M-WERC Seeks Startups For Pilot Milwaukee Hardware Accelerator

The details are starting to emerge about the Midwest Energy Research Consortium’s planned startup accelerator program to be housed in the organization’s space on Milwaukee’s north side.

The consortium, aka M-WERC, is currently accepting applications for its pilot three-month program that starts in June. The program, dubbed WERCBench Labs, is seeking startups with products related to energy, drones, virtual reality, the Internet of Things, robotics, and 3D printing. It intends to work with around 15 startups per year, according to its website.

The plan is for each company to receive a $20,000 grant, $10,000 at the start of the program and the rest upon completion. The source of that funding isn’t specified on WERCBench’s website, and a spokesman declined to comment.

In December, Xconomy reported on M-WERC’s early plans for an incubator/accelerator program that would be held at the Energy Innovation Center, its 65,000-square-foot space located on four floors of the 200,000-square-foot former Eaton Corp. research and development facility at 4201 N. 27th St. At the time, M-WERC was still working out the specifics of the program.

Although the WERCBench website doesn’t actually use the word “accelerator,” the program will follow the general format made famous by the likes of Y Combinator and Techstars. Selected companies will receive three months of intensive business training and access to resources to help them grow their ventures. WERCBench will culminate with a demonstration event where entrepreneurs pitch their companies to a room of investors, industry executives, and other interested parties, its website says.

Typically, accelerators offer an angel investment in exchange for an ownership stake in the company. WERCBench instead offers a grant that doesn’t include an equity component. That’s similar to a bunch of nonprofit accelerators that have launched in Wisconsin over the past couple of years, including Madworks in Madison; the Launch Box Growth Accelerator in Racine; and Bridge to Cures and VictorySpark in Milwaukee.

Other resources offered by WERCBench will include access to the center’s industrial-grade power infrastructure, left in place after Eaton moved out. That includes labs and equipment that could be useful for testing and making prototypes, such as a chamber for subjecting objects to extreme temperatures.

WERCBench has already enlisted a fleet of local mentors knowledgeable in entrepreneurship, technology development, and manufacturing, the accelerator’s website shows.

WERCBench participants will also get assistance from Brooks Stevens, the iconic local product development company; the Milwaukee Institute, which will make its supercomputing resources available for product simulations; Gateway Technical College, which will give participants access to design software and 3D printers for building prototypes; and the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership, which has expertise in supply chain management and other challenges that come with expanding production.

M-WERC was founded in 2009 as a partnership between the engineering schools at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Marquette University, and Milwaukee School of Engineering. It has since grown into an organization with more than 75 members in academia, industry, and economic development that are focused on research, work force development, and public policy initiatives.

The consortium’s goal is to strengthen one of the Milwaukee area’s core industry clusters: energy, power, automation, and control. This broad swath of technologies, as defined by M-WERC, encapsulates everything from fossil and renewable fuels to power transmission to “control” products like thermostats, smart energy grids, and technology that directs factory machinery.

The Energy Innovation Center is one way M-WERC is stepping up its efforts. The group is currently renovating its space in the old north side building—a $9.6 million project. Besides the accelerator program, the center is already home to local energy startups, investors, and business service providers. M-WERC has said it also intends to bring in corporate and academic research teams.

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