Grunke column: MEP Angel Network connecting entrepreneurs with capital

Anyone who has walked down Front Street in Missoula lately has probably noticed the massive, gleaming copper tanks and serpentine pipes in the windows at Montgomery Distillery. Walk through the door and you’ll see that the tasting room is constantly buzzing with happy patrons. The new distillery, which opened in late 2012, is already making waves even outside our community: Earlier this year, New York Magazine cited the distillery’s Black Diamond cocktail as one of the 50 best local potables in the nation.

This is a company that hit the right timing, the right idea, the right people and the right location. But the fact is, Montgomery Distillery would have remained nothing more than a good idea if owners Jenny and Ryan Montgomery hadn’t been able to connect with the capital they needed. A state-of-the-art still, a professional website, staff — it’s an expensive cocktail of costs necessary to get a business like that off the ground.

Today, this growing company is providing jobs, bringing money into our community and adding a colorful thread to our downtown fabric thanks in large part to investment it received through the MEP Angel Network, a group of local investors who make capital investments of between $250,000 and $750,000 in early stage companies with ties to Missoula.

In spring 2012, Montgomery Distillery was one of the first four companies to pitch its business plan to investors in the MEP Angel Network. Leading up to that pitch session, we helped the four companies develop their presentations and prepare the documents that investors expect to see. As a result, two of the companies received angel funding; a third proved too large and was instead successful in being offered venture capital; the fourth received a lucrative contract as a result of its presentation.

At our second pitch session, held in spring 2013, another four companies presented their ideas to investors. Since then, three have received equity investment.

Altogether, these investments have put hundreds of thousands of dollars in the hands of entrepreneurs. Montgomery Distillery may be the most visible result; but other funded companies such as Blue Marble Biomaterials, Rivertop Renewables and Rocky Mountain Biologicals are also busy creating products, growing payroll and contributing to Missoula’s overall economic growth.

Oftentimes in the past, local people with great ideas have had to look outside the area to get the equity capital they need in order to start high-risk, high-potential businesses such as these. But since investors usually like to live close to the businesses they fund, that put pressure on those companies to leave our area.

That’s why we started the MEP Angel Network: To develop our own capital networks so that Missoula’s best and brightest entrepreneurs have the opportunities to get funded locally and stay here. We are pleased at the successes we’ve seen so far, and expect more to come: Our next pitch session will take place in October, with four more companies presenting their business cases to investors.

In the end, the goal of economic development is local wealth creation and growth acceleration. Not all companies require angel investment; but those that do represent some of our community’s highest growth opportunities. The more we can help those startups succeed, the greater the opportunity and wealth in our community as a whole.

James Grunke is CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership. This column originally appeared in the August 25, 2013 edition of the Missoulian’s InBusiness Weekly. Investors or entrepreneurs interested in learning more about the MEP Angel Network are encouraged to read about the program at this link.

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