more than okay.
Milwaukee and Madison have always been very different cities, even before the Madison area started to boom and the Milwaukee metropolitan core contracted – especially during the last recession. It’s no surprise, then, that important differences would emerge in how startup and scale-up economies have evolved in each city.
Here are some observations drawn in part from the June 4-5 Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference in Milwaukee, where more than 400 people gathered to listen to business pitches and hear speakers and panelists talk about common challenges and opportunities.
There are different flavors on entrepreneurism in each city. Madison has been a health sciences town for decades, starting with the rise of Promega, the birth of the University Research Park, the success of Epic and, most lately, the growth of Exact Sciences and more. It’s also a software and gaming city with more diversity in companies than outsiders expect.
Milwaukee is trying to build a base of successful health-related companies and software, but it’s also more likely to have young companies in sectors such as consumer products, human resources, advanced manufacturing, food and beverage, financial tech and mom-and-pop enterprises.
Madison has a dominant university; Milwaukee has a mix of smaller research centers. The UW-Madison is one of the leading research universities in the country, but its size and complexity can make it less nimble at times. Milwaukee has the UW-Milwaukee, Marquette University, the Medical College of Wisconsin, the Milwaukee School of Engineering and other private colleges such as Concordia University, all of which are trying to build R&D programs where little once existed. Those colleges and universities are learning to cooperate where cooperation makes sense.
Madison entrepreneurs are savvy about angel and venture capital; Milwaukee ‘treps aren’t afraid to look for all sources of cash. Well-attended conference panels on financing focused on how larger Midwest investors view Wisconsin and what corporate investors want. Attendees also flocked to a discussion about other ways to raise money, especially at the seed stage and by acquiring paying customers. Not all companies need or want angel and venture capital, and most aren’t aiming to be the next Google or Uber.
Corporate leadership is different in each city. In Madison, some of the most visible corporate leaders are those who run tech-based companies or companies that have embraced technology and innovation on a large scale. For example, American Family Insurance, CUNA Mutual, TASC and others have established venture funds and understand the need to innovate from within and without. Milwaukee is still dominated by legacy companies which, for too long, were late to the party. That is beginning to change as companies such as Northwestern Mutual, Rockwell Automation, Advocate Aurora and GE Healthcare work outside their own walls. Still, some others don’t seem to recognize the need for Milwaukee to evolve.
The 85 or so miles that separate Madison and Milwaukee shouldn’t be a barrier but a bridge. The same goes for the rest of the “I-Q Corridor,” a name for the interstate string of cities and resources that bind the upper Midwest through innovation, intellectual property, investment and quality of workforce, education, life and more.
Not every city needs to follow the same formula as its neighbors, but each much recognize the real competition is from the East and West coasts and beyond.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, which produced the Entrepreneurs’ Conference. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.