As a UW-Madison student, Chris Meyer says his "world ended at the Capitol." But since operating Sector67 out of a warehouse on Winnebago Street, he's learned what he was missing on the east side of the city.
"It's opened my eyes up to what's here -- the people, opportunities, the restaurants. It's fun to see and be a part of."
Meyer, who has been looking for a permanent home for Sector67 almost since forming the hackerspace about three years ago, could soon be one of two anchor tenants in a proposed 80,000-square-foot incubator for tech startups on East Washington Avenue. "Having seen [what the east side has to offer] made me really lean heavily to want to be on [this] side of town -- as close as can be to UW, without being on top of it."
Meyer is part of a small group of local entrepreneurs who have been working for about nine months to create a tech incubator. Under the name StartingBlock Madison, they have signed a memo of understanding with the owners of the Kleuter building at 925 E. Washington Ave. to develop it into an "entrepreneur center." The building most recently housed Mautz Paint. The incubator would become the permanent home not only to Sector67 but to gener8tor as well.
Gener8tor, which has offices in Milwaukee and Madison, is an "accelerator" that makes investments in startups and also provides mentoring to companies.
StartingBlock would also offer subsidized coworking space for startups in all stages of development and be available to parties involved in entrepreneurial activities, including investors and law firms. It will soon choose a development partner to help analyze the project and get it off the ground.
Scott Resnick, vice president at Hardin Design & Development and a city alderman, anticipates a "very detailed reuse" of the Kleuter building but says he's optimistic it could be completed by late 2014.
"This is for entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs," says Resnick. "This is an exciting project. We're about to build [a] nucleus by combining resources that were spread across areas of Madison."
Resnick says he and others in the tech community have visited centers like this throughout the world. "In learning from other communities, we can see what will work in ours."
As envisioned, the Madison incubator would house entities at all stages of the entrepreneurial process. "It's a hackerspace/makerspace, right next to an accelerator, right next to successful businesses who have gone through the steps of getting capital," says Resnick.
Resnick says he does not want to speculate, but is confident that the UW-Madison would be involved in some way. Allen Dines, assistant director of the UW's Office of Corporate Relations, says he imagines the university would be interested in renting space there so that he and potentially others could hold office hours to advise students and entrepreneurs.
About a year ago, Brad Grzesiak, cofounder of Bendyworks and cofounder of Madisonium, a group that aims to improve the tech and web industries in Madison, pitched the idea of a "web district" to the city's Economic Development Committee. The district would fall roughly between Williamson Street and East Washington Avenue and stretch from downtown to Schenk's Corners. Grzesiak says the proposed StartingBlock falls "smack dab in the middle" of the proposed web district.
"It's ideal," he says. Grzesiak says the incubator would act as a "nucleation point," sparking the development of other businesses and projects in the area.
The near east side has the kind of industrial office space that is especially attractive to the "prototypical" tech worker, says Grzesiak. "They like riding bikes and eating local organic foods, love alternative energy sources and would prefer not to own a car."
Grzesiak says StartingBlock, and the web district itself, are based on the idea that proximity matters. "If you put smart people together, amazing things will necessarily happen," he says. People might get together for a formal meeting and then go out for beers to continue the discussion.
"You come up with ideas, and every now and then one is a winner. You don't get that if people are not located physically near to each other."
For Sector67, it would also mean a permanent home to accommodate some of the large equipment that doesn't currently fit in the Winnebago space. "We could build in things for a professional workspace in a professional setting while maintaining a hobbyist mindset," says Meyer. "That's not feasible without owning."
But Meyer, like Grzesiak, says the primary benefit of the proposed coworking space would be to pull together people from a wide set of backgrounds who are making "stuff." That includes people interested in a "modern way of sewing to a modern way of manufacturing to a modern way of programming," says Meyer.
"The more you can do that," he says, "the more successful the whole city can become."
Jamie Stark contributed to this report.