Supporters of Wisconsin’s statewide startup ecosystem understand the key to success is delivering the right resources to the right entrepreneurs at the right time and in the right place.
Wisconsin’s industry development strategy leverages a versatile investment tool—the Targeted Industry Project Program administered by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC)—to support catalytic initiatives in industry sectors with the greatest potential for significant job growth. Participants in such projects include private business, industry consortia organizations, educational institutions and economic development stakeholders. One example of such an industry-focused investment is the establishment of a center of excellence that acts as an anchor for education, R&D, talent attraction, commercialization and more.
Startups within Wisconsin’s targeted industries can also benefit from WEDC’s Seed Accelerator Program, whereby WEDC works with an entity representing the industry sector to support a cohort-based accelerator program tailored to the specific needs of businesses in that industry. Seed accelerator participants receive business development coaching, mentorship, investor access, funding, technical expertise and other resources to refine their product and move toward commercialization. Examples of Wisconsin’s industry-specific seed accelerators include:
The BREW (Business. Research. Entrepreneurship. In Wisconsin) was launched in 2013 by The Water Council. It is devoted to enhancing Milwaukee’s reputation as a hub of global water innovation by supporting startups around the world in a dedicated, water-focused startup community.
The Midwest Energy Research Consortium (M-WERC) operates this 12-week program, which targets engineers, scientists and programmers at every stage who need access to expertise, and who in turn can support this regional cluster of energy, power and controls (EPC) companies and companion academic institutions.
Every year, 10 growing food and beverage companies are chosen by FaB Wisconsin, the state’s food and beverage industry cluster, for inclusion in a yearlong, comprehensive business and finance program designed to take them to sustainable success.
This virtual accelerator connects five aviation-industry startups with mentors to help hone their business models and prepare pitches. That’s followed by Pitch Camp, an event to further polish those efforts, and then a trip to EAA AirVenture, where cohort members meet with aviation investors and industry leaders.
Engaging with and enhancing opportunities for innovative and engaged startups and small businesses meant creating several access points along the development continuum, says Aaron Hagar, WEDC’s vice president of entrepreneurship and innovation.
Creating a broad platform for innovation
“Most accelerators tend to be very investor-focused, and just look at Silicon Valley-style companies,” Hagar says. “This is a different approach. We are taking the accelerator methodology and applying it to the needs of many different, and more traditional, industries.”
Accelerator programs can provide a double bottom line for Wisconsin’s most successful and aggressive industry sectors. First, the sectors can see new company growth because startups are nimbler and better prepared for the open market. The secondary benefit is from the new technology and innovation created by startups that can benefit established industry players by providing new solutions to old problems or pathways to new products. With this type of engagement, WEDC can leverage private and corporate investment to support business, sustainability, innovation and growth in urban and rural environments around the state.
“Through the centers of excellence, these industries, as well as communities, educational institutions, nonprofits and other mission-based organizations, have built a mechanism to support entrepreneurs in their own backyard,” Hagar says. “The seed accelerators then can scale up or down based on the needs of the supporting business group and overall business climate, so they are as adaptable as the communities they serve.”
Aaron Hagar is vice president of entrepreneurship and innovation for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, where he leads a team of dedicated professionals with strong relationships within the state’s entrepreneurial community to quickly advance and develop efforts to support Wisconsin’s startups, innovation-based businesses and aspiring entrepreneurs.