There are more than 400,000 living University of Wisconsin-Madison alumni around the world, and one of those alumni is heading up a new effort to leverage that enormous and diverse community to help Badgers connect and invest in each other’s entrepreneurial endeavors.
Mechanical engineering alumnus Greg Baker (BS ’86) is the managing partner of Bascom Ventures, a venture capital fund established in 2017. Bascom Ventures connects Badger investors with startups that have a significant University of Wisconsin-Madison connection; a UW-Madison alum has to be in a key decision-making role, whether it’s as part of the startup’s board or its executive team. In only a few months since the fund’s establishment, there are already more than 7,500 alumni taking part, Baker says, which he credits to the university’s passionate community.
“What we’re doing relies on the affinity of alumni to their university, and there aren’t a lot of universities that have higher affinity than Wisconsin does,” says Baker, noting that Bascom Ventures is part of a network of venture capital funds for university alumni that began at elite East Coast schools. “When I started, there were already sister funds at schools like Harvard, MIT and Yale, and the addition of Wisconsin initially raised some eyebrows. Wisconsin did not seem to some to fit in with the other schools at that point, but I knew that it’s a good environment and that the creativity out of this university is very strong.”
Indeed, Bascom Ventures, which is not formally affiliated with the university, has grown as quickly as many of its sister funds, and the creativity and alumni enthusiasm within the Badger community has already led to investments in three promising UW-affiliated startups representing diverse industries. One of those companies is called HealthMyne. It’s a Madison-based startup which has developed an artificial intelligence tool that processes MRI scans to help radiologists generate better information for oncologists. Another funded startup is called Highly; it’s a San Francisco-based social media tool that helps users highlight important information in the links they share. And the third funded startup is Markable, which is based in New York and augments videos and photos with information about the fashion that appears in them, along with links to where the fashion can be purchased.
“We’re trying to build as diverse a portfolio as possible,” says Baker, adding that Bascom Ventures is already looking at investing in two more startups in other fields. His goal is to make 15 to 25 investments each year on behalf of alumni, many of whom might not be able to participate in other venture capital funds that have higher minimum investment requirements.
A Madison native who has been living in the Chicago area for many years, Baker took a somewhat circuitous route from mechanical engineering to venture capital. He interned with Texas Instruments in Boston as an undergraduate and continued to work for the company for several years—a period during which he realized he was more attracted to business and finance than to a strictly engineering career. So he enrolled in Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and earned an MBA. Baker has since spent much of his career specializing in mergers and acquisitions and led a startup of his own for some time. Last year, his undergraduate roommate, who started a venture capital fund for Dartmouth alumni some years back, approached Baker about starting one for Wisconsin. Baker signed on enthusiastically.
“At this stage of my career, it’s a great opportunity to be more involved with the university and alumni,” says Baker, whose previous involvement as an alum was mostly as a football and basketball spectator. “Now I get to be involved with other people, many of whom have also moved away from Madison and who really like the opportunity to do something more than just occasionally send a check or go to a bar to watch a football game. It’s great to build a community of people who want to support the many students and alumni who have great ideas and help them move forward with their businesses.”
Baker is not only seeking investors; he’s also interested in connecting with alumni with technical expertise who could give advice about potential investments. As an engineering graduate, Baker well understands the value of approaching opportunities from a methodical perspective.
“An engineering education gives you a skillset to look at problems from a very scientific way,” Baker says. “I’m an engineer at heart if not in practice, and that can be an advantage in venture capital.”
Author: Will Cushman