While many small businesses are waiting for the federal government to write rules for so-called equity crowdfunding, the Obama administration is moving forward with another effort to funnel investment capital to start-ups. Last week, the Small Business Administration announced that it had granted a venture capital fund from North Carolina the first license to participate in a new program to encourage investment. The program essentially makes government-guaranteed loans to venture capital funds, which in turn use the debt to make equity investments.
The new initiative, called the Early Stage Innovation Fund, is part of the Obama administration’s Startup America effort. The Innovation Fund makes $200 million in debt financing available in each of the next five years for early-stage venture funding. The hope is to direct investment to the sorts of companies that often fly below the radar of venture capitalists, which mostly buy into more mature companies that tend to be tech-related enterprises in California, New York, and Massachusetts.
In evaluating venture capital funds that apply for licenses, the S.B.A. will look favorably on those with investment strategies that eschew some of those prevailing trends, said Sean Greene, the official in charge of the program, and instead propose to invest in younger companies in a broader array of industries located around the country.
The Innovation Fund’s first participant, Hatteras Venture Partners, of Durham, N.C., will address at least one of those diversity goals. Hatteras Partners will invest in young life-sciences businesses in the Southeast, “where National Institutes of Health funding is very high, but venture capital flows are quite low,” said Clay Thorp, a partner in the fund. Mr. Thorp said the fund had raised $88 million from private investors and would borrow $37 million in government-backed debentures.
The arrangement is based on the S.B.A.’s long-running Small Business Investment Company program, which effectively guarantees loans to venture funds (or investment companies) that in turn make loans to small businesses. Because the government-sponsored money is a loan and not an investment, whatever profits might accrue from it go to the investment company’s investors, increasing their returns. If, to take a simplified example, an investment company raises $50 million from investors and borrows $50 million, and then doubles its money, the investors get back between $2 and $3 for every dollar they put in, after repaying the loan and giving the fund managers a share of the profits. That compares to a return of less than $2 if the fund does not borrow any money.
When The Agenda first reported on the Innovation Fund a year ago, Mr. Thorp expressed some concern about placing a predictable debt arrangement, with regular payments of a fixed amount, over the most speculative of speculative investments. But in a recent interview, he said that a rigorous analysis showed it would be difficult for his investors not to benefit from the leverage. “It will make a very bad fund awful, but even a mediocre fund will do O.K., and it will make a good fund great,” Mr. Thorp said.
Still, the question hanging over the program is whether it will attract enough interest from other venture capitalists and their investors to be fully subscribed. According to Mr. Greene of the Small Business Administration, 33 venture funds applied for the program in 2012, and the agency gave preliminary approval to just six. “In our view, we’re right down the middle of the fairway in where we expected to be,” he said. “We thought 33 applications was solid, we were very impressed with the quality of funds that applied.” Ultimately, he said, “our expectation would be to license four to six funds.”
Mark Heesen, president of the National Venture Capital Association, said that the new program addresses yet another, more recent market failure in the venture industry: funds are finding it harder to raise money from their limited partners. (For funds in the Small Business Investment Company program, the amount of time it has taken to raise private capital has increased from about a year to 18 months, Mr. Greene said.) “If you can have the government basically help in that process by standing side by side with those limited partners, you’re going to be able to have at the end of the day a larger fund, which is a net positive,” Mr. Heesen said. “You’ll not only be able to seed these companies but keep them on the growth pattern.”
Brett Palmer, president of the Small Business Investor Alliance, a trade group whose members are largely S.B.A.-licensed small business investment companies, said the big institutions that provide much of the venture financing are interested in the program. But, he added, “the jury’s still out on what the take-up on this program is going to be, from a limited partner or institutional investor perspective. We’ll really know in the next year.”
Mr. Palmer said that program rules limiting the amount of debt available to any one venture fund to $50 million would discourage the largest and best-known funds from taking part. Bob Clarkson, a lawyer in Palo Alto, Calif., who represents companies that win venture investment, as well as some venture funds, agreed. “At least for the top-tier venture funds, the time commitments to serve on the board [of a portfolio company] are pretty much the same if you put $1 million to work or $10 million to work,” he said.
“Out here, there wasn’t a whole lot of interest” in the program, he added. “None of the folks that I work with are that eager to go be the people to fill that gap” — the gap, that is, between an angel investment and a first round of full-fledged venture funding — “if it requires complying with government regulations, even if they don’t know what those government regulations might be.”
Of course, the Innovation Fund was not designed with those Silicon Valley funds in mind, at least if they plan to continue investing in the same sorts of companies in the same sorts of places. And Mr. Heesen, of the venture capital association, said that attitude might in any case change now that Hatteras has received its license. “Hatteras has gone through the process, and it’s a pretty arduous process,” he said. “Because Hatteras has done it, others will now put their toe in the water.”