When Allen Dines joined the UW-Madison Office of Corporate Relations 13 years ago, he was hired to be a “coach” for faculty who wanted to start their own companies. That role later expanded to include helping students, university staff members and others.
Over time, Dines, who founded and sold several of his own companies before signing on with the university, expanded that entrepreneurial ecosystem, helping start Merlin Mentors, First Look Investor Forums, Student Business Incubators, as well as networking events and breakfasts.
“We did a bunch of things to knit together some of the programs that already existed in different parts of the campus,” he said. “One of the most notable we accomplished was winning a Kauffman Grant to increase awareness of and access to entrepreneurship. The program that we ran gave a big jumpstart to activities that focus on startups, like the D2P (Discovery to Product) program.
Dines, who is 70, retired from OCR in 2014. But he hasn’t slowed down much. Last fall, he helped launch WISC Partners with a handful of deep-pocketed alumni from UW-Madison who have had successful careers in Northern California’s Silicon Valley. He said the goal of this strategic operating capital fund is to invest in companies that are emerging from UW-Madison and elsewhere around the state.
Dines, an executive partner with WISC Partners, said the fund’s so-called “sweet spot” is finding promising young companies that angel investors have backed but can’t take any further along the road to success. Other relatively new early stage investment funds similar to WISC Partners include American Family Ventures, 4490 Ventures and HealthX.
Dines — who remains active with Merlin Mentors, 100Health, Madworks Accelerator, and several other groups — said it was through his work at OCR that he met UW-Madison alumni in Silicon Valley who’d self-organized into a group called the Badger Entrepreneurship Forum.
“They were all Badgers who found camaraderie and conviviality by getting together with other Badgers,” he said. “What they had in common was that they were all active in startups and investing out there. I figured with these guys, we could benefit by forging some contacts with them.
“They have some affinity to the campus and are looking for ways to give back. And by giving back, it doesn’t necessarily mean opening their wallets. It could be contacts or providing advice. So I set up a few events and we were able to introduce entrepreneurs here to them.”
Dines modestly says that some of the WISC Partners call him the “godfather” of the organization.
“That might be one way to look at it,” he chuckled. “And it was some of the connections I originally crafted that led to the formation of the fund. But by in large, they on their own said it would be interesting if we could put together a fund to make investments in companies coming out of Wisconsin… to accelerate their growth.”
Dines said he would not call WISC Partners a venture capital fund.
“At this point, it is a group of guys who are based in the Valley,” he said. “They were UW students who mostly grew up here in Wisconsin and moved to the valley and have done very well. They are now at the point where they are interested in other investments and they see that what is going on in Wisconsin in the high-tech sector in particular, and life sciences, and they see that as a business opportunity that they can take advantage of by bringing some of their business skills and connections in addition to some money.”
He said he and the others in WISC Partners believe it takes a triangle of sorts to get a company up and running.
“One side is the money part, but the other two sides are maybe as important or more important,” he said. “And that has to do with the networks and company building skills. When I talk about strategic operating capital, our differentiation here is that we aren’t just investors.
“We don’t just go and look for a company that has great management and great idea and is going to grow and we invest in it to help move that growth forward. We also say that there is something extra that we can contribute that will make this company even better than what it would be if it just went along by itself.”
He said WISC Partners offers post-investment engagement, “and that is where we bring in company building skills. That is partly the people who are directly involved with WISC Partners, but it is also the networks that we bring.
“We don’t buy the entire company. We make a bet, an investment that is more comparable to what angels would invest in. We don’t get rid of the current management. We think that is part of what the company has to offer is the existing management team. What we do, though, is we augment that team with expertise that we bring from the valley. This provides a Wisconsin company with a kind of pipeline to a lot of resources that people in the Midwest don’t have.”
He said WISC Partners first investment was in Imbed Biosciences, a Madison-based, wound-care technology company that utilizes a nano-scale silver ion product to reduce wound infection and promote healing. Imbed is close to applying for FDA approval in United States and is considering entering foreign markets.
WISC Partners is now looking at several other investments while building out its fund of $25 million, which he said should be achieved within several months. Most of the money is coming from California, though alumni for other parts of the country have invested, he added.
“Our long-range objective is to connect people with the right resources with Wisconsin companies,” added Dines, who said he is not “officially” working full-time at WISC Partners.
“I’m part of the Badger Startup Summit again this year as co-chair, staying active by being involved with what young people are doing, as well as others in the core of their careers. But I’m also hoping to have time to myself now and then to sit back on my patio and ponder the backyard with a nice gin and tonic.”
— By Brian E. Clark