Dec 8, 2014

StartingBlock, Madison’s Answer to Chicago’s 1871, Hits Crucial Stage

Excerpted from Xconomy Wisconsin
by Jeff Engel

A vacant 1.75-acre piece of land in downtown Madison, WI—once the site of a car dealership—could become one of the most important hubs for tech entrepreneurship in the state’s capital, if the backers of a proposed project called StartingBlock Madison make their vision a reality.

StartingBlock would put startup accelerator Gener8tor and maker space Sector67 under one roof, and be the go-to event host for networking group Capital Entrepreneurs. The exact details are still being worked out—including who will foot the bill for the roughly $30 million-plus project, and whether startups will flock to it—but the early plan is to construct a 10 to 12-story mixed-use building totaling between 113,000 and 140,000 square feet. StartingBlock would be the anchor tenant, taking up about 50,000 square feet.(The above picture shows an early rendering that is subject to change.) The building would include a co-working space, office suites with flexible lease terms that are conducive to startups, conference rooms, a 1,500-seat performing arts venue, and commercial and retail space.

The idea is to coalesce some of Madison’s key tech organizations and create an environment where small, young companies can set up shop next to all the resources they need to grow. Investors, business services providers, and universities are expected to have a presence. Organizers intend to hold educational workshops and community events.

The project’s supporters hope the space will spark plenty of collaboration among the various tenants. Say, for example, a startup going through Gener8tor’s three-month accelerator program is working on a Web-enabled device, but needs an engineer to build a prototype. The founder might be able to walk down the hallway to Sector67 and find someone who could build the device on site.

“Our hope is there’d be a lot more serendipitous outcomes by bringing all these groups together,” says Gener8tor co-founder Troy Vosseller, a member of StartingBlock’s planning committee.

Advocates clearly have high hopes for StartingBlock. Michael Gay, Madison Region Economic Partnership’s senior vice president of economic development, put it this way: “This is not just a physical location. This is not a real estate play. This is a game-changing centerpiece of innovation and ideas and economic growth.”

Gay sees StartingBlock as a way to amplify the Madison area’s existing strength in information technology and advanced manufacturing through a physical hub that would help align the local sectors, similar to what The Water Council built and the Mid-West Energy Research Consortium is building in Milwaukee. At the same time, efforts are underway to strengthen another one of Madison’s industry clusters, life sciences, through a possible expansion of the successful University Research Park.

StartingBlock organizers specifically cite Chicago’s 1871 as an inspiration for their project, although they think that having a maker space will set StartingBlock apart. It’s a feature not found in many co-working offices for digital startups, they say.

Supporters have been planning StartingBlock for more than two years, and the project has hit a crucial juncture, Gay says.

“This next month or two is going to be extremely instrumental in rallying the coalition of interested parties around the table to invest in this project and to move it forward to the next phase,” Gay says.

Madison’s aspirations to become a leading tech startup hub don’t hinge on StartingBlock coming to fruition, but the initiative could form a “critical piece of the ecosystem puzzle,” says Greg Robinson, a former Silicon Valley venture capitalist who moved to Madison this year to manage 4490 Ventures, a $30 million IT-focused fund.

If successful, StartingBlock would help support a “critical mass” of startups that could keep talented young people from fleeing to the coasts. The initiative could also have residual effects on the surrounding neighborhood, like the development of more offices, restaurants, and coffee shops, Robinson says.

Read the full article.