Wednesday, May 9, 2012

More damning VC performance data - the model is broken

Two weeks ago I pointed to a study suggesting that there are structural problems with venture capital. A larger, more damning study is now in the news, confirming low industry returns, and diagnosing more problems with VC.  

I highly, highly recommend clicking through to read Felix Salmon's reporting and analysis on the
matter. Money quotes:

"During the twelve-year period from 1997 to 2009, there have been only five vintage years in which median VC funds generated IRRs that returned investor capital, let alone doubled it," and

"the VC industry, as a whole, is being incredibly successful at extracting rents from dumb institutional investors."

In a nutshell, a study by the Kauffmann Foundation concludes that:

-It is debatable whether or not VC is a worthwhile investment. "78% of the funds that Kauffman invested in (i.e. those in the study) have failed." Not only does the mean VC fund destroy capital on a risk-adjusted basis, recently these funds have had negative IRRs on a gross basis!

-Quality matters: "If you can’t get into one of the best funds — and everybody knows which funds those are — then there’s really no point investing in venture capital at all."

-LPs really don't hold VCs accountable enough: "once you strip out the top-performing 29 funds, the rest — more than 500 — collectively invested $160 billion, and managed to return $85 billion to investors." Shakeout, anyone?

-incentives are misaligned: VCs are invented to raise more and larger funds, as that's where the compensation is. This also incents goosing early year returns to help with fund-raising, meaning all of that VC chatter about long term investing is bull.

-smaller, more experienced funds are more likely to have outsized positive returns.

It's time to change the life science VC industry approach. Here's a few humble suggestions from my quick reaction to the Salmon article and Kauffman study:

1. Full disclosure. Between intense VC fund secrecy and discretionary allocations of costs and returns among funds, VC investors (LPs) really can't get definitive, transparent performance accounting. It's time for quality VC firms to be proactive in publicly disclosing deal-by-deal and expense by expense fund accounting. The message from LPs needs to be "if you're not transparent, we'll assume you're hiding something."

2. VCs: Climb the risk curve. The data suggests that VC has a problem finding alpha (return). The most immediate way to goose alpha is to take on more risk by investing in earlier stages. In other words, if a VC firm says that they don't invest until B rounds, they ought to stretch into A rounds. (And likely STOP investing in later ('D') rounds. An earlier investment carries a bit more risk, but it is more or less the same type of risk seen in the later stages. (In other words, if the primary risk for an investment is target biology or lead chemistry, it still takes the same understanding/risk tolerance whether investing in round A or C. Only the size of the risk changes.) I think VCs get paid for their ability to manage risks, so if a firm's core competency is vetting lead chemistry, getting in earlier plays to their strengths, and might in fact "train" the firm to better assess and handle those risks.

3. Less therapeutics, more enabling tools and platforms. Investing in therapeutics has a more or less binary outcome - success or failure, with not much in between. One way to minimize the downside for VCs is to invest in operating companies - their ceilings aren't as high as a winning therapeutics investment, but their terminal value is, well, >$0.

4. Create smaller funds, with VC compensation tied even more to performance. Typical compensation for a VC is 2% of the amount invested every year, plus 20% of the downstream gains. If it were up to me, I'd get rid of the 2% annual fee - make the funds invest their own $$$ in annual expenses.

5. More specialized funds. The old investing true-ism is that 80% of investing returns are generated through asset (sector) allocation, not through the selection of individual securities. The suggestion then would be to hyper-specialize. A large fund that invested in "therapeutics" is less likely to deviate from traditional poor returns than a fund specializing in "oncology," though I'd postulate that a fund that hyper-specialized in "kinase inhibition in cancer" would have crushed both, and wasn't that difficult to predict 10 years ago. (Easy for me to say.)

6. Use secondary markets to generate valuations and gain liquidity, lessening short term thinking and attracting Big Pharma investment dollars. New markets like Second Market have made a splash with internet companies for their ability to provide selected liquidity and to unlock equity value for employees. I'd like to see biotech embrace these alternative markets. Earlier pseudo-liquidity would attract more investment capital in general (including from Big Pharma. It would be great to get more of their capital in the game,) provide more transparency, clarify signaling, and likely facilitate consolidation among private companies. There might be some resistance among VCs as alternative markets might disinter mediate them, but they might on net reduce the investing risk for VCs and facilitate earlier liquidity.

7. Begin a 5-year moratorium on pandering to the government to increase funding for young companies and technologies or to reform some regulatory requirement of securities law. If the Kauffman study is representative of the life science industry, then clearly the problem isn't the level of government support, but rather the commercialization efforts that VCs back. VC keeps destroying capital with bad bets, not because there aren't enough ripe, de-risked technologies, or non-equity funds to incubate promising technologies.

8. Fund businesses, not technologies, science projects, or lottery tickets. Sure, the business case for an investment may hinge on Big Pharma buying you out once the leads make it to Phase ___, but if investments aren't businesses first and foremost, you're either ultimately 1) disappointing your Big Pharma customers, and 2) trying to build a skyscraper on a foundation of mud.

Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of confidence in the VC industry adapting. It is way, way more likely that instead of changing the industry's foundation, VC will further squeeze valuations and term sheets for incoming investments in order to try to lift returns.

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