Packers-Microsoft’s TitletownTech Joint Venture Trying To Win Different Kind of Game

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  • TitletownTech’s Venture Capital Fund has grown to $25 million and 17 individual investors.
  • It has already invested in three companies.
Photo Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Green Bay Packers fans have saved the team multiple times through stock offerings. Now the Packers have teamed with Microsoft on a joint venture to support entrepreneurs and fledgling businesses in the greater Green Bay area.

In its first year, the Packers and Microsoft’s “TitletownTech” has already invested in three companies – and is doing due diligence on another five. The combination venture fund/innovation lab/venture studio operates in the shadow of Lambeau Field, the storied home of football legends ranging from Vince Lombardi to Brett Favre. 

The business objective: invest in early-stage and existing businesses in Green Bay, and boost economic expansion in the Fox River Valley region of northeast Wisconsin.

Startups and young businesses generate 50% of the job growth in the state, according to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. TitletownTech supports entrepreneurs across five key areas: sports, media and entertainment; digital health; agriculture, water, and environment; advanced manufacturing; and supply chain technology.

“Frankly, we’re a startup for startups,” said Managing Director Craig Dickman.

Seeded by $5 million contributions apiece from the Packers and Microsoft, TitletownTech’s Venture Capital Fund has grown to $25 million and 17 individual investors. It plans to eventually partner with 20 companies a year, said Dickman. 

The joint venture has attracted some big-name investors from out-of-state. They include Jeff Wilpon, chief operating officer of the New York Mets, and Jerry Jacobs Jr., alternate governor of the Boston Bruins. 

Starting in its third year, Dickman said it will examine the returns generated by the original $25 million and decide if it wants to invest in more than 20 firms a year. Microsoft has pledged to plow all returns back toward philanthropy.

So would TitletownTech describe itself as an incubator? No, said Dickman.

“We’re a little different than an incubator. Normally, they come in and provide administrative support and resources. This is really about innovation and venture-building collaboration. We will work with entrepreneurs and small teams. It’s very much a one-size-fits-one.”

Packers President Mark Murphy announced the startup and tech innovation lab in October 2017, predicting it will “dramatically change our local economy by providing the foundation for new high-growth, scalable ventures in our region.” 

For its part, Microsoft has based its TechSpark manager, Michelle Schuler, and a Technologist in Residence at TitletownTech. Aaron Kennedy, founder of Noodles & Co. is serving as Entrepreneur-in-Residence. The offices are headquartered, where else? on Lombardi Avenue.

With the joint venture, Microsoft is bringing Silicon Valley know-how to the Upper Midwest. The big-name players involved – from the Packers and Microsoft to Mets and Bruins – are serving as a magnet.

Already there are multiple inquiries from firms looking to relocate to Green Bay and surrounding Brown County, according to Kelly Armstrong, vice president of economic development for the Greater Green Bay Chamber.

“It’s a powerful group. Who wouldn’t want to work with them?” she asked. 

Founded in 1919, the Packers are the NFL’s oldest franchise. With a 2019 population of around 105,000 Green Bay is by far the smallest U.S. city to host a major sports franchise.

The unique collaboration between the iconic football team and the technology giant sprang from talks between their respective presidents: Murphy of the Packers and Brad Smith of Microsoft, a diehard Packers fan who grew up in nearby Appleton. 

Like many small towns in Middle America, Green Bay faces a brain drain. Talented youngsters grow up, then leave for big cities on the East and West Coasts. 

Murphy and Smith recognized the region was losing too much talent, especially technical talent. The Packers have always been active in philanthropy. Why not support local entrepreneurs and innovators with seed capital and expert advice? 

The Packers can relate to struggling young businesses. Over the franchise’s 101-year history, loyal fans have repeatedly come to the rescue to keep the team solvent – and in Green Bay. 

The most dangerous moment came in 1950. With the Packers nearly out of town, Mom & Pop residents forked over $25 a share to keep them from moving. 

The Packers are the only NFL team to operate as a publicly held, non-profit corporation. The Wall Street Journal calls Packers shares the “worst stock in America” because they pay no dividends and are not tradeable. 

Buying stock doesn’t move you up a notch on the team’s estimated 30-year long waiting list of more than 130,000 names (Season tickets have been sold out since Lombardi’s second season in 1960). But fans don’t care.

Owning a piece of the Packers is a badge of honor. There are currently 361,169 shareholders, owning 5,009,562 shares. The team likes to repay the loyalty of their fans, and their home region, in other ways. 

“The Packers are not a normal football team – we are the most improbable team in sports,” Dickman noted. “We’re community-owned. Three times the community rallied and bought stock when the team was facing financial failure. So this team has had a unique connection to the community.

Wisconsin ranked only No. 15 in CNBC’s ranking of America’s Top States for Business in 2019, behind other Midwest states like Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, and Indiana. 

The state boasts plenty of entrepreneurs, including Dickman who founded Breakthrough Fuel. The problem is many start-ups move out after they start to scale. Or they’re acquired by bigger firms and their best people, and assets transferred elsewhere. 

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That’s where TitletownTech hopes to come in. Besides the venture fund, the operation also boasts an Innovation Lab and Venture Studio to develop ideas and create digital solutions.  

“With some of the mergers and acquisitions that have taken place across the market, we were having more companies being acquired, and headquarters moved out of the area, compared to new companies being built and growing here. So we wanted to reverse those trends,” Dickman said. “Engage in higher education. Really focus on an environment that would keep and attract talent, especially technical talent. And then start creating some new business so we can continue to build and grow a robust economic area.”

According to PwC’s 2019 Sports Survey of 580 leaders in 49 countries, 94% believe “innovation” is important or very important for sports organizations. But only 47% are actually implementing concrete innovation strategies.

Located just west of the famous “frozen tundra” of Lambeau, the Packers’ Titletown mixed-use development includes a public park, football field, tubing hill, and ice skating rink, the Lodge Kohler hotel, Bellin Health Titletown Sports Medicine and the Hinterland restaurant/brewery. 

Once the second phase of construction is complete, the development will also offer 82 townhomes and a 140-unit apartment building. So Packers fans will be able to live, work and play next door to the scene of the “Ice Bowl” 1967 NFL Championship Game. 

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He’s not doing a Lambeau Leap yet. But Smith, the respected Microsoft president, is impressed. 

“I am fully convinced that a decade from now, people will look at Titletown and recognize this is not only one of the crown jewels of this region, but it’s a model for the country,” he said during a press event.