Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference returns to Milwaukee

Rusinow to detail lost investments, successful exits

Venue 42, the building's event space.

Last updated on June 19th, 2019 at 04:43 pm

The Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference was founded in 2003, and for the first 10 years was held in Milwaukee.

In 2013, the conference moved to the Madison region, and attendance immediately increased, said Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, which puts on the event.

“At that time, the Madison area was ahead of Milwaukee. We no longer think that that’s the case,” Still said.

So this year, the conference is returning to its roots. The two-day event will take place June 4 and 5 at Venue 42 in the former Pabst Brewery complex in downtown Milwaukee.

“First and foremost, I think the (Milwaukee) region has really moved ahead in a lot of important ways in the last five years or so in terms of the startup economy, as well as the more mature scale up economy,” said Still. “Second, we’re excited by the broader choice of venues in which to hold such a conference. Third, we think that the legacy company environment in Milwaukee is much more open to conferences such as this now.”

The Entrepreneurs’ Conference has consistently attracted 500-plus attendees from across the Midwest to Madison, and Still hopes to see the same in Milwaukee.

He pointed to the development boom, increased focus on entrepreneurism among higher education institutions in the area, more openness to startup activity among government entities and added investor activity in Milwaukee as drivers of the changed startup economy.

“Part of the allure of it is that visitors will be able to see that revitalized Brewery district and see Fiserv (Forum)…and just get a sense of Milwaukee’s rebound,” Still said. “I think it’s emblematic of other great things that are going on in the city.”

Jeff Rusinow

The theme of the conference is “Connecting the I-Q Corridor” among Midwestern cities such as Minneapolis, Eau Claire, Green Bay, Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago. It will include a variety of panel discussions in three tracks: launch, grow and succeed.

The keynote speakers will be Jeff Rusinow, founder of Milwaukee’s first angel network, Silicon Pastures; and John Zeratsky, co-creator of the design sprint for Google Ventures and best-selling author of “Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days.”

Rusinow plans to talk about the progress he has seen in Milwaukee’s entrepreneurship and investing community over the past 20 years, and the factors working for and against Wisconsin in the sector.

“Today is perhaps the best time for an entrepreneur looking for that high-risk seed funding, particularly in southeastern Wisconsin,” Rusinow said. “When Silicon Pastures started, there just simply weren’t business accelerators or incubators.”

There are more entrepreneurship assistance organizations, angel and seed investors active in the state than before, but challenges remain. For one, the state’s population isn’t growing much, he said.

“Like many smaller states, Wisconsin’s susceptible to talent poaching or brain drain from the super successful startups on the coasts,” Rusinow said.

Wealthy titans of industry in Wisconsin, with the exception of Madison, also tend to be risk averse and avoid investing in pre-revenue startups, he said.

Rusinow also plans to discuss in depth some of his specific Wisconsin investments and their results during his keynote. He was an investor in BuySeasons, which was sold to Liberty Media for $55 million in 2006; ModernMed, which was sold to DaVita for $20 million in 2011; and Propeller Health, which was sold to ResMed for $227 million earlier this year.

“I’m going to share some data points that I have not shared before, and it’s not all rosy,” he said. “In the last six months I was a major investor of two companies that ended up going down, and I had seven figures in both of those.”

The conference will culminate with the awards for the statewide Governor’s Business Plan Contest.

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Molly Dill, former BizTimes Milwaukee managing editor.

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