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This is a student paper from the 2009 final projects in the NIH Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences’ TECH 366 — Biotechnology Management. The students were asked to tell a story based on the course lectures, and to expand with general lessons on biotechnology company management.

Financial opportunities for early stage biotech companies

Tammy Jones

One of the aspects of entrepreneurship that interests me is the process of early stage financing.  What are the options of financial backing and the advantages and disadvantages of these opportunities? There is a wide variety of financial support for early start-up companies.  The entrepreneur can obtain money through friends and family and him or herself.  Support is also available through Angel investors, incubators, Venture capital, federal and state funding. These investors are considered high risk investors because of their early stage involvement.  The company is high risk because the technology is in the development stage and there are no more academic resources this is also known as the “Valley of death”.   The investors fill in that financial gap so the company can remain productive in getting the product to market. The funding is allocated at different phases of the project. The money is not guaranteed from one phase to another.  To get to the next phase of funding, the company must show progress in the form of reports and also proof of concept.

Self and friends and family are the least recommended form of funding.  Because a return or a profitable return is not likely and a loss is guaranteed, friends and family are not a good alternative.  But sometimes it is the only alternative when your company does not interest other investors.  An example of this is Bonnie Robeson, founder of Spectrum Bioscience.  She used her own money and friends and family to partially fund her venture because her company did not have the appeal for big investors.

Incubators are programs that provide start-up companies with support in the way of resources, services and contacts.  Start-up companies that participate and complete the program are more likely to stay in business for the long term.  The incubator can provide space for very little rent.  They can also provide equipment, support staff and group rate for insurance which would help the company’s budget.  The amount of time the space is available is not indefinite, it usually is about 3 years and when the milestones are met for graduation.

Angel investors are another form of financing.  They are individuals that invest their own money and usually like to remain anonymous.  The funding usually ranges from $150,000 to $1.5 million. Angel investments are about $20 billion to $50 billion compared to $3-5 billion of venture capital investments per year in the U.S.  Angels expect a return in 5-10 years. The advantages of an angel investor are that it is easier to persuade an angel to invest in your company, due diligence is less involved and a lower rate of return is expected (smallbusinessnotes.com).  Our guest speaker, Ajoy Chakrabarti, senior director of Emergent Biosolutions, is an advocate for angel investors. He spoke about Angel groups which are individuals that pool their resources for investments.  They form groups in a certain specialized area.  This is good for a company in that specialized arena but it also means there will be more people to convince to buy in to your idea. Some feel angel groups are ad hoc VCs, because of the VC like behavior when dealing with entrepreneurial companies and they also have formed alliances of angel groups such as The Angel Capital Association and the Mid-Atlantic Investment Network were they exchange ideas and information.

Angels, as with other investors, expect certain things in return for their money and that ranges from a board position, weekly or quarterly reports, 5%-25% stake in the business.  They also request stock.  Some want the company’s convertible debt or redeemable preferred stock.  This is advantageous to the angel but not to the company because the company would have to repay the investment plus interest.  Angels may also request to be the first to opt out of the next round of financing and that the business can’t make certain decisions without approval of the Angel investor.  All of these requests are in part to protect their investment (smallbusinessnotes.com).

Technology Development Corporation (TEDCO) and the Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) are economic development organizations that provide state and federal funding to start-up companies.  TEDCO and CIT usually finance the company between phase I and II of the SBIR funding or when the SBIR ends completely and while the company is awaiting Angel or Venture capital resources.  TEDCO requires that the start-up have fewer than 16 employees and 50% of them must be employed in Maryland and the start-up is a university spin-off that is in business for less than 5 years and before the company sees a profit or it receives funding from other resources.    It awards up to $75,000 for early stage technology development.  The company is required to repay in the way of 3% of its revenue or 40% of the award over five years. Again, if there is a downturn in the economy, the repayment can be a problem.  The start-up company keeps the intellectual property and the commercialization rights of the technology when dealing with TEDCO (marylandtedco.org).  CIT offers business acquisition, commercial real estate financing, franchise financing, construction loans and business succession financing.  The amount of the loan is from $350,000-$10 million, financing up to 85%-90% and with terms up to 10-25 years (cit.com).

Federal funding is another avenue for a start-up company to obtain money. Government grant funding is given by way of the Small Business Administration through Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. SBIR and STTR programs are given through federal agencies with over $100 million and over $1 billion, respectively, in their extramural research and development budgets. Both programs require that the for profit business have 500 or fewer employees, be at least 51% individually owned and controlled in the United States.  The differences are that the SBIR requires the principle investigator be employed at the company at the time of the award and the duration of the project.  The principle investigator may be employed by the research institution or the company for the STTR award.  Also the STTR requires that there be a CRADA between the company and the research institution where 40% of the work is performed at the company and 30% of the work is performed at the research institution (sbir.gov). Both programs are very good for small business.  The programs award money for phase I and II.  The funding amount in phase I, which is dedicated just to research, is between $70,000-$150,000 for 6 months from SBIR and 12 months from STTR. Phase II is focused on research and development and the funding ranges from $750,000-$800,000 and in some instances $1 million.  Phase II bridge provides funding of $1 million/yr for 3 years and this is to fill in the financial gap between phase II to product commercialization.  The downside is that other aspects of the company such as the protecting and growing the company’s intellectual property are neglected.

Venture Capital (VC) provides funding to early stage biotechnology companies in late phase II and early phase III. Venture capital usually comes from institutional investors and high net worth individuals pooled together by investment firms such as Toucan Capital. The return usually comes in the form of IPO or sale of the company in 2-3 years.  This is seen as a disadvantage and quite stressful to some entrepreneurs who feel rushed into going public or selling their company.  Another disadvantage is the entrepreneur will no longer have 100% ownership of the company, the VC takes a percentage.  In order for a company to get the attention of a VC, the firm must believe that the company will operate in a billion dollar market and have potential to make $100 million in sales in five years and be sold for $400 million, the exit, (allbusiness.com).  Because of such high standards, many good start-up companies can’t get VC funding such as Spectrum Bioscience. It is a service company providing a much needed service and it doesn’t meet the criteria of a VC. Once the company has VC funding, an advantage of the funding is that it allows the business to expand and not be pigeonholed into just research and development.  The company also can get management support to guide the product to market.  Another is that it is not a loan that needs to be repaid.

Depending on the entrepreneur’s objective for the company, venture capital and federal funding are both good ways to get start-up money but because of the criteria to receive federal funding it is impossible to receive both simultaneously. If the company is 51% or more owned by VCs, then the company can’t qualify for federal funding, SBIR. Venture Capital has been at odds with the SBA for years because of the restrictions placed upon the grantee.  Venture Capital firms think this restriction is foolish and it adversely hurts the government and the tax payers because VCs are funding the more promising start-ups and the less promising start-ups are getting SBIR money.  This is perceived as such a problem by venture capital firms that the National Venture Capital Association and the Biotechnology Industry Organization got the House and Senate involved to change the restrictions (bostonvcbolg.typepad.com). As it stands currently, the house supports the VCs and the Senate favors some restrictions to VC owned companies (bizjournals.com).  An informal poll taken showed that about 80% of small companies were opposed to large VCs owning and controlling small businesses competing for SBIR funding (zyn.com). If this movement is successful, the question that comes the mind of many early stage companies seeking financial backing is will there be enough SBIR money available for non-VC funded start-up companies?  Jonathan Cohen, CEO of 20/20 Gene Systems, a guest speaker, is opposed to the elimination of the restrictions because VC funded companies would have an unfair advantage over early start-up companies. VC companies are more established and more likely to succeed and a company just starting out hasn’t had the opportunity to establish themselves and the SBIR funding is for that purpose.

The entrepreneur must know the criteria when dealing with these various finance opportunities. The entrepreneur/founder must know when and how much control they want to relinquish, as in running the company or the company going public when dealing with Venture Capital firms. Federal funding and Venture capital provide money that does not have to be repaid but the trade off is that the 51% requirement of both entities makes it difficult for the entrepreneur, leading to the SBIR, VC controversy.    Angel investors seem to be the more persuasive and lenient, even though they do have expectations, but as the economy tightens so does the angel investors’ money as well as the other investors.  The company must leave the Incubator after graduation or maybe before if the benchmarks are not achieved but the company has longevity after leaving. With TEDCO and CIT, the company has to repay the money but it can keep IP rights and ownership. The opportunities of early stage financing have its pros and cons attributed to them.  The entrepreneur must find what is appropriate for them.

For all the talk of the numerous biotechnology companies with mere months of cash left and the predictions of looming liquidations, mergers, and acquisitions, it is important to note that a measure of destruction can benefit industry progress.

Economy Joseph Schumpeter coined a term for industrial progress through destruction: creative destruction. In this process, growth occurs by the development of new companies, which develop new innovations and replace older companies.

Even mergers and acquisitions can drive progress, as they free seasoned executives from their former jobs. The story of Hybritech’s key role in the development of the San Diego biotechnology cluster is a case study of this kind of growth:

Creative Destruction: Hybritech's role in building the San Diego Biotechnology Cluster

Creative Destruction: Hybritech's role in building the San Diego Biotechnology Cluster

Source: Building Biotechnology

So, while the process of creative destruction may be painful for those who are employees or investors in the destroyed companies, it is a natural element of business cycles, and an essential part of driving progress.

Emergent biotechnology companies are very reliant on capital, often having less than two years capital on hand. Like other businesses with strong needs for cash, one would expect biotechnology companies to be adversely effected by a dearth of capital.

The biotechnology financial crisis and request for pass-forward tax breaks have been covered elsewhere; I’ve been looking for stories of who can benefit from the credit crunch.

While at the Mid-Atlantic BIO a few weeks ago I met a banker who seemed buoyed by the credit crisis. He said that the current environment is the first time in over a decade that he’s been in a position to make substantial loans to developing biotechnology companies. He explained that the relative abundance of private equity had previously prevented banks from being able to make loans on profitable terms, but with private equity being far less available, and a substantial federal mandate to make loans in sectors other than real estate, made for a very favorable environment. It’s worth noting, however, that I have yet to see clear evidence that banks are moving en mass into biotech loans.

For a second perspective, I posted a query regarding the impact of the financial crisis on businesses to the Journal of Commercial Biotechnology LinkedIn Group. It is important to note that there’s a strong bias here: individuals who have been displaced and moved to other industries are unlikely to respond, and those still in the industry and facing significant challenges are likewise unlikely to share their troubles publicly. With those biases in mind, the messages on the forum suggested mild changes such as suppliers increasing their vigilence on invoice payment, and hesitation among small and medium firms feeling the pressure of the credit crunch.

A group which stands to benefit from the financial crisis is large companies with strong cash flows. The ethical drug market tends to deliver substantial profits, with many drugs grossing more than $1 billion annually. To support future revenues these companies invest double-digit percentages of revenues in R&D; but they don’t have to. So, these profitable companies may be able to attenuate their R&D expenditures to accomodate fundraising challenges, and likewise license/purchase products from cash-starved development-stage firms at bargain rates. This notion is reinforced in the article, “Still Afloat.”

I’d like to expand my informal survey. Use the comments to answer the question: How is the current financial climate affecting your business?

On returning from a meeting with a small biotechnology firm in which I serve on the advisory board, I was reminded of a novel strategy for attracting venture capital.

One of the challenges is attracting investment is finding an investor aligned with your company’s future directions. Venture capitalists may be interested only in large companies, in small companies, in diagnostic firms, in drug development, etc. One of the challenges, and opportunities, for small firms, is that their future is very uncertain. This makes it difficult to decide how to pitch the company to potential investors, but it also makes it possible to pitch more than one version of the company.

Using a shotgun approach, it is possible to craft several business plans built a common set of resources, each aimed at a different kind of investor, and simultaneously pitch these different plans to appropriate VCs. The reality is that most investors will realize that there is a great deal of flexibility in the business plan, because there are so many unknown elements in a young company, and pitching more investors increases the likelihood of attracting an investment.