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January 5, 2016

Madison Enterprise Center & Main Street Industries: Pioneers of Business Incubation

A Q&A with Sarah Hole
Facility Director, Madison Enterprise Center & Main Street Industries
Common Wealth Development


Q: How did Common Wealth Development decide to get into the business incubation game?

A: Common Wealth started in 1979 to address blight and preserve the vitality of the Williamson-Marquette neighborhood. Manufacturing companies that were the backbone of the economy had closed or left and there were many vacant buildings on Williamson Street. We recognized the importance of economic development in revitalizing and stabilizing the area. In 1987, we partnered with Madison Gas & Electric to open the Madison Enterprise Center (MEC). In 1997, Common Wealth renovated the former Greyhound Bus terminal garage into Main Street Industries (MSI), a second stage incubator. The MEC and MSI were pioneers in Wisconsin business incubation and helped lay the foundation for the re-development of the Capitol East District. Today the Williamson-Marquette neighborhood is thriving and we would like to think that Common Wealth played a significant role in helping to revitalize the community and the neighborhood. 

Q: Why two facilities (namely, the Madison Enterprise Center and Main Street Industries)?

A: The Madison Enterprise, established in 1987, is a partnership with Madison Gas & Electric. MG&E owns the former Gisholt Machine Tool Company building and Common Wealth operates the incubation program. The MEC is a mixed-use first stage incubator with an application process that requires a business plan and vetting by our Business Development Committee. MEC businesses must "graduate" after a stay of 3-5 years to make room for the next generation of start-ups. In 1996, we opened Main Street Industries in part to offer MEC graduates a second stage incubator space so they could remain in the neighborhood. MSI has the same application process as the MEC. Today MSI houses a mix of MEC graduates and start-ups. Year in and year out, MEC and MSI businesses create new jobs and contribute to the economic vitality of Madison and the region both while they are in the incubator and after they graduate.

Quince & Apple
Photo by Kent Sweitzer
Q: Can you describe how your tenant base or the regional market may have changed since you first started?

A: Both of our incubators are mixed used which has given us the flexibility to serve a wide-range of small businesses over the years. Originally our focus was serving light manufacturing companies, but as the market changed so has our tenant mix. Our goal is to continue to offer affordable production space as well as fair priced dedicated office spaces.  In recent years we have supported food production companies including: Potter’s Crackers, Quince & Apple, Underground Meats, Underground Catering, Old Sugar Distillery, Yumbutter and Mad Urban Bees. University of Wisconsin spin-off companies Virent Energy Systems, AquaMost and Ebullient Cooling have utilized their spaces for research and product development. In early 2015, we added six small office spaces at the MEC to better serve early stage start-ups.   

Q: Can you name some of the successful businesses launched by MEC and MSI?

A: MEC graduate businesses that include Virent Energy Systems, Applied Tech Solutions, LocknCharge and AquaMost have put down roots in Madison and continue to create well-paying new jobs. Filament Games, an educational games developer and MEC 2010 graduate, is a key player in Madison’s thriving video game cluster. This year they moved into the top floor of the renovated AT&T building downtown where they created an innovative workspace to house their growing company.

EVP Coffee, Full Spectrum Solar and Shopbop.com, three incubator graduates clustered within a block of the intersection of East Washington Avenue and Baldwin Street, played a key early role in the re-establishment of the Capitol East District as an employment center. EVP Coffee, a MEC 2002 graduate, opened its first coffee shop at 1250 East Washington and now operates five coffee shops in the greater Madison area. Full Spectrum Solar, a MEC 2010 graduate, purchased a former auto body shop at 1250 East Washington Avenue and renovated it into a super insulated energy efficient facility. In the summer of 2011, Shopbop.com, a Main Street Industries 2004 graduate, moved its operation and hundreds of employees into 200,000 square feet of space owned by the Mullins Group. 

Ebullient Cooling
Photo by Kent Sweitzer
Q: What’s coming for the region’s innovation ecosystem from the MEC/MSI perspective?

A: It is exciting to see the acceleration of redevelopment in the Capitol East District that will soon include the StartingBlock project.  As entrepreneurial programs and facilities proliferate, the Capitol East District will become a start-up hub that will benefit not only the immediate area but the region as a whole. However, affordable and available production space is becoming a rarer commodity in the Capitol East District which will offer opportunities for regional economic development entities to create additional incubation facilities. Creating a robust entrepreneurial pipeline across the region will best serve the coming generations of start-ups.