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One-stop shop helps build entrepreneurial culture

UW-Madison’s “Innovate Network” puts access to far-flung resources in one place

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A new initiative from UW-Madison and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), administered by UWM’s Discovery to Product (D2P) program, is a powerhouse network and online resource involving more than a dozen campus organizations. The Innovate Network and its website — simply branded “Innovate” — are working in tandem to build a campus innovation culture while strengthening the school’s ties to the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. The online resource compiles education, funding, news, and events for faculty, staff, and student innovators. And, while the initiative only launched in April 2019, results are already being realized.

There are 18 groups that are part of this one-stop-shop website, making it easier for people to connect with any aspect of the innovation ecosystem in one place. Members actively support innovation, tech transfer, and campus entrepreneurship in a full array of sectors, from biomanufacturing to computer and data science, health and medicine, clean tech, food science, and many others.

“A key part of D2P’s mission is to serve as the front door for faculty, staff and students to help find and connect with resources,” says Jen Kobylecky, communications and outreach Manager for D2P and the Innovate Network. “Innovate is a key part of this mission.”

Prior to the launch of Innovate, entrepreneurial resources at UW-Madison, while numerous, were very decentralized. Campus innovators often didn’t know where to start. Innovate Network makes it easier for campus entrepreneurs to find and connect with resources. (Go to: www.innovate.wisc.edu.)

The site and the network offer a host of mechanisms for collaborating, coordinating, and communicating together. Some of it is getting the basics right, like creating a common event calendar, or launching a branded marketing campaign together, and some of it’s about strengthening connections between different programs and players. 

Jeanan Yasiri Moe, WARF’s director of strategic Communication, says “providing a central resource by which to convene these thought leaders, share their ideas and invite others to participate was much needed and welcomed.”

A collaborative effort

To build this shared website, D2P convened the numerous university entities and campus affiliates that provide education, funding, services, and support to campus entrepreneurs. This developed into a collaborative of once-separated leaders from all corners of the campus.

“By meeting regularly and working together we’ve developed a cohesive unit that can develop ideas and opportunities more cohesively and respond with greater efficiency,” Moe says.

D2P facilitates quarterly meetings with the network to coordinate shared events, communications, and tools that improve handoffs and referrals of commercialization projects as they move through the pipeline.

“We’ve only been at this for about a year, and we’re still learning — but one thing that has been successful is the way the collaboration developed organically,” Kobylecky explains. “It began with an invitation to the groups we knew about to share input for the website, but it’s grown from there.”

Now, when D2P learns of a new resource on campus that isn’t yet involved, it reaches out to meet with them, learn more about their offerings, share what it’s collectively working on, and invites them to join the network.

Providing some structure for all the different programs and departments to connect around the topic of innovation and entrepreneurship provides a nerve center of sorts. It creates an avenue to meet others working in the same space, explore potential collaborations, and avoid duplication of efforts.

While each group has its own niche, the D2P has worked to find projects that collectively advance and benefit the entire network. A few recent examples of collective projects include:

  • Development of an internal reference guide by and for Innovate Network member organizations to improve referrals and handoffs between programs.
  • Compilation of a “Points of Pride” document sharing the key impacts across the network.
  • A new web-based tool to navigate entrepreneurial resources statewide, regionally, and on campus (The Start in Wisconsin site now has a “Start in Madison” version and a campus version is planned for launch in November 2020.)

Putting it to the test

“We want to help support a vibrant regional start-up ecosystem that puts UW-Madison and the region on the map and in the forefront of people’s minds across the country when they think of innovation and start-up hubs,” Kobylecky says. “We get there by delivering excellent education and mentoring, cultivating more robust financial resources to support entrepreneurs, and serving as a smart resource hub to connect and promote all of the entities on campus and in the community.”

Though it’s still too early to tell, she hopes all this more centralized activity helps create measurable results, like increasing the number of start-ups, more licensing revenue from WARF patents, and greater returns from investments in UW-Madison spinoffs.

COVID-19 really put Innovate to the test, she notes, and many of the network’s organizations directly provided critical support to entrepreneurs. Between March and May, the Small Business Development Center at UW-Madison helped 195 clients with questions about the COVID crisis, and it connected people to $6.6M in aid. WARF dedicated $100K to inspire and advance technologies to combat the pandemic, funding 10 proposals to speed the development of prototypes and other highly deployable concepts. D2P and WARF also partnered to co-present a series of webinars geared towards helping entrepreneurs and start-ups weather the crisis.

The group is also currently working on advancing a proposal to make the campus ecosystem for entrepreneurs more inclusive and welcoming to underrepresented groups. Collaboration and strengthening relationships to broaden the ecosystem is a big part of this.

“As we work to navigate the ‘new normal,’ a key part of that is a recognition that we can’t do it alone,” Kobylecky observes. “The collective work we do with the network is critical to help move the needle on short- and long-term economic recovery, opportunities for all, and to effect the societal change that is so necessary.”

Demonstrating value

The shared resource was well used in its first year. It had more than 6,000 unique visitors, 15,000 page views, and more than doubled the number of subscribers to its monthly “Innovate Insider” newsletter. Over its first year, the newsletter generated more than 1,400 referrals to campus partners.

A good illustration of the network’s impact was last fall’s week-long series of campus-wide events focused on entrepreneurship. The week, coordinated by D2P, included 24 different events hosted by 12 campus partners that reached over 700 participants. The Innovate website helped raise awareness and visibility, supporting the university’s goal to build a culture of entrepreneurship.

D2P itself has made improvements, expanding from offering one cohort program each academic year to offering five. It has also evolved programs to incorporate social entrepreneurship into the curriculum, transitioned all programming to take place fully online, and helped to launch or grow 34 start-ups in the last fiscal year, to mention a few.

“While we don’t yet have a framework to present shared metrics across the entire Innovate Network membership, that’s a future goal,” Kobylecky says. “We’re also able to use the network as a resource if we’re having trouble solving a problem within our own office and suspect others may be able to help provide a solution.”

Isthmus Project is one of the newer innovation offices in the network, and Elizabeth Hagerman, executive director and Director of Innovation at UW Health, says the network helped to accelerate their understanding of the current ecosystem and figure out how to best interface with the variety of groups represented at UW-Madison. “It helps us stay aware and up-to-date on each other’s offerings and services,” she says.

Aaron Olver, managing director of University Research Park, a non-profit affiliated with the UW-Madison, manages one million square feet of lab, office, and incubator space dedicated to advancing research, technology, and job creation. Most of its space is off campus, so being part of the Innovate Network keeps them connected to the university’s activity and helps them to serve the needs of UW-Madison’s researchers and entrepreneurs.

“Large universities have lots of hubs and domains, and the Innovate Network is essentially a roundtable where the knights gather to advance technology transfer together,” Olver says. “My hope is that, working together, we can grease the flywheel of innovation to spin out more companies, create more jobs, and commercialize more research than ever before.”

Contact Kobylecky at 608-890-0904 or engage@d2p.wisc.edu; Yasiri Moe at 608-960-9892 or jyasirimoe@warf.org; and Oliver at 608-441-8000.


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