Building upon their successful first year that included investing $100,000 in Nebraskan startups and winning the university’s Outstanding New Student Organization Award, student members of the Husker Venture Fund (HVF) set goals this year to grow their impact on the state and the future of venture capital investing.
“It was awesome to see all the hard work done by our first managing directors last year, building HVF from the ground up, pay off in a tangible way,” said Maria Heyen, a senior international business and Clifton Builders management major from Astoria, Oregon, who is one of the three students serving in managing director roles for the HVF this year. “It’s thrilling to win such a great award, as it only pushes us to be better and outpace last year’s accomplishments.”
The fund, built by alumni and university supporters, is managed by more than 30 students under the supervision of the Center for Entrepreneurship, the University of Nebraska Foundation and Invest Nebraska. All Nebraska-owned early-stage startups in any industry are eligible to apply for HVF funding, with priority given to student-led businesses. Through this funding, the HVF helps connect underserved communities of entrepreneurs with the resources and capital they need.
“HVF works to fill out a long-underserved gap in the Nebraska entrepreneurship ecosystem – venture funding that’s often called the super early ‘friends and family round,’” said Ateev Bhandari, a senior accounting and business administration major from Amritsar, India, who works closely with the NU Foundation as part of his managing director role. “As a student-led venture capital fund at Nebraska’s premier educational institution, it’s only right that we lead the charge across the state with such intentional investments.”
They made four $25,000 investments in startups operating from around the state including Sentinel Fertigation, Nestimate, Snappy Workflow and Maxwell. Their first investment into Sentinel Fertigation, an ag-tech company, enabled the company to work with farmers across the Midwest in a paid pilot program this summer.
“I’ve heard from a lot of investors so far that we’re too early or there’s not enough traction. Ultimately with a business like this, when you need to hire people and have resources and support to execute, that funding gap can really slow down progress. The Husker Venture Fund was built to get these things off the ground,” said Jackson Stansell, 2021 graduate, a biological engineering Ph.D. student.
HVF plans to invest in four to five startups this year. Applications from Nebraska-based founders are accepted and reviewed on a rolling basis. Every applicant receives, at minimum, a guaranteed screening meeting to pitch their company to the three managing directors. From there, the process becomes a hands-on learning experience for all HVF members.
“After this initial pitch, we then vote to decide if we should move forward with due diligence. If more than 50% of members want to move forward, we then assign a due diligence lead from our managing directors and senior associates,” said Samuel DeZube, managing director and junior finance major from Stilwell, Kansas. “We first divide up the due diligence report into sections such as intellectual property and failure risk, and then assign those sections to members to complete. The lead communicates back to the entrepreneur if more information is needed for members to complete their respective sections and compiles the parts into a summary used when we take an investment vote. To make an investment, 80% of members must vote yes.”
Members prepare for this due diligence process through an eight-week, student-led venture capital bootcamp offered each fall to new members. The HVF membership structure resembles a typical venture capital fund with students selected to join starting as general members and can advance to associate and senior associate.
“The fact that we are entirely student-led makes us unique,” DeZube said. “This means that everything from screening companies, completing due diligence to actually voting on investments is entirely done by students. This gives our members experience that is as close to real-world venture investing as possible.”
The hands-on learning experience was recognized by the university in its N150 Commission Report as an innovative student experience preparing graduates to be life-long learners and contributors to the workforce in Nebraska and beyond. Beyond serving as an entrepreneurship resource and an economic driver for the state, HVF enables students to gain venture capital experience in a field known for its exclusivity and closed doors.
“Husker Venture Fund has been the most rewarding experience of my college career. The hands-on approach and autonomy are matched by few student programs on campus. The impact we have had as an organization so far is inspiring, to say the least,” said Bhandari. “Everyone around us wants us to succeed and is willing to help whenever called upon. The fund is a direct product of the support system around it, and hence I’d like to thank our donors who made the fund possible and our advisors Ben Williamson, Sam Nelson and Joe Petsick for their timely and readily available counsel.”