Bunker Labs @ Wisconsin aims to aid entrepreneurial veterans

By David Tenenbaum, UW-Madison

IMG_0393In the post-9/11 era, veterans are underrepresented in entrepreneurship. According to Michael Ertmer, however, military experience is the ideal preparation for the 24/7 balancing act that a young enterprise demands.

A veteran of five years in the U.S. Army and more than 10 years in Silicon Valley, Ertmer is the point man for Bunker Labs @ Wisconsin, a Madison outpost with connections to the University of Wisconsin-Madison that is designed to help veterans advance high-tech startups.

“Veterans have unique qualifications to be entrepreneurs because of their experience on active duty and the battlefield,” says Ertmer. “The current generation of vets has been charged with simultaneously fighting a war and building a country, and it’s hard to think of anything more fundamentally entrepreneurial.”

Ertmer, whose Army service took him to Bosnia, Turkey and Rwanda during the 1990s, has a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Marquette University and did graduate work at Stanford University. An Onalaska native, he recently returned to Wisconsin after years in California.

Since Bunker Labs @ Wisconsin opened its doors on Nov. 10 at the University Research Park, Ertmer has served as executive director – and solo operator, for the moment. The group is recruiting 10 to 20 veterans who have promising ideas for technology-oriented ventures or who have a young enterprise in which technology plays a vital role.

More often than not, according to Ertmer, military life contradicts the stereotype of rigidity and structure: it’s an environment ripe for innovation.

“Few soldiers are over-resourced,” he says. “They’re given responsibility but not always authority; [they] are forced to make things happen, to do more with less. That reads like the resume of a successful entrepreneur.”

The Bunker will offer business-accelerator-style advice, support and referrals to the chosen entrepreneurs. Areas of assistance might include revenue growth, finding access to capital, and acquiring the first customers.

Polco.us, the Bunker’s first company-in-residence, has already taken advantage of the offerings. Polco’s software allows citizens to engage in local politics by, for example, “voting” on local proposals. The website says it “makes it easy for busy but concerned citizens to make a positive impact in their communities.” According to Ertmer, Dane County is Polco’s second (and largest) customer so far.

Bunker Labs @ Wisconsin has roots in the Patriot Boot Camp, designed to connect veterans and their spouses with education, resources and community in order to become successful technology entrepreneurs. When a three-day event took place in 2014 at UW-Madison’s Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, the veterans’ interest in entrepreneurship was palpable.

“We had 30 military veterans from 13 states,” Ertmer says. “Patriot Boot Camp was such a success that the national business accelerator Techstars asked, ‘What would the graduate school look like?’“

The answer was as close as Chicago, where the original Bunker Labs had begun assisting entrepreneurial veterans and was broadening its reach by spinning off local affiliates.

Each of the 10 Bunker Labs nationwide raises its own funds and faces its own challenges, so the Wisconsin group is seeking corporate and foundation support. At UW-Madison, the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) was eager to help out.

“I participated as a mentor in Patriot Boot Camp,” says SBDC director Neil Lerner. “It was a terrific experience, and it opened my eyes to the special skills and interests that military veterans bring to entrepreneurship.”

The SBDC is assisting Bunker Labs through the Wisconsin Business AnswerLine service. Vets can learn about attending the Bunker Lab program via a toll-free phone number (1-800-940-7232) or email.

“AnswerLine consultants can also answer business questions and provide other information about starting and growing a business in Wisconsin,” says Lerner. “There is no charge for the service, for veterans or anybody else.”

To Ertmer, Bunker Labs is about building a professional network of veterans and helping with whatever they need next. The results look promising – both for today’s veterans and the options available to them in the future.

“We’re already talking with Epic Systems, gener8tor, MERLIN Mentors, R.W. Baird & Co., and others – as well as a several senior business leaders, like [former Wisconsin Secretary of Commerce] Dick Leinenkugel, who plan to get involved,” Ertmer says. “As a result, we can turbo-charge opportunities for veterans in Wisconsin.

– Reposted from UW-Madison

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