What do former Gov. Jesse Ventura, venture capitalist Michael Gorman and the entrepreneurs behind Compellent, Life Time Fitness and Caribou Coffee have in common?

They've all made presentations from Dan Carr's innovation stage in the past 25 years.

Carr, 51, is the CEO and majority owner of the Collaborative, the entrepreneurial outfit that is staging its 25th annual Minnesota Venture & Finance Conference next week. It's the biggest such bazaar between Chicago and the West Coast that showcases emerging local companies and financiers.

"I'm not at all taking credit for everybody's success," Carr said. "But many of Minnesota' most successful companies have presented early in their development at The Collaborative. I'm just proud of the fact that we are an entrepreneurial company serving entrepreneurs and a voice of the 'innovation economy.'"

There have been some turkeys along the way. Who can forget money-draining Excelsior-Henderson Motorcycles and Bixby Energy -- or remember Disc Dynamics, WamNet and Wizmo?

Regardless, the case can be made that Carr, a recovering CPA who first conceived of the Collaborative as a newsletter for the venture community, has built a $1 million business around a two-day venture conference and 12 other industry- or issue-specific seminars annually. They have helped more than 400-plus presenters raise more than $3.5 billion in capital over the past 15 years.

More than half of the venture capital bucks stuck in Minnesota firms since 1996 have gone to those that have presented at the venture conference.

"You're not going to raise $5 million just because you [made] a five-minute presentation at the Collaborative's conference," said Phil Soran, CEO of data-storage architect Compellent, which was sold to huge Dell for about $900 million in January. "But the biggest thing you need as an entrepreneur is exposure.

"I know some of our funders were exposed to Xiotech [Soran's first company in the 1990s] and Compellent through those conferences. Several of our investors in Compellent were on the Collaborative's board of advisers. It doesn't get any better than that for an entrepreneur."

Carr, a collaborative guy with an understated demeanor, runs with big shooters but keeps modest quarters in a small office at the Lumber Exchange Building. He lives in a cozy St. Paul neighborhood, often rides his bicycle or takes the bus to work. He doesn't wear a suit unless he's hanging with suits. He started out as a local accountant with Ernst & Young, worked as an entertainment-industry auditor in New York for several years, before returning to the Twin Cities in 1987 to strike out on his own.

First conference in 1987

The first Collaborative conference in 1987 drew about 45, including several presenters. More than 400 people already have put down up to $650 to attend the Oct. 12-13, the best turnout since the Internet-happy, fast-money days of the late 1990s when everybody was a venture capitalist or a money-hunting entrepreneur.

"Nobody complained about conference fees back then," quipped Carr.

This year, the Collaborative, through all its forums, including clean tech and med-tech, will host about 3,000 paying customers who will hear from 150 entrepreneurs and others on everything from the promise of their companies to next-generation technologies, to the ins and outs of a public offering.

"The informal interactions that take place at these events are often as important as what is covered in the formal program," said Michael Gorman, the veteran venture capitalist at Split Rock Partners and a longtime Carr confidante. "The Collaborative helps to create more density in the personal relationships that form the foundation for the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and helps make the soil in Minnesota more fertile for entrepreneurs to start and grow their businesses.

"Dan ... is, in many ways, a social entrepreneur. He understands the power of new ideas and new businesses to make the world a better place, and has dedicated his life's work to helping increase the odds that more of those companies get their start here in Minnesota."

According to the Minnesota Venture Capital Association, there are about 365,000 venture-capital backed jobs in the state, about 13 percent of all jobs, making Minnesota the eighth largest "innovation state" in the land.

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • nstanthony@startribune.com