Startup Wisconsin eager to connect entrepreneurs

Lisa Johnson still gets excited when she talks about the startup companies she was involved in before joining the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. as vice president of entrepreneurship and innovation last September.

Johnson, who had a role in launching Novagen in 1989 and Semba Biosciences in 2009, waxes nostalgic about the early days of those companies the way athletes might reflect on their glory days.

But if there’s anything one needs when telling one’s war stories, it’s a receptive and sympathetic audience, and that’s where networking groups like Madison’s Capital Entrepreneurs come in.

“It’s entrepreneurs backing entrepreneurs,” said Johnson. “They’re there to support one another. … So it creates that culture and that network where they’re feeling my pain and they’re also feeling my joy, because it’s the best time of your life to start a company and to build it. There’s nothing like it. Oh, my God, it’s the best.”

“One of the things we need to do is uncover the people who have ideas and are working on start ups.” – Cindi Thomas

Capital Entrepreneurs, and other networking groups like it, are vital parts of the “startup ecosystems” that a new statewide initiative called Startup Wisconsin hopes to foster. Startup Wisconsin is affiliated with Startup America, a White House initiative that seeks to provide the resources and connections entrepreneurs need to help young companies grow.

According to Johnson, the WEDC is supporting and helping to publicize Startup Wisconsin – which has been touted as an entrepreneur-led effort that’s “by entrepreneurs, for entrepreneurs” – as part of the state’s many efforts to support startup businesses.

“WEDC supports this program because it’s a platform where entrepreneurs can connect with entrepreneurs,” said Johnson, evoking the dynamic that makes groups like Capital Entrepreneurs successful. “Those are some of the most successful programs, because if you’re not going through the experience it’s harder to relate or to get excited. … We’re trying to give entrepreneurs as many resources as possible, and sometimes it’s direct financing, sometimes it’s through a partner, or sometimes through organizations like this that people just don’t know about.”

Healthy ecosystems

Right now, Startup Wisconsin is just getting off the ground, but its goals are as lofty as they come. The program’s mission is to “increase the breadth and depth of the entrepreneurial ecosystem across our … state” and to “improve access to entrepreneurial education and build a more vibrant entrepreneurial community.”

The parent program, Startup America, has secured $1 billion worth of commitments from its partners, including the Ewing Marion Kaufmann Foundation and the Case Foundation, to help entrepreneurs gain access to expertise (mentors, advisors, accelerators, and trainers) and reduced-cost services. It also helps in recruiting, training, and retaining talent; finding customers and expanding into new markets; and finding sources of capital.

The national group’s mission includes working on a regional level to support and grow startup ecosystems across the country, which is where Startup Wisconsin comes in.

Cindi Thomas, the co-founder of Translator, a Milwaukee-based business-consulting firm, is one of the founding partners of Startup Wisconsin.

Thomas was a natural fit for Startup Wisconsin, as the program’s goals dovetail nicely with those of her own firm.

“As part of Translator’s business model, we have what we call open lab hours, which are open to the community every Tuesday and Thursday morning,” said Thomas. “And that’s basically an open forum for anyone in the community across disciplines that we use to share ideas, get feedback from the community, things like that. And what’s happened is that that forum has been quite a resource for the startup community as well.”

But while connecting entrepreneurs with entrepreneurs – a goal of networking groups like Madison Capital Entrepreneurs and even widely used services like LinkedIn – is a great way to help nurture the startup ecosystems that help businesses thrive, Startup Wisconsin’s mission is far more comprehensive than that.

“In Milwaukee in particular, which is where we’re based, there has been a really exciting ramp-up to bringing startup communities together in these meet-ups, and a really important part is just exposing people to their struggles and making opportunities available for people to share,” said Thomas. “So making opportunities like that available is one thing, but we want to really look at everything, for example, from an investment standpoint and the investment culture that this community is in and what we need to foster that. What are the local resources, how do we bring established businesses to the table, whether it’s through mentoring or resources or even deeper involvement in supporting the startup community and getting these start ups up and going?

“So it’s looking at a city, a community, a region as a whole and saying we need all of these things working in concert to really help the startup community. So what can we do, and where can we influence, and what can we put together to support that?”

Making connections

According to Thomas, the connections Startup Wisconsin and Startup America are hoping to create will exist on both a regional and national level.

“Startup America has developed a really deep resource network with some of the top brands in the country to support start ups,” said Thomas. “So whether that’s free technology or reduced cost technology or travel – I believe American Airlines is actually one of the partners that offers discounts on travel to make it easier on start ups – that’s something they have really brought to the table to the communities across America.

“From a regional perspective, what the national organization is really focused on is facilitating the regions and best practice sharing and online communication opportunities, connecting the regions together so that everybody can learn what’s working best within each of the regions. … You know, we can call Tennessee and they’ll put us in touch with whoever’s doing what they’re doing down there.”

Part of Startup Wisconsin’s mission during its own startup phase is to also create connections between entrepreneurial communities across the state.

“We’ve been reaching out to different communities and we’ve been finding a lot of activity that we didn’t even know was going on, like down in Racine and Kenosha there’s a pretty healthy community now that’s starting with meet-ups and uncovering what’s happening there. And even a little further up north, organizations like AeroInnovate, which is a group put in place to support start ups in the aeronautic technology field. We didn’t know about this stuff until we starting reaching out. So that’s our first priority is to really organize ourselves and figure out what are the highest priorities in our region and then ask, how can we focus in on that?”

Perhaps the biggest message that Startup Wisconsin is trying to get out to entrepreneurs across the state, however, is that they are not alone. She cites companies like the Mandel Group, which has made unleased retail space available to start ups in the Milwaukee area, as well as local universities, which have been making themselves available as a resource.

“It’s a good central place, and that’s part of the goal,” said Thomas. “One of the things we need to do is uncover the people who have ideas and are working on start ups. We get a lot of people at our lab sessions at Translator who say, ‘I have this idea for a business but I’m not quite sure what to do with it or who to go talk to,’ and that’s what we can help people with here, but ultimately, Startup Wisconsin is looking to do it on a much bigger scale.”

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