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

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Silicon Valley venture capitalist who moved to Madison this year to manage 4490 Ventures, a $30 million IT-focused fund.

“This is one of those things that helps to create the energy, the feel, the vibe, the stuff that gets people excited to be part of early-stage companies,” Robinson says of StartingBlock.

If successful, StartingBlock would help support a “critical mass” of startups that could keep talented young people from fleeing to the coasts. The initiative could also have residual effects on the surrounding neighborhood, like the development of more offices, restaurants, and coffee shops, Robinson says. That type of density and momentum gets created more easily in bigger startup hubs like San Francisco or Boston.

“I think in these smaller markets that don’t have the history of these types of companies en masse, sometimes you have to do things that are a little bit more orchestrated in the beginning,” Robinson says. “At some point, the orchestration is less relevant, and the ecosystem just naturally and organically starts to take off.”

The block where StartingBlock would be located has already picked up steam, thanks to the two other Gebhardt projects across the street.

The challenge for StartingBlock organizers will be to make sure that if they build it, the entrepreneurs come. “Just because you have a great building doesn’t mean that people are going to want to be there,” Robinson says.

And if StartingBlock successfully recruits the diverse group its organizers envision, they must then figure out how to “knit all these things together in an effective way,” Sector67 founder and director Chris Meyer says.

Filling up a 50,000-square-foot space—essentially building a community “from zero”—was one of the tallest orders for Chicago’s 1871 co-working offices when the organization launched more than two years ago, chief operating officer Tom Alexander says.

But the payoff can be significant, if 1871 is any indication. Located on the 12th floor of the Merchandise Mart in the heart of Chicago, the center recently tacked on another 25,000 square feet to accommodate demand, Alexander says. It’s currently home to about 325 companies that employ more than 600 people. Another 50 companies—former tenants that outgrew their 1871 offices—have gone on to create more than 500 jobs and raise more than $40 million in venture capital, he adds.

1871 has also established itself as a gathering place for mentorship, educational workshops, lectures, and events that have drawn the likes of Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, Dallas Mavericks owner and angel investor Mark Cuban, and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, Alexander says.

“People always felt like one of the things that Chicago could use was a physical place to gather the community, that would really raise the spirit of entrepreneurship,” Alexander says. “And that’s really worked out well.”

Gener8tor officials frequently visit Chicago—140 miles southeast of Madison—to recruit startups for their program and to hold meetings between portfolio companies and Chicago investors, Vosseller says. One might think such an agenda would require rushing between multiple offices spread throughout the metro area, but Gener8tor is able to conduct its business at one location: 1871.

“Literally, we go to one place, one building, and all that activity happens,” Vosseller says. “And I’ve always been jealous of that.” That’s one motivator for making StartingBlock happen, he adds. “I like to say that I want to return the favor for other groups to be able to access Madison’s tech scene in such an efficient way, for the benefit of all involved.”

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