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4 Ways Startups Find Unexpected Opportunities in Wisconsin The founder of an agriculture technology business talks about starting up and the resources that help him find success.
When starting a business, having a great idea is just the beginning of the process. To bring that idea to life, you need to find market fit, consider funding or financing, and perhaps most importantly, to decide where you'll set up operations to ensure that your business can thrive.
Take it from Alex Tyink, who moved back home to Wisconsin to start Fork Farms, a Green Bay-based business that created indoor, hydroponic technology allowing people and communities to participate in the fresh, local food movement.
The idea for Fork Farms was hatched in New York City, where Tyink had been drifting between art performance gigs. In Brooklyn, he discovered a rooftop farm and became fascinated. He began volunteering at the farm and learning how to grow vegetables.
"This entirely changed my relationship with food—I was eating better, so I began to feel better mentally," Tyink remembers. "I thought, 'What if I could help people grow food and help them experience this change, too.' That idea consumed me."
Tyink began experimenting. He eventually found that using the right combination of grow lights and reflective surfaces, he was able to reduce the amount of total energy required to produce a pound of food by almost a quarter from the industry average, he says. Tyink applied for patents and soon realized he was onto something.
So why start his budding agriculture tech business 1,000 miles west in Wisconsin? There are four important reasons that Tyink says his business and so many others find opportunities for success in the Badger State.
1. The supportive, tight-knit community.
Tyink says there's something about Green Bay, and Wisconsin in general, that people won't find in other parts of the country: A community that supports its entrepreneurs from starting up to growing and scaling. "In Wisconsin, there's a tight-knit ethos, and people have been so supportive of innovation and creativity–especially with Fork Farms because I think our mission is well-intended," he explains.
Aaron Hagar, VP of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), agrees. "We see a lot of communities leaning in and trying to find ways to support their local entrepreneurs from the main street style businesses to high-growth businesses," he says. "The network here is just incredible because the people that are working to support entrepreneurs know each other, and when a new business shows up, there's a lot of collaboration that goes on to maximize their experience."
Complimenting this strong sense of community, entrepreneurs and their employees here enjoy a superb quality of life coupled with low business and living expenses (the cost of living in Wisconsin is 6.5 percent lower than the national average). Plus, communities across Wisconsin are home to some of the best colleges and universities, which provides entrepreneurs with access to a competitive and qualified talent pool.
2. Access to capital.
Another important part of Wisconsin's entrepreneurial ecosystem is its line-up of investment firms. Among them is Titletown Tech, a venture studio and innovation center located in Green Bay. Founded in 2017 by the Green Bay Packers football team and Microsoft to support innovation and entrepreneurship in the region, it owns a $25 million fund that invests in early-stage startups.
When Tyink began to explore options for funding outside of friends, family, and angel investors, he turned to the team at Titletown Tech. "Any time we look at a company, we look for smart and talented owners that are solving a meaningful problem with their business, and Alex and his team covered that," says Cordero Barkley, a partner at Titletown Tech. "We figured out what their needs were, from offering them the opportunity to work out of our office space to working out the details of what a funding round may look like. And as they needed funding, we were able to put together a fair investment opportunity, and we were also able to leverage our network to help them with supply chain issues during COVID."
Entrepreneurs can also apply for loans or grants directly through the WEDC, which offers a variety of grant programs that can be used to finance startup costs, expand operations, or purchase equipment. There are also programs like the Qualified New Business Venture, which encourages those to invest capital in businesses by providing them with tax credits on the amount that they invest in the business.
3. An ecosystem with a mission to help businesses thrive.
Wisconsin is home to industries ranging from agriculture to manufacturing to tech, which creates a diverse economy and provides entrepreneurs with plenty of opportunities to find their market fit. And with its centralized location, the Badger State also has access to larger markets such as Chicago or Minneapolis for companies to expand their reach.
Across the state, there are Fortune 500 companies and notable business executives that provide startups with "an interesting network of seasoned professionals for the chance to connect with, learn from, or even invest with," Tyink says. Through his relationship with Titletown Tech, for instance, Tyink has connected with the founders of much larger Wisconsin-based companies who have shared their insights for achieving success.
Innovators and entrepreneurs can also leverage resources from organizations like WiSys VentureHome. With multiple locations across the state, the organization connects campuses and communities through a network of startup hubs that combine statewide resources with community initiatives, providing local entrepreneurs access to a full menu of startup resources in their community. There's also a growing number of incubators and even a women and marginalized gender entrepreneurial venture called Doyenne Group, which focuses on uniting entrepreneurs with folks who can help them advance and scale their businesses.
4. A wealth of private and public resources.
Business owners who start up or relocate to Wisconsin also have access to a growing list of resources through the WEDC—everything from skills training to grants to local economic development projects.
"We have a suite of resources that are designed specifically for startups and entrepreneurs, and we understand what their challenges are and what their opportunities are," Hagar explains. "So, our resources are tailored to their realities. All these things fit together in a way that an entrepreneur can find their own path through those resources. We also have an amazing network of partners that can provide a larger set of resources for ideally any entrepreneur to tap into."
"Wisconsin is a place where the people are the biggest asset," Tyink says. "We have gotten so much free advice and so many people have helped us without the need to compensate themselves. If you have a great idea and pure intentions, you're going to find an amazingly receptive community of people and other businesses who are willing to help. My greatest advice is to be open to accepting that help."
Click here to learn more about how businesses thrive in Wisconsin.