Out-of-state investors planning to spend more time in Wisconsin

A panel of investors from outside Wisconsin agreed they’ll be spending more time in the state, where they’ve seen increasingly promising companies fueled by UW research and Epic.

The four panelists spoke Wednesday afternoon at the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium, where some were finalizing or pursuing business opportunities with startups in the state.

“We’ve started to see a critical mass of opportunities that leads us to believe we should be spending a lot more time here,” said Walker Fuller, senior associate at the Cincinnati-based River Cities Capital Fund.

Those opportunities are largely driven by the amount of talent in the state, both from its university graduates and Epic employees, some of whom leave to start their own companies.

Those two institutions, as well as local investors and accelerator programs such gener8tor, foster “a certain ecosystem in which companies and strong entrepreneurs will be born,” said Jake Colognesi, vice president of Boston’s Volition Capital, noting that UW-Madison’s computer science program is especially strong.

Wisconsin companies saw a significant spike in investments in 2014 at about $346 million reported, the latest Wisconsin Technology Council Wisconsin Portfolio found. That’s skewed by some larger investments such as the $127.4 million invested into SHINE Medical Technologies or $40 million into Renaissance Learning.

But even removing the six largest investments last year from the list shows $112 million raised, not far from the $128 million total from 2013.

The number of companies that reported investments, meanwhile, increased 31 percent from 2013, and investors outside the state again “played a significant role in funding state companies,” the report found. The $40 million Renaissance Learning investment, for example, came from Google Capital.

Outside activity will likely continue as investors from the competitive venture capital markets in the coasts try to find new opportunities elsewhere, said Ablorde Ashigbi of the Chicago-based Pritzker Group Venture Capital.

“We think there’s a significant amount of opportunity here that isn’t being covered in the same amount that you might see in a Silicon Valley or Chicago or New York,” he said.

Peter Christman of Chicago Ventures said their first fund invested about 60 percent of its money in Chicago and 30 percent in other parts of the Midwest, including Madison.

“I think that 30 percent number will go up dramatically,” he said. “The dynamics we’re seeing in Chicago are very much true around other geographies [in the Midwest].”

Still, the state might suffer from a possible lack of proven and experienced startup leaders — the kind who are ready to grow a startup into a public company one day, Colognesi said.

“That does not mean that that talent does not exist here,” he said. “It might be a little bit harder to find.”

In a Pittsburgh company that Colognesi has invested in, he said, they have little trouble finding the talented developers that come from Carnegie Mellon University. But bringing in people with proven experience in growing a company has been “probably the biggest hurdle that we’ve had to jump” there, he said.

Yet something that might actually help bring more investors into Wisconsin is Midwesterners’ tendency to shoot for lower fundraising totals, which can result in conversations with companies that “are certainly more grounded,” Colognesi said.

“There’s always going to be that gap in terms of what an investor thinks valuation should be in a business and what an entrepreneur thinks,” he said. “But the gap seems more reasonable to me [here], and that to us is certainly attractive just because that’s just one part of a much larger discussion we have to get to.”

— By Polo Rocha