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UW Oshkosh promotes local aviation

Posted by on February 29, 2012 at 10:08 AM | 1 Comments

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The aviation and aerospace industry in Wisconsin is quickly taking off as one of the state's strongest industries and is happening in UW Oshkosh's own backyard.

"There have been a couple of studies that have been done recently that show that aircraft manufacturing and aircraft maintenance and the support services around that, are an emerging cluster," co-founder/director of AeroInnovate Meridith Jaeger said. "They are important to (Wisconsin's) economy and the growth of our economy, and those are areas we should target our resources."

As a trademark and service of UW Oshkosh, AeroInnovate is a UW Oshkosh initiative that was developed in 2008 with the idea of pushing the aviation industry to new heights, according to Jaeger.

"We help connect entrepreneurs in aviation," co-founder/director of AeroInnovate Kurt Waldhuetter said. "We educate them, we try to alight and connect them with investors and industry leaders to help commercialize their technologies. We give them venues to showcase and tell others what they are doing."

Wisconsin aviation and aerospace exports, which Jaeger said totaled $246 million in 2010, are growing partly due to the shift of airplanes' use from professional to personal.

"A lot of what aviation is turning into is somewhat like an action sport now," Waldhuetter said. "People are buying aircraft to have a lot of fun in, not as a vehicle they need to fly around for business. What we think we help do is bring new technologies into the aviation marketplace that otherwise might not be in the aviation marketplace."

To make connections, AeroInnovate has used the inflow of investors and businesses from Oshkosh's annual Experimental Aircraft Association air show, which Waldhuetter said brought in more than 550,000 attendees last summer.

"EAA is certainly one of the primary sales and marketing channels for any startup aviation-related company," he said. "It's where they come and do the sales of their aircraft or they sell new products or components."

Brian Morgan, co-founder and CEO of Morgan Aircraft LLC, located in Oostburg, Wis., said he understands how business-investor connections can help the growth of a startup.

"What they've done is just a fantastic job of facilitating networking events and a presence at the EAA has been huge," Morgan said. "They've done that and how they help us out, specifically more in aircraft, is simply inviting us to be involved in all of those."

During AeroInnovate's 2011 EAA Pitch and Mingle event, Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. CEO Paul Jadin announced the state's multi-million dollar investment in Morgan Aircraft.

"That's huge for us, there is no mistaking that," Morgan said. "It is a very aggressive and excellent support package for us, and it has definitely helped investors take us more seriously."

The package, which Morgan said could be worth up to $30 million in 10 years, includes up to $15 million for employee training, payroll tax breaks and a 50-cent-to-the-dollar match of all private investments.

"The cash amount is pretty significant," Morgan said. "It's matching dollars up to $6 million. So if we bring in $12 million of private equity, they would match that for us with six. We've already engaged that and seen some of that."

Morgan Aircraft, which is engineering a VTOL jet aircraft with vertical takeoff and landing technologies, is an example of many companies that could turn design into product and lift Wisconsin's economy, according to Jaeger.

"[Entrepreneurs] will continue to grow their company, and once they have an opportunity to create a manufacturing facility and to start selling whatever they're selling, they are going to need workers, and that's going to create jobs," she said. "There are a lot of companies in the industry – those startups – that have potential for high growth and high numbers of jobs."

Jaeger said airplane manufacturer Kestrel Aircraft Corp. recently announced a move to Superior, Wis. that could create 600 jobs in the next five years. It is moves such as this that Waldhuetter says AeroInnovate wants to see more of.

"We are hoping that we can be a catalyst to create a strong aviation ecosystem in Northeast Wisconsin with startups, and being able to procure more services from large corporations as well, through our manufacturing supply chain," he said. "We would love Northeast Wisconsin to be a leader and be able to start and grow aerospace companies."

Although the Wisconsin climate might not be ideal for flying weather year-round, Waldhuetter said Wisconsin's aviation industry is strong enough to support the growth.

"What we do not have is 305 days of sunny weather to fly in," he said. "Other states do have that, but we have to leverage the strength that we have and assets that we have."

The lack of sunny weather has not clouded out talks of a Sheboygan, Wis. space port in the distant future. In the near future, Morgan said he is certain that Wisconsin's aviation and aerospace industry will continue to grow from where it all started. 

"[Work ethic] is a pretty big feature for the Midwest in general, but especially here," he said. "There's something to be said of the heritage of good old fashion hard work on the farms growing, and how that's affected the generations after that."