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Some leaders believe "thinking outside of the box" is an important tool for economic growth that helps to create new products, processes and services. While Milwaukee's history is steeped in innovation, today the state ranks low in the generation of new ideas and products.Project Milwaukee: Innovation - How Do We Compete? examines the status of innovation here, its value and the factors that are laying the groundwork for the city's future success. We'll talk with entrepreneurs, investors, educators and others about Milwaukee's assets and challenges. And, we'll learn about some of the big ideas coming out of Milwaukee.

Project Milwaukee: Innovation Forum Stresses Need for Collaboration

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Michelle Maternowski
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Project Milwaukee Innovation Forum

Cultivating talent and collaboration quickly surfaced as central themes of WUWM's Project Milwaukee panel discussion on innovation and the economy. Insiders shared ideas for how Milwaukee can become and remain competitive in innovative fields.

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Credit Michelle Maternowski
Mary Trimmier from the SBA takes a question at WUWM's Project Milwaukee forum

Researchers at companies and universities may be tempted to hold their cards close to the vest. But Brian Thompson says in Milwaukee that "silo thinking" will get you nowhere. Thompson heads UW-Milwaukee's Research Foundation.

"If you look at just UWM, we do about $60 million in research. But if you put all of the Milwaukee institutions together, including Marquette and MSOE and the Medical College and Concordia, that's about $250-300 million in research, and we have to band together in ways that you wouldn't have to if you were at a single, large research institution," Thompson says.

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Credit Michelle Maternowski
Brian Thompson heads UWM's Research Foundation

Thompson says a large institution, such as UW-Madison with its worldwide reputation, has a research budget about four times that of the Milwaukee institutions, combined. Yet he says the local universities are carving out their own path by developing partnerships.

"We're doing that in water, we're doing that in energy, we're doing that in health care. So I think we're already finding that the institutions in Milwaukee are connected in a way, just because that's how we compete," Thompson says.

"There's definitely so much more power in all of our numbers together," says Carrie Bristoll-Groll, a civil engineer and founder of Stormwater Solutions Engineering. It develops systems to manage storm water and control flooding. Bristoll-Groll says the firm looks for innovative techniques. So it made sense to locate in the Global Water Center in Milwaukee. It houses water-related businesses and research firms.

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Credit Michelle Maternowski
Carrie Bristoll-Groll promotes collaboration among related businesses (Joe Kirgues of gener8tor is pictured to the left)

When the Global Water Center opened in 2013, planners promised it would create an environment ripe for collaboration. Bristoll-Groll says it's living up to the pledge.

"There has been so much great synergy coming out of that place, like they said it would happen. And you go, 'yeah it's probably really not going to happen.' But being there with the innovative spirit and really running into people who are those thinkers, really helps to innovate the rest of us as well. And then finding synergies where we can team together and go after a project that we've got various skill sets that we can pool, I think has a lot of energy," Bristoll-Groll says.

Bristoll-Groll is so confident in the Global Water Center's potential, that she believes Milwaukee could become a "Silicon Valley of water."

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Credit Michelle Maternowski
Michael Hostad co-founded The Commons (WUWM's Mitch Teich is pictured to the right)

But in order for companies to innovate, they need to find and nurture employees with a creative mindset and the skills to match. Michael Hostad says some of those talented individuals move to hotbeds of innovation, such as Silicon Valley. To keep them here, he co-founded an entrepreneurial skills accelerator for college students, called The Commons.

"One is their perception of how innovative Milwaukee is as a city. The second is their likelihood to stay in the city after they graduate from their school or college. In the beginning of the cohort, their perceptions of Milwaukee are low, as you might expect, and their likelihood to leave the city after they get their diploma is very high. That flip-flops at the end of the program," Hostad says.

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Credit Michelle Maternowski
Que El-Amin is with the Young Enterprising Society, which presents workshops in STEAM to youth

Hostad says attitudes change because The Commons introduces students to startups and existing firms, proving there is an innovative climate in Milwaukee -- perhaps, just a bit under the radar.

Marquette robotics professor Andrew B. Williams mentions another challenge in developing an innovative workforce here. He says lots of people with promise might never be given a chance. Williams used to work for Apple, helping to make the company more diverse.

"The thing that I learned at Apple and spending time in Silicon Valley (is) you have talent that can come from anywhere, you have talent from all demographics," Williams says.

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Credit Michelle Maternowski
Marquette University Robotics professor Andrew B. Williams

To discover and nurture such talent, Williams promotes STEM education, especially among minorities and girls. He says the exposure to science, technology, engineering and math may be all that's needed to spark their innovative spirit.

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Listen to the entire Project Milwaukee: Innovation forum.

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