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Rising Angels
By Kimberly Swick Slover

Jeff Sohl believes in "angels," the trendy term for investors bearing gifts of cash and wisdom for promising upstarts. Sohl is director of the Whittemore School's Center for Venture Research, the nation's leading university-based initiative that tracks and analyzes the elusive beings who lift risky businesses with high-growth potential off the ground. Recently, he has detected crowds of angels hovering over the Granite State.

"The numbers have been dramatic in New Hampshire," he points out. "In 1995, we saw $14.2 million invested in 11 deals. In 1997, it was $93.7 million in 24 deals, about $4 million per deal--a 136 percent increase over the previous year. Clearly, our individuals and University represent fertile ground for innovation and deal flow," he adds.

The phenomenon also factors into the nation's economy, where last year about 75 percent of the wealthiest individuals earned their money through their own businesses. "In our parents' day, the dream was to own your own home. Today, the dream is to have your own business," Sohl says.

Yet angels are at once plentiful and hard to find. They don't advertise in the Yellow Pages and tend to fly below most radar screens to avoid inundation from cash-strapped entrepreneurs. Sohl describes angels as "cashed-out entrepreneurs" who invest from $50,000 to $2 million in new business ideas, hoping for payback--and much more--in seven to 10 years. Angels operate regionally, seeking out innovative individuals with the ability to "build a better mousetrap."According to Sohl, "They want the excitement of a new endeavor, but not the sleepless nights."

The center helps boost the state's burgeoning early-stage equity market. Sohl serves on a state advisory committee exploring ways to funnel investment capital to entrepreneurs, and he recently provided expertise that helped pass two bills aimed at easing barriers to high-growth business ventures here.

Does Sohl have an angel of his own? "Technically, we're not allowed to personally profit from the market," he says. "We're the independent voice of the market. We need to stay above the fray."

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