Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Government Investment in Venture Capital: Should There Be Rules?

Another election is over, which means the planning for the next federal budget has begun. Entrepreneurs should be taking this opportunity to place themselves at the forefront of the innovation debate, and grabbing some of the money that the government keeps allocating to research and venture capital.

Before we do that, however, we should ask ourselves whether current government initiatives can be shaped or adjusted to provide some near term relief. Take the money provided by government (through “fund of funds” programs) to venture capital funds to disburse to entrepreneurs: should there be some checks and balances on how it’s spent?

This is not an insignificant issue. Provincial “funds of funds” such as Ontario’s Technology Innovation Fund, Alberta’s Enterprise Corporation, and the like have been allocated hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in the aggregate to reinvest in venture capital funds. In addition, in February, the federal government also gave the BDC another $75 million in fresh capital to invest directly in high growth companies (those of you who missed that lifeline should be talking to them). Should government-provided venture capital be treated differently than money provided to VCs from private sources?

If the cycles of the last ten years have taught us anything, it’s that economic recession can lead to aggressive pricing and investing terms from venture capital investors. Down round valuations, ratchets and protective mechanisms – all the old standbys. I have even heard that the multiple liquidation preference (where an investor must get 3-4x his investment back before any other shareholder receives proceeds from a company sale) is back in town. Is it fair for those remaining angels and VCs to take advantage of market conditions? Of course. But is it appropriate to allow them to do so when the funds they are investing came from us, the taxpayers? I don’t think so.

How are Canadian entrepreneurs protected from being goudged? There needs to be some kind of oversight mechanism which will allow government to pressure VC recipients to behave in a reasonable fashion, above the market frenzy. To be specific: no multiple liquidation preferences. No usurious interest rates. And while we’re at it: if the purpose underlying these funds is to foster strong homegrown investment funds, why not insist that VCs who receive government funds embark on mandatory education, so that there is a minimum standard of financial, operational and governance competency? Surely the government entities disbursing money can insist on some strings attached to their commitments.

No question, these kinds of strings may impact the IRR of any VC who takes government money. But perhaps the best way for VCs to look at this funding is as a taxpayer bridge loan. We taxpayers don’t need to see a 30% IRR; we’re just trying to bridge VCs to the next phase in the cycle. If we get our money back, that will be perfectly fine. In the near term, however, we’ll also have kept current entrepreneurs who’ve already proven themselves in the game, with a meaningful stake in the businesses they’ve built.