Around 6,000 of the country’s brightest minds come to Wisconsin via UW–Madison every year. According to Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, too many of them are leaving for greener tech pastures.
“A lot of the people in high-tech and creative industries really want urban settings,” says Cieslewicz. “With the Capitol East District we can offer them what they want, so they’ll develop all their amazing entrepreneurial ideas here rather than in Palo Alto or Ann Arbor or Boston.”
And what they want, according to Cieslewicz and others working hard to bring Capitol East to life, is to be where it’s all happening, both at work and at play.
“All of the startups I’ve been talking to want to be located downtown, within walking distance of other startups,” says Nate Lustig. “It’s really important to us to have that cluster of high-tech new businesses sharing ideas, people and all kinds of resources.”
Lustig is the founder of Capital Entrepreneurs, a networking group for startups. He’s also co-founder of Entrustet, which cares for your digital assets, online accounts and computer files in the event of your death. It’s exactly the type of business now driving this new economy. And Lustig says Capitol East is exactly the type of place he and his fellow entrepreneurs want.
Mark Bugher agrees. He’s the director of University Research Park, whose new east-side venture, the Metro Innovation Center, encompasses 6,000 square feet inside the historic Gisholt building.
“In focus groups and faculty discussions we determined that our west-side biotech place is just not the kind of place these types of people wanted to be,” says Bugher. “We started talking about downtown, and a kind of edgier, vibrant warehouse concept for computer-related startup companies.”
Gisholt proved a perfect skeleton. URP leased and built ten suites, all connected to UW’s state-of-the-art fiber optics voice and data system, and the space filled quickly.
“There’s significant potential for economic development and job creation in the Cap East Corridor, and we felt it was our corporate commitment to help the city’s efforts in this area,” says Bugher. “Of course our ulterior motive is to help our university grads find jobs here. To keep them in Wisconsin.”
Bugher says that, unlike the gleaming labs and bubbling chemicals of the uber-successful, 3,600-employee-strong URP facility, the Innovation Center has an entirely different vibe—but just as much potential.
“The young people currently down here all run different businesses, but they have very similar skill sets, backgrounds, goals and interests,” says Bugher. “It’s important to them to live in a place as edgy and urban as where they work, to walk to coffee shops, to collaborate in the neighborhood as well as in the building. We’ve figured out there’s a market for this kind of thing, and discussions are under way to expand our presence on that footprint to create more jobs in this certain type of marketplace.”
These web-based industries are not the only businesses reminiscent of Silicon Valley now taking up residence—there’s venture capital, too. Calumet Venture Fund is one of the current tenants, led by longtime entrepreneur Toni Sikes. Sikes was one of the first tenants in the Commonwealth Building on East Main in 1992, where she founded The Guild to connect artists and buyers.
“I’m an urban person,” says Sikes, who moved to Wisconsin from New York in 1990. “I like open spaces, big windows, edgy style. Frankly, I think that’s the look and feel many techies and artists prefer. When Calumet decided to open a Wisconsin office ... I wanted to be where I knew there were a number of other startups.”
Calumet moved into its space in May, and Sikes quickly became a mentor to another tenant. Heidi Allstop was the winner of the Burrill Business Plan Competition for Student SPILL, an online peer-based support system for college students. Allstop’s prize? Space in the center, which she now occupies instead of an office in Philadelphia, where she passed up a lucrative job offer after graduation.
“One of the biggest things that keeps me here is because if you go down my hall it’s all startups under five years old,” says Allstop. “I look around and see all these other people like me, putting in time and effort because they believe in their cause. It inspires me.”
“There are so many amazing tenants in this building, any one of which could turn into the next big company,” adds Sikes. “Or ten of them could turn into the next ten companies that employ a hundred people. Because what does everybody need right now? Jobs. Well-paid jobs. The Cap East District is going to help make that happen.”
– Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz