Checking into a hotel in Silicon Valley on Thursday I overheard the receptionist talking about biotech with her colleague. Presumably they were Stanford or Berkeley students, but it was hard to resist thinking it was a venture capital-era parallel to the old stock market dictum to “beware your shoeshine boy discussing stock options”.
Attendants to industry conference the Corporate Venturing and Innovation Partnering Conference in Newport Beach last week were certainly talking about whether the current headlong rush into corporate venturing will end badly for corporations that do not execute well. Global Corporate Venturing has tracked more than 200 entrants and new funds in corporate venturing over the past two and a half years, which marks a near 30% increase in companies investing in the asset class.
Executives flagged up recent examples of potential corporate venturing excesses – including rumours of a 70x revenue deal – and technology market largesse, including the large number of billboard adverts from start-ups popping up along the highways of Silicon Valley, as providing a few reminders of the 1990s period many of them worked through.
Yet other delegates said the opposite. They noted the entrants were generally more professional than in the past era, and more likely to push back against heady deals offered to them by Sand Hill road venture capitalists. Many corporates have also dived in early, and so while another technology bubble may be brewing, it is likely many deals will get done at attractive valuations. However, one delegate said he had heard venture capital firms were pulling back from following in some deals, leaving corporates in a dilemma as to whether to support companies or not.
One of the talking points of the conference was a fireside chat by Google Ventures’ David Krane, with Jennifer Jones, a communications consultant, which the Wall Street Journal wrote up here.
The company has amassed a large portfolio as it has rapidly ramped up its deployment of capital to $300m a year, including a large and growing portfolio of seed deals – where it is looking to invest in 60 to 80 early stage start-ups a year.
Industry participants were divided about the way Google Ventures is looking to manage the portfolio, which involves a lot of soft links into Google rather than provide strategic links. They all concluded it would probably be extremely beneficial for Google in terms of its understanding of young start-ups, but were divided as to whether it would deliver returns even though Google is looking to take a purely financial approach. Some thought the sheer clout of the Google brand, and its innovative approach to links into the company would mean the broad-brush investing approach would not be as risky as at other corporates – others thought it would be tricky for Google Ventures’s team to keep an eye on all of its rapidly growing portfolio.
Krane himself pointed to data that suggested you have to do a lot of deals at the seed stage, to deliver returns. He also talked about how Google employees have 20% time, where they can potentially spend a day a week with the portfolio company which gave the company “great scale”. All were highly interested in Google Ventures’ plans, but were unsure how sustainable they could be. It is clearly an outfit to watch – if it can be successful and long term, Google Ventures will have created a long-term financial VC that can remain part of Google. If they can do so, it may change the way people think about corporate venturing.
The conference also saw Jim Lussier, of Dell Ventures, set out that the corporate venturing unit of Dell, the US-based computer company, would continue investing even as it is entertaining a $24.4bn buyout offer from its chief executive and founder Michael Dell, US buyout firm Silver Lake and backed with debt from software company Microsoft.
Lussier’s panel with Rob Rosenberg, of New Venture Partners, Rob Trice of Swisscom Ventures, and Dan Cherian, of Nike, debated whether “this time it’s different”. On the panel, they put forward the case that corporates were better structured this time around, so it is possible that corporate venturing has fully matured and will be stronger.
However, others thought there was a feeling of euphoria in the air, which as every investor knows is a good time to be disciplined and intelligent. However, this is also something extremely hard to achieve. It will be interesting to see whether the current wave entering into corporate venturing is a new paradigm, or if there will be a big shake-out.