The angel investment tax credit, which is a big break for investors who put money in start-up companies, created 579 jobs between its 2010 inception and 2014. The cost to Minnesota taxpayers during that time: $60 million, or more than $100,000 per job, according to a 2015 report by the agency that administers the program.
The money has flowed into the pockets of the wealthiest taxpayers in Minnesota but also out of state — a reward for investing in early-stage companies in the hopes they will become another Minnesota job creating corporate titan.
Supporters say the program — which encourages wealthy investors to make high-risk bets on Minnesota technology companies — has wider economic benefits and needs more time to bear fruit. They say it means not just permanent jobs but also high-paying work for software engineering contractors and consultants, while planting the seeds for the next 3M or Medtronic and the thousands of high-paying jobs that would arrive with what is called a "unicorn," or new $1 billion company.
With the angel credit set to expire next year, the stage is set for a high-stakes battle over the program at the Legislature next year. The issue will be part of a larger, wide-ranging, election-year debate about taxes after a stalemate on tax cuts during the 2015 session left more than $800 million unspent.
"We're not competitive on business formation and keeping businesses here," said Rep. Greg Davids, a Preston Republican who chairs the House Taxes Committee, referring to higher-than-average taxes. "So we have to work around the edges to help people, and this program is an example."
The program does have bipartisan support.
DFL Lt. Gov. Tina Smith kicked off MedTech Week Friday by noting programs to help entrepreneurs. At the top of the list: the angel investment tax credit.
With wealth inequality a persistent political theme in recent years, however, Democrats especially look askance at a tax cut directed almost exclusively at the wealthy. To receive the break, most taxpayers must be either an investment fund or be a so-called "accredited investor" with high net worth or a family income of at least $300,000 for at least three years. The conditions are set forth by the Securities and Exchange Commission because the investments are risky and often fail. At least 31 of the Minnesota companies funded by the endeavor became worthless in recent years.
The program works like this: Investors in Minnesota businesses that are developing or using proprietary technology in a high-tech field or in Minnesota-centric sectors like agriculture, mining, timber and tourism receive a 25 percent tax credit, up to $250,000 per family. In other words, if you make a $1 million investment in one of these companies, you receive a $250,000 cut in your Minnesota taxes.
But the credit is one of the few in the country that is refundable, which means if your tax bill is less than $250,000, the state of Minnesota will send you the difference.
That also applies to non-Minnesota residents, who made up one-third of the investors in 2014, a portion steadily rising since 2010. If those non-Minnesotans have a low Minnesota tax bill, they are essentially being paid to invest in Minnesota companies.
"We view it from the other perspective," said Jeff Nelson, who manages the angel credit program for the Department of Employment and Economic Development. "We are happy to import capital to grow Minnesota businesses."
In 2014, 110 companies received investments that led to tax credits, more than half in software, biotech or medical device firms.
One firm that has benefited is Vidku, an online video technology company sprung out of the University of Minnesota that has raised at least $17 million from early investors.
Among recipients of the tax credit are Minnesotans like Dr. Glen Nelson, former vice chairman of the Medtronic board.
The angel tax credit beneficiaries have invested about $250 million in Minnesota companies to get their tax breaks. By using the tax code to encourage investment in these companies, the state hopes to solve the problem of a dearth of start-up money in Minnesota.
It's not clear there's a shortage of capital, however.
"The good companies get funded," said Ryan Broshar, founder and managing director of Matchstick Ventures, a Minneapolis venture capital firm focused on early stage technology companies.
Broshar, who said Matchstick has applied for the credit once or twice, said his firm looks for companies with innovative ideas and great founders, and that eligibility for the tax credit does not affect his decision to invest in a company.
"They may have invested anyway," said Jeffrey Sohl, director of the Center for Venture Research at the University of New Hampshire, which is where the term "angel investor" first appeared decades ago.
"If they were going to invest anyway, you're just costing the state money that could have been spent on prekindergarten," Sohl said.
According to a consultant's report on Minnesota's program published last year, nearly half of investors said they would not have made their investments without the credit — meaning the program successfully juiced investment in Minnesota start-ups.
For Art Rolnick, a senior fellow at the U's Humphrey School of Public Affairs, the fact that investors put money in companies when they otherwise would not have isn't a feature of the program — it's a bug.
"That means these companies are such high risk they can't get money in the free market, and why should the public take on that risk?" he asked.
Like many economists, Rolnick favors fewer tax deductions and credits that interfere in the market. Cutting deductions and credits would bring in more revenue, allowing the government to lower everyone's tax rates or use the money to invest in people so they will become educated, highly skilled workers.
Sohl of the Center for Venture Research said he is generally supportive of the idea of the credit, given the central place of start-up companies in job creation.
"All net job creation has been from start-ups" in recent decades, he said. That's because as large companies have downsized and outsourced, start-ups have become the key driver of job growth.
As for evidence the tax credits actually work?
"They have a mixed track record right now," Sohl said.