The Commons’ Student Entrepreneurs Dive Into Startup Projects
Milwaukee’s latest startup accelerator is off and running.
The Commons put 16 university student teams on a track toward launching a startup or solving a corporate challenge at its kickoff event, a 48-hour planning and mentoring session culminating in project pitches to a packed room in Walker’s Point.
“I think that what I’m most excited about is that we have a lot of potential supporters that were in the crowd and here throughout the weekend that really were impressed by the progress that the teams have been making,” The Commons co-founder Matt Cordio said after the Sunday presentation.
The student startup winners were ASAPkids, a mobile app that showcases local activities for children and is also one of the participants in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Student Startup Challenge; TopCare, which is developing software that uses data-based illustrations to help cancer patients better understand their various treatment options; and FitBeing, which is working on smart apparel that uses sensors to give feedback via smartphones about proper physical form during exercise.
In The Commons’ corporate challenge track, the participants will attempt to create or improve technology, or develop new businesses, for regional companies and organizations. The weekend pitch contest winners were the Briggs & Stratton team, whose idea is a lawnmower component that would monitor an engine’s condition; the Milwaukee Bucks team, who suggested improvements to the NBA basketball team’s mobile app; and the Workshop Architects team, who were tasked with designing the space for The Commons.
The weekend winners earned bragging rights, but no prizes, Cordio said. All of the teams will now go to work on their projects.
ASAPkids founder and CEO Cordella Jones plans to get her app in virtual stores by May 1, a process she said was greatly accelerated by The Commons’ launch event.
“This was an opportunity that was long overdue for our community,” Jones said, “to actually make something where you have veteran entrepreneurs take the opportunity to give” advice to “young entrepreneurs who literally had an idea, pitched an idea, and for it to come full circle.”
The launch has been in the works since Cordio and co-founder Michael Hostad first announced the nonprofit in August. Cordio is also co-founder of Startup Milwaukee. Hostad is executive director of Innovation in Milwaukee, or MiKE, a Greater Milwaukee Committee initiative.
Since then, the two have been fundraising, recruiting student participants, and crafting a rubric to measure the program’s success.
The pair and their team made more than a dozen appearances at local colleges to talk with students about the program. In the end, they distilled 171 applications into 145 participants.
One of the program’s staunchest supporters has been Marquette University and its president, Mike Lovell, who attended the pitch event and spoke with some of the 55 Marquette students who participated.
“They thought they had this great idea all figured out before they came in, and then they learned what they didn’t know, particularly working with their mentors,” he said. “So, I just think it provides our students and all the students in Milwaukee a great platform to learn how to be more successful going forward.”
Marquette is one of 19 schools whose students participated in the event, along with Alverno College, Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, Medical College of Wisconsin, Concordia University Wisconsin, and others.
Gretchen Jameson, Concordia’s vice president of strategy, culture and external relations, said she was pleasantly surprised to see academic institutions, which are typically slow-moving, dive into a startup project.
“I think, really, institutions that are going to move and be nimble and be agile recognize that you’re not going to do that alone in the new economy,” Jameson said. “You’re going to have to be partnering and collaborating, not only with the social sector and the business sector, but with other” schools “to really move things forward in a new way.”
The caution comes in part from concerns about intellectual property issues that could arise between collaborating corporations, universities, and students.
It’s a risk that all parties acknowledge, but that none seem worried about in the coming months. The Commons’ pilot program will run through the spring semester, during which it will host a half-dozen workshops and networking events. A new session is set to start in May.
“We’re trying to get through this pilot program without that being sort of the wet blanket on the process,” Hostad said of potential IP challenges. “Even our corporate partners, who certainly have IP concerns, are willing to set those aside and take on that risk just for the purposes of seeing how this pilot program goes.”
Should a company want to make a legal arrangement with a student, Hostad said The Commons and a partner law firm will be a part of that conversation.
“But we don’t anticipate that even coming up at all over the course of this pilot program,” Hostad said.
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