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The 5 biggest tech stories of 2016

The 5 biggest tech stories of 2016

Updated Spark rendering

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

Lawsuits over voting rights, controversy over the veterans care facility in central Wisconsin, the mayor's continued campaign to restrict where the homeless can sleep, a firestorm over the violent arrest of an 18-year-old girl at East Towne Mall — clearly, 2016 gave us a lot to unpack in terms of local news.

(Plus there was that whole election thing, the gift that won't stop giving.)

In the thick of it all was Madison's rapidly expanding technology scene, which continues to be a point of excitement and transformation in the city. Look back at the past 12 months, here are five stories that stood out from the pack:

1. StartingBlock finally gets a green light

This December, the city gave its final blessing to a team led by former alderman Scott Resnick to build an "entrepreneurial hub" within the soon-to-be-constructed Spark building on East Washington Avenue.

It hasn't been easy going for StartingBlock, which tech leaders first began to pursue in late 2012. The timeline for the project shifted dramatically due to the slow pace of both fundraising and the bureaucratic approval process. And then earlier this year, the "maker-space" Sector67 — one of the key tenants in the endeavor— withdrew from the project after rejecting a lease offer, opting to look for a new headquarters elsewhere

But now, the finishing line is in sight: Fundraising has wrapped, all permits are in order, and Resnick reports that construction teams will break ground in a matter of weeks.

2. A year of ups and downs for Epic.

Epic Systems, the Verona-based health care software giant, touted a number of wins over the past year. A doctor in Flint used the software to help expose the city's lead crisis, and as its CEO Judy Faulkner recently proclaimed, the company is introducing some pretty profound changes to its patient portal system in particular.

Plus, the company's growth continues, with new buildings springing up on its campus and a workforce that's grown to about 10,000 people.

That said, some not-so-stellar press has made 2016 a dicey year for Epic. The Boston Globe published a cover story about widespread dissatisfaction with the company's software among doctors and medical staff this spring. Then, this summer, a federal appeals court dealt a blow to Epic in a class-action lawsuit over overtime pay, a ruling that could end up before the Supreme Court.

Expect more headlines about Epic's overtime pay policies in 2017 — a new class of litigants filed another lawsuit last month, making for a total of three unresolved cases in the federal courts system.

3. Madison continues to grapple with its reputation for entrepreneurship.

Kauffman Foundation report from 2015 continued to loom large in local conversations about entrepreneurship.

The report, which ranked the state last in the nation in "entrepreneurial activity," seemed to come up time and time again, at policy summits organized by the mayor and roundtable discussions with Sen. Tammy Baldwin. It certainly didn't help that when Kauffman released its 2016 rankingsthe state was once again dead last.

There are indicators that Madison is not actually doing that badly in the realm of entrepreneurship. Even Kauffman analysts have emphasized that the state capital seems to buck the gloomy trends seen at the state level. Regardless, hand-wringing over the Badger State's landscape continues.

4. Exact Sciences bounces back.

Exact Sciences has long been seen as a hot local commodity — Madison's former mayor has said the health technology company "could be the next Epic," and there are rumors that its CEO could enter the next race for governor.

But for a spell in early 2016, Exact Sciences wasn't looking quite as hot. A U.S. agency had omitted the company's signature colon cancer screening technology from a list of recommended tests, sending its stock value plunging to five-year lows.

This June, however, the test made it back onto the list, and the company rebounded. By the end of the month, its stock value had shot up by 80 percent.

Now, it's closing the year with stocks selling around $14 a share — not too shabby, considering some observers were ready to give the company its death warrant this time last year.

5. Video game scholars say good-bye to the University of Wisconsin.

This July, two professors considered to be preeminent scholars of the learning properties of video games announced they would leave the UW-Madison for University of California-Irvine

In addition to brighter opportunities for learning games research and industry collaboration on the West Coast, Kurt Squire and Constance Steinkuehler cited concerns over the political atmosphere in Wisconsin as a cause for their departure.

The move was not just a loss for the university; it was also a blow to the local game development scene. The pair's impending departure means the end of the Games + Learning Society, an organization that directly influenced the creation of Madison game studios like Filament.

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to a 2017 Kauffman report on entrepreneurship. The report in question was the 2016 report.

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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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