Madison investor Scott Button has seen literally hundreds of company and inventor pitches, so he’s not someone who is easily impressed by entrepreneurs who are convinced they have stumbled upon The Next Big Thing.
At the close of the recent “Milwaukee Quick Pitch” event at Miller Park, however, Button acknowledged he would be back for more.
“I’ll be telling my partners we need to come back to Milwaukee,” said Button, a managing director of Venture Investors LLC, Wisconsin’s oldest and largest early stage venture capital firm.
Read this commentary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here.
His declaration drew a round of applause from about 75 people at the forum, which featured a series of seven-minute presentations from seven inventors or teams working to move ideas from the laboratory bench to the marketplace. Button and three other panelists familiar with how such ideas get funded were on hand to provide on-the-spot feedback to each.
Button’s remark was applause-worthy because his fund is known for investing in health-related companies that spin out of major Midwest research universities. Venture Investors LLC has offices in Madison and Ann Arbor, Mich., home to two of the nation’s five largest research universities, but not in Milwaukee.
For many in the meeting room just beyond the left-field foul pole in Miller Park, it was gratifying to hear Milwaukee’s R&D institutions were on the venture capital map.
The forum was hosted by the UWM Research Foundation, the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Office of Technology Development and the BloodCenter of Wisconsin. It featured pitches from those institutions as well as collaborators at Marquette and Concordia universities, with all seven focused on innovations in health care or in public health.
The diverse nature of the pitches spoke to the fact that Milwaukee’s life sciences R&D cluster, while not big enough to rival the UW-Madison or the University of Michigan, is nonetheless spawning ideas that can benefit human health and make money for those who turn them into products or companies. The event’s “batting lineup” included:
■A genetically engineered cell casing for delivering a therapeutic cargo to treat neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
■A redesigned umbilical cord clamp to help doctors and others more safely and efficiently deliver babies.
■A biotechnology molecule that could eliminate or greatly reduce the need for people with Type 2 diabetes and metabolic disorders to take multiple drugs.
■A microchip sensor that would allow rapid testing of water for lead and other heavy metal contamination, with the potential for testing for biologic toxins in the future.
■A testing kit that would help determine whether people who use the blood thinner heparin are at risk of developing a condition that causes strokes, loss of limbs or death.
■A pharmaceutical therapy for rare vascular malformations, usually facially disfiguring, that are mainly treated by surgery today.
■An anticancer agent that targets tumors by reacting to high levels of hydrogen peroxide deep inside those tumors.
It’s difficult to know which of those ideas will blossom into companies, although several are already headed down that route. However, all have the potential to turn their intellectual property into products that could be licensed or acquired by others.
Connecting top scientists and physicians to people who can help make that happen was one of the goals of the “Milwaukee Quick Pitch,” which is designed to give investors and others a first look at emerging technologies. Similar “first look” forums have been produced by the Wisconsin Technology Council at its major conferences and by the UWM Research Foundation.
The trick is connecting those who know the science with those who understand the regulatory and business paths that must be followed to put it to use. That’s why Button, venture capitalist John Philosophos, entrepreneur Heather Wentler and Eric Floyd, chief science officer for Dohmen Life Science Services, were on hand to give advice.
What’s needed now is for more health care investors and experts in Big Pharma to discover Milwaukee, where colleges and universities collectively spend about $300 million per year on R&D work, much of it in the life sciences. That work is yielding results, and there’s a local support system in place. It’s enough to compel investors such as Button to take another look at Milwaukee.