• WisBusiness

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Myth busters: Why some things you hear about venture capital are wrong


By Tom Still
A record 500-plus people attended Wisconsin's largest early stage investing conference this month and another 250 rubbed shoulders in the same convention hall at the Midwest's largest forum on health care investing. What better time to shatter myths surrounding the investors who crowded both events?

Myth One: "Venture capital is dead." Remember the scene in "The Princess Bride," shortly after the hero Westley (Cary Elwes) is apparently tortured to death by Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) and Westley's friends bring his body to the cottage of Miracle Max (Billy Crystal)? OK, you probably don't remember that scene unless you've seen the movie a bunch of times, but Miracle Max examines the body and declares Westley is only "mostly dead," which means revival is possible. Had Westley been "all dead," Miracle Max explains, he could have done nothing more than search his pockets for loose change.

So it is with venture capital. Beginning in the third quarter of 2008 and running through mid-2009, venture capital appeared dead but it was really only "mostly dead." As the fourth quarter of 2009 rolls to a close, a number of venture capital firms and venture capitalists are gone forever, but a smaller, wiser corps of private equity investors is emerging from the industry's nuclear winter.

Deals are being made, just not as many. In the boom year of 2000, there were nearly 7,900 venture deals worth $101 billion in the United States. In the bust year of 2009, look for roughly 2,600 worth about $20 billion. Like The Princess Bride's Westley, venture capital may have been "mostly dead," but the loose change in the industry's pockets is slowly being invested again.

Myth Two: "There's only one early stage venture capital firm in Wisconsin." Not entirely so. While Venture Investors LLC of Madison is the state's most familiar seed and early stage VC, specializing in health care and information technology, there are others on the scene. Peak Ridge Capital, with offices in Boston and Canada, has planted a private equity flag in Wisconsin. Kegonsa Capital Partners of Madison functions like a venture capital fund in many, if not most, ways. The NEW Fund in northeast Wisconsin invests in early stage deals, Capital Midwest Fund of Milwaukee is organizing, Triathlon Medical Ventures of Cincinnati has been scouting the state and other angel networks and funds have been known to co-invest with VCs and other angels.

Myth Three: "Venture capitalists won't read my business plan, anyway, so why bother asking?" It depends on how it's pitched. Entrepreneurs who write a crisp executive summary or find a way to make a brief "elevator pitch" often entice investors to read more. Most VCs want to see possible deals -- if for no other reason than to stay current on the market. Of course, there's little sense in sending a software business plan to a biotech VC or vice versa, but entrepreneurs who do their homework can land their plans on the right desk.

Myth Four: "Even if VCs in the Midwest might read my plan, the East and West coast guys won't." Don't assume that's true. Many coastal VCs have learned that high-quality, right-sized deals can be found in cities such as Madison, Milwaukee and elsewhere in the Midwest. Coastal investors such as Steve Burrill, a leader in biotechnology, and Hank Barry, who made a name in software, have told Wisconsin entrepreneurs to quit being shrinking violets. Be politely aggressive, they counsel, and make contact with VCs who might invest in your sector -- regardless of geography.

Myth Five: "Out-of-state VCs won't invest in Wisconsin without a local co-investor." Serial entrepreneurs such as Toni Sikes of Guild.com, Eric Apfelbach of Alfalight and Virent Energy and Ralph Kauten of PanVera, Mirus and Quintessence Biosciences would beg to differ. While it's sometimes the case that out-of-state VCs look for a local partner to help them conduct due diligence on a possible investment, most function just fine on their own -- and may prefer to do so.

Myth Six: "Most venture capitalists care only about biotech or software, and my business is neither." At this month's Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium in Madison, 22 companies of all descriptions -- from sports footwear to a GPS system for dogs -- presented their business plans. The "non-healthcare" track of 11 companies was observed by more potential investors than the healthcare track, which included a number of investors from the companion MidAmerica Healthcare Venture Forum. Your company name need not include "bio" or "genix" in its suffix or prefix to attract potential investors, especially at a time when shorter payback periods are at a premium.

It's not a surprise to most early stage companies that venture capital is still slogging through tough times, with investment returns hard to come by and new money difficult to raise. But as one veteran investor remarked in Madison this month, "I'm starting to believe the light at the end of the tunnel is no longer an oncoming train."

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, which produced this month's Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium and hosted the MidAmerica Healthcare Venture Forum.

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