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Running a successful Actuator, accelerator, incubator or similar early stage investment program requires finding the sweet spot where three sets of economics overlap: those of the early stage entrepreneurial ventures, the investors that support the ecosystem, and the actuator itself.
The economics for early stage entrepreneurial ventures is conceptually fairly straightforward: when does the cash run out, and can I raise enough money before then to keep the company going? In the vernacular, this is the “runway”…how much runway do I have left. And the job of the early-stage CEO is almost always heavily tilted towards fundraising.
Two things make this more palatable. First, a successful accelerator will already include a number of investors in the ecosystem, and the program itself will help the entrepreneur better understand who to approach for funding, how and why. Second (the economic carrot in this plot) is the proverbial “exit.” At some point a successful early stage company starts selling enough product that somebody thinks the company has a great future, or the people are worth collaborating with, or the product is a good strategic fit. At that point they may buy the company, do an “acqui-hire,” or put in enough money that they bring in some new people to help run the company. Oh yes, and occasionally things can even appear so successful that they start selling stock to the public: the IPO.
Investor economics are also similarly straightforward: investors are always looking for good (or great) returns based on the amount of risk they take. Early stage investors make very risky investments, and so expect very good returns for their money. How risky? Well, the attached chart shows that roughly half of all venture investments lose money while only 5% generate about 1/3 of the total returns; not necessarily where people want to put the bulk of their retirement funds, for example.
On the West Coast this has in part led to the great Unicorn hunt, with big money trying to find or create the 1% of that 5% that turns into something like Facebook or the Snap IPO. But it does take big money; if 0.05% of your investments turn into unicorns, $1M investment per attempt takes $2B of investment capital. Things are a little more conservative on the East Coast, and the above chart also shows that half the returns come from investments that yield 2X to 5X the invested capital. And early seed round investments are more like $50K or $100K instead of $1M, meaning that this scales to be a feasible investment strategy for people with high risk tolerance but not quite as much investable capital as Silicon Valley.
For individual investors in this category finding a stream of suitable investments and assessing the risk of each one is a daunting challenge. However the Actuator plays an important role here as well, since a significant part of Actuator activity revolves around creating and evaluating a flow of interesting companies, and reducing the risk of those companies surviving and reaching market. This intermediary role for an accelerator in both reducing risk and matching investors and entrepreneurs is one of the characteristics that can make them so effective.
What about the Actuator economics? To understand that, these entities are best viewed as startup ventures themselves. The ones we have worked with around the country generally have operating costs in the range of $1M – $5M per year, accounting for salaries, facility and other associated operational costs. Where does that money come from? For many it comes from grants, or community or University funding, legislative appropriations or sponsorships, and these sources are critical for establishing and maintaining a program in the early stages.
But is there at least a conceptual model that would minimize or eliminate the need for these external funding sources over time? Yes, and it is very analogous to a startup gaining enough product traction to be self-sustaining on the basis of revenue generated from product sales. The “product” that accelerators “sell” is investment opportunity in early stage ventures. The quality of that product is directly tied to the quality of the incoming ventures as well as the ability of the accelerator to reduce the risk of those investments through mentoring and interaction with a robust ecosystem.
One self-sustaining economic model uses equity investment returns of the accelerator to pay for operating costs, as shown in the figure. It takes 4-7 years or more to realize the value of these investments; the model assumes 5 years. It also assumes $2M/yr operating costs, a dozen investments of $50K per year ($600K total), and a distribution of outcomes consistent with those shown above. So after 5 years, 1/3 (four) of these companies are likely to have failed, we assume four generate 2X ($100K) returns, three generate 5X ($250K) returns, and one generates a 40X ($2M) return. Note that if your initial $50K investment was in exchange for 8% equity and no dilution occurs in between, the company value would need to be $25M for your piece to be worth $2M. As the economic model chart shows, under these somewhat optimistic assumptions (and assuming you can repeat this success year after year) the model can become self-sustaining.
While this is a challenging model, it is also helped by the fact that there are a number of secondary benefits that entice external groups to help defray some of the costs. For later stage investment groups this private source of vetted deal flow is attractive. For Universities the ties to entrepreneurship curricula make it a reasonable extension of those efforts. Opportunities for economic growth often entice legislatures, and strategic Corporate partners may see sponsorship an an inexpensive way to find strategically relevant innovative technologies.
Creating and sustaining a successful accelerator-type program requires the ability to thread the needle in a way that meets the economic imperatives of three major stakeholder groups: the entrepreneurs, the investors, and the accelerator itself. No wonder that many of these programs do not survive when the initial funding runs out. CIT has been fortunate to have both a successful investment experience with early stage ventures over many years, and much better than average outcomes in running accelerator programs directly. This proven success plus great partners, good timing, and a great environment for building business ecosystems is what will help ensure the success of our new Smart City Works Actuator.
Next (Thursday 3/9): Will the Smart Cities Actuator Make Me a Gazillionaire?