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

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.”

Bold statements aside, there has been growing interest around the country in catalyzing entrepreneurship through buildings designed to foster collaboration within a local startup community. Co-working and maker spaces are popping up in entrepreneurial hotbeds from coast to coast. Xconomy has chronicled several of them, including Startup Hall in Seattle and Greentown Labs near Boston. These types of developments often form the heart of innovation districts—strategic neighborhood clusters of startups, corporations, universities, and other entrepreneurship drivers, usually alongside retail and housing. Examples include Kendall Square in Cambridge, MA, and the Cortex district in St. Louis, MO. If StartingBlock gets built at the proposed site in Madison’s Capitol East District, it would be located across the street from a mixed-use building that includes apartments and Google’s Madison operations, and another planned complex that will include more apartments, offices, and a grocery store.

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.

But the vibrant startup community at the two-year-old 1871 co-working space wasn’t built overnight, 1871 officials tell Xconomy. StartingBlock organizers will have to work hard to recruit tenants if the center gets built. And that’s by no means guaranteed, as supporters still must raise millions of dollars for the project.

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

The building proposal submitted in September by … Next Page »

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Jeff Engel is a senior editor at Xconomy. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @JeffEngelXcon

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