Why Is Angel Investing Hot in Tucson?

Illustration by 731; Photograph by Getty Images

Curtis Gunn
Curtis Gunn has split his career between racing bikes and starting and funding companies. He’s chairman of the Desert Angels, a group of angel investors in Tucson that’s one of the nation’s most active. In June, Gunn joined the board of the Angel Capital Association. I talked with him recently about his career and the tech community in Tucson. Here are edited excerpts.

How did you go from cycling to startup investing?

I grew up in Atlanta. My goal was to make the Olympic team in ’96 and race for my hometown. I finished second in the Olympic trials and didn’t make the team. I hung up the bike-racing career and became an entrepreneur. I had a handful of different businesses. I gained 70 pounds. I got tired of being heavy and out of shape, so I started riding my bike again—and started riding better than I ever had. So in 2005, I was racing well enough to get a pro contract.

When I was an entrepreneur, I pitched a company to the Desert Angels. I didn’t get funded, but I joined the group. At the end of 2009 my pro-cycling career ended, and I had a lot of time on my hands. I’ve been chairman of the group since January 2010.

Desert Angels was one of the six most active angel groups in the first quarter. What are the best opportunities you’re seeing?

We’re actually ahead of our investment in both number of deals done and dollars invested compared with 2012. In 2012 we did 19 deals, a total of $3.9 million invested. This year we’ve already done 16 deals, with $3.1 million invested.

There’s a company that we invested in called Calimmune. They just initiated their first human trial. If it works and gets through the FDA, it’s a one-time stem cell-based therapy that prevents HIV from becoming AIDS.

I don’t think many people think of Tucson as startup hotbed. What’s the community like?

There’s a concentration of pharma in Tucson that I don’t think a lot of people know about. Roche bought Ventana Medical in Tucson, so it sort of created a strong diagnostics center in southern Arizona. Sanofi has a research arm in Tucson. The University of Arizona is also very strong in optics. We see a lot of optics opportunities.

Most people look at Silicon Valley, Boston, Austin, Boulder, Seattle, Portland. Nobody thinks about Tucson, or even Arizona. But we are very significant. It makes me proud. We do have a very rich ecosystem of startups.

How is Desert Angels structured?

We have 97 members, which is a lot for an angel group. We require investments. We’re not a social club. We want to have people coming to meetings who are actively engaged and interested in writing checks to startups.

Who are the angel investors in Tucson?

The group started in the fall of 2000. Arizona was very real estate focused. The core of the group started originally from a bunch of real estate developers. Angel investing as an organized vehicle was very nascent at that point. Harry George, the principal at Solstice Capital, which really is the only venture capital firm in Tucson, was involved from the start. Over time it’s become composed more of entrepreneurs. A fair number of the deals that we invest in, the executives are members. We do have lawyers and accountants, and some physicians. In general, over time, our group has become more entrepreneurial.

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