Inventors & Entrepreneurs Club of Juneau County: Supporting Entrepreneurs
Fighting unemployment via entrepreneurship
Turning ideas into businesses in Juneau County
Juneau County is a largely rural area in west central Wisconsin with a population of about 27,000. Manufacturing had been a critical contributor to the economy, employing as many as 1,500 people. But three major factories closed in 2000 and 2001, leaving many of their employees with few alternatives. The Juneau County Economic Development Corporation, a public-private partnership, stepped in and launched the Inventors & Entrepreneurs Club of Juneau County in 2002, when the area’s unemployment rate was nearly 14%. The goal was to diversify and strengthen the local economy.
Peer support for startups
Residents of rural areas may have great ideas for inventions or new companies, but they don’t always know how to go about starting a business—and community support to encourage their efforts is often scarce. The Inventors & Entrepreneurs Club of Juneau County became a nonprofit corporation and held its first meetings in 2003. Its goal: To bring people together to learn from each other and to find out what it takes to start with an idea and turn it into a viable business. The club provides education, support and networking, and acts as a feeder system to many of the business resource agencies in the state, such as the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and the Small Business Development Center. In pre-pandemic times, its meetings often drew anywhere from 30 to 45 people.
Members of the club have launched a variety of companies, including:
- Tailor Fur You, a pet grooming business
- Clean Beam, a UV light product that sterilizes footwear at food processing plants
- Burr Oak Winery
- Bunker Water Jet Cutting, a metal cutting company
Club President Cary Winch co-founded CampInn Trailers, and he and his partner, Craig Edevold, have invented a host of products, from games to rifle accessories. Club member Tom Burton pitched his invention, a nonslip tool tray called Grypmat, on the “Shark Tank” TV show.
Spreading the entrepreneurship bug
More than 750 people have participated in the Inventors & Entrepreneurs Club of Juneau County since it began. Speakers explain product prototyping, protecting intellectual property, market research, sales and packaging. A meeting facilitator connects members to the resources they need, club members provide services to each other at reduced rates and synergies can sprout. At one meeting, a woman who made probiotic health food bars told the group she was looking for new ingredients; the man sitting next to her had a chestnut grove and was seeking new markets. Another woman ran a health food vending business and wanted to offer new products; meanwhile, a doctor requested one of her vending machines for his clinic.
Additionally, the Juneau County Economic Development Corp. started a charter school, iLEAD—Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Academic Discovery (iLEAD)—at Mauston High School with the hope of nurturing the next generation of entrepreneurs. Students work on business projects as part of their curriculum and learn about character traits that lead to success. Since its start seven years ago with 40 students, iLEAD now teaches 100 students a year.
“The students manage their own education. We feel this is the key to being prepared for life.”