The Diversifier: Madison, Wisconsin
Madison's economy has traditionally been built on the three-legged milking stool of state government, the University of Wisconsin and agriculture. These days you can add a few extra legs for good measure, including biotech, gaming, medicine and software. "It certainly hasn't been by accident," says Matthew Mikolajewski, manager of the city's office of business resources. "It has taken lots of concerted effort to grow that entrepreneurial spirit." That includes a renewed focus on entrepreneurship by the University's business school, the establishment of a fast-growing University research park, half a dozen business and arts incubators, and plans for a new food science lab and incubator developed with the Environmental Protection Agency. The fact that Madison has the second most educated work force in the country and one of the best quality of life ratings makes it attractive to business owners of all stripes. "If you walk through one of our incubators, you'll find everything," Mikolajewski says. "You'll find a software engineer right next to someone making crackers."
With the country's largest outdoor farmer's market and hundreds of organic farms on its outskirts, Madison is the hub of the locally grown agriculture scene. So Heather Hilleren was baffled when each year the natural grocery store where she worked was stocking less and less local produce when demand was skyrocketing. "That's when I realized it all depended on the person doing the ordering," she says. "It would take them five minutes to go online and order produce from a regional distributor. To order locally, they'd have to get the price sheets and spread them out on the table and call each farmer individually. It was an all-day process." That prompted her to begin working on a quintessentially Madison project that combines high tech with community spirit: Hilleren's LocalDirt.com is a subscription-based web application dedicated to connecting local farmers with grocery stores, restaurants, schools, hospitals and the public. But getting local food on the web took a lot of cooperation. Besides getting grants from the National Science Foundation and support from the UW Extension's Agricultural Innovation Center and local development group, Hilleren took on the challenge to educate farmers around the state about the new service. With two part-time and three full-time staffers as well as contract workers on board, Hilleren recently went national with her site. She hopes the business will expand quickly, but her motivation still reflects the Madison ethos. "I want as much local food sold as possible,"?she says. "I want to give these farmers as much opportunity as possible."
Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.