In just a year, the number of opportunities for people investing in startup companies has grown, according to the people who are working to create a local network of technology investors.
Leaders in the tech scene told the Business Record last February that more angel, or early-stage, investors were badly needed to keep growing the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Now investors say the area’s community of investors is growing and positively evolving.
The big-picture goal, held by Mike Colwell, a founder of Plains Angels, a group to bring angel investors together to meet and learn about startup companies and how to invest in them, as well as people such as Tej Dhawan and Christian Renaud at StartupCity Des Moines, is to build an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Greater Des Moines. A critical piece of that is growing the pool of investors.
“Along with entrepreneurs and the support for entrepreneurs, you’ve got to have angel investors, and the support for the angel investors,” Colwell said.
Colwell started Plains Angels last summer with the idea of making connections: Connecting entrepreneurs to angel investors. Connecting angels investors to each other. And more recently, better connecting both of those groups to supporting groups such as lawyers and capital advisers. Plains Angels is not an investor group or fund; it’s a vehicle for investors to make decisions.
The efforts go hand in hand with the Technology Association of Iowa’s (TAI) i2iowa Investors and Innovators forum Tuesday, where startup companies pitch their ideas to a room of investors.
“It really arose initially in response to our members and the No. 1 challenge many of them faced, which was access to capital,” said TAI President Leann Jacobsen. “That was one of the major challenges we heard.”
At last year’s i2iowa event, 15 companies made pitches to 30 investors, and Jacobsen was aware of at least six conversations about investment that followed the conference. This year, 12 companies were slotted to pitch to 22 investors, the smaller numbers reflecting a sharper focus specifically on early-stage companies and investors.
“Word of mouth has gotten out,” said Milt Milloy, who just more than a year ago hadn’t invested in any companies but has now invested in three. Milloy, managing director at Springboard Consulting and Capital LLC, started looking more purposefully at investment deals after his job was eliminated at Principal Financial Group Inc. in 2011. “The startup and investment community in Central Iowa, I would say, is developing and evolving very rapidly. We’re not at the end, but it’s happening very quickly. It’s kind of on that hockey stick upward slope, where things are happening at a much quicker pace than even a year ago.”
Des Moines angel investors have also been taking opportunities to connect with other investor groups around the Midwest. On the day of the last Plains Angels training session on March 29, a small group, including Heidi Cessford Krabbe and Dhawan, headed to a Gopher Angels meeting in Minnesota that evening.
“I think what it’s doing is bringing sort of a regional feel to the Midwest so that it’s not just the Des Moines area, so we can expand out ... and get some attention to the Midwest and what we’ve got to offer here,” said Cessford Krabbe, president of Highland Journey Capital LLC of Marshalltown.
The Plains Angels group has grown to about 118 members, who have heard pitches from 16 companies. Members have invested in three of those companies.
It’s not the only group with a similar purpose. John LeMarche’s VentureNet Iowa LLC allows startups to pitch to industry experts that include investors, and beyond that, Colwell says there have been a lot of small groups, “but there hasn’t been a large umbrella over it,” which is what Plain Angels is striving to be.
“It’s so easy to say we’re really gung-ho to get more entrepreneurs in the community,” Colwell said. “Every community I know of is talking about innovation and entrepreneurs. What most communities aren’t doing, to be frank, is taking the steps to enable those people to be really good entrepreneurs, really good investors. I don’t know of another community actively reaching out and trying to actively build a large angel network.