Allen Dines sparks entrepreneurship in Madison

A Q&A with this early advocate for Madison's...
Allen Dines sparks entrepreneurship in Madison
Allen Dines is co-chair of the Badger Startup Summit and executive partner at WISC Partners.

What brought you to Madison? I came to join the management team in business development at Cetus Madison Corp., a startup venture later reincorporated as Agracetus and focused on agricultural applications of biotechnology.

What was the atmosphere like at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when you started working with faculty on entrepreneurship in 2001? It was largely one of indifference and toleration toward startups. UW had a track record for research that led to several successful companies. This was facilitated by WARF [Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation] and the quality of the research faculty. Fundamentally, UW was, and to a large extent still is, a top-quality basic-research institution. Startups and commercialization played second fiddle to that focus.

How did you go about helping people thinking of starting companies? My initial job was essentially to be a faculty coach to help them through the formation and execution of a startup. I helped with the usual market and customer validation challenges but also issues like balancing university responsibilities and family obligations with the leadership needs of a young company.

How did the Kauffman Foundation grant in 2007 change the culture of entrepreneurship? The focus of the Kauffman grant was to expand awareness of and access to entrepreneurship campuswide. Kauffman knew that was important but didn’t know how to pull it off, so they commissioned nineteen universities to find solutions. We realized at the outset that there were many programs already in place filling parts of that mission. Given that, we focused on making them better aware of what each other was doing and encouraging more cooperation among them. I have to say, the rising tide through all this was the explosion of interest from students and entrepreneurial pursuits.

You are involved with a new faculty group called the Advocacy Consortium for Entrepreneurs. What’s the mission? ACE was a brainchild of early conversations I had with UW professor and TomoTherapy founder Rock Mackie. There were many faculty who had created startup ventures, yet there was no way for them to even know who they were, much less connect and network with each other and promote entrepreneurial behavior among faculty, post-docs and graduate students.

You left UW in 2014 and are now with a venture capital firm. What do you do? I still take part in whatever way I can in the startup community, but as an investor now, my main focus is finding Wisconsin companies that can benefit from capital, company-building skills and networks. Once found, we jump in to help them build their companies and create wealth. I’m excited to be a part of WISC Partners because they offer a warm pathway to connections, money and skill sets that help Madison ventures extend their reach beyond Wisconsin.

What’s the most exciting thing happening in the Madison startup community right now? The many bright and impatient people that are creating new companies, events, programs, et cetera, every day.

What would you change about Madison? We need to be less provincial and self-important. Various speakers at this summer’s Badger Startup Summit hit the nail on the head: We’ll never reach the critical mass of places like Boston, Silicon Valley, et cetera., but if we create viable informed networks with Milwaukee, Chicago and other Wisconsin and Midwest communities we can multiply the resources
and opportunities available to us here.

What’s the best book you’ve ever read? On related topics: Brad Feld’s Startup Communities–some great insights and some great lessons for Madison. For fun reading, I’m a big fan of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen, both masters of character development.

Who’s been your greatest inspiration? This goes back a long way to my undergraduate days: Bertrand Russell. He set me on course for a lifetime of understanding the value of rational thought and irreverence for the establishment.

How do you unwind?
Road biking.

What would you like your legacy to be? Just as one of the guys who helped a lot of entrepreneurs find their way to success.