A seminar at the state Capitol last week strove to highlight veterans who create startups.
The "Muster Across America" event was organized by Bunker Labs, a three-year-old Chicago-based nonprofit and business incubation program that has made it its mission to help veterans who choose to become entrepreneurs.
The group launched a chapter in Madison in 2016 and has received significant state funding: The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. gave Bunker Labs Wisconsin a $95,000 grant that same year. That money finances the Lab’s “Innovator Academy” incubator in University Research Park.
The Capitol event was part of Bunker Lab’s annual national tour, which strives to connect entrepreneurs with government officials, financiers and other influencers in sites across the country. It attracted a few dozen for an afternoon of panels and presentations by veteran entrepreneurs.
A theme of the event was the assertion from officials, both with state government and the Wisconsin Veteran’s Chamber of Commerce, that Wisconsin stands out with veteran entrepreneurship.
“It’s just great to see vets at the forefront, solving problems, taking risks,” said WDVA Assistant Deputy Secretary Kathy Still at the event. “It’s exciting to see the growth in veteran-run businesses.”
“Despite challenges of access to capital … Wisconsin is a great place to be for veteran-owned business,” echoed the chamber’s executive director Saul Newton.
The chamber claims that 10.8 percent of Wisconsin business owners are veterans, as opposed to 9 percent nationally.
A number of veteran business owners also pitched their work to those in attendance. One of the most notable presentations came from Rapid Imaging, a tech company which makes sophisticated graphical overlays for military and aeronautic applications. Their work is part of the field of “augmented reality” – the blending of graphics with real-time video, made widely popular by the likes of “Pokemon Go” and Snapchat filters.
The company showed off an overlay it created for pilots in disaster scenarios. Were a pilot to fly over a community recently hit by a tornado, for example, they would be able to look at real time information on a video screen related to the homes nearby.
The company is also working on marrying augmented reality with artificial intelligence.
“AI is able to identify things in video,” explained the company’s vice president of operations, David Geisler. “You can teach the network what it’s looking for.”
The event also featured a lengthy talk by two leaders in the field of cybersecurity: Col. Doug Matty of U.S. Cyber Command and Tim Booher, a researcher and chief information security officer with Colgate Palmolive. Both of them asserted that the field of cybersecurity was fertile ground for entrepreneurs, particularly with veterans.
“You can’t anticipate the next attack in cybersecurity…the very nature of how systems and software are construscted is, anything is possible,” said Booher. “We look at innovation to stay ahead of the threat.”
“It’s just like the military in many ways,” Booher added. “You’re constantly in battle. We need entrepreneurs to come with us to help fight this battle.”
The event happened as nationally, data collected by the Kauffman Foundation shows that veteran entrepreneurship is dropping. About 12.6 percent of new entrepreneurs were veterans in 1996, compared to 5.6 percent in 2014.