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The 6 biggest Madison tech stories of 2017

The 6 biggest Madison tech stories of 2017


Understory, an advanced weather data company, has its headquarters at 316 W. Washington Ave., one of the Downtown tech hub buildings.

If it wasn’t clear already, 2017 demonstrated that Madison has emerged as a small beacon of tech activity in the Midwest.

The year was once again rife with examples of inventive new ventures, innovation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and tech-centric organizations like the startup center StartingBlock and the accelerator gener8tor making big moves. It was also another year that the city got increased recognition for its tech landscape, even as the state continued to get poor to middling reviews.

Here are the news stories that most shaped the year in tech for Madison and Wisconsin:

Foxconn comes to Wisconsin

The news that Foxconn, the world’s largest electronics producer, would locate a manufacturing campus in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin was hardly just a tech story — the announcement also made waves for its political, economic, environmental, and human rights-related implications.

Still, many big tech-centric questions loom. Would the high-tech manufacturing facility boost STEM education in the state? Would Foxconn be inclined to partner with or finance local startups? Will a $3 billion incentives package diminish the state’s coffers for financing startups? Answers may reveal themselves once the company kickstarts the assembly line production it's projected to get rolling in 2018.

Video games level up in Madison

2017 may have been one of the biggest ones yet for Madison’s burgeoning video game scene. Perhaps the biggest news was the Korean company Bluehole’s decision to open its first U.S. gaming studio in town — a move that means Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, one of the year’s most decorated video games, is now a local product.

On top of that, the board gaming institution Fantasy Flight Games opened a video game studio on the city’s north side, before announcing the release of a new Lord of the Rings digital card game. Plus, Madison hosted its first ever trade conference, M-Dev, which attracted some big names in the industry.

At long last, Exact Sciences expands

Exact Sciences, notoriously, was once to build its new headquarters as part of Judge Doyle Square. The company scrapped those plans, but the publicly traded maker of colorectal cancer screening tools is now expanding elsewhere: It broke ground this fall on a new laboratory at Spectrum Labs’ old headquarters on the city’s far southwest side, a new facility that will complement the biotech’s main campus at University Research Park.

The move marks a major turnaround for the company, after a roller coaster 2016  marked by plunging stock value and questions over the screening tool’s efficacy. The company is processing more tests than ever, and its CEO Kevin Conroy has promised that the expansion will bring about 250 new jobs.

Supreme Court hears arguments in Epic Systems lawsuit

Epic Systems, the county’s largest private-sector employer, remains one of the biggest shapers of Madison’s tech scene. It made headlines this year for a new health care app marketplace, new inexpensive software for smaller health systems, and major public contracts both in-state and at the federal level that it lost out on.

But the biggest Epic Systems-related story in 2017 was the role it played in a landmark court case that could have a profound impact on how workers can handle labor complaints. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Lewis v. Epic Systems in October. It will rule early next year whether Epic contracts that forbid employees from pursuing filing wage-related class-action lawsuits are legal.

Eatstreet makes waves

Madison’s cohort of high-profile startups made some big moves in 2017. Propeller Health, which makes data-tracking attachments for asthma inhalers, raised an impressive $21.5 million in funding. Akitabox, whose software maps and tracks physical infrastructure within buildings, added 50 new employees and moved to a new headquarters.

However, it was arguably Eatstreet that stole the show. The food-ordering service tweaked its business model to more prominently feature delivery, deploying a small fleet of vehicles around Madison. It made multiple startup acquisitions, including the partial purchase of a Pennsylvania-based startup that allowed it to streamline the food-ordering process. And capping it all off, its co-founders got nods from Forbes in its 30 Under 30 list.

Wisconsin looks to a driverless future

Self-driving cars have made headlines nationally for years, thanks to the private-sector experiments led by the likes of Waymo and Uber. Over the past 12 months, though, the technology became visible in an unprecedented way at the state level.

In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that Wisconsin would be a proving grounds for driverless vehicles, making Madison a possible testing site for the technology. In May, Gov. Scott Walker created a new steering committee to research the technology and the kinds of policy that may be adopted to facilitate its implementation. Then, this fall, Foxconn indicated it may introduce driverless vehicles to shuttle employees and cargo along Wisconsin highways.

All told, indicators point to a 2018 in which autonomous vehicles truly begin to populate Wisconsin’s roads.

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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.

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