The recent Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference kicked off with a reassuring message: Wisconsin is truly establishing itself as a destination for entrepreneurship. This was further evidenced by the opening plenary session, “Flyover Land No More,” which featured seven Wisconsin-based investors representing relatively new funds.
“There was a time in Wisconsin where this panel discussion wouldn’t have taken place, simply because there wouldn’t have been this many new funds in the state,” said Tom Still, president of Wisconsin Technology Council, which hosted the conference. “So this is a healthy sign, right off the bat, about what’s going on in Wisconsin.”
Following is a round-up of those funds, their focus and what types of companies each intends to support.
Idea Fund of La Crosse
“Our investment strategy is to come in early and help develop the first product,” said manager Jonathon Horne. “Our strategy is to bridge the gap between friends/family and angel investors.”
The Idea Fund seeks to invest in 10 to 12 startups in Wisconsin and is currently looking at a number of “great companies,” according to Horne. The fund is not limited by industry or sector, but will only invest in companies headquartered in Wisconsin.
Winnebago Seed Fund
Based in Neenah, the Winnebago Seed Fund (part of the Badger Fund of Funds) recently closed on an $11 million funding round. “We’ve had very good reception,” said manager David Trotter. “The phone has not stopped ringing.”
Similar to Idea Fund, Winnebago wants to be the initial investor in a new Wisconsin company, product or technology, and in some situations, will form a new company with the product inventor.
Focused on Northeast Wisconsin, Winnebago Seed Fund is seeking startups across all sectors and makes decisions based on return criteria.
“The best idea is the deciding factor,” said Trotter.
Rock River Capital Partners
Also part of the Badger Fund of Funds, Rock River funds post-seed stage companies.
“These are post-revenue companies, companies that have clients,” said fund co-manager Andy Walker. “We want the company to get to the point where it is ready for [an investment] of $3 million to $5 million to $10 million.”
Rock River’s total fund size is $25 million, and Walker and managing partner Christopher Eckstrom seek to make 10 to 15 investments.
With strong backgrounds that include investment and operational experience, Rock River’s funders see themselves as a potential partner in each startup’s team.
“With our backgrounds, we’re looking for a good fit to add value outside of money,” said Walker. “The goal is that we can help entrepreneurs when needed. That can be controversial, but we know when to jump in and help, and when to step back.”
Investing in seed to Series B rounds, CMFG Ventures, the venture capital arm of CUNA Mutual Group, focuses on fintech to commercialize products and platform solutions that address gaps and needs “to ensure credit unions remain strong and viable into the future,” said fund manager Brian Kaas.
Since setting up its venture fund in February 2016, CMFG has closed on eight investments totaling $45 million, and plans to close another $20 million in investments this year. To date, CMFG has not closed on any Wisconsin companies, “but we’re excited to make the first investment here,” said Kaas.
Northwestern Mutual Future Ventures
Milwaukee’s Northwestern Mutual (NM) got into the venture capital business to spark change and disruption in its industry.
“… Many sectors of the economy fund change and encourage change,” said fund manager Craig Schedler. “But fintech and insurtech were left out. [The fund] is a way to be in front this, and give our clients and advisors the technology they want and deserve.”
NM Future Ventures is keyed into financial technologies and digital medicine, especially as it relates to health care spending. The fund provides Series A and B funding, with initial investments in the $500,000 to $3 million range.
Bascom Ventures is unique in that all investors are alumni of the University of Wisconsin.
“We have a bunch of people who care, see potential and want to give back [to Wisconsin startups],” said fund director Greg Baker.
One of nine alumni-backed funds in the nation, this model also provides rich opportunities for new companies to network with alumni. “We have a database with everyone interested in helping, and companies have access to look and see where they can get some help.”
Bascom Ventures is seeking to invest in 15 to 25 companies led by UW alumni; the fund does not lead on deals. Investments range from $100,000 to $500,000, and the fund is stage-, industry- and geography-agnostic.
Also on the plenary panel was George Arida, representing 30 Ventures, which is currently building its fund. 30 Ventures is a Madison-based early-stage venture capital firm focused on early-stage medical diagnostics, biotechnology tools, medical devices, and industrial water and chemistry opportunities in the Midwest.