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The Early Adopters
Say hello to the Milwaukee startup scene

From the outside, Building 34 at the Chase Commerce Center on Oklahoma Avenue looks deserted. But inside, members of the Milwaukee Makerspace collective are meeting to, well, make stuff.

“This is part of a much larger movement,” says Adam Cohen, one of the diligent “builders,” at Makerspace. “It’s the democratization of being able to produce things.”

Tom Gralewicz, who heads up Cold Fizzin’, helped found Makerspace in 2009 when local builders and inventors first met at a West Allis Culver’s to talk shop.

Some of Makerspace’s most distinctive

creations, featured at milwaukeemakerspace.org, include an electric-powered motorcycle, a “spaceship chair,” a poodle-shaped lamp, a speaker that fits over the human head, a machine that automatically makes repetitive, intricate line drawings, and a little stuffed “Twitter Monkey” that flaps its arms when a specified term (could be “bananas” or the hashtag “#MKE”) is tweeted.

“To start any project, [you] just post on the message board and say, ‘Hey, anybody interested?’” Gralewicz says. “It’s amazing how many people step up.”

Materials are often donated or sold to individual members, depending on the project. Full-time memberships cost $80 and come with 24/7 accesses to the facility. Part-time and student memberships go for $40. Makerspace also welcomes nonmembers on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7 p.m. to work on a project for free.

Innovator HARQEN
With severe dyslexia, KELLY FITZSIMMONS, 41, is robbed of almost all reading comprehension.

“I can read the words out loud,” she says, “but if you asked me by the end of a sentence what I was saying, I couldn’t tell you.”

As a child – and even as a graduate student at Harvard – she says she had to become “near-perfect” at listening.

After graduate school, the challenges didn’t let up. Attracted to the world of business and startups, she founded her first, Sun Tzu Security, in 1996 at age 25. She remained CEO as it was bought and sold for more than a decade, and in the meantime started two more companies, Prism in 1998 and Five Hawk in 2000.

Fitzsimmons describes those early years as a “calamity.” At one point, she almost found herself on the hook for $5 million she didn’t have.

 “I’m very happy it wasn’t a publicly traded company,” she says of her first eight years as a CEO. “It was a very private scenario. But I learned how to do what I do.”

These days, she’s focused on her latest venture, Milwaukee firm HarQen, and its flagship product, Symposia, a service that allows groups to cross-reference PowerPoint slides, notes and audio recorded during meetings.

It’s perfect for people who, like Fitzsimmons, need to review what was discussed. “You can see what slide was up,” she says. “You can see where we were in the agenda and what notes were taken. And you can actually listen, underneath the notes, to what was being said.”

HarQen, founded in 2007, charges $35 a month to host meetings using the service. The company took home the 2011 Silvertip Entrepreneurship Award from the Angel Capital Association, which also named the startup “most likely to be valued at $500 million within five years.”

“I didn’t realize until we got [Symposia] to market how personal it was for me,” Fitzsimmons says. “It was solving a very personal problem.”

In 2006, Milwaukeean TOM GILES had experimental reconstructive hip surgery, leaving him bedridden with little to do but “play around” on his computer.

In these idle yet productive hours, he developed the earliest version of StageBloc, the Web platform at the heart of his new startup. At a variety of entry fees, it guides musicians (and non-musicians) through the creation of a website for online marketing and sales.

Giles, now 28, launched StageBloc hoping for a few hundred customers. Instead, he’s signed up a couple thousand.

“We created something that was very far-reaching and awesome,” he says, “and people wanted it.”

People like Linkin Park. The rock band tapped StageBloc’s services via marketing firm Topspin Media to develop a mobile campaign for 2010’s A Thousand Suns.

Giles says he knows how musicians and entertainers think. His parents were both players of stringed instruments, and by the time he enrolled in Waukesha’s Carroll College, now Carroll University, he had played in a string of rock bands.

As a student there, he helped start an alt-press-style student newspaper called The Paper, which then morphed into a record label.

Today, Giles has no band of his own but lives vicariously through his customers.

They don’t show it on ESPN, but college coaches spend long hours poring over finances.

BRIAN COLE, owner of a Milwaukee company bent on reducing that workload, has experienced it firsthand. As a graduate student at the University of Oregon, he worked in the athletic department typing financial data into spreadsheets that tracked each of the university’s sports teams.

“Virtually all college athletic departments across the country are doing a lot of manual, painstaking work,” says Cole, now 32.

But there are exceptions.

Cole’s company, Innovative Sports Strategies, sells a software package that streamlines the process by easing data input, automating reporting to outside organizations like the NCAA and the U.S. Department of Education, and churning out easy-to-read reports for internal use.

Cole says the software, which launched in 2009, “eliminates many hundred hours worth of work for athletic departments,” allowing coaches to focus “on actual coaching and not budget stuff.”

Some big-name NCAA Division I schools have purchased the software, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Ohio State, Florida State, the University of Iowa, San Jose State University and even Cole’s alma mater.

 “Every athletic department we show it to loves it and wants to use it.”

The name crosses “cold fusion,” a scientific holy grail, with a reference to Milwaukee’s reputation for nose-tickling (alcoholic) beverages.

It’s also a Milwaukee startup veteran’s latest venture. Tom Gralewicz, the 50-year-old founder of a Dallas computer store, now closed, and a Milwaukee electronics recycling startup, says the company will serve as a clearinghouse of sorts for inventors.

“People are inventing on a daily basis,” he says, enough to fill a warehouse with ideas, but most go unnoticed. “There’s nobody out there collecting them, marketing them to bring them to products, packaging them, setting up a website and selling all these things.”

Gralewicz kicked off Cold Fizzin’ in 2010 to do just that, selling marketing and distribution services. He’s still bringing the company online but hopes to become fully functional in the second half of 2012. Services will adhere to an “open-source” philosophy, meaning inventors will be invited to publish plans for their products even as he’s helping them to turn a buck.

“Patents are only as good as the lawyers you can afford to buy,” he says. “You’re not going to make every sale. Someone will make their own – someone in China will make a copy and a knock-off – but you’ll be the original. You’ll be the best, and you’ll be selling them for a year or two before anybody can catch up.”

This summer, the Cold Fizzin’ website, coldfizzin.org, touted the “GyroSkirt,” said to be “one of several products that Cold Fizzin’ is working on bringing to the market.” It’s a skirt with LED lights that change color as its wearer spins faster and faster.

Behind the GyroSkirt and other unexpected merchandise will be Cold Fizzin’. “It’s

going to be a global company,” Gralewicz says. “But we want it to get started here in Milwaukee."

Hands-On Garage is an auto repair shop with lofty goals.

“We’ve lost that American ingenuity where we just take charge of things and want to go after it,” says founder GARY MILLER. “But here at Hands-On Garage, we’re trying to embrace that.”

The shop, located at 5757 N. Lover’s Lane Rd. and founded in 2010, empowers people to do it themselves by supplying the tools and expert guidance they need to fix their own cars. The setup sprang from Miller’s time in the Air Force.

“Every military base has a do-it-yourself auto repair center,” he says. “It’s extremely popular. You’ve got these young guys and their first car, and they live in a barracks with nothing to do but work on their car.”

Miller says even owners with minimal know-how can come to Hands-On Garage and learn how to fix whatever ails their vehicle. Use of the garage is $30 an hour, and assistance from an expert costs 95 cents a minute, or about $57 an hour.

“Everything here is a la carte and by the minute,” Miller says. “You’re going to save about half to do the repair yourself.”

As a fallback, if the whole hands-on aspect proves intimidating, customers can drop off their cars for technicians to work on.

Miller plans to open three or four more Hands-On garages in Milwaukee and eventually spread throughout the country.

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