UWM joins regional push to foster entrepreneurship

Chancellor Michael Lovell talks about UWM’s role in the new state and local partnership aimed at growing Milwaukee’s entrepreneurial community. (Photo by Peter Jakubowski)

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) is a key member of a new coalition – the first of its kind in the nation – that will foster entrepreneurship in the Milwaukee area using advice from one of the leading entrepreneurial experts in the country to build a strategy.

The Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC) has announced that Milwaukee will be the first community in the U.S. to develop an entrepreneurship program using a model developed by Daniel Isenberg, founding director of the Babson Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Project.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and UWM Chancellor Michael Lovell announced the OPEN for Enterprise: Coalitions for High-Growth Entrepreneurship project as part of a bipartisan effort to grow the economy by stimulating start-ups and scale-ups of existing businesses to encourage job creation.

The project has support from American Express OPEN, which provides financial services to entrepreneurs. The coalition will include the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) and the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Administration (WHEDA).

Isenberg’s entrepreneurship ecosystem model works with community leaders and other stakeholders to focus on the unique characteristics of their own regions that can be used to create a vibrant environment that supports entrepreneurs.

Milwaukee has potential for such a project because of the many organizations that already exist here to help grow entrepreneurs, such as BizStarts, MiKE, Startup Milwaukee, and the Milwaukee Water Council. In addition, the area can leverage its commitment to freshwater technologies, engineering and advanced manufacturing.

“Universities are the epicenters of new ideas and breakthroughs, and are at the root of catalyzing entrepreneurial ecosystems,” said Lovell. “Because we are the largest and only research intensive university in the region, UWM must become a center for innovation and entrepreneurship or this project will not succeed.”

Last year, he and businessman Shel Lubar visited Babson College to find out why the private business college in Massachusetts has been ranked No. 1 in entrepreneurship for last 20 consecutive years by U.S. News and World Report. Lovell had learned from his experience at the University of Pittsburg how that city had transitioned from its struggling steel town past to become a high-tech economy.

“The key to that transformation was creating an ecosystem where the city, state and private sectors worked synergistically with universities to support innovation,” Lovell added. Along with 1300 engineering firms in the Milwaukee area, he added, the area’s industry clusters include energy and power control, water technology, and food and beverages.

UWM is already actively involved in promoting entrepreneurship through three major student business competitions funded through private donors and foundations. Since 2008, one of the competitions has yielded seven small companies that are currently operating in the area. The latest competition, the Student Startup Challenge encourages interdisciplinary teams competing on the strength of a great product idea. Winners then get help in building a prototype and launching a company.

“By nurturing an environment for scalable Wisconsin-based businesses, our partnership with Daniel Isenberg and American Express OPEN will support the state’s pledge to bring 250,000 jobs to Wisconsin – one-third of which will come from Milwaukee,” said Walker.

The coalition meets April 15-17 to begin building the details of the project, including the exact amount of funding that each partner will contribute. A public meeting is scheduled for May 6 to discuss the progress.