Sample Stories from the Wolverine Venture Fund Alumni


    Catherine Lee, MBA ’08
    Product Marketing Manager
    Facebook Inc.

    The entrepreneurial, venture-investing and leadership skills Catherine Lee acquired through the Zell Lurie Institute have enabled her to thrive in the rapidly growing corporate environment at Facebook and to advance its $10 million strategic seed fund. “The Fund has doubled in size and evolved from a grant program to an incubator program over the past year, so my role as manager has changed,” explains Lee, who helped to select and currently oversees a portfolio of 50 emerging companies. “Now we are taking equity positions and starting to manage our holdings.” To meet these new management challenges, Lee created a formal mentoring program and recruited angel investors and entrepreneurs to assist her. Two companies already have been acquired. She credits the Michigan Business Challenge and the Wolverine Venture Fund (WVF) for preparing her to become a successful angel-fund manager within a big corporation. “Participating in the business-plan competition enabled me to see things from the entrepreneur’s perspective and to get valuable feedback from venture capitalists and faculty,” she says. “As a team facilitator for the WVF, I gained experience in leading a team, conducting due diligence and evaluating the performance of portfolio companies. I am applying all these skills to Fund.”


    Mekhala Vasthare, MBA ‘02
    Director Product Marketing

    Mekhala Vasthare rose to the role of Head of Acquisitions Markets for Adwords at Google before becoming a Director of Product Marketing at LinkedIn. She might have worked for a company that has come to be recognized as the world’s best search engine and one that has thousands of employees globally, but in her position as group product marketing manager, she played a very entrepreneurial role. “I am intrigued by new ideas and breakthroughs in technology that lead to new business models,” she says. “What excites me the most is building businesses based on these ideas and technological advances. In that sense, I consider myself a very entrepreneurial person. One can be entrepreneurial inside a company of any size, e.g., “intrapreneurial,” if one can create a platform to experiment with new ideas, incubate promising ones, and develop outstanding ideas into viable, winning businesses.” At Google, Vasthare managed a large, diverse ecosystem of partnerships designed to help the company cultivate new customer-acquisition programs. “These partners came from a variety of industries, so understanding the dynamics of the industries in which they operate was critically important to prospecting for partners, evaluating partnership opportunities and developing those opportunities,” she explains. Her two-year stint on the Wolverine Venture Fund at the Ross School of Business laid the foundation for much of her subsequent career activities. “It was a tremendous learning experience that gave me real-world insights into the process of evaluating risk and reward, especially with regard to emerging technologies and new business models in early-stage ventures,” Vasthare says. “I could not have asked for more. The opportunity to lead a team in analyzing venture-investment opportunities was truly amazing. My post-MBA jobs have involved business development and management of portfolios of alliance partnerships. My experience on the WVF helped me refine my thinking about the design, development and incubation of early-state ventures and ecosystems.” Prior to entering the Ross School, Vasthare worked as a software engineer at IBM and as an e-commerce/mobile-commerce consultant. “Since most of my pre-MBA work experience was on the engineering, product-development and technology side of things, I saw business school as an opportunity to broaden my horizons and to develop a more intuitive understanding of the business landscape, especially in industries driven by computing technologies,” she says.


    Amy Mecozzi Cho, MBA/ MD ’07
    Emergency Physicians Professional Association

    After I enrolled in the School of Medicine at Michigan, I decided to take advantage of a combined MD/MBA program to earn a graduate degree in business. Having previously worked at a venture-funded software start-up company, I was interested in learning more about venture capital and the process of bringing new medical devices to market. Serving for two years as a student board member of the Wolverine Venture Fund provided real-world experience in evaluating and investing in start-ups and monitoring the progress of portfolio companies, as well as access to experienced venture capitalists who shared a wealth of information. I am now better prepared to combine my career as a practicing physician with a part-time role as a venture capitalist, angel investor or consultant in the medical field.


    Paul Habibi, MBA ‘03
    Principal and Co-founder
    Habibi Properties

    I founded my California-based real-estate development and investment firm, Habibi Properties, before I started my MBA program at the Ross School of Businessl in 2001 and worked remotely from Ann Arbor for two years, sourcing deals and capital. Today the company has several hundred thousand square feet of property under ownership and management. My MBA coursework and entrepreneurial experiences gave me a holistic view of business and enabled me to grasp the big picture much quicker. The Ross School was unique because its action-based learning approach allowed me to continue the momentum of working in the business world while pursuing a traditional classroom education. Thus, even though I left the work force to return to school, I was still heavily involved in real-life business ventures. My participation in the Wolverine Venture Fund and Zell Lurie-sponsored activities exposed me to early-stage companies that faced many of the same issues I encountered in starting my own business. I learned how to position a startup for future growth and to avoid pitfalls, such as insufficient capital or an un-scalable business model, that often arise as a company grows. I honed my research and writing skills by analyzing business plans and pitching investment ideas to the WVF advisory board and by competing against other university students at the Venture Capital Investment Competition. Today I utilize these same skills in my business every time I put together a real-estate feasibility study for a proposed multi-family or mixed-use development and make a presentation to prospective investors or city planners. I gained additional hands-on experience through my MAP assignment, which entailed an analysis of the medical-spa industry and the creation of a development plan for a proposed Spa and Wellness Center. In adjunct lecturer Peter Allen’s real-estate development class, I learned how to be a socially responsible developer and how to work with people from other disciplines. In fact, I was so inspired that I started teaching courses in real-estate investment analysis and development at UCLA Extension when I returned to Los Angeles. Recently, I was appointed to Lecturer of Real Estate at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, and I have modeled my teaching after many of the excellent professors I had at the University of Michigan.


    Michael Johnson, MBA/MD ’11, MIC Fellow ’12
    Flagship Ventures

    In July, Michael Johnson, MBA/MD ’11, MIC Fellow ’12, accepted a new position, in Ann Arbor, as an associate with Flagship Ventures, a venture-capital firm headquartered in Cambridge, Mass. His investment focus centers on opportunities in medical technologies, therapeutics, and sustainability in Michigan and throughout the Midwest. Johnson says the entrepreneurial exposure, training, networking and coaching he received through the Zell Lurie Institute helped to prepare him for the challenges of the highly competitive venture-capital industry.

    “Entrepreneurship and investing go together,” he explains. As the student managing director of the Wolverine Venture Fund in 2011, Johnson gained hands-on experience in leadership, deal making and co-investing in early-stage companies alongside local venture-capital firms. He sharpened his skill in evaluating new market entry strategies during a MAP assignment with ReCellular and a Marcel Gani internship with Atlas Digital Solutions.

    In 2012, Johnson took the entrepreneurial plunge and launched Converge Medical Technologies − a U-M spin-out focused on developing a new brain-function monitor − while he was a Fellow at the U-M Medical Innovation Center. At the 2012 Michigan Business Challenge, the company received $10,000 as runner-up and $2,000 for outstanding presentation. “Working in a new venture has given me a great perspective on the needs of entrepreneurs and start-ups, and the risk involved in a medical device during the course of its development,” Johnson says. “Understanding the challenges of entrepreneurship is essential as an investor.”


    Daniel Bickley, MD/MBA ’13
    William Davidson Institute Fellow
    The Ihangane Project, Rwanda

    The small, rural village of Ruli, Rwanda − a two-hour trek from the East African nation’s capital city of Kigali − may seem like a rather strange entrepreneurial outpost. But dual-degree student Dan Bickley, MBA/MD ’13, found plenty of opportunities to apply his entrepreneurship skills over the summer during his 12-week Global Impact Internship with a nonprofit health-care organization called The Ihangane Project. Bickley, a William Davidson Institute Fellow, was asked to design and implement an improved referral system for the local hospital that would better utilize its limited medical resources and enhance the quality of care for patients. “I didn’t have a large team behind me – it was just me and a translator – so I experienced the challenges and rewards of being self-directed,” Bickley says. “I had only 12 weeks to do the research, develop a product, and get it to market. That required rapid prototyping, where I had to evaluate solutions to different problems in a quick and dirty way. The hospital network in Rwanda has an entrepreneurial aspect to it as well, so my goal was to make recommendations compelling enough to be adopted quickly by every hospital and health center in the country.” Bickley’s venture-investing experience with the Wolverine Venture Fund and coursework with Erik Gordon and Tom Kinnear at the Zell Lurie Institute helped to advance his understanding of entrepreneurship and open up new possibilities for translating research advances into marketable products, entering the venture-capital ecosystem, and internally leading changes in the way medical systems function. “We work in an extremely complex medical system, where having an understanding of how businesses and systems function will be necessary to make positive changes in the future,” Bickley explains. “Being able to work entrepreneurially − either in your own venture or in a large organization − will be crucial. Having the ability to use limited resources to find new solutions, be it products or ideas, and then convince others of their utility also will be an indispensable skill set.” As a next-generation doctor, Bickley sees broad applications for entrepreneurship in the medical field, ranging from the academic physician who is deeply invested in basic science research to the busy private clinician who is seeking to make his or her practice more competitive. “The world of medicine is changing rapidly, so it makes sense to take advantage of the fantastic resource we have in the Zell Lurie Institute to bolster our knowledge and better prepare us for future challenges,” Bickley says. “No matter where I end up, I’m confident that I’ll be able to apply the valuable lessons I’ve learned.”



    Nicholas Douville, MD/PhD ‘14

    The student-led Wolverine Venture Fund (WVF) turned in another strong year, assessing new investment proposals and participating in a $25 million Series D round investment in Sonitus Medical, a medical-device company focused on advanced hearing solutions. Based in San Mateo, Calif., Sonitus has developed a revolutionary prosthetic device that relies on bone conduction to transmit sound via the teeth. This trademarked SoundBite system holds great promise for patients suffering from hearing disorders. The WVF’s recent follow-on investment, announced in May, is its second investment in Sonitus since 2011.

    Today, the $5.5 million WVF manages a venture-capital investment portfolio of 14 companies across various industries, ranging from telecommunications, digital marketing, and advanced materials to medical devices, environmental services, and biomedical. While Ross School MBA students constitute the majority of the fund’s 24-member student management team, the WVF also attracts graduate students from engineering, law, environment, public policy, medicine, and other disciplines.

    “There’s a great advantage to this interdisciplinary-team approach,” says Erik Gordon, the fund’s advisor, and the recently appointed director of the Zell Entrepreneurship And Law program at the U-M Law School. “It reflects the fact that the University, as a whole, is becoming much more active in entrepreneurship, and that the Ross School and Zell Lurie Institute are playing a leading role in this campus-wide expansion, which has top-tier support from U-M President Mary Sue Coleman. It’s a very cool time for entrepreneurs all over the University.”

    Nicholas Douville, MD/Ph.D. ’14, a doctoral candidate in biomedical engineering, participated on the due-diligence team that vetted the WVF’s follow-on investment in Sonitus. “The composition of our team exemplifies the diverse strengths students bring to the due-diligence process,” he explains. “We had students with backgrounds in law, finance, and consulting. I brought a background in science and medicine. By leveraging our skill sets, we performed thorough due diligence on the investment opportunity, while learning a great deal from each other. We also had the unique opportunity to interact with the company’s chief executive and high-level management. It was a student fund at its very best.”

    Douville says his past two years on the WVF have filled in some critical gaps by familiarizing him with the nonmedical factors − leadership, management, finances, intellectual property, and timeline to market entry – that are essential for making scientific innovation practical on a larger commercial scale. “Too often, researchers who make discoveries or invent new products lose control over the development of their technologies because they lack commercialization skills,” he explains. “The Wolverine Venture Fund has given me insight into how this is done.”  Douville plans to apply his experience in his future career. “Ideally, I would like to work in an academic medical center with clinical and basic science thrusts, and help to integrate those two aspects,” he says.

    Gordon anticipates Douville and other fund members will be able to put their venture-investing skill sets into play, regardless of whether they start a company in their garage, become a venture capitalist or take a job in industry.  “Every company leader wants people who can spot a valuable opportunity, shape that opportunity into one that is viable, and deal with risk,” he says.