Sector67 cultivates entrepreneurial dreams

Alisa Toninato established American Skillet Co.
Sector67 cultivates entrepreneurial dreams
Burnin' Love: Metal designer Alisa Toninato leads the seventh annual ‘Pour'n Yer Heart Out' casting event at Sector67, a local hackerspace.

Witnessing an iron pour is a very cool and unique experience. I attended one on a chilly Saturday in February at Sector67, the local hackerspace where art, science and technology mingle together in an old, nondescript industrial building tucked away on the east side. Founded in 2010 by University of Wisconsin-Madison mechanical engineering graduate Chris Meyer, Sector67 is a poster child for what’s possible when people with ideas have the support to tinker with them. I can barely change a lightbulb, but I love wandering around the place, listening to the drone of activity and watching people work on stuff.

“Pour’n Yer Heart Out” is a festive, fire-filled occasion where you can make your own iron valentine. As a crowd gathers at a safe distance, metal designer Alisa Toninato and her team busily break down iron by hand, dump the pieces into an outdoor furnace heated to 2,800 degrees, tap the molten mixture–it comes out looking like heavy, red-hot syrup–and pour it into heart-shaped sand molds for the 150 people who’ve etched their own creative designs into them.

This year’s seventh annual pour featured two dozen or so artisans clad in fireproof coats, leather chaps and helmets working in a well-choreographed, machine-like assembly. I love how the physicality and artistry on display blend seamlessly together. I love the camaraderie of the metal artists, who flow in from Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and all over the Midwest to hone their craft. I love how an extremely dangerous activity is performed and perfected safely in a festival-like atmosphere. Most of all, I love the smiling faces on the people gathered around the table full of tiny, 1-pound hearts, admiring the finished products and searching for their own special keepsakes.

Toninato is best known for her Wisconsin-shaped, cast-iron skillets, which she created as a tribute to her home state–an audacious and awesome symbol of the deep sense of pride and strong work ethic of its citizens. In 2012, Toninato established the American Skillet Company.

My favorite part about this story is that Toninato has deep roots in Sector67. While the original state skillet patterns were made by hand, Meyer helped cut the patterns of the 48 contiguous states with Sector67 technology for a limited-edition, sculptural art piece that earned Toninato a Martha Stewart “American Made” award.

I like to think of the iron pour as her bighearted gift back to Sector67, and to a community that has afforded her the time, space and resources to follow her artistic and entrepreneurial dreams.

“We are lifers at S67,” Toninato tells me. “Couldn’t have grown without them.”

You never know where the next firebrand will emerge. Whether you cook up an idea in your dorm room, kitchen, lab or living room, that’s just the beginning of your long, strange trip. Finding things like time, space and resources to turn your idea into a business can be arduous and fleeting, and luck and good timing are usually right up there with hard work and who you know in terms of whether you’ll be successful. It also takes courage to put yourself out there and risk failure. It’s not for the faint of heart. Sometimes it takes an iron heart.

Entrepreneurial Talk: Robbie Bach and StartingBlock

“Be intensely focused on the people you are trying to serve.” Former chief Xbox officer Robbie Bach dropped this and myriad other knowledge bombs on an audience of 250 people in January.

Bach was the first speaker in StartingBlock‘s new conference series, Second Gear, drawing lessons from his time with Microsoft and applying them to what he calls “civic engineering.”

StartingBlock, a future hub for startups, is operating virtually–the event was held at Central Library–while it finishes fundraising to break ground on its anticipated home on East Washington Avenue. In addition to building development and hosting events, the group’s executive director, Scott Resnick, says raising Madison’s visibility as a startup city–“connecting Madison from the inside to the outside”–and baking diversity and inclusion into StartingBlock’s DNA are among his top priorities.

“This is our time,” says Resnick. “We have an opportunity to change our pathway forward.”