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What, Another Venture Capital Firm?

Photonics Spectra
Dec 2003
Paula M. Powell

By one estimate, there are some 1000 venture capital companies in the US. As of February, there was one more. Don Scifres, founder and former chief executive officer of SDL Inc., and Mike Foster, former chief financial officer at SDL, have set up SDL Ventures LLC and SDL Capital LP to invest in technology start-ups and public technology companies.

Perhaps another category ought to be added -- that of the restart. According to Foster, a partner and vice president of finance of the company, more and more proposals are coming through the door from founders of photonics-related companies that have shut down, either when the telecom bubble burst or when their money ran out.

Foster noted that, although these restarts come with some excess baggage, they also frequently bring less product- and customer-related risk to the proposal. "In some cases," he said, "you can talk to end users of the product and get a feel for whether or not they think they will buy again when the market picks up."

One interesting issue that often arises with such firms, however, is the form that their excess baggage takes -- excess infrastructure. In the telecom heyday, when venture capital flowed like water, quite a lot of money was sunk into facilities. As Foster said, it might be hard for people to grasp that it could be more cost-effective to outsource fabrication or other work this time around.

In recent months, Scifres and Foster have noticed a couple of other major trends. The first is a push by companies to convert from telecom to industrial or military applications. The second centers around too many companies still trying to get funding for yet another optical transceiver.

That said, photonics entrepreneurs should keep an eye out for SDL Ventures when looking for funding. The company most likely will focus on early-stage investments in technologies and/or industry segments that the team understands well, such as optics, lasers, and fiber optic and microwave communications. It's also interesting to note that, unlike most venture capital firms, Scifres and Foster are investing their own capital, so they don't have to deal with the politics that often accompanies collaboration with outside investors.


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