The Commons, Milwaukee Student Startup Accelerator, Finds a Home

The Commons, a planned Milwaukee startup accelerator and corporate research and development initiative driven by local university students, today crossed a big item off its checklist: securing its own physical space.

The nonprofit initiative, formed by Startup Milwaukee and Innovation in Milwaukee, or MiKE, was announced in August, but it still had a lot of questions to answer before launching this fall. The group says it has made progress on several agenda items, including getting buy-in from local universities and corporate partners, and now signing a lease for a 4,000-square-foot office on the second floor of the building at 170 S. 1st St., above Colectivo Coffee in the Walker’s Point neighborhood.

The nonprofit chose that location to feed off the energy of nearby places like the Global Water Center and the newly announced Ward 5 Code Camp, The Commons co-founder Matt Cordio says. “The technology and creative companies are clustering down there,” he adds.

The Commons is still out fundraising, although it has received some commitments from companies and individual donors, Cordio says, declining to share names or figures.

“It’s enough to put on a solid event, and then some,” Cordio says, referring to The Commons’ weekend launch program in early November.

The Commons intends to operate two branches: a startup accelerator for student entrepreneurs and a corporate innovation track that would see regional companies enlist students to help them create or improve technology, or develop businesses in-house. More than 100 area students have signed up for the free November event, which will kick off the initiative’s pilot program that lasts through the spring semester, Cordio says.

During the 48-hour launch event, students will form teams around a startup idea, do some initial market research, and build a prototype product. Meanwhile, students participating in the corporate innovation track will receive their assignments from the participating companies, and will start working on the projects.

The partner companies include Briggs & Stratton, Direct Supply, Kohl’s, ManpowerGroup, Potawatomi Business Development Corp., Okanjo, the Milwaukee Bucks, The Good Jobs, and Workshop Architects. For example, companies are challenging students to propose new technology that lawn equipment and engine maker Briggs & Stratton could create to capitalize on the Internet of Things movement; design and create a mobile app to help Kohl’s drive more sales in its stores’ new beauty departments; and develop a plan for revitalizing Forest County Potawatomi land on Milwaukee’s west side, where a former school sits vacant.

At the end of the weekend, participants will present what they’ve accomplished to that point. The work will then continue through the end of the school year, with the assistance of mentors and a series of workshops.

The next program will start in the summer or fall 2015, Cordio says.

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