‘This Is Like Watching A Slow-Motion Plane Crash’: Venture Capitalists Wonder Which Portfolio Companies Will Make It

Written by Dana Sanchez
VC funds could bear the brunt of COVID-19 in 2021. That means startup founders will struggle even more than usual to raise venture capital. An exception is startups in the space industry.

With $15 billion in venture capital raised in just the first quarter, 2020 is expected to be “not insignificant” for fundraising, but 2021 could bear the brunt of this year’s coronavirus outbreak.

That means startup founders will struggle even more than usual to raise VC funds.

One possible exception is startups in the space industry. Frozen private capital has led U.S. civil and military agencies to step up or accelerate funding to space companies during the coronavirus crisis, CNBC reported.

Don’t expect an IPO anytime soon, said Beezer Clarkson, Sapphire Ventures managing director, in an interview with The Information.

Clarkson, whose firm is a limited partner in VC funds including Union Square Ventures and Data Collective, says venture investors are looking at their companies and wondering which of them are going to make it. Limited partners will go through the same process with their funds, but later, she said. 

Since March, uncertainty about the coronavirus and its economic consequences have caused a tipping point and market crash. This has affected VC in two ways, said Joseph G. Hadzima, Jr., a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan. “It slowed commitments to VC funds that were in the fundraising stage, and it caused VCs to assess the financial conditions of their portfolio companies.”

Venture capital is a long game. It can take years — 10 to 15 years for successful companies — for a venture capitalist to see an investment through, especially in early-stage investing, according to Larry Bohn, a managing director at General Catalyst.

“While the average time to exit is eight years, the early exits are often companies that fail,” Bohn said. “The successful companies take a meaningfully longer time to grow and be successful. The thing about this business is it’s sort of like watching a long movie, and you can’t get out of your seat. You have to have a lot of patience and the ability to ride the ups and downs.”

With the industry now in the thick of COVID-19, Bohn described the mood as “pretty gloomy.” Companies are cutting costs to survive in an uncertain market. “It’s been mind-boggling how fast things have pivoted from a focus on growth to one of profitability and survival,” Bohn said.

Right now, a lot of VCs are going through the process of looking at their reserves and their companies and thinking which of them are going to make it, Clarkson said. “Who am I going to keep investing in and who may not make it? For LPs, it’s similar but it’s more slow motion,” Clarkson said. “Our next fund cycle may not be till 2022, so there’s a while before you have to make a decision. It’s more of a slow-motion plane crash.”

History of previous downturns has shown that there’s pressure on fund size and fewer people can raise large funds, Clarkson said. “Back in 2001 and 2002, people gave back money to LPs because they felt they couldn’t invest it and get the returns they said they would, but I don’t think we will see that. In ’08 and ’09, you didn’t see that, but you saw people taking longer to invest their funds. I don’t think venture is ending by any stretch. I think it’s just going to be tougher and…more pressure will be put on the system.”

Don’t expect to see IPO activity anytime soon, Clarkson said.

“If the conversation is, ‘How do you (do an) IPO in a recession?’ the world knows how to respond to that,” she said. “But the bigger question—’How do you (do an) IPO when people are (in) shelter in place?’—is much harder to answer.”  

But back to Q1 of 2020, when $15 billion in venture capital was raised. U.S. equity investment in space companies totaled $5.4 billion across 36 deals in the first quarter, according to a report Friday by NYC-based firm Space Capital. The second quarter is likely to just see a fraction of that investment, according to Chad Anderson, managing partner at Space Capital, in a CNBC interview.

Frozen private capital has led U.S. civil and military agencies to step up or accelerate funding to space companies during the coronavirus crisis. Brigadier General Steven Butow, head of the Defense Innovation Unit’s space portfolio, told CNBC his unit is looking to help space companies survive the crisis. DARPA also has money to pay contractors.

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“DIU is positioned to address new or expended prototype efforts involving commercial technology quickly,” Butow said.

Three types of satellite businesses are providing needed analysis to combat the coronavirus pandemic, Anderson said: Geospatial intelligence (companies monitoring the Earth through imagery to help analyze the macroeconomic effects of the virus); GPS (tracking the movement of people) and satellite communications (helping people continue to work remotely and help doctors provide telemedicine.)

“We expect these segments of the space economy to adapt, and potentially even thrive, over the next year,” Anderson said.