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Madison startups keep innovating, moving forward

Now in its eighth year, Forward Festival is proof positive that Wisconsin can be a successful startup and entrepreneur producer — at least in Madison.

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Don’t tell the folks behind Madison’s annual Forward Festival that Wisconsin can’t be a good home for startup businesses.

At least locally, the startup climate is bucking the overall state trend. For three years running Wisconsin has ranked dead last — 50th out of 50 states — in startup activity as measured by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, one of the country’s leading entrepreneurship advocacy and research organizations.

While the rest of the state is struggling to create and retain startups, Madison and Dane County stand apart as relative entrepreneurial hotbeds. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the rapid growth of the Forward Festival, set for Aug. 17–24.

Begun in 2010 as the Forward Technology Conference, the Forward Festival has since grown to a full-blown, eight-day event with the tech conference at its center. In that first year there were just five events that made up the conference. By 2013, says Laura Strong, Forward Festival spokesperson and founder/CEO of Propagate Health, that number grew to 19 events. That was also the first year Forward Festival organizers began counting attendees, bringing in 2,100 entrepreneurs, investors, programmers, and creative professionals from all over the Midwest.

Fast forward to 2016, when more than 5,000 people came to the 43 Forward Festival events, and the numbers point to impressive growth. This year, 49 events are currently on the schedule and at least 5,000 attendees are once again expected.

“When Forward Festival started, the vision was to create a series of events to encourage teamwork between the technology and entrepreneurship communities in Madison,” Strong notes. “We anticipated the festival would grow but we are excited about just how much it has grown. People in the community continue to drive our events, first by seeing a need and then creating an event to fill that gap.”

With more than 5,000 entrepreneurs now attending the annual festival, Strong says that’s proof the startup community in Madison is thriving.

“We have created a culture for attendees to make connections, share advice, and collaborate. Each year we expand into more diverse categories, making it inclusive for everyone in the state.”

Strong believes it’s possible for the success of Greater Madison’s startup scene to translate to other regions of the Badger State, but local champions are critical to developing events that match the needs and character of specific communities. “We are working to cultivate that interest as well as champions,” she says.

Growth through collaboration

Just as Forward Festival aims for innovation, its goal is to have quality programming that spurs fairly organic growth, explains Strong. “Since events are driven by grassroots efforts, the Forward Festival organizing group works to ensure we are capturing a broad pool of event organizers and amplify their messages across the larger festival audience.”

Forward Festival has grown in large part because of increased involvement from community organizations that saw a need and helped plan an event around it as part of the overall festival activities.

“The Forward Festival prides itself on giving entrepreneurs the opportunities to make connections, share advice, and collaborate,” Strong says. “There are many new events where this is possible, including The Dolphin Tank, Pre-Pride Parade Continental Brunch, Rise and Shine, and Chat + Chomp + Plan. Because of the way Forward Festival operates, any community member who wants to see a topic addressed can turn into an event organizer. Many of our new events came about that way.”

Over the years, the events have involved a wider range of industries. For example, art and food have growing representation across the festival events. “We are also gratified that the entrepreneurial spirit has pulled from the culture of Madison in the growing number of social good events,” notes Strong. Those include events like Shaping Tomorrow’s Leaders, Immigrant Entrepreneurship, Pitch to Ditch, which is aimed at eradicating poverty, and the eponymous Social Good Summit, among others.

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