Inventing Wisconsin’s future

SCORE launches a first-of-its-kind conference to assess product viability, intellectual property, and financing, and foster invention in the Badger State.

Inventors are an eccentric lot, if popular movies and dusty historic accounts are to be believed. Of course, if that eccentricity fuels the kind of creativity that solves problems, who are we to judge?

Wisconsin is a state in search of its own next Leonardo da Vinci, Ben Franklin, or Doc Brown, and a slate of current homegrown inventors is helping seek them out.

Inventing Our Way to Wisconsin’s Future is a first-of-its-kind event launched by SCORE Southeast Wisconsin and set to take place on Thursday, Oct. 19 at the Country Springs Hotel and Conference Center in Pewaukee.

The conference is designed to help innovators who attend from across the state take their inventions from paper to product. Event Director Earl Humphrey of SCORE Southeast Wisconsin wants to inspire people with the sharing of ideas not just in theory, but with actual how-to-do instructions. With successes, there are also sacrifices and failures, and Humphrey says that has to be a part of the process. It’s what innovation is all about.

“Invention today is not just about the high-profile technology we see featured every day in the media,” says Humphrey. “There’s a lot of innovation happening in Wisconsin in manufacturing, agriculture, education, and consumer product development. This SCORE event targets the inventors with all types of products and services — men and women who have an idea, but need guidance on how to take the next step.”

The event features fashion designer Linda Marcus, as well as Dr. Christal Sheppard, director of the Midwest Regional U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO), who will offer insight on the latest developments in intellectual property, including the resources available to inventors.

Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, will lead a panel discussion of Wisconsin inventors and innovators who have successfully launched products and businesses in the state. In addition, breakout sessions repeated twice throughout the day will focus on the pressing issues for today’s inventors.

“People want to know if their invention will be commercially viable, and if they can build a business plan around it,” notes Humphrey. “If they’re not bankable, they want to know the alternatives for financing, and where to find that money to get their idea off the ground. We can help them find the answers.”

Inventing their own success

SCORE chapters provide mentors who are volunteer executives and entrepreneurs who can offer free, confidential counseling and client education through low-cost business training sessions, webinars, business templates, and online resources.

Two such mentors who will also be speaking at the Oct. 19 conference are Madison-area Wisconsin inventors Matt Younkle and Liz Eversoll.

Younkle, a UW–Madison graduate and Wisconsin native, says he was definitely the type of kid who loved to both tinker and read to find out how stuff worked. “If Wikipedia were around when I was a kid, you would have had to pry me away from it. My best creative outlet growing up was the Odyssey of the Mind competitions. My teams qualified for the world finals three times. Great teachers in my hometown of Ashwaubenon also played a big role in keeping a creative spark alive all the way through high school.”

Eversoll, too, had the creative bug early. Along with Jim Brandon, she started Meeper Bots, a platform for building robotics using Legos for education in schools.

Now the CEO of Meeper Technology, Eversoll has spent the last 20 years in the IT industry and has extensive experience as a business owner, IT executive, technology services and reseller executive, and consultant. A serial entrepreneur, she has led both startups and multibillion-dollar businesses to success.

“My passion is building — building businesses, teams, and products,” Eversoll says. “Even as a staff member in internal IT organizations, I would present new technology business ideas, frequently get these funded, and build whole new divisions or solutions within the existing business. I was a computer science major so technology, and specifically software, is my forte. Technology is a natural avenue for creation. Every time I see a new technology, I think how can we solve problems, how can we make things better, or how can we enhance/utilize that technology to create new, meaningful, and useful products.”

In addition to Meeper Bots, Eversoll and her teams — which she’s quick to credit — have created:

  • A location analytics platform to collect customer behavior information from mobile devices and provide marketing metrics.
  • Mobile Mesh Games, which connects everyone in a room and their devices together for networking and icebreaker games.
  • V2 Leagues, which she describes as fantasy football meets Lord of the Rings. Players draft goblins and wizards, and then do battle.

Eversoll says a challenge all inventors must overcome is getting wrapped up in their own cool creation.

“The engineering or technology is only about 10% of the ‘product,’” she notes. “It’s easy to get caught up in cool technology and think that is the end game. But a product that uses this technology must solve a problem, must have value, and be something someone would purchase. There is far more to bringing a product to market, including product definition [pricing, value proposition, and competitive analysis/positioning]. Most importantly is sales and marketing — actually getting consumers/businesses to purchase your product.”

Younkle agrees with Eversoll, especially after creating the TurboTap, which enables draft beer to be poured three times faster with less waste; Murfie, which allows CD and vinyl collectors to move those collections to the cloud without compromises; and Cardigan, a relatively new venture that’s working to become a socially acceptable digital business card that finally replaces paper cards.

“The most difficult thing for me is choosing what to develop,” Younkle notes. “I keep a huge list of ideas that’s constantly evolving. Most of the ideas are easy to dismiss after a little bit of market research, but there are a bunch that seem promising even after initial review. Since time and resources are finite, choosing what to pursue has profound consequences. Choosing the idea that maximizes the combined elements of passion, expertise, timing, market opportunity, customer receptiveness, and capital requirements is really hard.”

Younkle says he typically starts his process by building a product that he’d love to use. “That way, I’m at least guaranteed a market of one!”

Younkle tries to have great clarity around the problem he’s attempting to solve and for whom. Then, when folks are critical of what he’s building, he can dig in to really understand the ‘why’ that’s behind their reaction. Are there better products already on the market? Is he solving the wrong problem? Is the product not performing as advertised? “Generally speaking, I love getting feedback, so I rarely tune it out. Rather, I filter it to get at the ‘why.’”

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“In any business, you will always hear no,” says Eversoll. “If it’s something I believe in, then I take that to mean I didn’t do a good enough job with my pitch/product/positioning/business case/etc. I then refine that and go back — it once took me nine months to convince my management to create a software solutions team, which we then turned in to a multibillion-dollar business.

“Everyone also has suggestions and input,” she adds. “If you have your mission and goals defined, then you can review and prioritize this input in alignment and stay focused on the prize.”

Younkle notes he’s never launched a product, hardware, or software that’s been perfect on the first try.

“Not even close,” he explains. “I flopped miserably with TurboTap during a huge demo to execs at Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis. I’ve learned that you can overcome just about any point-in-time failure as long as you’re building a product that someone wants to buy. That gets at a fundamental difference between inventors and entrepreneurs. Inventors get joy out of creating new things. Entrepreneurs get joy out of creating new things that people want to buy.”

Like true creators, neither Eversoll nor Younkle are ever done inventing.

“I am a prolific reader,” notes Eversoll. “The one thing that I really want is an angled Kindle case that will adjust to the angle of my head and eyes as I am lying in bed reading.

“Okay, and to be even more lazy, maybe it would [also] turn the page when I double blink my eyes or blow on the screen,” she quips.

“I’m busy building software products now, and I’m having a blast working with some amazing designers and developers,” says Younkle. “However, I do fantasize from time to time about building a prototype for a better fishing reel. That’s been on my idea list for the last eight years. That’s a product I’d love to field test — even if it only ended up resulting in a market of one.”

Guiding hands

SCORE’s Humphrey says after living and observing innovation in Houston, Boston, L.A., and Chicago, the types of innovation Wisconsin needs to retain and attract talent is more than just the technology advances we hear about and experience every day.

“For economic growth, we also need to foster innovation in education, infrastructure, housing, cultural activities, financial support for invention, getting new businesses started, and helping existing businesses figure out how to survive and grow. We need to think about innovation in all those areas to grow and retain the innovators we need to grow our economy.”

Based on his observations through membership and participation in SCORE’s Southeast Wisconsin Chapter and the Wisconsin Innovation Network, as well as various studies about the economy, Humphrey believes Wisconsin’s health care, manufacturing, and agriculture sectors have produced a great deal of innovation and will continue to do so.

However, he notes, it’s very difficult to project which evolving industry segments will be our big economic drivers 20 years in the future. “The pace of invention and innovation needed to start, grow, and maintain businesses keeps accelerating. Wisconsin has a growing number of emerging companies in several sectors that will contribute to help drive our growth. I think some of the innovation going on in our state with artificial intelligence/robotics and recreation could become significant contributors to our future growth.

“To nurture these companies, you need access to capital, an educated workforce, a culture that understands the need to take risks in order to innovate, access to experienced advisers and mentors, and some outside forces that can impact your business going your way.”

For more information on the Inventing Our Way to Wisconsin’s Future Conference, visit sewisconsin.score.org.

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