By Tom Still
MADISON – 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
By whatever name, the annual match-making 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
“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
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
For example, Promega was six 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
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.”