Milwaukee will one day be as synonymous with blockchain technology as it is with beer and bratwurst, if a student-run business corporation at Marquette University has its way.

The undergrad-led company will be tackling more than blockchain development; it will also be trying to reinvigorate a local business culture where innovation has lagged.

Even as the Marquette effort accelerates, it will be competing with other efforts to make cities, states and regions across the country blockchain hotbeds.

New York’s Economic Development Corporation just announced two blockchain projects. A group of Illinois state and county agencies are collaborating on the Illinois Blockchain Initiative, which seeks to explore the use of blockchain in government services and create a welcoming environment for blockchain businesses. Delaware’s Blockchain Initiative focuses on financial technology and was launched two years ago. The North Texas Blockchain Alliance is headquartered in Dallas.

Cities are aiming not for overall blockchain supremacy but to score a company that ends up dominating a sector of blockchain the way Amazon dominates ecommerce, Matthew May, COO and co-founder of Acuity, an Atlanta financial services technology company, tells ThirtyK. “Cities are trying to be home to one of the biggest blockchain companies that ends up redefining an industry,” he says. “If Atlanta ends up with the blockchain company that redefines supply chain, that’s a huge value, like having another UPS here.”

The lab is a chance for Milwaukee to convert its pragmatic, get-it-done culture to identify and win sustainable advantages in blockchain applications.

May promotes technological innovation, including blockchain, as part of his volunteer work with the International Business Innovation Association, an Orlando-based association of more than 2,000 business incubators and entrepreneur support programs.

Right Start

For civic leaders, blockchain initiatives that bring together companies, academics and various government entities are a chance to get a brand-new industry off to the right start, at least, their definition of right.

New York City’s new blockchain initiatives include a competition aimed at developing blockchain applications that improve government services and processes.

The city’s Economic Development Corporation will also launch the NYC Blockchain Resource Center, which it says will serve as a “physical hub” for the industry.

The initiatives are designed to be the nucleus for blockchain collaboration, finance and innovation, Ryan Birchmeier, senior associate for public affairs, tells ThirtyK.

“This is where we can convene a real conversation around the regulatory environment,” he says. “What does it mean to encourage innovation and still keep consumer protections top of mind? You can’t have robust conversations if the conversation is led with a party with a stake in the game.”

Birchmeier says that if the conversation is led by only regulators or only companies, it will be skewed toward them. “We’re not a regulatory body, so we’re in a great position to bring together the public, consumer advocates, lawmakers and companies,” he says.

One top goal is to ensure that blockchain startups, training jobs and innovation “look like New York,” adds Birchmeier. The tech industry overall has been the focus of a massive effort to correct its lack of diversity.

Engineering a Reset

Last fall, students at Marquette University detected an opportunity to create a center of gravity for blockchain education, startups and recruiting, Owen Raisch, associate director of the student-run business program at Marquette, tells ThirtyK. His goal is to simultaneously put Milwaukee on the blockchain map and to put Marquette on the map of student-run business organizations, which are springing up at universities around the country.

The Blockchain Lab is one of several student-run businesses (others include a student housing effort and a wholesale coffee company). The businesses are run by students, which means that leadership turnover is driven by graduation. Raisch is a university staffer who works with student leaders.

The lab is planning a fall conference with an anticipated attendance of 500. It is lining up sponsors from some of Milwaukee’s largest companies. And its monthly series of local blockchain workshops is already packed with attendees from Milwaukee and Madison, which is an hour away, says Raisch.

“We want to scale above vision,” he says. “Students are only half of the attendees at our events. We’re finding that service providers and industry experts who want to stay up to date on blockchain are coming.”

The lab is a chance for Milwaukee to convert its pragmatic, get-it-done culture to identify and win sustainable advantages in blockchain applications, he adds.

Milwaukeeans “are methodical and they make sure they get it right. That can have benefits for this technology,” says Raisch. “ It results in a better product. People here made their money with their hands. They work for it.”

Clayton Boehm, the newly installed president of the lab and an economics major set to graduate in 2019, envisions the lab as more than a supercharged recruiting platform for Milwaukee companies. The fall conference, Bohem tells ThirtyK, will draw experts from across the Midwest and will be designed to spark new ideas and connect potential startup founders with backers.

One Marquette grad believes that the blockchain lab is a rare chance for the university and the city to raise their profiles within the tech industry nationally. Paul Monsen, co-founder of Digital Asset Advisors, a Los Angeles-based blockchain consulting firm, tells ThirtyK that the lab will be a long-term win for Milwaukee if it spurs enough growth in technology to either retain new grads or to attract them back after they’ve started tech careers elsewhere.

Blockchain, by its nature, allows individuals and groups to be connected,” says Monsen, who grew up on a Wisconsin farm. “I’ve always felt that Milwaukee and even Chicago operate within their own bubble. This is a fantastic opportunity for Marquette and the lab to be more globally connected.”

Joanne Cleaver
Joanne Cleaver is a Chicago-based freelance, business and lifestyles journalist based. Her work has appeared in a number of national and regional publications. Earlier in her career, she was the deputy business editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.