Economic development in the seven-county region that makes up the Milwaukee 7 has refocused to propel innovation and entrepreneurship to produce new businesses and jobs.
It’s a subtle shift, with attracting and retaining employers remaining a key priority.
Recent successes in that area include the build-out of an Amazon distribution center in Kenosha, and its projected 1,250 jobs; and Kenall Manufacturing’s new headquarters and plant, and its projected 620 new positions.
The buzz and momentum in the region, though, centers on the investment and human capital flowing into start-ups and incubators created to help entrepreneurs make the leap from idea to market, then grow into major employers.
The Milwaukee Water Council and its BREW, Startup Milwaukee, Gener8tor, the Global Entrepreneurship Collective, Dream MKE, MiKE, BizStarts Milwaukee and its BizForge, WWBIC, programs at public and private universities and colleges – all are important to fostering new businesses in the region. Add in a host of investment firms, including the BrightStar Wisconsin Foundation Inc., and it’s not hard to see why Inc. Magazine wrote last year that “Angel Investors love Wisconsin.”
Those programs provide various combinations of training and mentoring in business, networking, incubator space and startup capital.
Dan Steininger, president of BizStarts Milwaukee, said the efforts have created an environment of “innovation on steroids.” It’s a significant improvement from the lagging start-up environment that the Milwaukee 7 found when it launched nearly a decade ago.
The Milwaukee 7 has sought to spur new business creation by organizing clusters of similar industries that can work together and help startups become future employers. Three clusters have been created so far: the Milwaukee Water Council; Food and Beverage (FaB) Wisconsin, in the food and beverage sector; and Midwest Energy Research Consortium (M-WERC), which combines power generation, transmission and control.
O’Brien said the Milwaukee 7 has identified industries in the region with significant assets, including existing businesses and research teams. It’s also looking at those that will produce goods for export and create jobs that expand the local economy.
“You have key initiatives that are helping to drive growth and build capacity in the region,” said Pat O’Brien, executive director of the Milwaukee 7. “We want to create an environment for companies in those industries to stay here and do research and development and whatever they need.”
What they need, according to Matt Cordio, are investors and talent.
Cordio started Skills Pipeline, an IT staffing business, after graduating from Marquette University in 2011. He also helped create Startup Milwaukee, which opened 96Square, a shared office, collaboration and event space for startups in the former Blatz Wash House.
In addition to regular speaker events and workshops, Startup Milwaukee directly connects entrepreneurs to investors, some of whom keep office hours at 96Square.
Todd Sobotka, an investment manager with the nonprofit BrightStar Foundation, said the agency started in 2013 to address the shortage of capital flowing to startup businesses. Brightstar, one of the first philanthropic investor groups in the nation, provides relatively small investments, – its largest to date is $250,000 – but those funds typically help to attract additional investment.
“We saw there was not enough capital going into the early-stage space,” Sobotka said. “That’s where you have the true economic growth in the region.
“There’s wealth in Wisconsin,” he said. “It just doesn’t invest in early stage at a rate comparable to other states.”
To help improve the talent pool, the group of technically savvy workers needed in startup companies, Cordio and the Milwaukee 7 partnered with area universities to create The Commons. The goal is to educate and mentor students and encourage them to become entrepreneurs.
“I get a lot of requests for talent, moreso than connections with investors,” Cordio said. “It’s really a talent issue that is underreported.”
The leaders and investors devoted to helping create more businesses with fast growth potential are convinced it’s the best strategy to increase the number of jobs in the area, which stands at roughly 1 million, according to data from the Milwaukee 7. Helping dozens of businesses grow from five employees to 50 may be as important as landing another Amazon, in their view.
“The vast majority of studies will look at an area and find that the only place you get job creation is from early-stage companies,” Sobotka said. “The older businesses are motivated to cut, to go leaner.”
Milwaukee 7 (M7)
756 N. Milwaukee St., Suite 400
Milwaukee, WI, 53202
M7 is the regional marketing and economic development organization for southeastern Wisconsin, including Milwaukee, the state’s largest city. The region also includes the Kenosha area, which has grown significantly in the last five years due to its attraction of new companies.
A.O. Smith, Bon-Ton Department Stores, Briggs & Stratton, Caterpillar, Fiserv, GE Healthcare, Harley-Davidson Inc., Johnson Controls, Joy Global, Kohl’s Corp., Manpower Group, MGIC, Modine, Northwestern Mutual, Quad/Graphics Inc., Rockwell Automation, Roundy’s, S.C. Johnson & Son, Snap-On, The Marcus Corp., Wisconsin Energy Corp., Uline
Population: 2 million
Major airports: General Mitchell International Airport (Milwaukee)
Major seaports: Port of Milwaukee
Colleges and universities:
Alverno College, Bryant & Stratton College, Cardinal Stritch University, Carroll University, Carthage College, Concordia University Wisconsin, DeVry University, Gateway Technical College, High-Tech Institute-Brookfield, ITT Technical Institute-Greenfield, Kaplan College, Marquette University, Medical College of Wisconsin, Midwest College of Oriental Medicine, Milwaukee Area Technical College, Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, Milwaukee School of Engineering, Mount Mary University, Nashotah House, Ottawa University-Milwaukee, Sacred Heart School of Theology, Sanford-Brown College, University of Phoenix-Milwaukee Campus, UW-Milwaukee, UW-Parkside, UW-Whitewater, UW Center – Washington County, UW Center – Waukesha, Waukesha County Technical College, Wisconsin Lutheran College, Wisconsin School of Professional Psychology
Manufacturing, educational and health services, information technology, insurance, banking and finance, leisure and hospitality, printing, professional and business services, government