By Tom Still

MADISON – Angel and venture investors are paying much closer
attention to young companies in Wisconsin. That observation is supported by the
latest edition of the “Wisconsin Portfolio,” which showed a 31 percent jump in
the number of early stage deals in Wisconsin in 2014 compared with 2013.

So far in 2015, the trend appears to be holding up well as
investors put money into young companies in a mix of business sectors.

Read this column in the Wisconsin State Journal here.

How do those young companies find interested and qualified
investors? One time-tested way is to make a company presentation at the Wisconsin
Early Stage Symposium.

This event has been taking place over three decades in Madison,
where it began as the Madison Venture Fair. It has contributed over time to the
growth of young companies – some of which can be counted among Wisconsin’s tech
economy success stories. Names such as Promega, Sonic Foundry, Mirus, TomoTherapy,
Prodesse, NimbleGen, Nerites, Idle Free Systems and Office Solutions are among
the event’s 500-plus “graduates.”

This year’s conference will take place Nov. 4th
and 5th at Madison’s Monona Terrace Convention Center. But, as you
might imagine, companies can’t just show up and make an impromptu pitch.

The deadline is Sept. 28 for companies to apply at for a chance to
present in one of two tracks.

The Wisconsin Angel Network track, which will
accept at least 20 companies to each make six-to-seven-minute pitches.

The Elevator Pitch Olympics, which will accept
at least 15 companies that will each make a 90-second presentation in front of
a panel of investor judges.

There are plenty of pitch events these days – some of which
lack a key ingredient, a critical mass of investors. If past Early Stage
Symposiums are precursor, at least 60 angel and venture investors will attend in
November, not only from Wisconsin but well beyond.

When asked following the 2014 Early Stage Symposium, 90
percent of the investors who attended said they planned to follow up with at
least one of the event’s presenting companies.

In addition to their time on stage, selected angel network
track companies are able to attend the full conference at a discounted rate,
take part in networking events, exhibit in the conference hall, publish a
summary in a guide available only to investors, and attend a practice session
with mentors. Company executive summaries may also be made available through an
online platform used by investors coast-to-coast.

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

Few presenting companies hit it big overnight, of course,
but the opportunity to make a pitch early can help in unexpected ways.

Ralph Kauten, founder of Quintessence Biosciences and chief
executive officer at Lucigen, has presented for three companies over time. He
likens the experience to a “piano recital… it helps to create focus, it helps
you to develop your story, which is critical for an entrepreneur.”

However, Kauten and others agree it’s important for
companies to not expect to walk out with a check hours after they present.

“I think it’s important for entrepreneurs to set reasonable
expectations when they participate in symposiums or venture fairs,” said Jan Eddy,
founder of Office Solutions and Wingra Technologies, and now an investor. “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.”

As a state, Wisconsin takes its lumps for not producing
enough startups, but its emerging companies are increasingly of a quality that
catches the eyes of investors. Part of honing that market appeal is telling a
compelling story. The Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium can help young companies write
their narratives for the right audience.