Could Milwaukee be the next tech hub for startups? Local entrepreneurs think so

Could Milwaukee be the next Silicon Valley? A lot of studies will lead you to believe there's not enough start-up activity or young talent in the city. But local entrepreneurs are describing unprecedented momentum here.

"We can make Milwaukee a technology center," said Larry Hitchcock, who left Wisconsin after college to work in Silicon Valley. "Previous national studies have consistently rated Milwaukee and Wisconsin as last in startup activity, but that's very far from my experience. I believe the growth here is occurring more rapidly than the numbers and pundits have really observed."

While visiting his family in Milwaukee last year, Hitchcock randomly attended a "Startup Milwaukee" event. "Startup Milwaukee" is a group that fosters support for entrepreneurs on their journey. For one week every October, there is "Startup Milwaukee Week" - which connects entrepreneurs to hundreds of events throughout the state of Wisconsin to network and build ideas. 

"The startup scene here is accelerating at a rate that is just amazing to see," Hitchcock said. 

That's why he decided to move back. Within the past year, he's created "Socialeads" which uses artificial intelligence software to pull information from social networking sites, to help businesses and sales teams.

"For example, we could aggregate all social media data of people talking about how they want a new car, or what specific kind of car they want, and give that to car dealerships," Hitchcock said. "The capability of machines to really dig through tremendous amounts of data is happening at a rate that's amazing. At a speed and inexpensive cost like never before."

Right now, "Socialeads" is solely focusing on general financial info people share, like when someone announces on social media that they're retiring or buying a home. That's because the startup got the attention and financial backing of Northwestern Mutual."

"They saw the potential of what it could teach them about prospective clients, and they invested in us," Hitchcock said. "That makes all the difference. They recognized in their business, something as old as life insurance, that change and growth needed to happen. Innovation and technology is changing how a 160-year-old company does business. This applies to every industry."

That's why Northwestern Mutual created the state-of-the-art work space known as "Cream City Labs." Located within Northwestern Mutual's downtown tower, Cream City Labs is a place to cultivate innovation internally and among independent, outside start-ups. 

"What Northwestern Mutual, Aurora Health, Johnson Controls, and Foxconn are helping do, is secure a landing pad for young talent in our city," Hitchcock said. "They're investing in education programs and grants to build startup activity. It really helps for people who have an idea that they believe can be a viable product or service, and find a customer for. It's hard to get direct contact with big companies like that elsewhere."

Like Hitchcock, the founders of many local startups, work with local colleges and universities to help grow talent. 

"If we build-up a great talent base, we can make Milwaukee a technology hub." Hitchcock said. "More local/national groups are taking notice. Milwaukee is becoming appealing to a lot of young entrepreneurs from the west and east coasts because it's more affordable, and there are still a lot of things to do. It's more of an untapped market."

 A few of the biggest things pushing Milwaukee forward right now: 

  • Northwestern Mutual & Aurora Health Care each launching a $5 million venture fund to develop local talent.
  • Northwestern Mutual, Marquette and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee are partnering for a $40 million Data Science Institute
  • The Milwaukee School of Engineering recently announced a $34 million grant to build a dedicated computer science facility focused on artificial intelligence, deep learning, cyber security, robotics, cloud computing, and other next-generation technologies. 
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