Venture capital investment more than doubled last year, with venture groups and individual venture funds pumping $131 billion into nearly 9,000 early-stage U.S. firms, a new report shows.
That’s the highest ever in nominal dollars, though still a bit short of the $100 billion spent in the dot.com year 2000, after discounting for inflation, according to the latest yearly report by the National Venture Capital Association and PitchBook, released Tuesday. The total zoomed higher, from $83 billion last year, and an average of $81 billion a year for the last three years.
The venture-backed firms weren’t mostly garage start-ups — indeed there was “a stark decline in angel and seed deal count" money that typically goes to the smallest and newest companies. And, 2018 was the first year since 2012 when fewer than 9,000 U.S. firms were funded by venture capitalists, according to the report.
Rather, 2018 was a crest for trends building in the previous few years, as software and biotech companies that have already become household names raked in more capital, in expectation of quick sales and profits to come.
Investor interest last year was juiced by $120 billion that venture capitalists collected from companies they sold (that cash-in total hit similar levels in 2012 and 2014). That includes multibillion-dollar sales such as Microsoft’s $7.5 billion purchase of GitHub, the software development center, Cisco’s $2.5 billion purchase of Duo Security, and the October IPO of Anaplan, the California-based business software maker whose value has doubled to $4 billion since it went public last fall.
Philadelphia’s venture capital sector, once among the nation’s top 10, hasn’t fully recovered. State-backed Ben Franklin Technology Partners remains among the busiest funders of very-early-stage funds, with more than 60 investments last year, some for less than $1 million. But few of Ben Franklin’s prodigies have evolved into large companies.
There are smaller firms that focus partly on Philadelphia-area companies. But the most successful Philadelphia area company-investment firms of the last 20 years — LLR, founded by Ira Lubert’s partners, and NewSpring Ventures, led by Michael DiPiano, which each employ dozens of professionals — focus largely on later-stage companies and have made most of their investments outside the Philadelphia area. So has FirstRound Capital, an earlier-stage investor based like LLR in University City but operating largely in California and New York. FirstRound’s Josh Kopelman is board chairman of Philadelphia Media Network, which operates the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com.
Overall, the most valuable firms got more money last year, PitchBook found. One-third of the funds tracked by the report went to firms already valued at $1 billion or more. More than 60 percent of the money went into firms that raised at least $50 million, enough to fund significant operations. VC firms raised an additional $55 billion from investors, for future investments — the highest fund-raising year to date, according to the report.
The big sales of 2018 leave Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and Slack among the multibillion-dollar “unicorn” private companies that bankers and investors hope to take public through initial public stock offerings (IPOs) this year, with the ride-share firms hoping for values far above Facebook’s $16 billion 2012 IPO. That is, if the stock market, which stumbled late last year, stays high.
The most valuable venture-backed firm in Pennsylvania, Duolingo, the Pittsburgh-based language-learning app from which I have been unable to teach myself German verb tenses, was worth $700 million, according to an earlier PitchBook report. By contrast, California’s Uber is worth $72 billion, New York-based WeWork around $47 billion, and Boston’s Moderna Therapeutics $7 billion. Warren, N.J.-based Cellularity, the Garden State’s most valuable venture-backed firm, was worth around $480 million.
In an earlier report, PitchBook cautioned that some high-value unicorns aren’t likely to reward investors.
The blow-up of Theranos, the phony medical-testing company that had raised nearly $10 billion from some of Silicon Valley’s top names, shows the risk that venture capitalists can run even when they travel in packs with other experienced investors. There’s also the eclipse of Mozido, the Texas global telecom start-up backed by former mutual fund head Robert Turner and other Philadelphia-area investors, since its founder Michael Liberty was ordered to prison for campaign finance violations and accused by the SEC of fooling the agency to avoid paying back money he lost for state and city pension funds.
The report warned that the Trump administration has taken steps that could limit investments from China, for example making them subject to review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., which has turned down China-based investments in defense software makers, for example.
China-based capital has become important to Philadelphia-area biotech companies, with Ping An Ventures backing Carl June’s Tmunity Therapeutics gene therapy development company, among several other significant investments in Penn-affiliated biotech firms and their suppliers and contractors.