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Mad Rollin' Dolls Homecoming (copy)

The Mad Rollin' Dolls, shown as they launched their season in January, will be the subject of one of the new sessions at this year's Forward Festival, a celebration of entrepreneurship and innovation. The eight-day Forward Fest begins Thursday.

When you think of people who write computer code, you probably wouldn’t correlate them with the rough-and-tumble women of the roller derby world.

But they may all be rubbing elbows at the Forward Festival that kicks off Thursday and runs for eight days.

Forward Fest calls itself “Wisconsin’s largest technology and entrepreneurship festival.” Sessions will be held on topics that range from tips for starting a business and creating software for nonprofits to ways that roller derby prepares skaters for entrepreneurship.

Several pitch competitions will give entrepreneurs a chance to sing the praises of their startups and vie for prizes, and throughout the eight days, plenty of social gatherings will lubricate networking activities.

The sessions will be held at more than a dozen locations around the central city and beyond.

Innovation is one of the messages of Forward Fest, and “disruptive revolution” is the theme of the Badger Startup Summit, a daylong, tech network-building staple of Forward Fest that will be held on Aug. 23 at the Discovery Building, 330 N. Orchard St.

Keynote speaker Gregg Fergus, a Wisconsin native and UW-Madison graduate who now lives in Florida and Maple Bluff, has spent his career disrupting the health care industry. He was president and chief operating officer of Ion Torrent, now part of Thermo Fisher, whose technology “made DNA sequencing affordable for anyone who wanted to do it,” he said, from hospital labs looking for the most effective treatment for a patient to companies like 23andMe, with DNA analysis kits.

Ion Torrent co-founders Fergus and Jonathan Rothberg went on to start four new companies. One of them, Butterfly Network, has revamped the concept of an ultrasound machine, shrinking it to pocket size, with a $2,000 price tag.

“It’s just a probe and a phone,” Fergus said, so simple, thanks to artificial intelligence, that a child could use it. Fergus envisions the Butterfly Cloud will bring imaging to villages in Africa and will be used by first-responders who will be able to scan an accident victim’s body for injuries.

“It’s a window into the body,” Fergus said.

“The world is completely ready for disruption,” he said. “We’re going to disrupt health care in ways people never thought about.”

Beyond tech

Forward Fest has grown and changed a lot since it started in 2010, said Laura Strong, one of the lead organizers.

In the first year, only five events were held. That grew to 15 by 2013, and this year, the festival encompasses more than 50 sessions, more varied than ever, Strong said.

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“Out of 52 events that we have this year, 30 of them are new,” said Strong, who is also CEO of Propagate Health, a health technology startup.

The increasing diversity and number of events “tells us the community (of Madison area entrepreneurs) is growing, and is thriving,” she said.

One event that has found its place at Forward Fest is the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce’s neXXpo, a showcase of some of the area’s most innovative companies, highlighted by Pressure Chamber, a pitch contest whose winner earns a free trip to California to meet with Silicon Valley investors.

NeXXpo will be held on Thursday at the Overture Center, 201 State St.

Forward Fest is organized for entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs, so the nature of the sessions depends on their interests, Strong said. In the beginning, they were focused on technology. While that remains a common thread, there also are programs on developing products for older adults, using language effectively, data-driven agriculture, and a pre-Pride Parade brunch.

“It really is community driven,” Strong said.

And that’s how a session called “Be Your Own Hero — Startup Stories from the World of Roller Derby” came about.

Roller derby draws interest from women in their 20s through 40s, said Gaile Schwickrath, executive director of the Mad Rollin’ Dolls, a roller derby league in Madison whose four local teams total more than 80 skaters.

“It’s a safe place for them to come in to find and learn physical strength and emotional strength,” Schwickrath said.

While the sport may have a campy image, it is no longer the choreographed, scripted, “World Wrestling Federation on skates,” she said.

Roller derby gives players an “emotional and mental toughness,” Schwickrath said. “You find courage to do things you never thought you’d be able to do,” such as starting a business or running for office.

The roller derby session will be a panel discussion moderated by Schwickrath featuring skaters or referees who have opened a computer game design studio, a fitness training and wellness center, a roller skating supply business, and a hair salon, and one who was elected to office: Madison Ald. Arvina Martin, representing District 11 on the West Side. The talk is scheduled Aug. 23 at StartingBlock Madison, 821 E. Washington Ave.

Strong said last year’s Forward Fest drew more than 5,000 participants. This year? “We would definitely expect, given the lineup, that we’ll meet or exceed those numbers,” she said.

All events are open to the public and many are free.

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