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Fostering ties for venture capitalists

People who sign in to the newest social network won't be looking for dates or posting a list of their favorite movies. They will be searching for companies to invest in and listing their interests in areas like clean energy or enterprise software.

Next month, the New England Venture Network, a regional social group for venture capitalists, is launching VentureNetwork.vc, an online social network for professionals looking for another channel to connect and talk shop.

Online social networks like Facebook and MySpace have become mainstream for people of all ages and backgrounds to connect, but websites aimed at extremely targeted audiences have also sprung up.

Sermo.com of Cambridge, for instance, al lows only physicians to become members, while AdGabber.com is targeted at public relations, marketing, and media professionals who want to discuss the trade with their peers.

"The reality is, when we are at networking events, we're saying what interesting new deals have you seen?" said Danny Klein, an associate at Vesbridge Partners who is part of the team launching VentureNetwork.

"Nobody teaches you how to be a venture capitalist," he said, while the online tools may create a real channel for communication, beyond exchanging business cards at a networking event.

While Venture Network will have some of the features of other social networks - like the ability to make connections, plan events, and post content - it will feature some specialized features.

The deals section is a Craigslist-like listing of investment opportunities. That could include one venture capitalist posting about a startup seeking $1 million that her firm has decided not to invest in, or it could include deals in which a firm is seeking investors to join them in a funding round.

A questions section will allow analysts to pick the collective brain of venture capitalists, and a jobs section will help people spread the word about opportunities at portfolio companies.

"If you think about it, it does fit with venture capital quite well," said Patricia Greene, provost of Babson College, who has studied entrepreneurship and venture capital. "Venture capitalists generally invest in people they know or someone who knows someone they know."

In some ways, a specialized social network makes perfect sense. Venture capitalists tend to be tech-savvy people who invest lots of time making connections as they meet entrepreneurs and explore industries.

But social networks - which often embrace notions of collaboration, openness, and even exhibitionism - don't seem to fit the venture capital culture, in which firms may be ultracompetitive and secretive about investments.

Simeon Simeonov, a partner at Polaris Venture Partners in Waltham, said he would be interested in joining the network, checking out the functionality, and contributing content.

Simeonov, who blogs and uses social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook, said that venture capitalists are often looking for other firms to go in with them on a deal.

But he questioned whether the competitive nature of the business would be an obstacle to the site's plan for matching deal-makers.

"In theory you want to be protective," he said. "You don't want somebody else to be able to take away the thing you may have found, the diamond in the rough."

The team driving the network ultimately hopes it will expand beyond New England's venture capital community to become a national network that will enable "bicoastal handshakes" between firms and entrepreneurs in different locations, said David Safaii, a senior associate at Windspeed Ventures.

"We look at 500 deals a year; it's only 1 percent that make it through," leaving venture capitalists with a lot of leftover material, Safaii said.

But like any social network, the quality of the network will depend on the community itself creating content and investing time in the network.

Venture capital "is an incredble networkcentric type of activity," Greene said.

But it remains to be seen whether getting together online can replace breakfast meetings, she said. "The challenge will be trying to maintain the network."

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com.

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