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That blip on the national venture capital radar screen may be Wisconsin

Madison, Wis. - When it comes to attracting venture capital, Wisconsin has always defined what it means to be a "flyover state." Investors on the East and West coasts have basically stuck close to home when it came to financing high-tech deals in the Heartland, with the exception of a few states such as Minnesota, Colorado, and Texas.

Lately, however, there have been signs that a few flights ferrying venture capitalists have actually touched down in Wisconsin rather than waving as they flew past. It's probably too early to call it a trend, but some out-of-state capital appears to be finding its way past the border guards.

The latest example is the announcement by Avolte Venture Partners Midwest that it will hang a shingle in Madison and invest in early-stage deals, particularly in life sciences and information technology. The firm has ties to larger investment groups in Boston and Toronto, and will likely begin making Midwest investments ranging from $1 million to $3 million in 2007. The fund will be capped at $50 million.

While there's no guarantee all or even most of those investments will take place in Wisconsin, the fund's general partners have said they will maintain a Madison office - and that means they will shop in Wisconsin and surrounding states along the "I-Q Corridor" connecting Chicago and the Twin Cities.

There are three homegrown venture capital firms in Wisconsin - Baird Venture Partners, Mason Wells and Venture Investors of Wisconsin - and each has invested millions in the state economy over time. In addition, Frazier Technology Ventures of Seattle opened a Madison office nearly three years ago, and continues to scout for its first Wisconsin deal.
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But as most venture capitalists will freely admit, few firms can bite off deals by themselves, and most Wisconsin firms often partner with other investors. That usually means working with a firm from outside the state, whether it is as close as Chicago or as far away as the East and West coasts.

Speaking at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs' Conference in June, the president of the National Venture Capital Association noted that Wisconsin was seeing more out-of-state investment activity. In the most recent 12 quarters, according to NVCA's Mark Heesen, investments in Wisconsin came from the New York Metro area (15 percent of the total), the South Central part of the United States (11 percent), Silicon Valley (10 percent), New England (8 percent) and Texas (7 percent). That's slightly more than half of the venture capital invested in Wisconsin during those quarters.

Some recent examples include biotech companies such as EraGen, NimbleGen, Primorigen, and Mithridion as well as Orion Energy Systems, which provides industrial lighting solutions, and Guild.com, the nation's largest online art retailer.

The announcement by Avolte, which is part of the Boston-based Peak Ridge Capital Group, seemed to underscore that Wisconsin has become at least a blip on the radar screens of tech investors.

"We have been impressed by the scope and depth of Wisconsin's high-tech, high-growth economy," fund CEO Mike McNally said. "From life sciences to information technology and beyond, many Wisconsin-based firms operating within those sectors are poised for sustained, robust growth…"

It may be years before Wisconsin works its way up to even the national per capita average in venture capital investments, but the prospects for growth look better today than at any time since the "tech bust" of 2000-2001. That's good news for Wisconsin entrepreneurs, who can hope more of that money flying at 30,000 feet comes in for a landing.

Recent articles by Tom Still

Tom Still: Don't forget UW's role in economic development

Tom Still: Wisconsin's failure to attract federal defense dollars crimps tech economy

Tom Still: It's not exactly OPEC, but Midwest states are trading ideas on biofuels

Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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