Partnerships create opportunity for innovative ideas, UWGB
By Dan Flannery
ASHWAUBENON – You’re an entrepreneur in northeast Wisconsin. Big ideas. Bigger dreams for massive sales, iconic brand recognition and market domination.
You can’t do that alone. You need insight, advice and awareness from people and organizations who have been there and done that on a global level.
You need people to shoot you straight about your ideas and your chances and help to create a clearer vision of your future.
You need people with access to similar people and world-class organizations.
You need people with financial and business resources, research capabilities and reputations for excellence.
You might need TitletownTech, a business-growing partnership between the Green Bay Packers, Microsoft, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the UW System.
Sometime this summer, TitletownTech’s new home at 1025 Lombardi Avenue – in the Packers’ Titletown District – will open its doors, but, that’s a bit of a formality. So, you might also be behind your competition.
Craig Dickman, managing director of TitletownTech, said his team already has received “hundreds” of those ideas and business pitches.
The first five investments will be announced soon, he said.
“One of the very fun things about this is that you see so many great ideas and thoughts that different people have, and in many cases, you’d love to do most of them,” Dickman said. “But at the same time, we’ve got to be really careful that we’re picking those that we think both have a great market opportunity but also where we can help them build.”
TitletownTech’s process for handling that flood of proposals and applications revolves around five focus areas: Sports, media and entertainment; digital health; agriculture, water and the environment; advanced manufacturing; and supply chain technology.
“We’ve got a small team that reviews those that come in,” Dickman said, “and if we see something that aligns with what we’re doing or we think can add value, we’ll invite them in for a conversation either by webcast or in person and just kind of work through the process. Sometimes we’ve seen really good ideas that just don’t match up with the areas that we’re focused about and then we don’t think we can bring them value and we’ll pass. Then in some cases, we see something where it connects where we think, ‘You know what, we think we can help that entrepreneur build.’”
Dickman, a 1982 graduate of UWGB, has a remarkable professional background for this work.
He founded and led Breakthrough Fuel; co-founded the N.E.W. Venture Foundry; was CEO of Breakthrough Fuel, Paper Transport and Master Fleet; was an executive at Schneider National and SHADE Information Systems; and founded StageThree, another effort to assist entrepreneurs and build successful business ventures.
Fittingly, he’s also an inventor, with multiple patents to his name.
He’s been involved in TitletownTech from the earliest design stage, five years ago.
“The original idea and concept were really from Ed Policy (Packers chief operating officer and general counsel),” Dickman said. “Ed is the one who had the vision for it, and he brought in several people early on to help him solidify and advance the idea. I was fortunate enough to be brought in. But at that time, I had absolutely no thought that I’d ever be kind of actively involved or taking a leadership role. But I think the vision connected right away.”
While the initial partnership was between the Packers and Microsoft – interesting and exciting on its own merits – UWGB now is considered an “active” partner in TitletownTech, Dickman said.
To that end, Aaron Kennedy, founder and former CEO of the Noodles & Co. restaurant chain, has been hired as an entrepreneur-in-residence at TitletownTech and will be considered a UWGB executive on loan.
Kennedy earned his master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“(Kennedy) will be working with entrepreneurs that are building and growing businesses,” Dickman said.
Through Kennedy, UWGB brings access to the full UW System to the TitletownTech mission.
“Part of Aaron’s job is to make sure that all the resources of the University of Wisconsin are at the fingertips of TitletownTech,” said UWGB Chancellor Gary Miller. “Aaron serves on the board of the business school at Wisconsin, so he has access there. We hope that will not only help Craig and all the entrepreneurs that come in there – because Wisconsin has enormous higher education resources – but it will also be a direct access for our faculty and students in this area and help us grow our business program faster.”
From Miller’s perspective, the university’s relationship with the Packers and Microsoft helps to give it a higher profile in the state, region and nation, but it also helps the area work toward a key goal.
“One of the really important insights that the Packers – Mark (Murphy, Packers President/CEO) and Ed Policy, really – have about this area is that as they work, they have to work to create an environment around this area that attracts young people,” Miller said. “We have a big talent gap, and that increases and enriches the culture of entrepreneurism because they believe that’s necessary for their survival. An important component of that is they believe… that for them to succeed in doing that, they have to have the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay grow. It’s got to become more research-oriented, larger, (with) bigger graduate programs to attract these young folks.”
Dickman said partnering with higher education to build TitletownTech’s platforms and program designs was always a top consideration.
“It’s really key to be tied into higher education,” he said, “because any place you look at, where these models work out well there’s a deep connection between entrepreneurial activity and higher education. That comes in several places. It comes from students – who are involved from ideas and internships to actively working – to faculty who are engaged to connections (and) to research.”
Miller was asked to contribute in the early stages of TitletownTech development, Dickman said, even before Microsoft.
“They were involved in helping provide thought around design and then have moved that into the actual partnership it is today,” he said.
“It became clear that we would we would need to have some connection with TitletownTech,” Miller said, “not just the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, but the entire university system. So (UW System president) Ray Cross and I discussed this over a long period of time, and we proposed to the Packers that when they set up TitletownTech, we would provide an entrepreneur-in-residence who would be a University of Wisconsin-Green Bay employee. That would be a person of some note and would serve on the leadership team of TitletownTech as an entrepreneur, and at the same time, connect the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the University of Wisconsin System resources to that effort.”
Dickman said most of the day-to-day relationship between TitletownTech and UWGB will be through Kennedy, who was named to the position in late April.
“Like so many things at the beginning of a new partnership, we’ll figure out exactly what that means on a day-to-day basis as we grow,” Dickman said, “The one thing that’s important to us is that we’re both starting out committed to the partnership. We’re both starting out truly focused on both on the success of TitletownTech and the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.”
Another UWGB link to TitletownTech is the recent addition of alumnus Cordero Barkley as director of finance and investments.
Barkley, a former Phoenix basketball player, earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UWGB.
Combined with the opening of the STEM Innovation Center at UWGB for fall semester classes and other initiatives, TitletownTech has potential to lead an innovative and economic surge.
“There’s going to be multiple hubs of activity in this city,” said Dr. John Katers, dean of science and technology at UWGB. “It’s going to be pretty amazing. I hope that the community is ready for what could be a fairly rapid and fairly quick transformation. I mean you’re seeing it in property values, and you’re seeing a lot of changes right now. And if this becomes kind of a little tech center here, you’ll see a lot of people from all over the country moving in. And you don’t need to look any further than TitletownTech in terms of some of the people that are going to be involved in that project.”