News Analysis: Angels in the wings for strong middle-market firms

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Colorado Springs is no Silicon Valley, Austin or even Boulder.

There is no venture capital coming this way. It would be a waste of time to pine for mega-million investments in hopes of becoming the next Google or Living Social.

Yes, that sounds harsh.

But it’s reality, said Chris Blees, one of three chairmen for High Altitude Investors, an angel investment club.

“What is here is a group of investors who can reasonably put together a half-million bucks,” he said.

Where venture capital plays are upwards of $2 million, angel investments typically top out at $2 million.

That’s not chump change.

In recent months the Colorado Springs entrepreneurial community has awakened. It’s lively with its early-morning coffees and entertaining with after-hours Pitch Nights. Everyone from the idea guy to the angel investor who is willing to plunk down cash agrees that the local entrepreneurial feeling and spirit are moving in the right direction.

“But we have a long way to go,” said Ric Denton, Colorado Springs Technology Incubator CEO.

He’s not just a Debbie Downer.

Even when Brad Feld, co-founder of the Boulder-based Tech Stars accelerator investment group — which pumps millions every year into early stage companies — visited here last year, he said it will take a good 10 years for Colorado Springs to grow up to be Boulder, where venture capital is its middle name.

He advised entrepreneurs not to be discouraged by the long journey.

Colorado Springs entrepreneurs took the message to heart. They got serious about ensuring their ideas are turned into solid business plans. They are seeking advice from those who have been there before them. And they are more realistic about the valuation of their startups.

Investors are taking notice. Bill Miller, founder of PV Ventures investment firm, had stepped back from investing after a few startups he was into fell apart. But now he’s risking some funds — about $3.2 million this year — in six startups.

“It’s going to take some people matching up entrepreneurs with local money and have some of those to be a success — and then they turn around and reinvest,” Miller said. “It’s going to take a while.”

High Altitude Investors, the only angel investor club in the Springs, has noticed the uptick in quality startup plans. A few years ago, the club was hard-pressed to find three worthwhile companies to make pitches to local investors. Now it’s difficult to choose just three, said Blees, who is a founder of the HAI club.

“A lot more deals come to us — they already have some customers, they’ve already done beta testing, they have revenue coming in,” Blees said. “The deal quality has improved.”

Simultaneously, Denton and others are trying to find more angels. Denton would like to see HAI grow from 30 to 100 members. Typically, accredited investors, as defined by SEC guidelines, have a net worth of $1 million, or more than $200,000 annual income, $300,000 for joint filing.

“If we are truly going to switch gears and do more enterprise development, which also includes startups, we need more risk capital,” he said.

That means, at least for now, Colorado Springs entrepreneurs need to come to grips with the fact that they aren’t going to put out their idea and grab $20 million in venture capital. But there is nothing wrong with the Springs building a reputation for strong middle-market firms, Blees said.

Take Grant Dental Technology Corp. The company raised $2 million from local investors last year, got some key case studies completed and is now going to market in the United Kingdom. The company expects to go out for a second round of funding in the first quarter of 2013 and is projecting $2 million in revenue this year and $50 million in five years.

Those are the kind of deals Colorado Springs can make, Blees said. And no one should be feeling bad about it.

“What would be a successful startup in Palo Alto (Calif.) is not going to be successful here,” he said. “Our good startup opportunities here are companies with needs for reasonable startup capital, less than $2 to $3 million. Those are some realistic dollars that can be raised.”