How is your Investability?

On 29 March 2011 I braved the traffic on the Bristol bypass to attend Investability at HP Labs. Investability is a one-day event held by Bristol and Bath Enterprise Network (BEN) for entrepreneurs, investors and anyone else with an interest in the funding of early stage technology businesses.

The highlight of the event for me was a keynote speech by Mike Southon who presented on what entrepreneurs could learn from arguably the most successful entrepreneurs in recent times: the Beatles (accompanying slides: here; Mike was arguably cheating though by being a professional speaker and motivator). Takeaway points included:

  • The five “p”s of a successful elevator pitch: Pain, Premise, People, Proof and Purpose;
  • The golf-club test: can your investor explain your idea to his mates at the golf club and get them to chip in?
  • Get a foil: i.e. find a team or partner who complements your skills and abilities, such as Paul and John. To paraphrase Mike, if have the technology brains but the thought of social functions leaves you dry, find a “talky, shouty” person to promote and sale your product or service.

Among those representing public support institutions, the atmosphere was bittersweet. The Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) and their associated programs were on their way out, as part of the political changes brought in by the new coalition government, but the new Bristol and Bath Science or S-Park was slowly taking form in what was a field in Emerson’s Green, Bristol. Excitement for the S-Park is gaining momentum, helped by the news that the UK’s National Composites Centre will also be housed on the site.

In the wake of the shutdown of a number of regional support agencies, many had the question: who would support business and innovation in the UK? One answer came from Dr. James Clipson of the Technology Strategy Board (TSB). The TSB are a Swindon-based organisation who offer a number of options for research and development funding in the UK. They offer three different R&D grants for single organisations:

  • Proof of market grant;
  • Proof of concept grant; and
  • Development of prototype grant.

These are available to pre start-ups, start-ups, and small and medium-sized businesses from all sectors across the UK. Applications are assessed throughout the year, but it is recommended to get application in as soon as possible: the vim and vigour (as well as the finance) instilled by the TSB’s new lease of life under the present government may suffer fatigue as the year passes. Plus funding is now awarded nationally (previously it was distributed through the RDAs), so you are in effect competing nationally. However, I was surprised to learn that up to 75% of applicants for low-level early (e.g. feasibility) grants receive funding and the competitions come with generous legal terms (e.g. any IP rights reside in the company receiving funding). This makes the TSB definitely worth a look for established SMEs who are looking to fund tentative market research projects.

Sean Smith of the University of Bath’s Technology Transfer unit also explained how Britain’s universities were available to help SMEs with innovation. Sean had a background in industry and so spoke with some understanding of the gulfs that sometimes exist between commerce and academia. He explained though that efforts on both sides to realistically understand the aims and goals of those involved in research projects could facilitate fruitful relationships.

I was pleasantly surprised by the number of angel and early stage investors who attended the event. In a session of three talks on the investment process the audience was roughly one third angel investors, one third entrepreneurs and one third others (e.g. me). Gonzalo Trujillo and Nathan Guest both delivered interesting overviews of the investment process, respectively from a finance and legal perspective. Takeaway points included:

  • An investor needs to be right for a company as much as the company needs to be right for the investor. Often at a long-term relationship will arise and it is important for the financial success of the company that this works.
  • As Gonzalo joked, an investment is much like a marriage: there is a lot of initial flirting and anxiety to work to a consummation (of a deal), but do not let this distract you from the real challenge: living together afterwards.
  • Nathan remarked on the need for initial legal paperwork, but warned not to get too bogged down in pages of text. An early situation is fluid – enough needs to be in place to allow a deal to proceed but exact terms can evolve and be added throughout the relationship.
  • Nathan also reminded attendees to carefully check the ownership for IP rights: conditions vary from right to right and depend on a person’s role, it is best to engage a professional to ensure that all valuable rights reside with the legal entity you are investing in.

The event ended with a look ahead to Venturefest on November 3 (a big event in the new S-Park) and the nascent Local Enterprise Partnership (more information: here, follow them on Twitter: @WofEnglandLEP).

Big thanks to BEN, including Martin Coulthard and Becky Smithson, and sponsors, including HP Labs, for a productive and informative event.

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