City: Madison, WI
Entrepreneur: Chris Meyer
“You lay down the grass, see where the paths form, and then put down the sidewalks, like any good engineer would. We’re going to drive the architects crazy, though.” – Chris Meyer, Founder of Sector 67
From the moment our Ross MBAx team pulled into the east side of Madison, Wisconsin, we knew something special was about to happen. Sandwiched between a music store, a community gym, and the Madison Circus Space, we arrived at one of the most innovative spaces (makerspace, hackerspace, workspace) in the country: Sector 67.
Chris Meyer, the self described “benevolent dictator” of Sector 67 is one part general manager, one part community organizer, one part troubleshooter, one part educator, and one part engineer. He and his wife Heather, who is also an entrepreneur and mainstay in Madison, are pillars of the community they serve. Heather is Executive Director of The Doyenne Group, a mentoring and networking community for female entrepreneurs, and the Founder of Fractal, a S.T.E.A.M. enrichment program created to help kids and teens build self-confidence and life skills through hands-on and challenged-based learning projects. She is involved in a number of other organizations and initiatives around Madison, in addition to managing the finances of Sector 67. Chris, in addition to the creative chaos he fosters at Sector 67, volunteers with Fractal, teaches voluntary courses at the local public schools, and is connected to seemingly every innovative project bubbling in town.
The breadth of activities and innovations taking shape within Sector 67 ranges wildly as well. Whether it’s manufacturing custom cast iron skillets, developing software, fashioning concrete tables, or 3D-printing Neil deGrasse Tyson on a Christmas sweater, Sector 67 is a playground for the creative, a haven for the genius class — if the genius class is a hodgepodge of tinkerers holed away in a warehouse space tucked off in the East Isthmus district. What makes Sector 67 such a gem is how accessible it is to both young and old, both experienced and inexperienced. The deepest impact, however doesn’t just come from what happens inside of the space — but what emerges from it.
Once a month, Sector 67 hosts a community night so that members can present the projects they’ve been working on most recently. During the meeting our MBAx team attended, one member presented a vibrating pen he crafted. Essentially, this pen could give a person with Parkinson’s disease the ability to write again by stabilizing their nerves through vibration. This same technology could potentially be used to stabilize other areas of the body as well, and the implications there could be enormous and life-changing (e.g. helping Parkinson’s patients learn to walk again). When he finished his 7-minute presentation, he concluded with, “I am looking for someone who can help me make this technology, so I can make as many as possible and give them away for free.” The next presenter, Matt Feiferak, gave a presentation about a steel food cart he fashioned to use in a kitchen where he cooks weekly meals for Slow Food Madison, a localized version of an international movement addressing the needs of the “food insecure.” While the food cart adaption was interesting in and of itself, it was again the purpose behind the innovation that left its mark.
We have countless anecdotes along these lines involving Chris and the members of Sector 67. In fact, what is happening in the space has attracted a lot of attention locally — so much so, in fact, that Sector 67 is about to take a new shape: In the next 18 months, Sector 67 will move into a new building as a part of Starting Block Madison. Starting Block is an entrepreneurship hub formed by a group of entrepreneurs which will co-locate some of the most innovative organizations in Madison. Through a public-private partnership, they are building a space that could change the landscape for startups in the region. Starting Block stands to serve as a launching pad for innovation (with Sector 67 as an anchor tenant) in addition to functioning as a networking group, a co-working space, and a business accelerator.
In bringing these entities together, Starting Block needed a roadmap for benchmarking. Our MBAx team was tasked with helping Starting Block to identify the current state of Madison’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and how to define and measure success going forward. Specifically, we helped Starting Block take a bird’s eye view of the state of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Madison, analyzing the metaphorical “grass” to see where the “paths” currently are in order to understand if the “sidewalks” they look to pave are in the right place. To do this, we looked at how other entrepreneurial hubs, government organizations, and corporate venture arms define success. We took into account the needs of the major stakeholders in Starting Block — internal entities, public and private investors, and the greater Madison community — and defined and prioritized metrics for benchmarking tools to measure success and considerations on who would find each metric useful.
The formation of Starting Block and the evolution of Sector 67 pose some major questions. Would the competing priorities of the business-oriented entities change the culture of innovation-for-innovation’s-sake that takes place at Sector 67 now? When we asked Chris why Sector 67 is a non-profit, given its enormous commercialization opportunities, Chris answered, “because I like to teach.” Chris and Heather have a serious commitment to both youth and adult education; would there be adequate programming for education given the focus on growing startups in the Starting Block development? As Starting Block emerges as a new entity, would it affect the accessibility of Sector 67 to the community? Would the competing priorities of the business-oriented entities change the culture of innovation-for-innovation’s-sake that takes place at Sector 67 now?
Ultimately, though we don’t have perfect answers to all of the questions like these, our team built metrics into our deliverable that would allow Starting Block to assess these considerations now and in the future. With such strong leadership at the forefront, there’s no doubt they’ll lay down a path worth walking on.