• WisBusiness

Thursday, October 22, 2015

MaryBeth Matzek: Technology connects consumers and farmers


By MaryBeth Matzek
Madhavi Krishnan calls herself as a computer scientist who loves food, but she's actually an entrepreneur shaking up how people can buy food in Madison and surrounding communities.

Krishnan, a former Epic employee, launched Square Harvest last spring as a place where farmers and other food producers connect directly with consumers via a website. The site lists what farmers have for sale and consumers pick out what they want. Farmers and other producers – think bakers, cheesemakers and meat producers – drop off the ordered items on Friday at a warehouse where it's sorted and then delivered to customers free of charge on Saturdays.

"It's all about keeping food dollars local," says Krishnan, who spoke last week at the Wisconsin Innovation Network-Northeast Chapter's meeting in Appleton as part of a broader look at the intersection of food and technology. "It's a farm-to-table grocer. Consumers are interested in fresh food and farmers have that fresh food, but it's not always easier to connect. This is a lot easier than standing in a farm market stand somewhere."

Krishnan views her business as a complement to CSAs, which she called a "mystery box – you never know what's inside. We get a lot of orders in after people get their boxes."

She started Square Harvest in March with 10 farmers. That number is now up to 70. "We have low overhead and the food is fresh as fresh can be," Krishnan says.

"Fresh" and "local" are key words with consumers now when it comes to food, says Theresa Feiner, an economic development specialist with the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. "We're definitely seeing a shift in consumer preferences, especially among millennials," she says. "They want transparency in their food."

Square Harvest is just one example of what Wisconsin businesses and farmers are doing to adapt to this new marketplace, Feiner, says. For example, Roundy's buys produce from local farmers through the Food Hub Cooperative and then sells it at its grocery stores.

"Businesses see the value in investing in local produce," she says.

Just as Krishnan leveraged technology, in her case a software program, others are doing the same to bring changes to the food supply chain, Feiner says. "Technology plays a role in everything from using robotics on the farm to feed and milk the cows to how technology is used in food production and processing," she says. "It's everywhere."

It all plays into how the ag industry is changing in Wisconsin, says Daniel Smith, DATCP's administrator for agriculture development. His department works with farmers throughout Wisconsin to grow and promote agriculture.

"We really want to help farmers be successful. We want to protect our ag diversity, protect our resources and bring in funding resources," he says. "We work with farmers on a variety of issues, from dealing with regulations to succession issues."

As for Krishnan, she's preparing for Square Harvest's first winter, which she admits will be interesting since Wisconsin can't grow crops year-round outdoors. Some veggies grown via hydroponics will be featured as will be some stored crops.

"We're just starting out and have a lot of room to grow," she says. "I haven't looked for capital yet, but I probably will soon. The Madison area has been supportive of us. It's been very exciting."

Incubator moves ahead

The city of River Falls, River Falls Economic Development Corporation, UW-River Falls, and the Chippewa Valley Technical College have received a $1.4 million grant to construct a business incubator to serve the St. Croix Valley region.

The U.S. Economic Development Administration Investments for Public Works and Economic Development Facilities grant will fund the creation and construction of the St. Croix Valley Business Incubator, which will open next fall.

Funding sources for the project include the $1.4 million U.S. EDA grant, a $250,000 grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and a commitment from partners to cover administration and infrastructure costs. The multi-use facility will be designed as a hybrid entrepreneurial center, housing 24 small or start-up businesses and offering business incubation, workforce training and business acceleration services. UW-River Falls will provide a director for the facility.

-- 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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Friday, October 16, 2015

MaryBeth Matzek: R.A. Smith takes to the (unmanned) air to view job sites


By MaryBeth Matzek
R.A. Smith National employees have a new resource they can deploy on its engineering and surveying jobs -- drones.

Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, drones are "another surveying tool in our tool belt," says Jon Chapman, a 3D laser scanning manager with the Brookfield-based engineering, surveying and technical services consulting company.

Earlier this month, R.A. Smith received the Section 333 exemption and is already putting UAV to use on job sites. "We hit the ground running," Chapman says.

R.A. Smith is one of few Wisconsin companies to receive the Section 333 exemption from the FAA. Under this rule, companies can operate UAVs under 200 feet in the air only during daylight and stay in the operator's line of sight. In addition, a licensed pilot must operate the controls of the UAV.

Nationwide, the FAA has approved 1,783 Section 333 exemptions.

In R.A. Smith's case, Chapman says the company has found plenty of uses for UAVs on jobs by taking advantage of their ability to fly over sites and photograph what they see.

"We do a lot of volume metric surveying, such as checking company's stockpiles and seeing how much they have of a certain product. Previously, we would have someone go out and walk on the pile and take lots of photos of it," he says. "Now, we can fly a UAV over it and take a bunch of photos without putting an employee out in what may be an area that's difficult to reach and hard to walk around."

Those images are then run through a photometric process to determine the volume total.

Another example is when R.A. Smith is hired to inspect silt fences on building sites. Previously, an employee would have to walk the entire site and take photographs. Now with the UAV, the drone can do it all from the air, saving time.

"The more we keep using the UAV, the more ways we discover how we can use it," Chapman says. "It's very exciting."

Clean sweep

Three cows from MilkSource Genetics of Freedom made history earlier this month at the 2015 World Dairy Expo in Madison. Three different breeds from the same farm captured grand champion honors in their respective classes – something that hasn't happened at the expo before.

A Holstein cow was named supreme champ while a Jersey cow was named reserve supreme champ. A red and white Holstein also earned grand champion honors.

MilkSource Genetics also was named premier exhibitor and premier breeder of the Red & White Show and premier exhibitor of the Holstein Show.

Boosting the rural economy

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded 10 grants worth $575,000 to help support start-ups and expansions at rural small businesses. The grants range from the $99,999 awarded to the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council in Lac Du Flambeau to provide technical assistance to Native American business owners in eight Wisconsin tribes to $21,000 to Easter Seals Wisconsin in Madison for a program that works one-on-one with disabled entrepreneurs to evaluate their self-employment ideas and plans for start-up businesses.

The USDA awards the grants through the Rural Business Development Grant Program. See a full list of the Wisconsin grants.

-- 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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Thursday, October 8, 2015

MaryBeth Matzek: State start-ups can get a boost from UW-Oshkosh's InventureXcel


By MaryBeth Matzek
Wisconsin start-ups looking for help in making the next step have a new resource – InventureXcel, a new program offered through UW-Oshkosh.

This free business boot camp program will be held over three weekends during the month of November. InventureXcel is designed to provide entrepreneurs with customized curriculum focused on customer validation, executive summaries and elevator pitches with access to a mentor network of industry experts, says program director Kim Biedermann.

"We're limiting it to five start-ups so we can really tailor the program to their needs," she says. "We're hoping that once they come through this program they'll be ready for a business accelerator or another similar program to keep advancing their idea forward."

Shelby Smykal, accelerator coordinator at the UW-Oshkosh Business Success Center, says the InventureXcel participants will work on putting together a well-written executive summary that they can present to potential investors about their business idea.

"A business plan is important, but a lot of investors just want that summary and want to understand what the business is," she says. "We'll also work on putting together an effective elevator speech since that is key when connecting with investors."

Biedermann says offering the program on weekends made sense since many entrepreneurs are working regular jobs and can't take time away during the week to work on their business idea.

"This program provides them time to focus on their idea and what they need to do to get it to the next stage," she says.

Biedermann says the university has multiple resources available to help entrepreneurs and offering the boot camp is one way to let people know what's all available. "We play an important economic development role in the community. We want to help grow and support businesses since that contributes to more economic growth," she says.

Smykal is eager to see the ideas that boot camp participants will bring in. "It will be exciting to hear their plans and figure out how we can help them," she says.

For more on the program, visit inventurexcel.com .

Shawano manufacturer sold

Novolex has purchased Wisconsin Film & Bag, one of Shawano's largest manufacturers.

Wisconsin Film & Bag makes polyethylene bags and films and employs about 175.

Novolex, which is based in Hartsville, S.C., and is a Wind Point Partners company that serves the retail, grocery, food service, industrial and hospitality markets, plans to incorporate Wisconsin Film & Bag's products into its custom film and bag brand, Novolex said in a statement announcing the purchase.

Special Lambeau tax ends

The extra 0.5 percent sales tax in Brown County created in 2000 to fund renovations at Lambeau Field ended Sept. 30.

The Green Bay/Brown County Professional Football Stadium District, which administered the tax proceeds, said the extra sales tax had reached its goal.

In 2000, Brown County voters approved the special tax to pay for $160 million in bonding for the $295 million renovation of Lambeau Field in 2003. It was also designed to fund the Green Bay Packers with a capped amount of operations and maintenance reimbursements annually through 2031. Through the end of September, the tax had raised $300.3 million.

-- 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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Friday, October 2, 2015

MaryBeth Matzek: Project G.R.I.L.L. heats up interest in manufacturing jobs


By MaryBeth Matzek
Getting high school students interested in manufacturing careers can be a hard sell. A Sheboygan County program, however, is changing that by showing students that manufacturing careers are rewarding and utilize the latest technology.

Project G.R.I.L.L. (Growing Readiness In Learning and Leading) pairs high school students with manufacturing companies to build a customized grill from scratch. The students earn up to nine technical college credits and get an up-close look at manufacturing careers. Participating companies benefit from the knowledge that by exposing more students to career options in manufacturing they may be recruiting future workers.

Project G.R.I.L.L pairs eight manufacturers with eight high schools to build a charcoal grill that will successfully cook 12 Johnsonville brats at one time within an hour of being lit. (Johnsonville is based in Sheboygan County after all). With 40 percent of all Sheboygan County jobs tied to manufacturing, encouraging more students to consider it as a career path is important, says Keith Anderson, chair of Project G.R.I.L.L. and a technical training manager at Masters Gallery Food Inc.

"We're looking our next employees and this gets them in here and see what we do," he says. "Students have to do everything from contacting the companies to get the ball rolling, to working on the design and the building the grill."

The students and companies decide together where the grill will end up, whether it's the business, the school or on the auction block to raise money for the program, Anderson says. "The grill itself is just the vehicle, it's all the stuff along the way that they'll learn is the huge part," he says. "They're learning about soft skills and teamwork."

Project G.R.I.L.L. started 10 years ago in Sheboygan County as a partnership between manufacturers, local schools and Lakeshore Technical College. A similar program is in place in Fond du Lac County and the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce launched its program this year.

Through the 30-week program, Anderson says students get a firsthand look at what it takes to take an idea from concept to completion.

"We've seen students who have gone through the program enter careers in manufacturing, whether it's as an engineer, an operator or come here directly after high school," Anderson says. "We're showing students that our manufacturing facilities are bright places and it's a vibrant, constantly changing atmosphere. These aren't boring jobs."

This past summer, Project G.R.I.L.L. received a $4,500 AT&T Innovation & Investment Award to help fund the program. It's also being recognized next month by the Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance with a community partnership award at its annual Excellence in Manufacturing/K-12 Partnership Awards.

"One of my goals is to get more students involved in these programs," he says. "We're always trying to get better."

Manufacturing growth

Programs like Project G.R.I.L.L. and others like it that boost interest in manufacturing are essential as the number of state manufacturing jobs grow and baby boomers – who make up the largest segment of the skilled manufacturing workforce – begin to retire.

From July 2014 to July 2015, Wisconsin added 6,516 manufacturing jobs, an increase of 1.1 percent, according to the 2016 Wisconsin Manufacturers Register, an industrial database.

This is the fourth year in a row that the number of Wisconsin manufacturing jobs increased, according to the report. The state has 10,694 manufacturers who employ 572,189 workers. Since 2011, the state has added 18,568 workers, an increase of 3.3 percent.

Spurring growth

The Water Technology District in Milwaukee has generated $211.6 million in economic development since 2012 when the Walker Point area became an epicenter of water technology and freshwater research.

The analysis by The Water Council, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee focused on the impact of investments related to water technology and their associated actions from 2012 to 2014.

Property values in the water district increased 16.6 percent while property values overall in the City of Milwaukee decreased 11.1 percent.

-- 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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