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Student angels invest with success

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Articles - May 2011
Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Almost class time, so professor Rob Wiltbank hurries downstairs to a room of 10 students already plugging away on their laptops, and he announces their daily agenda: Create a short list of the best investment opportunities in the region.


Willamette University's student angels, from left to right: Mark Kornei, Yameen Ali, Wade Brooks (executive director), Alex Swerzbin, Nikki Katsutani, Andrew Beldin, Ann Sinclair, Aaron Reber and Nabeel Ashour. So far, the class has invested nearly $200,000. It is the only student-run angel program in the country. // Photo by Teresa Meier

Then this professor and his MBA students at Willamette University dissect Oregon businesses:

“I like their team, and they’re good at affordable loss, but there’s not much here.”

“It’s pointing in the right direction, just at the wrong market.”

After discussions like this each Wednesday, the students rank investment opportunities on a scale from 1 to 10. And it’s no mere case study. Their findings mean real money for real companies.

Wiltbank’s class, now in its second year, is the only student-run angel program in the country and in April, it was ranked one of the top 10 entrepreneurship courses in the nation by Inc. magazine. Wiltbank is an expert on these risky investments, which are usually provided to startup companies by wealthy individuals or groups hoping for big equity returns. To sit in offers a glimpse into angels’ methods as well as an example of what Wade Brooks, executive director of the program, calls “the most amazing teaching tool that I’ve ever seen.”

Several students agree with him. “If we do poorly, then we’ve made a bad decision that costs the school money,” says Yameen Ali. “So it puts a sort of real-life situational pressure on us.”

Before the class was created, Wiltbank arranged for two students a year to shadow angels, but it was when Brooks came to Willamette in 2008 that the pair decided to launch a full-blown angel fund.

With more than $200,000 raised from alumni, the school approved, and Wiltbank and Brooks structured a year-long course that would grant students decision-making power to invest in the types of local startups that Debra Ringold, dean of the Atkinson Graduate School of Management, believes are Oregon's “best shot at economic growth.”

The class buys two voting spots at several angel conferences throughout the region, allowing students to work shoulder-to-shoulder with private investors. The conferences also allow them to invest small amounts in several companies, which research suggests is the safest path to profit.

Every week, students discuss companies they have found. If they decide to invest, they present their findings to an advisory board. For the most promising opportunities they will independently invest up to $50,000, as they did in March with Scribe STAT, a Lake Oswego company that helps medical school aspirants find work assisting doctors.

So far, the class has invested nearly $200,000. Just one company has failed, while the other six remain in business.

The investments have yet to make money for the school, but most successful ones take at least five years to return. Profits would help the school meet its goal of growing the angel fund to $5 million. That would provide for future classes and bigger investment. And it would bring closer to fruition Wiltbank’s vision for his class to be the most active early-stage investor in the Northwest.



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