WERCBench Out to Make Milwaukee “Machine Shop” For The 21st Century
Milwaukee has long been known as a community that makes things, from the beer of Miller and Pabst to Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
The leaders of the Mid-West Energy Research Consortium (M-WERC) want the city—which has been trying to adapt to global changes in business that have threatened its manufacturing-heavy economy—to “be once again the machine shop of the world,” said Alan Perlstein, the group’s CEO and executive director.
It’s a vision that M-WERC wants to help achieve by embracing new technologies—primarily software—that can enhance physical products. The group is also trying to nurture startups that complement the Milwaukee region’s successful large companies and could one day become the area’s next Johnson Controls, Rockwell Automation, or Harley-Davidson.
The early efforts in that strategy were on display Thursday night at a demonstration event for WERCBench Labs, M-WERC’s program for supporting startups, which held its inaugural session over the summer. WERCBench largely follows the format of accelerators like Y Combinator and Techstars, with 12 weeks of intense business training and mentorship aimed at helping startups fine-tune their business models, develop their products, and talk with potential customers and other partners. WERCBench participants each received a $20,000 grant, as opposed to the traditional equity investment.
Unlike most accelerators, they also had access to high-tech equipment for building and testing prototypes, such as supercomputers, 3D printers, and advanced power infrastructure available in M-WERC’s headquarters, a former Eaton Corp. research and development facility on Milwaukee’s north side.
More than 500 people—including investors, entrepreneurs, educators, and other community members—turned out for last night’s event at the Harley-Davidson Museum near downtown Milwaukee, which was the culmination of the WERCBench program. The gathering’s centerpiece was four-minute pitches from each of the nine startups that completed the program: Cadens, Comet AI, Digital Iris, Kentriko, Loreto Innovation, Seiva Technologies, Solar Swami, Thermodata, and Tosa Labs. (A 10th company, Phinding Solutions, was accepted into the program, but apparently didn’t complete it. WERCBench officials declined to comment on this.)
The nine startups, which all hail from Wisconsin, are a wide-ranging mix of technologies, market focus, company stage, and co-founders’ backgrounds. The companies are working on everything from virtual reality software to advanced hydropower turbines, wearable sensors to submersible drones for monitoring water quality. Some have yet to make a sale, while others are generating annual revenue in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. And several of the companies have co-founders who are women and/or people of color, which is not the norm in tech these days.
These types of “demo day” events are usually geared toward helping startups score funds from investors, and that was an explicit goal for some of the WERCBench companies. But most of them were primarily seeking beta testers, partners, and potential paying customers.
Those asks reflect one of the priorities for the program, which was to focus on winning customers before investors, said Jeff Anthony, who handles business development for M-WERC and also directs its Energy Innovation Center. The idea was “what are you producing, and who is actually going to buy it?” explained Anthony, who helps lead WERCBench with Greg Meier, who has run other local startup accelerators.
Anthony considers WERCBench’s first session a success because although the participants are all at different stages, each one made progress in advancing its business, he said. Some of the achievements entrepreneurs said they made during the program included finishing their prototype and securing agreements with pilot customers.
Besides helping the startups, Anthony also wanted the program to benefit M-WERC’s members, which include some of the area’s largest companies working in energy, power, automation, and controls. It’s early, but Anthony said some of the consortium’s members told him last night that they saw promising technologies that could be useful for their companies or for their partners. WERCBench could also be a talent pipeline for those larger companies, Anthony added.
When WERCBench received a $350,000 grant in May from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., the stated plan was to hold a summer and a fall session this year that would work with up to 15 startups total. That proposal has shifted, and WERCBench likely won’t hold another 12-week startup program until some time next year, Anthony said.
WERCBench plans to hold other support programs this year targeting more advanced companies, Anthony said. The details will be announced in the coming weeks, he added.
Ultimately, Anthony views WERCBench as a way to help boost Milwaukee’s “engineering maker community”—which he described as “fragmented”—and to encourage innovation.
“We need to get young people and entrepreneurs focused on wanting to stay in Milwaukee, stay in Wisconsin, and be part of the engineering maker community and building on our strong manufacturing roots here,” he said.