From startup city to exit city

gener8tor's 10 year anniversary exemplifies just how far Madison’s “Startup City” dream has come.
Contemporary Art Collage. Businessmen, Employees Walking Into Open Door Symbolizing New Opportunities
Illustration by Tim Burton

When former Madison Magazine editor Brennan Nardi started this column in 2016, she called it Startup City. It was a nod to a book with a similar name, as well as feature stories she’d written while tracking local founders who were trying to build a startup ecosystem in Madison. We had Epic spinoffs and the University Research Park and Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation-backed biotech companies born from having a world-class research and development university in our backyard. Yet we still thought that big-thinking, bootstrapping startup founders only lived in tech hub cities like Boston and San Francisco. To change that, a handful of folks formed Capital Entrepreneurs in 2009 and started Forward Fest in 2010. Then came StartingBlock Madison, Doyenne Group and gener8tor, all of which became tenants (along with AmFam’s Institute for Corporate and Social Impact and DreamBank) inside Spark, the glassy, eight-story building that AmFam built on East Washington Avenue in 2018. This year, gener8tor — an accelerator program founded by Troy Vosseller and Joe Kirgues in 2012 — celebrated 10 years of astounding growth and change.

“When we started, we were working with founders who weren’t in venture hubs, because Madison wasn’t yet a venture hub. So we were dealing with people who were not ‘in the room’ historically, based on place,” says Kirgues, who recalls scribbling ideas on a napkin with Vosseller at Starbucks on Capitol Square before launching gener8tor. Now the Square itself is a venture hub, says Kirgues; in the Hovde building alone, he can point to several venture-backed gener8tor portfolio companies. “gener8tor today is one of the largest accelerators in the world,” adds Vosseller, “and we take a lot of pride being based in Madison.”

In 10 short years, gener8tor has grown from two flagship cohorts totaling 13 startups in Madison and Milwaukee to a 140-employee venture firm with 104 startup accelerator programs in 41 communities. So far, 938 startups have graduated and 34 companies have been acquired, raising more than $1.2 billion in funding across 22 states. Successful exits in Madison include Cultured Decadence and, most recently, Curate, a data intelligence company acquired by FiscalNote in 2021.

“I never even thought about entrepreneurship at all,” says Curate co-founder Taralinda Willis, who quit her full-time job as an Overture Center events planner after she and her computer scientist husband, Dale, were accepted into gener8tor’s 2016 cohort. Five years after building the company, Willis earned the gener8tor gold T-shirt given to those who exit — but thanks to the pandemic and then a printing snafu, she had to wait until the 10th anniversary celebration in August 2022 for her big moment. “When I stood up and got that T-shirt, I was incredibly proud to announce to everybody, ‘We conceptualized this business in Madison, we grew this business in Madison and we sold this business in Madison,’ ” Willis says. “I think there’s more of this to come. I’m certainly not the first. I know I won’t be the last.”

Particularly as a woman who never envisioned herself as a startup founder and “fought for her revenue, fought for her business model,” Willis exemplifies a “wonderful version of what gener8tor can be,” Kirgues says. Ironically, it was because of his and Vosseller’s outsider status as founders who weren’t in coastal tech hubs that they began to relate to others who’d been historically overlooked or denied seats at the table for other reasons. Investing across “race, place and gender” became a guiding mission as gener8tor’s programming also expanded to include musicians, artists and social impact-focused founders. Today, 40% of gener8tor companies have at least one female founder and 43% have at least one founder of color. As a company, more than half of gener8tor’s 140 full-time employees are women and 32% are people of color.

It seems fitting, then, as we close out the year and look back on 10 years of gener8tor, to take stock of the ways in which Madison’s entrepreneurial ecosystem continues to evolve. The Startup City column is no more, in large part because our idea of who constitutes a startup founder has broadened, and success stories permeate all our pages, from food to arts coverage. Not every entrepreneur is a startup founder (and not every company defines success as a business that exits), but all contribute to what makes this city attractive to residents and investors alike. Efforts like gener8tor play just one role in a larger community, helping take Madison from Startup City to Exit City — but that doesn’t mean that we’ve arrived.

“I think as a community we can’t take our eye off the ball. We can’t rest on our laurels and the success that has happened,” Vosseller says. “We still have a long way to go in terms of getting people off the sidelines — institutions, corporations and investors — because if we are not as enthusiastic and excited about investing in our own, it’s a fool’s errand to believe that others will be more excited than us. … We need passion around what we call ‘locals investing in locals.’ ”

A Decade of Notable Starts

2013 UpStart is WARF’s free entrepreneurship program for women and people of color

2013 100State is a nonprofit coworking space for innovators and entrepreneurs

2013 Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce’s Gold Suitcase competition takes place at Forward Fest’s Pressure Chamber

2014 Madworks Seed Accelerator program provides grants and support to early-stage companies

2014 UW–Madison’s Discovery 2 Product brings campus entrepreneurship to the broader marketplace

2017 Collaboration for Good’s Social Good Madison is an accelerator program

2020 Rock County JumpStart is an entrepreneurial resource for Black and Latino businesses

2020 Kiva Madison is a microlender for minority-owned and women-owned small businesses

2022 Progress Center for Black Women startsan incubator program

SOON Urban League of Greater Madison’s Black Business Hub and accelerator is in the works

Maggie Ginsberg is a senior editor at Madison Magazine.

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