From startup city to exit city

When former Madison Magazine editor Brennan Nardi started this column in 2016, he called it Startup City. It’s a nod to a book of the same name, as well as parts of the stories he wrote while tracking local founders trying to build a startup ecosystem in Madison. We have Epic spinoffs and the University Research Park and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation backed biotech companies that were born out of having a world-class research and development university in our backyard. However, we still think that big-thinking, bootstrapped startup founders live only in tech hub cities like Boston and San Francisco. To change that, a few people formed Capital Entrepreneurs in 2009 and started Forward Fest in 2010. Then came StartingBlock Madison, Doyenne Group and gener8tor, all of whom became tenants (along with AmFam’s Institute for Corporate and Social Impact and DreamBank) inside Spark , the glass, eight-story building AmFam built on East Washington Avenue in 2018. This year, gener8tor — an accelerator program founded by Troy Vosseller and Joe Kirgues in 2012 — is celebrating 10 years of incredible growth and change.

“When we started, we worked with founders who weren’t in venture hubs, because Madison wasn’t a venture hub yet. So we were dealing with people who weren’t ‘in the room’ historically, based on the area ,” said Kirgues, who recalled writing ideas on a napkin with Vosseller at Starbucks in Capitol Square before launching gener8tor. Today the Square itself is a venture hub, Kirgues said; in the Hovde building that -alone, he can point to several venture-backed portfolio companies.”Gener8tor is now one of the largest accelerators in the world,” Vosseller added, “and we’re proud to be based in Madison.”

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

“I never thought about entrepreneurship,” says Curate co-founder Taralinda Willis, who quit her full-time job as an event planner at Overture Center after she and her computer scientist husband , Dale, was accepted into the 2016 cohort of gener8tor. Five years after founding the company, Willis got the gener8tor golden T-shirt given to those who came out – but thanks to the pandemic and then a printing snafu, he had to wait until the celebration of the 10th anniversary in August 2022 for his big moment. “When I stood up and got that T-shirt, I was so proud to let everybody know, ‘We conceptualized this business in Madison, we grew this business in Madison and we sold this business in Madison,'” Willis said. . “I think there’s more of this to come. I’m certainly not the first. I know I won’t be the last.

Especially as a woman who never thought of herself as a startup founder and “struggles for her income, fights for her business model,” Willis presents a “unique version of what be a gener8tor,” said Kirgues. Ironically, it is because of his and Vosseller’s non-liberal status as founders outside of offshore technology hubs that they begin to relate to others who have been overlooked in history or denied seats at the table because for other reasons. Investing in “race, place and gender” has become a guiding mission as the gener8tor program has also expanded to include musicians, artists and founders focused on social impact. Today, 40% of gener8tor 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.

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It seems fitting, then, as we close out the year and look back on 10 years of gener8tor, to examine the ways in which Madison’s entrepreneurial ecosystem continues to evolve. The Startup City column is gone, in large part because our idea of ​​who constitutes a startup founder has expanded, and success stories have permeated all of our pages, from food to arts coverage. Not every entrepreneur is a startup promoter (and not every company defines success as an exit business), but everyone contributes to what makes this city attractive to residents and investors. Efforts like gener8tor play just one role in a larger community, helping to take Madison from Startup City to Exit City — but that doesn’t mean we’re there yet.

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“I think as a community we can’t take our eye off the ball. We can’t rest on our laurels and the success that has occurred,” Vosseller said. “We still have a lot to do to keep people away – institutions, corporations and investors – because if we are not as enthusiastic and excited to invest ourselves, it is a fool’s errand to believe that others will be more. We’re excited. … We need love from what we call ‘locals investing in locals.’ “

A Decade of Remarkable 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 Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce’s 2013 Gold Suitcase competition will take place at Forward Fest’s Pressure Chamber

The 2014 Madworks Seed Accelerator program provides grants and support to early-stage companies

The 2014 UW–Madison’s Discovery 2 Product brings campus entrepreneurship to a broader market

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

The 2020 Rock County JumpStart is an entrepreneurial resource for Black and Latino businesses

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

The 2022 Progress Center for Black Women has started an incubator program

SOON The Urban League of Greater Madison’s Black Business Hub and accelerator is in the works

Maggie Ginsberg is a senior editor at Madison Magazine.

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