Midwestern United States it generates great wealth and is home to countless large corporations. With corporations come pension funds, foundations and other collections of great wealth. One way these pots of cash are invested is through venture capital, which means the money flows to the shores – New York, Boston, Silicon Valley. For the past decade, Gener8tor has been working to change that by launching accelerators in local communities that have money but are underserved in terms of startup support.
We spoke to the founders of Gener8tor about why they passionately think about the startup ecosystem in a slightly different way.
“One of the challenges we face that isn’t talked about enough is that much of the capital in Boston or Silicon Valley comes from pension funds and foundations based in our communities,” said Joe Kirgues, co-founder of Gener8tor. “These communities are taking their dollars and investing them elsewhere. And then bringing pennies on the dollar to charity in our communities. And that drives a lot of the disparity we see in the country.”
“Where we invest, there was not much capital yesterday. Today there is not much capital and tomorrow there will not be much capital. Gener8tor co-founder Joe Kirgues
Gener8tor has gone under the radar a bit, despite many points on the board: it’s been around for over a decade and has 34 outputs (including Pretty Litter, Curate, GrocerKey, and Bright Cellars). More than 1,000 companies have gone through his accelerator, and they did named VC Company of the Year 2022 according to The International Trade Council. And yet the name is not as well known as other accelerators of comparable size.
Gener8tor has some impressive stats to its credit: 80% of its startups are located outside major tech hubs, and more than two-thirds of its accelerator companies are led by underrepresented founders. It’s also a hell of an operation. Headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin, the accelerator has 147 full-time employees, accelerators at 41 locations in 22 states, and total funding of $1.3 billion.
The company told me that 1,068 startups have completed one of 104 one-year acceleration programs, including:
- Gener8tor investment accelerator is the standard cash-for-capital accelerator that has helped more than 200 companies raise over $800 million.
- Generator 8track gBETA is a free accelerator that accepts five startups for a seven-week program. More than 700 companies have gone through gBETA.
- Generator skills is a partnership with Gener8tor, Microsoft, and TechSpark that focuses on upskilling workers who want to train for roles in high-demand areas such as customer service or software development. The company said more than 1,000 people have gone through the program, half of whom have secured new careers in the last 24 months.
- The Gener8tor OnRamp conference is a series of industry events covering education, insurance, agriculture, manufacturing and healthcare.
As a company, the company claims to be doing well too, showing some pretty impressive investment metrics:
I spoke with co-founders Troy Vosseller and Joe Kirgues to learn more about how it all comes together and how he sees the future of his business.
“Both Joe and I were lawyers and we met while working together on deals, both on the startup side and on the investor side. Joe and I liked each other and shared the idea that an entrepreneur lacks the efficiency to go from an idea to starting a business, growing that business, raising venture capital, and so on,” said Vosseller. “We are both fans of the accelerator model, starting with Paul Graham and YC. Reading his original essays on the program provided much inspiration. And we realized we could do it here in Wisconsin. Joe and I quit our jobs. We found a group of business angels from the Milwaukee area who share the same vision and passion. And we’ve been creating Gener8tor ever since – that was 10 years ago.”
The band’s first show was in Milwaukee in 2012, and for a while they alternated between hosting annual shows in Milwaukee and Madison. Cooperate with startups, invest in startups, help them develop. Lather, rinse, repeat.
While YC may have been the inspiration for Gener8tor, the duo tells me things were a little different ten years ago.
“I think there were more local accelerators between 2012 and 2014 than there are now. There has been sifting and sifting to some extent. I think the same is happening on the national stage. I think there was a coalescence around a few shows,” Vosseller explained. “Of course we run into Techstars, 500 Startups, MassChallenge and Alchemist, but it’s a much smaller group than 10 years ago.”
Both Kirgues and Vosseller are obviously passionate about driving the development of local ecosystems.
“My joke is that when you write checks for $20,000 to a bunch of 20-year-olds and expect them to build a $100 million company out of it, that’s what it’s like to be crazy but unaware of yourself. Building a startup is a tough job in any market, but even harder in these nascent ecosystems. We’ve found that if you try to close the soft skills gap first – if you invite the founders to the investor room and if you help them prepare for it – the community will produce as many bright people as anyone else. Kyrgues said. “If you work to solve this problem, just on a one-to-one basis, you can go much further than I think we realized at the time.”
The duo has been very focused on building emerging ecosystems, starting with Madison and Milwaukee and later expanding the approach to more and more cities.