Milwaukee entrepreneur wants to facilitate business connections

Ideawake founder plans to host quarterly pitch events

Ideawake Founder Coby Skonord, right, addresses a group of business representatives and entrepreneurs during his first Startup Co-lab Nov. 3.

Coby Skonord, founder of the Milwaukee-based tech startup Ideawake, is a believer in the apprenticeship model of learning — training through direct action rather than abstract instruction.

Which is why, as a participant in Milwaukee Startup Week, he decided to get representatives from established local companies like Aurora Health Care, Rundle-Spence Co. and Vector Technologies to physically sit down and meet with entrepreneurs during an event he hosted called “Startup Co-lab.”

“I was trying to think of something different to do that could start to make connections on a more personal level,” Skonord said.

Milwaukee Startup week, a series of networking events and seminars organized by the nonprofit organization Startup Milwaukee, was held Nov. 1 through Nov. 6 at different locations around the city. Each event was hosted by a different organization in the startup community. The goal: bring together different groups of entrepreneurs and investors that have been building businesses in isolation from one another to exchange ideas.

Many of the companies that participated in Startup Week  hosted informative lectures or panels to facilitate discussion on important issues facing the local entrepreneurial community, but Skonord tried something else. He invited a group of local companies and entrepreneurs to the Ideawake offices at 1245 N. Water St. for a morning of one-on-one meetings.

Encouraged by the feedback he’s received since the event, he’s now hoping to host quarterly co-labs in partnership with other startup-focused organizations around town, such as Startup Milwaukee, for local corporations that are curious about exploring the tech community and entrepreneurs hoping to get their business ideas off the ground.

The Ideawake office is in a suite above A.J. Bombers (at 1247 N. Water St. in downtown Milwaukee) that has everything you’d expect at a modern tech startup. A ping pong table, comfortable furniture, TVs, computers, meeting spaces, white boards.

On the morning of Nov. 3, representatives from five established companies in the Milwaukee area and 14 local startups streamed inside, ate donuts, drank coffee, and started talking.

“All the feedback we received was incredibly positive,” Skonord said. “All the companies went away with at least one connection out of it they could see pursuing in the future, and some companies had several.”

Meetings were scheduled between companies and entrepreneurs based on mutual interest, similar to how the Milwaukee-based startup incubator genert8tor organizes its OnRamp events, but on a much smaller scale.

Some companies saw it as an opportunity to give back and mentor young entrepreneurs. Others saw it as a way to scan for potential business partners, useful new technologies and future acquisition targets.

“Anytime you can try to get some exposure for startups to other companies that might have an interest in new technologies is a really, really good thing,” said Hensley Foster, president of Stonehouse Water Technologies. He participated in the Startup Co-lab on Nov. 3.

Stonehouse is a startup that makes eco-friendly water purifying systems. It’s run out of the Global Water Center in Walker’s Point, and right now, Foster said they’re looking for a large company with the capability to help them scale.

“We see that we’ve got some opportunities that are a lot bigger than we can handle,” Foster Said. “It’s a small company. We’re looking for a business venture of some kind that’s looking to get into a business like we have, and can help us take advantage of the opportunities we see in the market.”

Another Co-lab attendee, David Spence, president of Rundle-Spence, a 146-year-old New Berlin-based distributor and supplier of wholesale plumbing, heating, water fixture and septic products, said he’s constantly on the hunt for new technologies or ideas that could make his operation more efficient.

“It was exciting to see young entrepreneurs hungry to start up new companies,” Spence said. “It was also nice to see it happening in Milwaukee. Our company — although it’s very old, we’re in our fifth generation — we believe in technology in our own business. We’ve invested heavily in technology. That’s primarily my interest in learning about the startups and what’s going on, because there might be a new technology that we can use to engage our customers and our vendors. Or to make our current business more efficient.”

Skonord said he is working with his friends and associates in the local startup community to develop the event into a quarterly program with the aim of boosting the city’s startup activity. Skonord’s startup, Ideawake, has designed a management software that makes it easier for low- and mid-level employees to pitch new or innovative business ideas to high-level company executives.

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Ben Stanley, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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