Local entrepreneurial ecosystem made strides this year

Tribe 9 Foods captures thriving startup community
Local entrepreneurial ecosystem made strides this year

My impression of a healthy and thriving startup community in 2017 is best captured by an exciting new venture in the local artisan food industry known as Tribe 9 Foods. The company is the result of the merger of Madison-based RP’s Pasta and Yumbutter along with Ona Treats (an energy bar and cookie company that relocated to Madison from Loveland, Colorado). Tribe 9 occupies enormous office space and a production facility on the east side, just off Stoughton Road. What’s more, Tribe 9 debuted a health food incubator as part of its label. Called Real Food Innovations, the consulting service offers new product launches and expansions, manufacturing, certification (think gluten-free, kosher, fair trade) and supply chain management from packaging to ingredients.

This merger was made possible because of the ambition and hard work of the original company founders, management teams and employees. Their efforts attracted a significant infusion of capital from the investment group Natural Food Partners. The result typifies what we’re experiencing in the Madison area right now: a maturing entrepreneurial economy and community. It’s impressive and the result of heavy lifting by a wide range of individuals and organizations–public, private and nonprofit. Tribe 9’s debut is a feather in the cap of our incredible local food system, and a great segue into a few other impressions of a year gone well.

StartingBlock’s Finish Line: Construction of the long-awaited StartingBlock Madison project began in January on the 800 block of East Washington Avenue. Smart, savvy entrepreneurs Laura Strong, Israel Lopez and Mark Richardson joined the nonprofit’s board of directors, while former executive director Scott Resnick was named “Entrepreneur-in-Residence.” Former attorney and biotech executive Chandra Miller Fienen now leads the organization, which welcomed another team member to the roster: Startup Team Strategist Lucas Frisbie.

Doyenne Group’s Got Game: If you read this column regularly, you know I am a big fan of Doyenne Group’s mission to “build entrepreneurial ecosystems that invest in the power and potential of women entrepreneurs.” Their successful bid to secure $1.2 million from public, private and nonprofit donors, establishing a fund to support female entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color, is a huge financial boost for the nonprofit, not to mention a well-earned addition to its resume of excellence and impact.

Echo Chamber: Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce president Zach Brandon cites both StartingBlock’s groundbreaking and Doyenne’s new fund as “important steps forward” for our entrepreneurial ecosystem. Brandon also notes thumbs-up received from respected national pundits, the Atlantic Council and TechNet for greater Madison’s momentum as an emerging tech startup hub.

Tech Council’s Take: Tom Still, president of Wisconsin Technology Council, ticked off a long list of 2016 highlights, including the good news that investments in early stage companies, among them companies led or owned by women, continue to rise. Like Brandon, Still cited national data showing more growth in the tech sector in Madison and beyond, and expressed enthusiasm for Foxconn’s proposed advanced manufacturing facility in southeastern Wisconsin.

“It is an opportunity … to rebrand the state as a tech hub in addition to its traditional brands,” Still said. “The cost of the deal–estimated at $3 billion over 15 years–should be measured against the possible revenues, direct and indirect, as well as the chance to retain and attract talent.” On the subject of talent–and the fact that competition for it is “intense”–Still says companies and economic development entities should take note of and tout Wisconsin’s 2016 ranking as the nation’s leader in quality health care.

Generation Gener8tor: One of the most successful high-growth startup accelerators in the country, gener8tor expanded its footprint to Minnesota and wooed EatStreet co-founder Eric Martell to run it. Closer to home, gener8tor teamed with Microsoft to bring its TEALS program, an effort to help school districts offer Advanced Placement computer science curriculum, to Wisconsin high schools.

Madison Scores with SCORE: The local mentoring program SCORE enjoyed another impressive year of offering free small business advice and counseling. SCORE serves Dane and eight surrounding counties, pairing volunteer experts with business owners looking for everything from business plan basics to growth strategies. This year, SCORE partnered with United Way and Family Service Madison to produce an 11-week educational series on nonprofit management and worked with FEED Kitchens vendors planning to operate in the new Madison Public Market.

Brennan Nardi is communications director at Madison Community Foundation and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Reach her at brennannardi@gmail.com.