Jodi Schroll, left, and Katie Brenner are co-founders of bluDiagnostics, with a saliva-based fertility test for women. The company won two of three pitch events at the Forward Festival in Madison in 2015.

The spirit of entrepreneurship will ride high in Madison over the next week and a half.

The Forward Festival will take place Thursday through Aug. 25 with 43 events scheduled over the eight-day period — one-third more activities than last year.

“This year, we’ve added a number of events on the arts; we have kids’ events and a growing social component,” said Laura Strong, a member of the organizing committee.

“One of the things we really want to do is make sure we are encompassing entrepreneurship as a whole,” said Strong, who is also president and chief operating officer of Quintessence Biosciences and HealthMyne advisor.

This is the seventh year for Forward Fest, initiated in 2010 as a program organized and presented “for entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs.”

Technology of all types is still the No. 1 theme, but this year, new events include a talk on “Earth Futures” by Paul Robbins, director of the UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies; Code Madison Forward, where student teams compete to create an interactive website; and Microbrews for Microfinance, a fundraiser hosted by Madison nonprofit Wisconsin Microfinance to raise awareness and funds for entrepreneurs in Haiti and the Philippines.

“Forward Fest is about innovation and entrepreneurship and what we really try to do is target the issue of poverty through entrepreneurship,” said Tracy Harvey, executive director of Wisconsin Microfinance.

Founded in 2010 after a devastating earthquake in Haiti, Wisconsin Microfinance has issued about 1,000 loans so far, averaging $50 in Haiti and $100 to $150 in the Philippines, so residents can start small businesses such as raising animals or making clothing, Harvey said. About $20,000 worth of loans have been made so far; as they are repaid, the money is distributed to others.

Another new event that had been planned for Forward Fest — a summit for black entrepreneurs — has been canceled. Organizer Sabrina Madison, also known as Heymiss Progress, said she hopes to reschedule the summit for later this year.

One of the highlights of the Forward Fest is its three pitch contests: during the Startup Showcase, Tuesday; Pressure Chamber, part of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce’s neXXpo business expo, Tuesday; and the Doyenne Group and 1 Million Cups 5X5X5 event, Wednesday.

“People can come out and see what entrepreneurship looks like in their own community,” Strong said.

Last year, one startup won two of the three pitch events — bluDiagnostics, with a saliva test to check a woman’s fertility. Since then, bluDiagnostics has attracted $600,000 from investors, and in June, won the Women Startup Challenge in San Francisco and a $10,000 investment from the Backstage Capital venture fund.

A major part of Forward Fest, the Forward Technology Conference, will focus this year on game development and health information technology. Other returning events include the Social Good Summit; the GLS (Games+Learning+Society) Conference; and the Edible Startup Summit.

About 3,185 people attended Forward Fest events last year. Organizers said they hope for at least that many this year, too.


Judy Newman is a business reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.