With the sound of a gong and the lighting of a four-foot-high lightbulb sculpture, more than 200 visitors, faculty and students celebrated the opening May 8 of Wisconsin’s new address for innovation – the Lubar Entrepreneurship Center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
The 24,000-square-foot building – which also houses the UWM Welcome Center – is not only home to UWM’s growing campus ecosystem, but also the location where UWM thinkers and makers partner with business and the community to transform the regional economy.
“With this investment in the Lubar Entrepreneurship Center, we have a down payment on the future,” UWM Chancellor Mark E. Mone said to the crowd, which included Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and Wisconsin state Sen. Chris Larson.
Center programming aims to make entrepreneurship an integral part of the UWM experience for all students and faculty, an aim that is most attractive to the building’s main benefactors, Sheldon and Marianne Lubar.
“I believe this center will be a game changer not only for Milwaukee but the whole United States,” Sheldon Lubar told the crowd. “There are other schools that have entrepreneurship centers, but nothing like this. There will be ups and downs in your career, but this is the place where you can start. This is the place where you can talk to people who will support you.”
The new facility also provides spaces where anyone in the community can work with UWM entrepreneurs on new enterprises. Included are classrooms, gathering spots for speakers and “innovation labs,” where students can prototype products and software.
“It’s not just for people who want to start a company. It’s not just for business majors,” said LEC director Brian Thompson. “We believe that the skills in entrepreneurship and training in creative and innovative thinking are going to help make all our students more successful no matter what their career path.”
Funding for the building was launched a $10 million donation from the 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.
The LEC’s training is based on two principles. The first is “human-centered design,” a kind of critical thinking that improves your problem-solving abilities with targeting interviewing designed to acquire the exact information needed. The second is a “lean launch methodology,” an approach to startups that leads innovators through a process of idea creation, testing and validation of early-stage business concepts.
In short, the concepts taught are not limited to business-related innovation.
Programs offered at LEC include pop-up workshops, interdisciplinary courses and competitions that offer students the chance to win seed funding by pitting their ideas or business plans against others.
The LEC also administers the only I-Corps site in Wisconsin. Backed by the National Science Foundation, I-Corps teaches faculty and graduate students to turn discoveries they find in the lab into products and startups. Open to teams from the area’s six universities, the program sends would-be entrepreneurs on a customer-discovery sojourn to hone an idea before they go seek funding and spend money on a prototype. Results from the last three years include 19 startup companies.