By Thomas W. Still
MADISON, Wis. – Aaron Kennedy is an entrepreneur with national credentials. He was founder and chief executive officer for Noodles & Company, led Colorado’s successful branding and marketing campaign, managed product rollouts for major firms and continues to advise emerging companies through some of the nation’s leading accelerators.
Now, perhaps somewhat to his surprise, UW-Madison graduate Kennedy is the “Entrepreneur-in-Residence” at UW-Green Bay.
The late April announcement that Kennedy will join the effort to put Green Bay on the map for startups and scale-ups is the latest example of how the Upper Midwest is making a collective case for being a place where innovation is valued, talent is available and companies with the ideas can grow.
Not that anyone is hanging “Vacancy” signs in tech hubs such as California’s Silicon Valley, Boston or North Carolina’s Research Triangle, which continue to flourish, but there are reasons for investors, entrepreneurs and others to tap the rise in activity across the Upper Midwest.
My name for the region that includes Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison and spurs north and west is the “I-Q Corridor.” The “I” stands for the interstate highways that bind them, but also innovation, intellectual property and investment. The “Q” suggests quality of workforce, research, education and life in general, the latter being a quality more familiar tech hubs are sometimes lacking.
Green Bay is staking its spot on the “I-Q Corridor” thanks to an alliance that includes the Green Bay Packers, Microsoft, UW-Green Bay and others who have combined to create “TitletownTech,” which aims to bring world-class digital innovation and expertise to the region.
It is headquartered in Titletown, the development west of Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, in a building that houses an innovation lab, venture studio, fund managers and others who can help to build young companies.
Kennedy’s role over his four-year commitment to the UW-Green Bay is to work across academic and business lines to advise those companies, spot opportunities and to generally “think big” about what Green Bay can offer to investors and entrepreneurs.
Unofficially, what he brings are connections and credibility, which can help draw attention to Green Bay and the larger region. That attention may come from people who wouldn’t automatically stop to think about what the Upper Midwest offers.
Those assets include reasonable deal valuations for angel and venture capitalists; well-trained talent through some of the nation’s best universities, colleges and technical schools; lower business costs overall; federal laboratories; a central location for distribution; and a strong work ethic.
The I-Q Corridor also features a range of tech sectors in its portfolio, from software to life sciences, and from next-generation agriculture to advanced manufacturing. Investors have been increasingly drawn to that mix, based on recent deal data.
States near Wisconsin have helped to launch large “funds of funds” to invest in the most promising deals and to attract even more outside dollars. The latest example is the $250-million “Next Level Fund” in Indiana.
The growing effort to make the Upper Midwest an attractive alternative to the coasts is a theme of the upcoming Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference, to be held June 4-5 at Venue42 in the Milwaukee Brewing Co.
Investors, entrepreneurs and tech leaders from across the region will gather to talk about the I-Q Corridor’s assets – and its challenges. One glaring challenge is perception, which for some people is still trapped in Rustbelt imagery.
Kennedy talked about Colorado’s once-fragmented brand when he spoke in November 2018 at a Tech Council conference in Madison, offering advice that could apply to Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest.
“Your brand can’t be something you are not. A unified brand or message is powerful and memorable,” Kennedy said at the time.
About 500 miles separate California’s tech hubs in San Diego and San Francisco. The distance between Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul is a little more than 400 miles, much of it in Wisconsin. Linking Upper Midwest hubs along the I-Q Corridor around a common message could help each compete on a larger stage.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reach at email@example.com