Packers, Microsoft Play to Green Bay’s Strengths With TitletownTech

As Jill Enos tries to improve the environment for entrepreneurs in Green Bay, WI, she says she has studied how communities such as Boulder, CO, Kansas City, MO, and Wilmington, NC, have attempted to build startup hubs.

The key? Don’t try to be something you’re not.

That means, for example, focusing on sectors that have been historical drivers of the local economy and that have an established local talent pool, and trying to nurture new technology-enabled ventures that cater to the region’s needs, Enos says.

“If a small community tries to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem … that doesn’t connect to the true strengths of the region, it’s almost like they’re setting themselves up to fail because they’re trying to follow someone else’s model,” Enos says.

Enos has seen the Green Bay area’s entrepreneurial potential (and its challenges) over the past few years. In 2015, she co-founded N.E.W. Venture Foundry, which she says has made early-stage investments in six startups. She served as managing director of the firm until last year, when she became director of the “venture studio” at TitletownTech, an organization backed by the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and Seattle tech giant Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) that aims to spur innovation and economic activity in northeastern Wisconsin and beyond. (“Titletown” is a nickname for Green Bay, recognizing the 13 league championships the Packers have won over the years.)

The local area is mostly known for the Packers, paper mills, and agriculture, but there have been efforts in recent years to foster entrepreneurship through networking events, startup hackathons, and new investment groups. Through her work with N.E.W. Venture Foundry and now with TitletownTech, Enos has discovered a healthy amount of entrepreneurial desire exists among locals, but it sounds like she thinks the area could use more resources and cohesion—things that TitletownTech will try to provide.

Entrepreneurs “are looking for a common ground or a common place to really unite,” she says.

It helps to have “iconic” organizations like the Packers and Microsoft involved, she adds. The two partners have said they will each invest at least $5 million in the TitletownTech project by 2022.

The achievements of the Packers and Microsoft don’t guarantee success for TitletownTech, of course. One of the big questions is whether the organization is taking the right approach with its three-pronged structure that will combine an “innovation lab,” a venture studio, and a venture capital fund. Xconomy recently spoke with Enos to get an update on TitletownTech’s progress and better understand its approach.

The organization, first announced in fall 2017, intends to officially launch its programs sometime in the second quarter of this year, according to its website. Enos says it’s currently recruiting business leaders to sit on innovation “councils” focused on sectors aligned with the Green Bay area’s traditional economic strengths: sports and media; digital health; advanced manufacturing; supply chains; and agriculture, water, and the environment. Working with technology and subject matter experts, the councils will identify “big challenges that not a single company would be able to solve on their own,” Enos says. This is the “innovation lab” part of the work: They’ll try to come up with solutions that could turn into viable businesses.

If an idea from the innovation lab seems to “have legs,” it will graduate to the venture studio, where its business potential will be explored more deeply, Enos says. The studio will focus on ideas that identify a creative business model that applies existing technology to solving an industry problem, and allow a potential new venture to target a large market. TitletownTech must also find someone from its growing network willing to lead the new business if it comes to fruition.

Once in the venture studio phase, the project’s leaders will work on developing product prototypes and reaching out to potential customers to gauge demand. The emerging venture will be able to tap the knowledge of experts working at TitletownTech, including a Microsoft employee who will serve as technologist in residence, and an entrepreneur in residence affiliated with the University of Wisconsin System.

If there’s sufficient progress with the venture, TitletownTech will help build a team around it and “launch it into the wild” if it can secure a venture investment, Enos says.

TitletownTech’s venture fund will have the first opportunity to invest in any company emerging from the lab and studio, Enos says. The organization is raising around $25 million for its first pot of capital, she says; the Packers and Microsoft are among the investors in the fund.

TitletownTech doesn’t just plan to spawn new ventures. Its fund will also invest in existing tech startups that could be located all over the U.S., although the organization’s website states that its preference is to back companies that are based in northeastern Wisconsin or that are willing to relocate there. Some of them might be invited to work from TitletownTech’s offices, which will be located in a new building under construction next to the Packers’ Lambeau Field. TitletownTech’s handful of staff members are currently working from a temporary space in a trucking company’s office, Enos says, and they expect to move into their permanent home in the second quarter of this year.

In addition, local businesses will be able to tap TitletownTech’s expertise to assist with their “digital transformation,” according to the organization’s website.

All this is to say, TitletownTech has adopted a complicated model with lots of different stakeholders, and time will tell whether its approach is sustainable or if it’s just startup buzzword soup.

Enos says the organization’s leaders have put a lot of thought into the structure. She says they spent time researching best practices from other innovation-nurturing initiatives, including consulting two Stanford University professors who shared learnings from the nonprofit SRI International, formerly known as Stanford Research Institute.

And the TitletownTech model has evolved. Initially, its leaders considered just creating a venture fund, but in talking with community members, they decided it would require “more than just capital to advance the region,” so they decided to wrap other pieces around the fund to create a “cohesive system enabling ventures to thrive,” she says.

There was also talk of creating an 18-week startup accelerator program, but that plan was scrapped, as Xconomy reported in September. Part of the reason for eschewing the short-term accelerator setup, Enos says, is that TitletownTech wants to have more flexibility. The needs of an advanced manufacturing startup will be different than those of a digital health or supply chain startup, she points out, and the time it takes to make progress might vary. “We’re cognizant we don’t want to force everybody into the same box,” she says.

Although TitletownTech’s leaders consulted Bay Area advisors, Enos says her organization has “no desire” to try and recreate Silicon Valley.

“We’re smaller,” Enos says. “We’ve got to start with humility and also a sense of what we’re trying to get from it.” Initiatives such as TitletownTech “take time to get the right players together, to get the right support and consensus building in an environment where everybody comes at it from a slightly different angle.”

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