New entrepreneurship center supports student innovation

The stunning UWM Lubar Entrepreneurship Center (LEC) facility opened May 8 at the corner of Kenwood Boulevard and Maryland Avenue. The new 24,000-square-foot building – which also houses the UWM Welcome Center – is now home to the university’s growing entrepreneurial ecosystem and the front door to the public. (It is open to all visitors Mondays-Thursdays, 7 a.m.-10 p.m., Fridays 7 a.m.-8 p.m., and, when classes are in session, Saturdays 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.)

For many engineering and computer science students, the center—just a 90-second walk from the College of Engineering & Applied Science—supports their desire to realize an idea or invention, start an enterprise or just boost their innovative confidence.  

College faculty member takes the lead in programming and partnerships 

Ilya Avdeev, associate professor of mechanical engineering, is director of innovation at the LEC, overseeing program development and partnership cultivation.

For years, Avdeev has fostered entrepreneurship across campus, working with faculty and undergraduate and graduate students in many disciplines who want to turn their ideas into businesses. He has served as director of the NSF I-Corps site of Southeastern Wisconsin (he is a grant’s principal investigator), co-founder of the UWM Student Startup Challenge, founder and director of the Advanced Manufacturing and Design Laboratory, faculty adviser for the UWM Prototyping Club, and a University Innovation Fellows mentor.

Avdeev says the LEC unifies and amplifies UWM’s entrepreneurial initiatives. “Our programming goal is to make the entrepreneurship mindset part of the UWM experience for all students and faculty,” he says. “Practicing creative and innovative thinking can help make all our students more successful no matter what their career path.”

Current programs offered by the LEC include faculty support through Ideas Challenge faculty fellowships, pop-up workshops to experiment with curriculum, interdisciplinary courses focused on entrepreneurial and innovative practices, and co-curricular immersive programs that offer students the chance to acquire seed funding. More importantly, Avdeev says, it is a place to meet, have coffee and develop new ideas.

In addition, I-Corps Milwaukee—the only NSF I-Corps site in Wisconsin—has relocated to the LEC, placing UWM firmly at the center of a National-Science-Foundation-funded program that has launched 22 Milwaukee-based startup companies since 2015. Graduate students and faculty who participate in NSF I-Corps, short for NSF Innovation Corps, learn how to turn discoveries they find in the lab into products and startups. It is open to teams from five of the area’s universities.

Community invited 

Anyone in the community can work with UWM entrepreneurs, Avdeev says. The LEC is built for this and includes flexible instruction spaces, gathering spots for speakers and “innovation labs,” where students can prototype products and software.

The vision is for UWM thinkers and makers to partner with businesses and the community to transform the regional economy. 

Funding for the building was launched with a $10 million donation from Sheldon and Marianne Lubars in 2015. Since then, the UW System has contributed $10 million, and additional gifts have come from the Kelben Foundation, established by Mary and Ted Kellner; from Milwaukee entrepreneur Jerry Jendusa; UWM alum Avi Shaked and wife Babs Waldman; We Energies; and American Family Insurance.