WisBusiness: Entrepreneurship Conference kicks off Tuesday in Milwaukee

By Brian E. Clark

For WisBusiness.com

Would-be Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerbergs will get the chance to rub shoulders with some angel investors starting Tuesday at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs Conference at Milwaukee’s Pfister Hotel.

Having the Angel Capital Association regional meeting folded into the conference means some networks with tens of millions of dollars to (potentially) invest in start-ups is a big deal, said Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.

In addition to Wisconsin angel groups, there will be investors from five other states, said Still, whose group is organizing the gathering. He said Hyde Park Angels out of Chicago will be attending, as well as others from outside the Midwest.

The highlight of the conference will be the live judging of 12 finalists in the Governor’s Business Plan Contest. They represent a variety of tech-based sectors in Wisconsin’s start-up economy.

The contestants – with ideas ranging from picking college roomies to nanotechnology tools for manufacturing – have gone through three rounds of judging since the competition started in January. The finalists were whittled down from an initial 248 entries.

This year’s top 12 will deliver seven-minute pitches on their business ideas beginning at 4 p.m. Tuesday and the winners will be announced on Wednesday. They are vying for more than $200,000 in cash and in-kind prizes, including $25,000 worth of software from Microsoft.

Still said an entertaining part of the contest will be a “people’s choice” segment in which audience members will get the chance to vote on their favorite entrepreneurs by signing a (fake) check to invest in a start-up.

Rimas Buinevicius, former CEO of Sonic Foundry, is a finalist with his RoWheels start-up, which he co-founded with inventor and NASA engineer Salim Nasser of Florida. Nasser, who uses a wheelchair, has come up with a technology using a so-called “reverse solar gear” in the hub that allows people to propel their wheelchairs by pulling rather than pushing. In a nutshell, it reverses the motion of a traditional wheelchair wheel.

The advantage is that pulling is a more natural motion and results in fewer joint and arm muscle injuries, said Buinevicius, who spent eight weeks in a wheelchair after recovering from a broken leg. Though wheelchairs have evolved over the decades, the wheel technology hasn’t been changed much since it was designed more than 100 years ago.

He said he is using his experience at Sonic to get RoWheels off the ground.

“The early stage nature of taking a vision and a passion and creating the basic business plan and doing it all at the ground level is very similar,” he said.

Other than winning the top prize, he said he hopes to raise financial backing so the company can start manufacturing the wheels by the end of the year.

“A conference like this raising awareness and will get us the exposure to people who might be interested so we can get going,” he said. “The angel investors are looking for good ideas and these business plans have certainly been scrubbed and reviewed in a rigorous process.”

Still said other highlights of the conference will be 18 panel discussions of interest to entrepreneurs in different stages of company growth, as well as a speech by Kay Koplovitz, winner of this year’s Ken Hendricks Memorial “Seize the Day” award.

Koplovitz is a Milwaukee native and UW-Madison graduate who founded USA Network and co-founded Springboard Enterprises, an organization that connects female entrepreneurs with investors.

She is president of Koplovitz & Co., which consults with entertainment, sports and other companies, and chairwoman of Fifth & Pacific Companies Inc., which grew out of Liz Claiborne Inc. She is also a former chairwoman of the National Women’s Business Council.

She praised the conference’s agenda of “roll-up-your-sleeves work sessions that are tailored to the specific interests of entrepreneurs who will be able to learn some really valuable take-home advice.”

Moreover, she said business people will have a chance to meet investors at the gathering and expand their network of contacts.

Koplovitz, who noted she was flattered to win the “Seize the Day” award, said she will discuss her experience rising from television producer to the head of a cable network.

“Entrepreneurism takes not only vision, but hard work and persistance,” she said. “You often have to prevail over the objections of a lot of people to meet your goals.”

Koplovitz said when she joined WTMJ in Milwaukee she did not want to be the head of the news department of even the station general manager.

“My focus, ever since I was in graduate school and wrote my masters’ thesis on geosynchronous orbiting satellites and their impact on communications, was to launch a program network.

“People had a limited view of my potential. I wanted to be president of NBC,” she quipped.