Drive Capital, Led By Sequoia Vets, Sees Midwest as Next Startup Hub

Chris Olsen thinks the Midwest is a better place to build a startup than either coast, and he intends to prove it.

The Cincinnati native was a partner for six years at the well-known Silicon Valley venture capital firm Sequoia Capital, before former Sequoia colleague Mark Kvamme recruited Olsen back to Ohio to start a new venture capital fund in Columbus.

That might be a head-scratcher to some coastal VCs, but to Kvamme and Olsen it makes perfect sense. They view the Midwest as an underappreciated startup hub that features good talent coming out of its universities, a lower cost of living than places like the San Francisco Bay Area, and a central location near plenty of companies’ potential customers.

The missing ingredient? Money, Olsen says.

They want their new $250 million Midwest-focused fund, Drive Capital, to help change the region’s startup equation. The idea is that more regional funding sources specifically targeting Midwest companies will lead to more entrepreneurs staying and building businesses here.

Drive Capital is certainly not the only sizable VC player in the region, but the new kid on the block has made its presence known early on. When Drive Capital closed the fund in January, it marked the second-largest inaugural fund raised nationwide in the previous year, according to Forbes. Its backing investors include Ohio State University and Silicon Valley Bank, Forbes reported.

The fund focuses on technology, tech-enabled services, and healthcare. It has put money in eight companies so far, Olsen says, including two in Wisconsin (Green Bay-based Aver Informatics and another undisclosed startup) and one in Michigan (Ann Arbor-based FarmLogs).

Xconomy caught up with Olsen recently to talk about Drive Capital’s investment strategy and his outlook for the Midwest. The following is an edited transcript.

Xconomy: Why start a $250 million venture capital fund in the Midwest?

Chris Olsen: We started this because we were interested when we discovered that there is a tremendous amount of innovation in the Midwest, and almost nobody is paying attention to it from a venture capital standpoint.

Twenty-two percent of U.S. GDP is in the Midwest. If it was a country, it would be the fifth-largest country. Twenty-five percent of all research in the U.S. on a dollar basis is in the Midwest. Only 4 percent of venture capital dollars are invested in the Midwest. We looked at that and felt like it was a huge opportunity. Those numbers, what they ended up doing, was confirming a lot of what we see every day, of lots of smart people coming from the Midwest.

X: Technology and tech-enabled services are two of your three investment themes, but isn’t the Midwest tech scene still far behind the coasts?

CO: That’s the perception, but my experience has been to the contrary. You look at the great minds in Silicon Valley [who have come from the Midwest], like [Google co-founder and CEO] Larry Page, who was a University of Michigan grad.

The reality is that they left because when they wanted to go start their company, there weren’t investors here to support their vision. We think if we give them the opportunity to build their business here, they’ll do it. This is a better place to do it. There’s tremendous access to talent. Everybody thinks that all this stuff happens at MIT and Stanford. The reality is those are nice places and a lot of smart kids go there, but they don’t have the density of the Midwest of all these engineering schools in these states. There are tremendous engineering programs that are driving the labor force that goes into these technologies.

X: You’ve invested in two companies in Wisconsin so far. What do you see as the state’s strengths?

CO: I think there’s really a couple things. First and foremost, I see a risk tolerance in the entrepreneurs there that is on par with the best minds that I’ve ever seen. They are the types of entrepreneurs who have dreams and a vision of building billion-dollar companies. I see a tremendous concentration of those types of people in Wisconsin.

The second thing I see is a tremendously educated and relevant talent force that comes from places like Madison, WI, and companies around there like Epic Systems. People get educations to build the products and services that are going to drive the types of companies that we invest in.

The third thing is I see it as a great place to live. How do you build a massive company? You need to attract not 10 people, not 20 people, but 1,000 people. How do you do that? It’s difficult if you’re not in a place that people want to live.

X: But what about the cold, snowy Wisconsin winters?

CO: From my standpoint, the winters are great. They’re an opportunity to focus on the business.

X: Do you see any weaknesses in Wisconsin’s startup community right now?

CO: Nothing jumps out at me. I wish there was more collaboration, I wish there were more venture funds, I wish there were more … Next Page »

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One response to “Drive Capital, Led By Sequoia Vets, Sees Midwest as Next Startup Hub”

  1. Megan Burkett says:

    I just had this conversation with a friend who is trying to start a tech organization in Ohio but is very frustrated. he was looking at opportunities on the west coast. I am vigilant (as an Indiana-native and partner of Ohio executives) about the Midwest being the premier location to start a business. Not only is the cost of living better but the cost and benefits for small businesses are tremendous. I think we will see a paradigm shift in the next 3-5 years with young people staying or moving to the Midwest to innovate and entrepreneur supporters gravitating to “the middle.” I am curious, what do you foresee as potential setbacks or roadblocks?