Ventana Capital’s Tom Gephart Seeks $5 Billion (With a “B”) from Feds to Support VCs

3/16/10Follow @bvbigelow

You could say Tom Gephart is “old school” venture capital, which means he started investing in the 1970s when there were no rules. So maybe it shouldn’t seem too surprising when he says he’s working on a proposal to secure $5 billion in federal economic stimulus funding that would be invested in startup companies throughout the U.S. by a network of existing VC firms.

Would you agree that sounds like an idea from someone who is unencumbered by rules?

“Ask him, ‘How big of a bong is he smoking?’” one San Diego venture investor exclaimed, when I called to get his reaction to Gephart’s idea. (My source later asked me not to identify him, saying he feared alienating himself from San Diego’s clubby VC community.)

But Gephart is hardly alone in his thinking. A few weeks ago VentureWire carried the headline “A Year After The Stimulus, Cleantech VCs Still Crave Funding” above a story from San Francisco that underscored the lack of funding of any kind for startups developing green and renewable energy technologies.

Gephart assures me he is serious, and other local VCs are reacting positively to his ideas. Connect CEO Duane Roth tells me that Gephart’s idea is similar to funding he suggests in his own proposal for a distributed partnering model for innovation, which he outlined recently in a post written for the Xconomist Forum.

“Tom’s approach [is] to have the federal government fund VCs,” Roth wrote in an e-mail in response to my query. “I proposed that the private sector fund early stage (pre VC) and that the federal government would match at the same terms and conditions as the private sector.”

Gephart has been a successful VC in the past, according to Roth. After making individual investments during the 1970s in the Los Angeles area, he established Ventana Capital in Orange County. Gephart tells me he tapped institutional investors that were primarily in Sweden, Norway, and other Scandinavian countries to raise capital for five Ventana funds over the ensuing 25 years. Ventana invested in many San Diego high-tech startups, including Cymer, Proxima, and Brooktree, as well as biotechs like Idun Pharmaceuticals, Corvas International, and Roth’s unsuccessful blood-substitute company, Alliance Pharmaceutical.

Ventana set out in 2007 to raise a sixth fund of $200 million, but Gephart says they never closed on that effort. While Ventana’s partners are still managing … Next Page »

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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