New companies are not born out of thin air. An entrepreneur and their idea are the seeds—but that seed won’t grow without proper support in the right environment. To blossom from a fledgling startup into a booming business, these ventures need investors and money. That is where venture capital firms come into play.
Students at the University of Denver get real-world venture capital (VC) experience through the Pioneer Venture Group (PVG), an on-campus organization that invests in startups in the Rocky Mountain region, further enriching Denver’s already robust entrepreneurial landscape.
PVG is entirely managed by a select team of DU students, who network with local entrepreneurs to source investment opportunities, evaluate the viability of the startup’s business model, and analyze the return and risk of the company. Any DU student can participate in PVG; currently, the group includes both undergraduate and graduate students from the Daniels College of Business, Sturm College of Law, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and the Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science. Chris Hughen, an associate professor in the Reiman School of Finance and the faculty adviser of PVG, says an interdisciplinary group is a wiser group.
“Not only do we have to value the investments, but we have to do our legal due diligence to ensure this is an appropriate enterprise to invest in,” Hughen said. “Oftentimes, these ventures are very technical. Our team’s makeup generates diverse perspectives that result in a better investment analysis.”
According to Hughen, recent economic circumstances have changed the landscape of the venture capital business.
“People are worried about a recession,” Hughen said. “Many investors are holding onto their funds instead of committing them to investments due to concerns about economic growth. Right now, it is incredibly challenging for companies to raise money.”
Despite the obstacles small companies are facing, PVG has seen promising pitches every week. With a maximum investment size of $25,000, the group caters to small, emerging companies, rather than already-established startups in need of large amounts of capital.
Reflecting DU’s commitment to the public good, PVG aims to support and invest in purpose-driven ventures. Two recent investments illustrate how the fund stands for both strong innovation and strong values: MODL Outdoors, an outdoor gear company, creates adaptable multi-tools that are environmentally sustainable by design. Aspero Medical is a health care company revolutionizing the colonoscopy by reducing procedure time and cost, with its patented Pillar Technology.
What sets PVG apart is its autonomy and student-run approach. Three students serve as managing partners of the group: MBA students Peyton Bell and Hannah Nia, and Matthew Pittman, who is earning an MBA and a master’s degree in finance.
Eight other students serve as general partners on the board of the Pioneer Venture Group, including two undergrads. As such, PVG acts as a stepping stone for students as they continue on their career paths—even if that career is outside the realm of business and venture capital.
“We want our students to get a great education and great internships,” Hughen said. “They need to talk about challenges they have solved. That’s what PVG partners do: They look at ventures, decide who should get funding and help businesses create value. For our students, this experience has led to great opportunities and full-time careers.”
What makes the PVG experience so enriching for students? Beyond the hard skills involved in making VC decisions, there are soft skills that can be taken into any career path.
“Part of our process at PVG includes finding ways to try and incorporate data and analysis in all areas,” Pitman said. “But ultimately, a lot of the decision-making process comes down to feel and trust.”
Of course, no VC group operates in a vacuum. The students involved with PVG have managed to create a warm and engaging environment.
“We all have a shared vision for the group: Create a fun, educational and inclusive space for students to learn about VC,” Nia said. “We made it our mission to create a culture that students enjoy coming to every week. Because if it’s not fun and we’re not learning, what’s the point?”