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Meet 2023 Luminary Award Recipient Zachary Ellis Jr. MS’13

It took a little bit of badgering to turn Zachary Ellis into a Badger.

Zachary Ellis Jr. MS’13

UW Majors: Biotechnology Program
CEO and Managing Director, South Loop Ventures

It took a little bit of badgering to turn Zachary Ellis into a Badger. He’d moved to Washington, DC, to work as a corporate consultant after leaving the U.S. Navy as an officer in 2006, but he was struggling to find a bridge into venture capital, the field he was truly passionate about. His then-fiancée (now spouse), Travelle Franklin-Ford Ellis MD’13, PhD’13 suggested an unexpected path: leave the big city and move to Madison.

At the time, Franklin-Ford was in the middle of her degree at the UW, and Ellis was tentative about joining her until Franklin-Ford put him in touch with an acquaintance from her church. Winslow Sargeant PhD’95 is a prominent business development executive with extensive experience in engineering, government, and academia. A longtime trustee at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), Sargeant encouraged Ellis to consider working in university tech commercialization and to take advantage of the unique opportunities UW–Madison had to offer.

Ellis made the move and became an associate at WARF, where he worked closely with both investors and startups to negotiate tech licensing deals. He also launched WARF’s first accelerator program dedicated to women and entrepreneurs of color. At the same time, he enrolled in the biotechnology program at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Designed for working professionals, the program focuses on how science, business, regulatory policy, and the law impact the development and commercialization of new biotechnology products and services.

“It was the perfect opportunity to deepen my technical knowledge and advance my business knowledge,” Ellis says. 

Through WARF, Ellis met an executive at PepsiCo who recruited him to become a tech scout (and later the corporation’s manager of technology ventures), and Ellis convinced Franklin-Ford to move back to the East Coast. A few years later, Ellis made a brief return to academia and the Midwest as a director of new ventures for The Ohio State University. After Ohio State, Ellis was a managing director at Rev1 Ventures when he was approached about launching and leading an early-stage venture capital fund for Black and Brown tech founders based in Houston, Texas.

“The murder of George Floyd [in 2020] really caused me to pause and reevaluate my life, my career, and specifically how I’d operated in the DEI [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion] space over the course of my career,” says Ellis. “The majority of my activity up until that point was always kind of secondary or tertiary to whatever my main job was. After the murder, I decided I no longer wanted to work that way. There were bigger, more important things in life and in society.”

In 2022, the timing felt right for Ellis to launch his own fund, South Loop Ventures, where he aims to level the playing field in tech entrepreneurship by investing exclusively in underrepresented founders of color.

“I know many very talented Black, Latino, and female professionals who are highly educated and accomplished but just don’t get the benefit of the doubt to operate in the tech community,” he says. “I know we have just as much potential to succeed if given the same grace, context, connections, and access to capital as our counterparts.”

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