Nothing ventured, nothing gained: Investing in Wisconsin innovation

Posted by John Neis, Executive Managing Director, Venture Investors LLC and Cory Nettles, Founder and Managing Director,  Generation Growth Capital Inc. on Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation

The Wisconsin Idea – the concept that the knowledge and innovative ideas from the university reach to the borders of our state and beyond – highlights the preeminent role that our university system plays in creating a better quality of life for the citizens in our state.

The Wisconsin Idea is a beloved concept that we believe needs to be lived as much as loved by taking a very deliberate step of participation. We should all seek ways to help our university innovators turn their great ideas into companies that people want to buy into, creating jobs and helping the economy grow.

We see the opportunity to participate in the Wisconsin Idea across the life cycle of Wisconsin businesses that our firms back. Venture Investors has backed 25 companies that have come out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Generation Growth is a private equity firm investing in mature industries that represent the core of Wisconsin’s economy.

Wisconsin isn’t opposed to the bold initiative. We believe in the possibilities and like the idea of others taking those actions. This is the bane of our existence. We can’t afford to wait for others to act. Wisconsin needs a cultural revolution, one that fosters taking risks and thinking like an entrepreneur. If we wait for others to do it instead of leading, we are left with modest incremental progress where we lose ground in a rapidly changing world.

There is no shortage of ideas, thanks to the major strength of our university system. While many institutions talk about interdisciplinary collaboration, it really happens here. You can find connectivity, you can find resources, you can find experts in any field, and there’s an openness to dialogue. The smaller sense of community creates an advantage.

But living in a state that sometimes feels like a small community works to our disadvantage in other ways.

We have a density issue in Wisconsin and other parts of the Midwest. Our great universities were created when we were an agrarian society, so they are not in the commercial, population or financial centers. Boston and San Francisco are the hubs of the venture capital industry because they are metropolitan areas and financial centers with a cluster of major research universities and lots of commercial expertise. All of the starter material you need is there in one place and boom, lightning strikes and you have a new form of life.

Venture capital operates as a social network. VCs like to stay close to their projects, spending time counseling and guiding in addition to just writing the checks. That’s one of the key reasons 80 percent of American venture capital is managed and invested in just three states: New York, Massachusetts and California.

It’s easy to blame those VCs who won’t get on a plane for Wisconsin startups, but we have to take responsibility. We have to demonstrate our belief with our actions by seeding the opportunities, playing the hands-on local role, building the social network to the coasts.

If we are to achieve this transformation, the tone must be set at the top in the boardrooms and executive suites of our leading corporations and institutions. We need broader institutional participation in capital formation, investment, collaboration, mentoring and encouragement of our innovators. It would only take a few bold leaders – like Badger Meter and the Water Council in Milwaukee – to start it by serving as catalysts, committing to the effort and actively seeking the consensus and participation of their peers.

It is more than just money. Institutional commitments at all these levels are the first step in addressing our human capital challenge, signaling that we embrace creativity and risk-taking, accepting that occasional failure is part of trying to achieve something great. We need to show that we are not limited to a conservative approach, in our Germanic way, to making the mouse trap a little better; we also encourage blowing it up to make a whole new one. Demonstrate we are embracing the emerging entrepreneurial generation and we can begin to transform brain drain into brain gain.

Participation in the entrepreneurial economy is in the self-interest of the mature companies in our leading industries. Attraction and retention of risk takers and engagement with entrepreneurs is contagious. It encourages intrapreneurship, returning these companies to the cultural roots that made them leaders.

Wisconsin’s political leadership can help with the kind of policy decisions around startups that can spur jobs and growth, long-term commitments that take more than a two-year election cycle to pay off. For example, consider how the state could further encourage broader participation in capital formation and create opportunities for the State of Wisconsin Investment Board to increase its venture capital allocation. What policies will help attract and retain the necessary human capital? What more can we do to encourage the licensing of our intellectual capital in Wisconsin, instead of letting it go out of state to the highest bidder?

WARF could play an important role in keeping innovation local – a Grow Wisconsin, Invest Wisconsin approach – by licensing new technology here or, if licensing elsewhere, encouraging that they commercialize in the state. There is an opportunity to measure the return beyond royalties, such as entrepreneurial faculty retention, research collaboration, job creation, wealth creation, and the philanthropy from successes. We should give serious consideration to the total benefit of building entrepreneurial capabilities at home.

Finally, we need to engage the participation of all of our stakeholders. UW-Madison has 400,000 living alumni fanned out across the globe. We need to keep them engaged for their advice, access to their networks, to attract their investment, or recruit them to return home. If we engage them as participants in the Wisconsin Idea, it will increase their philanthropy.

When you have a chance to help take something out of a lab and bring it to the market, and it impacts the health of people and the economy of the community, the rewards go way beyond financial. This is what brings the Wisconsin Idea to life.

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