Shanghai Trip Report….

It only took a few days after I returned this weekend from China for my eyes to stop burning, and maybe the slight cough was really due to the changing seasons in Boston and not the air pollution in Shanghai (now I better understand the amenity in my hotel room – below). A small price to pay to witness the extraordinary commercial activity in what may well be the largest economy in the world sometime in the next decade. And what a fascinating time to be there – although maybe each time I go back I am at risk of thinking that that will be the most fascinating time to be there.

Gas Masks

Arguably the recently introduced reforms by Premier Li Keqiang have ushered in dramatic economic and political advancement. China has never appeared so confident, so assertive. Since late 2012 the systematic purging of corrupt corporate and government officials, undertaken to bolster the public’s confidence in the Communist Party, has led to some spectacular falls from grace. One hopes that increased economic freedoms might gradually lead to greater political freedoms (although as seen in Hong Kong these past few weeks, that does not yet appear to be the case – the October 10 China Daily editorial was titled “HK Protesters Have No Valid Grievances”). Ironically the intense focus on rooting out corruption may also be contributing to slowing economic growth as Premier Li is dependent on those same government bureaucrats to implement his economic agenda, – and many are undoubtedly quite distracted (worried) now.

Having grown up in Hong Kong I have been fascinated for many years with the dramatic ascendancy of China; in my lifetime nearly 25% of the world’s population will have “come of age” – perhaps capped off with the IPO of Alibaba last month, now one of the largest internet companies in the world. But this economic engine requires significant growth and worrying signs are now quite evident. While the official GDP growth rate target for 2014 is 7.5% (analysts worry that growth below 7.0% will cause reforms to stall out), the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences announced last week that it forecasts growth to be 7.3% this year. Storm clouds are building. Other data points – some of which were reported in the China Daily newspaper last week.

  • Two of the four largest commercial banks in China cut rates to spur mortgage lending. It is quite clear that China has a real estate “issue” – year-to-date through August 2014 home sales dropped 11%. And real estate is estimated to be ~25% of the Chinese economy.
  • Related news: the Central Bank of China cut reserve rates for the second time in the last 30 days to 3.4% to spur borrowing.
  • China experienced the greatest monthly steel export boom last month (up 73% year-over-year) due to soft local demand and perhaps indicating that Chinese steel is being dumped onto the global market – watch for a US protectionist backlash.
  • Car sales in China rose at the slowest monthly pace in September over the past 19 months, increasing 2.5%, down from ~20% last year.

While I was there Barclays Research issued an analysis of state-owned companies which underscored the depth of the economic exposure the Communist Party is confronting. More than 25% of state-owned companies lost money in 2013 (as compared to 10% of private companies); the return on equity was calculated to be less than 5% for state-owned enterprises (vs 14% for private). Just to complete the thought, return on assets – also 5% for state-owned as opposed to 9% for private companies. Clearly there is a significant amount of “unproductive” capital still tied up in the Chinese economy which has led to a dramatic decline in listed equities for state-owned companies in the last 30 days (often times declines of greater than 20%).

So what I find so fascinating is watching the Chinese government manage this colossus to a more private capitalist system. This will be one of the greatest transference of asset ownership from collective to private status in the history of mankind – perhaps a little grandiose but the point still stands. Just this past week alone there were a series of developments which underscore this rapid pace of change – easy to dismiss any one of them, but when viewed collectively a clear pattern emerges.

  • The 2014 Report on Foreign Investment in China, issued by the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing (20 years ago it would have been hard to imagine that such an entity would even exist) determined that there was $118 billion of foreign direct investment in 2013 in country, of which $62 billion was in the services sector (up 14% year-over-year). There is a clear rotation away from manufacturing investment by foreigners in China.
  • German Chancellor Merkel welcomed Premier Li in Berlin last week and announced 110 new cooperation and investment agreements aggregating to $18 billion in value. In the midst of all that fanfare, four leading German “economic institutes” announced that German GDP would grow 1.2% in 2015 – which is awkward when your guest is nervous about 7.3%.
  • After Germany, Premier Li spent three days in Russia signing only 40 agreements. Obviously Russia is anxiously tilting toward China as the rest of the world shuns the Kremlin – which further bolsters China’s role as a Super Power.
  • The Chinese seem to be on a US “shopping spree” – the $2 billion acquisition of the Waldorf Hotel in New York City was announced last week. The Rhodium Group estimated that another $10 billion of acquisitions would be announced shortly.

And given my professional interest in healthcare, I focused intently on developments in that sector, which were everywhere last week.

  • It was announced last week in Beijing that foreign entities can now directly invest and operate joint venture hospitals in China, while Hong Kong and Macau based investors can own and operate hospitals outright in certain selected cities. This was confirmed with great excitement by senior hospital executives I met with while in Shanghai.
  • The local healthcare issues are significant. Cities outside of Beijing in northern China reported air quality levels 20x worse than healthy levels. In Beijing on Saturday PM 2.5 pollution particles measured over 500 micrograms per cubic meter of air – that should really be closer to single digits.
  • It was World Mental Health Day (October 10) while I was there. The China Daily reported that the 6,910 mental health specialists in Beijing were overwhelmed treating the over 50,000 patients (didn’t strike me as all that bad until I read on…). The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated – wait for it – that there are over 100 million people in China with mental health “problems” of which 16 million were classified as with “very worrying conditions.”
  • Ebola was referenced but seemed to be characterized as an “African issue” still (although admittedly that might be unfair just reading three days’ worth of local newspapers).
  • The China Daily reported that “Sexting Still Popular Activity in US Despite Risks” – so it is not just the Chinese that are confronting these serious health risks!
  • And lastly, this same newspaper, which was only 12 pages long, dedicated one entire page to covering the NBA, undoubtedly appealing to some of those people with mental health problems.

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London Calling…

When traveling last week to London, I was stuck by a number of public sector initiatives to drive entrepreneurial activity all across the UK (particularly in the life sciences) – or in other words to back-fill the gaps where the private sector was less than cooperative. It was a tricky few days to be in London as the English were struggling with the pending referendum vote in Scotland which, at 55/45 “No” for succession, hardly seemed like a resounding vote of support to stay united.

But first some context. The US life sciences sector is on fire right now. The NASDAQ biotech index is up 20% this year, notwithstanding Chairwoman Yellen’s complaints about over-extended valuations. There have been 43 US biotech IPO’s this year which have raised collectively ~$4 billion; the UK/European life sciences industry has seen only 28 companies ($1.4 billion raised) go public in the same timeframe. Arguably we are starting to (finally) see the commercial benefits of the litany of scientific advances of the past two decades take hold, yet that phenomenon is less evident across the UK and Europe. Maybe this can be attributed to differences in entrepreneurial fervor or hyper-charged incentive structures in the US which richly reward innovation. Either way the healthcare sector in the UK and Europe suffer from relatively frosty public and private capital markets.

This divergence is how I found myself meeting with the UK’s Financial Secretary to Treasury, Minister David Gauke, to review a series of initiatives launched in the UK to address the English version of the “capital gap.” The Minister opened the conversation by observing that the UK has successfully affected the “Wimbledonization” of their innovation economy, that is, they provide the place but not the players. After citing the requisite facts to underscore how closely aligned the US and UK are – 3.9 million travelers between the two countries every year, 1 million jobs directly attributable to bilateral trade – we explored more specific areas of collaboration and reviewed successful models of public/private partnerships.

With great fanfare, the UK has launched the Catapult Program which is comprised of nine innovation centers around the country which are structured along more specific technology initiatives. That afternoon I was fortunate to visit the Cell Therapy Catapult, which is a magnificent center at Guy’s Hospital in London. To date the center has received 70 million pounds of core funding to build 7,000 square meters of lab space and at capacity will house 100 scientists managing upwards of 30 research projects. The funding is one-third from each of government grants, collaborative R&D investments, and commercial “fee-for-service” revenues – quite a sustainable model.

Other Catapults include Precision Medicines, High Value Manufacturing, Satellite Applications, Connected Digital Economy (less obvious to me given all the start-up activity), Future Cities, Transport Systems, and Offshore Renewable Energy; it was this last one I found particularly fascinating as I listened to that team step through the market opportunity, again which the private sector has not entirely embraced – yet.

So I now think of a wind farm as another type of power plant – and it needs to be evaluated as such. Sheepishly the scientists at this Catapult acknowledged that at today’s pricing models, wind power may be consider uneconomic which is why the UK government has stepped in. Some fascinating facts as to where the UK stands today:

  • There are 1,000 wind turbines off the UK coast today
  • By 2020 they forecast that there will be ~3,000 wind turbines out there which means every two days a new wind turbine is installed
  • Which is now generating nearly 5% of the total net electricity consumed in the UK
  • And is also generating a lot of jobs – in 2007 there were 400 jobs attributed to Offshore Energy in the UK and by 2013, there were 18,000 jobs dependent on this emerging industry
  • Before a wind turbine is deployed there are 8 – 10 years of planning involved including environmental impact assessments

So as wind power becomes a significant reality, this model will have catapulted the UK offshore energy industry ahead in profound ways in a remote part of the country. So as the Clash so eloquently sang – “London calling to faraway towns…Come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls…”

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What Just Happened – Part II?

The National Venture Capital Association released the 2Q14 fundraising data a few weeks ago which makes for fascinating reading when compared to the 2Q14 VC investing data. While sentiment is meaningfully improved from the depths of the Great Recession of a few years ago, analysts were surprised that the amount of capital raised was actually down 19% from 1Q14; that is 78 venture firms raised $7.5 billion (data are slightly revised since the initial press release) as compared to 63 firms and $9.1 billion in 1Q14 and 55 firms and $3.3 billion in 2Q13. Obviously quarter-to-quarter variations are interesting but may not tell the whole story.

Most VC’s will tell you that conditions have improved – clearly with greater liquidity (i.e., distributions to LP’s) from stepped-up IPO activity and M&A transaction volume comes greater investor confidence. Some also expected to see a greater impact on fundraising volumes due to the ability for firms to now publicly solicit accredited U.S. investors (see 500 Startups) but that has yet to be a meaningful contributor to overall activity. Arguably the rising tide is not lifting all boats in the same manner. The VC industry continues to be dramatically redefined and the battle between large and small firms continues – the average size fund raised was $95 million, while the median was $28 million thus hinting at the underlying structural changes.

  • The top ten funds raised this past quarter collected $4.4 billion or nearly 60% of the total amount raised, implying an average fund size of…wait for it…$440 million; this is skewed by the largest fund raised by Norwest Venture Partners clocking in at $1.2 billion.
  • There were only nine funds raised between $150 million and $300 million, which had been the “bread and butter” fund size of the VC industry, especially if you think in terms of the “$50 million per partner per fund” metrics.
  • There were 59 funds raised that were less than $100 million in size and in aggregate they collected $1.5 billion (average fund size ~$25 million)
  • Notably there were 38 funds raised which were less than $25 million in size (and of that, 24 were less than $10 million in size – so nearly a third of the funds raised were tiny).
  • The 20 first time-funds raised $666 million (bad omen?); the largest of which was $172 million (Lightstone Ventures) – the average size of first-time funds was $33 million. Maybe LP’s are not really “all-in” yet which underscores the stickiness of existing venture brands.

What continues to be so confounding is the duration and depth of the “VC funding gap.” The venture industry for more than six years has invested at a pace far outstripping its ability to raise new capital. Clearly the lines below must converge at some point, and rather dramatically. Part of this can be explained by non-VC firms investing actively in VC deals – that is hedge funds and angels who would not normally be counted in the funds raised data. Simply annualizing volumes through the first two quarters of 2014 it appears that the VC industry is on pace to raise $33 billion and yet the industry looks like it will invest close to $45 billion. That gap existed before 2008 and has endured.

Funding Gap 2Q14

Interestingly this phenomenon is not in all markets. In fact Chinese VC’s invested $2.8 billion into Chinese companies this past quarter (as compared to $1.4 billion in 2Q13) while Chinese VC firms were able to raise 13 new funds totaling $3.1 billion.

So what should we expect for returns from this investment period? While it is obviously too early to call it, the VC industry has had trouble in the past absorbing too much capital, too quickly as suggested in the below analysis (prepared by Michael Nugent at the Bison Group) which looks at the average size commitment by LP each year; LP’s tend to pile into VC funds on the heels of strong vintage years. Extraordinary returns tend to be highly correlated to robust public capital markets but are also impacted by over-eager private capital markets investing at arguably an unsustainable pace.

Global VC IRR August 2014

Good thing the level of innovation is unprecedented today, entrepreneurs are addressing global markets while building economically sound businesses – now should be different – or not.

 

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And They Said It Couldn’t Get Any Better…

And for that reason I am growing more concerned. The 2Q14 VC investment data just released in the MoneyTree Report prepared by the National Venture Capital Association with an assist from PricewaterhouseCoopers and Thomson Reuters details the $13.0 billion invested in 1,114 companies over the last three months. This is the most dollars invested in a quarter since 1Q01 (and we know how that ended). This is almost 34% more than was invested in 1Q14 and a ridiculous 80% more than 2Q13. As you will see, this quarter was bigger and better than recent prior quarters across almost any dimension.

Year-to-date the VC industry has invested $22.7 billion, more than all of 2009 during the depths of the Great Recession. And while the number of deals this quarter was relatively flat, the amount of dollars invested, amount per round, pre-money valuations – all spiked considerably. Quite clearly VC’s focused on more mature, more established companies, and more often than not in software companies in Silicon Valley. Arguably the data probably include non-traditional VC’s such as hedge funds, private equity firms “going down market” and maybe some offshore investors who were out in force this quarter – and who often show up late in a cycle.

So there a few questions I struggle with as I stared at the data this weekend: are some of these deals “venture deals?” That is, when a company like Uber raises a $1.2 billion round should we include that in the analysis (later I strip it out to normalize for the “Uber effect” and yet many of the conclusions still stand). Second, when so many companies espouse the “lean start-up” mantra, why then are round sizes spiking so dramatically. Lastly, as Christopher Mims of the Wall Street Journal so brilliantly pointed out on July 7, 2014, the data suggest that VC’s have continued to forsake industries which do as he states “basic research and development that transforms lives, in fields such as energy, medicine and food safety.” This last issue is profoundly important and merits much greater scrutiny – at another time perhaps – but the data arguably supports the concern.

And the VC industry has shown that it has at times an “absorption” problem – that is, too much capital too quickly more often than not leads to too many look alike companies all beating each other up over small emerging markets, ensuring only few will be successful.

All of this activity reflects increased liquidity in the system with promising IPO activity (see biotech sector) and strong M&A volumes but also at a time of accelerating recovery in jobs creation and overall compelling real economic growth with benign inflation. Increased manufacturing productivity growth of 3.2% this year (according to ISI Group), when it has consistently been well below 2.0% per annum for the past five years, underscores the benefits of a robust tech economy. But I am reminded that the average bull market runs 57 months with the S&P 500 stock index increasing 165%; this current bull market is now 63 months old and stocks have increased 186% – again, how much better could it get?

So what do we see in the 2Q14 data?

  • Software category absolutely killed it – there was $6.1 billion invested in 454 software companies with average round size of $13.3 million. Five of the top deals were software companies and consumed $1.8 billion of that amount (taking those five companies out of the mix – Uber, Lyft, Nanthealth, Anaplan, New Relic) the average round size of the remaining was $10 million. In 2Q13 the average size was $6.2 million – nice step up.
  • Lights, camera, action – media and entertainment captured $1.0 billion of the dollars this quarter which was just below a doubling of the prior year’s second quarter.
  • Consumer Products/Services pulled in $553 million in 58 companies
  • Healthcare held its own – all of healthcare (biotech, devices, services) represented $2.6 billion of the quarter’s total as compared to $1.8 billion in 1Q14 – the difference almost entirely due to an $800 million increase in biotech activity. The average size biotech round in 2Q14 was $15.0 million.
  • Hardware categories like Computers, Electronics, Networking, Semiconductors and Telecom together captured $726 million across 57 companies ($13 million per) which used to be the bread and butter for venture investors last decade.
  • And Energy made a modest recovery scoring $717 million across 68 companies; this is a category that was all but left for dead over the past few years.

The other important theme that was emerging over the last few years was the rotation away from Seed stage investments to Later stage rounds. And while that trend continued, there are some surprising observations buried in the data.

  • Expansion stage dollars invested spiked 53% last quarter and was 44% of all activity; average round size was $18.7 million. In 2Q13 Expansion stage was 31% of the total with average round size of $9.5 million – that is a very big jump.
  • Early stage investing increased 17% on a dollars basis and 9% on a deals basis in the quarter with average round size of $7.3 million. There were 522 Early stage investments or 47% of the total number of deals.
  • Seed stage continued to fade away – while Seed dollars increased 46% and the number of deals increased 20% from the prior quarter, Seed stage was 1.4% of all dollars invested – down from 3.3% in 2Q13. There were only 55 Seed deals recorded in 2Q14 (which actually strikes me as under-reported frankly). Average size Seed round was $3.4 million – which doesn’t even really feel like a seed.
  • Later stage represented $3.2 billion invested in 229 companies, an increase of 25% and 19%, respectively.
  • In aggregate “First Time” investments was $1.9 billion or 14% of all dollars invested; this measures how much capital was invested in companies raising their first VC round. This was a 20% increase over 1Q14 – which may be read as an increase in risk tolerance by VC’s. Worthy of consideration.

The other phenomenon, and not necessarily a good one, is the geographic concentration of the VC industry. Not surprisingly Silicon Valley continues to take market share – accelerated by the “Uber effect” – at the clear expense of secondary and tertiary markets.

  • Silicon Valley rocks – $7.1 billion was invested in Valley-based companies or 55% of the total dollars (this had been 51% in 1Q14 and 42% in 2Q13, respectively). This is 5.7x New England and New York Metro, which were within $49 million of each other this past quarter at around $1.2 billion each. All three regions together captured 74% of all dollars invested.
  • Notwithstanding Silicon Valley’s dominance the region “only” represented 33% of all deals done (vs 55% of dollars invested). Does that suggest a “reverse brain drain” – that is, as my distant relative Horace Greeley may have once said, “Go West, Young Entrepreneur.” Do newly financed executives feel that they need to move to the Valley to scale their companies? Or are Valley companies able to raise more dollars per round? Or VC’s support those companies longer?
  • Coming in at number 4 was LA/Orange County at $538 million or 4.2% while Texas was number 7 with 2.7% share.
  • Funny state facts: 30 states saw less than $50 million invested within its borders in 2Q14; 17 had less than $5 million invested and 6 had $0 million invested. Twenty two states had less than 3 companies raise venture capital in 2Q14.

To the extent innovation represents growth, and VC’s finance that innovation, this concentration risks leaving important geographies behind.

 

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United Arab Emirates – Silicon Oasis Stuck in a Sandstorm

A few weeks ago I returned from nearly a week in the United Arab Emirates – both Abu Dhabi and Dubai. I held off writing this as I watched the escalation of compounding tragedies in Israel, Iraq and Syria with foreboding and yet morbid fascination. As I continue to reflect on that trip I am struck by the profound sense of optimism the Emiratis projected in spite of their surroundings. As the US Ambassador to the UAE, Ambassador Michael Corbin – a spectacular gentleman – shared over breakfast the UAE is a “beacon of hope in the middle of a region in transition.”

By far the most striking elements of the trip (not including the massive Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque – below) were the series of initiatives across the economies of the UAE to recycle petrodollars into critical infrastructure – and not just roads and airports but healthcare and education. And it is this opportunity where some of the greatest intellectual centers of the US can most effectively “export” their assets; while India and Pakistan and other developing countries provide much of the labor to build this infrastructure, it is the doctors from Cleveland who staff the new Cleveland Clinic hospital in Abu Dhabi, the faculty from NYU who teach at the new (controversial) campus in Abu Dhabi, the curators from New York City who run the new Guggenheim Museum who bring these institutions to life.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

This investment of petro-wealth has had a dramatic and obvious impact on society in the UAE…

  • Notwithstanding that there are less than one million Emiratis, supported by nearly 8 million foreigners, the UAE is home to two global airlines – Emirates and Etihad – and the most spectacular airports – all contained in 1,600 square miles
  • Life expectancy was 45 years in 1960 yet is now over 75 years as a result of significant investment in healthcare; literacy rates over that same period rose from 10% to virtually 100%
  • The UAE ranks as the 30th largest economy (with only 9 million people) and has a GDP per capita of around $49,000
  • There are thought to be 25,000 UAE students in the US, which is now back to pre-9/11 levels
  • UAE has the only peaceful nuclear energy facility in the region as well as the largest solar power plant in the world and with oil production of 2.8 million daily barrels which is forecasted to be 3.5 million in five years (for Emiratis the cost of oil is less than $5/barrel while the US is now paying well over $100/barrel, and so long as oil stays above $80/barrel, Emiratis will not pay taxes, get free healthcare and education – pretty good deal)
  • And to secure all of that the US has around 3,000 troops deployed in region

In addition to meeting executives from the technology and defense sectors, I spent most of my time meeting with investors and visiting leading healthcare centers. There are nearly 20 significant investment funds in the UAE with accumulated capital anywhere from $2.5 – $4 trillion depending on which analyst you believe. Many of these funds have identified healthcare as an important and emerging area of focus. Often partnering with the best global healthcare brands, the UAE aspires to be a leading regional healthcare provider given it is no more than a six hour plane flight from 2.4 billion people (the Arab World alone has 350 million people). Although much of the public health focus is on preventive diseases, there is now a goal to provide genetic screening for all newborns which is consistent with a significant regional genomics initiative. The developed world has exquisitely exported its bad health to this region as diabetes and heart disease are near-epidemic. A small sampling of how topical health issues have become were reflected in the lead stories in Gulf News on June 4, 2014:

  • “Draft Law on Contagious Diseases Passed” – authorities have new powers to quarantine people
  • “Call to Reform Health Care in Northern Emirates” – senior government official blasted Ministry of Health for lack of healthcare standards and shortage of doctors
  • “Dubai Health Care Sector to Grow Further” – notwithstanding 56% hospital bed occupancy rates, rising demand increased number of beds 9.2% in 2012
  • “MERS has Infected 68 and Killed 10 Since March 2013” – pretty self-explanatory

And that was just on June 4. The day before readers were treated to articles on the lack of adequate food safety and learned that the cold storage infrastructure is 40 years out of date, as well as provided coverage of improved cancer screening techniques. That day we also learned that women’s labor participation rate stood at 26% of those women who wanted to work (unemployment is ~40% across Middle East) although the headlines on June 2 screamed “No Limits to What UAE Women Can Achieve.”

The most extraordinary healthcare facility in Abu Dhabi has to be the new Cleveland Clinic facility which is slated to open March 2015 – an absolute marvel which will profoundly change care delivery throughout the region. While there I also met with a senior executive from Al Noor Hospitals Group, a small portfolio of hospitals in Abu Dhabi, which is now a public company with a market capitalization approaching $2 billion (2013 revenues ~$375 million). And a fascinating juxtaposition is the New England Center for Children – Abu Dhabi, which is equally extraordinary but for very different reasons. Opened in 2007, the Center leverages the nearly 40 years of expert autism research and education conducted outside of Boston to provide tremendous behavioral care for over 110 autistic children in the UAE.

And on the heels of those visits, I visited DuBioTech which is building the premier life science cluster in the Middle East. Founded in 2005, and modeled on important elements of the Singapore success story, there are now 154 life science companies partnered across 250,000 square feet of lab space operating in this tax free zone. And if that was not enough, an impressive educational center called Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, which opened in 2010, houses a microscopy suite (among many many other things) which rivals what one might see at MIT or Stanford and is now being leveraged across a series of commercial partnerships in region.

My friends at The Abraaj Group, a very successful private equity investor managing $7.5 billion focused on UAE, Africa and Southeast Asia, have made a number of healthcare investments – almost 20% of their diversified funds. And some of their most notable transactions involve novel healthcare delivery models, and in fact this past week announced an investment in Polyclinique Taoufik, a state-of-the-art hospital in Tunisia. As they shared with me, healthcare in the region is incredibly resilient with massive pent-up demand for quality services.

Coincidentally while in Dubai, which was wildly over-leveraged in 2008 and suffered significant losses during the Great Recession and has since been quite inwardly focused, the Arabnet Digital Summit was being held which brought together tech start-up’s from across the region. Much of the lamenting centered on the ever-present “funding gap” – not unlike what entrepreneurs suffer from in other parts of the world. But what is particularly unique to the UAE now is the dramatic volatility of the local stock exchanges – in part due the obvious geo-political issues but also the concerns around an imminent correction in the real-estate and construction industries; the Dubai Financial Market Index is off nearly 20% since highs reached just a few months ago, but is nonetheless up 39% year-to-date. Interestingly, according to A.T. Kearney, the UAE was ranked 11th globally in the Foreign Direct Investment Confidence Index, up from 15th in 2012 due to and I quote “developed investment opportunities, diversifying the industrial base and attracting innovative SME industries to the region.”

A job very well done – certainly given the neighborhood.

 

 

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VC in Search of the Promised Land – Literally…

The other day I drove from Israel to Jordan through the Jordan Valley which is 1,200 feet below sea level – and really hot. About an hour over the border (photo below) we stopped at Mount Nebo which is where Moses saw the Promised Land; below us was Jericho and on the distant horizon was Amman. I would like to point out that two weeks ago I would never have guessed that I would ever write those sentences.

Jordan Border

For the past ten days I have been traveling in the Middle East with Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts to support his trade mission to the region and to meet local entrepreneurs and investors.

Obviously the “Start Up Nation” phenomenon that is Israel is well chronicled. I was last there three years ago and the economic vitality and entrepreneurial success stories continue apace, even in spite of the Arab Spring which has upset all semblance of normal life in the region. There were over 500 attendees at an eHealth conference I spoke at – the size of the audience frankly caught everyone by surprise. The building boom in Herzliya, which actually seems sustainable, is testament to the power of their innovation economy.

But what I was really intrigued to see was how adjacent economies were faring with their interpretation of an innovation economy. Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994 so notwithstanding long lines at the border crossing, the country has had 20 years of relative stability and valuable trade with its western neighbor – obviously complicated enormously by the influx of displaced Palestinians (coincidentally, while in Jordan, Hamas and Fatah announced the “Unity Cabinet” which generated sensational headlines in the local papers). And with this peace came a modicum of relative prosperity. A couple of other observations I would share:

  • There are thought to be 7 million inhabitants in Jordan but the make-up is tricky. In addition to the Palestinians, there are now 650,000 Syrian refugees – some analysts suggest that number may be well over 1 million. We saw United Nation Refugee tents along many of the highways; evidently they are sold on the black market as much of the population is still nomadic. While today only 1% of the country is Bedouin, that number had been 10% a generation ago and many more share that nomadic history and sensibilities.
  • There has been a significant investment made in higher education. We visited the King’s Academy, a high school modeled largely on Deerfield Academy with an extraordinary mosaic of students from around the world; other than the fact that it was nearly 100 degrees and there were palm trees, I could have been on any New England prep school campus (turns out the headmaster went to college with me – small world). Recently American and German universities were opened, which co-exist with a number of elite state universities. One gets the distinct sense that the commitment to education will lead to interesting clusters of economic activity.
  • And in fact there is now a real incubator in Jordan called Oasis500. In 1999 there was effectively no IT industry in Jordan; today IT represents 12% of the economy. Apparently 75% of all Arabic content on the Web is created in Jordan (although I am not sure how one would even go about determining that)
  • Jordan is the regional destination for medical tourism, at least for those in the Middle East who cannot afford to fly to Boston, New York, Cleveland, London, Paris, etc. We heard a lot about the investments being made in community hospitals – delivering quality healthcare to that population is complex.

So while our drive from Jerusalem to Amman presented to us a country haltingly on the road to continued improvement and prosperity, certainly as compared to its neighbors to the east/north/south, lunch with US Ambassador Jones (a brilliant foreign policy expert, who upon Senate confirmation is to be posted to Iraq) was a reminder how tenuous life still is there. The conversation was far-reaching but underscored that formal country borders are often incidental to cultural and tribal boundaries. In particular, the discussion of Kurdistan highlighted the profound disruption created by ancestral disputes. Seemingly Jordan has learned well that investment in its people through improved education and healthcare infrastructure leads to economic gains which drives stability.

Later that night I flew to Abu Dhabi – wow.

 

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VC Road Trip Across China

For much of the past week I had the distinct honor to travel across China (Beijing, Xi’an, Suzhou, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong) as a guest of one of the leading foundations and investment firms in country as they introduced a number of their exciting portfolio companies to the local investment community. Notwithstanding significant issues facing the country – environmental concerns, restive political tensions in some of the western provinces, bad debt from the “shadow banking” system, potential real estate “bubble” – one is struck by the deliberate and coordinated efforts to solve these problems, much of it through reforms recently introduced by the third plenum of the 18th Communist Party of China Central Committee; some of the reforms are quite forward-thinking I might add.

And what an extraordinary week to be in China: Alibaba is poised to go public (rumored to be raising at least $15 billion at a $200 billion valuation), JD.com did go public (raised $1.8 billion at a $25 billion valuation), Comrade Putin was in town signing historic business deals (49 deals after 10 years of negotiations), and the US Department of Justice decided to go after five Chinese military officers for stealing trade secrets, further distancing the two countries – at the exact wrong time.

Whenever I find myself in foreign countries I make it a point to read the local papers – this past week a number of fascinating articles jumped out at me in the China Daily. First to the business section: in isolation any of these items would be of limited interest but when looked at collectively – and in light of where China has come from – an extraordinary pattern emerges.

  • China Securities Regulatory Commission anticipates at least 100 IPO’s of A Shares in 2014; there were 43 IPO’s in January 2014 alone although only 5 since then.
  • This after a 14-month suspension of IPO activity while new rules were drafted.
  • There are 358 companies in registration, preparing to go public.
  • A May 19 China Daily editorial applauded the pending Alibaba IPO stating “the merchant rating system has evolved outside of the realm of government interference…provides shoppers a sense of democracy and self-management on an everyday level.” WOW.
  • In 1Q14 Chinese VC firms raised $1.07 billion, which is a 35% increase from 1Q13.
  • And on May 20 the Ministry of Finance in China announced that 10 provinces and cities will now be allowed to issue local municipal bonds. Think about that – independently financed cities – quite a departure from a centrally planned government.

Financial liberalization appears to be in part a response to the looming “shadow banking” crisis which analysts estimate to be as much as $2.9 trillion of local borrowings not officially recorded. To put that in proper context that would be twice the disclosed debt of the central government. Undoubtedly this has also contributed to a dangerous speculative real estate “bubble” which seems to be deflating quite rapidly now – real estate is estimated to be 15% of China’s GDP so this is a non-trivial issue. Importantly though, over time these steps should create a more robust and sophisticated capital markets ecosystem to fund future innovation which is now evident all across the country.

The other area of concern and at the top of the government’s agenda is the state of the environment. It is quite apparent that the authorities are very focused on this as poor environmental conditions, coupled with the associated impact on health, risks leading to significant social unrest. Many articles last week highlighted steps being taken to address the staggering environmental concerns.

  • With great pride, the local Beijing government announced that 288 companies were relocated out of the city in 2013, resulting in 7,000 fewer tons of sulfur in the air. Between now and October 2014 there are another 300 companies slated to leave.
  • In April 2014 air quality “improved” from prior periods as 70.6% of the time the national air quality standards in the top 74 cities were met and for 29 fortunate cities, the standard was met 80+% of the time.
  • The critical air quality metric is the “PM2.5” which measures the amount of particles less than 2.5 microns which happens to be the size that particles can penetrate the lungs – unfortunately recent measurements were 156% of safety levels in Beijing.
  • China has 20% of the world’s population but only 9% of the arable land which is driving great innovation in the food industry.
  • With a much greater commitment to public transportation, it was announced this week that there were 2.9 billion subway rides in Beijing last year (or 7.9 million each day!).

Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, according to something called the Bureau of Exit and Entry Administration of the Ministry of Public Security over 26.3 million people visited China in 2013. The vibrancy and rapid economic growth in China are attracting people from around the world, and yet even China is struggling to attract highly trained talent as its economy matures. The authors of “The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State” (John Micklethwait, Adrian Woolridge) noted that as carefully as China has reinterpreted capitalism, it is now recasting the role of central government – which is evident in everyday life in China. The authors go on to observe that Chinese leadership looks to Silicon Valley and Route 128 instead of Washington DC for inspiration and insights. Quite a troubling commentary on the US, frankly. It used to be that the US system of government was the envy of the developing world.

An interesting juxtaposition for me was seeing the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, which arguably is one of the greatest archaeological finds in modern times. Assembled nearly 2,500 years ago, the 8,000 terra cotta statues are arrayed to protect the tomb of Emperor Qinshihuang. What an extraordinary display of central planning.

Terracotta Warriors

And as I listened to a number of US and Israeli entrepreneurs pitching their disruptive new technologies across China last week I was struck by the level of directed coordination focused on solving profoundly important financial and societal issues. Each of these entrepreneurs – brilliant, passionate, driven – had developed solutions to many of the problems confronting the Chinese today. And in China they found an incredibly engaged audience. The rest of the world should take note.

 

 

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