Bet you didn’t know the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business has its very own “Shark Tank.” Though lacking the made-for-TV drama of the hit ABC reality series, the Dingman Center Angels network is every bit the lifeline for entrepreneurs seeking critical early-stage funding and professional expertise.
The group is run by the Smith School’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, which has a more than a 25-year history of helping students and regional entrepreneurs start and grow businesses. It’s the only center of its kind running a full-fledged – and very active – investment group, bringing entrepreneurs in front of angel investors each month to pitch for funding to grow their businesses.
“With more than 30 members, our group has the ability to provide a substantial amount of capital to a startup in order for them to grow and become successful,” says Joel Marquis, assistant director of the Dingman Center, in charge of venture programs. “More important than the financial capital though is the knowledge capital. Our members come from diverse backgrounds, bringing forth various experiences across all types of industries. We have serial entrepreneurs, seasoned operators, academics and finance professionals. This allows our group to provide the mentorship, industry expertise and relevant contacts that are so valuable to entrepreneurs.”
Last year, the Dingman Center Angels invested more than $4 million in 13 companies that pitched during monthly breakfast sessions between September 2011 and June 2012. The group is more active than ever, more than tripling the $1.2 million invested by angel network members in the same period a year earlier. Last year, the Dingman Center received applications from 116 companies last year, screened 60 of them, and invited 40 to present to the 50-plus-person investor group. The center is on pace to do even better this year.
Dingman Center staff provides hands-on coaching to entrepreneurs selected to participate to help them prepare a successful pitch. Companies must be located in Maryland, D.C., Virginia or Delaware and seeking between $150,000 and $1 million in equity financing.
"Elana Fine [managing director of the Dingman Center] has managed to not only deliver fantastic deal-flow, but has also created a true community of smart and seasoned angels that really enjoy each others' company and counsel," said Ed Barrientos, an angel investor and entrepreneur-in-residence with the Dingman Center.
Entrepreneurs and investors clearly have a lot to gain from the group, as do Smith School students.
“It's rare for a business school to have a program that brings both investors and entrepreneurs to campus,” said Elana Fine, managing director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship. “Having these groups here allows us to bring their experience and advice to students and to connect students with job and internship opportunities at the startups.”
Relationships with startups that began with the Dingman Center Angels network helped the Smith School create an internship program to place MBA students at startups last summer. That program grew to a for-credit experiential course, called the Venture Practicum, that is now part of the MBA Smith Experience program. Students spend the semester learning about and working with startups, many of which were introduced to Smith through interactions with the angel group. Working with startups gives students the opportunity to get a first-hand look at the exciting, fast-paced – even grueling – experience of growing a business. The taste might be just enough to push some of them to launch their own ventures.