Milwaukee & Madison: A dynamic duo

“Collabetition” refers to a relationship that is both competitive and collaborative, much like Amsterdam and Rotterdam, Arnhem and Nijmegen, Eindhoven and Den Bosch. Madison and Milwaukee, the two largest cities in Wisconsin, are no different.

Putting these cities in one blogpost may give the false impression that they are similar, but they are not.

Both cities have different characteristics and qualities, much like the Dutch duos just mentioned.

While Milwaukee is the center of advanced manufacturing and boasts a lot of agricultural activity, Madison finds itself more in the Health IT, software and biosciences space. And while Milwaukee is the industrial backbone of Wisconsin, Madison can be considered its center of innovation.


In Milwaukee, Madison can jokingly be referred to as the place populated by “eggheads, hippies and assorted liberals.”

While thought leaders in Milwaukee sometimes ask themselves “What is Madison doing right that Milwaukee can’t do better?” their answers often turns out to be “nothing,” except maybe celebrating the eggheads, hippies and liberals more for having innovative business ideas, especially when Milwaukee’s corporate, manufacturing and agricultural base can benefit from working closely with their neighboring city to boost innovation.

Together, Madison and Milwaukee have significant mass and complementary characteristics that make them an interesting innovation hub for Dutch innovative startups and scale ups.

Top Dogs in the Milwaukee and Madison

Northwestern Mutual


American Family Insurance Group

WEC Energy Group


Rockwell Automation




Alliant Energy

CUNA Mutual Group

Regal Beloit

Sentry Insurance Group

A.O. Smith


What makes Milwaukee tick

Milwaukee is Wisconsin’s backbone in the food, energy and water industries. It houses a lot of big companies, such as Johnson Controls, Rockwell Automation, AO Smith, GE Healthcare, Miller Coors, and Birds Eye Foods Inc.

With regards to energy, power and controls, there is particular interest in and demand for micro grind technology integrating renewable energy and smart control systems, as well as stationary energy storage, industrial energy efficiency and tech in the cross cutting space of energy and water and energy and food/ag.

In the ag, food and beverage space, there is an emphasis on dairy products, meat, cranberries and beer. Even though Wisconsin is dubbed the dairy state and Milwaukee is known for its rich history in the brewing industry, it also boasts great infrastructure for meat and organic foods.

The industry also includes food equipment and machinery, food packaging, and food processing.

Water: Less is more

With regards to water innovation, the focus lies on improving operations, such a food processors and manufacturers, that have large water usage.

Assessing water risk and water quality, water usage in relation to the water available, and storm water management are of special interest. So are the cross-cutting fields of water and food and water and energy.

Seeing as these three main sectors are interrelated, economic development corporations and cluster organization are working together to make sure everyone is not operating within their own silos, and instead share information and use each other’s best practices, resources, engineering expertise and mentors.

This makes Milwaukee more sensitive to the needs of startups and scale ups working in the cross-cutting sectors and more susceptible for their innovative ideas.

What makes Madison tock

Madison is home to both a top-notch university that spends more than $1.1 billion on research annually, and the company EPIC systems, a healthcare software company.

Between these two innovative entities, and some support from government and American Family Insurance,, who also like to see the entrepreneurial community bloom, Madison’s innovation ecosystem is mainly focused on Health IT, cyber security, software and life sciences with a healthy dash of insurance and financial services, mobile apps and gaming.

It’s science

With regards to life sciences, the university has historically done a lot of ground-breaking research in the space of stem cells, biotech and food.

By now, generative medicine, such as skin regrowth, is spinning out of the stem cell work. Human therapeutics, physical science and large molecules are also a big focus.

In the food space, heightened nutritional needs, boutique like foods, meat and dairy products are center stage. In the ag space, genetically modified crops and animal health (especially reducing antibiotic use) from the main focus.

The university also works in the cross cutting space of bio and energy, namely biofuels.

Tech talent

With regards to Health IT, cyber security and software, the university has a very strong computer sciences program and spins out startups in these fields.

Aside from the university developing tech talent and tech entrepreneurs, EPIC is recruiting them into the ecosystem from Ivy League universities. This talent than often leaves EPIC after a few years and can be recruited, consulted or turned into Health IT, software and/or cyber security entrepreneurs themselves. As such EPIC adds value to the innovation ecosystem.

EPIC Systems has direct links with the Netherlands as well, due to its partnership with Philips, having about 40% of Dutch patients in its system, and around 100 employees in their European headquarters in Den Bosch.

In the insurance and financial services space, companies like WPS, Sentry Insurance, American Family insurance, QBE, CUNA Mutual are the main drives of innovation and form a solid B2B customer base.

Work, play, live, and work some more

Madison tends to be more laid back than the rest of the state (hence being called a place for eggheads, hippies and assorted liberals). It’s a good place for families and maintaining a comfortable work/life balance.

However, if scaling your business is all you want to do, that is possible as well. There is an enormous number of events, programming and gatherings in Madison. For every type of entrepreneur, from every walk of life, there are breakfast gatherings, luncheons, after-dinner meetings and more.

To the stars and beyond

Madison really spiraled up in startup and entrepreneurial activity. It’s economic trends are similar to those of Seattle and Austin, two other major tech scenes.

Starting Block, a physical startup hub by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs under construction, is the result of this onramp of increased startups activity and maturing venture capital firms.

While funding has been a problem in the region, the investment climate is improving and venture capitalists are coming together to collaborate and share deal flow, especially in the last five years.

Investors from the coast are also often no longer asking their portfolio companies to move away from the area.

Want to learn more? Be on the lookout for the next blog on the main sectors in Madison and Milwaukee, and don’t hesitate to contact us!