Up the river with a paddle: Wisconsin River investors making waves

The village and town of Plover near Stevens Point are not unlike many mid-sized communities in Wisconsin, with tidy homes, stores, schools, restaurants, parks, and more. But Plover has something hard to find in most other places: It has an organized group of early-stage investors.

Billed as “central Wisconsin’s only angel investment group,” the Wisconsin River Business Angels and its management arm, Midwest Wealth Ventures, embody the fact that early-stage investing is not confined to America’s West and East coasts — or the larger cities in Wisconsin, for that matter.

With a half-dozen or more company investments in its portfolio and others likely to follow, Wisconsin River Business Angels is a network of investors who come together on a regular basis to hear company pitches, conduct due diligence, and make relatively small investments — typically six figures — in young companies. Many are tech-based firms.

The list includes companies from central Wisconsin but others from southern Wisconsin, such as Blue Line Battery, Nurse Disrupted, and Pyran, the latter two being graduates of the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest.

Founded by Jeff Ebel and Leon Ostrowski, Wisconsin River Business Angels aims to make money for its investors and has done so over time. Nothing else good happens otherwise. In the process, however, the group is investing in the future of central Wisconsin, which needs to diversify its business base beyond traditional industries.

“We aspire to create a culture of entrepreneurial ambition focusing on, but not limited to, central Wisconsin,” Ebel said during a Wednesday night investor dinner in Plover.

In addition to the network’s investors, attending the event were managers from the Idea Fund of La Crosse, which is part of the larger Badger Fund of Funds, and Wisconsin Investment Partners, one of the state’s largest and oldest angel networks. That broader presence speaks to the continued rise of “co-investing” among Wisconsin’s early-stage groups, which is usually — if not always — necessary to bring young companies across the finish line.

Twenty years ago, the number of early-stage investor groups in Wisconsin could be counted on one hand. Today, there are about 40 of all descriptions, with more of them calling places other than Madison and Milwaukee home.

Those groups and the Tech Council Investor Networks often share information about potential deals among themselves and others outside Wisconsin, which is drawing more attention from out-of-state investment groups.

Those kinds of connections were evidence in 2021, when Wisconsin recorded a record dollar amount in early-stage investments. The total was $852 million, up from $483 million in 2020 and $454 million in 2019. In fact, the trend line has been largely up in dollars for the last decade.

Much of that is because larger venture funds in Wisconsin and well beyond are putting money into maturing companies such as SHINE Technologies, Fetch Rewards, Redox, and others. It is also because the pipeline of young companies is being replenished by smaller networks and funds such as the Wisconsin River Business Angels.

In addition to being a record year for dollars invested by angel and venture capitalists in Wisconsin, 2021 set a new standard for interest by out-of-state investors. Ninety out-of-state or international groups put money into 42 Wisconsin deals last year, about one-third of the state’s total. That nearly doubled the total of non-Wisconsin investors from 2020.

All that is progress, but Wisconsin has a long way to go to catch neighboring states, let alone the “big four” of California, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas. It is closing the gap with states such as Minnesota, however, after decades of lagging behind that comparably sized state.

One reason for growth is smaller networks and funds that operate in Wisconsin’s mid-sized cities, investing in young companies that show market promise. Even in 2021, when the average Wisconsin deal size shot up to $7 million, the median size remained at roughly $1 million. That suggests tomorrow’s major deals are emerging today.

The investors in Wisconsin River Business Angels want a solid return on investment, beyond financial returns. They want to see communities such as Plover and Stevens Point remain healthy places to live for this generation and the next.

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