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Conference will focus on financing of early-stage ventures

Madison, Wis. - Startup entrepreneurs throughout the Upper Midwest will have the chance to network and get tips about securing venture capital at the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium.

The event, to be held at the Monona Terrace in Madison, will run from Oct. 19-20. It is being organized by the Wisconsin Technology Council, the Wisconsin Innovation Network, the Wisconsin Angel Network and the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs' Network.

"When you think about it, our business plan contest, the Entrepreneurs' Conference, the Angel Network, it's all about early-stage," said Wisconsin Technology Council president Tom Still. "To have, then, a conference that we think can pull all of these strings together and then allow an instructional session for early-stage companies so they can think about moving to that next level in terms of financing, that's really a core reason why we did this."

The conference is a successor to the Wisconsin Life Sciences & Venture Conference, which had run for 20 years. Still said that the change in format occurred for several reasons, chiefly the desire to expand coverage to other technology sectors such as IT, manufacturing or nanotechnology. Additionally, there will be a sharper focus on personalized instruction as well as on seeking angel investment of SBIR and STTR grants.

Building a business plan


The symposium will offer panel discussions and coaching sessions on how upper Midwestern technology companies can better attract capital from both inside and outside the region and to work harder on their own business plans.

In the morning, attendees will take a software test to help them self-evaluate their own strengths and weakness. Following will be an overview session on the problems encountered by startups and the various myths they must avoid following. They will then split off into separate workshops depending on their current status – early-stage, proof of concept, and those close to market – in which they can focus on who they are and what they need to do.
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"Oftentimes, companies think that they are ready to go to market when they really don't have a customer prototype that's been proved," said Courtney Price, CEO of VentureQuest, a consulting firm based in Denver.

Price will be leading a seminar, "Venture-Readiness Tools For Commercialization Success," on what companies can do to assess and improve their business plans, whether it involves courting capital sources or simply determining their own product plans and overall direction.

Price said that many early-stage companies in search of capital will draw up blueprints for their businesses that are really made for wooing capital, relying on various optimistic assumptions about how successful their products would be and just how quickly those products could be adopted by the marketplace. When some of those assumptions don't come to fruition, a company can be caught flat-footed.

"We have a saying: You want to crawl, then walk, then run," Price said. "Many times you find these entrepreneurs that discover a new marketplace, a new technology, and they're ready to run to the marketplace, and they aren't ready and they crash and burn."

Seeking capital for the Midwest


While Wisconsin and the rest of the region have a strong record in science, it is not one without some flaws, according to Trevor D'Souza, a managing director with the private equity investment firm Mason Wells and a board member of the Wisconsin Technology Council.

D'Souza said that while the overall economic picture for the state is a good one, there is still not enough money coming in. That is due partly to some lack of awareness among capital sources as well as the state's strength in getting money for scientific research rather than the end technologies that develop from that research. That situation poses barriers in addition to the normal questions about the track record of startups in the region that grow into successful firms.

"The other question that we get is, how much opportunity really is there?" D'Souza said. "And it usually comes from people out of the region that are not familiar with the amount of technology that bubbles up around here," he added, noting that while there can be strong technological development in the state, those companies tend to be overshadowed due to a focus on licensing deals to larger companies instead of becoming household name businesses in their own right.

Eric Kleefeld is a writer for WTN in Madison. He can be reached at eric@wistechnology.com.

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