The Center for Innovative Technology GAP Funds cemented its mantle as one of the region’s most active early-stage investment groups earlier this month when the number of companies in its portfolio surpassed 100.
That marks a rapid pace of investment for any organization that’s not even a decade old, but it’s particularly notable since a majority of those deals have come in just the past four years.
In that time, Virginia’s lawmakers have ramped up financial support for the funds and their mission of investing in technology, life sciences and clean technology companies around the state.
From 2005 to 2009, CIT GAP Funds was allocated roughly $500,000 in each year’s budget — enough money to make just a handful of deals. In subsequent fiscal years, however, that number has climbed to $1.5 million in 2010, $2 million in 2011, $5 million in 2012 and $4.2 million last year.
“They do get what the fund is about and what we’re trying to achieve. The commonwealth as an entity focused right now on economic development is very strongly stepping up its interest and investment in high-growth entrepreneurship. Most of that centers around technology,” CIT’s chief executive Pete Jobse said.
But when it comes to economic development, venture capital investments are a gamble. A state-sponsored fund can pour thousands of taxpayer dollars into a company that may never take off or even stay in business.
Still, a number of government entities are taking the risk in hopes at least some of the start-ups will blossom into big businesses with hordes of tax-paying employees. Those deals could also yield a financial return if the fund eventually cashes out on its investment.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) pushed an economic development initiative called InvestMaryland through that state’s legislature a few years back. That program provided $84 million to invest in high-growth companies.
The District, under Mayor Vincent Gray (D), debuted in March Digital DC, a program that will dole out $1 million in grants to technology companies that set up shop in a designated corridor along Seventh Street NW.
Jobse acknowledges the risks associated with betting on any company, particularly those in their earliest stages. But if a government wants to attract entrepreneurs and the private investors who back them, sometimes it needs to take the first step, he said.
“When something does not exist and you desire to change it from an economic development standpoint, you have to take a step toward risk mitigation. That’s what the GAP Fund does,” Jobse said.
CIT GAP Funds states that the $13 million it has invested to date have attracted more than $200 million in private capital, such as venture capitalists who provide additional money to its companies as they grow.
What’s more, the vast majority of its portfolio companies remain in business. Of the 106 firms in its portfolio, 82 are still active, 14 have been acquired or gone public, and 10 are closed or in the process of doing so.
As the organization looks ahead, Managing Director Tom Weithman said CIT GAP Funds will likely identify specific categories of technology where it seems opportunity to create an industry hub in Virginia. Its first foray into that strategy, MACH37, invests exclusively in cybersecurity companies.
“The core mission is to fund new companies and provide the scarce resources to companies that merit it but wouldn’t otherwise be able to get it,” he said.