Speed Dating: Wisconsin’s Experiment to Connect Startups, Big Boys

5/1/14Follow @XconomyWI

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IBM, Intel, and AT&T. One eager participant was Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation, a global supplier of industrial automation products. Rockwell already has business partnerships with more than 100 companies, primarily smaller firms that have innovative technology that fills gaps or augments Rockwell’s suite of products and services, says chief technology officer Sujeet Chand. Often these relationships start through an introduction by a Rockwell customer to another one of its vendors. But Chand sees value in prompting those types of conversations through a focused, one-day event.

“The Tech Summit is another way of getting to know emerging companies who may not already be in our space,” Chand says. He and three Rockwell staff in business development and technology met with 12 companies that day, and he says time flew by as they chatted with the emerging companies’ leaders about how their technology might intersect with what Rockwell does.

And the meetings clearly help the emerging companies, he adds.

“Sometimes organic connections are difficult to establish with larger companies,” says Chand, a Wisconsin Technology Council board member and co-chair of the Tech Summit. Startups often “don’t know who the contact is [at a large company], don’t know where to approach. There are so many people in a large company. Typically, if you go to the CEO or senior vice president level, you’re not going to get anywhere.”

Building these relationships has value that goes far beyond any individual deals, say both the organizers of the Tech Summit and the participants. “For startups, customers are king, and if we can get them in our own backyard, then that benefits everyone,” explains Solomo CEO Eversoll. “It will make [Wisconsin’s] established companies more effective, more competitive with new products. It will help our startups grow more quickly. All of that will help with economic development.”

And making such connections is especially needed in Wisconsin, where these sorts of exchanges seem to happen less frequently than in more heavily populated areas on the coasts that have more developed startup ecosystems, local entrepreneurs and investors say. Part of the problem in Wisconsin is some larger companies have less experience interacting with startups, and they also are more wary of taking a risk on new technology from early-stage companies, says Eversoll.

“We’re just a little more conservative than other areas of the country,” she says. “Existing established companies don’t know how to participate” in the startup ecosystem in Wisconsin, she adds. “They’re just starting to fund R&D and innovation groups to start looking at new technology.”

Once started, though, the trend is likely to continue. “We’re in an era in which major companies are not confined to looking for innovation within their own companies,” explains Still. One company in the area that’s actively betting on Wisconsin’s startup scene is Madison-based American Family Insurance, according to several observers. American Family has a venture capital arm that has invested in several startups that graduated Gener8tor’s program, Kirgues says, and the company is also the first customer for Understory, a weather data and analytics startup that has moved from Madison to Boston and changed its name from Subsidence. (American Family VC officials declined to comment for this story.)

The Tech Summit and OnRamp are the latest efforts by stakeholders to give this trend an extra nudge. Other initiatives over the past few years include Innovation in Milwaukee, or MiKE, which partly aims to connect big companies in southeastern Wisconsin with local entrepreneurs and creative types. Still says his organization intends to hold more of these events. And in hindsight, the outreach from the entrepreneurial world to big corporations should have started sooner, says Gener8tor’s Kirgues: “The harder question is why did it take the leaders of the technology community so long to ask?”

So will business speed dating—and any consummated deals that result—really pay off for the emerging companies, their corporate customers and partners, and the region’s economy? There’s no definitive answer yet. “It’s a model that needs to be proven,” Chand says. “My gut feeling is yes, it’s valuable and I feel larger firms based in Wisconsin should reach out and help the emerging companies connect to their customer base, if they’re relevant.”

And for the large companies, there are benefits from helping to build the local startup community, Chand says. He sees it as partly a play to fight the “brain drain” problem of talented young people often fleeing Wisconsin for the coasts.

“If we can stimulate more startup companies here and create a vibrant startup community in Wisconsin, that’s going to attract more talent here,” Chand says.

Jeff Engel is the editor of Xconomy Wisconsin. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @XconomyWI

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