Madison’s new entrepreneurial epicenter increases the city’s profile as a startup hub

StartingBlock is making strides in the city
Madison’s new entrepreneurial epicenter increases the city’s profile as a startup hub
Amandalynn Jones

Twenty years ago, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Monona Terrace Convention Center became permanently etched into our skyline — its existence now as iconic to Madison as Bucky and the state Capitol. A few years later, architect Cesar Pelli’s Overture Center for the Arts transformed the top of State Street and elevated the arts scene. Then came the mecca for world-class scientific research, Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.

Now comes StartingBlock, the entrepreneurial epicenter for the greater Madison region, which opened in June. Situated in the bustling, beating heart of the redevelopment district known as Capitol East, StartingBlock is, in a word, spectacular – inside and out. (Plus, it took only five years to make it a reality!)

Inhabiting three floors of the eight-story building called “The Spark” – owned and occupied by American Family Insurance – StartingBlock is already a magnet for entrepreneurs and the business services sector that helps fuel it. It helped that during the three-and-a-half-year fundraising and building campaign, StartingBlock leadership built the brand and a permanent home that feel as if they’ve always been there.

“We were trying to create a space that was Madison, that when people came to the building, they felt like they could see themselves there,” said Chandra Miller Fienen, director of operations and programming. “We want to make a place where all entrepreneurs feel like they’ve been thought of intentionally, not just the young, male and white. And for the public to understand more about what startups do and why they are so important to Madison’s future, particularly scalable growth companies in the tech space.”

With office and co-working spaces filling up fast, rock star anchor tenants that support and invest in the startup ecosystem (Doyenne Group, gener8tor, Bunker Labs and more), a gorgeous cafe, a roof-deck patio and a vibe that is irrepressibly hip, StartingBlock has cemented Madison’s status as a startup city.

In fact, Miller Fienen says Madison will play host in 2019 to the Startup Champions Network, an association of entrepreneurial ecosystem builders across the country.

Miller Fienen cites research indicating 12,000 new jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) have been created in Madison in the past five years and will help foster 60,000 non-tech jobs over time. Madison is already playing in the same sandbox as tech hubs like Denver and Austin, she says.

“I actually think Madison has an opportunity to do growth better by staying true to what we care about as a city – affordability, livability, transportation, education,” Miller Fienen says.

Per capita, she may be right. A new report from the Center for American Entrepreneurship ranks Madison 14th worldwide for venture capital deals and 40th for venture capital dollars.

“I really do hope we’re building what the Madison startup community needs, wants and deserves,” said Miller Fienen.

It’s certainly off to a good start.

Fun Facts
StartingBlock’s first tenant has come a long way since launching three years ago in a garage in Sun Prairie. Rebate Bus, now 21 employees strong (11 of whom are in Madison), delivers instant utility rebates on e-commerce websites and at retailer locations.

Access to capital is often cited as an impediment to startup activity in Madison and Wisconsin. StartingBlock aims to be a game changer.

Two venture capital funds are among the anchor tenants in the building, where physical proximity to financing can only be a good thing. In November, Rock River Capital closed its first round of capital commitments worth $23 million and has begun to invest in Wisconsin startups. Winnow Fund focuses on early stage student entrepreneurs.

Nationally, only 2 percent of venture capital goes to women-founded or women-led companies. StartingBlock companies are bucking the trend at 53 percent of venture capital, or $24 million, going to women-founded or -led businesses.

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