Olson’s Observations

Technology. Innovation. Science. VC. Media. :: by Eric Olson

Archive for September, 2008

What do VCs think about the market meltdown?

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This is a question I have been hearing a lot lately and one that I have thought a lot about.  My initial reaction is simply that VCs are long term investors so we don’t freak out about these market fluctuations.  A couple other thoughts I had were simply that the limited partners in VC funds are so large that they will continue to be good for their commitments and that the IPO market is already non-existent so, from that perspective, things can’t get much worse with regards to the the IPO-as-exit exit strategy (however, they can get worse from the get-acquired-by-big-co exit strategy).

Matt McCall referenced a post today on his blog that came from PE Week.  The PE Week post did mention the “long term” comment and some others but also suggested that VCs and their portfolio companies have actually become smarter about business since the dotcom bust and that has helped them weather the current storm without too much worry.

Below you will find the four ways that VCs and portfolio companies have changed since the dotcom bust as published in the PE Week article.  The mindset is certainly different than it was in the bubble but in some ways it is still the same (just this week I saw a couple situations of startups acquiring startups which made me wonder a bit about exit strategies).

1. Better Money Management: Milestones matter to VCs. Ask any entrepreneur, and you’ll find it’s likely he or she are getting money in tranches based on deliverables. Most tranches go through, even when milestones aren’t met, but the process allows VCs a better way of keeping track of the progress of their portfolio companies. VCs are less likely to write mega checks in the early stages, many have raised the bar of proof points needed to get a big round. Money is also more likely to go to things that directly drive valuation increases as a smaller percentage of any round is going to PCs, servers and bandwidth.

2. New Sales Models: It used to be about “Big Game Hunting” and multimillion dollar site licenses. It’s a model that was great for vendors: get all the money up front, then worry about delivering the product. But Software as a Service permanently transformed the way IT was sold. Now new installations are cheaper and can be scaled slowly. It’s a model that’s been adopted by IT appliance and PC companies as well. So when Datamonitor finds that IT budgets aren’t going to rise in 2009 Datamonitor Survey , there’s less reason to freak out. Most IT buyers have already planned their spend out: it’ll be re-upping on the services they’re already subscribed to.

3. Decreased Addiction to Advertising: The banner ad was a big part of any dotcom business model. When advertising budgets fell, hundreds of online businesses shriveled on the vine. Now, online businesses look less to online advertising for real revenue. Google Adwords had a big hand in that. Suddenly it was a lot easier to install advertising on your site, but it was also less lucrative. Nobody ever got rich putting up Google Ads, but at least using the service saves companies from having to hire expensive advertising sales people. The addiction to advertising has been broken and many companies are looking for other ways to make real value online.

4. Moderate Exit Expectations: If you’re not looking to flip a startup to the public market, what do you care that Wall Street’s investment banks are falling like dominos? Had this same crisis had happened 10 years ago, you can bet VCs would be pulling their hair out. But when there are already no IPOs, it’s hard for the public market to get worse. When exit expectations are more reasonable, it’s easier to keep cash burn in check. Startups are less likely to build out sales teams, for example, planning perhaps to later plug in to an exisiting sales organization via aquisition.

Written by Eric Olson

September 25th, 2008 at 12:21 pm

Posted in VC

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Technology Transfer in the Midwest: Looking Up

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Crain’s Chicago Business published a great article about technology transfer in the Midwest a few weeks back entitled “Seeking a breakthrough“.  The article specifically focused on tech transfer in Illinois and mentioned that, to date, Illinois has not done a great job of tech transfer.

Having come to Chicago from one of the most vibrant tech transfer centers in the world, Boston, MA (second only to Silicon Valley imho), I have seen what a great tech transfer system looks like and what it can do for the local economy.  Compared to Mass and the Valley we haven’t been doing a great job of commercializing technology from university labs (and from government labs) here in Illinois.

We all know the stories that still break our hearts.  Mosaic/Netscape, PayPal, YouTube, etc.  All of these companies were founded by Illini and yet ended up on the west coast.  The numbers also back up our lack of tech transfer.  From the Crain’s piece:

Between 1996 and 2006, Illinois universities spun off 124 companies and made $180 million from startups and technology they licensed directly to existing companies, according to the Deerfield-based Assn. of University Technology Managers. In that same period, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology alone started 220 companies and made $344 million. Stanford University made $209 million between just 2002 and 2006.

Those numbers say it all but we can (and will) turn this around.

What can we do to turn this around? One of the first things we need to do is not so easy.  We need to build some high profile success stories here in Illinois.  I would argue that is already happening with FeedBurner (acquired by Google in 2007) and TicketsNow (acquired by Ticketmaster in 2008) along with a handful of other solid companies that have exited recently (disclosure: DFJ Portage was an investor in FeedBurner and TicketsNow).  That said, those companies did not come out of university labs.  However, the success stories should still show people both in and out of labs and investors that great companies can, and are, built right here.

As the Crain’s piece suggests, more high profile successes in the state will create more technology millionaires who will then help to mentor and seed the next generation and so on and so forth.  This is the same way Silicon Valley and Boston, MA were born and why the biggest thing we can do is build some very successful technology companies here in Illinois.

The infrastructure is also being put into place to make technology in Illinois a mainstay.  The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has built a fantastic research park and incubator (which I frequently visit and which will house TECH cocktail Champaign this week) as has the Illinois Institute of Technology (again, another place I frequent).  Both of these places along with other facilities are helping to change the tide of tech transfer here in the state.

What about the money though?  We all know that investors like to be close to their companies, which is why many Illinois startups have to leave the state to get up and running.  So we also need more investors here in the state.  The good news is that we are starting to see a growth in the investor pool here in Illinois.  From the Crain’s piece:

U of I created an independent fund, Illinois Ventures LLC, based in Chicago, with the help of private donors in 2002. Its goal is to provide early-stage money and logistical help to university-based startups.

Illinois Ventures has invested $20 million so far in 15 companies, among them Tetravitae Bioscience Inc., an alternative fuel company in Chicago, and has attracted another $300 million in outside investments, much of it coming from venture-capital funds on the coasts.

Ron Kirschner, a retired physician with an MBA from DePaul University, started Heartland Angels in Skokie in 2004. The group has grown from six to 22 investors and has put more than $3 million into six early-stage Midwestern companies. Four of those grew out of universities, among them Abiant Inc., a Deerfield company based on research from the University of Chicago and New York University. The startup uses imaging to help drug manufacturers improve products by mapping how they affect the brain.

I would also add the the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce created a fund a little while back called the Illinois Innovation Accelerator Fund (i2A for short) which is a $10mm vehicle dedicated to funding innovative technology companies here in Illinois.

Also, as most of you know, the firm I am an associate with, DFJ Portage Venture Partners, focuses only on the upper Midwest and has for quite some time.  We are able to bring the global resources of Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ) into the region while remaining locally focused, something we think will really help the region grow and help entrepreneurs create world class companies right here in Illinois (and throughout the Midwest).  As you can imagine we are very bullish on the Midwest as a technology center and we are excited to be part of the growing technology community here.

Successful technology transfer efforts will be a big part of what ultimately makes Illinois a leader in technology and tech transfer efforts are certainly getting exponentially better each and every day here in Illinois (for example Northwestern did a $700mm deal last year to sell part of its royalty rights to Pfizer’s pain drug Lyrica - a drug based on Northwestern research).

We are just now hitting the big upswing in the “hockey stick” here in Illinois and across the Midwest.  We are well on our way to rivaling the coasts when it comes to technology but we’ll no doubt do it our own special way making the Midwest a unique and exciting place to start and build technology companies.

Further discussion on this topic: Chicago Tech Report: “Understanding why Marc Andreesen left Illinois” by Blagica Bottigliero

DFJ Network featured in USA Today

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A number of people have asked me about the DFJ Network since I joined DFJ Network fund DFJ Portage (Midwest network affiliate) back in February.  People seem to be curious about how the network works and what the purpose of it is.  Edward Iwata of USA Today apparently had the same curiosity and put together a piece in yesterdays USA Today about the network.

The piece is very high level but I think it conveys the value of the network to entrepreneurs and to the VCs in the network.  The piece also covers why the network idea makes sense in an increasingly global world and why DFJ started to push the network idea forward a few years back.

I think the network approach DFJ has built thus far is solid and perhaps the future of the venture capital model.  I am excited to see the network idea evolve from the inside (especially given my interest in new and innovative VC models) and I’ll be sharing more of my thoughts and observations on the network as time goes on.

Written by Eric Olson

September 10th, 2008 at 11:23 am