Tech startups rubbed elbows with long-standing companies Tuesday at neXXpo, a revamped version of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce‘s annual spring business gathering, and heard calls to look ahead and take risks.

Chicago billionaire venture capitalist and philanthropist J.B. Pritzker said Madison is well suited to be at the center of the technological revolution.

Pritzker listed organizations such as the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, working to take research to the marketplace, and companies such as electronic health records developer Epic Systems Corp. and a growing digital startup base.

“I’m blown away” by the capabilities of Madison’s resources, said Pritzker, who delivered neXXpo’s luncheon keynote address to a sold-out audience of 750 at the Alliant Energy Center’s Exhibition Hall.

Madison can move quickly to get breakthrough technology to market — something Chicago may not be able to do as well, Pritzker said.

Pritzker’s $1 million investment in 2012 helped create 1871, a Chicago digital startup hub in the Merchandise Mart.

“The best new ideas come from people who think unusually — maybe who dare to be weird,” he said.

Pritzker pointed to his father, Don Pritzker, who took a single hotel and created the Hyatt chain. It was risky in the 1950s and 1960s to build hotels near airports and offer a frequent-traveler program, he said.

More recently, Signicast Investment Castings, a Hartford, Wis., steel casting company owned by his venture firm, Pritzker Group, revamped its processes a few years ago, adding robotics. The company can make parts in one-fourth of the previous time, Pritzker said.

“Harley-Davidson can now place orders for parts they need in the next few weeks” instead of several months ahead, he said.

Pritzker said this was only the second time he has been to Madison.

“It’s a great community to build businesses, and I really didn’t know that,” he said.

Pritzker said that with more contact between Madison and Chicago, “I guarantee there are more collaborative efforts that could be made.”

As for the new neXXpo format, Chamber president Zach Brandon said it was time to revise the annual business networking event into a conference focusing on what’s next for Madison.

“We are uniquely positioned ... to be a signature city for innovation,” Brandon said.

“We have to start to brag, to promote ourselves.”

Nearly 1,000 people were expected to attend the daylong event.

  • Business reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal

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