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Getting VC Funding: Improving Your Odds

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Milton Chang, Incubic Management LLC

There is no shortage of good advice on how to get venture capitalists (VCs) to invest in your start-up company. Out of curiosity, I Googled “get VC funding” and found almost 2 million links. One top site is an informative short video by Paul Holland, a general partner at Foundation Capital in Menlo Park, Calif. He said the firm sees 1000 business plans a year, most of which come from people they know or have worked with. His company uses market size, technology and people to winnow down the number to about 10 new investments yearly.

Given that, on average, only one in four companies funded by venture capitalists succeeds, fewer than three in a thousand get to a happy ending. Instead of accepting this discouraging statistic, let us find ways for you as a first-time entrepreneur to improve your odds of getting VC funding or backing from other sources.

Potential investors have one-track minds, and it is only logical that you give them what they are looking for: a high return in a given time period. As professional investors, VCs focus on big opportunities, to avoid spreading themselves too thin managing a number of small investments. They are already swamped by money that has poured in from institutional investors in recent years. I am by no means implying that raising money from them is easy; deep-pocketed investors may have short arms.

Investors are too sophisticated to be sold by hand-waving sales pitches. You have to do extensive homework to verify the market, resolve all the technology risks and put together an experienced team. Willingness to make investors a good deal will enhance your likelihood of getting their attention. The fact that Holland neglected to mention random entrepreneurs knocking on his door could mean that a proper introduction by respected people might increase the chances of your proposal succeeding.

You want to target the appropriate VCs – those who would invest in your business space and in the amount you need, who have a good reputation and the right chemistry to develop personal rapport and a professional relationship. Do not shop your business plan to VCs who will never invest in your space; you will waste time and create the impression that no one is interested in your proposal.

Here’s how Iris Medical (now Iridex, NASDAQ) did it.

The founders – Ted Boutacoff, Eduardo Arias and Dave Buzawa – came to me for seed capital. Years later, I learned that they had been unsuccessful for many months in acquiring this because investors were not convinced that their technology was viable. Their proposition was to use diode lasers to make a compact ophthalmic system, replacing argon-ion lasers. The objective was about 1/10 the size and 25 percent of the cost, and required no water cooling or laser tube replacements. Investors were concerned about the efficacy of the wavelength and about whether semiconductor laser companies could deliver reliable devices. I made the decision to invest quickly because this is a technical area I know; I had just left Newport Corp. and was itching to get involved.

With the capital, the founders had an artist make a few detailed graphic renditions of the product and set up a lab demonstration in Ted’s garage. Using a diode laser, they made a small hole on carbon paper, which produced a noticeable popping sound. This gave investors a positive impression that the system would work. And because the founders had experience in the ophthalmology business, investors were happy because they had all three ingredients they were looking for: market size data based on argon laser systems sales figures, technology that they believed would work and people who came from this industry. Once the company had acquired a reputable VC specializing in medical devices as its lead investor, other investors followed suit.

How does a technologist with an innovative idea satisfy a VC’s needs? The long gestation period for commercializing innovations already creates the hurdle of a low return. Not only that, but photonics is now a relatively mature industry. Technical advances can make incremental improvements to existing photonic products instead of providing the critical mass to start a stand-alone company. Big opportunities are likely to come from applying photonics to other fields, such as biotech, enabling us to join start-up companies.

Before seeking venture funding, most entrepreneurs in our industry gather the necessary pieces by getting government research grants to develop the technology either in academia or in small business innovation research companies. Sometimes embryonic companies are put together using funds from patient and savvy angel investors, not unlike what occurred at Iris Medical. The other approach is to start small and build over time, as Newport and New Focus did. You begin with a modest objective to relax the requirements, learn to manage the business and seize opportunities to become a substantial business.

Don’t forget that you can also create value without starting a company – by carrying your project forward to a stage where its potential value can be recognized, and then licensing the technology or in some way partnering with existing companies.

I had a phone conversation recently with a newly minted PhD who wanted to start a company to pursue a technology concept that, according to him, would “really shake up the optical industry.” It didn’t take long to see that he believes he has the tiger by the tail but no clue how to turn his idea into products. We mutually concluded that he would do well to stay on as a postdoc in the university to complete the technology development and in the meantime learn something about business to prepare for entrepreneurship.

His last question was, “What is the one thing you look for in an entrepreneur?” My unequivocal reply was someone objective, intellectual and capable of making realistic choices.

Meet the author

Milton Chang, who is semiretired, spends time mentoring entrepreneurs. He has been an investor in the photonics industry and was CEO and president of Newport Corp. and New Focus Inc. prior to forming Incubic Management, a venture capital and management consulting firm. He is a fellow of the IEEE, LIA and OSA, and was past president of LIA and LEOS; e-mail: [email protected].

Photonics Spectra
Nov 2009
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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