Hostad Wants to Raise MiKE Initiative’s Profile, Impact on Milwaukee

When the nonprofit Greater Milwaukee Committee formed its Innovation in Milwaukee initiative in 2011, the program was billed as a talent developer that would connect corporations and startups, and ultimately help the city transform into a hub for design and cutting-edge technology.

The initiative, “MiKE” for short, came online during a time when a growing number of nonprofits that support startups were beginning to take off in Milwaukee, such as Startup Milwaukee and BizStarts Milwaukee.

MiKE has the backing of major local corporations like Briggs & Stratton, ManpowerGroup, and Johnson Controls, and one of its stated goals has been to link talented entrepreneurs and creative types with big companies—and spur an innovative culture in the process. But so far, the initiative has mostly been known for putting on events that bring in high-profile speakers, and it’s debatable how much impact the initiative has had on the local startup ecosystem.

The Greater Milwaukee Committee, (which is an Xconomy underwriter), made a splash when in May it lured Michael Hostad away from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to run MiKE. Hostad worked at UW-Milwaukee for almost 13 years, most recently serving as director of Web and mobile strategy and as outgoing university chancellor Mike Lovell’s ambassador for entrepreneurship and innovation. Hostad also oversaw UWM’s “App Brewery,” a program for students to develop mobile apps for outside organizations, including a new partnership with Medical College of Wisconsin researchers.

Hostad says it was a tough decision leaving UWM, but MiKE gives him the chance to have a broader impact on Milwaukee and, in some ways, return to his entrepreneurial roots. (Hostad ran a one-person Web development business in the mid-1990s while he was in high school.)

Michael HostadI sat down with Hostad (pictured left) this week, amidst a hectic schedule that has him molding MiKE’s future strategy while he and GMC staff plan last-minute details for Flying Car, MiKE’s annual innovation showcase that takes place this week. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Xconomy: You had a good thing going at UWM, helping to lead several university programs meant to boost entrepreneurship on campus. Why did you decide to leave?

Michael Hostad: It was hard for me to think about leaving. I talked to a lot of close colleagues and confidants at UWM. The more I talked with people, the more I realized that in this role I can have a bigger impact with Milwaukee and with the skills I bring to the table. …With the GMC, it allows me to touch all the universities and work with local corporations. It was really playing to a skill set and a passion [for entrepreneurship] that I found with this chancellor’s designee role.

X: Did Lovell’s decision to leave UWM play a role in your decision? [Editor’s note: Lovell announced in March that he would become president of nearby Marquette University.]

MH: Not at all. I went to him for counsel … as a mentor and a friend. I think that [interim chancellor] Mark Mone is the perfect person to continue what chancellor Lovell has accomplished at UWM. I was looking forward to working with him. I know that he would continue to support, in the manner that chancellor Lovell did, the App Brewery and other initiatives.

X: What’s your assessment of MiKE’s accomplishments so far?

MH: I think MiKE has done a good job so far at shining a light on the need for corporations to connect with emerging talent networks. I think that events like Flying Car have done a lot to not only build those networks, but sort of help the public see what the value is of our talent networks, as well as how the corporations can tie into them. I think, going forward, I’d love for MiKE to be more programmatic, rather than event-driven. I think that the events certainly bring value, but what I would love to see is the events in support of longer-lasting and impactful initiatives and programming. I think the networking piece is critical, and I think MiKE has done an amazing job with that. We’ve got a fantastic foundation to build upon.

X: I think it’s fair to say that some in the entrepreneurial community are unsure of what MiKE’s role is in the ecosystem, so is that something you’d like to better define?

MH: Part of my job is to take sort of a strategic look at what MiKE is and where it can have the most impact. I think working for an engineer [like Lovell], you learn that everything you do has to have metrics and has to be measurable. That is a huge piece of what I want to do with MiKE going forward. I want us to be purposeful with everything we do and be able to measure the impact and the value that we’re providing.

Maybe something hits the mark, and maybe it doesn’t, but that allows us to adjust where we need to be in terms of the ecosystem in Milwaukee.

My goal is when I tell people that I work for MiKE that they know what that is. I think that’s a big piece.

I’m certainly not critical about where MiKE is now, but I can see where the questions come in. I think part of that is a communication piece. First, it’s figuring out what we want to be. Then, it’s performing, doing, following through on things we say we’re going to do, and being able to report on how we did on those things.

X: Where do you see MiKE fitting into the big picture of Milwaukee’s innovation and startup scene?

MH: At UWM, in a lot of ways I had to be Switzerland in a lot of the conversations. For us, it was about providing opportunities for our students and supporting the economic growth of the region. In chancellor Lovell’s vision, that was what the university was there to do. We didn’t really align with one group or another. We were there to support all groups. That’s sort of the approach I’d like to see MiKE take…sort of work as the intermediary and the connector.

X: When you talk about connecting corporations with talent, what’s an example of a meaningful outcome?

MH: Some of those meaningful outcomes would be that there’s this whole idea of the project economy and project-based work. We’ve got a lot of corporations who have a tremendous need for talented people, but can’t increase their headcount. Could it be that Milwaukee becomes sort of a potential hub for this so-called project economy, where corporations can have a pool of people that they can pull from for certain projects? Maybe college interns, maybe people who like to freelance.

And I’d love for these startups to connect with these corporations and innovate in a manner that would benefit those corporations, and dealing with those issues like intellectual property. We know that’s a whole sticky ball of wax that can come up.

But if you’ve got a couple key corporations that are willing to go down that road with some startups, we could set a model for how this could work.

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