Seeds, Bees, and Startups: Scenes From The WI Entrepreneurs’ Conference

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Propeller Health and UltraVisual Medical Systems. Gehring said it’s possible to raise money in Wisconsin, “it just takes too long.”

In Propeller’s case, the company ended up taking West Coast money because investors there moved more quickly than the Wisconsin investors that Propeller had met with, Gehring said. He thinks the problem is there’s less competition for good deals in Wisconsin, and investors here are “more gun shy.”

—An eighth grader’s “buzziness plan”: Jonah Thompson will be a high school freshman in the fall, but he’s already a business owner with a growth plan. The student at New Glarus Middle School, southwest of Madison, won the Wisconsin Yes! business plan contest with T Boys Honey, a beekeeping startup. He was honored at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference.

The self-taught beekeeper has been in business for five years, according to his Facebook page, and he said he has four contracts with local farms that hire him to maintain hives there so the bees will pollinate their crops. He’s doing his part to reverse a national trend—the U.S. bee population has declined 50 percent since 1950, he said at the conference. Thompson sells honey and candles made from the wax, but his long-term goal is to develop software to help farmers predict crop output if they get pollination help from his bees.

He’d eventually like to purchase a military truck to transport the bees, so he doesn’t have to use his mom’s Subaru. But first he needs to turn 16 so he can earn a driver’s license.

—Corporate innovation: Critics will say that big companies are where innovation goes to die. Renaissance Learning CEO Jack Lynch’s speech at the conference centered around how his Wisconsin Rapids, WI-based edtech company—which has more than 900 employees—is trying to stay on the cutting-edge by applying lean startup methods to new product development.

Part of this strategy involves the efforts of a satellite office in the San Francisco Bay Area, where employees follow the lean startup process by coming up with new ideas and quickly testing hypotheses to see if the project shows commercial promise. Renaissance Learning has grown from one reading software product when the company was founded in the mid-1980s to about 20 educational software products today, Lynch told the crowd.

“The thing about this [lean startup] process is you have to fail,” Lynch said. “You learn from that and then you build again.” But Renaissance Learning staffers are still trying to adjust to lean startup principles, and the company doesn’t utilize those tactics as much as it could, he added.

—Exit spark: An unsolicited email to a big company CEO couldn’t possibly get a deal done, right? Apparently it can, at least in the case of Chad Sorenson, co-founder of the former Middleton, WI-based startup Sologear. The company had developed the ethanol-based FlameDisk as a grilling substitute for charcoal. When its leaders started sniffing out potential suitors, they emailed the CEO of BIC, which makes lighters.

That message was the spark for BIC’s eventual acquisition of Sologear in 2011, Sorenson said on a panel at the conference. “I don’t know if he responded,” Sorenson said of BIC’s CEO. “He probably forwarded it on to the right person. That’s how it started.”

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Jeff Engel is a senior editor at Xconomy. Email: Follow @JeffEngelXcon

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