‘Comrades in arms’

Milwaukee business incubator Veteran Entrepreneurial Transfer Inc. was launched in March to assist veterans who want to start their own companies, and it already has 120 budding entrepreneurs.
VETransfer’s founders, most of whom are veterans themselves, received $3.12 million from U.S. the Department of Veterans Affairs to fund training for a first round of veteran companies, said Ted Lasser, executive director. The incubator, the only one of its kind for veterans, is slated to receive more federal funding pending its success.

Located in The Shops of Grand Avenue, 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. in downtown Milwaukee, VETransfer helps veterans apply their military leadership skills to entrepreneurship through coaching in executive management, marketing, information technology and other facets of starting a business. VETransfer provides office space, advisors and seminars in writing business plans or marketing a product.

It does not provide any direct funding to the new businesses, but it does help them identify funding resources, said Keith Kennis, director of veteran affairs outreach. The government grant that VETransfer received was used to start and run the incubator while working on a national expansion.

In addition, the directors of VETransfer have started a separate non-profit, the Patriot Partners Charitable Fund, to assist veteran start-ups with venture funding.

“The difference is the amount of support,” Kennis said. “Because of my background of knowing the military and the culture, I can help them.”

Entrepreneurship is a good fit for many returning veterans who have learned to make strategic decisions quickly using critical thinking skills.

“There’s a particular discipline that comes out of being in the military that transfers well to starting a business,” Lasser said. “A veteran-owned business has a 60 percent greater chance of being successful than a civilian owned business because of those trained traits and gifts of being in the military.”

About 80 percent of the national organization’s businesses are in Wisconsin, and 50 percent are in the Milwaukee area, he said.

The new companies range from Yum Yum In Your Tum, a healthy cooking show, to Illumatek, a company that engraves and illuminates motorcycle windshields.

John Miller, a veteran of the Marine Corps, was run over by a car while on his motorcycle a few years ago, which gave him the idea for Illumatek.

“I’m never going to have somebody say, ‘I didn’t see you,’ again,” Miller said.

He worked with GE Healthcare to create LED lights that illuminate motorcycle windshields and wings at night, and the products have been very popular at motorcycle rallies nationwide, he said.

Miller said he has 10 employees now and plans to hire dozens more veterans for the quickly growing company.

Inspired by his grandmother’s malnutrition in a nursing home and his own problems with hypothyroidism, Sam Stein started Yum Yum in Your Tum to demonstrate simple recipes that are healthy and delicious, he said.

Stein served in the Army Reserves from 1990 to 1994, during the escalation of the Persian Gulf War. He was a journalist on Armed Forces Radio, playing songs for soldiers overseas.

He felt a connection with the directors of VETransfer because of their shared experiences.

“It was the camaraderie I felt when I talked to these guys on the phone,” Stein said.

Eventually, Lasser hopes VETransfer can be offered as a G.I. Bill benefit, so veterans have the option to go to school, buy a house or start a company.

Lasser has invested or had a hand in more than 80 companies during his career, so he’s experienced at starting businesses. He hopes the incubator can help diminish the high unemployment rate among post-Gulf War veterans by helping them create their own jobs, and hopefully hire other veterans.

“It’s very different to come back in this economy, the way it is. We’re finding that this is a solution,” he said. “It’s like we’re comrades in arms one last time, except in suits.”

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