Johnson brings personal startup experience to WEDC
Lisa Johnson, head of the entrepreneurship program at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., understands the highs and lows of creating a company from scratch.
“I’ve lived through it and know what it’s like to be part of a startup,” said Johnson, who helped launch the Madison-based Novagen bioscience company in 1989.
“I’ve lived with no cash, I’ve not been paid and I’ve personally had to guarantee a loan. It can be really tough, so I think it helps that I have that experience and can relate to entrepreneurs. We need to do more to support them in this state.”
Johnson was one of the four original founders of Novagen – the other three were former Promega scientists. Over time, it grew to nearly 100 employees. It was sold in 1998 to CN Biosciences, a publicly traded company in San Diego.
The next year, Merck, the German pharmaceutical and chemical firm, bought CN. But in 2009, EMD Chemicals – Novagen’s new name – was moved to San Diego.
“It was an exciting time to be in that business and I was very fortunate,” she said. “We had the community come around us with loans from Madison Development Corp., MG&E and even a private investor from Arkansas so we were able to grow a life-science tools company.”
Johnson stayed with Novagen after it was sold, focusing mostly on business development and international sales, she said. With EMD, she worked in operations and became a vice president for corporate development. She remained in Madison, resisting efforts to move to San Diego, she recalled.
“I’m really devoted to this state, I did not want to move,” she said. When the former Novagen was shut down and consolidated with a San Diego facility, Johnson joined Semba Biosciences – another life sciences tool company -- working with some of the same team that started Novagen.
“We were able to raise equity, even though it was during the recession and the economy was very difficult,” she said. Two years ago, she joined WEDC with the title of vice president for entrepreneurship and innovation.
“I’d never worked in the public sector,” she said. “But what pushed me to this was the public/private format. I thought the state as was trying to do something different and I certainly had experience with entrepreneurship.”
In spite of the WEDC’s rocky and controversial start, Johnson said she’s glad she joined WEDC.
“Obviously, the WEDC has had its ups and downs,” she said of the transition from the old Commerce Department.
“But I think we are over that hump ... and negativity. A lot of good things have been done this past year and I think we have been focused on the customers, especially during the last few months. We’ve been able to forge ahead and implement some creative programs that have not been done before.”
Johnson said she’s learned a lot at her new post, especially from WEDC employees who worked at Commerce.
“I only knew the biotech industry,” she said. “I didn’t know other industries, but now I feel I have a very good grasp of what is going on all over the state."
Johnson said she believes government should help rather than lead entrepreneurs.
“I’m a big believer that the government follows,” she said. “That’s what happened with Novagen. I saw the community come around us, they didn’t lead us. At the end of the day, we had to manage that company correctly. We had to have the right products. The community came to support us and that is what I think WEDC and the government’s role is. And then get out of the way.”
She said she also thinks there is adequate attention by policy makers on early stage companies.
“I think they do realize that there is only so much they can do,” she said. “You can’t put a ton of policies and a lot of legislation out there. I think it’s important to not create a lot of barriers, but to continue to find ways to get more seed capital out there and collaborating more.
“There are a lot of entities in this state that are trying to do things. We need to work together and make it easier for entrepreneurs to start their businesses and know where to go for resources. We have to create an environment here so people know this is a good place to start a company.”
She cited two efforts – Capital Catalyst and Seed Accelerator – as programs that are helping entrepreneurs.
Through the Capital Catalyst endeavor, she said WEDC provides seed grants of $50,000 to $500,000 to approved organizations or communities that already have existing seed funds in place or the ability to create such funds.
These locally-managed funds may make grants, debt and/or investments in startups, early stage and innovative small businesses that operate in their region. Loan repayments and returns on investment stay with the local partners to fund additional startups and create a supportive environment for entrepreneurs.
With the Seed Accelerator effort, WEDC provides funds to groups to support pre-seed business model programs that incorporate training, mentoring and financial assistance to entrepreneurs in their area. Grant funds may be used as seed capital for companies in the accelerator, as well as for costs associated with initiating the accelerator program.
“These are a start,” she said. “They aren’t perfect programs and I’m sure we will need to look at them and see how we can improve them. But they are already having an impact and I am excited about that. We are doing some innovative things and pushing hard to help people.”
Though she did not have statistics, Johnson said she believes Wisconsin is doing as well as Minnesota, Illinois and other Midwestern states when it comes to startups.
“There are a lot of rankings out there,” she said. “It’s like accounting. You can make the numbers say whatever you want depending on the data you are pulling.”
She said, however, that Midwestern states rank significantly below the coasts.
“So we are struggling somewhat because of where we are located,” she said. “Besides, the coasts have been at it much longer.
“It will take a while for the Midwest to catch up, but a lot of Midwestern states are doing some really good things to help startup activities and I see us working together on a regional basis. We’re also going to have to market ourselves a lot harder here in the Midwest.”
-- By Brian E. Clark