MKE Tech’s FOR-M incubator program held a virtual graduation event on Nov. 24, 2020.

Project Innovate, the Lubar Entrepreneurship Center and the MKE Tech Hub Coalition are three different organizations all facing the same problem: how to encourage growth in southeast Wisconsin’s startup and tech communities without the face-to-face interactions that are crucial to sparking ideas and partnerships.

The law firm Godfrey & Kahn has been hosting its Project Innovate series for the last six years. As a program of the firm’s Emerging Companies Practice Group, Project Innovate brings together entrepreneurs, investors and industry representatives with a combination of networking and educational events.

John McDonald, chair of the company’s Startup and Venture Capital Team, says they’ve had to cut down to just one virtual panel discussion per quarter, cutting out much of the educational content that had been a key part of the program.

The new Lubar Entrepreneurship Center opened on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s main campus in mid-2019 with a 24,000-square-foot facility housing classrooms, meeting space, maker spaces and other places designed to promote interaction among entrepreneurs. The staff has worked hard to keep that spirit alive.

“The Lubar Entrepreneurship Center is a place for students, faculty and staff to build community,” says Program Manager Nicole Powley. “We haven’t really cancelled anything, but instead pivoted to virtual versions of those events.”

MKE Tech is a coalition of companies, entrepreneurs, educators and organizations invested in growing the region’s tech talent. Like the Lubar Entrepreneurship Center, it was only a few months old when COVID-19 hit. After an in-person cohort in spring, FOR-M, the startup incubator program MKE Tech runs along with The Commons, moved entirely online for the fall cohort.

Increasing access 

Amid all the difficulties presented by COVID-19, all three groups have noticed that the switch to virtual events has made attendance easier. According to McDonald, Project Innovate attendance has spiked by more than 50% compared to last year, and the events are also attracting attendees from outside the area.

“Frankly, it makes programs more accessible when you don’t have to drive or you can have your kid asleep in the next room,” says MKE Tech CEO Kathy Heinrich. “Part of what attracted more people to the FOR-M program is that the time commitment to participate shrinks with things are virtual.”

The easier access meant the incubator program could be expanded to participants outside of the Milwaukee area. The fall virtual cohort had 65 participants, up from spring’s 50 in-person participants. One cohort member was participating in the gBeta accelerator at the same time as FOR-M, something Heinrich says could only be possible with both programs happening online.

Lubar’s monthly Social Good Mornings talk series, which includes interviews and open discussions with local social innovators, have been able to translate to an online format relatively easily. The focus on virtual programming also prompted them to move forward this summer with a more ambitious project they had only talked about previously: bringing together student innovators from UWM and Nigeria to learn from each other.

Missing “serendipitous collisions”

But while access has increased, virtual programming has drastically decreased the in-person networking that is often critical for sparking ideas and partnerships.

“What we’re missing out on, probably the biggest gap we have to figure out, is that the informal mentoring and networking, what I call ‘serendipitous collisions,’ are gone,” says Heinrich.

The goal of Project Innovate was to bring together the different groups working to build Wisconsin’s startup culture, McDonald points out. “The networking after our in-person events often felt like the most positive way we furthered that goal, and we are missing a big component.”

“I miss not being able to be in person to celebrate,” says Powley. “The other week we hosted a pitch competition and awarded four teams with cash prizes. I made people on the call unmute themselves to clap, added confetti GIFs to the presentation deck and cheered, but it didn’t feel the same as when I could hug a student winner that clearly worked hard.”

Making adjustments

While networking has been drastically reduced, it isn’t completely gone. It just looks different. Something that has surprised McDonald is the amount of online interaction possible virtually. “Online interaction has actually been more than I expected, including banter before the event in the chat feature between attendees and panelists.”

MKE Tech has been using Signalwire, a platform developed partially in Wisconsin, for its virtual events thanks to its ability to let attendees naturally pop into side rooms without any previous setup.

“It truly is like entering a building and being able to talk in the hallway, a more natural way of communicating,” says Heinrich.

For the Lubar Entrepreneurship Center, the ability to collaborate in online breakout rooms is also a must. The only difference now is that the white board and sticky notes being used are virtual ones in apps such as Mural or Miro. But they are adapting in offline ways as well.

“Something special we did for our Startup Challenge experiential program participants was create packets that were mailed to them, which included a Lubar Entrepreneurship Center T-shirt, Post-Its, sharpies, worksheets for our workshops, a welcome zine andSheldon Lubar’s book,” says Pawley.

Looking to the future

All three agree that the future of their programming will be a mix of online and in-person events.

Like Powley, Heinrich notes that virtual celebrations just aren’t the same: “There are things that have to stay in person, but I’m not sure we’d go back entirely. In-person events require spending a lot of money on food and beverages, for example. I think it still makes sense to have kickoffs, final events and celebrations in person.”

“We have considered hosting groups in each of our firm offices while doing the event virtually or at least taking a video of the in-person event and posting it online,” says McDonald. Godfrey & Kahn has offices in Madison, Green Bay, Appleton and Waukesha in addition to its Milwaukee office.

Pawley says the transition to virtual has made Lubar pay more attention to its website and social media. She hopes that when in-person programming comes back, the center’s digital presence won’t be left behind.

“Pivoting to the virtual environment certainly has constraints. To overcome some of the frustration we had to reframe our thinking,” she says. “Instead of anticipating the event to be the same as it was in-person, we needed to think differently. We now think about the desired outcomes and what can we do virtually to obtain them.”

Learn about how the WEDC supports other entrepreneurship and innovation programs like these here.