New WERCBench Labs Accelerator Gets $350K WEDC Grant

[Updated 5/14/15, 8:54 a.m. See below.] The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC) has awarded a $350,000 grant to help launch the Mid-West Energy Research Consortium’s new startup accelerator in Milwaukee this summer.

On Friday, Xconomy reported new details about the accelerator, dubbed WERCBench Labs, including how each startup that completes the program will receive a $20,000 grant. But the funding source wasn’t announced until today.

WEDC is a logical choice to back WERCBench. The economic development agency has helped fund nonprofit startup accelerators across the state, including Madworks in Madison, Couleeco.Starters in La Crosse, and Bridge to Cures in Milwaukee.

WEDC’s grant to WERCBench includes $300,000 being given to up to 15 startups this year, split between a summer session and a fall session. The remaining $50,000 from the agency will go toward WERCBench operations, says Jeff Anthony, who handles business development for the energy consortium and also directs its Energy Innovation Center. The center is housed in a former Eaton Corp. research and development facility on Milwaukee’s north side. That’s where the accelerator will be located.

Greg Meier, who has run other local startup accelerators, will lead WERCBench, with assistance from Anthony and other Mid-West Energy Research Consortium staff.

WEDC’s money is being matched by the consortium, which has invested funds to create the accelerator program and build out the space where it will be held, Anthony says. [This paragraph was added to further explain the grant’s terms.]

Consortium officials spent several months brainstorming the format for the accelerator/incubator, including tapping the experience of its partner Greentown Labs, a cleantech incubator located near Boston.

“We were trying to design the best possible approach for our facility, for our members, for the types of startups we want in the building,” Anthony (pictured above) says. “We didn’t want to just copy something others are doing.”

Besides funding, early-stage companies accepted into the WERCBench program will receive business training, mentorship, and access to high-tech equipment for building and testing prototypes, such as supercomputers, 3D printers, and advanced power infrastructure left behind when Eaton moved out of the facility.

WERCBench is seeking startups that have diverse products and hail from around the country. It has already received applications from outside Wisconsin, Anthony says.

In addition to its program for early-stage companies, the energy consortium is launching a parallel initiative for more advanced startups, Anthony says. These companies won’t receive grant funding and won’t go through a program with a defined time period. Rather, the idea is that they will rent space in the Energy Innovation Center for longer than three months, utilizing the facility’s equipment and the consortium’s mentor network to bring their products to market.

“Those are going to be more long-term startups that are looking for space for testing and prototyping,” Anthony explains. “Perhaps they’ve already gone through an accelerator program somewhere else.”

The Energy Innovation Center already has one company renting space there, Alliance Federated Energy, which located there a year ago. Another startup, Edison DC Systems, was located there, but has since moved out, Anthony says.

The energy consortium also wants to attract research and development teams from member organizations, including local companies and academic institutions, to work on projects at the Energy Innovation Center. Anthony expects there will be plenty of opportunities for collaboration and “cross-pollination” between startups, corporate R&D teams, and academic researchers.

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