Though they didn’t meet until after graduating Princeton, Jim Cohen ’86 and Mark Poag ’93 seem as though they were destined to work together. Living in the Houston area, the two quickly became well acquainted through the local alumni network. “I was very involved in Princeton activities, and that’s how I met Jim, 20 years ago,” Poag said.
Cohen and Poag bonded over an enthusiasm for Princeton as well as an interest in finance and entrepreneurship. Both have had careers spanning the legal and financial world. Poag was a software entrepreneur who founded a company called Digicontract. He later served as head of product, marketing, and legal for DataCert, a legal-management software firm that bought Digicontract in 2001. Cohen worked as a financial analyst for Morgan Stanley, and then worked as an attorney before ultimately serving as the head of corporate development at a NYSE company.
“When that company sold, I sat down and thought what do I want to do next,” Cohen said. “I’d always had this idea of combining the vocational things that I do with the avocational things that I do—which is really Princeton stuff.”
That’s when Cohen and Poag developed the idea of starting a venture capital fund solely dedicated to the Princeton community. “We looked around and there was no fund like this in the Princeton ecosystem,” Cohen said. “There were other funds like it at plenty of other schools.” Specifically, Cohen and Poag hoped to start a venture capital firm that would only invest in startups in which a Princetonian is either a founder or a member of the senior management team.
Cohen and Poag began sharing the idea with colleagues, and they were met with a highly supportive response. “Our first two advisers when we were reaching out to determine whether this was going to be a good idea were Ed Zschau Sr. [’61], who Jim has known since college and was the first entrepreneurship professor at Princeton. And our second adviser was Dennis Keller [’61],” Poag said. Both Zschau and Keller have played an integral part in the growing entrepreneurship program at Princeton.
After fundraising for a year, Cohen and Poag raised $10 million, enough to launch their fund, known as FitzGate Ventures. Cohen and Poag say one of the defining features of their fund is its network of advisers, all Princeton alumni, known as the “Friends of Fitz.”
“It’s been huge,” Cohen said, referring to the network, which has grown to encompass hundreds of Princeton alumni. “That’s our secret sauce when we talk to investors. We tell them we’re going to leverage this group and beyond to help them find money, find customers, whatever it may be.” Currently, FitzGate Ventures has examined more than 500 companies founded or run by Princeton alumni. Their portfolio includes startups spanning the tech, entertainment, and finance industries.
Poag believes the fund’s success may come as a surprise to those not aware of Princeton’s entrepreneurship community. “I think maybe people didn’t think it was as rich of an ecosystem, because Princeton doesn’t have a business school, doesn’t have a med school, and it’s a small school,” he said.
In the long run, Cohen and Poag hope FitzGate Ventures can be a positive force for Princeton entrepreneurs, both alumni and students.
“The goal is to help generations of Princetonians build, grow, start, and exit companies,” Poag said, “so that when people are talking about the top entrepreneurial universities, they say, ‘Stanford, MIT, Princeton.’”