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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Venture Capital Focus on Growing Firms Says Shuttleworth

'Venture capital is better spend on existing and growing firms' This is the opinion of South African venture capital company HBD, which is still strongly associated with information-technology entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth. The organisation expects to have disbursed some R100-million by year-end as part of its second fund, launched in late 2006.

CEO Julia Long tells Engineer-ing News that it is currently interrogating several potential investment opportunities, mostly in high-technology companies, but not necessarily information-technology enterprises.

Its so-called ‘HBD Fund2’ will run for two years, with Shuttle-worth having made some R150-million available to the initiative. However, Long says it is possible that more than R150-million could be disbursed over the period, citing a possible investment figure of R200-million.

Unlike the initial HDB fund, or ‘Fund1’, which focused on pure start-up-type enterprises, the current facility is seeking to finance more “mature” businesses that already have products, services and customers.

Long says the idea is to fill a gap in the South African capital market by offering equity funding to enterprises that are keen to either accelerate domestic growth or embark on an internationalisation endeavour.

Given this greater level of maturity, the size of the investment tranches has also been raised to between R10-million and R25-million – Fund1’s limit was set closer to R10-million. “By contrast, the companies we financed between 2000 and 2005, when Mark set aside R70-million for venture capital, were generally at a far less developed stage, some even at the concept stage,” Long explains.

She argues that there is still a desperate need for ‘angel investors’ to support start-ups, but that, following a broad-ranging analysis of the South African environment, HBD (short for ‘Here Be Dragons’) decided there was greater opportunity and less risk slightly further up the value chain.

She says the fund is open to just about any sector, excluding direct investments into real estate and agriculture, and hints to the fact that HBD is in the final stages of a due diligence involving an investment into a leisure-and-entertainment enterprise that offers a “unique” restaurant experience. It is also interrogating an equity position in a logistics enterprise.

To date, though, capital from Fund2 has been deployed in only two instances: an investment into EDH, which develops products and services for the sport, defense and industrial- inspection markets, including a radar-based solution used by broadcasters to track and display shots made by golfers during tournaments; and an investment into a company called incuBeta, which is an Internet search-engine marketing business, with a turnover of R50-million a year.

Long says its basic criterion remains that the companies be established and domiciled in South Africa.

She anticipates that HDB will remain invested in the companies for a period of about five years, and says its partners accept upfront that HDB will be seeking to make a profitable exit at some point. These exits can take various forms, from selling the business to similarly-styled entities, through to an initial public offering, most probably through a listing on the JSE’s small- company board, AltX.

The company has already exited from some of its initial investments made during the roll-out of Fund1, but Long admits that most of these have been conducted at a loss.

“We are acutely aware of the risks involved and don’t take them lightly. But our assessment is that, if we invest in ten companies and spend R100-million in the process, just one might turn out to be core. But that core investment will offer a return that more than covers the upfront investment with a healthy return, with the balance of the disposals offering a bonus over and above that return,” she concludes.

This may be a typical move by venture capital funds in the current economic climate trying to limit their risks and increase returns from businesses already proven to be successes in the market. Despite the importance of business finance being available to this market segment it should not be forgotten that with many banks trying to do the same the investors and banks in South Africa should not forget the army of entrepreneurs hoping to bring their own ideas to the market. Both Shuttleworth and the growing firms his company now invest in was at some stage a start-up and was it not for someone investing in these businesses at early stage they to may not have been in the position they are in today.