More and more large businesses are investing in innovative mid-market companies as a shortcut to R&D. For investees, corporate venturing can offer a stable route to accelerated growth.
London-based frozen yogurt brand Snog has been supplying people in the UK capital with an alternative to ice cream since 2009. When it launched, frozen yogurt was already a big hit in the US but relatively new in the UK. The brand, with its energetic colours and healthy ethos, caught the attention of consumer product giant Unilever, which invested £3 million into the business. Snog went on to open five new shops in 2013 and launched in national supermarket chain Waitrose a year later, expanding the business significantly and developing the product and brand along the way.
The concept of a large, established company investing in a smaller business, known as corporate venturing, has long been a way for big firms to tap into new technologies or bring in fresh ideas. For smaller businesses, it is a way to access finance and can be an attractive alternative to private equity or debt finance, which often has more stringent requirements that need to be met.
Corporate venturing is currently having a renaissance, partly because established industries and businesses are coming under increasing pressure from younger, disruptive businesses. “Fundamentally, corporate venturing comes down to large businesses wanting to access interesting intellectual property and business models in a rapidly changing market,” says Andy Morgan, head of corporate finance at Grant Thornton UK.
Benefits of corporate venturing
The large businesses that actively seek out these kinds of investments often set up a corporate venturing arm, which operates with its own budget and invests in promising smaller firms. One of the largest examples of corporate venturing is Intel Capital. Since 1991, it has invested $11.7 billion in 1,445 companies in 57 different countries. Other notable corporate venture businesses are Google’s GV and GlaxoSmithKline’s SR One.
“The biggest sectors for corporate venturing are technology, pharmaceuticals and telecoms, where buying into a smaller company is a more effective way of outsourcing research and development,” says Nick Hawkins, growth finance executive at Grant Thornton UK. “It can also act as an insurance policy for corporates who could be threatened by disruptive business models – by taking stakes in lots of these smaller companies, the corporate is hedging its bets.”
There are many benefits for small companies in taking this kind of investment. Access to capital is the most obvious but by selling a small stake of your company to a larger business, you can gain access to the kind of expertise and resources that can help you to grow.
According to Hawkins, it can also be a more stable option than taking other kinds of investment: “Taking on private equity can be quite stressful as the investing company wants to get in, transform the company to drive value and then get out. There can be less pressure from a corporate.”
How to get started
For those considering corporate venturing as a way of financing, there are a number of avenues to find it. “Some businesses have websites which actively call for people to get in touch if they are interested in investment whereas others, such as Qualcomm Ventures, regularly host events where businesses can come and speak to it about applications,” says Hawkins.
When it comes to actually winning investment, relationships are important, as is building up a persuasive case as to why the corporate could benefit from owning a stake.
“Having a warm lead within the corporate is a good way of starting off,” explains Hawkins. “When you’re pitching, you need to focus on what the overall benefit to the investment firm will be. Each pitch needs to be unique, looking at the problems or gaps in the current offering that the corporate might be facing and how the smaller business can help to solve those.”
What to be aware of
Before any investment transaction takes place, both parties should ensure they know how the partnership will be run. Being clear about what each side is expecting can help to avoid problems down the line.
“Where these deals often fall down is in a mismatch in expectations,” says Morgan. “Most large corporates have reasonably sized portfolios and have no desire to actually run the businesses they invest in. But there will probably be some reporting requirements and it’s important to know how the smaller company can get access to things like the sales channels and distribution networks of the larger business.”
It’s also wise to understand what your investor’s long-term strategy is. Some corporates eventually buy the invested-in companies outright – Google did this with smart alarm firm Nest – but equally, they might sell the stake on to another interested party.
“I think we’re in an interesting situation, where business models are changing so quickly and the time it takes to bring a new product or initiative to market is getting shorter,” says Morgan. “I only see further growth in corporate venturing as corporates need to have visibility of what will be the next big thing.”