Coming soon: Buying equity in start-ups via crowdfunding

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Soccer moms, investment-club dads: Soon, you'll be able to buy shares in private start-ups through crowdfunding.

On Friday, U.S. securities regulators approved new rules allowing Americans to buy equity in start-ups, within certain limits. The rules take effect early next year.

Local venture capitalists and start-ups are thrilled, saying the move modernizes 80-year-old securities laws overseeing how private capital can be raised.

"We're all about democratizing access to capital. If you can invest in the stock market, why not a local business, or an early start-up that could become the next Google?" says Wayne Kimmel, partner in Seventy Six Capital, a Philadelphia venture fund that counts the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo.com in its portfolio.

Indiegogo is one of a slew of crowdfunding sites start-ups employ to raise money, usually for new products. It competes with sites such as Crowdfunder.com, CrowdfundX, SeedInvest, and CircleUp.

In 2011, local entrepreneur Anthony Ortiz, founder of the health-care start-up Fitly.com, raised $80,000 from friends and family through the crowdfunding site Kickstarter.com.

Under the Securities and Exchange Commission's new rules, Ortiz will be able to sell shares to new investors in Fitly's main product, SmartPlate. He says this new way of investing is potentially more transparent than Wall Street.

"My parents lost $200,000 to $300,000 to Wall Street," Ortiz says, "and their broker traded the heck out of their savings. It was devastating for us. We trusted people on Wall Street to do the right thing, and they haven't for years.

"This is an opportunity to get closer to someone in management, as close as a few miles away," he says. "In a mutual fund, you don't know what they're doing with your money. With a start-up, you can walk into headquarters if the prospectus doesn't arrive."

Traditionally, start-up entrepreneurs have relied on friends and family for financing to get new products off the ground.

With this change, "you can get people in the community to become shareholders, and that could really help minority and underserved markets that don't have access to capital," says Greg Urbanchuk, a director with Vantage Point Advisors in Center City, which does valuations for start-ups.

The new crowdfunding rules "level the playing field for people who weren't born with connections and money," Urbanchuk adds. "It puts the idea first. And for us, it's good in that more access to capital with more companies means more issues and more IPOs down the road."

Previously, only accredited investors could invest in private deals.

"For the first time, ordinary Americans will be able to go online and invest in entrepreneurs that they believe in," President Obama said when he signed the 2012 legislation authorizing the change, known as the JOBS Act.

The new SEC rules, under Title III, allow first-time start-up companies to raise up to $1 million online from non-accredited investors over 12 months. Compliance needed in private fund-raising will be waived. Start-ups must provide financial statements, but they don't have to be audited.

How much can you invest? The amount will depend on your income. According to the SEC, over 12 months:

If your annual income and net worth are less than $100,000, you can invest $2,000, or 5 percent of annual income or net worth, whichever is greater.

If your annual income or net worth is equal to or more than $100,000, you can invest 10 percent of annual income or net worth, whichever is greater.

"The majority will be mom-and-pop investors, so I think these rules will be helpful," said Aaron Goldstein, cofounder of Philadelphia-based Fever Smart, a disposable patch for temperature monitoring. "This is high-risk stuff."

A senior at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, Goldstein used Indiegogo to raise money for Fever Smart and presold before manufacture. The crowdfunding campaign raised $63,000 over 30 days, exceeding a goal of $40,000, back in 2014.

"We generated sales and got the word out about our company," he says. "By no means does it replace venture capital. If anything [crowdfunding is] a great stage for new ideas."

Now, Fever Smart has "outgrown crowdfunding. That was a seed round. Our next stage is [venture-capital] funding," Goldstein says.

Will all start-ups be successful in their businesses? No.

"Start-ups are high risk," Goldstein says. "Usually most fail, and that's why venture capital and angel investors invest in so many. They're hoping one big winner will pay off and make up for all the losers."

Notes Ortiz: "Start-ups should only be a part of your investment strategy. You shouldn't have all your eggs in the start-up tech basket. That could be devastating too."

earvedlund@phillynews.com

215-854-2808@erinarvedlund