the midwestern united states it generates a lot of wealth and is home to a myriad of large corporations. With corporations come pension funds, foundations, and other collections of great wealth. One of the ways those stacks of cash are invested is through venture capital, which means money flows to the shores: New York, Boston, Silicon Valley. During the last decade, Gen8tor has been working to change that by activating accelerators in local communities that have money but don’t have the support they need for start-ups.
We spoke to the founders of Gener8tor about why they’re passionate about thinking about the startup ecosystem a little differently.
“One of the challenges we face that I don’t think gets talked about enough is that a lot 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 bring pennies on the dollar to do charity work in our communities. And it is fueling many of the discrepancies that we see in the country.”
“Where we invested, yesterday there was not much capital. There is not much capital today and there will not be much capital tomorrow. Joe Kirgues, co-founder of Gener8tor
Gener8tor has gone a bit under the radar despite putting a lot of points on the board: it’s been in business for over a decade and has had 34 exits (including nice litter, Healing, grocery store Y luminous cellars). More than 1,000 companies have gone through its accelerator, and it was named Venture Capital Firm of the Year 2022 by the Council for International Trade. And yet the name isn’t as well known as other accelerators of similar size.
Gener8tor has some impressive statistics under its belt: 80% of its startups are outside of major tech hubs, and more than two-thirds of companies in accelerators are led by underrepresented founders. It’s a hell of an operation, too. Headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin, the accelerator has 147 full-time employees, accelerators at 41 locations in 22 states, and $1.3 billion in total deployed funding.
The company told me that 1,068 startups have graduated from one of its 104 annual accelerator programs, including:
- Investment Accelerator Gener8tor is a standard cash-for-equity accelerator that has helped more than 200 companies raise more than $800 million.
- gen8tor gBETA is a free accelerator that accepts five startups in 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 fields, like customer service or software development. The company said more than 1,000 people have gone through the program, with half securing new careers in the past 24 months.
- the Gener8tor OnRamp Conference is a series of specific vertical events, including education, insurance, agriculture, manufacturing, and healthcare.
As a business, the company claims it’s doing well too, displaying some pretty impressive investment metrics:
I spoke with the co-founders, Troy Vosseller and Joe Kirgues, to find out more about how it all works and what the future of their operations is.
“Both Joe and I were lawyers, and we met working together on transactions, both on the start-up and investor sides. Joe and I hit it off and shared the view that there was a lot of efficiency missing for an entrepreneur to go from an idea to incorporating a business, growing that business, raising venture capital, etcetera, etcetera,” Vosseller said. “We are both fans of the accelerator model, starting with Paul Graham and YC. Reading his original essays on the show gave me a lot of inspiration. And we realized that we could do that here in Wisconsin. Joe and I quit our jobs. We found a group of angel investors outside of the Milwaukee area who share the same vision and passion. And we’ve been doing Gener8tor ever since, that was 10 years ago.”
The team’s first show was in Milwaukee in 2012, and for a while they alternated holding annual shows in Milwaukee and Madison. Work with startups, invest in startups, help them grow. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Although YC may have been the inspiration for Gener8tor, the duo tells me things were a little different a decade ago.
“I think there were more local accelerators between 2012 and 2014 than there are today. To some extent, there has been a shaking and sifting. I think the same thing is happening on the national scene. I think there’s been some merger around a handful of programs,” Vosseller explained. “We are running into the likes tech stars, 500 startups, massive challenge Y Alchemistof course, but it’s a much smaller group than it was 10 years ago.”
Both Kirgues and Vosseller are obviously passionate about boosting local ecosystems.
“My joke is that when you write $20,000 checks to a group of twenty-somethings and expect them to build a $100 million company out of it, that’s crazy, but not self-aware. Building a startup is a difficult task in any market, but even more so in these nascent ecosystems. What we found is that if you try to close the soft skills gap first, if you get founders in the room with investors and help them prepare for it, there are as many brilliant people born into one community as any other.” Kyrgyz said. “If you work to solve that problem, just one by one, you can go a lot further than I think we realized at the time.”
The duo focused heavily on building emerging ecosystems, starting with Madison and Milwaukee, then expanding the focus to more and more cities.