Colleen Merrill

Sparking a startup generation

Posted on Mar 1, 2016 :: Face Time
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

At the SBDC, we work with any company under 500 employees. Our office is lean, very lean. We probably see about 170 clients a year and there are fewer than two full-time people in the office. We’ve taken companies from bankruptcy to being profitable. We’ve started many companies. We are the no-cost business consultants and we rock it. 

Because of that role with SBDC, I started speaking in the classroom at the university, which led to the Alta Resources Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. We are just coming into our third academic year and we’ve launched more than 20 student companies, including one company acquiring another one for $10 million, a craft brewery that is a $1.2 million project and someone who came up with a smart pillow — the ideas are absolutely phenomenal.

Finding those great ideas is one of the reasons we started our “Shark Tank” competition. For the last competition, we had about 50 students apply and we narrowed it down to 10. These students come in completely unprepared and they learn so much — we make them do this in two weeks. People love to come because they are going to hear about things they have never heard about before. For those on stage, it’s chasing a dream, but it also inspires those in the audience. We want them to say “If (the contestants) can do it, I bet I can do it too.”

My goal is to help them start that business and connect them to successful business owners who love to give back and are empowered by helping others grow. One of our underserved populations is youth, and I believe no one is paying attention, or not paying enough attention, to these brilliant students. If we don’t connect them to the resources in the community, they are going to leave. If we can connect them to the mentors, resources and connections it’s really hard to leave that. We want to create a continuum of people who care about them here and want to see them grow here.

There are three obstacles in particular when it comes to young entrepreneurs. The first is fear. They have become risk averse. Some will say it’s because of student debt. Some will say it’s lack of experience. Number two is access to capital. It doesn’t necessarily take a lot of capital, but for someone to get $5,000 can make all the difference. Lack of access to mentor and resources in the community that will take them under their wing is the third obstacle.

We work on overcoming all of those with the Accelerator curriculum. We take about 20 students at a time through an intensive 12-week course. We’ve had some successful business ideas come out of the class. That doesn’t mean every idea is ready when the class is done. Sometimes, we still need to run a pilot program, test the market and build up the capital.

What we are seeing is that those teams are starting to grow. The second year, which we ran in spring of 2015, we had two ideas that perked up rather quickly. I would say about five of the ideas are scalable and another five are lifestyle. They may not scale up or attract venture capitalists, but they have created a job for themselves and hired a few other people.

I think the environment for entrepreneurs is starting to change in Northeast Wisconsin. We are creating the ecosystem and there are people who are supportive of the entrepreneurs. There are investors who want to bring venture capital here and we are just getting started.