Few industries are as high-visibility as sports, and as such, few industries can deliver the outsized impact sports can have on the business world. For Craig Dickman, the fund manager of Green Bay Packers-backed venture capital fund TitleTownTech Ventures, that presents an opportunity to find businesses that can benefit from early funding and potentially have wide-ranging impact beyond the field.
Since 2019, the fund has dedicated its $25 million in initial funding to 21 unique sports-focused or Wisconsin-based startups. Early results are so good that the fund is looking to launch a second fund soon.
“What we’ve tried to do is lever the unique ability of a sports team like the Packers to bring people and organizations together to create a network of companies scattered throughout the state of Wisconsin,” said Dickman, a longtime entrepreneur who is also a board member of the National Football League franchise. “We’ve also really tried to be deliberate in creating this engaged capital model, helping founders build and grow here—but as part of a national ecosystem, not just a Wisconsin bubble.”
Take for instance Oculogica, a New Richmond, Wisc., company founded by Uzma and Rosina Samadani, Packers fans and sisters each with a medical doctorate. The Wisconsin natives began working in 2019 with TitleTownTech and Microsoft, the other founding investor of the VC fund, to develop their ideas for technology-based evaluation of potential concussions. The duo partly worked out of the team’s mixed-use real estate development—TitleTown—adjacent to Lambeau Field. After initial progress, Dickman’s fund led an $8 million investment round in the business in 2020. Oculogica’s main product is EyeBOX, which uses proprietary tech to track eye movement for diagnosis. The sports use is obvious, but it also has broader application that has notched Oculogica the first Food and Drug Administration-approved neuro-diagnostic device for the injury.
It’s an example of the type of companies the fund likes to invest in. “We wanted the fund to be sports tech-plus, not just sport tech,” said Dickman, on a video call. There’s no requirement that businesses be sports-focused at all; Aryv, a Janesville, Wisc.-based Uber-like service for non-emergency medical transport, for example, fills the niche between taxis and ambulances to provide specialized vehicles for rides. Overall, TitleTownTech Ventures focuses on five verticals: sports tech, digital health, advanced manufacturing, supply chain, and agriculture and environment. “We find a number of interesting things happen at the intersection of those verticals,” he added.
Football connections led Dickman to SpringBok Analytics, an effort that grew out of University of Virginia professors’ research of sports muscle injuries. SpringBok uses MRIs to create a Digital Twin, an artificial intelligence-based construct of a real-life object so detailed that it can run a myriad of scenarios projecting future results—like, for instance, a hamstring injury recovery. TitleTownTech Ventures invested in the company in March. The amount isn’t disclosed, but like all the fund’s investments, it’s likely modest and targeted—Dickman looks for seed to Series A funding opportunities.
Dickman draws on his career experience as founder of two other VC firms as well as BreakThrough Fuel, a company that melds data with shipping needs to make logistics more efficient. The executive, who also owns a Brewers minor league affiliate and a collegiate summer league baseball squad, believed that while Wisconsin had a good first stage, angel investing culture, too often firms had to move to Silicon Valley or Boston to get venture-level guidance and investment. Packers executives agreed, and thought the team’s TitleTown development could help create a regional hub. “The Packers are unique in that they are community-owned and certainly play an outsized role within the market and the state, and have been very active from a philanthropy standpoint,” Dickman explained. “The question was posed, then, if using this unique brand and platform could the Packers help the for-profit innovation, creation, entrepreneur side?”
The answer turned out to be yes, but the desire to invest in state- and sports-specific ventures doesn’t mean TitleTownTech Ventures has a low bar. In two and a half years of operation, the fund has examined 3,800 businesses but invested in fewer than two dozen, including Slate Digital, Boost Sport and upstart basketball league Overtime Elite.
Two differentiators for Dickman are standard VC ones for high-risk, early-stage businesses: a high-quality founding management team and an idea that solves a meaningful problem, which for him, returns to the potential to expand beyond the field. “Sports is a remarkably small market in some ways, compared to, say, health care. If it’s football-related and you’re trying to capture professional sports, there are only so many teams you can go to,” said Dickman. “As a VC, can an investment scale 50 times from where you’re starting?” And while the goal for TitleTownTech Ventures is to make money like any VC, it also must balance any effect on the image of its backers. “If that brand is next to the Packers and Microsoft, will people feel good about that?” he asked.
Like the NFL’s own VC, 32 Ventures, finding nascent businesses is helped along by fund investors who often tip off Dickman to potential investments and lend expertise to portfolio companies when they can. In addition to the Packers and Microsoft, limited partners include the Jacobs family, owners of both the Boston Bruins and Delaware North, and other investors who have the engaged capital mindset he seeks—that means he hasn’t wooed high net worth individuals or institutional money for investment.
With one potential portfolio addition being evaluated now by the investment committee, the initial funding for TitleTownTech Ventures is fully allocated, with about 70% of the assets sitting in portfolio companies already and the balance held back for follow-on investments. With the first fund accounted for, a second TitleTownTech Ventures fund is likely soon to follow, said Dickman.
“We were initially a startup for startups that had to prove our thesis, like every new business does,” he said. “I think we really honed that and are positioned to continue this model out into the future.”