Venture Capital Industry Increasingly a World of Haves and Have-nots

Cash MoneyEver since the global stock meltdown of 2008, talk has simmered that the venture capital industry is headed for a shakeout that will result in fewer firms to fund startups.

But even as new numbers from the National Venture Capital Association show further evidence of consolidation, it?s increasingly clear this will be a quiet revolution, not a bloodletting.

?Venture firms don?t really die,? said Ashmeet Sidana of Foundation Capital in Menlo Park, Calif. ?They just fade away.?

With the pension funds and endowments that invest in venture firms becoming more choosy, many VCs are using a variety of tactics to stay afloat until ? they hope ? the stock markets become more receptive to initial public offerings. IPOs are a key route for venture firms to cash out their investments and, in turn, raise new funds.

For now, said Tracy Lefteroff, who heads the venture capital practice for PricewaterhouseCoopers, the landscape is becoming one of haves and have-nots. ?The top 20 firms,? he said, ?provide 80 percent of the returns for the venture market.?

The venture capital association estimates that since 2008, the number of active U.S. venture firms ? which swelled during the Internet bubble ? has dropped 15 percent to 462. Given investor wariness, the NVCA predicts that number will continue to shrink.

Many of the firms that remain will have less money to deploy and fewer venture capitalists to deploy it. ?It will be harder to get funding,? said Dana Stalder of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Matrix Capital.

And while that might mean fewer ?copycat? startups attempting to ride on the coattails of successful firms, it also means fewer jobs and less disposable income in places where startups are concentrated, such as the San Francisco Bay Area.

A new report from the NVCA and a separate one from Dow Jones LP Source both reflect the consolidation trend: While the amount of money raised by VC firms last year exceeded that of 2010, it was raised by fewer firms. In the most recent quarter, the venture capital association reported, only 38 venture firms successfully raised money ? the lowest number in more than two years ? but they raked in $5.6 billion, more than double the industry-wide haul during the third quarter. The rich, in effect, are getting richer.

The rush to embrace big-name VCs reflects how lousy financial returns for the venture industry have been in the past decade. The California Public Employees Retirement System, for instance, has seen the value of its venture capital portfolio plunge by nearly $1 billion. As a result, the pension fund announced in November that it will slash the percentage of its portfolio that?s dedicated to venture investing.

The same holds true at the California State Teachers Retirement System, where spokesman Ricardo Duran said: ?What little venture investing we?re doing is going into fewer, more established partners.?

University endowments have taken it even harder on the chin. Stanford University?s plunged more than 26 percent during the 2009 fiscal year, shedding $4.6 billion as the global credit crunch toppled stock markets. Harvard University?s endowment lost more than 27 percent over the same period; Yale University?s, which was one of the first to invest in venture capital, lost almost 25 percent.

Although returns have recovered somewhat for the mega-institutions, ?If you?re a venture fund that depends on endowments, it might take a little longer to raise that next fund,? said Deepak Kamra of Canaan Partners.

Canaan just closed a $600 million investment pot, and Kamra said the firm was able to do so because several of its portfolio companies went public or were acquired in the past two years. ?That?s the key in today?s market: ?Show us the money,? ? he said.