By Dan Heilman
Entrepreneurs often show an almost evangelical zeal when they talk about a new business idea. Jeff Ochs (B.A. ’04, M.P.P., M.B.A. ’14), a former associate of the University of Minnesota’s Venture Center, has that zeal to spare.
Ochs, 32, is the first executive director of Gopher Angels, a two-year-old investor network. He will manage the portfolio of the group, which recruits wealthy individuals to invest in Minnesota-based startups. Local entrepreneurs David and Sara Russick, who founded the waste removal company Bagster and then sold it to Waste Management, launched Gopher Angels because they wanted to help promising new companies get off the ground.
“Entrepreneurship is my job and my passion, but it’s also my hobby,” says Ochs, who lives in St. Paul. When he’s not spending time with his wife, teacher Tian Wang, and their daughter Nora, his mind is on his work. “For a true entrepreneur, the work is the thing that gets you up in the morning.”
Ochs started at Gopher Angels as he was simultaneously finishing an M.B.A. and master’s degree in public policy at the U and winding down his tenure as executive director of the nonprofit Breakthrough Twin Cities, which he founded under the name Breakthrough St. Paul. And working with a cocreator, he recently released Snake Oil, a party game that has since been licensed to a leading game publisher. All the while he continues to nurture his custom storybook company, Customs Made.
Gopher Angels’ 60 members each contribute an annual fee of $1,250 (the group’s sole source of revenue), and attend regular pitch meetings where hopeful entrepreneurs present their business ideas. What makes Gopher Angels different from other investment groups is that members can choose whether to invest in particular companies rather than pool their funds. “It’s a nice way to maintain a level of individual decision-making while still being able to leverage the investment strength of everyone in the group,” Ochs explains. As of the end of September, the group had invested $4.5 million into 15 companies. One of its biggest investments came earlier this year when it sunk $1.2 million into local med-tech start-up Preceptis Medical.
Ochs works with the Russicks and a steady stream of interns from the Carlson School’s M.B.A. program to bring in more great business ideas, which in turn bring in more investors. “With a group like this, you have a network’s worth of connections that draws deals in,” Ochs says. “As the reputation of Gopher Angels grows, we’ll have more members, and more companies looking for funding will want to talk with us.”