The Many Faces and Flavors of Entrepreneurism in Wisconsin
submitted by Tom Still

Ask the average person to describe an "entrepreneur" and it may sound a bit like a white-coated scientist emerging from a laboratory with the promise of a life-saving drug, albeit 10 years and hundreds of millions of dollars away from reality.

In Wisconsin, and especially in Madison and Milwaukee, that description certainly fits one successful class of entrepreneur. Biotech and medical device innovation has helped to put the state on a different economic map.

Across Wisconsin, however, entrepreneurism takes a variety of shapes and forms that involve young and old, city dwellers and rural residents, garage inventors and moms with good ideas, and sectors of the economy that have little or nothing to do with medical technology.

That diversity was on display earlier this month in Milwaukee at the annual Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference, where 400 people gathered to hear about trends shaping — and reshaping — the Wisconsin economy.

The seventh annual Governor’s Business Plan Contest boiled down to 12 entrepreneurs who hailed from across Wisconsin and whose business plans reflected advanced manufacturing, business services, information technology, and life sciences. Those plans included a product that can restore septic systems; a lightweight, portable and user-powered wheelchair; an industrial use for nanotechnology coatings; next-generation optical frames and accessories for children; a web-based system for managing online stores; a new way to deliver cloud-computing services; natural product fungicides that can be used to control plant pathogens, and more.

The winner was a Fox Valley company that has turned a new page on an iconic institution — the school yearbook. LIVEyearbook, Inc. of Neenah has developed a software-as-a-service platform that can be used by students and schools to produce online yearbooks, with all the controls and revenue models that schools need and the creativity that students want. Think Facebook and digital yearbook.

Contestants in the final round of the contest ranged from 50-something engineers who spent most of their careers inside larger companies, to a mom inspired by her daughter’s reluctance to wear eyeglasses, to college entrepreneurs just beginning their journey through business life.

The conference also reflected the fact that entrepreneurial opportunities exist across the full spectrum of businesses in Wisconsin — including some the state is uniquely positioned to address.

One panel discussion focused on entrepreneurial activities surrounding food, where trends that range from sustainability to "buy local" to organic to "slow food" are creating ways for small businesses to provide innovative choices to consumers. Wisconsin is a leading food producing state, and ripe for innovation.

Another discussion dealt with how entrepreneurs can capitalize on the "cleantech" movement, which has attracted a rising percentage of angel and venture capital in the United States, as well as significant research and development money from the federal government. From its natural resources to its R&D laboratories, Wisconsin can find itself at the center of cleantech.

While many Americans may disagree on the merits of the health-care reform bill, there’s no denying it is bringing change to the delivery of health services, information, and more. Change usually means opportunity for entrepreneurs, and that was another conference topic.

Social media is a trend that has captured the attention of millions of people seemingly overnight, but which is only beginning to be tapped as a tool for business development. That topic was covered, as well, led by younger entrepreneurs at the vanguard of the technology.

Wisconsin is a state that depends heavily on exports, whether in manufacturing, agriculture, or technology, and the conference also explored options for entrepreneurs who want to enter leading foreign markets.

The economy in Wisconsin continues to evolve in ways that are driven by innovation, knowledge, strategic investment, and measured risk-taking. Entrepreneurs are helping to lead the way. Some may wear white lab coats, but others may be just as comfortable in the garb of everyday people.

Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, which produced the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.