Want to create new businesses? Encourage new ideas.

It probably won’t surprise you that Wisconsin trails most other states across the nation in business
startup activity. According to the Kauffman Foundation, which studies and promotes entrepreneurship, Wisconsin ranked #40 in 2011.

However, that’s not to say that Wisconsin doesn’t have its share of creative thinkers and a support network committed to their success. What we need is to build upon proven models of collaboration—some of which are already working here in Wisconsin—that match our state’s incredibly talented entrepreneurs with the resources available to commercialize their ideas.

Creating a solution to Wisconsin’s new business development challenges will require a collective effort between many stakeholders, all of whom need to understand that “programs” and “incentives” are not the drivers of entrepreneurism. Entrepreneurs are.

Where Minds Meet
Entrepreneur groups throughout Wisconsin demonstrate the power of networking when it comes to creating new business opportunities. The Capital Entrepreneurs in Madison, for example, bring together “entrepreneurs, nerds, designers, geeks, hackers, and creative professionals” in an annual Forward Technology Festival. Last year’s 10-day event drew more than 2,000 professionals from around the country to share ideas related to technology, innovation and entrepreneurism.

Startup Milwaukee is another regional group of tech-savvy people who aim to change Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the world “like nerdy superheroes” through idea sharing.

It’s not only in major metropolitan areas that you’ll find entrepreneurism flourishing. The Entrepreneur and Innovation Group (E&I Group) based in Juneau County, for example, fosters innovation on a grassroots level and matches imaginative inventors with savvy businesspeople who can help them bring their ideas to market. And the Innovation Foundation of Western Wisconsin (IFWW) offers strategic consulting and financial assistance to entrepreneurs who often lack the business knowhow to build successful enterprises.

Through these groups and others, entrepreneurs receive the encouragement and guidance they need to pursue their dreams. Such organizations should be celebrated and supported for the grassroots role they play in building a culture of entrepreneurism in Wisconsin.

The State’s Role
If we’re serious about improving Wisconsin’s performance when it comes to new business creation, the public sector needs to become more creative and action-oriented. It’s not just about rising in the rankings. It’s about creating jobs— now and in the future. Research demonstrates that investing in startups creates jobs and boosts the economy. Research by the Kauffman Foundation and data from the U.S. Census Bureau demonstrate that startups and companies less than five years old account for nearly all net job creation in the United States.

Wisconsin entrepreneurs say they need more capital to create more businesses. We’re addressing this by providing direct assistance to startups as well as partnering with existing regional and sector-based networks that serve as conduits, like IFWW, the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC), VETransfer and the Water Council in Milwaukee.

State assistance may take the form of investor tax credits through the Qualified New Business Venture Program, technology development financing, minority business development loans, accelerator program grants, and regional loan funds. In addition, our newest offering, the Capital Catalyst Program, grants regional networks funding that in turn is made available as seed capital for startup activities like prototype development and customer analysis, which are needed to get a business started but often can’t be funded through bank loans.

Finally, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) is partnering with the Wisconsin Business Incubation Association and the Wisconsin Entrepreneur’s Network to provide guidance on training, mentoring and financing to entrepreneurs.

It is this collaboration between the state, regional networks, investors and entrepreneurs that will foster Wisconsin’s spirit of innovation and propel the state’s economy forward.

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