WisBusiness: Panel Highlights State Resources for New Businesses

By Gregg Hoffmann

MILWAUKEE – A “wide array” of resources are available to entrepreneurs in Wisconsin, according to the opening panel of the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference at the Hyatt Thursday.

Debra Malewicki of the UW-Whitewater Center for Innovation and Business Development, Pamela Christenson of the Bureau of Entrepreneurship in the state Department of Commerce, Joe Kremer of the Wisconsin Angel Network, David Linz of the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Network and Margaret Theusch of the Milwaukee Economic Development Corp. gave brief overviews of their agencies’ functions and worked through a couple of case studies for entrepreneurs.

“There truly is a diverse array of resources for entrepreneurs,” said Malewicki, who served as the moderator of the panel. “We have over 200 research projects per year on new products and other aspects of entrepreneurship. There are small business development centers like ours at each of the 4-year campuses in the state.”

Theusch’s Milwaukee-based group was the oldest of the agencies. She explained that the MEDC partners with banks in arranging financing for entrepreneurs and likes to concentrate “on growing our own” businesses.

Kremer said his angel network was started in January 2005. “We are trying to increase early-stage investment,” he said. The angel network maintains online databases through which entrepreneurs can expose their business proposals to potential angel investors.

Christenson’s bureau started in 2003 as part of the governor’s Grow Wisconsin program. “We have over 40 programs and try to offer specific programs for specific needs for specific businesses,” she said.

Linz’s group, the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Network, just celebrated its first anniversary and serves as an integrating service. “We try to help entrepreneurs to find help,” he said. “You can look at WEN as the hub of the wheel for information flow, ways to connect resources around the state.”

The group’s first case study involved some UW-Madison engineering students who came up with a navigational tool for firefighters. Starting with WEN, the students were able to get a grant for patent research and other financial help for the licensing of the technology, an early planning grant and product development.

Christenson said grants are available through the Department of Commerce for up to 75 percent of the costs of startup like those in the case study. “We do require some matching funds from the entrepreneur or other funding,” she said.

That other funding can come through angel networks, venture capitalists and/or banks. “We try to link the angel investors with venture people,” Kremer said. “You have to start with what can an investor get in return? Ideally, you can show a plan for about 30% growth per year.”

Theusch said banks and organizations that work with public funds are regulated and thus often somewhat conservative in lending for new ventures. “They want to see a way of repayment,” she said. “The relationship with your banker is very important. They want to see a demonstration of commitment and when possible an offer of some collateral.”

The second case study cited by the panel was for a Juneau County inventor who came up with an innovative window insulation product. “We found out about him through the Juneau County Inventors and Entrepreneurs Club,” Christenson said. “They have 300 members and get 75-100 out to their monthly meetings.”

Using the Juneau County group as an example, the Department of Commerce offered micro-grants for startup of other inventors and entrepreneurs clubs. “We have 25 new clubs since last year,” Christenson said.

The general consensus of the panel was that Wisconsin, once known as a state with relatively low capital for business startups, now offers that wide array of financial and other resources for entrepreneurs.