Packers, Microsoft join in tech venture near Lambeau Field

The Green Bay Packers and Microsoft are launching a tech incubator near Lambeau Field in a $10 million partnership aimed at igniting innovation in an area not typically targeted by major, global companies.

For Microsoft, the project announced Thursday is part of an initiative the company unveiled last week in Fargo, North Dakota, to spur technological advances and create jobs in rural and small metropolitan areas.

"We are bringing to a smaller city the types of efforts that you tend to see today only in the larger cities in the world," Microsoft President Brad Smith said.

For the Packers, the goal is to drive long-term economic growth to help ensure Green Bay keeps its NFL franchise.

"What we're trying to do is make sure that Green Bay is always going to be in an economic position to be able to sustain the Packers," said Ed Policy, the team's vice president and general counsel.

The Packers have sold out every game at Lambeau Field since November 1959, but Green Bay is the smallest city to have an NFL team, with a population of about 105,000 people. Lambeau Field's current capacity is more than 81,400, making it one of the largest NFL stadiums.

The incubator will be housed in a new, state-of-the-art building to be constructed in Green Bay's Titletown District, just west of Lambeau Field. The development already includes a hotel, a brewery, and a sports medicine and orthopedics clinic. It also has a plaza and park with playgrounds and a full-size football field that's open to the public.

Microsoft and the Packers are each investing $5 million over five years in the project, with most of that going to a venture capital fund to invest in startups that work out of the new facility. Startups can get 18 weeks to work in the space, where they will receive mentoring and technical assistance to develop their ideas.

"Using the Packers' brand kind of gives us a little bit of a beacon for all entrepreneurs to kind of look our way," Policy said.

The Packers will pay for the new building, which is expected to cost between $8 million and $10 million, Policy said. The facility will include a lab for established businesses to send employees to work on new ideas.

"There is, in my opinion, perhaps no single organization that better unites the people of Wisconsin than the Green Bay Packers," said Smith, who attended middle school and high school in Appleton, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) southwest of Green Bay.

The initiative Microsoft launched last week in North Dakota, called TechSpark, addresses an issue Smith wrote about in a blog after the 2016 presidential election, when he said the results "registered a strong concern about the plight of those who feel left out and left behind."

TechSpark is a multiyear, multimillion-dollar investment to expand rural broadband, create jobs, and teach computer science to students, among other things. Smith has said other projects will be launched in Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming.

Smith said the Titletown venture is a chance to help fulfill "a huge amount of promise and potential" in Wisconsin's technology sector.

"Wisconsin today has lots of successful businesses and lots of smart people. But it does not yet have a technology sector that is really working at scale," he said.

Wisconsin "has one of the most broadly based technology sectors in the country," according to Wisconsin Technology Council president, Tom Still, who points out the state is among the leaders nationally in health information technology and biotechnology.

"That doesn't meant that we can't improve, especially in the smaller cities," Still said. He said that's one reason why Green Bay is "an outstanding place to have such an incubator."