Powering potential

Innovation stations, programs in New North help startups grow

Posted on Apr 29, 2021 :: Insight Insider
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

For entrepreneurs who have a new business idea or for existing companies that are looking for a fresh innovation boost, the possibilities in the New North are abundant.

Throughout the region, innovation stations, incubators and programs are helping startups, inventors and entrepreneurs. The key is getting people connected with the right resources and growing a network of assistance that can help get a new idea off the ground.

There’s no question TitletownTech, a partnership between the Green Bay Packers and Microsoft, has shined a light on innovation in the region. The NEW Launch Alliance also is in place to keep entrepreneurs informed about incubators and services, creating endless networking possibilities and plenty of places to look for assistance.

“I’m 20 years of being bullish on Northeast Wisconsin being the best place to launch and grow a business,” says Amy Pietsch, director of Fox Valley Technical College’s Venture Center, which she’s led since 2004. “All these years later, I’m seeing the evolution of that ecosystem and the attention and the focus now of entrepreneurship throughout the entire region.”

Across the board, innovation incubators and programs like the Venture Center work with clients first by discussing their idea and then connecting them with networks of resources, assistance, loans or investors.

“If you want to launch or grow a business, no matter what kind, if there’s an opportunity to build structure around your idea, build a company and be able to generate revenue and profit — this is the place for you to be able to do it,” Pietsch says.

Gathering resources

As a college-based program, FVTC’s Venture Center can help an entrepreneur build any needed skill sets to move their idea forward, understand the action steps required and find the right people to consult.

During the two decades FVTC has been working with entrepreneurs, it has developed a network of hundreds of professionals across numerous industries, Pietsch says. It all starts with an idea.

“Once you’re ready to take it, run with it, scale with it, guess what? There are all these other people that are here and will be excited to work with you,” she says.

FVTC has helped launch more than 550 businesses through its E-seed program and its Venture Center during the past 20 years or so, Pietsch says. 

The Venture Center also collaborates with other community entrepreneurial programs like gener8tor’s gBeta program and the Innovation Accelerator program for veterans. In addition, it partners with the AARP Foundation and its Work for Yourself at 50+ program, which allows the Venture Center to reach entrepreneurs beyond the region and even outside of Wisconsin.

Getting new businesses off the ground benefits the entire region by creating jobs and wealth for founders and investors that didn’t exist before. 

“Our sweet spot at the Venture Center has always been the solo, micro and more traditional small businesses and people who have the vision to operate those types of businesses,” Pietsch says.

Connecting with partners

Ron Franklin, a self-described serial entrepreneur who oversees both the Urban Hub and the Startup Hub, which are programs of the Greater Green Bay Chamber, says it’s important for people with an idea to understand that they’re not alone.

“The small business failure rate is as high as it is because people are too scared to ask for help or they don’t want to be seen as failing,” Franklin says. “There is nothing wrong with going and utilizing the resources that are out there.”

The Startup Hub is a business incubator that offers services to new businesses, including manufacturers. It began operating more than 30 years ago and was previously known as the Advanced Business and Manufacturing Center. It’s located on the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College campus and offers assistance as well as tenancy to startups.

Franklin guides new entrepreneurs through the steps of starting a business, including registration and tax information, and connects them with other needed assistance, such as law firms and accountants.

“Depending on what they need advice on, whether it be websites, whether it be e-commerce, whether it be marketing, whatever it is, we’ll have the connections to be able to reach out to them,” Franklin says.

Startup Hub has partner organizations onsite that help with business mentoring, including the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp. and Service Core of Retired Executives (SCORE). It also works with community businesses such as Associated Bank.

“If you don’t have any people in your network, then we will help you build that network. We will get you connected with those that want to help you,” Franklin says.

The Urban Hub, formerly known as the T2 Accelerator, is more of a tech-oriented coworking and collaboration space in downtown Green Bay, Franklin says.

“We don’t say we focus on tech, but (the Urban Hub) is where tech people seem to gravitate toward because there are tech-minded or like-minded people there,” Franklin says. “They really want to be around those that they can bounce ideas off.”

The space includes web designers and software companies, including a global software and analytics entrepreneur who, like Franklin, is originally from Australia, and chose the Urban Hub because of the network of fellow entrepreneurs occupying the space.

Finding mentorship

The Venture Project incubator and coworking space in Oshkosh started as an online coaching consultation service for entrepreneurs, says AJ Armstrong, a West Point graduate with a background in both systems engineering and real estate entrepreneurship. 

“A lot of the books we’d read would say, ‘You need to find a mentor,’” Armstrong says. “And I remember just looking through different types of advertisements and phone books and all sorts of things trying to find someone that would want to mentor me.”

Eventually, people in his network reached out to Armstrong and his wife, Marissa, founder of Marissa’s Fit Boutique in Oshkosh, for help with their own business ideas.

“We started doing that so much that it became, like, all night, we were on the phone with different people that wanted to kind of hear some tips and tactics on how to just get started,” Armstrong says. They began to consult and coach online, eventually establishing the physical space in Oshkosh “where we could find a place to bring entrepreneurs under one roof.”

While the onset of COVID-19 initially slowed their progress, the incubator opened in March and now has 15 members and is growing. Entrepreneurs can rent a space at different levels and use amenities like meeting spaces and a podcast studio. They also have access to mentorship, referral to experts and free community resources, Armstrong says.

People who have gone through or are going through starting a business can help others navigate the uncertainty and adversity they encounter, Armstrong says.

“The ride to the top can be very lonely, but sometimes it takes some gasoline to light the match and then make it go,” Armstrong says. “It’s about having a community of resources around you.

The Venture Project partners with the Small Business Development Center at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Alta Resources Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and offers special resources for veterans. It works with a variety of entrepreneurs, including inventors, hair and makeup artists, financial planners and creative entrepreneurs such as website developers, videographers and photographers.

“The doors are open to any idea,” Armstrong says. “We never know what we’re going to get, but I’m very confident we’ll be able to find the right people.”

Building a community

The Sheboygan County Economic Development Corp. has been working with the city on a redevelopment plan for part of its downtown area, a component of which would be focused on advancing innovation-based businesses in the community, says Brian Doudna, executive director.

The SCEDC has been focused on developing and designing services to support innovators and to build up that ecosystem, Doudna says.

“Right now, we’re focused in on the services model and making sure that we have top-notch services available to our entrepreneurs and our innovators,” he says.

In the last three months, the SCEDC adopted a new innovation strategy and is planning some initiatives tied to business startups and growth, including an upcoming business plan contest, Doudna says. It also is creating an innovation council focused on helping existing companies look at their innovation models and working on long-term strategies for overall growth.

Nick O’Brien, an engagement consultant who has worked with the SCEDC to help grow the area’s innovation culture and ecosystem, says intangibles like culture are key to fostering growth — particularly, one where a sense of creativity and innovation is omnipresent.

“There needs to be a community around you to feel best supported, connected and empowered to keep working,” O’Brien says. “Entrepreneurship is hard.”

He says businesses often fail for difficult-to-quantify reasons like conflicts between founders or with investors, not necessarily because they didn’t get the tangibles right. 

“The intangible, qualitative stuff is just as important to creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem that continues to sustain and grow on itself,” O’Brien says. “And to bring more of that same activity.”

To learn more about the NEW Launch Alliance, visit thenewnorth.com and click on Entrepreneurship.