03 Nov UW-Whitewater center helps inventors get to market
Whitewater, Wis. — Despite all the financial and mental effort put into creating a product, without the right marketing it will never get past a limited release or even a prototype. A source of guidance and research moving further into the spotlight is the Wisconsin Innovation Service Center.
WISC was created as a Whitewater-based division of the University of Wisconsin Extension’s Small Business Development Center, designed to provide inventors and entrepreneurs the advice they need to move forward. Since WISC’s inception in 1980, it has served as a consultant for over 6,500 different projects, including management software, tractors, and new hat designs.
“We do everything from biotech to toys and games, so there’s a broad range of the projects we do,” said Milissa Rick, president of WISC. “I think we just continue to grow — we’ve grown over the years and are always looking for new services to add to the mix.”
Students and consultants scan and summarize projects
WISC’s staff consists of undergraduate and graduate students primarily taken from the departments of economics and business at UW-Whitewater. A workforce of almost 700 technical consultants under confidentiality agreements supports their efforts, so technical reviews can be outsourced while the students address business.
While the center was founded to focus on new product development and research, Rick said that within the past eight years they have been able to expand operations to handle four product areas: technical feasibility, competitive situation, estimate of need, and current trends.
Rick said that all the projects are different due to the broad range of customers who choose to use the service, from single inventors to start-up companies. “It ranges from if they just have a concept—they type up a description or maybe have some drawings that they’ve sketched out, all the way through to individuals who have already issued patents,” she said.
Despite the difference in clients, WISC follows a set process for studying each client’s concerns. The work begins when an interested party approaches WISC looking for assistance in one of these four areas, filling out a two-page survey describing their issues with the product and research goals. WISC then develops a customized project proposal for the company, delivering a report to the client within six weeks.
Its recommendations include ideas for new markets or distribution channels that have not been used before, such as moving from selling directly to working with distributors. With WISC’s network of connections, it can profile organizations and find strategic partners around the world for organizations looking to expand.
One WISC client who wanted to see what how her product could be expanded was
Dawn Lee of ArthurJoe Software, a manufacturer of computer software for keeping track of network layouts. Lee applied to WISC over the summer of 2004 for a feasibility study and a search for potential partners.
Lee said that what struck her most about WISC’s services was the number of results she got back compared to what she sent in. She filled out both sides of a one-page paper, wrote down what her issues with the product were in less than 250 words, and sent it to the WISC offices.
“I didn’t hear another word from them, and six weeks later I got a package in the mail — a three-inch binder of features,” Lee said. “They knew exactly what the product did and whether or not there was a market for it.”
Secondhand advice leads to first rate results
Lee’s example demonstrates one of WISC’s main strategies for growth: word of mouth. Lee said that her choice of WISC was based on a recommendation from her attorney, who had heard about them when his son developed a computer game and needed some marketing advice.
Networking has been a key factor in WISC’s success, with over 80 percent of clients coming in through recommendations. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office lists WISC as a source for small firms and investors, and as part of the Small Business Administration it receives referrals from all over the country. Because the center works frequently with individuals it obtains personal recommendations from patent attorneys and professionals, many of who operate on a national level.
Another client who came to WISC through a personal recommendation was Doug Earl of the software development firm Serliosoft. Since Serliosoft’s offices are based in the Milwaukee County Research Park, the director there was able to pass on a recommendation, which was further supported by Serliosoft’s marketing consultant.
Earl contracted WISC for a customer survey in February 2004 for Case Complete, a software tool that helps organizations create requirements for software project teams. In its final reports, WISC distributed the description of Case Complete through a network of industry contacts and conducted interviews using survey questions developed for the product.
“The survey questions they prepared were very good and open-ended allowing for candid answers from the participants,” Earl said. “Their contacts were well-targeted and well-informed about our niche market.”
As WISC approaches its 25th anniversary next year, Rick says the center continues to focus on building international connections for its success. Although a strong base of clients in Wisconsin continues to provide WISC with the resources it needs, word of mouth has allowed it to help companies in Japan and all over the world.
“I think our university is proud of the fact that we have this outreach service, plus at this point we don’t have any geographical constraints,” Rick said.
Les Chappell is a staff writer for WTN and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.