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Friday, May 9, 2014

MaryBeth Matzek: UW-Oshkosh center helps students launch businesses


By MaryBeth Matzek
University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh students with an idea for a business don’t have to look far to see if it will work.

The campus has its own Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CEI) where students can test the waters for their businesses. The brainchild of Colleen Merrill, director of the university’s Small Business Development Center, the CEI took a big step forward last week when Neenah- based Alta Resources announced it would partner with the university on the center for budding entrepreneurs. Now known as the Alta Resources Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, it has also received financial backing from J.J. Keller & Associates, Faith Technologies, Jay Manufacturing and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

The CEI started slowly last summer in response to requests from students, Merrill said.

“When I would go into classrooms and talk to students about what we did, I always had several come up to me and say they had ideas for their own businesses and wanted help with getting them started,” she said. “It’s exciting to see so many students with ideas for businesses. They are looking to create a sustainable business that will provide them with a job after graduation.”

Students are grouped into 12 different cohorts and work on a number of ideas from app development to a car detailing business, she added. Another cohort of students starts this fall.

“The students involved come from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds,” Merrill said. “It’s great to see how they interact.”

The CEI provides students with multiple resources to help them launch and maintain their businesses, including desk space in the SBDC for a year, connecting with mentors in the local business community, advisement from SBDC counselors and one-on-one support from College of Business staff members. There’s also access to outside resources, such as students at the UW Law Clinic in Madison, who have helped with legal issues.

“We’re here to help students in any way we can,” said Merrill, adding that she hopes to have a business incubator in place this summer so students can work on their businesses. “It’s great to see these businesses develop right here in Oshkosh. The students have such a great entrepreneurial spirit and are dedicated to doing this while also working on their degrees.”

The funds from Alta Resources – the donation total wasn’t disclosed – will allow the center to hire a director so additional programs and services can be offered to students. Currently, Merrill works on the CEI in addition to managing the SBDC.

“We’re doing a lot of stuff on nights and weekends. With a person dedicated just to the CEI, we’ll be able to do a lot more,” she said.

-- Matzek, a freelance writer and editor, is the owner of 1Bizzy Writer. She has worked in the past as a news editor at Insight Publications and as business editor at the Appleton Post-Crescent.

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