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Venture Capitalists Still in Business But More Cautious

By Carrie Johnson
Thursday, September 6, 2001; Page E01

By now, the cheeriest of high-tech denizens predicted, cash for new businesses would again flow freely and the Nasdaq Stock Market would be on the way back up.

Needless to say, that rosy view hasn't played out.

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Instead, the local tech community is bracing itself to close out the year in a decidedly unflashy fashion.

There's a new vocabulary to match. Conversations from Rockville to Reston are sprinkled with terms such as "hunker down," "focus" (as in your business ought to have one) and "recalibration" (lower those expectations).

When business will pick up is the subject of much chatter but little certainty.

"I don't think there's going to be anything over the next three months that's going to change," said Mark Ein, who invests in emerging companies through his Venturehouse Group in the District. "It's not hugely positive, but it's not hugely negative, either. It's going to take a little while."

John May, a venture capitalist at New Vantage Partners in Vienna, put it a bit more directly.

"2000 began with hubris," May said. "In 2001, we are learning humility. In 2002, we should see a return to normalcy and recovery."

That doesn't mean people are enduring the wait easily. It's tough for cash-strapped entrepreneurs to watch, for instance, as some big money shops sit on millions of uninvested dollars, even if it does mean there will be more money for survivors of the slowdown.

New Enterprise Associates had $2.3 billion -- with a "b" -- in one of its new accounts but has spent just 15 percent of the money, according to managing partner Peter Barris. Barris, who is based in Reston, said NEA's investment in new firms has dropped about 50 percent this year but still tops the company's investment rate of the mid-1990s.

"There's still a lot of money out there to be invested," said Anne Armstrong, president of the Center for Innovative Technology in Herndon. "But they're being more cautious about where they put it." They are putting more into companies already in their portfolios and investing in different kinds of businesses, chiefly the region's wireless, health-care and biotechnology upstarts.

"Money is available for quality companies," said George P. Stamas, vice chairman and managing director at Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown. "Software may rebound better than hardware and security seems to be mission-critical, but it's really tough to pick a particularly strong sector now."

In the past, the seven- to 15-year payback on a biotech investment felt interminable to funders, who could count on a much quicker initial public offering from tech businesses. Now, with most information technology start-ups pretty much precluded from IPOs or otherwise cashing out, biotech firms look more attractive, Armstrong said.

So do mergers.

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