UWM App Brewery lab fosters mobile innovation

Mobile technology has come a long way in its short history. Less than six years after Apple introduced the iPhone, more than half of American adults now own smartphones and more than a third own tablets, according to a new study from the Pew Research Center.

This very new world of mobile devices and applications is evolving at a rapid rate, and here in Milwaukee, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s App Brewery is providing opportunities for the next generation of app developers and mobile entrepreneurs.

The App Brewery (or Mobile Innovation Lab, its official name) was founded by Michael Hostad, UWM director of web and mobile strategy, and Quinn Madson, lead developer at the App Brewery and professor at the UWM School of Information Studies.

“Things have really fallen into place with this,” said Hostad. “This has been a perfect storm – in a good way – in terms of just being at the right place at the right time, capitalizing on something that people are interested in, using a technology that is so prolific right now and working at a university where you have a leader in (chancellor) Mike Lovell who is so focused on innovation and entrepreneurship and growth in the community who has been so supportive of us. You couldn’t ask for a better environment for something like this to grow in.”

On June 5, the App Brewery unveiled its first major project – the Milwaukee County App, which uses GPS technology to track the location of Milwaukee County buses in real time.

The app, which is currently being tested for accuracy and is set for a late summer launch, was built through a partnership with Milwaukee County and the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS), and will also feature information from the Milwaukee County Zoo, county parks, county parking lots, and General Mitchell International Airport. Three county developers even sat in on Madson’s class where the app was built, to learn the ins and outs of the app and mentor students in the process.

“The county developers know just as much as the students or we do about the app, so when it launches, we can hand it over to them and they can take it and continue to run with it,” said Hostad.

The Milwaukee County app, however, is merely the tip of the iceberg for what’s in the works at the App Brewery. Partnerships have been established with the Sojourner Family Peace Center, Visit Milwaukee, UW-Green Bay, the Milwaukee County Courthouse, Milwaukee County Office for Persons with Disability, the African American men’s health website “Brain Body Brawn,” the Medical College of Wisconsin and other institutions within UWM such as the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the School of Education, Research Foundation and the Peck School of the Arts.

The lab, formed under the umbrella of the School of Information Studies and located on the fifth floor of the Zilber School of Public Health in the former Pabst brewery complex in downtown Milwaukee, currently employs four students and is as a space for a variety of entrepreneurial projects, such as the Student Startup Challenge.

“The students in the lab that are working on these projects, they’re building real world research applications, and they’re learning the skills to build apps. My ultimate goal is hoping that they take those skills and then launch a startup, stay here in Milwaukee – hopefully – and we start to build Milwaukee into more of a tech center than it is,” said Madson. “With the partnerships that we’re developing and some of the projects that we’re building, I think we have a good chance of making something like that work.”

Much of the groundwork for the App Brewery was laid through the development of UWM Mobile, an app for students that features class schedules, campus maps, event listings, and real time updates for availability of laundry facilities, computer labs and shuttle busses, that launched in the fall of 2011.

This drew a strong response from students interested in creating apps, said Hostad, which led to the development of a mobile curriculum in the School of Information Studies, taught by Madson. Having taught classes dealing with web apps, mobile was a natural extention of the work already being done.

“We saw a lot of similarities between the beginnings of mobile and the beginnings of web,” said Madson. “With mobile, we knew it was going to blow up. That’s why we wanted to take advantage of that and not let that opportunity slip past.”

An important aspect of the class curriculum and the work being done at the App Brewery has been a focus on building connections within the local community and keying on projects that fall into UWM’s mission on social innovation and giving back, said Hostad. Not only do these projects help provide local services, they aim to combat the “brain drain,” as well.

“If we can contribute to that skills pipeline, whether that’s through helping entrepreneurs with mobile ideas that they have or just plugging these students into established companies that need these skillsets, then that’s great. It really helps prevent the brain drain,” he said. “Part of what’s been great about students working on apps for the community is that they become so impassioned about their community that they want to stay here. It’s made a difference.”

The App Brewery currently has more projects than students, and is looking to expand, said Hostad.

“I’d love to see us double our size by the end of the calendar year,” he said.

Additional sources of funding, including with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), are currently being explored to help grow the App Brewery.

“People see a lot of opportunity in having this move forward, especially when it comes down to the entrepreneurship side,” said Madson. “You can have a really lean startup based on mobile technology. If you have a designer, a developer and a laptop, you can do quite a bit with just that.”

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