By: Nathan Phelps and Jeff Bollier
Green Bay Press-Gazette
ASHWAUBENON – The visibility of a storied football team may be one of the keys to keeping talented people in Wisconsin and changing the way the nation thinks of the state.
When the Green Bay Packers and its partners open the new TitletownTech building early next year, it’s hoped the center will begin transforming the region into a place where more people want to live and work — an alternative to fleeing to the coasts or bigger cities where they imagine more jobs and more amenities await.
It’s not easy to do that when Wisconsin, and northeast Wisconsin in particular, spent several recent years being ranked last in national surveys among states for innovation and startup businesses.
TitletownTech Managing Director Craig Dickman said the region’s lack of technological prowess was overstated, but still served as “a real call to action.”
“Most of us didn’t believe those reports were true, but we do a poor job of highlighting our successes,” said Dickman, who launched Breakthrough Fuel, a Green Bay transportation fuel logistics company, in 2004.
It’s no matter to the people behind TitletownTech that Wisconsin, and Green Bay, don’t carry the tech-related cache of places like Silicon Valley or Austin, Texas. TitletownTech is seen as a “beacon” where local talent can bring ideas and products to fruition without fleeing to the coasts in search of money and product development.
“We’d have conversations with people in the national venture capital community and they’d say they show nothing being funded here,” Dickman said. “We’re too humble. We don’t like to go out and tell our story. We need to get on the radar. The early stage community is coalescing around this call to action.”
TitletownTech is a lofty vision for northeastern Wisconsin’s tech sector. At its core is the idea the region has something to offer the world when it comes to technology and innovation, and it has — or can attract — the people to make it happen.
The center will focus on innovation centered around sports, media and entertainment; digital health; the supply chain; advanced manufacturing; and agriculture, environment and water. TitletownTech will have two Microsoft employees on site, an innovation lab, venture studio, and an all-important venture fund.
TitletownTech is one of two major technology-related developments in Green Bay. Last month, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and partners broke ground on a new science, technology, engineering and mathematics innovation center on the campus. The $15 million STEM Innovation Center is designed to be an educational resource for the community, with a focus on introducing young people to careers in science and technology. It will house UWGB’s school of engineering.
Meanwhile, in Sheboygan, economic development officials are developing the FreshTech Innovation District, an area designated to bring businesses, students, educators and entrepreneurs together.
The spotlight on tech and the diversity of businesses in the area are seen as tools that can help keep, or bring, talented people to the state, especially young people.
People like Quinlan “Q” Hillesheim, a 2017 St. Norbert College graduate from Escanaba, Michigan, who expected to leave the Green Bay area after graduation.
He interned with a company whose products most people have eaten without knowing it came from Green Bay: Schreiber Foods. He now handles inside sales for Green Bay commercial furniture manufacturer KI.
“You graduate wanting to work for Target or NASA, but then you realize the opportunities you have right here,” Hillesheim said. “Companies like KI, Schreiber … people don’t know they exist right here. People think I work in a La-Z-Boy shop when what I really do is sell solutions.”
Jill Enos, director of TitletownTech’s venture center, said the impact of the center will be measured though growth of existing businesses and by how many new, and interesting, businesses spring up.
“That’s not 25 years from now, that’s five and 10 years from now,” Enos said.
By some measures, the state is one of the lowest ranking in the nation for the development of new business, but at the same time, it boasts world-class tech companies like Epic in Madison, Johnson Controls in Milwaukee and JAMF in Eau Claire.
Those are the big names, but there are myriad other smaller tech-related companies dotting the state.
The 2016 State Technology and Science Index places Wisconsin 22nd in the nation for its business climate while an annual ranking of startup activity by the Kauffman Index puts the state at 25 of 25 for “larger states.”
Running in conjunction with the development of the tech centers — and plans from consumer electronics giant Foxconn to build an innovation center in Green Bay — is a push by Microsoft to bolster technology education in Wisconsin while connecting more businesses, people and educators from rural areas with broadband access.
Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, grew up in Appleton and knows the region’s history in manufacturing and innovation. Despite what indexes may say, he’s bullish about the state’s future in technological innovation.
“Just as a small city can win an NFL championship, there are people here who can build great businesses and compete on the world stage,” he said. “Thirty or forty years ago when I grew up here it was more common to see people go to one coast or the other, or perhaps Chicago, but I think we’re seeing talent come back.”
Or stay here.
“I hope people (growing up here) recognize they can build great companies and pursue other really exciting things by just staying here,” Smith said.
If companies can effectively connect with students, the next generation of talent will begin to see the Green Bay area as a more viable, long-term option instead of a stop on the way from smaller communities to Madison, Milwaukee or Chicago, Hillesheim said.
“It’s an easy place to fall in love with, especially if you’re a Packers fan,” he said. “I get to my job in eight minutes. I work for an employee-owned company, which is huge to be working for your own benefit. It’s a place where you can know your neighbors, but also get involved in big city activities and events.”