3:49pm

Fri February 10, 2012
Business

Angel Investors And Startups Mingle In Milwaukee

Originally published on Fri February 10, 2012 5:03 pm

Thirty-five well-dressed men and women are sipping wine and chatting in the lounge of one of Milwaukee's oldest and most exclusive social clubs. A century ago, this is where the city's beer and banking giants mixed and mingled. Tonight's crowd isn't all that different — many of these men and women are worth at least a million dollars. Once a month, they pool their money to invest in high-tech, fast-growth startups. They call themselves the Silicon Pastures Angel Investment Network.

In recent years, dozens of new angel investor groups have formed to finance startup companies that banks and venture capitalists deem too risky in this post-recession era. Today, there are about 350 angel investment groups across the country — 50 of them formed after the recession started in 2008.

Kelly Fitzsimmons is the co-founder of an angel-supported startup. As waiters in white shirts and black ties take drink orders, Fitzsimmons makes her way across the Milwaukee social club's shiny, red tile floor. Over five years, this group of investors has given Fitzsimmons more than $1 million for HarQen, her fourth Milwaukee startup. HarQen is a Web-based service that records voice conversations and allows users to take notes, share photos or slides, and then quickly retrieve key passages once the conversation is over. Right now, it's used mainly for job interviews by staffing companies.

"We text, we email, we tweet," Fitzsimmons says, "and yet when a conversation is vital, we stop texting, and we pick up the phone and we talk."

At least that's what Fitzsimmons hopes we do. Tonight, she's asking Silicon Pastures to open their checkbooks yet again. She says angels have become a lifeline for entrepreneurs who can't get a bank loan or don't have the cash to bootstrap a company on their own.

'The Guts Of The American Experience'

Silicon Pastures is one of more than 20 angel investor groups in Wisconsin. That makes for an awful lot of money in the dairy state, considering you have to be a millionaire to join an angel group.

Tim Keane is director of the Golden Angels, another Milwaukee investor group. He says such groups allow investors to spread the risk and bet on ventures they may know nothing about.

"We had a deal a couple of years ago that was [an] advanced generator of hydroxyl radicals for purifying water," Keane says. "And the guy said that to me, and I thought, 'Hmm, I wouldn't know a hydroxyl radical if it shook my hand.' "

But another member of the group did know about hydroxyl radicals and encouraged fellow investors to pour money into the company. Keane says the group genuinely cares about helping good local companies grow by providing guidance and networking, in addition to cash. He says Golden Angels' investments over seven years have generated thousands of new jobs in Wisconsin.

"All growth in this economy comes from startups; it comes from people forming new companies and new ideas and taking risks," Keane says. "To me, that's the guts of the American experience."

After their latest meeting in Milwaukee, Silicon Pastures investors likely won't put their checkbooks away for long. In a few weeks, entrepreneurs in the field of telemedicine will pitch to the group, hoping for cash to turn their startups into profitable businesses.

Copyright 2013 Milwaukee Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wuwm.com/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. For the past few years, banks have been reluctant to lend money to small businesses and startups, so increasingly, entrepreneurs have been turning to angel investor groups to get their companies up and running.

Erin Toner of member station WUWM in Milwaukee has that story.

ERIN TONER, BYLINE: Thirty-five well-dressed men and women are sipping wine and chatting in the lounge of one of Milwaukee's oldest and most exclusive social clubs. A century ago, this is where the city's giants of beer and banking mixed and mingled.

Now, every single person in this room is worth at least a million dollars and, once a month, they pool their money to invest in high tech fast-growth startups.

As waiters in white shirts and black ties take drink orders, Kelly Fitzsimmons makes her way across the shiny red-tiled floor. Over five years, this group has given Fitzsimmons more than a million dollars for her fourth startup company in Milwaukee.

KELLY FITZSIMMONS: H-A-R-Q-E-N, no U after the Q.

TONER: Her company is called Harqen. It's a Web-based service that records voice conversations and allows users to take notes, share photos or slides and then quickly retrieve key passages once the conversation is over. Right now, it's used mainly for job interviews by staffing companies.

FITZSIMMONS: You know, we text, we email, we tweet and yet, when a conversation is vital, we stop texting and we pick up the phone and we talk.

TONER: At least Fitzsimmons hopes that's what we do. She is asking this group of Milwaukee investors to open their checkbooks yet again. She says angels have become a lifeline for entrepreneurs who can't get a bank loan or don't have the cash to bootstrap a company on their own.

This group called Silicon Pastures is one of more than 20 angel investor groups in Wisconsin and several more are being formed. That's an awful lot of millionaires here in the dairy state. You have to be one to join an angel group.

TIM KEANE: The benefit of being in a group is pretty amazing to me.

TONER: Tim Keane is the director of the Golden Angels, another Milwaukee investor group. He says groups spread the risk and allow investors to bet on ventures they may know nothing about.

KEANE: We had a deal a couple of years ago that was an advanced generator of hydroxyl radicals for purifying water. And the guy said that to me and I thought, hmm, I wouldn't know a hydroxyl radical if it shook my hand.

TONER: But another member of the group did know about hydroxyl radicals and encouraged fellow investors to pour money into the company. Keane says the group genuinely cares about helping good local companies grow by providing guidance and networking, in addition to cash. Keane says Golden Angels investments over seven years have generated thousands of new jobs in Wisconsin.

KEANE: All growth in this economy comes from startups. I mean, it comes from people forming new companies and new ideas and taking risks. You know, to me, that's the guts of the American experience.

TONER: Today, there are about 350 angel investment groups across the country. Fifty of them formed after the recession started in 2008.

After their latest meeting in Milwaukee, Silicon Pastures' investors likely won't put their checkbooks away for long. In a few weeks, entrepreneurs in the field of telemedicine will pitch to the group, hoping for cash to turn their startups into profitable businesses.

For NPR News, I'm Erin Toner in Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.