The Innovate Network aims to coordinate and amplify startup initiatives on campus

The Innovate Network pulls together more than a dozen campus and campus-affiliated efforts
graphic of people carrying a heavy mallet

Over the past decade, as local entrepreneurs were shaping Madison’s startup community into what it is today, many of them read a 2012 book called “Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem” by Brad Feld. It provided a handbook for founders outside of places like Silicon Valley and Boston who wanted to drive innovation, create businesses and grow jobs at home.

As Feld laid bare the principles of a sustainable startup community, he argued that if major universities extended their entrepreneurship programs beyond their own business schools and tech transfer arms, they could play an integral role in a community’s startup ecosystem off campus — essentially, the Wisconsin Idea for startups.

The 2019 formation of the Innovate Network appears to be the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s latest attempt to do that.

The Innovate Network, coordinated by UW–Madison’s relatively new Discovery to Product, or D2P, program pulls together more than a dozen campus and campus-affiliated efforts. Some are obvious powerhouses, like the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, or WARF; University Research Park; the Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic; and the Weinert Center for Entrepreneurship. Others may be lesser known, like Transcend UW, an entrepreneurial hub that is based in the School of Engineering and has one of the largest student-run innovation competitions in the country.

Each has long worked to help students, staff and faculty bring innovations to market, but often independently, creating both redundancy and gaps. Innovate Network’s goal is not only to better coordinate its own entrepreneurial efforts on campus and promote a stronger culture of innovation, but also to strengthen the connection between UW–Madison and the city’s larger startup ecosystem.

“I know the university is sometimes seen as this place unto itself, and what we’re trying to do is say that’s not the case,” says D2P director Andrew Richards. “We’re trying to blur these lines, particularly around startups and entrepreneurs and innovators, so that the resources of the university become the resources for the community, and [vice versa].”

Those community resources have skyrocketed in the past 10 years, and the mission of a public university is to help grow the state’s economy. So it makes sense for them to pool expertise and share momentum. D2P was formed in 2013 as the result of a joint memorandum between UW–Madison and its independently operated tech transfer arm, WARF. WARF has first right of refusal on any technologies developed on campus using federal research dollars, but that doesn’t mean it scoops up every licensing or patent opportunity that comes its way. At the same time, innovators and researchers who make discoveries at a public university can’t continue to use taxpayer resources to build private companies. By creating D2P, the university hopes to increase the pipeline of ideas and revenue flowing to WARF while also better directing entrepreneurial opportunities that WARF passes up.

In addition to providing one-to-one mentorships and distributing grants, D2P runs two cohort programs: Innovation to Market, or I2M, which helps aspiring entrepreneurs explore the market for ideas, and Igniter, which helps turn those ideas into technology and startups. The curriculum is led by five specialists with backgrounds in venture and angel investment, product and technology development and in creating startups. Since 2014, D2P cohorts have launched 50 companies.

New startup FoodChain epitomizes the hybrid collaboration Richards hopes will continue. FoodChain co-founder Ben Winters graduated from UW–Madison’s School of Business in May 2019, but he also credits guidance from D2P, the Small Business Development Center, the Center for Dairy Research and the Center for Integrated Agriculture Systems for helping him build his business along the way.
FoodChain, which was bought by Dohman Co. in April, has its distribution center inside FEED Kitchens, and its offices at StartingBlock. That’s the ultimate success story, Richards says.

“We can’t attract talent, we can’t keep talent, we can’t keep businesses if we don’t have a really successful entrepreneurial community,” Richards says. “At the same time, the community needs the talent and the research we have here on campus. So the two really just have to work well together.”

Maggie Ginsberg is a monthly columnist and senior contributing writer for Madison Magazine.