MADISON (WKOW) -- A new organization in Madison is helping local veterans start their own businesses.
Bunker Labs, a veteran-run group with 10 offices across the country opened a Madison office about six months ago. Now, it's leaders say they've gathered enough sponsorship to kick off what they call a 'summer cohort' to find up to 15 veterans with great business ideas that they can help get off the ground through mentoring and financial support.
"It was really founded around the idea of building professional networks for veterans," says executive director Michael Ertmer. "There's a very deep, shared experience. A lot of veterans when they get out of the service want to reconnect with other veterans, particularly in their professional lives, but there hadn't been a natural platform for that."
Ertmer compares it to a VFW for a new generation of younger veterans. He says nearly half of all WWII veterans came back to the U.S. to start a business so Bunker Labs is aiming to recreate that sense of entrepreneurship for more veterans.
Ertmer has been working with Air Force veteran Nick Mastronardi, who along with other veterans created a business called POLCO. It's an online tool that gives community leaders the technology to poll the public on any issue. The person voting can interact and send messages so POLCO's clients can make more educated decisions based on community opinions.
"We believe the better policies that would come out of more people participating in a structured sense, the mission behind that, compares very strongly to our previous military missions when we were on active duty," Mastronardi tells 27 News.
POLCO got started about a year ago with its team spread across the country, but with Bunker Lab's help POLCO is now moving to Madison to grow its customer base. Dane County has signed on to use the product. County Clerk Scott McDonell tells 27 News this summer the county board will start to decide what topics they want to ask about as they're debating any county decisions. Topics could include a day resource center for the homeless, a new jail or plans for the Alliant Energy Center development.
McDonell says POLCO is a unique way to hear from the people who might not usually reach out to share their opinions. The county will test the best way to use the tool in the next few months. He says he's hoping to integrate it with the legislative tracking system Legistar, so people can see the documents the county board reviews before making decisions.
POLCO has been chosen out of more than 3,300 business plans to compete against 12 finalists at the Wisconsin Entrepreneur's Conference on June 7.
Bunker Labs is also focusing on helping veterans who aren't quite as far along in the process of starting a business, like UW MBA student Brandon Shields. Shields is a Marine Corps veteran studying entrepreneurship but has found it difficult to finish his degree while being a single dad. He wants to help other working parents find reliable childcare by starting a babysitting app to connect parents with their campus community.
"Basically, provide students who are getting their degrees in education opportunities to make extra money providing hourly childcare, sort of like Uber, where you can actually open up an app and get instant access to a babysitter: someone you trust because they're a fellow Badger," says Shields.
He hopes the idea could someday be found at campuses across the country, but for now he's working on making the connections to business partners through Bunker Labs. He's also helping the organization bring more veteran students to UW's business school.
Bunker Labs has applied for a state grant to help fund some of the startups the group plans to take on this summer. Other funding and mentoring comes from corporate donations or partnerships.
Click here to learn more about Bunker Labs.