A couple upcoming events slated for Lambeau Field aim to propel innovation and entrepreneurial growth in northeastern Wisconsin
Story by Rick Berg
She calls herself a “serial entrepreneur” and her track record so far is pretty impressive.
But April Knutson, the founder of Green Bay-based OrendX, said she wouldn’t be where she is today if she hadn’t taken advantage of the resources available through the Small Business Initiative at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. And she didn’t even know those resources existed until she attended the 2015 Business Summit, hosted by NWTC’s Corporate Training and Economic Development.
“For me the summit was a good launching point to get entrenched and start to figure out what services were available,” Knutson said.
This year’s Business Summit, to be held on Nov. 9 at Lambeau Field, is one of two events targeting innovation and entrepreneurship in the region. The other – Launch Wisconsin 2016 – will be held Oct. 12, also at Lambeau Field.
NWTC’s Corporate Training and Economic Development department is the chief sponsor of the Business Summit, but is also a co-sponsor of Launch Wisconsin.
According to Tom Duffy, small business development consultant at NWTC, “the Summit was originally an idea of Governor Walker. He asked the tech colleges around the state to have an event to promote business growth.
“Each year we bring in subject matter experts to conduct breakout sessions so business owners get the knowledge and tools they need to achieve peak performance.”
Duffy said Knutson’s experience at last year’s Business Summit is fairly typical for attendees at the event.
“We hear the stories about the new connections they made at the event and how those relationships have grown into business and personal relationships,” Duffy said. “Events like this offer great networking opportunities, but they also let (attendees) know that there are resources available to help grow their business and that it’s OK to ask for help.”
John Ernst, executive director of Launch Wisconsin, said Launch Wisconsin began in 2015 after the event’s founders, including De Pere-based ZyQuest CEO Al Zeise, realized the region needed to ramp up its efforts to support innovation and entrepreneurship.
“When the founders of Launch Wisconsin researched what other successful regions had around the country we found four things,” Ernst said. “Each area had global brands, engaged local government, a thriving Millennial community – usually part of a supportive university system – and a population density that networked and gathered regularly.
“In fact, that last item was found to be the most important. Areas that cultivated meetups, hack-a-thons, workshops and major destination events could draw in talent, ideas and expertise from outside their areas. This is where the vision for building a destination event in Green Bay, Wisconsin called Launch Wisconsin came from.”
Both the Business Summit and Launch Wisconsin have grown exponentially in the past two years.
“I became involved with the Business Summit last year and our team doubled the size of the event (from its inaugural year in 2014),” Duffy said. “This year we decided to move it to Lambeau Field because we out grew the space here at NWTC.”
Ernst noted that Launch Wisconsin grew from 25 speakers on five panels in 2015 to more than 140 speakers on 60 panels this coming year, with an expected audience of 2,000 attendees.
“We have guests coming in from Silicon Valley, New York, Miami, Dallas, Chicago, Minneapolis, Columbus, Denver, Madison, Milwaukee and more,” Ernst said. “This type of growth is tremendous in one year’s time and we are hopeful we can continue with the momentum.”
Building an Innovation Tribe
Knutson’s experience as an entrepreneur is a lot like that of other entrepreneurs who are big on ideas but short on business experience.
“I’m an idea person,” Knutson said. “I like to develop the concept and I like to test it. I’m the visionary and I need to surround myself with people who are good at execution, who have the tools and the resources and the know-how to take it out to the market. That’s my methodology.”
Knutson – a registered nurse by training – along with two business associates, had already launched a business called Clinical Optimizer in 2012 and were in the process of negotiating with potential acquisition partners in the fall of 2015. The partners eventually entered into an asset purchase agreement with North Carolina-based CastleBranch to acquire Clinical Optimizer this past June.
“We already had our exit path worked out on that business,” she said, “but I had another business idea in September of 2015 and I had no business partners on that. It was still in the concept phase.”
The business idea eventually became OrendX, an employee-engagement and communication technology application for use in the health care industry.
Knutson spotted a promotional flyer for the 2015 Business Summit and decided that might lead her to some resources she would need to take the OrendX concept to reality. Besides several valuable contacts she made at the summit, Knutson also learned about the Small Business Initiative at NWTC, and decided to take advantage of the programs it offers.
“I am not only impressed with the creativity and determination of the clients who come to us for services and programs, but also their willingness to be coached,” said Karen Widmar-Altekruse, who founded the Business Success Summit in 2014 and leads the Small Business Initiative at NWTC. “Some inventors are too close to their product or idea and are not open to feedback. This can be detrimental to their growth.”
Knutson was more than willing to be coached. As a starting point, she worked with Widmar-Altekruse and her team at NWTC on a personality assessment designed to help entrepreneurs identify their strengths and weaknesses.
“It asked a lot of questions about my entrepreneurial style, how I tend to make decisions, and it generated a profile,” Knutson said. “The results showed that I have a certain set of strengths, and there is an area of opportunity where I maybe am not the strongest and it will help me to build a team with people who are strong in those areas.”
For example, Knutson found it made sense to involve a technical co-founder possessing the I.T. skills she lacked, rather than subcontract technology work.
“They told me, build your tribe around you, and here are the skill sets you should think about including,” Knutson said. “I function really well at the 30,000-foot level and I would do well to surround myself with people who can actually come in and develop the details of a product and take it out to market. Because by the time that happens with a product, my brain is already on to the next idea.”
Creating an Innovation Ecosystem
Wisconsin has tended to rank poorly compared to other states when it comes to startup business activity. The annual Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation start-up activity report released in August found that among the 25 largest states, Wisconsin came in last in terms of the rate of business startups. Wisconsin also lags behind most other states in terms of venture capital investment.
Nonetheless, the founders of Launch Wisconsin and the Business Summit agree that entrepreneurship and innovation thrive best in a supportive business culture, and that the Midwest in general and northeastern Wisconsin in particular are poised to create that culture.
Launch Wisconsin’s Ernst noted that Capital Drive, a Columbus, Ohio-based venture capital firm, predicts the Midwest will have more startups in the next five years than California’s Silicon Valley.
“We’re hopeful that the time is right for the Midwest to become a ‘touch-down’ region vs. a ‘fly-over’ region,” Ernst said. “We really want people to realize that Wisconsin has a tremendous start-up ecosystem already here. It’s not something we will have in the future – it’s here now. Innovation and business startups are on the rise like never before in Wisconsin.”
“We are nowhere near the end of great ideas and more ideas will continue to come for years,” Ernst said. “How we do it is up to us. In the last 10 years alone, many of the innovations of today were born, and they have changed how we live, share, create and learn forever. We want people to realize this and continue to engage, ignite and collide all year long. That will help our region tremendously.”
NWTC’s Duffy noted events like the Business Summit and Launch Wisconsin consistently provide feedback from attendees – “stories about the new connections they made at the event and how those relationships have grown into business and personal relationships,” Duffy said.
There are likely few better examples than Knutson, who despite some past success as an entrepreneur, recognizes the strength in building a community of support.
“Attending that event had a big impact on how I look at my business going forward,” Knutson said. “I made connections in that one day that I continue to use today and will continue to use in the future.”
The biggest takeaway, Knutson said, is that there is no reason for entrepreneurs to go it alone, regardless of the value of their ideas.
“In my case, as a nurse, I kept seeing problems in the health care world that I believed could be solved by technology,” she said. “I just needed to find the resources to make those solutions happen. I always kind of felt that but it was helpful to have a third-party confirmation that I needed to continue to do what I’m strong at and make use of the resources available for areas where I’m not so strong.
“That was really helpful and I would recommend that to anyone getting into business. Talk to someone who is unbiased and who doesn’t have any stake in your business, and take their advice to heart.”
Rick Berg is a freelance writer and editor based in Green Bay.