From startup city to exit city

When former Madison Magazine editor Brennan Nardi started this column in 2016, she called it Startup City. It was a nod to a book with a similar name, as well as the feature articles she had written while following local founders trying to create a startup ecosystem in Madison. We’ve had Epic spinoffs and University Research Park and Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation-backed biotech companies sprouting from a world-class research and development university in our backyard. Yet we always thought that the founders of cutting-edge tech startups only lived in tech hubs like Boston and San Francisco. To change that, a handful of people formed Capital Entrepreneurs in 2009 and launched Forward Fest in 2010. Then came StartingBlock Madison, Doyenne Group and gener8tor, all of which became tenants (along with AmFam’s Institute for Corporate and Social Impact and DreamBank) inside Spark. , the eight-story glass building AmFam built on East Washington Avenue in 2018. This year, gener8tor — an accelerator program founded by Troy Vosseller and Joe Kirgues in 2012 — celebrated 10 years of amazing growth and change.

“When we started, we were working with founders who weren’t in venture capital centers, because Madison wasn’t yet a venture capital center. So we were dealing with people who weren’t “in the room” historically, depending on location,” says Kirgues, who recalls scribbling ideas on a napkin with Vosseller at the Starbucks on Place du Capitole before launching gener8tor. itself is a hub for venture capital, says Kirgues; in the Hovde building alone, he can cite several venture capital-backed generator portfolio companies. “gener8tor is now one of the largest accelerators in the world,” adds Vosseller, “and we’re very proud to be based in Madison.”

In 10 short years, gener8tor has grown from two flagship cohorts totaling 13 startups in Madison and Milwaukee to a 140-employee venture capital firm with 104 startup acceleration programs in 41 communities. So far, 938 startups have graduated and 34 companies have been acquired, raising more than $1.2 billion in funding across 22 states. Successful releases in Madison include Cultured Decadence and, most recently, Curate, a data intelligence company acquired by FiscalNote in 2021.

“I never even thought about entrepreneurship,” says Taralinda Willis, co-founder of Curate, who quit her full-time job as an Overture Center event planner after she and her computer scientist husband, Dale, have been accepted into gener8tor’s 2016 cohort. Five years after the company was founded, Willis won the gold gener8tor T-shirt given to those who come out – but thanks to the pandemic and then a print snafu, she had to wait until the 10th anniversary celebration in August 2022 for his big moment. “When I woke up and received this T-shirt, I was incredibly proud to announce to everyone, ‘We conceptualized this business in Madison, we grew this business in Madison, and we sold this business in Madison,” Willis says. “I think there’s more of this to come. I’m definitely not the first. I know I won’t be the last.

Particularly as a woman who never imagined herself as a startup founder and “fought for her income, fought for her business model”, Willis exemplifies a “wonderful version of what gener8tor can be” , said Kirgues. Ironically, it was because of his and Vosseller’s underdog status as founders who weren’t in coastal tech hubs that they began to relate to others who had historically been overlooked or refused at the table for other reasons. Investing across “race, place, and gender” has become a guiding mission as gener8tor’s programming has also expanded to include social impact-focused musicians, artists, and founders. Today, 40% of generative companies have at least one female founder and 43% have at least one founder of color. As a company, more than half of gener8tor’s 140 full-time employees are women and 32% are people of color.

So it seems fitting, as we close out the year and look back on 10 years of gener8tor, to take stock of how Madison’s entrepreneurial ecosystem continues to evolve. The Startup City column is gone, largely because our idea of ​​who constitutes a startup founder has broadened, and success stories permeate all of our pages, from food to cover art. Not all entrepreneurs are startup founders (and not all companies define success as going out), but all contribute to what makes this city attractive to residents and investors. Efforts like gener8tor only play a part in the larger community, helping move Madison from Startup City to Exit City – but that doesn’t mean we’re here.

“I think as a community we can’t take our eyes off the ball. We cannot rest on our laurels and the success that has occurred,” says Vosseller. “We still have a long way to go to keep people away – institutions, companies and investors – because if we’re not as excited and excited about investing in ours, it’s a wild ride to believe. that others will be more excited than us. … We need passion around what we call ‘locals investing in locals’.”

A decade of notable beginnings

2013 UpStart is WARF’s free entrepreneurship program for women and people of color

2013 100State is a nonprofit coworking space for innovators and entrepreneurs

The 2013 Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce Gold Suitcase Contest is held at the Forward Fest Pressure Chamber

Madworks Seed Accelerator Program 2014 Offers Grants and Support for Startups

2014 UW–Madison’s Discovery 2 Product brings academic entrepreneurship to the broader market

2017 Collaboration for Good’s Social Good Madison is an accelerator program

2020 Rock County JumpStart is an Entrepreneurial Resource for Black and Latino Businesses

2020 Kiva Madison is a microlender for minority and women-owned small businesses

2022 The Progress Center for Black Women launches an incubator program

COMING SOON The Black Business Hub and Greater Madison Urban League Accelerator are in the works

Maggie Ginsberg is an editor at Madison Magazine.

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