Good ideas and money don't always find each other.
That's true especially as investors have become skittish about technology companies. And it's a problem particularly in the biotechnology industry, where even the most promising concepts are difficult to prove and can take years to reach a commercial market.
The finance people often meet the vision people through a secret club of "connectors," namely lawyers, accountants and bankers who introduce fledgling firms to potential funders such as corporations and private equity funds. A proliferation of venture "fairs" brought some unknowns out of the woodwork. Now, in tougher times when it's harder for entrepreneurs to attract money, networkers are going professional and becoming entrepreneurs themselves.
Take Frank Young, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, who has come up with his own company that plays matchmaker between small biotech companies and larger businesses that would finance and serve as strategic allies to the newer firms.
The Cosmos Alliance, based in Washington, began quietly in August as an invitation-only investment club and has just brokered its first deals. Young found that growing biotech companies had no idea how to approach larger firms, and the big funders wondered how to locate relatively low-risk deals with promising companies.
Cosmos is so named because early meetings took place at the exclusive Cosmos Club in Washington, and because it sounds scientific and far-reaching.
But it takes more than an invitation to get you into the Cosmos Alliance. Companies seeking investors first pay a small fee for Cosmos to do due diligence -- to check out a company's technology and financials. Once accepted, a company pays a full fee in the "tens of thousands" of dollars, says Young, to get introductions.
The companies on the other side, the funders, also pay a fee in the tens of thousands of dollars, although it's a smaller number, he says. Cosmos is owned by Young and a few other private individuals. Unlike a traditional venture capital fund, however, Cosmos doesn't make more money if the company is successful, or lose it if it goes bust.
The Cosmos system has worked for four firms so far: Panacea Pharmaceuticals of Gaithersburg; Sensatex of New York; EluSys Therapeutics of Pine Brook, N.J.; and Acugen Neuropeutics of Seattle. The four received a total of $6.5 million, although Cosmos would not break down how much each company got or say which big firms put up the money. That part -- the secrecy -- is standard procedure in the venture capital game, where little information tends to be made public.
The idea seems logical but almost desperate. If a company is so good, shouldn't it be able to find funding on its own? (Of course, the same could be said about people who subscribe to dating services.)
The answer is, not always. Venture capital firms have been particularly leery of investing in biotech companies because the VC managers often don't have the expertise to vet the technology, and because they see the company's life cycle as taking too long for a return on investment. Companies without biotech expertise are often unwilling to invest in businesses they personally can't test. And on both sides, meeting the right potential partners can be difficult.
"No matter how good you are, you need introductions," says Hossein Ghanbari, chairman and chief executive of Panacea, one of the first companies to receive funding through Cosmos. Panacea was working hard on its business but had no friends at big companies. "We'd be a lone drummer to talk about ourselves all the time," Ghanbari says.
Ghanbari also says these partnerships give his firm a legitimacy that might help attract other financing and deals. "This helps us shine."
In choosing clients, Young says he's looking for breakthrough technology, a strong patent and a good management team. So far, Cosmos has signed up eight smaller technology companies and is evaluating three more. It also counts as members four larger firms and is considering six others.
"The aim is to build new businesses," he says. "Many of the new technologies flounder and burn capital. This is designed to mentor and shepherd."
Young has no qualms about being opportunistic, making money in a down market.
"This is a wonderful time," he says. "Another two years of recession would be wonderful for us."
There is no guarantee, of course, that a company, once it puts up the initial fee, will eventually get funded. But in today's environment, some are willing to pay for the chance.
Shannon Henry's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.