University of Wisconsin–Madison

Mentorship program worth its weight in gold for Wisconsin startups

When Randy Nagy first envisioned a device to modernize the transport and protection of DNA samples, he already had more than two decades of experience in various aspects of DNA forensics.

Amid the mushrooming legal and scientific interest in DNA analysis, Nagy obtained a patent on his SwabSaver, and formed Fast Forward Forensics.

Then Nagy made another smart move: He contacted MERLIN Mentors, the Madison Entrepreneur Resource, Learning and Innovation Network, a source of free guidance from people who have been there, done that. MERLIN is supported by University Research Park, an affiliate of the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

MERLIN fills a gap in Wisconsin’s bench of business and startup advice, says director Susie Younkle. “What is unique is the depth and breadth of mentor expertise. I have 100-plus mentors, and we can provide expertise in any industry and any stage of company development. That allows us to work with a wide range of mentees, from biotech and medical products to solar energy in West Africa and cast iron skillets here in Wisconsin.”

Alisa Toninato, cofounder of American Skillet Co. , holds a chunk of coke, used for melting iron before casting, in her Madison workshop. Advice and encouragement from MERLIN Mentors has helped the company grow and achieve a national reputation, she says, but nothing substitutes for 60- hour work weeks, a designer’s eye, and a partner like Andrew McManigal,“who can do just about anything.”

American Skillet Co. of Madison makes cast-iron skillets in the shape of states. “At first I did not know what to do with MERLIN, did not know what I did not know,” co-founder Alisa Toninato admits. “But if you are driven, tenacious, MERLIN is an incredible opportunity to get quality advice — fast, free and fair.”

The mentors act as navigators, Toninato says. “They ask for a picture of where we are now and a projection of where we want to go so they can help us navigate.” Generally, an entrepreneur begins a relationship with one mentor, but in many cases, a team will be assembled to round out the advice.

More than 50 relationships are active at this point, all in Wisconsin. The roster of mentees includes Northern Star Fire, founded by fire captain Jeff Dykes in Eau Claire in 2014. Northern Star designs and sells directional units to guide firefighters to safety when smoke brings visibility down to zero.

Mentors have a range of experience as entrepreneurs and business leaders. They may not have a financial stake in the mentee’s business, and must resign as mentors before accepting such a role.

“It’s amazing to see the range of expertise once I ask,” says Younkle.  “I got an email from a mentee saying, ‘Do any of the mentors know anything about doing multi-point conversion tracking … on a budget?’ The group of mentors laughed about the request — until someone raised his hand and said, ‘I have done that.’”

Ted Gurman has seen the relationship from both sides — first while helping found Bluetree Network, a Madison-based consultancy on electronic health records that now has 250 employees, and more recently as a mentor.

“With MERLIN, there is no expectation that you have a business plan or a strong business background. They invest the time and energy in people who are serious about pursuing the endeavor they have chosen. That lower barrier makes support available to a broader range of people.”

Working the other side of the table can be equally rewarding, Gurman says. “Knowing what it’s like to be an entrepreneur and how much they need to tackle, it feels good to give new entrepreneurs the opportunity not to make all the same mistakes that we made. It’s an opportunity to impart some wisdom and help people turn their dream into reality.

“More than anything, what stops people from getting momentum with a new enterprise is feeling like there is too much they don’t know, and that’s overwhelming. It’s great to have a sounding board that says, ‘Yes, that seems like a good idea. Give it a try; you’re going in the right direction.’”

Fast Forward Forensics is starting to produce this all-in-one kit to take a DNA sample from the cheek and immediately transfer it to protected, preserved storage. The technology is immediately applicable to the growing business of personal genetics, says founder Randy Nagy, as well as personalized medicine that relies on genetic sequencing to diagnose disease.

Nagy says his budding DNA sample business benefited from specific business advice. “I was working on a profit and loss statement and had to decide which metrics to follow, and Merlin was certainly helpful. The mentors helped me talk through the options: ‘Here are some problems you might consider, here are things to worry about if you go that way.’”

The program, now in its 10th year, takes pride in its business successes but is “first and foremost focused on building entrepreneurs,” Younkle says. “Successful businesses and job creation are secondary outcomes of our success in developing entrepreneurs.”

Dave Tenenbaum | University Communications

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