It's no secret Wisconsin start-ups have a challenging time finding investors. The Badger State consistently ranks low on surveys related to angel investing and venture capitalists. But that didn't deter Tom Shannon, who decided to take advantage of the state's rich philanthropic history to help early-stage, rapid-growth companies.
The result is the BrightStar Wisconsin Foundation – a non-profit organization that invests in start-ups.
"If you want a vibrant economy, you need job creation and these start-ups have the power to create jobs," says Shannon, who donates his time as BrightStar's president and CEO. "We have a great university system in Wisconsin, we have lots of people with great ideas, but we don't have enough money to get those ideas off the ground."
Shannon formulated the idea for BrightStar after seeing state budget dollars for investment in Wisconsin startups cut, including the elimination of all biotech firms from consideration. To get the ball rolling, he and seven other initial investors put up $5 million of their own funds to start the foundation.
"Seeing that money cut from the budget really irritated me so I went to the WEDC to see if we got a foundation if they would help us fund staff," he says. "We're unique. I don't know of anything else like this in the country. People have approached me about how we've done it so I think the idea will spread elsewhere."
A former director of the Wisconsin Angel Network, Shannon has an impressive business background. He's a lead investor in several companies and was the CEO of Prodesse Inc., a biotech firm until it was sold Gen-Probe Inc. in 2009 for $72 million.
BrightStar has invested more than $3.76 million in 26 companies since it received nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service in February 2014. Investments range in size from $50,000 to $250,000.
"We don't lead deals. We work with other organizations and rely on their due diligence and take that information our investment committee," Shannon says. "Our goal is to help provide the necessary funds to get the deal done." Shannon says he often uses a donor's interest in education to gain their support for BrightStar.
"There are a lot of people in Wisconsin who give to education and I view this as the next step – creating jobs so the young people we're educating stay here and help us grow our state," Shannon says. "The donors don't expect the money back. All money made on deals gets invested right back into the foundation to help us create more jobs. They also get that tax break."
Some BrightStar donors are interested in helping early-stage businesses, but aren't interested in angel investing because of the expected involvement.
"I'm an angel investor and there are things you need to do, papers to sign and these people aren't interested in that," he says.
Through some of its investments, BrightStar has accumulated $300,000 in Qualified New Business Venture credits. As a non-profit, it can't take advantage of the credits so Shannon says BrightStar is looking to sell them to individuals or companies and then invest those funds to keep the foundation growing.
"Everything we do is about furthering early-stage investment and creating jobs," he says.
Increased SBA dollars
Another resource for businesses looking for funding – the Small Business Administration – saw the amount of dollars loaned to Wisconsin businesses increase 12 percent during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.
A total of 1,733 small state businesses used SBA-guaranteed funds to grow or start their companies. Loan approvals for the SBA's 7(a) and 504 programs totaled $607.6 million, up from the $542.4 million loaned to 1,674 businesses in fiscal 2014.
Of the loans given out in the most recent year, 35.5 percent went to 618 new businesses. In addition, more than 60 percent of loans were $150,000 or less as borrowers took advantage of a program that drops fees for loans under that amount.
-- Matzek, a freelance writer and editor, is the owner of 1Bizzy Writer. She has worked in the past as a news editor at Insight Publications and as business editor at the Appleton Post-Crescent.