Plenty of seed capital flying about

Mon, Aug 13, 2012, 01:00

There is plenty of early stage funding available for Irish start-ups but securing it isn’t easy

IT’S A PECULIAR irony of the current credit environment. On the one hand, established businesses looking to access funds to develop and grow – or just stay in business – are struggling to do so. On the other, start-ups – companies as yet unproven and untested – are finding that seed capital funding may never have been more plentiful than it is now.

Indeed last year, investment from angel investors jumped by 20 per cent, while Irish venture capital (VC) funds increased their investment by 43 per cent, up to €60 million, and there was an extra €27 million in seed capital funding set aside for Irish start-ups.

In total, start-ups can now access €124 million in seed capital funding, and as Orla Rimmington, operations director at Kernel Capital, which manages a seed capital fund for Bank of Ireland, says, things have never been so good. “There has never been more seed and early stage funding available for Irish start-ups; Enterprise Ireland has ensured that Ireland has one of Europe’s best funded VC industries.”

But while the money may be available, are companies succeeding in getting investment?

Tony Redmond is founder of RWorks, a company he set up in 2010 to produce a software system for managing outsourced workers. The company is in the early stages of generating revenue and like many start-ups, is in a race to avoid running out of cash. It’s in the market for an investment of €500,000, but Redmond says the process so far has been “incredibly difficult”.

In the early days, Redmond notes that the company funded itself, along with a grant from Enterprise Ireland, but has found moving to the next step challenging. “The state agencies are really, really good; but there’s a huge gap once you go past that,” he says. “It’s almost like no-one is willing to invest in you until you’re making money.”

In this regard, the arrival of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) in Ireland may be welcome for nascent companies. A major player in the US VC world, its major differentiating factor is that unlike other banks, it is prepared to lend to companies that are still in the pre-revenue stage – and it intends to invest €100 million in Irish-based firms over the next five years.

Indeed debt finance for start-ups – as opposed to the traditional equity stakes VC funds take – is something that the Irish tech sector would like to see more of.

For Paul Sweetman, director of ICT Ireland and the Irish Software Association (ISA), more funding sources will be needed to drive the sector forward. “Increasing the funding that’s available will be crucial to allow the sector to grow,” he says, adding that ISA has just set up a new working group, “Funding for Growth”, which will be focused on improving funding capabilities. This will involve getting greater support from the banking sector and examining products that the bank sector might offer young tech companies.

EI’s work with the Innovation Fund is also seeing more international VC funds setting up in Ireland. While Polaris’ Dogpatch Lab, for example, does not automatically offer investment to start-ups, it does provide a collaborative home for companies in their early days. And money often comes with the work-space, as Balcony TV can attest to, having recently raised $750,000 from Polaris, amongst others.

There are other further options out there, including business angels. According to Michael Culligan of the Halo Business Angel Network, about €12 million was invested by angels in Irish companies last year, and he expects this will be surpassed this year, with about €90 million waiting to be invested.

“We’re seeing increased angel activity this year than we’ve ever seen before,” he says, adding that investors are interested in sectors like technology, cleantech and medtech.

But success for a start-up might depend on finding someone that understands their business.

While RWorks got off the ground with the help of an angel investor, Redmond has found his recent experiences of pitching to investors “a complete waste of time”. “What you have are people who watch too much Dragons’ Den on the TV,” he says, pointing out that his experiences have involved people who have made some money on a property deal and are looking to invest, but don’t understand the company. “From our point of view, it’s quite a complicated concept (RWorks’ products) for the average man on the street to understand, unless they have an enterprise background.”

Indeed looking for investment from individuals can be fraught with difficulty.

RWorks has teamed up with a number of online marketplaces aimed at matching companies with investors, including Irish start-up

However, they have yielded little in the way of results. What they have yielded, says Redmond, is “a lot of cowboys”, particularly from putative international investors. “The big thing is you have to check out their bona fides. We had someone from Florida who said they were happy to put in €250,000 but they wanted us to fly over. So we looked at their address on Google Earth and it was for a car park!”

In this regard, it might be the traditional seed capital funds that offer the best hope for funding for Irish start-ups in the near future.

Having tried other routes to funding, RWorks for example is currently in talks with a number of Irish seed capital funds, with one “very interested”.

From Rimmington’s perspective, she notes that Kernel Capital has closed 20 investments so far this year, and she expects more to come.

“We at Kernel are seeing exceptionally high quality deal flow,” she says, adding that companies looking for investment should “ensure that they have been out in the market place they are seeking to sell into, understand the market dynamics and have validated the need for their offering”.

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