During the last two years, I have been involved in several efforts to boost entrepreneurial activity in Northeastern Wisconsin. The emphasis of our efforts was on scalable businesses — those that can grow at an accelerated pace and hence are often funded via Venture Capital. Technology-powered business ideas are typically at the heart of this type of company.

We realized that we have fewer venture capital start-ups in our region than in Milwaukee or Madison and that the State as a whole is also lagging behind other centers of innovation. Some members of our group pointed to the lack of a major research University as the root cause — if only we had our own MIT or Stanford University. Well, that is not going to happen (outside of Madison). Let’s also clarify one common misunderstanding: we are not innovation laggards. In our region, a lot of innovation has historically happened and continues to occur, but often times it is within companies rather than through the creation of new start-up ventures.

So, we speculated that maybe it was due to a lack of support resources for entrepreneurs and a shortage of venture capital funds.

However, in the last two years, there has been a substantial crop of accelerators, co-working spaces, mentoring programs, and even sources of capital which have popped up.

TitletownTech in Green Bay is a highly visible effort among those. So, at the end of the day it comes down to finding the ideas and pairing these ideas with entrepreneurs or teams who are willing to take the risk of leaving a comfortable job.

This is where I want to share a recent experience. I teach the MBA level course “Waves of Disruption” at the Schneider School of Business at St. Norbert College. It covers major disruptive technologies such as AI, IoT, Blockchain, 5G, etc. and culminates in the students creating a business idea leveraging one or several of these technologies. During the course of a mere eight weeks I observed how my students evolved from knowing next to nothing to talking about these technologies and their impact very comfortably. A few weeks ago, each student presented their ideas, and I was blown away.

Some examples:

• New approaches of keeping elderly persons living alone safe and connected

• Chatbots for truck drivers to get them the information they need so they can get on the road faster

• Taking snorkeling tourism to a whole new level by inserting Augmented Reality

• A technology and innovation Lab that can reach schools, employers, and small communities

• Redefining what customer service in the banking industry looks like

• A football that provides athletes and coaches with valuable performance data

I encouraged several of my students to seriously consider taking the next step and meeting with some mentors and support resources to further develop their ideas. So, what was the key?

It was understanding problems that we face in our work every single day. Inefficiencies in communication, pain points in the customer experience, or operational bottle necks which are holding us back from higher performance.

Each student has experienced some of these problems in their work reality and they did not need to be a Computer Scientist or Software Engineer or a proven entrepreneur to solve them.

What they needed was a basic understanding of what these new technologies are, what they can do, and how they are being applied in different scenarios.

With that understanding in hand, they transferred their knowledge to the chosen problems and described compelling solution.

Now, there is a big difference between having an idea on paper and having a solution in the real world. Most of us don’t have an innovation department or a lab in which we can cook up new stuff, but here is the beauty in all of this.

Almost all of the technology elements referenced in these ideas are more affordable and more accessible than most of us assume. We can leverage consulting firms and technology providers to envision new solutions to our current problems, source the required technology components, and implement them in our businesses (or start new ones as entrepreneurs).

The missing ingredient for many businesses, leaders, as well as students preparing for future careers is the knowledge about the nature and impact of these technologies. How much do you know about AI? Can you explain the Internet of Things? What in the world is Blockchain and why should you care?

Once we can convey this knowledge and allow you all to pair it with your current expertise and understanding of problems, we are “in business.”

Digital Transformation is becoming a reality for an ever increasing number of businesses, organizations, and individuals. Jobs and careers are changing as new technologies are taking over tasks previously handled by humans, while entirely new jobs and responsibilities are being created.

To help our current and future workforce adapt to these new realities, Advancing Digital, a new organization, will collaborate with numerous colleges in Northeastern and Northcentral Wisconsin to bring a variety of learning opportunities to the region. We are hoping to have seminars accessible as early as February of 2020 in Wausau, Stevens Point, and Wisconsin Rapids.

From the proven two hour seminars pioneered in 2019 with St. Norbert College, the Community Outreach Series for smaller communities, to day long Digital Base Camps, Digital Literacy Programs offered to employees of partnering organizations and Digital Transformation Leadership events for executives, we will see an unprecedented breadth and depth of offerings.

The highlight will be the Digital Transformation Expo in Green Bay, held on Dec. 4- 5 at the KI Center. It will allow business leaders, technologists, students of all ages, and families to experience the full range of new technologies from AI to Virtual Reality, 5G to Smart Mobilty and Drones to Robots through interactive exhibits.

Stay tuned for more information.

Oliver Buechse is owner of strategy firm My Strategy Source and co-founder and executive director of Advancing AI Wisconsin