Wisconsin Start-ups Attracting Investors

By Kathleen Gallagher
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

From an entrepreneurial perspective, it was as if Wisconsin awoke from a long slumber in 2013.

Support for a vibrant start-up community, which many say is needed to boost the state’s mediocre business growth trends, finally appears to be gaining steam.

Last year, at least $150 million in venture capital was committed to state-based organizations, including $30 million for a long-delayed state-sponsored program.

Several relatively new groups — such as gener8tor, a for-profit group that trains start-ups — took key roles by providing programs and events to support entrepreneurs and accelerate the growth of young companies.

“It’s a good directional shift, but nobody should view this as the problem being solved,” said John Neis, managing director of Venture Investors, Madison. “It’s great movement, but we still have a long ways to go.”

Despite having 2% of the nation’s population, Wisconsin pulls in less than 1% of all U.S. venture capital investment, which acts as a gauge of high-potential entrepreneurial activity in a market.

But consider what gener8tor produced last year. The accelerator invested about $750,000 in 11 start-ups that went through its programs in Milwaukee and Madison. Those 11 companies created more than 50 full-time jobs in 2013, said Joe Kirgues, a gener8tor co-founder.

Entrepreneur-led groups in the state’s two biggest cities continue helping young companies to network and learn from one another.

Madison-based Capital Entrepreneurs attracted nearly 2,200 participants to 20 events during its 10-day Forward Technology Festival in August. Two months later, Startup Milwaukee opened 96square, the first for-profit co-working space in Milwaukee. The group also began mentorship and internship programs, and organized a Startup Weekend in November that launched 15 new companies.

Digital Fertilizer, a similar entrepreneur-led effort in the Fox Valley, formed in September and already has hosted a number of events.

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