Forward Fest keeps Madtown’s best entrepreneurial minds in high gear

Ask Matt Younkle what the toughest part is about organizing a wide-ranging, eight-day local festival appealing to “entrepreneurs, nerds, designers, geeks, hackers, foodies, and creative professionals” and he’ll likely tell you it’s simply trying to match the energy and creativity of its attendees.

The Forward Festival, which Younkle launched in 2010 with fellow Madison entrepreneurs Bryan Chan and Nathan Lustig, kicks off on Thursday, Aug. 21, with three events, including a 13th annual High Tech Happy Hour celebration at the Memorial Union. The rest of the week is a tech entrepreneur’s dream, featuring events such as the Madison+Ruby Conference (Aug. 21-23), the Badger Startup Summit (Aug. 26), and the festival’s signature attraction, the Forward Technology Conference (Aug. 27).

“You do see people bouncing ideas around and ideas for new companies sort of germinating out of those discussions. That’s certainly part of it.” — Matt Younkle, co-founder, Forward Festival

“With the conference in particular, it’s such an interesting crowd of people — we end up with a couple hundred people in a room — and they’re very smart and very creative, so the challenge is to create programming for the conference that’s more interesting than just closing the door and saying, ‘Everybody just talk among yourselves for the next four hours,’ because those conversations are really interesting, too,” said Younkle.

For his part, Younkle has at least three solid lifetimes of cocktail party conversation to fall back on. The founder (with Preston Austin) of, an online music marketplace, Younkle has lent his ingenuity to numerous projects, including the first food ever to be grown in space and the world’s fastest retrofittable beer tap.

So imagine 200 people like Younkle, with ideas percolating at a furious clip, congregating in a single room for a day. Then imagine that scenario played out over 19 separate events over a span of eight days — with a couple of thousand people participating in all — and you start to get an idea of the kind of sparks that might start flying.

“You do see people bouncing ideas around and ideas for new companies sort of germinating out of those discussions,” said Younkle. “That’s certainly part of it.”

That’s not to dismiss the programs Younkle and the other organizers have put together. The Aug. 27 Forward Technology Conference, which Younkle describes as the “anchor” of the nearly weeklong Forward Festival, features a full slate of events, including a keynote address by entrepreneur and UW-Madison professor Jignesh Patel, an address on “Fear, Failure and the Entrepreneurial Journey” by business coach and consultant Jerry Colonna, a panel discussion on trends in funding, and a presentation on “Healthy Entrepreneurship Essentials.”

“I’m excited about the keynote,” said Younkle. “Patel sold his company [Locomatix] to Twitter recently, and I think just has a really good perspective on what it takes to be an entrepreneur and what it takes to build a company that’s interesting to a big company like Twitter. Then Jerry Colonna, we’re really excited to bring him into Madison. He’s been one of the founding fathers of Silicon Alley [in Manhattan] and Flatiron Partners, along with Fred Wilson. … But Jerry is one of those folks who’s kind of seen it all with respect to startups, and he’ll bring that wisdom to everybody here.”

The festival will debut several new events this year, which Younkle says reflect current entrepreneurial trends in Madison and Wisconsin as a whole. For example, 100health has organized a “Health Tech Hobnob” for Aug. 22, and several food-related events are on the docket, including the Edible Startup Summit, FEEDing the Entrepreneurial Spirit, and Top Shelf Summer Taste, all on Aug. 25. (For a complete list of Forward Festival events, click here.)  

According to Younkle, around 40 volunteers did most of the heavy lifting when it came to organizing the festival’s 19 events, and that ties in with the fest’s open-format concept. Anyone can host an event, provided it’s open to all interested attendees and ties its promotional efforts to the festival as a whole.

“That format keeps it fresh, so it ensures that health tech gets an event, food startups get an event, and the ecosystem evolves,” said Younkle. “So this is probably a 15- or 20-year project, and I’ll step aside and hopefully there will be a whole generation of new people who come in and lead this charge. But by having that open format, we’re ensuring that it’s not stale and it’s not just Matt’s and Bryan’s and Nate’s idea of what’s important — it’s the broader community, it’s what the broader community feels is important.”



Meanwhile, the festival is doing its part to cement Madison’s reputation as a burgeoning high-tech hub and a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity.

“I think what’s important is that this is a forum for people who are thinking about breaking into this, starting something and becoming part of the entrepreneurial community,” said Younkle. “I think those are the folks that the festival is able to benefit the most. …

“So having that in a kind of one-stop shop for that period of time is really helpful. It’s a way to really accelerate folks that are on the fence thinking about being on entrepreneur, or people who have made the commitment but are just wondering where to get started or who to talk to. … So it’s rewarding when you see the connections made and companies started and companies funded and all of that happening out of the festival. We’d like to see a lot more of it, but we see it every year, and we see more of it every year, and that’s encouraging.”

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