Madison already hosts one weeklong festival celebrating the city’s entrepreneurial community. Now it’s getting a second.
Madison Startup Week kicks off on Tuesday, in parallel with other local startup events across the state, as part of an inaugural Wisconsin Startup Week. The four days of seminars, talks and networking events take place three months after Forward Festival, the city’s seven-year-old tech and entrepreneurship conference in the Madison area.
It’s not uncommon for cities to hold celebrations to give their startup economies a boost, said Kauffman Foundation researcher Evan Absher. Other emerging tech hubs from Boulder, Colorado, to Omaha, Nebraska, have similar celebrations.
Absher said research conducted at the Kauffman Foundation suggests that such festivities could indeed give startup economies a boost. The key is for the events to create “connections” — opportunities for entrepreneurs to meet potential mentors, partners, financiers and others. It’s also important for participants to go beyond the usual suspects, he said, and be diverse.
“Connections between people are important,” said Absher. “However, if these events are the same people all the time, if they’re not focusing on new people and new communities … they’re missing an opportunity.”
According to Heather Wentler, one of the Wisconsin Startup Week’s organizers, new and up-and-coming players in the startup arena will be at the crux of the event.
“Some of these organizations, I’ve never heard of them,” she said. “This is a way to onboard them into the ecosystem.”
Codecinella, a group for women who develop software in Madison, is hosting a talk by Mary Romolino, the founder of the local game studio Acme Nerd Games. Brix & Mortar, a brand-new downtown “coworking space” — a shared office space for freelancers, entrepreneurs and small businesses — will open up its offices to the public for free. Aging2.0 Madison, a new group focused on tech for aging populations, will hold a happy hour on Wednesday.
Madison Startup Week will also feature events connecting entrepreneurs from beyond Madison's borders. On Tuesday, members of 100state, another downtown coworking space, will go to Milwaukee to check out similar spaces there. On Thursday, Zendesk — a Silicon Valley software company with offices in Madison — will host a livestream of a Milwaukee event about “disrupting” human resources.
Those intra-state connections are a significant byproduct of Wisconsin Startup Week, said its founder, the Milwaukee startup leader Matt Cordio. The week creates an opportunity to forge a statewide network of startup leaders in communities from Green Bay to Kenosha, he said.
“I don’t think there’s anything like it,” he said. “Typically startup events have been clustered in Madison or Milwaukee.”
Zach Brandon, president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, is an outspoken promoter of Madison as a hive of tech activity. He said there will eventually be a saturation point for startup-centric festivals in Madison; however, he said that point is a ways away. Until then, he said events like Forward Festival and the new startup week have the potential to accelerate tech sector growth.
Like Absher, he stressed the importance of inclusion and connecting across silos. On the latter front, he thinks that the new startup week is doing it right.
“Every organizer of the week is a woman. That says something about what we’re trying to build here,” said Brandon.
Along with Wentler, the startup week’s key organizers are Leah Roe, an executive with the medical software startup Healthfinch, and Ashley Powell, a sales executive with the software maker Bendyworks.
Madison Startup Week comes on the heels of a windfall of funding for startups in the state. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation unveiled a $1 million initiative with business groups in the state last week to provide startups with grants and loans. Shortly after, Northwestern Mutual and Aurora Health Care each announced they would dedicate $5 million in venture capital to help Milwaukee startups.
All startup week events will be free and open to the public. A schedule can be found on the festival’s website.