Whitewater Innovation Center provides business launching pad

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University of Wisconsin-Whitewater officials believed a technology park and business incubator would be a great opportunity to encourage entrepreneurship and keep its graduates in the area, so they jumped at the chance to build it.

Opened in February 2011, the school’s Innovation Center was planned and built in less than two years through a partnership between the City of Whitewater and the university. It’s the first building at the new 130-acre Whitewater University Technology Park on the eastern outskirts of the city.

“Half of the acres will be developable. The rest will be a nature conservancy area,” said Kevin Brunner, Whitewater city manager.

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UW-Whitewater received a $4.7 million U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration grant in fall 2009 to complete the $11 million technology park infrastructure and Innovation Center project. The rest of the funding came from the Whitewater Community Development Authority, revenue bonding and in-kind contributions from the city and university.

The 37,000-square-foot Innovation Center, a nonprofit venture, serves as a learning environment for student entrepreneurs, a source of funding for professor start-ups and an operations space for already established companies.

At the center, which has a technology focus, participants have access to services such as legal advice, mentoring, a receptionist, professional networking and public relations assistance.

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Justin Nothem, a senior business student at UW-Whitewater, is a part of the Launchpad program for students at the Innovation Center. He saw an opportunity to sell hot dogs to hungry students leaving Whitewater bars at night.

He proposed his business idea to the Whitewater City Council, which overturned a regulation against street food, and Whitewater Wieners was founded in January 2011.

Nothem plans to franchise his business as College Dogs at other campuses next semester, using a cloud technology system that allows him to track sales and inventory at all locations, as well as create a mobile customer loyalty program.

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“The idea of (the Innovation Center) is ultimately to grow businesses, so what Justin is doing is exactly what we want,” said Richard Telfer, UW-Whitewater chancellor.

Without the Innovation Center, Nothem’s business plans would not have been possible, Telfer said.

“We can get stubborn or too prideful with our own businesses, so it’s nice to have someone push you in the right direction,” Telfer said. “This school and the city are definitely giving us the tools for our business to succeed.”

Dan McGuire, an art professor at UW-Whitewater, also is a tenant at the Innovation Center. While teaching sculpture, he was trying to figure out how to complete a metal casting process in one class period and came up with a revolutionary process for ceramic shell casting.

McGuire’s company, Foundry Solutions LLC, has three patents on the technology, which reduces the casting time from four days to two hours with the same results. He has been marketing the process to foundries across the country and developing more patents with resources from the Innovation Center.

“It’s going to change the industry big time,” he said.

Although he has been working on the new casting process for about 10 years, McGuire said he needed the extra push from the Innovation Center.

“I wouldn’t have started a business if this wasn’t here,” he said. “It becomes a space where I’ve got access to all these pretty sharp minds.”

The Innovation Center, which is about 70 percent occupied, also has space for meetings, conferences and lunches.

Other tenants include the Cooperative Educational Service Agency #2, a part of the agency that oversees Wisconsin’s public school system; The Jefferson-Eastern Dane Interactive Distance Education Network, a program for students who face challenges in the traditional learning environment; and Blackthorne Capital Management, a financial research firm partnered with UW-Whitewater.

The Innovation Center is led by a seven-person Whitewater University Technology Park board, rather than the city or university. The structure allows the facility to be quick-acting in its innovation and occupancy, Brunner said.

City and university officials hope the center can attract and retain both student and professor talent in Whitewater.

“It’s changing our mindset on what we do,” Telfer said. “You can imagine the financial potential for these businesses.”

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