Greater Madison Chamber - Silicon Valley

Participants in the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce's trip to connect local startups with Silicon Valley investors pose for a photo before touring YouTube headquarters in San Bruno, California. Madison startup Vidmaker was purchased by YouTube in 2014.

Leaders of five Madison startups began their week with a couple of days in sunny California, hobnobbing with venture capitalists and Badger alums.

It was the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce’s annual Silicon Valley trip, aimed at introducing West Coast investors to some of the talent in the Midwest.

Polco, the online citizen forum that won the chamber’s Pressure Chamber pitch contest in August for a guaranteed spot on the trip, and runner-up AkitaBox, with building management software, were among the participants.

Joining them were: GrocerKey, with an e-commerce platform for grocery stores; Markable, with online clothes and accessories shopping; and Moxe Health, whose software helps health care providers share patient information with insurance companies.

It was “an incredibly valuable opportunity,” said Polco CEO Nick Mastronardi. “It helped foster investment at home before the trip; it helped build great connections with Silicon Valley investors and Silicon Valley companies; and it helped bridge even stronger connections among the companies and members who traveled together.”

Representatives of 10 venture capital firms took part in the two-day event, which included dinner and private discussions, and a reception sponsored by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. with support from the Badger Entrepreneurship Forum, a group of UW-Madison alums in the Bay area.

Jeremy Neren, CEO of GrocerKey, said he learned a lot by hearing the questions and feedback from the West Coast investors — “which did feel different from VC’s I’ve pitched in the Midwest ... I absolutely feel like we found great leads for future investment.”

Polco’s Mastronardi said he’d been focused on pitching to investors but the reception with alums was “phenomenal.”

“So many talented folks with very cool experiences, all wanting to help us out,” he said.

Mastronardi also said he was tickled to meet with Google’s chief economist Hal Varian.

“His insight was very valuable,” Mastronardi said.

And sometimes, even a brush with those who cater to the rich and famous can be a thrill.

“I needed a haircut before my pitch in Palo Alto, and the guy who cut my hair said he had also cut (Apple co-founder) Steve Jobs’ and (Facebook co-founder) Mark Zuckerberg’s hair,” Mastronardi said.

Chamber president Zach Brandon, vice president Kevin Little, board chair Beth Donley and board member Mark Bakken also attended the Silicon Valley mission.

While it’s too soon to tell if any investments will result, “in follow-up conversations, I can tell you the investors were impressed with what they saw and want to stay better connected with Madison’s entrepreneurial scene,” Little said.

SciArt chosen for Milw. accelerator

SciArt is in the fall 2016 class of the WERCBench Labs accelerator program in Milwaukee.

It’s the only Madison company in this group of 10 startups.

SciArt is a UW-Madison spinoff, established in January. The company’s technology is meant to cut the cost of prototyping new products, and to solve mechanical design problems rapidly.

“We are decreasing the amount of material required to make functionally safe products,” said co-founder and director of engineering Praveen Yadav. “We want to get you the best possible design using the least amount of material.”

The software integrates with popular CAD (computer-aided design) programs, he said.

“The first meeting was quite illuminating,” Yadav said. “It provided some insight on some of the mistakes we made in the past regarding potential customers.”

SciArt is a graduate of (Madison and Milwaukee accelerator) gener8tor’s gBETA program for young companies.

This is the second class for WERCBench. The 12-week program started Oct. 6 and ends in January 2017.

With support from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., each team receives a $10,000 grant at the start of the program and a $10,000 investment when they complete it satisfactorily.

WERCBench is a program of the Mid-West Energy Research Consortium, founded in 2009 by three universities and four industrial companies to focus on early research designed to transform energy power and controls.

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