Start me up

Launch Wisconsin, Winnebago Seed Fund boost the NE Wisconsin startup environment

Posted on Jun 30, 2017 :: Up Front
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Never underestimate the potential of a well-timed temper tantrum.

Frustrated with Wisconsin’s continual ranking as one of the worst states for entrepreneurs, doubly so that there seemed to be a lack of conversation about why that was, John Ernst decided it was time to throw a fit.

That fit was Launch Wisconsin, an event dedicated to connecting startups, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and mentors, and providing some heat for Northeast Wisconsin’s lukewarm startup culture.

“The reason Launch Wisconsin came into the world was as an angry attempt to keep these folks from going elsewhere, to get the region to engage with a startup community,” says Ernst, president and executive director of Launch Wisconsin, who’s planning for the 2017 event. “I think we are past that and we are seeing a startup community begin to coalesce.”

It may have been a tantrum, but Launch Wisconsin’s debut seemed to renew a broader focus on the startup community in the region and served notice that the New North region is silent no longer.

Prior to the first Launch Wisconsin event, most of the conversations in NortheastWisconsin centered on how the lack of venture capital, entrepreneur resources and startup culture adversely affected the area — when they took place at all. The Kauffman Index ranked the state dead last for startups, and it seemed that most of the conversations in the New North region were about where outside the region entrepreneurs could go to find a better environment.

“We live in a very conservative business part of the state, where a lot of wealthy people, and frankly a lot of great companies, are living off the entrepreneurial risk taken 100 years ago,” says Paul Jones, founder of the Forum for Innovation and a principal in Angels on the Water and Ventures on the Water.

The conversation is changing, though. Thanks to the concerted efforts of folks like Ernst, Jones and others, not only is the conversation a more positive one, but it happens more frequently, with greater volume and key connections are being made earlier in the process as components of a vibrant startup culture appear throughout the region.

The deals are following.

This past spring, the regional colleges and universities combined their existing “Shark Tank” type competition into the regionwide The Pitch.

Statewide startup gurus with gener8tor plan to bring the company’s successful gBeta program to the region this fall.

Mentorship programs such as New North’s Fast Forward 3.0 and assistance programs such as Fox Valley Technical College’s Venture Center are providing entrepreneurs and startups with the knowledge and tools they need to get off to a fast start.

“What we are trying to do is find those businesses that have a high potential to be scaled up quickly on a three-to five-year horizon,” says Dale Walker, FVTC’s director of Business and Industry Services and a Fast Forward mentor.

Just as important, the investors have followed suit. The past few years have seen several new early-stage investment funds come into play. The Winnebago Seed Fund, part of the Badger Fund of Funds, will provide entrepreneurs with the important bridge funding they need at the early stages of development, Managing Director David Trotter says. This is a particular need for those who have ideas for new companies, but feel trapped between a current job and starting a new company.

Still, there is work to be done.

Ernst notes that while there are positive signs from our region, we are still in the early stages of developing a startup ecosystem. While this region is launching co-working spaces and announcing $10 million in startup funds, competing regions have their spaces packed with entrepreneurs and are announcing early-stage VC funds of $100 million or more.

While it can be frustrating, Ernst knows those involved need to keep evangelizing to build a better support network, one that not only links the entrepreneurs and investors, but also brings the existing corporate community into the mix as well.

“Think of what we could do if we could get some of those major players involved,” Ernst says. “They want the disruptive ideas that come from the startup culture, we just have to work to help both sides understand the role they can play.

Entrepreneur resources and events

Launch Wisconsin 2017
Launch Wisconsin is a technology and startup conference created by entrepreneurs and event producers in Wisconsin. As many as 2,000 attendees and speakers from the region, the nation and the world are expected to attend, many representing the world’s largest brands.

Oct. 17-18
Lambeau Field
Tickets: $145

Fast Forward 3.0
A New North mentorship program for fast-growth entrepreneurs, Fast Forward 3.0 assists high-growth startups, “gazelles,” and existing firms with finding mentors, talent and financing to help accelerate the company’s ability to create and capture value while creating wealth and jobs in the New North region. The focus is to help the region’s most promising and existing firms scale their businesses, attract talent, capital and resources, and access innovation, invention and business networks.