Grand ideas

The Milwaukee region’s heritage is rooted in entrepreneurial ventures. European immigrants came here with families, very few belongings and a few dollars in their pockets.

Some also brought vision and the entrepreneurial spirit. Some of those immigrants started companies that bore their names and became iconic to the city: Usinger, Cudahy, Miller, Pabst and Bradley.

Today, Steve Glynn, the founder of Milwaukee-based Spreenkler LLC, is bringing new life to Milwaukee’s collective risk-taking entrepreneurial spirit. He has successfully launched multiple initiatives to support startup companies and provide opportunity for young talent in the region and corporations to collaborate.

“I’m a second-generation born and raised here,” Glynn said. “This community has always been at the heart of what I do. I wanted to push the envelope. I see the potential this community has, the ability of the young talent here, and the possibilities for real collaboration between them and corporations. It can really become an economic driver for the region.”

Spreenkler recently relocated from its office in Bay View to the Shops of Grand Avenue (see accompanying story). In addition to leading the revitalization effort of one of downtown Milwaukee’s struggling urban mall, Spreenkler’s newest venture, Spreenkler Talent Labs, is at the center of positioning the greater Milwaukee area as a design and technology hub for the region, according to Julia Taylor, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee.

“Spreenkler and other organizations in town are leading the charge to reclaim Milwaukee’s heritage of seed-stage incubation,” Taylor said. “There is a new energy in the mall, and in a lot of ways it is becoming the physical and virtual center for design and technology initiatives in the city.”

Spreenkler Talent Labs, a 501(c)3 organization, has helped start 19 software companies and has supported the development of more than 30 different software applications since December. The lab is poised to launch a new collaborative initiative that would enable area corporations to utilize students and professionals within Spreenkler as their technical development laboratory.

“Mobile technology and customized software development is the future and is going to be crucial for company growth,” Glynn said. “More than likely, companies are not going to hire the talent to construct these applications internally, so we’ve designed a model for them to get it done here.”

Businesses can contract with Spreenkler Talent Labs, which plans to hire teams of approximately 30 students or recent graduates twice per year, Glynn said.

“There is a lot of talent in this marketplace,” Glynn said. “The students will be divided into smaller teams who will work alongside industry professionals to brainstorm and develop tech-based solutions for local companies.”

Several prominent Milwaukee area businesses, including Briggs & Stratton Corp., Kohl’s Corp., ManpowerGroup, Badger Meter Inc. and MillerCoors LLC have all expressed interest in the program, Glynn said.

“Julia (Taylor) came to us and really understood what we were doing,” Glynn said. “She has been instrumental in forming critical relationships with company leadership in the community.”

Companies will be able to give Spreenkler Talent Labs a problem they are facing or a general idea of a project they need developed, and students in the lab will develop a solution for them, Glynn said.

“At the very least, we will train approximately 60 people in the area on how to effectively and efficiently design and develop technical solutions for companies,” Glynn said. “At the end of the process, companies will have a working prototype and can expand on it internally or hire the team of students full-time to develop it even further. It’s a win-win solution for everyone, especially the community.”

‘Web 5.0 world’

“It really wasn’t a hard sales pitch,” Taylor said. “Our companies need this. As we move into a web 5.0 world, companies will need to differentiate themselves from their competitors, and they are starting to realize that utilizing design and technology to do that is a very real possibility. One executive coined it as, ‘contracted creativity.'”

John Kissinger, chief operating officer at Milwaukee-based GRAEF-USA Inc. said he hopes to work with Spreenkler Talent Labs in the future.

“There are a lot of people in Milwaukee who don’t like the business climate in the community,” Kissinger said. “You can do a couple of things about that. You can move, try to fix it or you can complain. I’m a big supporter of Milwaukee and try to make it a better place to live and do business. Steve is that type of person too.”

Spreenkler is working to secure funding to assist with the new initiative, but is ready to move forward with company projects as soon as students are hired, Glynn said.

Spreenkler Talent Labs also recently formed one of their 19 startups in less than 24 hours at the annual Wisconsin Entrepreneurs Conference held in Milwaukee.

“The energy in the room at that event was incredible,” Glynn said.

The others companies and applications were developed either at one of two 24-hour “Hackathon” events held by Spreenkler or through its seed incubator initiative.

Spreenkler Talent Labs graduated five teams of young professionals through its first seed incubator program. College students or recent college graduates with ideas for tech-based companies or software development applications were led through a 12-week program designed to help them develop a business plan and growth strategy, Glynn said.

“After the 12-week program, the companies had the opportunity to present to a room full of potential investors,” he said.

Homegrown talent

According to Glynn, the first round of companies was a huge success, and representatives of a substantial amount of potential venture capital funding from organizations around the state were “highly impressed” with the first group of companies, Glynn said.

“What we’re trying to do is change the mentality of the region,” Glynn said. “We want young talent in the area to know that if they have a good idea, it’s OK to pursue it, and it’s possible to turn that idea into a company, an economic driver and a job creator for the region.”

Spreenkler Talent Lab hopes that many, if not all of the companies would remain in the region to grow their business after they complete the incubator program.

“We haven’t recruited out of state for our talent,” Glynn said. “Each and every team so far has come from educational institutions in our state, talent that already exists here.”

Emmanuel Mamalakis, entrepreneur and owner of Milwaukee-based SXP Analytics and EMM Holdings Inc., serves as the financial backer for Spreenkler Talent Labs’ seed incubator. Mamalakis declined to comment for this report, indicating he wants to keep a low profile.

According to Glynn, the success of the first round was a team effort.

“For (Mamalakis) to believe in what we were doing from so early on was a huge deal and obviously a big part of our success,” Glynn said.

Chosen companies receive initial seed funding up to $6,000 per person, a laptop with necessary software, space to work on their ideas and access to a network of experienced entrepreneurs dedicated to helping them through the process, Glynn said.

Providing the fuel

“It takes two things for an ignition,” said Zach Brandon, director of the Wisconsin Technology Council’s Wisconsin Angel Network. “You have to have fuel, and you have to have spark. What Spreenkler Talent Labs and Steve are creating is a place where spark can happen. It’s the responsibility of the Wisconsin Angel Network and other organizations like it to make sure there is fuel and early stage funding available for this initiative to take off. Steve has really set the model for this type of development to happen in the region.”

According to Brandon, The Wisconsin Angel Network was very impressed with the companies that came out of the first round of the seed incubator. One company was even named a finalist in the Wisconsin Governors Business Plan competition, he said.

“We saw real opportunity with those companies. I know that a few of them have already gotten an audience of some early stage funds and have started to make the transition from the incubation of the talent lab to the real world economy,” Brandon said.

Brandon will play an even more crucial role in the development of the second class of students by coming in to educate the students on understanding the tax credit system in Wisconsin and how investment works, he said.

According to a recent study conducted by Missouri-based Kaufmann Foundation, an organization dedicated to understanding the economic impact of entrepreneurship, job growth is driven almost entirely by startup firms that develop organically, Brandon said.

“Entrepreneurial startups represent almost all net new job creation in any given region,” Brandon said. “That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone from this region. Our state is founded on its entrepreneurial heritage. What is important about Spreenkler is that it has become the gateway for the next generation of entrepreneurs. They can find access to information, to mentoring and eventually innovation capital that will lead to companies and the job creation of the future.”

Glynn founded what is now Spreenkler Creative, an interactive design and marketing agency, in 2009. Two years earlier, Glynn began organizing meetups among people in the design and technology community in the region.

Utilizing young talent in the community is at the heart of everything Spreenkler does, Glynn said.

Spreenkler Creative hires college-age students and recent graduates and puts them to work alongside seasoned professionals on projects and campaigns for area companies.

Romke de Haan was named president of Spreenkler Creative in mid-2010.

“We’re building a stronger pool of talent so companies not only have more experienced professionals to hire, but young people have more opportunity to remain in the community,” de Haan said.

The Spreenkler vision

Glynn started his career in data services and simple web development. In 2006, when he started the Spreenkler Meetups, Glynn outlined his vision for Milwaukee on a piece of paper.

“I was mowing the lawn one day, and I took notice of the sprinkler system,” he said.

The rotating movement of the sprinkler soaked a large portion of the surrounding grass with water, which in-turn helped the area grow.

“That’s what I wanted,” Glynn said.

The piece of paper, which he has in a frame, outlines the various components of his future company. Spreenkler Creative, Spreenkler Talent Labs, the seed incubator and the relationship and interaction he would need with community groups and initiatives, including the Greater Milwaukee Committee, the Water Council and now, the Creative Alliance of Milwaukee.

These organizations are uniting with common goals: to help the Milwaukee region position itself as a vibrant community, an economic driver and an example of collaborative leadership in the Midwest and throughout the country.

“Our goal is to change the conversation,” Glynn said. “We want to start companies and bring new ideas and ideals to the marketplace. It’s an amazing feeling to see it all start coming to fruition. A lot of people have worked really hard to get us this far, and a lot of people will play a role in keeping the conversation going.”

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