06 Feb Exclusive Interview With Dick Leazer: Renaissance Man
Madison, WI, Jan. 21 – From 1993 through 1999, Dick Leazer served as managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), the licensing and commercialization agency of the University of Wisconsin. Since then, he has co-managed the Wisconsin Investment Partners (WIP), an angel investment group based in Madison that focuses on funding life sciences start-ups. Through these two organizations, he has personally helped to revitalize the development of high technology in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Technology Network had a chance to sit down with Mr. Leazer and discuss his Vision for Wisconsin, accomplishments, and his views on early stage investments in the post “bubble economy”
WTN: How is WIP doing in today’s market?
DL: Our angel-investing network remains very active. We have 21 of our original 22 members after three years. We’ve done about a dozen investments worth a total of $2 to $3 million. We haven’t lost any companies yet, although some are real close. We have a couple of firms with death rattles. We have three or four who look like they are doing really well. Then, we have all the ugly in-betweens. Investments made at valuations three years ago look kind of silly today.
WTN: Are WIP members willing to invest in a depressed stock market?
DL: Two or three people have signaled that they intend to pull back for a while, but in general we are doing deals at a similar level as we were two years ago. If technology companies are not being started quickly enough today, it creates a future market scarcity. The big companies will still need these new companies to grow rapidly. So if we do things right during this down cycle, we can have a pretty good recovery. Our philosophy at Wisconsin Investment Partners is, “Just understand the cycle and buy right.”
WTN: What is your vision of Wisconsin ten years from now?
DL: When you add up the federal research money and the technology that emanates out from those investments, Wisconsin is a rich environment for economic development. But then there are the issues of equity finance and management talent. We’re not at the critical mass yet where we have enough experienced entrepreneurs to really pull these companies together and attract investment dollars. We have the raw materials. We have the science and the laboratories. Now we need the talented people to come in and help execute the plans and dreams.
WTN: How does Wisconsin keep the momentum going?
DL: Everybody is wondering what our new governor and the Secretary of Commerce are going to do with some of the programs that have been started. Their initial statements were positive, but they’ve got to sort through this very quickly and get this show on the road.
WTN: After you left WARF what was your motivation to start Wisconsin Investment Partners?
DL: Terry Sivesind (co-manager of WIP) and I were meeting one day when I was at WARF about some of the start-up companies that we’d seen and what kind of difficulties some of the founders had gone through in raising money. We looked at each other and said, “Hey, maybe there’s a market there.” I was about six months away from retiring at WARF. So I made a few phone calls, and pretty soon our phones started to ring and the callers wee saying, “I hear you were talking to Charlie about an angel-investing group, and I’m interested in this.”
We were just answering a market demand. This was when ThirdWave was on the upswing, so there was a buzz in the air. It was good timing. I think that while we overpaid on a couple of our early deals, we never really got carried away and invested just so we could say we’d carved another notch on our six-gun. We really kept our feet on the ground and invested in good deals. That’s what sustained us. Our group has a cross-section of skills. We have scientists, bankers, and manufacturing executives. We call it the sociology of the group. Our group really has clicked, and it’s been part of our success.
WTN: Why does WIP focus on life science?
DL:. I spent most of my career in the health-care industry in pharmaceuticals and medical devices, and Terry was more in biotech. So, it’s a reflection of our backgrounds, and it’s a reflection of the science on the campus. We go over into the engineering school and do deals there too, but about three-fourths is life sciences and biotech. There’s also a geographic focus. We tend to focus on companies in and around Madison.
WTN: During your tenure at WARF. What changes did you initiate there?
DL: Licensing hadn’t been emphasized. I brought a selling mentality to the organization. Licensing associates at WARF had been trying to find licensing deals for maybe 50 to 100 patent cases in their portfolio. They had to sell hard, develop prospects, and qualify their leads, so we recruited people not only with technical capability but, those who liked to sell. We went on a sales mission, and the licenses went from less than twenty in a year to one hundred when I left. There was a lot of low hanging fruit that just had to be sold.