New North Rising

Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest Road Trip will highlight the 2017 Launch Wisconsin innovation event at Lambeau Field

Story by Rick Berg

October 2017

If the New North region needs any validation that it can transcend its historical image as a hub for traditional manufacturing, a visit from a nationally known traveling innovation bus tour should do the trick.

The Rise of the Rest Road Trip, launched in 2014 by AOL/America Online founder Steve Case, arrives in Green Bay on Oct. 17 – one of only five stops on this year’s nation tour.

Rise of the Rest, an entrepreneurial pitch competition that awards $100,000 to one local startup, will be part of the third annual Launch Wisconsin event slated for Oct. 17 to 18 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay. Eight finalists have been selected to compete for the prize. Rise of the Rest is a project launched by Case’s investment company, Revolution LLC.  

The northeast Wisconsin region fits perfectly with Rise of the Rest’s mission to spotlight and support startups that bring innovation to traditional industries in regions not typically associated with innovation – what Case calls “emerging startup ecosystems,” said Anna Mason, director of investments for Rise of the Rest.

“Entrepreneurs are building innovative, scalable startup businesses across the country, outside of New York and Boston and California,” Mason said. “We want to highlight and support those efforts – not despite the fact that they aren’t located on the coasts, but specifically because they are located outside the coasts. There are unique opportunities underway for entrepreneurs to make use of the industry expertise available within a region.”

Capturing attention

Mason said the Rise of the Rest team, at the behest of Launch Wisconsin’s leadership team, selected Green Bay as a stop “after spending a fair amount of time looking firsthand at what’s happening on the ground to spur and support innovation and entrepreneurship. We look to understand the landscape of regional investors and the startup support community.”

It took some active lobbying on the part of the Launch Wisconsin team to bring it about.

“For the better part of a year and half, the team at Launch Wisconsin had actively petitioned us to come to see what’s happening there,” Mason added. “They rallied the support of a number of local leaders in the business community, and we were very encouraged by what we saw there. There appears to be some exciting innovation underway within the region in these legacy industries like manufacturing, supply chain management and health care.”

The visit by Rise of the Rest helps support the organization’s drive to enhance the region’s visibility in the eyes of investor stakeholders, noted John Ernst, executive director of Launch Wisconsin.

“We’re hidden in plain sight here,” Ernst said. “If you Google innovation in Wisconsin, you’ll come up with Madison and Milwaukee and ‘everybody else.’ We’re ‘everybody else.’ We need to get Siri’s attention. Launch Wisconsin aims to be that voice, that instigator, and Rise of the Rest helps us do that.”

Pitch competitors already winners

One of the eight finalists for the Rise of the Rest competition is Illumyx, a startup created by De Pere-based Utech Group, which describes Illumyx as a “data-driven, cultural diagnostics tool” designed to help companies through the mergers and acquisition process or “improve employee engagement and retention.”

Steve Utech, principal at Utech Group, as well as CEO and founder of Illumyx, said Illumyx grew out of his company’s experience consulting with clients on organizational culture issues and discovering that while most people understand the concept of culture, few can define what it means. Illumyx, Utech said, “is designed to provide a standard way to measure culture in an organization and define it. If you can define it, you can improve it.”

Simply going through the initial pitch process for Rise of the Rest has been a beneficial experience, Utech said, regardless of whether his company wins the $100,000 award.

“I’ve already won,” Utech said. “This has been a big-time validation for me and also a learning experience. For one thing, I tended to have a small business mindset – that you can start small and build slowly. The reality is that if you’re going to be successful, you need to ramp up. You either ramp up or you don’t.”

Another pitch competitor, Mark Hackl, founder and CEO of Green Bay-based Lanehub, agrees with Utech that just being part of the Rise of the Rest competition is a victory.

“Certainly, we would like to win,” Hackl said, “but just getting the attention that comes with this is a big benefit. The money would be nice, but we already have good sources of investment, including funding from the N.E.W. Venture Foundry.” 

Hackl’s startup is a prime example of Rise of the Rest’s vision of innovation in legacy industries. Lanehub is a technology solution designed to help shippers and carriers match up and collaborate. Participating shippers and carriers enter their profiles in the platform, with information on their carriers and “lanes” of shipping. The information remains private, but Lanehub attempts to match up companies who might have complementary shipping lanes and carriers. The companies can then choose to communicate and share information that might help drive more efficient shipping schedules – more round-trip truckloads and fewer empty trucks.

Hackl describes it as a kind of Match.com for the logistics industry.

Hackl previously spent 20 years in transportation and logistics at both Georgia Pacific and Schreiber Foods in Green Bay. Lanehub has 65 companies currently on the platform, including Anheuser-Busch, PepsiCo and Proctor & Gamble.

Gaining traction and momentum

Utech, who will also be a speaker on the second day of the Launch Wisconsin event, said he’s encouraged by the strides Launch Wisconsin has made. Having years ago moved away from his hometown of Green Bay to work in Minneapolis and Denver, Utech said he had “a perception that Green Bay is not innovative.

Since returning to the region in 2010, he’s discovered there is innovation aplenty, but challenges remain in optimizing that innovation.

“The challenge I’ve seen is that there is not an easy connection between entrepreneurs and the investor community,” Utech said. “Launch Wisconsin has helped provide that connection.”

Hackl agreed, noting that “in that past we haven’t seen a lot of ways to connect with investors, but that has begun to change and we’re gaining momentum and traction.”

De Pere-based Zyquest Founder Al Zeise, one of the New North region’s best-known serial entrepreneurs as well as an investor through various groups like N.E.W. Venture Foundry, said the change has been a long time coming. That’s part of the reason he and others created and funded Launch Wisconsin in 2015.

“There’s a lot of investment money available in northeastern Wisconsin,” Zeise said. “There just hasn’t been a lot of people thinking about investing. We saw Launch Wisconsin as a way to begin to create a startup ecosystem here to bring innovators and investors together.”

Wisconsin has often been looked on as an entrepreneurial wasteland. The Kaufmann Foundation Index of Entrepreneurship, for example, has ranked the state dead last for three years running. Zeise said there is some basis for that finding, but noted the Kaufmann Index doesn’t consider all the possible factors.

“That skews the results. Wisconsin has a great tradition of entrepreneurship, although it has been in industries not currently seen as innovative – the dairy industry, the paper industry and manufacturing in general. We’re seeing more innovation now, but it hasn’t gotten a lot of attention,” Zeise said, pointing to successful emerging companies like Green Bay-based Breakthrough Fuels, which his investment group helped fund.

The need to attract outside investor attention to the region was another goal for Launch Wisconsin, Zeise said, and one that’s being achieved by degrees.

“Having Rise of the Rest come in here for Launch Wisconsin brings a whole new level of credibility,” Zeise said. “It gives us a platform to showcase what we have to offer here in the region.”

For Rise of the Rest, Mason said, the stop in Green Bay will almost certainly match the results the Steve Case team has found in other locales.

“We have been in cities with 90,000 people up to one and a half million people and everything in between,” Mason said. “What’s always been true is that we constantly uncover the unexpected, irrespective of the size of the community.

Besides the pitch competition, we do what we call an ‘ecosystem crawl.’ We visit with local leaders and startups and really look at what’s happening on the ground. There is always a really interesting and compelling innovation ecosystem underway and always some unique stories to tell.”

Rick Berg is a freelance writer and editor based in Green Bay.