Blog

Samantha Grace

Senior Product Manager

A Year with Cream City Labs: Looking Back and Ahead

Topics: Cream City Labs.

Part of my job as manager of Cream City Labs is to oversee our company's relationships with the startups that reside within the space. As part of that effort, I meet with each startup founder on a monthly basis to talk about how things are going – not only in terms of the initiatives they're working on, but also how the space is working from a functional perspective.

Much of what I've heard informally was also reflected in a more formal survey we sent out around the one-year anniversary of Cream City Labs. Based on feedback from the startups and our own Northwestern Mutual team members who use the space, there were two key themes that stood out:

Cream City Labs is different than your traditional co-working space.

In a public co-working space, you can find opportunities to engage with other entrepreneurs and innovators within companies of all shapes, sizes and industries. Cream City Labs is different, because everyone here has the backing of Northwestern Mutual – whether they're our own employees or the startups we've chosen to invest in and partner with. We're committed to pursuing open innovation in all kinds of ways, and the startups tell us Cream City Labs reflects that commitment:

Many companies have innovation as part of a corporate strategy, but few bring people together in an open, collaborative space to foster it from co-worker to co-worker. It’s important for companies to find ways to act on innovation strategy, and making a space available is a great way to show that the company is committed to innovation, not just saying it in strategy statements.
Cream City Labs does a great job supporting the unique needs of a startup like Steamchain. The flexible office space and breakout rooms are perfect for supporting the various meetings we host on a weekly basis. Our customers always enjoy visiting our office space and very impressed by the role Northwestern Mutual is playing by supporting business development in Milwaukee.
It has been terrific to watch Northwestern Mutual become more and more involved in the Milwaukee startup ecosystem. From sponsoring startup community events, to Northwestern Mutual Future Ventures, Cream City Labs and the Northwestern Mutual Data Science Institute, the company has been a significant investor. Developing a robust startup community takes decades of effort, and it’s great to have a stable participant in Northwestern Mutual that takes the long view of things.

There's a unique energy created within Cream City Labs.

The lab was designed to be an open and inspiring space that encourages interaction, collaboration and innovation. According to our teams, that certainly has been accomplished:

Cream City Labs is truly a rare location with a melting pot of VC-backed startups, academics in the Northwestern Mutual Data Science Institute, and other Northwestern Mutual home office employees. I usually strike up conversation with anyone in the kitchen and find ways to mutually benefit from the interaction.
Cream City Labs buzzes with energy. It's great to invite people into our space, grab some coffee and pick any one of the many spots there are to meet. Working day to day, it’s great to slide my chair over and do some paired programming or have a quick swarm.
Cream City Labs fosters so much interaction between Pythonic and the Northwestern Mutual innovation team. As a startup, it’s really amazing to be able to work so closely with your target customer.
Cream City Labs provides the opportunity for our growing team to connect with other entrepreneurial minds. Many of those conversations spark ideas for collaboration, or more importantly, allow for the sharing of ideas to improve product or processes, or better manage our entrepreneurial company and its growth. It’s a fabulous opportunity to learn from and be inspired by others, especially as early-stage innovation is often a relatively isolated process.
There are opportunities for collisions to happen across companies and even industries when people are working in an environment like the one at Cream City Labs.
Surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you becomes inevitable in Cream City Labs!

All this engagement and excitement does tend to keep the lab buzzing throughout the day – which can sometimes make it a little challenging to have a private meeting, take a phone call or dial in to a webinar. For some people, myself included, this can also make it hard to concentrate. This is one of the things we plan to address with the next phase of Cream City Labs.

Coming soon: A larger space to innovate.

Since opening in October 2018, we've seen such strong engagement with and interest in the space that we're now expanding Cream City Labs to a second floor, with a dedicated event space that is easily accessible to the external community and additional work space for startup companies and our internal teams.

With just over a year under its belt, I'd say Cream City Labs is living up to its promise – both for our employees and the startups we’ve invested in through Cream City Venture Capital. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and where there is room for improvement, we're taking action. I can't wait to see what this next year brings!

Co-creating with the Community: Our Next Phase of Innovation

In the new Northwestern Mutual Venture Studio, we're leveraging our expertise and working in partnership with entrepreneurs to co-found and scale new ventures in financial services and health & wellness.