Wisconsin has a strong tradition of entrepreneurship. Think of the marquee companies that remain the state’s economic “calling cards” – Oshkosh Corp., S.C. Johnson, Johnson Controls, Manitowoc Co., Harley-Davidson, Briggs & Stratton, Johnsonville, Kohler, Kohl’s and Quad Graphics. These companies all have one thing in common: They were named after the Wisconsin community of their founding or the last names of their founders.
Today, a new generation of entrepreneurs and their partners are building Wisconsin’s 21st century “knowledge economy” on a foundation that has long included expertise in manufacturing and agriculture, but which has expanded to include health care, software, financial services, energy innovation and more.
It remains a highly organic process, born largely of people and communities in Wisconsin — with more external support today than ever before.
While the existence of an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Wisconsin isn’t necessarily well known, even inside its borders, its growth over the past 15 years is a major reason why the state is gaining a reputation for being friendly to startups — even if one high-profile national ranking doesn’t show it.
Fifteen years ago, the entrepreneurial structure in Wisconsin was less than robust. Most of the formal assistance for entrepreneurs was clustered in the Madison area, with the Wisconsin Innovation Network, the Wisconsin Biotechnology Association (now BioForward), the Wisconsin Small Business Innovation Consortium and Accelerate Madison being among the early players.
In Milwaukee, organizations such as eInnovate and the Wisconsin Venture Network (later merged into WIN, now the Tech Council Innovation Network) were most active.
The Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium did not exist under that name or structure, the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference was only an idea, and Forward Fest, the Wisconsin Tech Summit and the Governor’s Business Plan Contest had yet to be launched.
On Wisconsin campuses, there were relatively few formal entrepreneurship programs, with the Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship in the UW-Madison School of Business and the Kohler program at Marquette University being prominent exceptions. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation began to work with startup companies in the late 1990s, but that process was a relatively slow evolution at the time due to WARF’s structure and historic mission.
While the UW-Madison has long been among the nation’s top research universities, the amount of R&D taking place elsewhere in the UW System was minimal.
As for venture and angel capital, there were only a handful of investors: Venture Investors and Wisconsin Investment Partners in Madison, and Mason Wells, Baird Venture Capital and Silicon Pastures in Milwaukee were chief among them.
State government involvement was limited to a few programs within the former Department of Commerce and a timely venture summit organized by Department of Financial Institutions. No one tracked how much money was being invested in startups — and it wouldn’t have been much, anyway.
Fortunately, times have changed. There are organizations in virtually every major community to help entrepreneurs, and statewide networks to match. In fact, there are scores of accelerators or co-working spaces in Wisconsin today, including the nationally recognized gener8tor program in Madison and Milwaukee.
Most UW System and private college campuses have courses or programs for entrepreneurs. Invention disclosures have more than doubled in recent years on UW System campuses outside Madison, with the UW-Milwaukee becoming a “R1” university and the WiSys Technology Foundation helping other campuses forge ahead.
The UW-Extension’s Small Business Development Centers have refined their mission, angel and venture investment has climbed along with the number of investors, and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. has made startups and other young companies core to its work.
None of this is to suggest that starting a business in Wisconsin is anything less than hard, but it’s a lot less lonely than it once was.
Are there tangible results? While one annual survey places Wisconsin at the bottom of the 25 largest states in startups, other studies that specifically target “Main Street” businesses, small business survival rates and tech-related jobs and startups show more progress.
The Tech Council will release some of those metrics within a week as a part of its biennial “white papers” report to state policymakers. That report will include recommendations for how Wisconsin can improve the perception and reality of its startup climate.
Pathways exist today for entrepreneurs and young companies to find the help they need. Not so long ago, that wasn’t the case in Wisconsin. With more success stories and hard work, that structure can only improve.
Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.