Innovation leadership is a whole new ball game

By Joe Sheehan
In My View
Sheboygan County Economic Development Corp.

The FreshTech Innovation District is the opposite of the Field of Dreams.

In that classic 1989 Kevin Costner movie, the refrain is “Build it and they will come.”

What we have learned as we’ve worked toward the establishment of an innovation district in Sheboygan County is that we need to do the opposite – create the programs first, and follow up with brick-and-mortar facilities.

The difference is this: In the movie, the people who walked out of the cornfield already knew how to use the baseball field because they were baseball players. Our case, FreshTech is a new concept that Sheboygan County has never encountered before.

The FreshTech Task Force – a committee made up of representatives from government, industry and education around the county – has been working for months to craft a plan that will take the Innovation District from high concept to reality.

This included a feasibility study, which was conducted over the summer by a company called Econogy, to lay out the priorities for planning, creating and implementing the programs that will become FreshTech.

The larger task force gave way to a small advisory group – representatives from Johnsonville, Kohler Co., Sargento and Bemis – that is putting the first steps in motion.

Kristen Young, workforce development coordinator at Johnsonville, said the group has made it a priority to consider workforce development issues as they plan.

“This is important to Johnsonville because we know that talent is scarce and skills are rapidly changing,” she said. “We can’t just be looking inward to foster innovation; we must support this within our community.” 

The programs already in existence throughout the county are great examples of how different entities can work together – for instance, partnerships between high schools and manufacturing companies. But we want to take a broader view of how groups who have never considered working together before might join forces. 

“I’m confident we will be successful because this community has well established partnerships,” Young said. “I think that is our biggest strength. We all recognize, though, that we need somebody to help build on some of the programs we have today and make them stronger.”

That’s where Nick O’Brien comes in. Hired recently to be the director of innovation and engagement for FreshTech, he’s a community development professional with a background in talent engagement, tactical economic development and innovative programming design.

For the next few months, O’Brien will immerse himself in Sheboygan County, get to know the people and programs already here and create a path forward to make FreshTech a reality.

O’Brien is working closely with the advisory committee on three priorities right now:

Helping Lakeland University, Lakeshore Technical College and UW-Green Bay in Sheboygan get a program of student-run businesses up and running.

Creating avenues where students and business leaders can meet and talk that don’t rely on the formal structure of a job fair or official networking event. These events will have a distinctly social feeling and are intended to make it easier for people to find common interest and shared purpose.

Planning events that will establish Sheboygan County as a thought leader in the region. This will likely begin with speaking events that bring experts from around the country to Sheboygan County.

Though he hasn’t been here long, O’Brien said he’s already impressed with what Sheboygan County has to offer and excited to bring all the pieces together to build enthusiasm for the Innovation District.

“There are innovators in every corner of this county, we just haven’t uncovered them yet and they haven’t been invited to the table,” he said. “I’m already getting a strong sense of Sheboygan County’s desire to have a recognized culture around innovation, and it’s very important for that energy to be cultivated at the community level in tandem with the support we’re seeing at the corporation level.”

O’Brien is hearing plenty of ideas and the advisory council as well as the larger task force are passionate advocates of what FreshTech promises to bring to Sheboygan County. We’ll be detailing some of the ideas and people making things happen in this space in the upcoming weeks.

In the meantime, if you have questions about FreshTech or anything the SCEDC is involved in, please reach out to me.

You can contact me at or 920-452-2479 and I will answer your questions in this space.

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