Regional investors and founders talk Midwest tech at 5 Lakes Forum

Big exit, more VC needed for success

Souheil Badran of Northwestern Mutual spoke with Matt Cordio of 5 Lakes Forum and Skills Pipeline.

Last updated on June 26th, 2019 at 04:31 pm

Investors and startup founders from across the Midwest converged on downtown Milwaukee Tuesday for the inaugural 5 Lakes Forum at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co.

Matt Gorniak of G2 Crowd spoke with Jim Emling of SilentBoost Consulting.

The regional entrepreneurship conference was put on by the Milwaukee Institute and Startup Wisconsin. Among the themes of several fireside chats was Milwaukee’s role in the Great Lakes technology ecosystem, with many expressing optimism about its position and its future.

Matt Gorniak, co-founder and chief revenue officer at Chicago-based peer-to-peer business solutions review platform G2 Crowd, said when he started companies earlier in his career, the question from potential California investors was when he would move his company to California.

“In ’05, ’06, ’07, you had to defend yourself. Well, Chicago, believe it or not, was not considered a good place for a company. Now it’s like, that’s smart, you guys are in Chicago, Milwaukee, wherever. Smart, good people, good talent pool,” he said.

The Midwest isn’t tech heaven, so recruiting a Stanford engineer experienced in data science could be a tough sell, Gorniak said.

“But that’s ok; you don’t need them…I think the Midwest is full of amazing people. So I think a lot more companies will be coming here,” he said.

Thomas “Rock” Mackie of UW Health spoke with Becky Lang of Discover Magazine.

“My company, TomoTherapy, it’s owned by Accuray now and Accuray gave me the data on where they get (subcontracted parts) from,” said Thomas “Rock” Mackie, chief innovation officer at UW Health and co-founder of TomoTherapy, HealthMyne and Geometrics. “About one-third comes from Dane County, but two-thirds comes from the four counties around Milwaukee…so clearly having success in one part of the state’s going to help the whole state. And it turns out that Milwaukee is really a major hub. Even though they don’t have, necessarily, products that consumers understand, but the suppliers of Milwaukee are world famous.”

He said Milwaukee should be proud of suppliers like MPE Inc., which supplies medical carts to a broad national range of medical technology companies. A lot of the medical technology activity in the area was spawned by GE Healthcare’s large presence in the market.

“More and more, I think Milwaukee’s going to be known as a hub, a source for medical technologies, as well as medicine,” Mackie said.

Asked whether he sees the Great Lakes as the next U.S. technology hub, Souheil Badran, chief innovation officer at Northwestern Mutual, said: Yes.

“It’s a matter of look what we did from a water perspective,” Badran said. “Milwaukee’s the water tech capital, at least in the U.S. There’s absolutely no reason why we can’t do this from a tech perspective. We’ve got great universities…we’ve got great opportunities from being able to keep people here and move people actually from both East Coast and West Coast…. But I also think about where are we taking action to really make a point at home.”

STEM outreach in schools is one key to creating a tech hub, Badran said.

“I think the downfall is we haven’t had the big bang. The big bang that says, ‘Hey, Google acquired company X in Milwaukee or Madison or somewhere else. And I think that would really put us on the map….”

Another hurdle Wisconsin must clear is gaining more venture capital investors, said Erik Iverson, managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

“I think what the state is missing is the A Round level of investments. I think there’s a lot of angels and very good angels in the state,” Iverson said.

View a photo gallery of 5 Lakes Forum here.

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Molly Dill, former BizTimes Milwaukee managing editor.

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