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Seeding tech growth in Wisconsin’s fertile ground

July 30, 2020 By Suzanne Swift
Photo: Aerial view of isthmus, including Capitol

Madison is home to a thriving high-tech sector, and a new partnership involving Creative Destruction Lab will build on that. Photo: Bryce Richter

Why would a global program for tech startups tackling risk decide to make Wisconsin its home? And how does a partnership with a Fortune 300 insurance company help support success for the startups?

When the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) – an innovative nonprofit that has created programs in support of early stage startups worldwide – decided to partner with the University of WisconsinMadison and Madison-headquartered American Family Insurance for only its second U.S. location, it gave a nod to the ever-growing recognition that the region is fast becoming a hub for technology and innovation.

CDL is not alone in this belief. In December 2019, two national think-tanks, the Brookings Institute and Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, released a report putting the Madison area at the top of the list of regions positioned to be the next national tech hub. This thinking reflects what many in the area already know: The education level, business climate, and rich environment for innovation and scientific discovery make the region fertile ground to seed the next wave of entrepreneurs and tech growth.

Founded at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, CDL’s objectives-based entrepreneurship program was built to include active involvement of university students and faculty. This will support a streamlined pathway for research and discoveries at UWMadison to more quickly find its way into industry. In addition, students will have access to an exciting experiential learning lab geared towards educating digitally aware students who will quickly become the business leaders of tomorrow.

Not including Wisconsin, CDL currently has eight locations. They are in Canada, England, and France. The only other U.S. program is in Atlanta, Georgia, which is launching at the same time as Wisconsin.

 Students will benefit

“Students from a variety of academic disciplines will benefit from the exchange of ideas and interactions with entrepreneurs and mentors, while generating startup ideas about how digital technologies can spur unrealized opportunities in risk management,” said Vallabh “Samba” Sambamurthy, Albert O. Nicholas Dean of the Wisconsin School of Business. “In the long run, this will be another way our public university helps to create jobs and grow the economy.”

Region poised for tech growth

CDL’s decision to place its ninth startup program in Wisconsin was inspired by the revelation that while early-stage venture capital was concentrated in California and a few other cities, scientific breakthroughs that seed companies have a much broader geographic distribution. Discoveries and innovations in Madison, Milwaukee, and even as far as Minneapolis, make our region ripe for accelerated growth and venture investment in tech.

Understanding that Madison is home to not just a top-ranked university but also a highly innovative national insurance company, American Family Insurance, made Wisconsin an ideal location to launch its newest stream, CDL Risk. The program will nurture high-tech entrepreneurs in the growing field of risk management. CDL Risk will leverage the expertise at  UWMadison and American Family, focusing on emerging high-tech software technologies related to identifying, assessing, preventing, mitigating, and transferring risk. The program is slated to start in November and will be entirely virtual for the time being.

“The importance of supporting entrepreneurship in tech has never been greater,” says Tom Erickson, founding director of the UWMadison School of Computer, Data & Information Sciences. “The tech industry continues to drive economic growth around the globe, and we have an opportunity to put Wisconsin in the center of that.”

American Family partnership a win-win

As a founding partner of CDL Risk, American Family and its venture capital firm American Family Ventures is helping identify and select startups and will provide mentors and other resources during the nine-month program. This support is part of the company’s ongoing partnership with UW–Madison, which includes The American Family Insurance Data Science institute and endowed chair of the institute among other elements.

“Now, more than ever, we can see why entrepreneurship and advancements in data science and technology applied to risk management is critical to the insurance industry and society in general,” said Bill Westrate, American Family Insurance president. “Our involvement with these innovative startups in the very early stages will provide invaluable insights for us, and established resources to help them succeed.”

This partnership with American Family, access to focused mentorship from experienced entrepreneurs who have founded, led, and sold significant tech companies, and an emphasis on objective-setting to sharpen objectives, prioritize time and resources sets CDL Risk and CDL’s other programs apart from a typical startup accelerator.

With advances in data collection, analysis, and artificial intelligence, companies and individuals are better able to assess and respond to risk leading to new products, innovations, and cost savings. The ripple effect could lead to the development of many new companies and ventures focusing on anything from the use of satellites to detect wildfires, to new technology to identify potential damage to homes to improving traffic patterns to reduce accidents.

Furthers UW entrepreneurial innovation

“UWMadison is a great choice for this project,” says Professor Joan Schmit, who holds the endowed American Family Insurance Distinguished Chair in Risk Management and Insurance at the Wisconsin School of Business. “To be able to support entrepreneurial innovation and economic growth in an area where we have a deep bench of expertise is a natural extension of our work.”

“CDL has developed a proven process for helping companies cut through distractions and focus on what’s most important, with a global network working toward our mission to accelerate the commercialization of science for the betterment of humankind,” says Sonia Sennik, Executive Director of the Creative Destruction Lab. “We are thrilled to both welcome UWMadison to the CDL family as our newest site, CDL-Wisconsin, and to announce the launch of CDL Risk in partnership with American Family Insurance.”

CDL Risk continues seeking startup candidates and businesses and individuals willing to serve as mentors. More is available at CDL Risk.

Applications for CDL Risk at CDL-Wisconsin are now open at Selected ventures will begin the nine-month CDL program in October 2020. To learn more about CDL Risk, please contact

Read answers to frequently-asked questions about CDL and the new partnership here.


The University of Wisconsin–Madison is a public, land-grant institution that offers a complete spectrum of studies through 13 schools and colleges. With more than 43,000 students from every U.S. state and 121 countries, UW–Madison is the flagship campus of Wisconsin’s state university system. UW–Madison is a formidable research engine, ranking eighth among U.S. universities as measured by dollars spent on research. Faculty, staff, and students are motivated by a tradition known as the Wisconsin Idea that the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state and beyond. The Wisconsin School of Business (WSB) offers the #1-ranked under graduate risk management and insurance program by U.S. News & World Report, and the Risk and Insurance department at the Wisconsin School of Business is recognized as a Global Center of Insurance Excellence by the International Insurance Society. The School of Computing, Data and Information Sciences (CDIS), housed within the UW–Madison College of Letters & Science, and home to top-ranked departments of Computer Sciences, Statistics, and the Information School, was founded in 2019 to serve the needs of our ever-changing society. CDIS departments have been the source of many successful tech companies in our region and nationally.


Based in Madison, Wisconsin, American Family Insurance has been serving customers since 1927. The company inspires, protects and restores dreams through insurance products, exceptional service from agency owners and employees, community investment, and creative partnerships to address societal challenges. American Family acts on the belief in diversity and inclusion by constantly evolving to meet customer needs and preferences. American Family Insurance group is the nation’s 13th-largest property/casualty insurance group, ranking No. 254 on the Fortune 500 list. The group sells American Family-brand products, primarily through exclusive agency owners in 19 states. The American Family Insurance group also includes CONNECT, powered by American Family Insurance, The General, Homesite, and Main Street America. Across these companies the group has more than 13,500 employees nationwide.


American Family Ventures is a venture capital firm focused on insurance innovation. Founded in 2013 as the direct venture capital arm of American Family Insurance, AFV invests in early-stage startups that are redefining the future of the insurance industry. AFV aims to help create category-leading companies through minority equity positions, active partnership and collaboration, an extensive Insurtech network, and a comprehensive platform of value-add programs. For more information, visit


CDL is a nonprofit organization that delivers an objectives-based program for massively scalable, seed-stage, science- and technology-based companies. Its nine-month program allows founders to learn from experienced entrepreneurs, increasing their likelihood of success. Founded in 2012 by Professor Ajay Agrawal at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, the program has expanded to eight sites across four countries: Oxford (Saïd Business School, University of Oxford), Paris (HEC Paris), Atlanta (Scheller College of Business, Georgia Institute of Technology), Vancouver (Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia), Montreal (HEC Montréal), Calgary (Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary), and Halifax (Rowe School of Business, Dalhousie University).