By Tom Still

It’s been called the Madison Venture Fair, the Wisconsin Venture Fair, the Wisconsin Venture Conference and, most recently, the Wisconsin Life Sciences & Venture Conference. By whatever name, the annual matchmaking event that pairs up-and-coming companies with prospective investors has contributed to Wisconsin’s rising stock as a high-tech state.

That is the core conclusion of a recent study by NorthStar Economics Inc., the Madison-based economic consulting and research firm, which painstakingly reconstructed the 20-year history of the conference from records that were one “spring cleaning” away from the dumpster.

NorthStar President David Ward unveiled the study at the Aug. 24th meeting of the Wisconsin Innovation Network (WIN) in Madison.

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 the relationship between this vibrant gathering of the high-tech tribes and the steady – even spectacular – growth in activity at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and Madison’s University Research Park.

Like triplets that thrive on the well-being of each sibling, WARF, the University Research Park and the venture conference have matured together. The relationship speaks to the power of a technology infrastructure that includes solid academic research, aggressive technology transfer, a launching pad for start-up companies, and a formal network for connecting those companies with the marketplace.

Ward called the venture conference study “a shoebox project” because most available records – especially from the mid-1980s – were conference programs and a few related papers. Using those documents, and drawing upon the memories of people who helped build some of today’s technology stars, Ward pieced together an illuminating puzzle.

 In two decades, 196 companies have made at least one conference presentation. These are brief (12-minute) show-and-tells designed to convince potential investors there’s more than gee-whiz technology behind a start-up company. Investors are attracted to a large market and a business plan for capturing it.
 A rising number of first-time presenters at the conference are from states other than Wisconsin – 44 percent in the second decade versus 12 percent in the first. Contrary to your first impulse, that’s not bad. As gaining entry to the conference has become more competitive, it has become increasingly regional. That’s necessary to attract investors from outside Wisconsin.
 More presenting companies are finding money. In the first 10 years or so of the conference, 8 percent of the companies secured venture capital investments. That compared to 21 percent in the second decade. Neither figure sounds impressive, until you take into account that venture capitalists invest in about one of every 100 firms they screen.
 Many of the presenting companies are still alive. Ward calculated a “net death rate” of 42 percent for the first 10 years and 11 percent for the second 10 years. Some companies were bought out or acquired by others as part of an exit strategy.
 A rising number of companies hold licenses from WARF. Through 1993, only four presenting companies were spin-offs of the UW-Madison’s private, non-profit patent agency. Since then, 22 first-time presenters have been WARF licensees – evidence of the accelerating pace of tech transfer on the Madison campus.
 The University Research Park was born the same year as the venture conference. In the first 10 years of the conference, only two first-time presenters called the park home. In the second decade, there were 24.

As investors refocus on biotechnology and other medical tech, the Wisconsin Life Sciences & Venture Conference commands an important niche. Please review information on this web site ( to learn how to attend or apply to be a presenting company.

Still is president of the Tech Council and WIN.