Updated Spark rendering

The Spark is home to office space for American Family Insurance and StartingBlock Madison.

It’s taken five years of fundraising, scrapped plans, and deliberation in city hall. But an entrepreneurship center in Madison is becoming a brick-and-mortar reality.

Across the street from Festival Foods on East Washington Avenue, the steel frames of two new high-rise buildings have shot up to loom over the Capitol East neighborhood. One of them, an American Family Insurance project called “The Spark,” will be the home of StartingBlock, a nonprofit that promises to foster startup growth and entrepreneurial culture in Madison.

As the building goes up, the team behind StartingBlock is hammering out the specifics of what the new space is going to be when it holds its public opening projected for the fall of 2018.

“In order to fully realize the StartingBlock vision, we needed the building. We needed this beacon, this place,” said Chandra Miller Fienen, the director of operations for StartingBlock and its interim executive director. “Now I’m moving away from deciding where the electrical sockets need to be located, and moving into 'What can StartingBlock offer?'”

“Even once the building is built, we’re only at the starting line,” said Scott Resnick, the group’s “entrepreneur-in residence.” “There’s no playbook for how to build an organization like StartingBlock.”

The general premise of the project, which has received significant city, state, and federal funding, is to offer real estate to startups of varying sizes in a location teeming with people, organizations and resources to help them out. Those players in the StartingBlock “community,” as its leaders describe it, include groups like the Doyenne Group, gener8tor and Bunker Labs that strive to connect startups with mentors and financiers. They also include dedicated staff to help make connections and recruit talent.

Miller Fienen has been putting the final touches on StartingBlock’s floor plans, a layout that includes office spaces both big and small, shared working zones, a studio for video and podcasting production, and homes for partners like gener8tor and Doyenne.

Miller Fienen said she’s excited to move on to the next phase of the operation. That’s figuring out who will be in the “first class” of Madison companies to occupy the space — companies that have potential to grow, and have a strong local connection — and coming up with specific ideas for resources and events the space should include.

Miller Fienen was among the entrepreneurial leaders who first began talking about such a startup center in 2012 to highlight the local startup scene. The original proposal was for the project to be in the former Mautz Paint and Kleuter building, one block away. That changed when American Family Insurance approached the group with an idea for a brand new building for the project.

Miller Fienen said the decision to commit to a new structure in the Capitol East district was a significant factor behind the delay.

“The decision to, rather than move into an existing location, to build a new building, that did set us up to showcase Madison as an innovation center,” she said.

Adding to the delay was the approval process for the city’s Capitol East District Parking Structure, which would provide parking for workers at the new multi-structure complex as well as for concerts at the Sylvee music venue next door.

Over the course of the prolonged gestation period, things have changed for StartingBlock. For one thing, said Resnick, the startup economy has grown rapidly since 2012.

“We were raising $10-20 million a year (in venture capital) as a community,” he said. “Now we see hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Some players have also left the project. Sector67 — a space for “makers” to work on small-scale manufacturing and design projects — dropped out to find a space it could own instead of lease. Other companies that had once been pegged as StartingBlock anchor tenants, renting bigger suites to subsidize rent for younger startups, no longer plan to move in.

One of those companies was PerBlue, a video game maker founded by one of StartingBlock’s early organizers, Forrest Woolworth. He said that the company has simply become too big to occupy StartingBlock.

“In my entrepreneurial optimistic thinking, I thought, ‘Oh this building will take two years to build….turns out it took five years,” said Woolworth. “If StartingBlock existed five years ago for us, it would have been a great fit for PerBlue.”

Woolworth and Miller Fienen said that PerBlue exemplifies the kind of entrepreneurial churn that StartingBlock will foster: It will house nascent companies, help them grow, and eventually let them “graduate” when they get too big for the center.

Leaders of StartingBlock are also thinking about what success will mean for the company. Miller Fienen said that given that the nonprofit received funding from the city of Madison, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, and the federal Economic Development Agency, the group will be tracking a wide range of metrics to report.

A big question for Miller Fienen now is, what mix of metrics should the organization itself use to measure its impact.

“It’s easy to just simply say, well, this company with StartingBlock raised $2 million,” she said. “The question is, if you’re in StartingBlock, do we raise your chances of success? That’s a tougher question to answer.”

While the grand opening is a year away, Miller Fienen said she hopes to start moving companies in by May of 2018. 

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Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.