When Micah Sawyer got out of the U.S. Air Force a few years ago, he had come off a stint of traveling around the globe.
The Janesville native now finds himself at a desk at Foremost Media, a website and media developer in a converted tobacco warehouse downtown. A row of Minecraft figurines stands at attention on a desk used by Sawyer, who earned a technical degree at Blackhawk Technical College on the GI bill.
Sawyer spends his workdays converting his graphic artist colleagues’ designs into functional websites. From the window of his second-story office, he can practically see his house just up the hill on Milton Avenue.
Many days, Sawyer feels like he struck gold in his own backyard.
“I found out a few years back that traveling the world, bouncing around, isn’t fun,” he said. “Every day, I still feel like I lucked out finding this opportunity in Janesville. Actually having this chance, a good career prospect and a reason to stay here, it’s something I might not have expected a few years ago.”
Tech companies such as Foremost Media are a growing force downtown. Local officials estimate that such businesses now employ about 300 people as larger companies move out of basements and small office startup spaces elsewhere in the city.
Those businesses have emerged as one driver of downtown revitalization, along with the nascent redevelopment of retail and office spaces and large-scale plans such as the city’s ARISE riverfront strategy. Some tech firms saying they’re seeing 15 percent to 20 percent growth per year.
CEOs at three downtown tech companies—SHINE Medical Technologies, N1 Critical Technologies and Foremost Media—talked Wednesday about what it’s like to work and grow downtown and the prospects for other high-tech startups there.
“I’ve never seen momentum in downtown Janesville like it is now,” said Jon Ballard, who co-owns Foremost Media.
Ballard has grown the company steadily over the last decade, from a basement space in his own home to office space on Janesville’s east side to a full-floor operation.
In mid-2016, the company moved to the wide-open, industrial-chic space of the Gray Goose, a turn-of-the-century warehouse on North Academy Street that the company renovated a few years ago with the building’s owner.
At the Wednesday talk, which was open to the public, city Economic Development Director Gale Price asked the three CEOs what drew them downtown—and what they think might bolster downtown’s power to draw more tech firms.
Ballard, SHINE CEO Greg Piefer and N1 Critical Technologies CEO Nate Ellsworth all said a leading reason they moved downtown was the city’s willingness to invest in their growth through tax increment financing incentives. They also noted that city officials have worked closely with them on their plans.
Piefer said his company couldn’t have located in Janesville without that help. SHINE last year moved its headquarters from the Madison area to downtown Janesville and now has 60 employees working there.
The company aims to build a medical radioisotope production facility on the city’s south end.
All the CEOs said they believe the city’s focus on revitalizing downtown through ARISE will help tech companies such as theirs recruit and retain workers.
Ballard said Janesville offers lower business overhead and living costs compared to larger cities. Some of his workers say they enjoy downtown restaurants that are within walking distance and a much shorter commute than they’d find in the Madison area.
N1 Critical Technologies builds backup computer power systems, including a groundbreaking line powered by lithium ion battery technology, and it recently landed clients such as Tesla and Google, Ellsworth said.
N1 plans to move into space it’s renovating in the former Red Cross building on North Parker Drive.
The city is chipping in for façade work on N1’s future headquarters via an incentive deal through the downtown TIF district.
In the two years N1 has existed, it has grown from a few employees to 16 inside the Janesville Innovation Center, a business incubator.
Ellsworth said the innovation center is the reason his company located in Janesville. He hopes to grow N1 to as many as 30 employees in the next few years, and he credits the city and the innovation center for helping with that goal.
“I’ve started other companies in Madison, and I’ve had more help here in just a short amount of time than I’ve had” anywhere else, Ellsworth said. “So we’ll help foster the changes (downtown). We’ll be here. It’ll be great.”
Piefer said he thinks local officials and tech companies should market the city’s emerging high-tech sector to the outside world—and try to make Janesville’s tech profile more visible to startup companies and UW System officials.
Jonathan Van Tassell runs Jonosha Corp., a startup research and development firm focused on robotics and computer systems. He attended the downtown tech talk and said he was “impressed” with what he heard.
Van Tassell said he had been unaware that downtown Janesville was becoming a launch pad for some tech firms. He looked around Foremost Media’s stylish office space, which looks like it could be at home in any major metro area.
“This is unexpected. I’ve driven past this building (the Gray Goose) most of my life, and I would never have known that one of the tech companies had headquarters up here,” Van Tassell said.
“It helps to hear what some of these firms’ processes were. How do you get from the start to where you’re renovating buildings downtown and talking about TIF zones? Small companies doing it on their own, they could use some help knowing where to start.”