We are honored to have the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) on board as a sponsor for this year’s Fall Summit! WEDC is committed to creating and maintaining a business climate that allows residents to maximize their potential. They work with more than 600 statewide partners, including regional economic development organizations, academic institutions and industry groups to enhance the many communities within the state, support business development, advance industry innovation, tap global markets, and help develop a talented workforce to help Wisconsin realize its full economic potential. 

Like any economic development corporation, they have a number of divisions operating across the state in various strategic areas. They do the normal community economic development work, have a group focused on minority business development, a group focused on international trade and investment, a group focused on attraction projects and marketing the state, and a marketing and branding team. This is pretty standard economic development stuff. They also have two teams focused on entrepreneurship and innovation and sector strategy development. Their sector strategy development team works to support established industries where they have a competitive advantage either technologically or a niche cluster basis. 

“In Madison in particular we’ve got a lot of medical records software companies. So, how do we establish and position the success of that industry rather than the individual companies within it,” says Aaron Hagar, Vice President of WEDC, Division of Entrepreneurship and Innovation

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“The nice thing about a state like Wisconsin is that it’s a big enough state where there’s critical mass and the communities, but not so big you get lost in the shuffle.”

- Aaron Hagar, Vice President of WEDC, Division of Entrepreneurship and Innovation

Aaron heads up these two teams, whose strategy is focused around four key pillars:

  1. Looking at innovation in terms of economic growth

  2. Looking at entrepreneurs as people. What do they need? 

  3. Differentiating between the company and the entrepreneur. What does the company need?

  4. The environment. The context in which all of these things operate.

The Entrepreneurship Team at WEDC 

There are two wings of the Entrepreneurship working group. One is engaged one-on-one with individual, largely growth-oriented businesses seeking angel or investor capital. That team does one-on-one engagements to plug the capital gaps for those companies. 

According to Aaron, “As a portfolio, we have active awards with just over 200 companies at any given time. All together those companies bring in new capital and generate revenue of just over half-billion dollars.”

The other wing is focused on the ecosystem space and has a few different programs designed to support program development with partners to reach various entrepreneurial audiences. One is focused on accelerator programs that match funding for mission-based accelerators. 

“We’re not partnering with the accelerators that are investor driven, but say for example if an industrial group wants to support some startup activity through a lean startup cohort based model, we can provide some funding into that. We’ve done things on the University campus to engage faculty, staff and student entrepreneurs to launch opportunities out of a higher education setting. Smaller local accelerators in the community, people in our counties who have ideas and need support, if there’s a demographic that is being targeted,” explains Aaron. 

“We have another program that operates in a similar way with partners focused on seed funds. So if there’s a local community that has some economic dollars they want to drive to startups we basically double their money, and all the proceeds go back and revolve through that mechanism,” he adds. 

Two Success Stories 

WEDC also has a really cool competitive program with very few parameters. Aaron says, “Essentially, show us a really good idea to support entrepreneurs. Any eligible, mission-based group can throw an idea at us, run it through a competitive selection process, and then we can fund the really interesting ones that can be particularly impactful or serve as a model to be deployed throughout the state.” 

8th Grade Entrepreneurs in Southwest Wisconsin

One example of this happened in a very rural area in Southwest Wisconsin called the “driftless region” where there are a lot of very small, agricultural and pocketed communities. A group of school districts there identified that they were having significant population decline. Their demographics were aging, their kids were leaving, and they didn’t know where their pillars of community or next generation of business owners were going to come from. They pitched the idea of doing accelerator program and actual business development with eighth graders. They wanted to give $500 to teams of eight graders to develop businesses and then run them through a lean startup course and then throw a pitch contest for additional dollars. 

“We looked at it and found it was a really comprehensive strategy so we funded it. It was really interesting to see these students come up with really cool ideas and learn a lot about what it takes to run a business. This team of 8th grade girls won. They used their school’s greenhouse to grow microgreens and sell them at the farmers market and the people in their network. But the process that they had to go through to do that - they had to identify their workflow, identify their team roles and responsibilities, their pricing packaging, and marketing... Then their pitch absolutely killed it. It was as good as any I’ve seen with other venture companies,” says Aaron.

A Program For Re-Entry

Another one was a partnership between a local nonprofit and the sheriff’s department in northern Wisconsin County doing business development training for incarcerated individuals getting ready to leave the criminal justice system. These individuals generally have traumatic backgrounds, a track record that isn’t exactly attractive to employers, and are likely to have education gaps. The goal was to help them re-enter the economy and give them the skills to develop their own business and get out of that cycle. 

“Not the kind of thing WEDC would develop a specific program around, but can be used as a proof point so that if another group wants to do something we’ve got some models to point to.” 

How Can Ecosystem Builders Partner With Organizations like WEDC

“A lot of different ways. Some of it is as basic as awareness and relationships, coordination and engagement. We should know each other. A lot of what we do is provide funding. Most of these initiatives are driven at the local level. So we can do our part to make sure the dollars are there so that they can achieve those goals, but it also needs to be part of a coordinated system. 

For instance, there are champions at various coworking spaces throughout the state that we haven’t put any dollars into. But we know the community or executive directors. We talk to them at various conferences. We’ll jump on a call with them to discuss one item or another. It’s really about sharing that information and intelligence about what they’re seeing so that we have more knowledge when it comes to deploying those dollars somewhere else in their ecosystem.”

What excites you about the Summit?

“I’m most excited to showcase Madison to the national group and really use the city as a backdrop to bounce a lot of these ideas in and around. I want to learn from what other people are doing. I want to learn about best practices and interesting things we can try here,” says Aaron.