New Milwaukee Startup Accelerator to Unite Universities, Corporations

Two Milwaukee-area entrepreneur support groups are forming a seed accelerator for students from multiple local universities.

Startup Milwaukee and Innovation in Milwaukee, or MiKE, today announced The Commons, a new nonprofit initiative that they’re branding as an “industry-academic collaborative to accelerate ideas.” The program is still largely in the idea phase, and organizers must still secure the necessary university and corporate partners, funding, a physical space, and cross-institution agreements to make it happen.

“Our vision for The Commons is really to attract, develop, and retain the brightest entrepreneurial and innovative minds in southeastern Wisconsin,” says Matt Cordio, co-founder of Startup Milwaukee and The Commons.

The Commons would operate two branches: a startup accelerator for student entrepreneurs and a corporate innovation track that would see regional companies enlist students to help them create or improve technology or businesses they want to develop in-house, Cordio says.

Startup Milwaukee, founded in 2011, has primarily focused on hosting networking events, helping startups find interns and mentors, and operating a downtown co-working space, 96square. MiKE, also founded in 2011 by the Greater Milwaukee Committee, has aimed to connect corporations with talent, but it is in a transition period under new leader, Michael Hostad, who is also a co-founder of The Commons.

Cordio and Hostad hope to launch a pilot version of The Commons by November, although a lot of planning must occur to make that a reality. The first step was a meeting on Marquette University’s campus today with leaders from 20 local academic institutions that could sign on with The Commons. Next week, Hostad and Cordio will pitch the program to a group of MiKE’s corporate members.

The Commons would join a growing number of seed accelerators around the state, including other nonprofit initiatives that involve universities. But none of those programs approach collaboration in exactly the same way as The Commons, with a coalition of Milwaukee-area universities and corporations.

The Commons was partly inspired by the MIT Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator, Cordio says. In fact, Cordio says that he and Hostad partly decided to press forward with their idea after a meeting they held in April with local university officials and Boston-area entrepreneur Bill Aulet, who is managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. (Xconomy brought Aulet to Wisconsin to give talks in Madison and Milwaukee about teaching entrepreneurship.)

“Entrepreneurship education is not an individual sport; it is a team sport. And the more diversity you have on your team, the better equipped you are to succeed at it,” Aulet says in a prepared statement regarding The Commons. “That’s not just diversity within a university, but also across universities.”

The Commons’ startup accelerator would provide seed funding, mentorship, and connections to talent. The goal would be to foster entrepreneurship in students, while ultimately spurring profitable businesses that create jobs. Cordio pointed to a recent partnership between the Medical College of Wisconsin and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee—in which MCW students pitched ideas for healthcare mobile apps that would be developed by UWM students—as an example of where The Commons could come into play.

“What we really need to do is pair those medical students, who have no time to start a company, with an eager MBA student who wants to start a company,” Cordio says. “That’s the type of collaboration we’re looking at.”

As for The Commons’ corporate track, the idea is to give students real-world experience helping a business solve a problem.

“Maybe there’s a company that’s had a technology shelved for a long time, and they want to dust it off in a risk-free way,” Hostad explains. Students could “do some research around whether that product might have legs in the market.”

Success for the corporate track will be measured by how many internships and full-time jobs come out of it, as well as how well it prepares students for a professional career, improves university curricula, and boosts engagement from the business community.

Details about The Commons are still scarce, and the structure will need to be worked out with academic and corporate partners after The Commons officially brings them on board. Marquette University is almost certainly a lock, as incoming president Mike Lovell is an early supporter, Cordio says.

Universities will not be expected to fund the seed accelerator, at least in the pilot stage, Cordio says. The Commons will instead seek money from donors and grant programs, such as the Wisconsin Economic Devleopment Corp.’s Capital Catalyst program. Meanwhile, the corporate track would ideally be funded by the corporations, potentially with additional subsidies from donors, Cordio says. He and Hostad say they have already talked with individuals who have expressed interest in backing the initiative.

The Commons’ physical location will likely be in the Walker’s Point neighborhood, just south of downtown Milwaukee, Cordio says. The area is on the rise, with a mix of high-tech companies and research, new restaurants and bars, and planned housing developments.

The Commons must also hammer out crucial details like intellectual property agreements, how many students can participate in the program at any given time, and how much seed money the students’ startups would get.

“A lot of the academic leaders saw the value in what we are proposing,” Hostad says. “They also have questions and see challenges. We’re not blind to that. That’s why we’ll try to partner with those institutions to help us figure those out.”

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

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  • Melissa Nikolic

    With all the focus on the lack of women in start-ups and Venture Capital this acronym is truly unfortunate #diversityneeded.