A look at our city's past and present innovation
Made in Wisconsin
Alfred Woelbing launched an international cure when he began hand-pouring a lip treatment in his Milwaukee kitchen in 1937. Today, Franklin-based Carma Laboratories is the No. 4 name in the industry, with $40.8 million in sales in 2015.
Founded by Sicilians Gaspare and Zina Fallucca in 1979 and still in the family, the Palermo’s label itself makes up only a small slice of the Milwaukee frozen pizza company’s business. Screamin’ Sicilian alone generated $75 million in sales in 2015.
In 1973, Brookfield mothers Kate Bloomberg and Betty Morris – in need of a Cub Scout project for their sons – discovered that shrinking polystyrene plastic in an oven fascinated kids. By 2008, K & B Innovations had sold $150 million worth of Shrinky Dinks; the brand was sold to New Jersey-based Alex Brands in 2014.
Legacy Companies Still Innovating
A Deep Dive Inside Milwaukee’s Startup Scene
New beers start with the pilot
Beer has been brewed on MillerCoors’ sprawling Milwaukee complex for more than 160 years, but this facility is as much a laboratory as it is a brewery. It’s called the pilot brewery, a small but vital operation to MillerCoors’ effort to get a leg up in an increasingly competitive beer market.
Nearly all new products or line extensions, as well as packaging innovations, spring from the pilot brewery. “It allows us to react quickly,” says Megan Mares, a MillerCoors brewer.
Its notable successes include the Henry’s Hard Soda and Hard Sparkling lines; Leinenkugel’s Canoe Paddler kölsch, Grapefruit Shandy and Bavarian Dunkel; Redd’s Green Apple Ale; and the Vortex Bottle that swirled Miller Lite into mouths or glasses for a few years.
“There are other things that we try and miss the mark on,” Mares admits.
A new water tech R&D hub
A.O. Smith Corp., which has manufactured tens of millions of water heaters since it was founded in 1874, is making what will be the company’s biggest commitment to R&D in decades with a new research hub at its Milwaukee headquarters.
The company, which began making its now signature product in 1939, generated sales of about $2.7 billion in 2016 and has 15,500 employees worldwide, including about 125 in Milwaukee.
The new 42,700-square-foot Lloyd R. Smith Corporate Technology Center will focus on advanced research and development in a rare combination of disciplines: potable and hydronic water heating, water treatment and air testing and purification, as well as prototype development. The $8.5 million facility is expected to open by the end of 2018.
“Our plan is to create a hub for our engineers to be able to share their successes and challenges with one another,” says Kevin Wheeler, president and chief operating officer.
Committing to startups
A financial giant long touted as the “Quiet Company,” Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. is making noise in the technology sector.
Northwestern Mutual, which has more than 5,000 employees in the Milwaukee area, recently created a $5 million venture capital fund to invest in local startups in a variety of industries. The Cream City Venture Capital Fund provides early-stage funding ranging from $100,000 to $250,000, as well as access to Northwestern Mutual advisers, mentors, technology resources and a co-working space at its sparkling new $450 million headquarters downtown. “We believe that Milwaukee has the talent and entrepreneurial spirit to be a premier city for startups,” says Craig Schedler, venture partner at Northwestern Mutual.
The news comes fast on the heels of the company’s launch of a $50 million fund to invest in financial technology startups.