Navigating the Investment Landscape: Insights from the 2023 ESS Investor Network Tracks


The Wisconsin Tech Council’s 2023 Early State Symposium, held Nov. 8-9 at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center, was a valuable opportunity for networking, education and resource sharing for all levels of the Wisconsin investor community. Participants enjoyed keynote speakers, Investor Intros, Elevator Pitch Olympics and specific Network Presentation Tracks.

Leon Ostrowski, Chair of Wisconsin River Business Angels, was a panelist for the session titled Reverse Pitch: A founder asks investors what went right – and wrong. He stressed the importance of developing a strong team and a strong vision. He described his experience with Pyran founder and panel moderator Kevin Barnett, saying, “He was a passionate grad student with experienced founders on his advisory board.” Ostrowski reiterated that having an adept advisory board is critical because a successful entrepreneur is one who takes advice and learns from partners and customers.

Another panelist in that session, Brad Bodden, Co-manager at Wisconsin Investment Partners (WIP), emphasized a focus on customer discovery. He explained that founders must understand their customers and truly consider their feedback. Customer feedback can help an entrepreneur to determine what customers actually need and then decide what changes are necessary and determine if accomplishing the goals is possible. Bodden ended his comments by stressing the importance of continually distinguishing a business from its competitors. He said, “When markets change, attitudes and checks do, too. Make sure you’re differentiated and standing out.”

Kevin Barnett reflected on his journey through multiple rounds of investment. He spoke about his first round when Wisconsin River Business Angels invested but Wisconsin Investment Partners, who invested in follow-on rounds, did not. “Don’t let a ‘no’ deter you. Find and attack your weaknesses while keeping an open mind because you don’t know what investors know or don’t about your business or the industry,” said Barnett. “Build your network and keep your connections engaged and updated. Send regular updates on the weaknesses you are addressing and your progress.”

When asked why WIP did not initially invest in Pyran, Bodden referred to a previous investment that did not pan out well for WIP. He explained, “You don’t know what history or limiting factors may exist for investors. There are challenges to achieving investment that you may never learn that do not have anything to do with YOUR company.”

Ostrowski and Bodden concluded that investors, individuals and organizations must continue to support businesses and industries that they believe in if they truly want to see an impact, even through the ups and downs. Barnett left the audience with advice about valuations, saying, “It is not us vs. them, even in the valuation. Once the contract is signed, we are on the same side!”

A second session also featured founders reflecting on their funding journeys. The session, How we funded our companies: Entrepreneurs describe what works for them, was moderated by RedFox AI co-founder, Nick Myers. Mark Gehring, a panelist and CTO of ImageMoverMD, stated, “If the valuation is correct, the value doesn’t change.” His discussion with fellow panelist, Brian Wiegand, a serial entrepreneur who has sold four companies since 1996, stressed the importance of a correct, reasonable valuation.

Wiegand shared stories about how upper and lower end valuations can hurt both a business and the funding partner. He said, “Develop your team before you ask for money and consider how much money you need, not how much you want.” He echoed the thoughts of Ostrowski and Bodden in the previous panel about how critical team expertise is when seeking funding.

Rachel Neill, the third panelist and serial entrepreneur of three companies, highlighted the importance of state resources when it comes to funding and team building. Utilizing state resources provides quality services for an organization and allows an owner to build a network within the industry that can help in many ways when seeking critical funding.

If you’re looking to access funding for your innovation, reach out to see if the Center for Technology Commercialization can connect you with the right resources, at no-cost!