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New Fenton Founders Fund to support student-founded startups

The fund supports and expands the U's entrepreneurial education. 

The David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and the Joan and Tim Fenton Family Foundation today announced the creation of the Joan and Tim Fenton Founders Fund at the David Eccles School of Business, aimed at supporting startup companies formed by business students or others within the broader university network.

Created through a $5 million investment by the Fenton Foundation, the Founders Fund will function as an early-stage venture capital backer of promising startups. The Eccles School has a strong tradition of entrepreneurial education, which the new Founders Fund is meant to support and expand.

“We’re grateful for the support from the Joan and Tim Fenton Family Foundation,” said Taylor Randall,  University of Utah President and former dean of the David Eccles School of Business. “This fund will help our student startups gain stronger footing in the marketplace, and I look forward to seeing this fund grow and increase its support of University of Utah students and their entrepreneurial endeavors. With the creation of this fund, the University further strengthens its entrepreneurial ecosystem, which is arguably the strongest in the nation.”

The fund is designed to accelerate promising businesses at earlier stages than might typically be of interest to traditional venture capital funds. Because the initial $5 million is an investment, as opposed to a donation, the plan is to generate returns over time from successful recipient businesses. Those returns will be reinvested to grow the fund so it can help even more startups in the future.

“We believe this could become a new model in business education, and it is a very significant addition to the startup ecosystem we’re building at the university,” said Paul Brown, the James Lee Sorenson Presidential Endowed Chair and Professor (Lecturer) of Entrepreneurship at the Eccles School, who will oversee the Founders Fund. “While the fund will initially be aimed at entrepreneurs in the University of Utah ecosystem, we’ll consider a variety of startups for investment.”

While the Fenton Family Foundation will be involved in making investment decisions and selecting recipients, students working at the Sorenson Impact Center, which comes from several universities in addition to the University of Utah, will have primary roles in researching and recommending startup companies deemed worthy of consideration.

“As alumni and avid fans of all things that the university produces, we have long admired its ability to help students produce some of the most dynamic companies in the country,” said Joan Fenton.

“The vision, determination and entrepreneurial drive among the students at the University of Utah is remarkable, and we look forward to helping them bring their ideas to life through the support of this new and innovative fund. There really isn’t anything quite like this in the country in the way the fund will benefit students, the university and the foundation, and we are thrilled to be able to make it come to life,” Tim Fenton added.

The Fenton family itself has a strong entrepreneurial background. Tim Fenton has more than 35 years of experience in real estate development, construction management and executive management, including the creation of several high-profile residential and commercial developments throughout Utah, Nevada and Arizona. In 2009, Tim helped lead an investment fund targeting a distressed FDIC commercial loan portfolio valued at more than $700,000,000. Early in his career, Tim spent years managing several companies from manufacturing to sales in industries ranging from sportswear and apparel to health and beauty products, including the acquisition and complete turnaround of one such company.

Joan Fenton has been active in the community for more than three decades, sitting on the boards of organizations ranging from the Hale Center Theater and Art Works for Kids to the Sorenson Legacy Foundation. She has been honored for service at Southern Utah University, Westminster College and the University of Utah, and has been recognized by the Boy Scouts of America as one of Utah’s most influential women in Scouting.

Joan and Tim Fenton are both alumni of the university, as are four of their seven children, and a granddaughter. The Fenton Family Foundation has also been an active donor to the university in the past.

The fund will be enhancing an established startup culture at the University of Utah. Well-known companies that have been founded or co-founded by University graduates include Health Catalyst, Neighbor, Divvy, Plena, Myriad Genetics and Recursion Pharmaceuticals.

“As with the university-born companies that precede them,” Randall said, “We aim for the fund to inspire and provide a running start for businesses that will benefit society as well as their investors.”