Renaissance VC’s Chris Rizik Wins EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award

Detroit/Ann Arbor Xconomist Chris Rizik is an interesting guy.

He’s a venture capitalist who runs his own soul music website on the side; as a graduate of both Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, he roots for both teams despite a bitter rivalry between them; he’s a close friend of Governor Rick Snyder, with whom he used to partner on an investment fund; and now, after multiple nominations, he’s EY’s 2017 Entrepreneur of the Year for Michigan and Northwest Ohio.

“It’s great, I’m very happy,” Rizik says. “It’s nice to see the work we’re doing at Renaissance being recognized.”

EY’s annual awards program, now in its 31st year, recognizes entrepreneurs who “[excel] in areas such as innovation, financial performance, and personal commitment to their businesses and communities.” Rizik’s award was in the financial services category, according to a press release, and he will now compete with other regional winners for the title of national Entrepreneur of the Year, who will be announced in November.

Rizik is being honored primarily for his work running Renaissance Venture Capital, a fund-of-funds that formed in 2008 in part to attract outside capital to Michigan startups. About a decade ago, he explains, Renaissance was launched after a consortium of the state’s corporate and government leaders came together with the idea of bolstering Michigan’s entrepreneurial ecosystem by investing in startups and strategically connecting those startups with major corporations.

“When we started Renaissance, it was a rough period in venture capital generally,” Rizik recalls. Michigan was reeling from the declining fortunes of the Big Three automakers, and investors wanted to cultivate more economic diversity by backing high-growth tech startups.

Since then, some once-hot sectors have cooled (cleantech) while others (artificial intelligence) have boomed, but the thesis driving Renaissance, he says, hasn’t changed.

“The underlying technologies may have changed, but the fundamentals of creative problem-solving are the same,” Rizik says. “We have to evolve to make sure we’re investing where there’s a real need in a market that rewards success.”

The most valuable trait a venture capitalist can have, he says, is “the ability to look forward in a way that doesn’t get too emotional.” In other words, one needs to be able to pull back from something that isn’t working, even if a tremendous amount of blood, sweat, and tears have already been shed in trying to get it off the ground.

Another thing Rizik has learned is to be cautious about tech trends. For example, when social media startups were dominating Silicon Valley a few years ago, it would have been a mistake to try replicating that sector in Michigan, a place with natural strengths in industrial tech and transportation-related innovations—not social media.

“One thing that has changed is using funds like ours to try to will things to happen even if the market doesn’t want it,” he adds. “Our role should be to remove barriers, which is different than deciding where the important investments are. There is so much going on, it’s a matter of trying to optimize those opportunities.”

Rizik has also noticed that Michigan VCs have become more self-aware in the past ten years. “In 2009 or 2010, the blinders came off about some of the cultural issues” that were creating a preoccupation with risk and holding investors back from funding startups. “Now, when the economy is chugging along, the risk is that we might fall back into old habits. Especially with my generation—that’s an area where we always need to be on guard.”

He is optimistic about the fact that there hasn’t yet been a “complete reversion” to favoring major companies to the exclusion of startups, and says 2017 is shaping up to being one of the busiest periods in Renaissance’s history.

“There’s a bumper crop of startups coming out of accelerators and universities—there are more opportunities than ever for startup investment,” he says. “We’re also trying to be helpful in a totally open-source way to other emerging regions looking to create funds like Renaissance. It’s not a zero-sum game, and the rest of the country is starting to catch up because the model has proven to be a success.”

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