Improving economy boosts attendance at state startup event

More than 525 people took part in the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium at the Monona Terrace Conference Center on Tuesday, up from 488 last year, organizers said.

The symposium will continue today with a number of panel discussions, a plenary session on new funds available for startups and the popular Elevator Pitch Olympics.

Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, attributed the increased number of attendees at the annual matchmaking event for investors and nascent companies to a slowly improving economy and a broader range of technologies.

In addition to the usual array of information technology and medical device startups, he said entrepreneurs also presented new ideas for personal watercraft, diesel aircraft engines and multi-use construction equipment.

“We have more than 60 angel groups here networking with people trying to build companies and investors from as far away as Houston looking for good ideas,” he said.

Still said the theme of this year’s conference was the “art” of creating a startup.

“Nearly all of these companies are based on science and technology,” he said.

“But there is still an art to getting them successfully off the ground,” he added, noting that the keynote luncheon speaker was Mark Schmitz, who founded the internationally successful Zebradog design firm in Madison 20 years ago.

Dave Kruse, chief operating officer for Isomark, a company that is using research licensed from WARF to create products that can detect infections via breath, said he was at the Early Stage Symposium to raise $750,000 the firm needs.

“We’ve already gotten a big chunk of it, but we need to raise more,” he said. “That’s why we’re here presenting and talking to investors. This is a good conference for us to make connections and potentially scare up some more investors.

“It takes many touches to raise $750,000. You can’t do it on the first pitch, that’s for sure,” mused Kruse, who said he hopes Isomark can get complete its product trials and get FDA clearance in several years.

Speaking during the luncheon, Zebradog’s Schmitz said he identified with the entrepreneurs at the symposium because his company was once a struggling startup.

“I had to figure out how to pay for it, how to leverage it and make it mean something to a lot of people.”

“And I think that’s what all of you are in the business of right now, whether you are part of seeding those new ideas or creating them,” explained Schmitz, who said his company’s name started out as “Z Design,” evolved into “ZD” and then became “Zebradog” on a whim.

Schmitz called the idea “king.”

“And the idea, combined with passion will constantly win,” he said.

But he said ideas must be “staged” to be noticed.

“There are a lot of brilliant, talented people with great ideas under the bed that have never done anything with them,” he said. “So the idea of (creating) an experience is what our company does. And it’s my job to stage an emotional brand experience.”

In the end, he said, “all business is theater.”

“We’d like to make logical decisions, but we don’t. People are human beings … and emotions play a big part in those decisions.”

Schmitz urged even the newest of companies to consider themselves international firms – because of the Internet and Google – and to make sure that they craft their brand with care.

“Your brand is an incredibly important part of what you do,” he said, explaining that his company’s moniker has attracted a good amount of international business for it.

He said it amazes him that companies, especially young companies, don’t understand and cannot leverage their image or their brand or their “stickiness” of what and who they are.

“But it’s something that you need to get real smart on real fast,” he said. “If you don’t do it and don’t do it well out of the box, it will come to hurt you in the future.”

Schmitz said entrepreneurs need to understand their brands.

“You might have a brilliant idea and you might have $20 million to back it up,” he said. “But when that brilliant idea is put down next to another brilliant idea, it will come down to an emotional choice.

“And that’s where you win or you lose. There is no in the middle and it’s incredibly important that you understand the art of communicating and the art of design.”

— By Brian E. Clark