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 investments made from the firm’s fourth and fifth funds, Gephart says they decided to end their fundraising when they realized that Calpers and Calsters, the state’s big retirement funds for public employees and teachers, were clamping down on their institutional investments in venture firms.

When I met Gephart a few weeks ago, during a break at the La Jolla Research & Innovation Summit, he told me, “I didn’t totally retire, but I kind of relaxed. Then, in 2009, we all sort of collectively realized that the biggest issue these days is jobs.”

Gephart says he’s created an organizing committee to rally support for his proposal with help from Andy Policano, the dean of the UC Irvine Merage School of Business, and Malin Burnham, a longtime San Diego civic and business leader. Gephart told me he’s discussed his plan with Mark Heesen, president of the National Venture Capital Association, and has explained it to VCs in Michigan, Texas, and elsewhere across the country.

Gephart tells me he has his eye on $30 billion the Obama Administration has designated under the economic stimulus package for job creation among small-to-medium businesses. He maintains that venture capital, as an industry, is probably the best small business jobs creator that exists today. “We’re very focused on strategic meetings with leaders around Obama,” Gephart says. “We’ve approached them about setting aside $5 billion as an equity component that would be managed in 20 regional funds by existing VC entities.”

While $5 billion might seem like a very big number for the federal government to be doling out to a single venture firm, Gephart says that dividing the funding among 20 venture capital firms would provide a more-reasonable $250 million for each firm to invest and manage. To oversee the dispersal and manage other issues, Gephart says he created Catalyst Funds in September. “We would be the fund-of-funds manager, and would work with the 20 other fund managers,” Gephart says. “Each regional fund would be expected to invest in about 20 companies in their specific region. Each region as you know has specific entrepreneurial needs.”

Mike Elconin, a past president of the San Diego Tech Coast Angels, says, “There is a move afoot in Washington to help in the formation of new companies. There’s also a realization that technology and innovation is important to the economy of the U.S., and that small companies are the best generators of jobs.

“The idea of setting up a fund that would be administered by VCs is appealing,” Elconin says. “But personally, I think it’s got a tough row to hoe these days in Washington—and I’m a Democrat.”

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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