Monday, February 23, 2009

Thomas Friedman: The government should give money to venture capital funds

I am no fan of Thomas Friedman, but I do agree with most of what he says in his latest Op-Ed in The New York Times entitled "Start Up the Risk-Takers" in which is proposes a fairly simple model for government investment to create new jobs:

Call up the top 20 venture capital firms in America, which are short of cash today because their partners -- university endowments and pension funds -- are tapped out, and make them this offer: The U.S. Treasury will give you each up to $1 billion to fund the best venture capital ideas that have come your way. If they go bust, we all lose. If any of them turns out to be the next Microsoft or Intel, taxpayers will give you 20 percent of the investors' upside and keep 80 percent for themselves.

Sounds like a plan. But, it is not quite so simple. True, professional venture capital firms operate in a relatively narrow range of financing and stage of development. The typical paradigm for a venture capital-funded venture is "early stage", were only a relatively modest level of capital is needed (rarely more than $20 million), and where only a modest number of jobs are generated. Sure, some venture capital firms offer "later stage" funding, but that is still for the relatively early life of a new venture when growth is high but revenue and jobs are still relatively modest. The Googles and Microsofts and Intels of the world did not require large-scale capital in their venture capital stages. So-called expansion capital on a large scale typically comes not from professional capital firms, but either organically funded from revenue and profits from dramatic early success of a Google or Microsoft or Intel, or from debt offerings on Wall Street or other non-venture capital sources. That is the stage when a high volume of jobs are created.

Professional VC firms do offer growth stage funding ($10 to $50 million), but that is still only the stage where a venture might be hiring no more than a few hundred people, not the major growth stage where thousands of jobs are being created and hundreds of millions of capital investment are being made.

Sure, I agree with Friedman -- and have already myself suggested -- that the government should temporarily step in to fund professional venture capital firms that are having difficulty raising capital from their traditional sources such as large banks, insurance companies, pension funds, and large endowment funds (all of whom are themselves struggling financially), but this is money to fuel a future wave of job creation, say three to ten years from now, and won't create millions of new jobs in the next two to three years.

There are also SBIR, SBA, and other government funding programs that can be boosted directly by the government. Government guarantees for bank loans and debt offerings for young, innovative ventures could also be a big help for growing innovative companies far beyond the early stages where venture capital is most successful at boosting promising companies and weeding out the good ideas that simple do not work in the real world.

Yes, by all means the government should ramp up venture capital investment, but that will not obviate the need for stimulating and supported significant chunks of the "old economy" for many years to come.

Besides, the last thing we need is yet another new "bubble", let alone a slew of them.

We want new ventures that are robust and durable, not flash-in-the-pan, "gold rush" style "opportunities."

Energy innovation is worthy of investment, as is filling the gap for funding of venture capital firms, but let us be careful to avoid turning this into another "dot-com boom", because we all know how that movie ended.

The good news is that it might cost only $20 billion (as Friedman suggests) to give the venture capital industry the shot in the arm that it does in fact need.

Personally, I am not completely convinced that any or many of the top VC firms could actually put $1 billion to use with their current investment paradigms and I would not want to destroy the current paradigm that works so well. To be clear, over-investment does not result in comparably greater success. Maybe $250 million average (per year) for the top 20 firms and $50 million average for the rest of the top 100 firms would be more than sufficient for the level of investment that these firms could manage successfully at this point. That works out to about $9 billion a year. Okay, double it to make sure that good businesses do not have trouble getting funded. That gets us to $18 billion, close to Friedman's number. My own original number was $2 to $3 billion a month or $24 to $48 billion per year. My model was simply that in times of financial crisis, better to err way over the top. At this point, I would prefer to hear the VC sector tell us what they feel that they need. Offer them $50 billion a year and sit back and watch the spectacle of them saying "Please give us less money."

Maybe the key thing is for the government to be able to assure VC firms that there will be "government supported" funding (e.g., debt securities) available for VC-funded companies that have advanced beyond the VC-supported stages to the point where they do need tens or even hundreds of millions to expand to the degree where individual firms are creating many hundreds or thousands of jobs. This might help to encourage VC firms to fund new ventures that will eventually require large-scale capital after they advance beyond the stages where traditional VC firms add the most value.

Finally, Friedman did not even mention so-called "angel" investing, where individual investors are funding innovative new ventures at a smaller scale than normally appeals to professional venture capital firms. Give these people more generous tax incentives, matching funds, and possibly some degree of government guarantees, or maybe outright tax credits, and you could see a dramatic blooming of innovative firms.

In any case, I do have to give Friedman credit for raising awareness of this critical issue to the national level. A single small paragraph in my own blog simply wasn't good enough to even get the ball rolling:

Provide government funding to venture capital firms which are experiencing extreme difficulty raising funds from traditional sources (big banks, pension funds, and insurance companies) due to the credit crunch and skrinkage of the economy, on the order of $2 to $3 billion per month.

-- Jack Krupansky


At 12:24 PM EST , Anonymous NickDG said...

It's naturally American to appeal to revolutionary innovation - it's worked well in many situations in our history. But there are some situations where evolutionary re-invention is more appropriate. The VC model - fund startups/entrepreneurs and wait for the disruptive technologies - worked for the Internet/Web. But this is because another robust communications infrastructure (the public switched telephone network) existed that could support the population and serve as a base for the Internet.

But our present energy and transportation challenges are fundamentally different. They require more evolutionary systems thinking than revolutionary innovation. It's naive (and dangerous) to think we can just throw out systems that serve 300M people - no matter how inefficient and creaky they are - and hope that brilliant entrepreneurs develop magical new energy sources and means of transportation that a) work and b) immediately scale. Otherwise said, do we plan our energy future around biofuels that don't yet exist, or get down to the dirty work of making each piece of the system we have as efficient as it can be?

The John Doerrs of the world - no matter how attractive their stealth battery startups might sound - are the wrong people to dig us out of this mess. We need the Norm Augustines and Fred Smiths for this one.


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