Our most recent guest on Fast Frontiers is Chris Rizik, Chief Executive Officer and Fund Manager of the Renaissance Venture Capital Fund. Chris and I go way back. We are both big music fans and have known each other for at least 15-20 years now.
After receiving his undergrad in accounting, Chris went straight to work at what was then Coopers & Lybrand (now PricewaterhouseCoopers). He then went back to law school and was an attorney for a little over a decade. After being recruited out of the blue by Rick Snyder to help him form his first venture capital fund [a fund called Avalon in Michigan], Chris later became a partner and ran it for almost ten years. Of this particular venture, Chris remarked: “It was at a time when the largest venture fund in Michigan I think was about $15 million, and we came out with a $100 million-dollar fund, and it was just a really heady time [1998-2000].”
According to Chris, a couple of unicorns came out of that fund, including TomoTherapy out of Wisconsin and Esperion out of Ann Arbor. Chris explained that it was that experience of starting a venture capital fund in the middle of the country, “where you saw the good and the bad” and “saw opportunity that wasn’t fully capitalized on,” that led to the formation of Renaissance.
Chris explained Renaissance in a nutshell as “a fund of funds, [where] we invest in venture capital funds.” At the time of its emergence, according to Chris, Renaissance had a really unique model: “We would invest in top tier venture funds around the country under the condition that they come and look at opportunities in Michigan. Having been a venture capitalist in Michigan, I saw the trouble attracting capital, but that there were really good opportunities. A lot of times, it was simply a lack of connection with the capital that was on the coast and the opportunities that were in the Midwest.”
Chris elaborated: “The idea behind Renaissance was to create an opportunity to connect local startup companies with capital from wherever. The secret sauce of it was formed when Renaissance partnered with a number of Fortune 1000, very large private companies, who cared about Michigan, who cared about the startup environment and were beginning to look for innovation outside their organizations. So, our promise to them was we’ll invest in funds and get those funds to look at Michigan and hopefully grow the startup ecosystem here, but also we will look at those funds and their portfolio and help bring innovation to your major company in areas that are important to you. That was really the innovation that Renaissance brought.”
Thanks, incredible. So tell us, Chris, you started this endeavor in 2008, when the country was just coming out of the recession, but impressively, you’ve been able to grow quite a bit. Can you describe a bit of how you did this?
“Sure. [As of right now], we have assets under management of a little over $250 million dollars, and we’ve invested in 45 funds around the country, really just about everywhere in the country. We’ve done a number of innovative things to help attract them to Michigan and help connect them with these major companies,” Chris explained. “We do an event every year called UnDemo Day, where we work with the universities and the accelerators locally to identify the 50 most promising startup companies in the state, then bring them all into one room. Then we invite venture capitalists from around the country.”
Chris explained how the startup companies can present their products or services and how the event also incorporates hundreds of curated one-on-one meetings, which has proven to be super successful in gaining interest, traction, and, ultimately, funding. “Since our last UnDemo Day, we’ve already had (as far as we know) 10 investments in local companies that came out of meetings that were set up that day, and there’s another handful that are still looking and in due diligence. So, it’s become in Michigan probably the premier event for connecting startup companies with capital.”
Well, Chris, I know that you and your model have been an inspiration to so many, including myself, when I was asked at the end of 2012 to help start Cintrifuse in Cincinnati. You and I talked, and you helped convince me to do it. We traded a lot of ideas, and one thing we learned is that by collaborating and learning from each other, we made a lot more progress rather than by thinking that Ohio and Michigan are in competition for the talent and ideas. That’s something I’m really proud of, and I think really helped grow both of our communities.
Chris concurred, adding his ideal vision of the future: “[Absolutely]. We’ve shared ideas. My dream would be for there to be a dozen other funds like Cintrifuse and Renaissance around the country, and with each one, [we] would all get better.”