Stronger together

Sector hubs poise Wisconsin companies for industry leadership

The City of Oshkosh and Winnebago County collaborated to create the new Oshkosh Aviation Business Park.

The pieces for a successful business cluster were all there: manufacturers tied to the water industry; a university program focused on freshwater research; and nonprofits interested in water-related and economic issues.

The key for Milwaukee business and community leaders was finding a way to successfully bring them together.

Major contractors like Marinette Marine are central to northeast Wisconsin’s defense industry cluster.
Major contractors like Marinette Marine are central to northeast Wisconsin’s defense industry cluster.

“Clusters are about creating opportunities for collisions among industries, academia and NGOs (non-governmental organizations),” said Meghan Jansen, director of marketing and membership for the Water Council, the organization created in 2009 to guide the industry hub.

The Water Council is just one of many sector hubs throughout Wisconsin. Clusters are geographic concentrations of businesses from similar industries working together to share resources, foster innovation, shorten supply chains and create efficiencies for customers. They have close relationships with other industries in the region, draw from the same talented workforce pool and use similar technologies, which translates to a competitive industry advantage over similar businesses elsewhere.

In Wisconsin, there are healthy sector hubs across the state, including the defense cluster in the northeast focused around Oshkosh Truck and Marinette Marine; Madison’s biotech hub bringing together public, private and academic resources; a statewide, Milwaukee-based hub for food and beverage production; a growing aviation cluster in Oshkosh and a health care hub in La Crosse.

There are too many examples of successful collaboration to cover in one story, but the three below well represent the momentum and scope of Wisconsin’s sector hubs.

A wave of success

Resting on the banks of Lake Michigan – one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes – water has always been a theme running through Milwaukee’s business community. In 2009, a group of academic, business and nonprofit leaders pulled the threads together to create the Water Council.

In 2017, that effort is paying off: a state audit found that from 2010 to 2014, investment in the water hub and surrounding development totaled $211.6 million. The Global Water Center, opened in 2013 to serve as a nexus for water industry development and innovation, is part of that growth.

The Global Water Center houses not only The Water Council’s offices, but also a state-of-the-art water flow lab, offices and meeting space available to tenants and an auditorium.

In the adjacent Reed Street Yards, a new 52,000-square-foot building was completed recently for Zurn Industries, a manufacturer of plumbing fixtures. Zurn, which is owned by Milwaukee-based Rexnord Corp., moved its headquarters from Pennsylvania to the new building. The company plans to eventually have 120 employees at the site.

City and industry cluster leaders are hoping the Global Water Center will help attract more water-related businesses to the Reed Street Yards.

“The Water Council wanted to be an epicenter for new development in the water industry, and with the center we have a physical footprint to do that,” Jansen said. “The water cluster was already here before the Council was formed and before the center opened. Those two developments just spurred additional growth.”

The water technology cluster extends beyond businesses, with Marquette University adding a program in water law and UW-Whitewater offering a minor in water business. Those educational offerings are in addition to the programs offered by Water Council founding partner UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences.

The Council’s seed accelerator – BREW (Business Research Entrepreneurship in Wisconsin) – also took in its first class in 2013. BREW looks to spur innovation in the water industry by funding early stage water technology startups with commercialization potential, Jansen said.

Entrepreneurs accepted into BREW not only receive funding to help launch the business, but also get work space at the Water Council, expert business mentorship, access to its labs, pitch and investor coaching and more.

“We receive applications for BREW from all over the world from people inspired to develop new technologies that look to change the industry,” Jansen said.

The Water Council recently launched BREW Corporate, which pairs corporations looking for specific technologies and solutions with BREW startups that compete to solve the problem. The winning solution could be implemented by the sponsor company – with appropriate rights and compensation for the winner – or there could be continued investment or partnership by the sponsors of the winner’s solution.

“The Water Council has a variety of programs that help businesses of all sizes,” Jansen said. “It’s all about growing the overall water industry hub here in Milwaukee.”

Flying high

For one week each summer, the aviation world focuses on Oshkosh during the annual Experimental Aviation Association (EAA) Convention. In addition to EAA, Oshkosh is home to several aviation-focused businesses near Wittman Airport, which is owned by Winnebago County, and two educational institutions with aviation programs. UW-Oshkosh’s Business Success Center also sponsors AeroInnovate, a virtual aviation accelerator program, that brings together aviation-themed entrepreneurs with industry experts during EAA’s AirVenture.

The City of Oshkosh and Winnebago County collaborated to create the new Oshkosh Aviation Business Park.
The City of Oshkosh and Winnebago County collaborated to create the new Oshkosh Aviation Business Park.

“There was this thinking: we’re known as the center of aviation for one week of the year, why not the rest?” said Audra Hoy, director of business and economic development at the Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corp.

That thinking took on urgency when the Great Recession hit Oshkosh Corp., the city’s largest employer. The defense contractor not only began laying off employees. The changes also affected the company’s suppliers, Hoy said.

“There was this realization that Oshkosh needed to diversify its industry base, and aviation made a logical fit. A lot of the companies who make stuff for Oshkosh could do the same for aviation companies,” she said.

The aviation hub concept took a big step forward in 2013, when Winnebago County and the City of Oshkosh purchased 80 acres of land adjacent to Wittman Airport to create the Oshkosh Aviation Business Park. The 30 acres owned by the city are available for purchase, while the 50 acres owned by the county are available for lease and will have direct access to an airport taxiway. The park, with its shovel-ready lots, officially opened last summer.

The park is projected to spur more than $73 million in additional activity in Winnebago County, and Hoy said that between 250 and 500 additional jobs are expected to be created.

“The park is a great partnership between the city and county and will help spur additional growth in the aviation sector,” Hoy said.

Hoy pointed out there are more than 140 suppliers to the Boeing Co. and more than 200 state companies have ties to the aerospace sector. “That kind of concentration is a draw, since it shows area companies have experience in the industry,” she said, adding the Greater Oshkosh Revolving Loan Fund and Capital Catalyst program are also in place to provide funding to businesses.

AeroInnovate brings a global flair to the cluster, Hoy said.

“People from all around the world come here for AeroInnovate and EAA, and that really puts an industry-wide focus on Oshkosh,” he said.

More than cheese and brats

Wisconsin is known as the Dairy State, but the number of businesses tied to food and beverage sector goes way beyond cheese and milk-related products. Over 1,700 food and beverage makers call the state home.

“It’s not just cheese and brats that are made in Wisconsin, but so much more,” said Shelly Jurewicz, executive director of FaB Wisconsin, the state’s food and beverage industry cluster organization. “We have a vibrant ag industry. We’re national leaders in cranberries, ginseng, snap beans and a lot more.”

From Door County’s cherry orchards and the cranberry marshes in northern Wisconsin, to the dairy farms scattered throughout the state and the beans and corn grown in central Wisconsin, The ag industry has roots across the state.

“We make a lot of food ingredients in Wisconsin and have a rich ag history,” Jurewicz said. “We not only grow our ag products, but we add value to them, too.”

Seven of the world’s largest 11 food companies have operations in Wisconsin, which also has more food equipment manufacturers than any other state.

With that as a backdrop, plus the fact the Milwaukee area is home to more than 253 food and beverage manufacturers, Milwaukee 7 and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC) identified the industry as a key cluster for economic growth. In 2010, Milwaukee 7 and Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce created FaB Wisconsin (then known as FaB Milwaukee).

Jurewitz said FaB Wisconsin “fully connects the industry. We bring together not only the different businesses, but also the various industry association groups, too.”

By coming together, FaB Wisconsin can address the different areas of concern that food and beverage manufacturers have.

“Whether you are big or small, local or global, there are issues that cross all lines, such as finding talent, sparking innovation and addressing safety issues,” Jurewicz said.

Once FaB Wisconsin was created, other developments began falling into place. For example, Milwaukee Area Technical College, with input from FaB, created three new food manufacturing programs and FaB launched the FaBcap Accelerator.

In 2015, FaB received a $115,000 grant from the WEDC to launch the accelerator to help startups get off the ground.

“The startup space is very hot in the food industry,” Jurewicz said. 

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