By Robin Klein

I’ve dedicated half my working life — more than 20 years — to working with startups and to building the environment and ecosystem that has helped many great tech companies flourish in the UK. 

As an investor with LocalGlobe, and before that with Index Ventures, I have backed companies including Zoopla, TransferWise, Citymapper, Mind Candy, Moo and Graze — all from their startup phase. 

“Of all the threats that Covid-19 poses, the threat to early-stage startups is the least we should worry about.”

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Yet I am certain that of all the threats that Covid-19 poses, the threat to early-stage startups is the least we should worry about. I’m far more concerned about companies and freelancers whose revenues have collapsed overnight and whose recovery is very uncertain.

Years of government support for startups

We went into this crisis with a tech sector in very strong health: having raised a record $13bn in 2019 alone, it is better capitalised than ever. The UK outgrew all major tech hubs in Europe in 2019 and lags only the US and China in the capital it has raised.

The UK government has helped enormously to develop the extremely strong tech ecosystem that we have here. Some of its initiatives have been truly transformational. 

The EIS (the Enterprise Investment Scheme) and SEIS (the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme) have raised over £21bn of equity capital and helped more than 42,600 companies, with the tech sector taking an increasing share. Via the British Business Bank (BBB) and British Patient Capital, the government is investing £2.5bn in startups and growing businesses. Innovate UK is a vital source of grant funding for research-heavy early-stage businesses.

Without these sources of equity capital, the UK’s ecosystem would never have developed so strongly and arguably would not have produced its 77 current unicorns.

Few startups survive, even in the good times

But in pushing for more UK government help for startups we need to recognise some of the facts. Years of data shows us the nature of investing in this sector. Three quarters of startups that raise a seed round never reach a Series A, according to data platform Dealroom.co — this data reflects the past 10 years of ‘bull market’.

Among the worst-performing investors, 93% of companies never progress to Series A.

“Venture capital funds in the UK have more than enough capital and every incentive to do so now.”

Has the current crisis increased the likelihood of more than three quarters of startups being unable to raise further funding? I don’t believe so. Venture capital funds in the UK have more than enough capital and the incentives to fund the best companies. Funds raised $5.2bn in 2019, so have more than enough capital to invest and every incentive to do so now. Even in the first three months of this year, a handful of new funds were announced, with $2.8bn raised in the year to date, according to analyst Dealroom.co.

A bailout fund risks misdirecting much-needed capital to the wrong part of the economy. It also creates adverse selection in a healthy and growing ecosystem. The 27% of companies that do make it from seed to Series A are probably the least likely to seek government support.

Startups have more options to survive the crisis than more mature companies, where incomes are tumbling. Active seed investors are working closely with the startups in their portfolios to find solutions to extend their cash runway, which will give them more months before it is necessary to raise again. Many are using government support packages like the furlough programme so they can conserve cash and deploy their capital selectively.

Make more of what we already have

I’m not advocating doing nothing — on the contrary, we should urgently make the established mechanisms and tools more efficient and responsive. We should aim to automatically grant R&D tax credits and use claw back mechanisms if companies offend. We must radically speed up decision-making processes at British Patient Capital and Innovate UK to six to 12 weeks, not six to nine months — then they would be as good as the very best private investors.

By rapidly reviewing the funds which BBB has already backed, further capital could be committed which would deliver targeted co-investment funds for startups. The other LPs of these funds could be offered similar opportunities.

One area where the UK has lagged its counterparts in France and Germany, is in offering specific help to scaleups — those growing tech companies that are trying to disrupt much larger incumbents. When it comes to getting the economy back into growth mode, these fast-growing companies will be crucial, yet they are unable to access the schemes that have been put in place by the chancellor, such as the Covid Corporate Financing Facility (CCFF), or the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS). It can’t be right that these innovative companies do not have a level playing field with incumbents.

“Ensure that only the startups and scaleups that continue to have the backing of existing investors benefit from the state’s support.”

And if we are to go down the bailout fund route, we should only consider investing tax payers money through either crowd or institutional co-investing. This would ensure that only the startups and scaleups that continue to have the backing of existing investors benefit from the state’s support. A time-limited co-investment fund, with no profit share, that returns all profits to the Exchequer and is run by experienced investors is the sort of model that could avoid the very real problem of adverse selection.

UK tech is one of Britain’s greatest modern success stories producing companies and technologies that have the potential to improve our lives, transform our economy and produce well-paid and desirable jobs across the country. If we are to get the economy back on track rapidly, we need to make sure that our most innovative companies are not actively disadvantaged.

“Please use scarce taxpayers money in the sectors that really need it — offering startups debt packages or handouts is not the way to go.”

Finally, one of the biggest soft benefits that the entire tech sector has benefited from has been vocal government support. From the early days of Silicon Roundabout to the appearance by the last prime minister at London Tech Week, the UK government was — long before president Macron found his voice — a great champion of the tech sector because it recognised in it the potential to create good jobs and growing companies right across the company.

Right now, the tech sector and the startup world could do with some assurance that what has been achieved so far will not be allowed to wither. This means the continued tangible support for BBB, BPC, Innovate UK, EIS/SEIS and R&D tax credits. 

But please use scarce taxpayers money in the sectors that really need it — hospitality, transport, recreation, arts and charities. Offering startups debt packages or handouts is not the way to go.

 

Robin Klein is a partner at London-based VC firm LocalGlobe.

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Cedric
Cedric

Call it shooting yourself in the foot, sawing the branch you are sitting on or biting the hand that feeds you…this article is not going to help the already deteriorated image of VCs among entrepreneurs. Here we have a pandemic that has not been caused by startups, meanwhile in 2008 the financial sector has been bailed out despite being the only cause of the crisis, so whilst VCs had nothing to do with the crisis nor benefited from the bail out, having someone associated with finance saying that we should not waste tax payer money on helping startups is possibly… Read more »

Oleg Romanov
Oleg Romanov

I am sure a lot of entrepreneurs will agree that VCs in the UK are rude, clueless and arrogant. The only thing they do really well is to abuse other shareholders and get themselves Special terms squeezing founders and angel investors. In Silicon Valley VCs are built and run by ex- founders and entrepreneurs who have a strong understanding what it takes to build a good company. In the UK most of VC investors are ex- failed investment bankers or consultants with no experience in building anything with exception of excel spreadsheets and powerpoint presentations. Junior staff in VCs are… Read more »

Simon Rucker
Simon Rucker

Mr Klein, Thank you – a good article on a complex topic of debate. However, there’s a danger it may achieve the opposite of what you intended… To wit, I think you need to be very clear (in the title) and throughout the article whether you are talking about all start-ups or just ones in the (arguably) spoiled tech sector. I am also surprised that you didn’t mention owner-managers of small limited companies in your point regarding companies and freelancers whose revenues have collapsed overnight and whose recovery is very uncertain. Owner-managers of small limited companies are a not insignificant… Read more »

Simon Holland
Simon Holland

For anyone outside of London this is the most ridiculous and unhelpful article for the start-up community, let alone the 95% of start-ups that revenue fund or bootstrap because of the inaccessibility of VCs.

Already as a country we fail to think big or support left field ideas that are eaten alive in the US.

What a shame these views have been listened to by the Chancellor and not the pipeline of new ideas and innovative start-ups will be washed away in a tidal wave.

Thanks so much for putting out a blinked view as if it’s informed.

RitzC
RitzC

I wonder if the author wants to be controversially popular. I also wonder if he has applied his rich experience towards a pandemic driven crisis in the past to predict Govt advice for future!!! Hence, the author needs to be careful. His experience of the past 20 years may not be relevant for the opinions he is sharing in a site which has a very high visibility. I would expect sifted to apply a sift for such opinions.

Des Beattie
Des Beattie

Robin’s point is well made, but perhaps the biggest emerging unknown will be this question: what will our economy look like when we finally emerge from this pandemic around mid-2021? It’s very likely to be smaller, with unemployment higher and confidence impaired. 2019 will be nostalgically viewed as being ‘halcyon days’ to be emulated at some future point. So, the start up currently focusing on a niche consumer discretionary market based on a well-ordered economy with predictable growth and rising incomes is going to find that even with a government bailout, they will either have to pivot quickly to a… Read more »

Edward
Edward

No, the so-called ‘Charities’ with their £250,000 per year ‘NCOs’ should be the least of our worried

Wlodek Laskowski
Wlodek Laskowski

Thank you for an excellent, level headed article on bailing out the UK startups. I wholeheartedly agree that just throwing money, trying to keep all startups is a waste – this crisis will flush out those with weak propositions (“nice to have” products/services) and the best will shine through! The idea of working together with private investors is the best way. Finland has a very simple and effective model – they simply provide a startup loan of Euro 50K, followed by matching funding (i.e. 1 for 1) private investors / funds money with equity & very low interest (unsecured) loans.… Read more »

Paul Mears
Paul Mears

Absolutely, it is shocking to see companies that have raised 100m plus recently with cornerstone investors like Softbank, AH , Accel , Google etc sending sob story letters to the Chancellor. As most are operating on costs that are 10x of say gross revenue and maybe 50x of gross margin I am not sure a revenue squeeze for a few months even denst there business plan and runway or should have been a very low stress test. Companies that are in growth, with OK gross margin and a net margin who have been seriously impacted short term by the loss… Read more »