Who needs risk <br /> capital anyway?

Who needs risk capital anyway?

The Pittsburgh Business Times ran an interview this past Friday featuring Kit Needham (subscription required), a former colleague at the Allegheny Conference who is now: running her own consulting firm; working as a senior advisor at CMU’s Project Olympus (described as “bridging the gap between cutting-edge university research/innovation and economy-promoting commercialization for the benefit of our communities”); and serving as educational coordinator for Blue Tree Allied Angels, a network of local angel investors. There is no doubt that she has dedicated countless hours to the entrepreneurial community over the years.

In the article, she discusses her own investment strategy, which seems to be directly at odds with her advocacy for early-stage businesses. To quote Ms. Needham:

“It’s so hard to pick the winners and what I’ve learned is, I can’t pick winners,” said Needham, who also runs her own firm, Needham Consulting, and has worked for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development and what is now BNY Mellon.

“I learned I just didn’t have the time or, really, the commitment to spend the time to do a good job of this,” she said. “I am not keen on relatively illiquid investments.” (Emphasis mine.)

The article goes on to explain how she came to her investment strategy, which she described as a “proven sets of rules to build and preserve client’s wealth.” She broadly outlines her methods and the success she’s had (roughly 4% five-year return vs. S&P’s 0.99%).

For the record, I don’t fault anyone for a low-risk investment strategy that relies on mutual funds and stocks. Everyone has a different risk tolerance, which should be taken into account when pulling together a wealth-building strategy. Diversification is great. We should all aspire to structure our investments in a way that minimizes losses.

BUT, isn’t it concerning that someone so deeply entrenched in the entrepreneurial community can’t find space in her portfolio to directly invest in a local start-up? Sure, I could see where she might be reluctant to invest because of a potential conflict of interest, e.g. there’s an opportunity for personal profit if she provides advice relating to a company in which she’s invested. However, it seems counter-intuitive that someone who’s so directly involved in commercializing technology and guiding the funding of risky ventures admits that she can’t pick winners and isn’t keen on illiquid investments.

The oft-heard complaint in Pittsburgh is that we don’t have enough risk capital. I’ve heard great arguments from the various sides — some believe that VCs and angel investors are too risk-averse and let good companies flounder, others think there aren’t enough good deals worth funding, still others think that there’s plenty of risk capital in the region. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, can entrepreneurs get a fair hearing when someone who can’t handle the risk of a start-up is advising critical early-stage-oriented organizations? Finally, why would she publicly admit that she’s uninterested in risky ventures given her role?

I perceive that getting funded in Pittsburgh can be a challenge. While I’ve had the chance to help successfully pitch to an angel investor, our funding came from a close contact of one of the company’s founders who isn’t involved in the local angel community. As a result, we were fortunate to bypass the standard pitch-your-ass-off process that most start-up companies have to endure. Perhaps I’m over-reacting to a one-off PBT article, but if the folks influencing investment into our regional start-up companies can’t bring themselves to invest in these companies, then I can’t see how the money tree is going to be shake loose new money any time soon.