Speed Dating: Wisconsin’s Experiment to Connect Startups, Big Boys

Entrepreneurs can raise all the venture capital they want, but they know that in the long run, they don’t have a business without dollars flowing in from customers.

For startups aiming to crack the big company market with B2B products and services, it can be challenging just to score a meeting with potential corporate customers, let alone nurture a relationship to the point of a signed sales agreement.

“Major companies and emerging companies don’t always travel in the same orbits,” says Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. “Even if they’re in the same general business sector, they quite often don’t have an opportunity to get together to explore what both sides can offer.”

That’s why the Tech Council organized its first “Tech Summit” April 7 at the GE Healthcare Institute in Waukesha, WI. For one day, executives and staff from 16 corporations and 54 small companies and promising startups blasted through nearly 200 15-minute meetings—like speed dating for business. The “Internet of Things” was a key theme of the day, with emerging companies in healthcare, IT, and power electronics among the participants.

Company representatives met in conference rooms and at tables set up in the institute’s various auditoriums, although it wasn’t quite like the stereotypical speed dating scenario, says Liz Eversoll, founder and CEO of Solomo Technology. (There were no bells that chimed to signal the rotation to the next meeting, for example.)

Eversoll, a seasoned entrepreneur and IT executive, says this was a more comfortable setting than pitching to a room of investors—a situation many entrepreneurs face—because she had the chance to ask the big companies specific questions about their business and possible synergies between the two sides. That made it more effective than the typical pitch session, in her opinion.

“Those were all new companies we had not talked to yet,” says Eversoll, whose Madison, WI-based company has developed smart location software to connect retailers, hotels, and other businesses with consumers. “Everyone there was very receptive. If they weren’t the right contact [at their company], they were willing to put you in touch with the right contact. We’re just starting now to follow those threads.”

No sparks flew fast or bright enough for actual deals to be struck at the summit. But seeds were planted, says Eversoll, who had four “quality” meetings with potential business partners.

And in a follow-up survey, 13 of the 16 large companies said they plan to have more conversations with at least 10 percent of the small firms they met with, Still says. The hope is that those conversations will eventually result in product purchase agreements, direct investments, or possible acquisitions by the large companies.

The Tech Summit followed a similar event in December, “OnRamp,” co-organized by Wisconsin startup accelerator Gener8tor and hosted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s office. That free program put seven local corporations—ranging from Assurant Health to the Milwaukee Bucks—and 36 startups across the table from each other. All of the large companies have since had additional conversations or signed purchase orders with at least one of the startups, and another such event is in the works, says Gener8tor co-founder Joe Kirgues.

For the Tech Council’s speed-dating event several months later, it folded the concept into a larger business conference that involved more companies and featured speeches by local executives and academic leaders. The selected small companies paid a $249 registration fee to participate (or a discounted price if they’re members of the Tech Council’s Wisconsin Innovation Network), Still says.

And it proved to be relatively easy for both OnRamp and the Tech Summit to attract big companies, organizers say. “As soon as corporations were asked to participate in an event like this, it was pretty easy to get some folks excited to participate,” Gener8tor’s Kirgues says.

More large companies are starting to pay attention to the nascent but growing tech startup community in Wisconsin, explains Don Layden, a Milwaukee investor and an operating partner with Baird Capital’s venture capital group. And those companies are looking to buy startups’ products and services, make direct investments and acquisitions, or even just scout for young talent.

Among the big companies at the Tech Summit were locally based Johnson Controls, along with local staff from firms like … Next Page »

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