Entrepreneur shares strategy for success

Entrepreneur shares strategy for success

"First of all, you have to find yourself a garage."

It was with a touch of humor that Manny Villafana – founder of a Minnesota company that developed one of the most widely used heart-valve implants – shared his secrets for entrepreneurial success with a conference at Monona Terrace on Monday.

Villafana was the keynote speaker at the Early Stage Symposium, a two-day conference with workshops to help both investors and budding entrepreneurs. About 350 people are expected to attend the event, which wraps up today.

A Puerto Rican who grew up in the South Bronx, Villafana has started several successful medical device companies in Minnesota. One of them, St. Jude Medical of St. Paul, makes mechanical heart valves, implantable defibrillators and pacemakers. It had $2.9 billion in sales last year and 10,000 employees.

Focus on your goal and be prepared to spend a lot of time with "hat in hand," Villafana told the symposium's luncheon gathering. "You're going to get slapped quite a few times, asking for money, but you might also get kissed," he said.

Villafana will be among those doing the "kissing" now. He is a co-founder of Kips Bay Partners, a Minneapolis investment group that's trying to raise $100 million to boost promising, young companies with discoveries in the cardiovascular and neuroscience fields. Businesses in the Midwest will get preference, he said.

Representatives of as many as two dozen startup businesses, hoping to improve their chances of luring investors, are honing their quick sales speeches in the symposium's Elevator Pitch Olympics. MatriLab is one of those.

Winner of the 2006 Wisconsin Governor's Business Plan Contest, MatriLab has developed a medicated biological material that is sprayed onto a wound and "cured" in place. The technology came from the lab of UW-Madison biomedical engineering assistant professor John Kao, and tests are under way in Milwaukee.

The company is looking for $300,000 to $400,000 in early investments, also called seed money, said Brian Thompson, who's on the board of directors.

"This is about networking," Thompson said of the conference. "It's a chance to meet with people and meet with (potential) investors."

That's also why Donato Diorio is there, but his company, Broadlook Technologies of Pewaukee, is way past the seed-money stage.

Established in 1999, Broadlook's software uses the Internet to search for a wide range of information on a wide range of companies. Initially set up as an executive-recruitment aid, Broadlook also is used now to connect investors with promising companies, or "hidden gems," said Diorio, a New York native who worked for a Silicon Valley recruitment firm.

Broadlook is making a profit and has 17 employees, he said.

Investors such as Nick Mischler, Waunakee, are also attending the symposium. He is a member of two angel investment groups, made of up wealthy individuals who review companies together but may invest separately.

"You're looking for quantum leaps, technology that will change an industry," said Mischler, who's part of Wisconsin Investment Partners in Madison and Silicon Pastures in Milwaukee.

Mischler said he doesn't know yet if he'll find any of those at the symposium. But he's optimistic about young businesses such as those featured there.

"This state has a lot going for it," he said.

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