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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Looking abroad for Business Investment

Frank Lavin, under secretary for international trade at the US Department of Commerce, knows as well as anyone how difficult it is for tech entrepreneurs to market their wares internationally. Dubbed 'America's salesman-in-chief', part of his job is to help US businesses partner and collaborate abroad.

Speaking at a briefing this week focused on clean technology opportunities in the Nordic region, Lavin pointed out that many businesses with disruptive technologies don't have the scope to handle international opportunities. For one thing, it's not part of their corporate culture - and for another, they tend not to be structured in a way that lets them market systematically around the world. It's down to his International Trade Administration team, with 2200 people around the world, to help US companies take advantage of those opportunities.

The breakfast briefing - hosted in San Francisco by law firm Heller Ehrman and, unusually, featuring three US ambassadors on a roadshow in their home country - was designed to focus attention on clean tech opportunities in Denmark, Sweden, Finland and oil-rich Norway. There's no shortage of entrepreneurs in the region and no shortage of technology - in fact, James Cain, US ambassador to Denmark, described it as the most wired market in the world, the most tech savvy of its size anywhere, and highly innovative in alternative energy. But what many entrepreneurs in the region lack, according to participants at the event, is both the capital and marketing expertise to turn great ideas into great businesses.

That, in theory, presents a big opportunity for foreign investors and tech companies looking to partner and collaborate. And while the whole focus of the briefing was on the Nordic region's relationship with the US, the opportunities aren't purely transatlantic. Just as Germany is a global leader in the adoption of solar energy, so the Nordic regions are making great strides in areas such as wave and wind power, biofuels and carbon sequestration - and that's got to present opportunities for London clean tech entrepreneurs as well.

In fact, proximity may even give UK entrepreneurs an advantage over their US counterparts, particularly in their awareness of the cultural differences between the four Scandinavian countries. Although the ambassadors urged attendees to consider the four countries as one region, they acknowledged local cultural rivalries. Benson Whitney, US ambassador to Norway, couldn't resist telling how he'd been approached by a Swedish woman asking him what Norway had that Sweden didn't. 'I was thinking oil', he mused, to laughter. 'Then she said: 'Good neighbours.''

By Keith Rodgers, Webster Buchanan Research

Show me the money

A quick flick through the sheer multiplicity of grants on offer is enough to make any entrepreneur’s mouth water. And unlike VC money, grants don’t have to be repaid and they don’t – big sigh – dilute your shareholding. So it’s worth spending a bit of time considering this funding option, whatever your viewpoint on “free” money.

But grants come with a couple of downsides. The first is that the terms and conditions can be excruciatingly restrictive. While it’s not a common occurrence, it’s certainly not unheard of that a start-up will go through all the hassle of finding what they think is the right award scheme, filling in the application forms and going through due diligence, only to find at the last minute that something in the small print – like the fact that part of their R&D is conducted overseas - disqualifies them.

Secondly, as we’ve pointed out before, many awards schemes are actually run as competitions – including one of the most lucrative in the UK, the Technology Strategy Board, which includes the wonderful Knowledge Transfer Partnerships. Want to get your research done by some whiz kid PhD students at a University department specialising in your particular field? Then a KTP is the thing for you. The only snag is you’ve got to prove you’re more deserving than your competitors (which could be many or few, depending on when you apply) and there’s a strict timeline you have to adhere to.

So if you haven’t got the time to find the right award scheme and jump through hoops to meet the application criteria, take the advice of one entrepreneur we recently spoke to. He used an outside adviser to secure an award from the DTI, working on a no-win-no-fee basis. “It worked well for us because it can be difficult when you’re already working an 18-hour day to find the time to identify which awards are right for you,” he points out. Of course, you can’t shift responsibility for funding entirely to a third party, but if you can devolve much of the grunt work to them – and incentivise them in a way that means you don’t lose money if they fail – then you should be onto a winner. And better still, you might get to meet Stelios in the process.

For South African Business Invetment Opportunities and Capital check out SA Investors Network