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Madison Region Creates a Pay-It-Forward Entrepreneurial Culture

The Madison Region fosters innovation and welcomes entrepreneurs looking to grow their businesses.

By Teree Caruthers on September 9, 2021

Fueled by an impressive roster of technology-driven companies, the presence of a world-class research institution in the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a highly educated workforce and a network of support services that includes cutting-edge incubators, the Madison Region is a hot spot for innovation and a welcoming location for entrepreneurs looking to grow their business.

The Brookings Institution has taken notice of the Region’s growth in its share of innovation jobs, which increased by more than 12,000 between 2005 and 2017. In a December 2019 study, Brookings cited Madison as one of the few metro areas in the U.S. to have added innovation jobs during that period.

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Thrive and Advance

Jason Fields, president and CEO of the Madison Region Economic Partnership (MadREP), the economic development organization serving the eight-county Region, says Madison’s reputation for fostering innovation is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Madison is a place where people come, and they thrive. It’s a Region that attracts innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit. There’s a synergy here with so many people and organizations committed to innovation and committed to consistently trying to be better. We all feed off of one another, and we’re always trying to push the envelope,” Fields says.

Fields points to powerhouses, such as Exact Sciences, BioForward and Epic Systems as examples of the Region’s ability to capitalize on that innovative spirit.

“You have innovative entrepreneurial spirits that can help your business grow. You have people who’ve been through the ringer as far as experience who can help you navigate the landscape of starting a business or growing your business,” he says.

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Capital Gains

A major reason for Madison’s entrepreneurial growth is the availability of funding from a growing roster of venture capital firms, such as BrightStar Wisconsin and 4490 Ventures, as well as corporate investors.

In addition, startups have access to a wealth of resources, from tech generators and incubators to coworking spaces and accelerator programs, such as gener8tor’s gBETA Program, a free seven-week accelerator for early-stage companies.

The program, which pairs entrepreneurs with established business mentors for one-on-one coaching and offers weekly lunch-and-learn workshops and networking opportunities, began as a way to prepare companies to compete for a spot in gener8tor’s flagship accelerator program.

“When gener8tor started out, we were a traditional accelerator where we would give you investment in exchange for ownership in your company, take you through our program and introduce you to investors. As we started growing and getting really popular, we started getting a ton more applications, but not all startups were as far along (for the program),” says Mason Cook, gBETA director.

“We now have several gBETA alumni that have gone on to either our generator flagship equity accelerator or to another funding program, such as Techstars or Y Combinator.”

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A Level Playing Field

Cook says besides funding resources, Madison’s entrepreneurs can take advantage of a host of business services, from accountants to attorneys.

“When you are starting out with zero revenue, you probably can’t afford a fancy attorney, but in Madison, we have the UW law and entrepreneurship clinic where you can get free legal help. Everyone here wants to help each other, and it’s a very payit- forward attitude. Once you get plugged into the community here, you have several free or affordable resources at your fingertips,” he says.

Access to resources is particularly critical for the growing number of minority- and women-owned companies. Collaborations between organizations, such as MadREP, The Lonely Entrepreneur and the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, provide free support and education to Black businesses and entrepreneurs.

One of the best things about Madison is there’s just opportunity everywhere. You get big-city career opportunities in a small-city setting, with less traffic and more nature.”

Jessica Martin Eckerly

CEO, Forward BIOLABS

MadREP’s Fields worked with the Bucks to bring The Lonely Entrepreneur Black Entrepreneur Initiative to Madison.

“Systemic inequalities have created a staggering wealth gap for Black Americans. While many businesses continue to struggle because of COVID-19, a stunning 41% of Black-owned businesses were driven out of business,” Fields says. “One of the areas that’s very difficult for indigenous and people of color is access to capital. Another area is business education. The Lonely Entrepreneur Black Entrepreneur Initiative offers mentoring and coaching. Entrepreneurs learn about working with vendors and how to develop a business plan, and there are introductions to a network of funding sources.”

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StartingBlock in Madison is Wisconsin’s largest community of startups, investors, accelerators and support organizations.

Mutual Aids

Forward BIOLABS provides coworking lab space for biotech startups, which helps bring down initial seed costs, making it easier for new companies to get started in the industry. BIOLABS provides fully equipped, maintained, supported labs in addition to a collegial, collaborative environment.

“We provide a ton of services — all the lab maintenance, all of the safety infrastructure, all of the chemical and biological waste removal, and personal protective equipment,” says Jessica Martin Eckerly, co-founder and CEO of Forward BIOLABS.

Another attractive feature to entrepreneurs is the Region’s enviable quality of life, which includes a thriving arts and culture community as well as sports and recreational options.

“One of the best things about Madison is there’s just opportunity everywhere,” Martin Eckerly says. “You get big-city career opportunities in a small-city setting, with less traffic and more nature. There’s a wide variety of outdoor activities and sports available here.”

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