Here’s my attempt to summarising the investment ecosystem for hardware startups (with my European bias, but it does seem to be a similar position in the US). It’s based on what I saw and heard at the Invest in Photonics (photonics is lasers, displays, LEDs, etc.) conference recently in France, plus my own experience as an angel investor in several Swiss hardware startups.
On the face of it, it’s all very contradictory. For example, in the same presentation at Invest in Photonics a US VC said:
- Optics + IT will save more lives than doctors.
- VCs won’t invest in the hard part (the optics).
The discussions, presentations & roundtables at the conference did provide some logic to this. VCs get a better return on investing money in software, so they focus on that. Hard stuff is just too hard for VCs to finance and to get a return comparable with software. If they do invest in hardware then it’s startups who are mostly just packaging up components and building a brand – eg. Occulus Rift, Nest, GoPro, etc. or, occasionally materials.
In addition to the lack of proven returns is another less-obvious issue: traditional VCs don’t have the network to do proper due diligence on most hardware startups. Doing DD involves getting actionable data on the market, how it is going to evolve, what the completion will look like and which tech is going to win out. Only industry insiders have this. A VC can’t act on the limited data that he can get hold of.
Even European success stories like Novaled’s recent exit (to Samsung) for 260M EUR hasn’t change the VCs’ lack of interest. The general consensus from speakers & panels (including Novaled’s outgoing CEO) is that it’s got even more difficult to finance hardware startups the last few years.
Most of the advice was pointing to this strategy for startups:
- raise initial funding from a combination of government grants & angels.
- be very capital efficient
- raise follow on from Corporate VCs and/or family offices.
Wellington Partners said they see all photonics fundraising post-series-A coming from family offices (what they call “unconventional sources”). But it’s not that simple – matching a family office to a deal can’t be done systematically – it has to be opportunistic networking on a case by case basis.
Corporate VCs also seem to be getting involved at a late stage and filing some of the void of traditional VCs (my guess is at this later stage they can do the due diligence that traditional VCs can’t). The general feeling is that getting a corporate VC onboard works well unless there’s a conflict over strategy between the startup and the corporate VC, therefore a corporate VC who operates independently of the mother ship should be best.
All this uncertainty in the investment ecosystem means that the initial investors have to expect that there is a high probability that they will have to lead the follow-on investing all the way until the startup reaches break even. And the new normal is the hardware CEO is always in full-time fundraising mode. Although for really exceptional startups it can be a lot easier than all this.
And finally: although financing hardware innovation is a bit pessimistic, the technology continues to advance. In the near future Airbus thinks we’ll see drones powered from laser beams on the ground and other fun stuff!