Lifelong techie takes reins as head of Wisconsin Innovation Network

When Maurice “Mo” Cheeks – new director of the Wisconsin Innovation Network – was growing up in a suburb south of Chicago in the 1990s, he made a deal with his parents that went something like this:

If he did well in school, his folks would pay for a computer and a dedicated phone line for it. Not bad negotiating for a fifth grader, who grew up in a family that placed a heavy emphasis on school. In fact, Cheeks recalls, even though he was an avid gamer, he was only allowed to use the computer for fun one night a week – and that was after all his studies were done.

Cheeks, 29, said he was a “techie” from a young age and a fan of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs for as long as he can remember. He parlayed that interest in technology into a job as a campus representative for Apple at Eastern Illinois University, where he earned a degree in business. He later worked for a start-up called “Tiny Pictures” in San Francisco before returning to the Midwest in 2007 after he was recruited by Apple to lead K-12 education sales in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula.

He chose Madison as his home base for that post after friends recommended the city. He has volunteered in local schools and was elected to the Madison City Council last year.

“I was taken aback by how friendly everyone was as I traveled the state for Apple,” said Cheeks. Before joining WIN this summer he also spent time with the Madison Chamber of Commerce and was head of sales for the video game company known as “Filament.”

“As the director of WIN, I’m part of a group within the Tech Council that is frankly just focused on insuring that Wisconsin is in the best possible position it can be in to be prepared for the future economy,” he said.

He said WIN also helps connects nascent firms with angel investors and venture capitalists. Cheeks said he has frequent discussions with Dan Blake, who heads the Wisconsin Angel Network – another Tech Council arm.

Cheeks said he believes the high-tech “ecosystem” in Madison and the state is evolving steadily, especially in the area of healthcare information technology. The privately held Epic Systems, a medical software giant that is based in Verona, now has more than 7,000 employees.

“Madison, Wisconsin and the country have seen a tremendous amount of growth in that area in the past few years as a byproduct of the Affordable Care Act,” he said.

“Just last week, I met with folks from 100 Health, which is the health care IT co-working (incubator) space in town. Their mission is to create 100 health care IT companies over the next five years. If we have even a normal amount of success, there will be a few companies that come out of there that might make it big.”

Cheeks said other budding tech hubs outside of Madison and Milwaukee include Superior and Ashland, Wausau, Eau Claire and the Fox Valley. He said it’s his goal to strengthen WIN chapters in those areas.

Cheeks lauded the state’s new fund of funds, which commits $25 million to back venture capital firms that invest in Wisconsin-based companies as one way to encourage tech startups and help them grow here.

“That is a specific example of what’s already being done,” he said. “Wisconsin has a great track record of keeping new businesses alive. A recent story said among peers in Midwest, we have the best record for startups lasting more than 10 years.”

Cheeks said he believes Wisconsin will continue to be “somewhat risk averse” when it comes to startups until some publicly held company hits a so-called home run.

“We are fortunate to have relatively low unemployment, but we also have a culture that is doesn’t gravitate to high-risk scenarios when we compare ourselves to other places around the country,” he said. “One of the big differentiators is that other communities have had major success stories to look at who took risk and did well and are now spreading that mentality as they use the wealth they created to fund other entrepreneurs. ”

Cheeks said he’d like to see more of the research from UW-Madison and other state colleges develop into companies that employ Wisconsin graduates here at home.

“When we see the kind of R&D coming out of UW-Madison, one of the things people ask is how is that translating to into businesses around here. This comes back to question about risk and how we encourage innovation,” he said. “I think (it can happen) if we continue to match young would-be entrepreneurs with exciting new innovations and patents and bring them together with mentors and potential investors.

“It’s about creating an eco-system of success in Wisconsin. We have plenty of the pieces here, so what we are trying to work on is to bring them all together.”

— By Brian E. Clark