Craig Dickman believes “one size fits one in innovation.” Before joining TitletownTech as managing director last year, Dickman founded Breakthrough, which helps companies reduce transportation costs through fuel management solutions, and StageThree, an innovation-focused practice working with corporate partners and entrepreneurs to create new capabilities. An inventor who holds several patents, Dickman also has served as an executive at Schneider National, Paper Transport and Master Fleet.
Dickman, an entrepreneur and innovator himself, says he is well prepared to work with the startups and businesses coming to TitletownTech for help. He spoke with Insight about the role TitletownTech can play in fostering innovation and entrepreneurship in the region.
Insight: A lot of people drive past TitletownTech and wonder what’s going on in this building. How do you respond to that question?
Craig Dickman: We’re definitely in a visible location, so it’s natural that people are curious, plus it’s associated with the Packers and Microsoft — two organizations that draw attention. While there’s been a lot of interest and intrigue about what we’re doing here, we’re now in the phase of changing that to knowledge and engagement by getting out there and telling our story. It takes time to build a strong foundation where entrepreneurism can flourish.
TitletownTech is about leveraging the Packers’ unique position to bring businesspeople and others together to develop a place where people can build their own businesses. It’s also a place designed to help businesses solve technical problems, plus a way to keep people with technical talent here. There’s really never been anything like TitletownTech. Look at who’s involved: We have owners of sports franchises in three national sports — the Packers, the (Boston) Bruins and the (New York) Mets — along with Microsoft, a great global company.
The core of TitletownTech is that we’re an innovation- and venture-building collaboration. In other markets, collisions happen all the time between venture funds, people with great ideas and businesses. Here, we need to help create those situations where we have companies looking to solve problems, entrepreneurs with new ideas and venture funding all coming together. We want to leverage our connections here to help entrepreneurs with new ideas make their own connections.
We’ve had a lot of conversations with companies here and those not yet in the area. We invite them in to talk about disruption and digital transformation and how we can leverage the different connections. We want people to understand this is a place where you can take an idea and grow it into a successful business. Our region has a long history of innovation, and we need to do a better job of promoting ourselves and telling our story.
You’ve said there’s nothing like TitletownTech out there. What makes it stand apart?
We are definitely unique. We’re not just a venture fund; we’re not just a place where entrepreneurs can come and work to build their business. There are three parts to TitletownTech: our innovation lab, the venture studio and the venture fund.
In putting TitletownTech together, the first key step was getting the fund up. The next step is bringing in entrepreneurs. It’s all about being able to build our own businesses and enterprises here. We want to get out the message that you don’t have to go to the Twin Cities or the coasts to get your business going. There’s a lot of value in connecting with others and bringing in people like Aaron Kennedy, the founder of Noodles, who is the entrepreneur-in-residence at TitletownTech and with UW-Green Bay, which can inspire and challenge the entrepreneurs.
We also have a lot of technology resources. Let’s say your company is working on VR and having some difficulties. We have resources that we can leverage from Microsoft, including its technical architect in residence. It’s all about how we can leverage the market to try new things. Our focus is to accelerate connections and help get the product into the market. We want to take that entrepreneur’s idea and get it in the hands of someone who can use it and see how they respond.
With the entrepreneurs, we can invest in them via money or with our resources — people, time and talent. In return for building their business up, we’ll get some equity, and as they grow, we at TitletownTech will benefit and can use that to help others.
Beyond entrepreneurs, you also work with industry sectors and established businesses.
Yes, we’re also here to help businesses that have a problem or idea but are not sure how to solve it. They can bring it to us, and we can work on it. We can take that concept and build them a prototype. After we test it for them, they can decide if they just want to kill the idea, spin it out as a venture of its own or bring it inside and include it as part of their core enterprise and use it as a strategic advantage. Businesses handle new innovations differently. Some bring it in-house while others spin it off. Look at Appleton Papers — now Appvion. They developed the encapsulation technology and kept it in house for many years before deciding to spin it off and sell it as a separate company, Encapsys, and look at the success that company has had.
We are building innovation councils around five key verticals: sports, media and entertainment; digital health; agriculture, water and environment; advanced manufacturing; and supply chain technology. So far, the most interest is around digital health, but as we bring the councils together, we can ask if there’s an industry-wide issue that’s too big for a single company to take on. Is that something we can look to develop a solution for?
Getting companies to collaborate on solutions is not always easy. Businesses with established R&D departments or that have a collaborative environment are more open to working together. Some worry that if they share a good idea that someone will steal it, but it’s a long way from coming up with an idea to making the idea reality. Innovation is collaborative, but people’s instincts are to be secretive.
In the end, the core processes of innovation cut across all our verticals. This is all new and it will be exciting to watch it develop.