Seeds, Bees, and Startups: Scenes From The WI Entrepreneurs’ Conference

Another Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference has come and gone.

The 12th annual installment, held at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison, featured plenty of rock stars in the state’s innovation scene, from representatives of hot startups like Propeller Health and EatStreet, to investors like Wisconsin Investment Partners and the Golden Angels Network. Gov. Scott Walker and his presumed Democratic challenger in this year’s election, Mary Burke, made brief appearances. The winners in the Governor’s Business Plan Contest were crowned, which you can read more about by clicking here. There was even a startup pitch by an entrepreneur who’s not yet old enough to drive. (More on that later.)

Here are my favorite moments from the Wisconsin Technology Council’s two-day event:

—Follow the money: It should come as no surprise that perhaps the most packed session at the conference was a panel featuring four institutional investors from around the Midwest who collectively manage more than $800 million in venture capital. About 85 entrepreneurs and stakeholders attended the standing-room only talk, many waiting in line afterward to hand their business card to Yumin Choi of Boston-based HLM Venture Partners, Chris Olsen of Columbus, OH-based Drive Capital, Greg Robinson of Madison-based 4490 Ventures, and Jim Schultz of Effingham, IL-based Open Prairie Ventures (pictured below).

The panelists held a lively discussion covering everything from the impact of cloud computing on investing—it’s no longer essential for tech startups to be located near the computing giants in Silicon Valley, Olsen said—to the Midwest’s startup hotbeds. Olsen thinks Madison ranks in the top three, behind Pittsburgh and Chicago, for talent density, while Schultz thinks Wisconsin and Michigan are the region’s most active in trying to build an innovation ecosystem.

Wisconsin Entrepreneurs' Conference VC Panel—The value of experience: The most provocative proclamation came from Olsen, previously of Sequoia Capital, who said his new fund generally prefers to invest in first-time entrepreneurs because they have fresh perspectives that aren’t colored by past startup experiences. His team calls repeat entrepreneurs “retreads” because they tend to follow the “playbook” from their past successful ventures. “There’s nothing better in our minds than someone who’s never done it before,” Olsen explained.

But Choi pushed Olsen on this strategy, asking if that means he wouldn’t invest in the second startup from a successful entrepreneur in Drive’s portfolio. Olsen replied that it’s certainly possible. Schultz, meanwhile, said his fund—which focuses on agricultural technology and life sciences—only invests in seasoned entrepreneurs. “If you’re experienced, don’t go to Chris,” Choi joked, drawing laughter from the audience.

—Seed funds: Wyman Winston, the executive director of the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA), stopped by to promote two of his agency’s upcoming startup funding initiatives. First, WHEDA plans to put another $4 million into the Wisconsin Equity Investment Fund, bumping it to $10 million total. The fund is backed by a federal grant awarded in 2011. WHEDA will seek matching dollars from venture capital and private equity firms for investments in small businesses in low-income areas statewide, according to the request for proposals.

The second initiative is a micro-equity fund that would invest up to $400,000 in Milwaukee startups—no more than $25,000 per seed deal. WHEDA would again seek private investment partners to help back the fund. The amount could be increased to $750,000 as more funds become available, said Mike Powers, a WHEDA business development official.

The agency is seeking proposals for both initiatives through the end of June, Powers said.

—The “one-month rule”: Madison serial entrepreneur Mark Gehring drew applause from the crowd when he called for Wisconsin investors to self-impose a one-month deadline for vetting a potential startup deal. If a startup has to wait more than four weeks for an answer from a potential investor, “you’re handicapping a company you may eventually invest in,” Gehring said. He has helped raise $20 million across the startups he’s been involved in, including … Next Page »

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