The yawning gap between angel investors and Series A venture capital has the potential to strangle many promising entrepreneurial ideas and startups for want of critical, early-stage funding.
A recent Pitchbook report on the U.S. venture industry showed that the valuations of companies seeking Series A funding lately have grown at nearly double the pace of companies at the seed money stage. That’s helping to drive up the cost of Series A investments and widening the post-angel divide.
Some may argue that the shifting terrain is merely the Darwinian marketplace at play: the fittest will survive. But if there is a structural gap forming on the venture landscape, that not only impacts entrepreneurs but also consumers and potential employees who might benefit if more promising businesses can grow beyond infancy. And one thing the nation badly needs is more startups that can be nurtured into job creators.
At the Maryland Venture Fund, we’ve backed a number of promising companies whose ideas might have withered without the resources to get to the next step. Their work ranges from security for cloud-computing to precision weather analysis to battlefield wound care. Companies that reach a coveted stock offering are celebrated with bell-ringing, but you’ll never hear of the startup that fails to get across the funding “no man’s land” and dies quietly while an inventor with a promising, perhaps life-saving premise, returns to his day job.
For many entrepreneurs, money from friends and family help them get an idea off the ground. More substantial sums—typically $25,000 to $250,000 from angel investors—help them take their first steps. Later, many young companies need $1 million or $2 million for staff, development and marketing as they mature beyond their initial seed money, but such investments are getting harder to obtain. A funding round of $1 million is increasingly too small to attract VC interest. VCs are seeking larger investment opportunities that demonstrate greater early success, faster product development and a more established pipeline of customers.
The Pitchbook survey also showed that later rounds of Series B and D money grew dramatically last year—another sign of venture money flowing toward more proven companies.
The Maryland Venture Fund has been investing since 1996. But as the gulf between angel and venture investments grew and nimble, high-tech startups became more important to our economy, we saw the need to increase our equity investment activity. InvestMaryland raised $84 million to recapitalize the MVF. We’ve already invested more than $13 million of that directly in Maryland companies, including our largest-ever investments—$1 million each for Salsa Labs and Cellphire. Salsa created an online platform for nonprofits to grow, engage and retain a base of online support. Cellphire is developing freeze-dried platelets that can be stored for years and other stabilized cellular products for use in a range of advanced therapeutic and diagnostic applications.
But the Fund is also committing two-thirds of the money to private venture firms that invest in Maryland companies. They include GroTech Ventures, New Atlantic Ventures, Kinetic Ventures, Core Equity Partners, New Markets Education Partners, EnerTech Capital Partners and Foundation Medical Partners. This partnership of public capital and private expertise forms the second leg of the bridge, lifting Maryland companies with larger venture investments and getting them to a place where private investment activity is robust.
Painful memories of the tech bubble when ideas lept from cocktail napkin to IPO to bankruptcy court have swung the pendulum away from the risks inherent in Series A investment. And to be sure, there are perfectly good reasons why a startup doesn’t seek out Series A assistance. But in rapidly moving tech sectors like cybersecurity, where first-mover advantage can be critical, many start-ups need Series A funding and even some early stage booster fuel to get them there.
Thomas S. Dann is Managing Director of Equity Funds for the Maryland Venture Fund.