24 Oct Winslow Sargeant: Stepping onto the train called Wisconsin – Part 1
In 1975, I was a sophomore at Nauset Regional High School in Eastham, Massachusetts, an all-white school one mile from a beautiful north Atlantic beach.
Winslow Sargeant, the keynote speaker at last week’s Early Stage Symposium at Madison’s Monona Terrace, was twelve, living with three sisters, one brother and his parents in Dorchester, one of Boston’s mostly minority neighborhoods. Five years earlier, they’d emigrated from Barbados.
I remember listening to radio news accounts of rioting in Boston due to forced busing of black kids to white schools and vice versa. Winslow didn’t need to hear the stories on the radio. He was riding the buses.
“I was a `bus kid’,” Sargeant told me, last Thursday morning at Barriques, a downtown Madison café, the morning after introducing himself to a dinner audience of over 200 prominent leaders in business and academia as well as hopeful owners of new start-ups. “I remember going into the 5th grade at the time, times were tough back then.”
He’s 42, tall, and comfortable in a dark fitted suit that stood out in high relief against a bright red upholstered chair.
He’s married to Ikanyeng, a Botswana native whom he met in Madison while in graduate school, and has three children: Kgosi, an 11-year-old boy; Lorato, a girl, 8; and Marang, a “gift baby,” as Sargeant described him, 11 months old.
Next May, after his children finish school in Silver Spring, Maryland, he’ll move the family to Madison to become the sixth partner in Venture Investors LLC, a Madison-based venture capital fund that provides seed and early-stage money to high-potential health care and IT companies. Its portfolio includes local firms Alfalight, TomoTherapy, Third Wave and Promega.
Sargeant, who has a Ph.D in electrical engineering from UW-Madison, knows both success and disappointment. Aanetcom, a `fabless’ semiconductor integrated circuit design company that he’d co-founded in 1997 with seed money from Cisco Systems Inc., was sold to British Columbia’s PMC-Sierra in 2000 for $900 million. PMC-Sierra, a Cisco supplier, had wanted to increase sales to Cisco, and Aanetcom’s chip was faster than others.
It was during the peak of the dot com craze, and the next day, the stock market pushed the of Aanetcom up to $1.2 billion.
It wasn’t all wine and roses, however. Sargeant stayed on with PMC-Sierra after the sale, but the next chip wasn’t as successful. In 2001, he took a job as program manager with the federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which distributes millions of dollars each year to hundreds of promising ventures.
In the 18 months prior to March 31, 53 companies around the state had won $42 million in SBIR grants.
But finding financing in Madison is hard, he knows. Many promising firms have left for the East and West Coasts because money flows more freely out there, he said. Sargeant, whose specialty will be computer software, hardware, and materials, hopes to make inroads into the traditionally risk-averse Midwestern financial scene.
His partners-to-be are betting that he will succeed. “Winslow is an extraordinarily accomplished individual for someone who’s still quite young,” said John Neis, a Venture Investors founder.
“I think he brings a couple of things” to the firm, Neis continued. He brings the credibility of someone who’s seen different ends of the entrepreneurial spectrum, he said. Also, Sargeant has served as a Venture Investors board member and in that role, has offered great advice. Lastly, Sargeant’s tenure with the federal SBIR grant program brought him in contact with a diverse group of people. “He’s really clued in to who’s doing research with potential,” Neis added.
Coming up in Thursday’s newsletter: Part 2 of our profile of Winslow Sargeant. Also, Sargeant’s tips on getting SBIR grants.