Madison Startups Sound Off on Exposure, Integration, Diversity

The Madison Startup Fair on University of Wisconsin-Madison’s campus brings together a cross-section of local startups each year, from software to 3D printing technology to alternative insulation material for outdoor gear.

The event, now in its third year, aims to help university students connect with startups and learn more about possible careers, while companies get to hunt for talent.

I also see it as an opportunity to pick entrepreneurs’ brains about the latest trends. Last year, I asked participants what challenges their businesses were facing. This year, I decided to ask for one thing that could be improved about the startup climate in Madison and Wisconsin as a whole. Here are three snap responses:

—Exposure: Fishidy CEO Brian Jensen says the most glaring missing piece for Wisconsin’s startup environment is “obviously more investors” and more available funding, something that Badger State entrepreneurs often lament. Beyond that, he’d like to see more efforts to increase the visibility of Wisconsin startups among investors in the nation’s venture capital hotbeds, like Silicon Valley. ”Help us get more exposure,” Jensen says.

Jensen was part of a trip to Silicon Valley last year aimed at accomplishing exactly that. He and several other Madison-area entrepreneurs flew to California to pitch their startups to investors, a trip organized by the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce. Jensen would like to see more initiatives like that one.

—Integration: Deneb Outdoors co-founder Jared Sandlin, who recently graduated from UW-Madison, thinks the connections between the campus and the local business community could be strengthened. It can be hard for students to get out of the campus “bubble,” he says.

College students are desirable hires for local startups because they’re a source of “cheap labor” and “they know a lot more than people give them credit for,” he says.

Efforts like the startup fair and other events put on by Capital Entrepreneurs and other groups are helping to make students aware of the opportunities in the local startup community, Sandlin says. But he believes more can be done to communicate to students the reasons why they should consider startups a viable option after graduation, perhaps through more entrepreneurs speaking to classes.

Sandlin is biased, of course, since that’s the career path that he has chosen. He and co-founder Jared Burris have raised $25,000 from friends and family and won $11,000 through business competitions to pursue their idea with Deneb, which developed an alternative insulation material made mostly from llama fleece. The pair raised $19,510 through a Kickstarter campaign last year to fund their initial batch of orders, and now they’re looking to partner with bigger outdoor apparel retailers like Patagonia and Sierra Designs to bring their product into the mainstream, Sandlin says.

—Diversity: Lack of diversity is an issue across the tech industry, and Wisconsin is no different, says Drifty marketing and communications manager Katie Ginder-Vogel. “It’s an opportunity that everyone has to be more inclusive,” she says.

Drifty’s approach has been to engage as much as possible with students both locally and around the world. The idea is to cultivate technical skills in a wider range of young people, who will one day join the workforce, she says.

Drifty’s Ionic Framework has taken the coding world by storm, becoming one of the top 50 most popular open-source projects worldwide in less than a year. The mobile app development tool’s users include high school and college students living in places like Kenya, India, Ireland, and the U.S., to name a few, Ginder-Vogel says.

Drifty interacts with its users in various ways, she says, including via social media and by showcasing on Ionic’s website some of the apps users have built.

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

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