By Tom Still

MADISON – Kelly Fitzsimmons is no stranger to raising money to jumpstart her ideas. One of her companies, Sun Tzu Security Ltd., sold to Chicago-based Neohapsis Inc. about five years ago after she helped bootstrap the Milwaukee-based firm into the competitive world of computer security systems.

But even Fitzsimmons was surprised a few months ago when her latest venture, Comic Wonder, a Milwaukee web site dedicated to “the art of joke telling,” raised $750,000 in start-up cash in what seemed like a matter of hours.

On the strength of a brief presentation at the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium last fall, Fitzsimmons and her husband, fellow entrepreneur Jeff, won over several key angel investors. Before the November conference was over, a deal was in the works.

“We actually had it locked down at the conference,” she said, but the term sheets were dated Dec. 31, 2007, in part because the Fitzsimmons took some time off for the birth of their second daughter. “I literally got out of the hospital signed the term sheet. It was almost shocking how quickly this came together.”

The core reason for Fitzsimmons’ success is Comic Wonder, which launched with a beta test in July 2007 and rolled out nationally in December with its first joke-telling contest. Advertisers buy sponsorships for the “Comic Wonder of the Year” contest and can do so locally, regionally or nationally. It’s a business plan based on partnerships with radio stations and online media, which receive regularly refreshed, sponsor-ready content. Think syndicated traffic or weather reports, substitute jokes as the content, and you’ll understand Comic Wonder.

“I’d love to take the credit and say it was our (business) model,” Fitzsimmons said, “but it’s more than that. There has been a sea change in terms of receptivity among angels. We’ve done a really good job as a state of cultivating that community, and helping to put good deals in front of them.”

The investors in Comic Wonder are Phenomenelle Angels, Wisconsin Women Angels and Wisconsin Investment Partners. They represent three of Wisconsin’s 18 formal angel networks, 17 of which are members of the Wisconsin Angel Network. That’s an umbrella group organized three years ago through the Wisconsin Technology Council and state government to provide an automated “deal-flow pipeline” and related services.

The rise in angel investing across Wisconsin has been accompanied by more activity by other private equity investors, as well. Shortly after the Comic Wonder deal was announced, two Madison-based biotech companies – Centrose and Nerites – announced separate investments totaling $7 million. Within the past year, Venture Investors of Madison has raised a $117-million venture capital fund, Kegonsa Capital Partners has funded a handful of companies and sold one of its portfolio companies to Microsoft, and new angel funds have been organized. Meanwhile, the state’s tax-credit program for angel and venture investments in start-up companies has expanded with bipartisan support.

Last week, biotech investor G. Steven Burrill returned to his home town of Madison to meet with some leading figures in Wisconsin’s technology sector – including eight young companies. Burrill, whose global firm has about $1 billion in assets under management, also met with Gov. Jim Doyle, Commerce Secretary Jack Fischer and Financial Institutions Secretary Lorrie Heinemann.

Of course, not every entrepreneur is an experienced as Kelly or Jeff Fitzsimmons, and only a relatively small percentage of Wisconsin companies receive private equity financing at any time in their existence. But the state’s entrepreneurial and tech sectors appear to be hitting the national radar screens, as evidenced by a recent story in Forbes magazine that cited Venture Investors as an example of a successful “non-coastal” VC firm.

Wisconsin is still far from an investment paradise, but the recent experiences of Comic Wonder and other start-up firms demonstrates that finding money here is no longer a bad joke.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.