Best of Madison Business 2014: Inside the Ecosystem

Best of Madison Business 2014: Inside the Ecosystem

Visionary, Capitol East District

Rick Phelps is in many ways the white-coated scientist keeping his eye on all the moving parts of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. The former Dane County Executive–and other “formers” too numerous to mention but all adding up to the perfect resume for his current role–has worked hard to ensure the perfect physical environment exists for Madison’s growth.

For more than ten years now, Phelps has skillfully led a conversation by a group of Madison business and civic leaders around the development of the East Washington Avenue corridor, the area now known as the Capitol East District and the fast-growing hub of the local tech sector. Phelps’s leadership skills, experience and broad range of interests have played out in delicate and nuanced ways to keep local officials, neighborhood leaders, real estate developers, planners and others on the same page.

Ten years from now, the stretch from Blair Street to the Yahara River, from Johnson Street to Willy Street, will be our version of Silicon Valley in miniature. And no one will have played a bigger role in making that happen than Phelps.

Founders, Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic, UW-Madison Law School

ˆIt’s almost too easy to measure the impact of the UW-Madison Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic. Last year alone law students handled two hundred-plus clients–nearly five hundred in the program’s four years of existence–and a recent client survey revealed that ninety-six percent of respondents were still in business.

“They’re adding jobs,” says Anne Smith. “Some of them have revenue.”

Another benchmark is the influence Smith and her co-director Eric Englund have had on strengthening the legal workforce of the future. “What we found is that this kind of experience enhances their sensitivity to the extraordinary types of needs of early-stage entrepreneurs,” says Englund, who is quick to credit the Law School’s legacy of service, such as “a generation ago when thoughtful people recognized an unfilled legal need as far as poor people in the justice system. What we found is that in a world of increased interest in entrepreneurship, there’s that same underserved community.”

So far, 108 students have had the challenging experience of providing real-time legal services for real-life clients, which bodes well for their careers–and for Wisconsin. “The more we can work with clients that are in it to win it, the more we will have impact on jobs in a state where the economy is changing,” says Smith.

Executive Vice President, American Family Insurance

Despite Am Fam’s coast-to-coast footprint, Peter Gunder and his team are betting money on new businesses in the headquarters’ own back yard. “I’m very bullish on Madison,” he says. “We have a world-class university, reasonable cost of living, and we’re seeing significant growth in tech companies. And I don’t see that slowing down.”

While the company’s been in the VC business since the ’80s, only recently has it funded startups, scoring big with the likes of local social marketing star Shoutlet. Logically, its investment themes center on the future of the insurance industry. Under the leadership of CEO Jack Salzwedel, the pivot toward innovation has become a company calling card. A recent bet on Madison startup Abodo marries the apartment search website with Am Fam agents ready to offer renters’ insurance quickly and conveniently.

“We’re doing this because all healthy organizations evolve and one way to evolve is to connect with leading-edge thinkers and new ideas,” says Gunder. “We have the opportunity to learn from these growing businesses and provide resources as well, so it’s mutually beneficial. Not all experiments have to occur within the walls of American Family.”

President, Venture Management LLC

Long before geek was cool, Terry Kelly harnessed the power of technology and then unleashed it onto the science of weather. In the ’70s and ’80s, his startup Weather Central launched some of the first computer graphics, animation and automation systems on television. Savvy venture capital investments and successful exits (think Gander Mountain, Tomo-Therapy, Promega, and he sold his weather empire to the Weather Channel, now the Weather Company) throughout his career now bring him full circle, championing the ideas of next-gen entrepreneurs as president of Venture Management, which he runs with his son, Matt.

He expresses a deep sense of awe for both the quality and quantity of creativity and innovation happening here, and is thrilled to be funding, advising and mentoring the Terry Kellys of tomorrow.

“They’re not fazed by a wall or barrier,” he says. “They’re not restricted by the ordinary line of thinking.” He also heaps praise on the state’s Act 255 tax credit for investors legislation as well as “the supportive network of co-investors and business development expertise within the state.”

No Silicon Valley envy detected here, as Kelly, whose diverse investment portfolio ranges from biotech to agriculture to energy, sees new opportunities all the time with more reasonable valuations of a company’s worth. “Big venture capitalists don’t operate here,” he admits. “But I think that’s counterbalanced with the discourse–less froth, more interest in real-life solutions. I can’t remember the last time I saw a good idea that wasn’t able to get funding.”

Vice President of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation

After two decades as a Madison biotech exec, Lisa Johnson’s current work on public-private collaboration, including seeding and accelerating any promising venture–not just in manufacturing and not just in Madison or Milwaukee–has communities across the state taking notice. “If you’re going to talk to the entrepreneur, you better know what they’re going through,” she says. “And I’ve done it. I’ve suffered it all.”

It seems just the kind of been-there-done-that empathy and catalystic approach to business development that the state needs to grow jobs. While Johnson says we need more startups and capital, she points to working WEDC programs, such as a partnership with the Whitewater Community Development Authority called Capital Catalyst that provides gap financing for early-stage companies. And she’s part of an exciting new taskforce organized by the Doyenne Group, which has smartly identified Madison’s potential as a hotbed for women entrepreneurs and is galvanizing the local tech power players to pave the way.

Founder and President, SupraNet

If it is even possible for a single individual to have accomplished as much for his business as he has for the entrepreneurial ecosystem, then Bryan Chan is that impressive person. In 1994, he bootstrapped an Internet service provider company that today powers a dynamic roster of emerging and established companies in south central Wisconsin. And with the recent acquisition of Mad City Broadband, Chan enters his third decade in business on a high note as a powerful component of not only the region’s technology infrastructure but of its economic future.

If the Metropolitan Unified Fiber Network doesn’t mean anything to you, it should. Funded by federal stimulus money, MUFN is a collaborative fiber-optic network that will be powered by Mad City Broadband to augment and extend IT services to public and private entities in health care, education, government and nonprofits. And it will enable seamless and instant access between and among schools, libraries and public health and safety facilities, reaching new and underserved communities and advancing technology’s impact on every corner of our community.

That Chan is at the forefront of this effort is no surprise. His passion and commitment to his business and his employees, to the tech sector and to the larger Madison community, is extraordinary. Anywhere good things are happening at the intersection of technology and community, such as the new, free Wi-Fi at the Dane County Airport, Chan is happily providing the connections.

Read about past Best of Madison Business winners .