I’ve noticed that there are two schools of thought in Pittsburgh about the availability of risk capital and the lack of funds going into local start-ups. The first is that there are some very good deals in Pittsburgh, and there is precious little lower-level risk capital ($500k-$2M), and blame generally falls on the nearly impossible standards set by the local VCs/Angels. The second is that there is plenty of money out there and that money and finds great deals no matter what, inferring that the issue isn’t money, it’s the companies coming out of the region.
As someone who has worked on a project that got an Angel round (and some subsequent cash infusions), I can understand the difficulty in finding that money and, as a result, I’m a bit biased. Looking at the landscape, I believe that there are some very intriguing companies/technologies coming out of our colleges, universities and innovative entrepreneurs, and that should be supported. Obviously, I’m not alone — the Pennsylvania government and local foundations infuse local organizations with capital that is then extended to these companies. However, when those companies have grown out of the alpha stage and to a point where they’re ready to start beta testing in real-world environments, are they the quality deals that attract VC investment? Is Pittsburgh’s risk tolerance unusually low?
My guess is that our VC community isn’t much unlike others around the country. I’d also guess that Pittsburgh has similar state-level resources to other areas and, perhaps a little more. What I don’t think we have is an ecosystem — a critical mass of successful entrepreneurs that have cashed out for several million and immediately feel the responsibility to return the favor to other hungry entrepreneurs. The cities most often cited as models for the ecosystem — Silicon Valley, Boston, etc. — have earned that reputation honestly, but have taken decades to build that ecosystem. As one local VC said to me, “they weren’t built overnight, and we won’t be either.”
But, I think we’re getting there. There is a lot of energy in this community and, I suspect, additional resources will be devoted to not only supporting these companies, but helping to create that ecosystem that is critically important. I also believe that we need to do a little marketing to the outside world, showing off some of the companies that are making a difference. Would engaging other cities’ communities help facilitate some cash inflow by introducing their financiers to our companies? Would connecting with the diaspora help us to bring some of that money back to Pittsburgh? I think it would.
In the end, almost any money is good money, no matter where it comes from. Would I like to see more low-level risk capital? Of course. But, until we have a critical mass that can support some of these good-to-very-good deals (as opposed to great deals), we’re going to struggle to fund these companies. Should the state take a more active role? How do we get this done in a down economy? And, what are the best way to keep these companies fed in the meantime?