Reporter-Milwaukee Business Journal
If Milwaukee can quit beating itself up and recognize its own strengths, its push for innovation can continue and its reputation will grow.
That, broadly, was the consensus at the Milwaukee Business Journal’s recent Eureka Awards roundtable, a chance for winners of the paper’s annual prize for creativity and innovation to come together and discuss the city’s outlook. The winners sat down at The Pfister Hotel May 20.
Innovation is happening and Milwaukee has been a leader in it, several panelists said.
Milwaukee residents and leaders “still suffer from self-flagellation,” as Discovery World’s Joel Brennan puts it. He said the city still acts like it’s in Chicago’s shadow and doesn’t do a good enough job celebrating the success it does have.
Other panelists spoke of welcoming new voices to the table, providing access to thought leaders, and being sure to emphasize Milwaukee’s accessibility as one of its virtues.
To keep the creativity going, local educational institutions will play a strong role, but corporate-university partnerships can also contribute to the vibrancy of Milwaukee’s creative and innovative efforts, said Ilya Avdeev, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Milwaukee boasts a high number of Fortune 500 companies, said Joe Kohli, founder of Mpirik, Milwaukee. One of the keys to unlocking Milwaukee’s innovative potential will be to leverage the talent and creativity within those big companies, people intimately familiar with the industries’ current challenges and practices.
Kohli, who was honored for creating an app that provides real-time messages to families of surgery patients, cited Milwaukee-based Aurora Health Care as one company getting it right, seeding companies that start from within and encouraging employees to innovate by giving them full ownership of patents and products.
Citing UWM’s work with Johnson Controls Inc., Glendale, as a model, Avdeev said such partnerships allow innovators to “play in the sandbox” outside the traditional corporate structure.
But Avdeev warned that cuts to school funding imperil that kind of forward progress. The university is asked to do more with less every year, and is losing some of its most talented faculty because of it, Avdeev said, echoing an alarm repeatedly sounded by leaders.
Alex Francis, a Junior Eureka Award recipient and founder of biotech company Isopoint Technologies LLC, used himself as an example. Coming from Kenosha, he said he was drawn to UWM because Milwaukee is on the water, but stayed because of the city’s manufacturing focus.
“I think if we keep doing what we’re doing, we’ll put ourselves on the map,” he said.