Building a Tech Hub in Land of Green Bay Packers, Paper Mills

Northeastern Wisconsin is best known for the Green Bay Packers and paper mills. Not exactly the building blocks for a booming tech startup hub, but a small group of techies and investors is trying to grow one there.

It’s still a raw effort with a long way to go before the scene in Green Bay and the greater Fox Valley region can seriously compare itself with the activity in the larger Madison and Milwaukee metros—let alone the Chicagos, Bostons, and San Franciscos of the world.

Nevertheless, a couple of recent developments in northeastern Wisconsin caught my eye:

—The Green Bay area held its first Startup Weekend, the well-known hackathon in which teams create demos and form companies in just 54 hours. These types of events don’t always churn out money-making, job-creating ventures, but they’re at least an indicator of grassroots interest in entrepreneurship and technology. Green Bay’s event drew about 45 entrepreneurs, software developers, and students who came up with some interesting ideas.

—Al Zeise, a Green Bay-area serial entrepreneur, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he wants to form an angel investment group. There are currently two active angel groups in that region, the Journal Sentinel reported.

I reached out to Chris Schmitz, the lead organizer of Startup Weekend Green Bay, to get his take on what’s happening on the ground in northeastern Wisconsin. Schmitz is the chief technical officer of WeMontage, which has raised $310,000 in seed capital and last year graduated from gener8tor’s startup accelerator program in Madison. Schmitz is also the co-founder of Digital Fertilizer, a group of entrepreneurs that puts on networking and educational events meant to strengthen northeastern Wisconsin’s startup community.

The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Xconomy: Digital Fertilizer launched about a year ago. What’s your assessment of northeastern Wisconsin’s startup community as it stands today?

Chris Schmitz: There’s definitely momentum, but it’s still relatively small. There’s hardly anything going on compared to a Madison or a Milwaukee.

We’ve looked into doing a physical space like a coworking space [run by Digital Fertilizer], but we didn’t think there was enough of a critical mass of entrepreneurs to pull that off yet. There’s definitely more people getting excited about it. Events like Startup Weekend help a ton. So many connections are made over that weekend, and it pulls some people out of the woodwork. We’ve got a lot of students involved in the tech scene. Now they’re connecting with us. I think that’s really important because we have to get young people excited about it; otherwise if they want to do anything with a startup, they’re going to go to Milwaukee or Madison. We have to connect with them while they’re young and hungry.

X: Why is it important to form tech startups in this area?

CS: I think it’s really the only way to battle the brain drain that goes on here. All the good developers I know, ask any of them why they stick around this area, it’s because they’ve got family here. They work remotely for a startup. In order to … improve the economy and get some startups to stay here, you need more resources. You need to give them a space like 96square [the downtown Milwaukee coworking space run by Startup Milwaukee] to connect with each other and with investors. That being said, it’s going to take a commitment from someone, probably a successful entrepreneur who is willing to put some money and time into the community. [Editor’s note: Schmitz did acknowledge that there is a coworking space in Green Bay and one in Appleton. Read more about them in this list of Wisconsin coworking spaces.]

X: So what are the biggest hurdles for northeastern Wisconsin as it tries to nurture tech startups?

CS: If you’re an entrepreneur in northeastern Wisconsin, you must really be determined because there’s nothing that makes it easier for you up here. There’s way [fewer] resources all around. There’s less of a community, less opportunities. My company, we’re going down to Milwaukee once or twice a week to work with our PR company, talk to investors.

There’s people like Al Zeise who are awesome for the area. Angels on the Water [an Oshkosh, WI-based angel investing group] is doing some good stuff. They invest in every gener8tor company, which is great. Even with that, it’s like unless you can get in the door, it’s just really hard. There’s not a lot of deal flow, not a lot of stuff going on up here. I do think there’s a lot more money up here. There probably could be a lot more angel investors up here, if they could be educated about early-stage investing.

I don’t see a lot of entrepreneurs coming out of any of the colleges around here. Also the curriculum that they teach for computer science degrees is dated. If they updated their curriculum to focus more on more up-to-date Web technology [like Ruby on Rails], I think that would help a lot.

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