By Tom Still
PLATTEVILLE, Wis. – Not every small community in Wisconsin is fortunate enough to have a Jeremiah Donohue fall into its lap, but Platteville did, and all involved are making the most of it.
Wisconsin native Donohue (he goes by “Maia”) lived for eight years in Austin, Texas, working with entrepreneurs there and around the world – even writing a book, “The Startup Mentor” – before he and his wife decided it was time for a change.
They moved to Mineral Point and Maia became director of the IDEA Hub Accelerator, which was launched in early 2021 and which has already become a part of southwest Wisconsin’s development landscape from its storefront on Platteville’s Main Street.
Not that the IDEA Hub Accelerator is alone in sparking interest in the startup economy in and around the Platteville economy, as Donohue quickly notes, but it is something of a catalyst that can be embraced by other communities across Wisconsin and beyond.
Working with regional, state and one national group, the IDEA Hub helps founders of young companies to build prototypes, to get their products to markets, to prepare them to seek investment capital where it makes sense, and to generally get connected with mentors and advisors. It has held 24 networking and workshop events thus far and worked with scores of founders.
Its partners include the WiSys intellectual property organization, the Platteville Business Incubator, the Small Business Development Center for Southwest Wisconsin, the regional planning commission, Prosperity Southwest, the Vermont-based Center on Rural Innovation and others. With six counties on its map, the IDEA Hub needs partners.
The biggest partner of all is the UW-Platteville, which has more than 6,000 students, an energetic interim chancellor in Tammy Evetovich and a strong base in engineering and computer science.
Just opened in September, Platteville’s Sesquicentennial Hall is a 200,000-square-foot, $55 million facility that houses laboratories, prototyping machines and other tools that prepare students for careers in fields such as mechanical, civil and environmental engineering, sustainable and renewable energy, and computer science.
Students in such fields are in high demand with Wisconsin employers – including some companies that donated to build the hall. More than half of all undergraduates work in internships at any given time, and the placement rate for such Platteville students is nearly 90%.
While the engineering program is not nearly as large or as research-focused as UW-Madison, it is Wisconsin’s second largest in terms of undergraduate students. Some of those graduates are interested in starting their own companies or working with other startups, which is where Donohue and the IDEA Hub intersect.
“I believe everybody has that entrepreneurial spirit, but not everyone acts on ideas they might have,” Donohue said.
Southwest Wisconsin has the potential to become home for more young companies, he said, due to factors such as the engineering school, prototyping skills, agricultural expertise in a time of change for farming, general work ethic and a surprising (to some) amount of intellectual property produced on campus.
The UW-Platteville’s invention disclosures to WiSys, which serves all UW four-year campuses outside of Madison and Milwaukee, have collectively led the system over the past five years.
There are also challenges to producing more startups, Donohue said. They include fear of failure, a lack of startup “leaders” who can help advise neophytes, and simply not knowing where to start. Depending on location, broadband connections can be a detriment. Donohue also cited what he called the “My husband thinks I’m crazy” syndrome, which can discourage some women.
The Platteville example can’t be copied everywhere, but it shows a community need not be the size of Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay or Eau Claire to devise an indigenous plan. It sometimes just needs the right combination of people, resources and a sense of purpose.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at email@example.com.