Companies in Milwaukee’s technology sector aren’t exactly flashy. Take a look around, and you’ll have trouble finding businesses with Silicon Valley cred.
This isn’t a bad thing, per se. In Milwaukee, the industry is rooted more in practicality, and there’s plenty of value in that. But it cuts both ways. The city also lacks a big-time tech success story that could further legitimize an important piece of the local economy.
Success stories don’t need to be showy to have an impact. Take Epic Systems in the Madison area, for example. The company creates software for electronic health records and has been massively successful, adding more than 3,000 employees from 2011 to 2014. It’s not the only reason Madison has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state (3.4 percent as of December 2014), but it’s certainly a contributing factor.
But perhaps Epic-style success is not the path for Milwaukee. Maybe the city’s tech success story will come from the growth of a neighborhood.
New energy can be found in and around Walker’s Point, an expanding hub for tech companies and innovative initiatives.
One of these initiatives is “The Commons,” an education-centered program involving 21 academic, organizational and corporate partners. Some 140 college students participated in its November launch. Startup Milwaukee runs the program’s “startup track,” and MiKE (Innovation in Milwaukee), a Greater Milwaukee Committee initiative, runs its “corporate track.” Mandel Group worked to provide space, while Marquette University President Michael Lovell played an integral part in making The Commons a collaborative effort across southeastern Wisconsin’s universities and colleges. There’s no shortage of big Milwaukee names here.
“We’re going to be able to prove that The Commons is a model that can work,” says Michael Hostad, executive director of MiKE, who was previously the director of web and mobile services at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “We look at it as an opportunity to show the community and the region that when universities come together and collaborate, good things can really happen. Students can get connected to employers, businesses can be created, and students can start to network.”
The Commons is located inconspicuously on the second floor of a bustling Colectivo on the northeast corner of First Street and Pittsburgh Avenue. But activity is happening in every direction.
Tech firm PKWARE, original developer of the ZIP file, moved its headquarters and 60 employees from a Downtown location to the same stretch of Pittsburgh Avenue as Colectivo and the home of 88Nine RadioMilwaukee, which includes a Stone Creek Coffee. Stamm Technologies will be consolidating Brookfield and Brewers Hill offices into a renovated, 100-year-old building at 117 W. Pittsburgh Ave. by year’s end.
“Talking to people at companies [in Walker’s Point], their employees are living in the neighborhood and working in the neighborhood,” says Startup Milwaukee co-founder and chairman Matt Cordio. Unlike Downtown, which leans more toward a work-focused area, or the East Side or Bay View, which are more residential, Walker’s Point has elements of both.
Adding to this, says Anna-Marie Opgenorth, community outreach and development associate at Mandel Group, “You have Bay View coming up from the South, and Downtown and the Third Ward coming down from the North.” The buzzing restaurants around Second Street, along with proximity to the Global Water Center and the Menomonee and Milwaukee rivers, make Walker’s Point “an ideal urban mixed-use environment,” she says.
Walker’s Point boasts being a walkable, bikeable, diverse neighborhood – all things viewed as assets by companies with younger workforces. The neighborhood’s industrial buildings lend themselves to the type of renovation that’s popular with newer companies. And, says Cordio, “we’re actually sitting on a fiber line on First Street. We have fiber-speed Internet [at The Commons.] Every tech hub you go to, affordable, high-speed Internet is important.”
Adds MiKE’s Hostad: “We’ve got all these assets here in this neighborhood. Let’s go.” ■