Thursday’s THINC! Conference attendees came away with two clear messages: Challenge mindsets to facilitate innovation, and help get great ideas off the ground by making it easier to fund them.
“Angel investing is really the fuel that helps drive so many new young companies in the United States,” said Wisconsin Technology Council’s Tom Still after the program. “It has become a big part of job creation as well because these young companies are the ones creating jobs, so it’s really instrumental to what’s going on in the early-stage economy.”
More than 200 innovators and entrepreneurs from around the region attended the first-ever THINC! Technology & Human Innovation Networking Conference at the EAA in Oshkosh.
The first part of the day, sponsored by Insight Publications, was broken into four breakout talks. Speakers were Pat Clusman of InnovationEdge (who filled in for Cheryl Perkins, whose flight was delayed because of storms); Craig Dickman, CEO and Chief Innovation Officer for Breakthrough Fuel; Neal Verfuerth, CEO of Orion Energy Systems and Bob Pedersen, president and CEO of Goodwill NCW (who sported a whimsical flamingo hat during his presentation).
Clusman traveled to China earlier this year with Perkins and said there is a market for growth in fast-growing, emerging economies such as that. Some U.S. companies have been successful there – yet others (including Best Buy, Nestle and Pepsi) have stumbled. That’s often because the companies had unrealistic expectations in terms of growth or failed to consider the Chinese model of consumption.
“There is an opportunity for growth and gain in these kinds of environments,” Clusman said, “There’s also an opportunity to invest a lot and lose a lot. You do have to be careful and work and leverage your insights as you go through the process.”
How? Adapt to conditions, he said. “Understand what it means to compete in that marketplace, what it means to be a shopper, or a consumer in that marketplace, and understand that you’re going to have to change your innovation model based on some of those learnings.”
Craig Dickman, whose company Breakthrough Fuel challenged the notion that nothing could be done about fuel costs for shipping, said: “Behind every innovation, behind every new creation, is somebody who’s not satisfied with the status quo and knows there’s a better way, somebody who sees an opportunity where others see problems, and some who sees the opportunity to connect a couple of dots where they’ve never been connected before.”
How do you do it? Get out of your comfort zone, he said. Invest time and money. It took Breakthrough Fuel 17 months before it put its first product on the market in 2004, and now the company has saved its clients about a quarter of a billion dollars.
And, he said, innovation is a culture rather than a single event. Clients expect new products and continual forward motion. “I was meeting a client and this person looked at me and said, ‘Okay, you saved us $50 million. What are you going to do next?’ And you’ll find if you attract companies that are interested in innovation, they’re always going to ask you, ‘What are you doing next?’” Dickman said.
Neal Verfuerth, CEO of Orion Energy Systems, said when he first developed the idea of replacing high-intensity discharge lights (such as what you find in gymnasiums or factories) with a fluorescent, people thought he was crazy. What he was doing was challenging the status quo of a product that had been used for 40 years.
“So many people say they embrace change and look forward to it, to the challenge,” he said. “But at the end of the day they don’t like it because it interrupts their notion of what things should be.”
Change and innovation can occur also with personnel and how we deal with people, said Bob Pedersen, President & CEO of Goodwill NCW. Pedersen challenged THINC! participants to rethink the way we deal with things like performance reviews, which nobody likes to give and nobody likes to get.
“Only Jesus gets a five,” Pedersen said.
His organization has instead offered growth and development strategies to help empower people to take initiative. He stressed the importance of humanizing the workplace, giving people proper time to grieve, for example, and taking care of all aspects of health, including financial and mental health.
The second part of the day, sponsored by First Business Bank, focused on how to bring innovation to life. The lunch program featured Alan Klapmeier, CEO and Chairman of Kestrel Aircraft, and the afternoon continued with speakers from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, the Wisconsin Angel Network and Wisconsin Technology Council.
Mickey Noone, president of First Business Bank Northeast and co-founder of investing group Angels on the Water, said angel investing is key to new innovators whose idea has expanded beyond the initial funding from family and friends.
“It’s really the next fuel to the engine to keep propelling them forward,” Noone said.
And a conference like THINC! is key to creating awareness and getting the idea of angel investing out, he said.
“We have tons of innovation in northeast Wisconsin,” Noone said. “It’s really about getting the two groups together and creating awareness and seeing where the groups take it.”
— Nikki Kallio