VETransfer gets international attention for helping vet-led startups

In four years, a reply to a “request for proposal” found in has matured into a model that is garnering two Milwaukee entrepreneurs the attention of politicians in Wisconsin, DC and Great Britain.

It’s been quite a ride recently for Greg Meier and Nick Wichert. The two teach entrepreneurship at UW-Milwaukee and manage VETransfer as well as other small business accelerators, or training programs, for startups. VETransfer helps military veterans get their businesses off the ground. Meier proclaims it’s unique in the world. Since May 2012 VETransfer has put 29 companies through the accelerator program; twenty-seven of those are still in business, resulting in more than 100 new jobs.

One showcase firm called 425 Inc., led by Juan Gomez and Kevin Matte, makes “the Guardian Angel,” a flashing light that can be affixed to the shoulder of a police officer so others can clearly see an officer in distress.

Being a one-of-a-kind operation has gotten the pair on some important contact lists kept by the Obama administration, Gov. Scott Walker’s administration and now the British government.

Back in 2012, the White House selected VETransfer as part of “Champions of Change” program that year; the only Wisconsin entity so chosen. That led to national media coverage.

They caught the attention of a British government official, Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative Party’s current secretary of state for work and pensions. who stopped by for a WEDC-organized Wisconsin visit in the fall of 2013. That got Meier and Wichert a trip to London in January for a weeklong trip to brief the British government and others on how they do things in Wisconsin. The two of them spoke in various meetings on their accelerators, their entrepreneurship philosophy and their opinions on what works.

Later that month, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch featured them at a pre-State of the State gathering. Emil Harmsen, an Army reservist and co-founder of EverFire Studios and PsyberFire, talked to the group at the Capitol gathering. EverFire is a video game developer while PsyberFire is management software developer.

Next came two more intersections with the Obama administration.

First came the call from the White House inviting them to the president’s post-State of the Union speech in Waukesha. Then came the February trip to DC for a White House conference on small business development. Gomez was among the 90 business leaders in attendance.

All these government kudos are fine, but Meier and Wichert get really jazzed when talking about their process for getting businesses off the ground. While the two aren’t vets, they owe part of their system to the Lean Launch Pad work of adviser Steve Blank, who happens to be a Vietnam veteran.

They are clear on two things: that when government does try to help it needs to adopt a “bottom up” and transparent approach, so when taxpayer money flows into a program everybody can see how the money is being put to work; and Wisconsin government gets that right.

The process melds the Lean Launch methodology with the accelerator philosophy. “We’ve been kind of pioneers in putting the two models together,” Meier says.

“We’re building the program, the process for entrepreneurs the way it happens in the real world,” Wichert says. “Where a lot of the British side is policy coming down from top and how funding is set and what the entrepreneur should be doing.”

The Wisconsin process is “the complete inverse,” Wichert says.

“(In Wisconsin), the state is actually saying here is the support, and getting out of the way. …They let us run with our expertise.”

It all started back in replying to the RFP. Meier, Wichert, and the now deceased Mark Huber beat out a competitive field. The federal accelerator project launched in 2011, ending in March 2013. Then the state picked up ongoing funding of VETransfer.

“We’re Wisconsin-vet focused now,” Meier said.

Boosters of VETransfer said it couldn’t have happened without the backing of Walker’s administration, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and a bipartisan group of lawmakers who gave a rare unanimous vote in the Wisconsin Legislature’s budget committee for $500,000 in 2013-14 funding. In addition, some $2 million in private capital has been raised.

Wichert and Meier say there’s entrepreneurial movement in Wisconsin, often derided by naysayers as flyover country.

Meier calls building a real entrepreneurial community a 20-year endeavor. “We’re moving in the right direction,” he says. “We’re on that 20-year path.”

— By staff