History of venture conference reflects growth of Wisconsin’s tech sector

Thirty years ago, a smart young entrepreneur stood up in front of a group of investors at the first Madison Venture Fair to talk about a company that was selling molecular biological products, such as enzymes and nucleic acids, to researchers and laboratories.

That company is now called Promega and the young ’trep was founder Bill Linton.

Along with 11 other companies, mostly in their early stages, Promega was one of the first presenters in a conference format that has endured in various forms since 1984. Known the past 10 years as the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium, it was previously the Madison Venture Fair, the Wisconsin Venture Fair, the Wisconsin Venture Conference, and the Wisconsin Life Sciences Venture Conference.

By whatever name, the annual matchmaking event has introduced up-and-coming companies to prospective investors and contributed to Wisconsin’s high-growth economy.

This year’s event, set for Nov. 12-13 in Madison, will again provide platforms for emerging companies to pitch their ideas and business plans. Those 40 or so companies will range from firms that have raised angel or venture capital in the past to first-time presenters with little more than a compelling idea.

Over time, nearly 500 companies have pitched at the event — and the list includes some major success stories.

In addition to Promega (then called Promega Biotec), the list includes TomoTherapy, Virent, Mirus Corp., Sonic Foundry, Prodesse, NimbleGen, Nerites, Idle Free Systems, Third Wave Technologies, Stratatech, Sologear, PanVera, Soft Switching Technologies, and many more.

Among the companies pitching in the 1984 event was Office Solutions, the first firm launched by Jan Eddy, whose other successes included Wingra Software.

“I spent a lot of time preparing my 35-millimeter slides for the first venture fair and practicing my pitch so I could fit all the important information into the 15 minutes each presenter was allowed,” Eddy recalled. “This forced me to laser-focus on highlighting our most important accomplishments but, more important, clearly articulate our strategy and upside opportunity to capture market share. … I practiced my presentation dozens of times so that I wouldn’t waste any words.”

Investment trends may come and go as innovation transforms the economy, but one constant is the notion that a well-honed pitch to interested investors is more a start than a finish.

“Back then, we also had to have a very detailed business plan available for distribution during the one-on-ones following the presentations,” Eddy recalled. “Preparing it forced a discipline on the company owners to discuss strategies and tactics and exit paths that we might otherwise not have reached clear consensus on so early in the company’s life cycle. I sometimes think in today’s entrepreneurial capital-raising process we are not doing the ’treps any favors by relying on their ‘deck’ instead of a full-blown business plan.”

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While it’s nearly impossible to assign a dollar value to the deals that have flowed through, in and around the conference, it is relatively easy to chart what the event has meant to the high-growth economy over time. A significant percentage of companies land angel or venture capital dollars — and they survive longer, either to the point of being acquired or growing on their own.

For example, Promega was 6 years old and had 50 products and 26 employees in 1984 — already an impressive start. Today, it has 3,000 products, 1,300 employees, 15 global branches, and more than 50 global distributors. It’s all run out of its gleaming campus off Fish Hatchery Road south of Madison.

Not every presenting company can count on becoming the next Promega, of course, but the opportunity to make a pitch early can help in unexpected ways.

Quintessence Biosciences founder Ralph Kauten, who has presented for three companies over time, likened it to a “piano recital … it helps to create focus, it helps you to develop your story, which is critical for an entrepreneur.” He said presenting companies must be prepared to hear “no” from investors, and not expect to walk away with a big check right away.

“I think it’s important for entrepreneurs to set reasonable expectations when they participate in symposiums or venture ‘fairs,’” Eddy added. “The contacts you make at the event will be just the beginning of your capital-raising journey. As you pursue the contacts, some doors will shut but many more doors will open. Years down the road, as you reflect on the path you followed in funding and growing your business, don’t be surprised if it all leads back to that first introduction at the symposium.”

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