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They abound for local angel investors in the life sciences

Steve Burrill, a leading venture capitalist in the life science and biotechnology industries, speaks during a meeting Friday at the MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- A California company has developed a patented stem-cell technology for treating arthritis in dogs and horses, using stem cells derived from the animal's own fat tissue.

Now Vet-Stem Inc. is looking to open a new laboratory and start marketing itself directly to American pet owners.

"We just need money and gas in the tank," Dr. Robert Harman, the company's chief executive, explained Friday to a local group at the

MinnWest Technology Campus.

Investing in biotechnology companies such as Vet-Stem, especially in the early stages, and helping them become successful and profitable is one of the roles an angel network could play in Kandiyohi County.

The opportunities for so-called angel investors were explored during a morning-long meeting Friday at the technology campus, hosted by the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

The EDC has been trying for several months to help form an angel network of local private investors.

County economic development officials see an angel investors' group as a critical source of seed money for new and emerging companies in the life sciences industry.

The initial goal is to invest $500,000 to $1 million in angel funds to selected companies within the network's first year.

To sweeten the deal, the state of Minnesota also is now offering tax credits to angel investors for qualified technology businesses.

About 40 people attended Friday's meeting, which was held to gauge local interest in an angel network and to show potential investors the possibilities in biotechnology development.

Vet-Stem, for instance, is poised to break into the lucrative multibillion-dollar market for companion animal care. The young company owns a portfolio of stem-cell patents and has amassed a track record of treating more than 6,000 dogs and horses with stem-cell therapy for arthritis.

To venture capitalist Steve Burrill, it's innovations in the life sciences that hold some of the greatest promise for future growth of the global economy.

Burrill's international company, with more than $900 million in venture capital funds under management, is one of the world's largest.

All of the greatest challenges facing the world -- food production, energy security, health care, climate change -- have biotechnology development as part of their solution, Burrill told the audience that was gathered Friday in the life sciences center at the technology campus.

It's a time of extraordinary change, he said. "There's this whole world of new technology and new players coming in and transforming the world around us."

Those who adapt will be the most likely to survive and thrive, Burrill said. "Our job is to be responsive to those changes."

Because not every new piece of science can, or should, be translated into an enterprise, the challenge for angel investors is the ability to sort out the most worthwhile ideas, he said. At his own firm, which is in the process of building a $100 million Midwest capital fund, "99 times out of 100 we say no" to requests for venture capital, he said.

Burrill said Minnesota's capacity for early seed money and capital is underbuilt, suggesting there's room for expansion.

Rural angel investors also need to step outside regional boundaries and think globally, he said. "The question is, are you networked? Geography becomes less important."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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