Quebec City Conference on Public Policy on Venture Capital

Last week, I was invited to attend and speak at the Quebec City Conference Public Policy Forum on Venture Capital and Innovation (http://www.quebeccityconference.com/eng/about/about-ppf.php ). It was a presage to the main conference on Innovation. The participants and speakers were all excellent, with the majority non-US, which gave the event a perspective not usually seen in similar events. While I could write at length about each topic (e.g. getting innovation out of universities, supporting industries during times of transitions, and international models), I will focus on some of the insights about the VC model itself.

Starting with a well-tread topic – VC returns, which are negative in the last 10 years, Thomas Hellman of UBC, did some cool analysis of the Thomson/Reuters data which analyzed the returns from US VC funds from inception through 9/3/08, and plotted the ROIs against the percentile of those ROIs. Stunningly it showed that the top 1% of funds had 41% of the total returns, the top 5% had 70%, the top 10% had 84%, and the top 25% had 104%. Several key thoughts follow from this:

  1. 75% of the funds lost money.
  2. If you aren’t in the top 10%, you probably won’t do too well.
  3. LPs are deserting the asset class, if they aren’t already in a top decile fund.

So what does this mean? Clearly the VC industry will continue to contract as the funds that haven’t performed well can’t find LPs. This has been discussed at length elsewhere. At the conference, in the networking sessions, and afterward, I learned more. But, with LPs abandoning any but the most established VC funds, should governments sustain them? Or is the VC model broken? (Those that follow my blog, know that I suggested this a long time ago, http://blog.drosenassoc.com/?p=7).

And.. if you assume that the VC industry will collapse back to the top decile+ of funds, what does that mean to funding early-stage startups? That was one of the major topics of the conference. It was also the reason that angel investing got so much attention! (And, of course, why I was there.)

As I’ve blogged before, it is evident to both governments and policy makers that “high-growth startups,” primarily in tech, healthcare, and cleantech, can propel the economy. Many of the government speakers and participants acknowledged this and are struggling with how to make this happen in their geography.

Many of the policy makers that were present (and many of the VCs from outside the US) seem to believe that angels and angel groups must play a key role, both in financing and helping startups. But what does that mean? The conference participants adopted my term “professional angels” to distinguish between those that make occasional angel investments and those “professional angels” that (a) primarily do angel investing, (b) develop and maintain a portfolio, (c) invest with an experienced discipline, primarily in groups, and (d) help their companies and often serve on boards. A great deal of discussion was how to encourage Professional Angels to invest more and pick up some of the load from the VCs who will disappear.

A number of government incentives were discussed, including tax credits, capital gains holidays, etc. It seems that Canada is well ahead of the US in considering these. Hellman presented the results from some of the BC programs that have worked. When his study is published, I’ll include a reference.

What was also striking was how much the government officials in Canada and elsewhere are looking at the Angel group model in Seattle and wondering how they can duplicate what we have done. As we in Seattle realize that the model needs to be local (we couldn’t just copy the model from the Bay Area), it won’t be simple to extend it to other geographies.