The annual venture capital numbers are in. Venture-backed businesses saw almost $75 billion of investment in 2015, including corporate venture investing — the second-largest annual amount in this category. The bigger story, however, is how much the venture market will change this year.
Despite the record investment amount, the national market showed a significant slowdown in new investments in the fourth quarter. Investors are concerned about the state of the macro economy and the less-than-successful performance of a number of tech-related initial public offerings, and some wonder whether the growing number of venture-backed $1 billion “unicorns” will find their way to an exit for their investors.
While later-stage investment trends were adversely affected by broader market concerns, the early and seed stages enjoyed continued momentum. Nationally, seed and early-stage deal sizes increased and deals continued to occur at a solid pace.
The venture capital market now looks to me like a freight train derailment. The locomotive is off the tracks, and the end of train is still hurtling along at a nice pace as if all is well. You know how that story will end, but perhaps the folks in the caboose don’t yet know.
Nationally, the venture market appears to be ending a cycle of growth — particularly when it comes to consumer Internet software and mobile apps. But what will happen next? Will seed and early-stage funding also become harder to get for these companies? Over time, a slowdown in later-stage funding should also create more caution in earlier-stage investing — either because later-stage funding can’t be taken for granted, or because start-ups will attempt to grow without needing more capital. However, a historically large number of seed and early-stage venture capital funds have been raised, and they will need to deploy their cash over the next few years.
What is disconcerting to me is that the structural imbalance in supply — there were already too many later-stage companies lining up for the public market — started to cause concerns about later-stage exits before the current macroeconomic upset about China and oil prices. I believe current concerns about China and oil are overstated when it concerns the U.S. equity markets, and ultimately the United States will benefit more from these trends than currently expected. Some would argue, therefore, that the venture capital market will return to the investment conditions of mid-2015, and all will be well. I do not agree.
I believe we are in fact entering a period of change in the venture market, and that the cycle of opportunity will be shifting to new industrial sectors. The venture market and the exit markets are driven by fashion and momentum. Once a sector loses its glow, it’s hard to recover. Markets move on and new trends are sought.
I believe that the new trends will be found where the customers are, with revenue and the opportunity to capture a dominant position in new markets. Accordingly, I feel more bullish on the greater Washington region’s venture market than I have for a while.
The 2015 numbers also show the region received more than 2 percent of aggregate venture capital, which is up from last year. However, what strikes me are the types of companies that gathered much of that money: they operate in industries such as cybersecurity and healthcare where our companies build upon our region’s strengths.
As the venture capital market begins to look for the next big things, many of the emerging industries that they will likely pursue will increase demand for cybersecurity and data analytics. And the convergence of digital and physical sciences in healthcare is also likely to benefit from the emerging trend of precision medicine. I expect these trends to unfold the advantages of locating in the D.C. region, and that the talent of our innovators will attract more capital and resources.
This could be a better year for venture in the D.C. region than many currently expect. We need to focus on what we do well, and spread the word.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, an Arlington-based organization that seeks to connect innovators to government agencies. He is host of “Forward Thinking Radio” on SiriusXM, a business and policy program, and lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.