Presidents and senior academic leaders from across the region meet at Marquette to foster collaboration around student innovation and entrepreneurship
The theme of the day was that the colleges and universities of Southeast Wisconsin can accomplish great things when they come together and collaborate.
And come together they did in Marquette’s Alumni Memorial Union yesterday — presidents and other high-ranking officials from institutions as diverse as technical colleges, the region’s medical college and larger universities with extensive undergraduate and graduate programs. It was the first time in memory that top higher education executives from across the seven-county region, representing 20 institutions in all, gathered to discuss collaboration.
Twenty institutions were represented at yesterday’s meeting, signaling a strong interest in future collaboration.
Cardinal Stritch University
Gateway Technical College
Milwaukee Area Technical College
Medical College of Wisconsin
Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design
Moraine Park Technical College
Mount Mary College
Waukesha County Technical College
Wisconsin Lutheran College
In welcoming the group and kicking off the meeting, Marquette University President Michael Lovell struck a chord he had struck earlier in inviting the leaders to campus for discussion and lunch. The world’s healthy and growing regions have universities and colleges helping to drive that economic growth, he said. The same opportunity exists in Southeast Wisconsin, but it will take strong collaboration among higher education institutions to improve the region’s economic trajectory, and in turn give students richer opportunities to find success here.
“On a per capita basis, we’re right up there with top regions in the country in terms of the density of our students in higher education,” said Lovell. “We need to harness that potential. What we really want to do is share best practices and tie together the work that is going on our campuses and help our students be more successful through new pathways in innovation and entrepreneurship throughout the region.”
A New Student Hub and Potential Answer to the “Brain Drain”
Front and center at the meeting was an immediate opportunity for cross-university collaboration: a proposed initiative known as The Commons that aims to bring together students from across the region and support them in developing entrepreneurial talents, pursuing ideas for start-up companies and working on projects that help existing companies innovate. Operating in a planned space in Walker’s Point through a partnership of Startup Milwaukee and the Greater Milwaukee Committee’s Innovation in Milwaukee Initiative, The Commons will serve as a hub where like-minded students gather for workshops, intensive mentoring and access to funding and other resources. Not only will students gain real-world experience in the areas of innovation and entrepreneurship, but they will also build networks that extend into the region’s entrepreneurial and corporate ranks.
With organizers looking to reach aggressive milestones — a pilot program in place as soon as this fall and a full-scale offerings as soon as the fall of 2015 — The Commons could quickly become a point of distinction for the region and an asset in attracting, developing and retaining bright minds here. In other words, it could serve as a potentially potent antidote to the regional “brain drain.”
That proved to be a message that resonated with the higher education leaders in the room — and certainly those who were seated with Lovell for the lunch that followed an initial presentation about the new initiative. “What I found with my colleagues from 5 or 6 other institutions was that they felt there would be great value and interest for this on the part of our students. The idea that came out was that this would be a great draw for the institutions of our region.”
Presidents Express Enthusiasm
After the meeting, Alverno College president Dr. Mary Meehan shared a similar reaction, calling the initiative a platform that can help students develop “strong and lasting connections that will foster creativity and positive economic growth.” She said, “I strongly believe that this project will strengthen a vibrant community where our current students will stay, as well as serve as a catalyst to attract talented professionals from outside Wisconsin.”
Medical College of Wisconsin president Dr. John Raymond also responded enthusiastically to the idea. “There are 182,800 students that are in these institutions that are coming together today. Only 800 of those are ours. So our students don’t have great opportunities to interact with students from other disciplines, especially non health science disciplines,” said Raymond. “What’s exciting about this from my perspective as president of the Medical College of Wisconsin is that this gives us probably our best opportunity to connect directly with the creativity sector.”
A start-up track within the Commons would be modeled on “seed accelerators” such as MIT’s Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and Stanford’s StartX that help students form their own companies in the span of three to six months, through supportive programming and access to mentorship, capital and talent. Uniquely, however, The Commons would leverage the academic and entrepreneurial resources of the entire region, not just those clustered around one institution, said Matt Cordio, founder of Startup Milwaukee.
The Commons would also look beyond student entrepreneurs to engage students more broadly through a corporate innovation track that involves them in challenges posed by corporate partners. “We know that not all students are interested in starting their own companies, but a lot of students want to work with those sorts of people. They themselves are innovative. So we thought, what can we do to engage those students in this program?” explained Michael Hostad, executive director of Innovation in Milwaukee.
Members of the business community speaking on behalf of the effort at the meeting were Peter Gunder, chief business development officer of American Family Insurance, and Barry Mandel, CEO of Mandel Group. As a civic partner of The Commons, the Mandel Group is helping organizers find potential space in Walker’s Point, which is also home to the Global Water Center and UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences.
At the meeting, the university leaders were asked to identify a point person from their institutions to coordinate their involvement in the effort and serve as an access point in engaging students. And the emerging synergies left Neil Hoffman, president of the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, eager to take that step. “I think people will come to the table. No one has an agenda except to address the development of entrepreneurship and innovation,” said Hoffman, who has been encouraged to see collaboration flourish between MIAD student designers and Marquette student engineers on product and device development projects. “I find that higher education too often looks at things in the rear view mirror. It’s time to get out front in moving things forward and this is a good way to do it.”
– Stephen Filmanowicz, editorial director, Office of Marketing and Communication
For more information, see media coverage of The Commons and the Aug. 21 meeting:
Milwaukee region’s academic institutions explore creating nonprofit center
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Regional university seed accelerator, corporate talent initiative in the works
Milwaukee Business Journal