Seed money: Madison has become fertile ground for venture capitalists

Ask venture capitalists why they do what they do, and you’ll hear some different takes.

For Ken Johnson, who founded seven different companies before launching Kegonsa Capital Partners in 2004, venture capital — the business of making high-risk investments in startups poised for long-term growth — scratches an entrepreneurial itch. A company where you can work with multiple business plans at once, he said, is like the ultimate startup.

“The trouble with regular entrepreneurism is you can only be the entrepreneur of a company at one time,” he said.

Dan Reed, managing director at AmFam Ventures, said venture capital is the perfect outlet for geeking out about business strategy.

“It’s like you’re overdosing on it. It can be sort of overwhelming. There’s always something new to look at,” he said.

For Mark Bakken, managing director at HealthX Ventures, it’s about giving back. He made millions as the founder of the massive health care IT consulting firm Nordic before leaving in 2014. Now, he can help the young founders of companies in the health care technology industry replicate that success. For many of the startups he works with, he’s become a close mentor. (Disclosure: The Cap Times Co. is an investor in HealthX Ventures.)

“Some of the startups call me Uncle Mark,” Bakken said. “I kind of show them how to navigate this world.”

For others, it doesn‘t hurt that there’s a potential seven-figure income, plenty of travel, and the ability to be your own boss.

Regardless of their motivations, Johnson, Bakken and Reed have become part of a sea change in the way startups are getting financed in the state, and in the Madison area in particular. Venture capital activity in the region used to be underwhelming, startup community leaders say. These days, it’s on an upswing.

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