By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. – There’s rarely a time when it’s easy for early stage companies to raise money from investors, and today’s conditions fall on the opposite end of the scale.

And yet, for those companies with technologies or business ideas favored by the market, finding angel or venture capital is not only possible but perhaps well-timed from the perspective of investors searching for well-priced deals.

That was a major takeaway from a Sept. 26 panel discussion in Madison, where three investors representing different parts of Wisconsin’s early stage capital structure discussed trends and prospects. The event revolved around a summary of Wisconsin’s investment data so far in 2023 and previewed the Nov. 8-9 Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium, where invited young companies may pitch to investors.

Wisconsin saw nearly $870 million in early stage capital raised in 2021 and more than $640 million in 2022, when a decline began mid-year, but the total thus far in 2023 is about $200 million. While there’s another quarter to go in 2023, the annual dollar total is more likely to resemble what Wisconsin recorded in 2015 to 2020 than the last two record years. The number of deals is down so far, as well, compared to 2021 and 2022.

If there’s any comfort in that news, it’s that U.S. investment figures have declined at an almost identical percentage pace. Factors ranging from inflation to interest rates, and from money supply to frothy company valuations are among the causes.

The good news, panelists agreed, is that it’s nearing a point where investors can realize strong profits if they invest in appropriately valued deals in the right sectors.

Greg Williamson, the senior investment director for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., said those sectors nationally include artificial intelligence, robotics, energy and climate-related technologies, 3D printing, space technologies, digital gaming and entertainment technology, and certain parts of health care.

Williamson is leading development of The Wisconsin Fund, which was seeded with $50 million in federal dollars and which will eventually involve private co-investors. It will focus on angel, seed and pre-seed funding and “Series A” deals, mostly in the $100,000 to $3 million range, with an eye toward investments in people or geographic regions that are sometimes overlooked.

Other panelists noted some of the same sector opportunities. Todd Sobotka of the BrightStar Wisconsin Foundation said the Milwaukee-based fund has invested more than $10 million in 70-plus companies in 15 counties since its creation in 2013. He agreed activity has been down but noted conditions may bounce back for some types of companies.

Lorrie Heinemann of the Madison Development Corp., which has been making “venture debt” loans since the late 1970s, said the MDC is expanding its operations outside Dane County. She identified similar sectors of interest.

For young companies looking to get in front of investors, the Early Stage Symposium in Madison typically draws investors from Wisconsin and beyond.  Applications are being accepted through Oct. 6 from young companies that want to tell their stories to investors during the in-person conference at Madison’s Monona Terrace Convention Center.

Companies that apply for the conference will have up to three chances to meet with angel and venture capitalists, corporate funds, family funds and other investors on hand. The 2023 format includes two pitch opportunities: the Tech Council Investor Networks track (five-minute presentations) and the Elevator Pitch Olympics. All registered companies are eligible for “Investor Intros,” which allow pre-selected companies brief, one-on-one meetings with targeted angel and venture investors.

Instructions for how to apply for all or a mix of the investor presentation opportunities can be found at on the “ESS Application” tab.

It hasn’t been the strongest early stage investment year thus far, but for the right companies, it can end on a much higher note.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at