Royalty-Based Venture Financing, Born in Boston, Could Shake Up VCs and Startups from New England to the Northwest

Every once in a while, an investment model comes along that turns the innovation community on its head. The venture capital industry, still less than 50 years old, is one example. Now an emerging paradigm called royalty-based financing, applied to early-stage startups, may be another. The approach has its roots in the Boston area, and is starting to generate some serious buzz in the Northwest. If you’re a VC, angel investor, or entrepreneur, it definitely needs to be on your radar.

The concept of royalty-based financing is simple. Instead of buying equity in a young company, an investor agrees to receive a percentage of the company’s monthly revenues—up to a limit of, say, three to five times his or her investment. Instead of waiting five or 10 years for a startup to go public or get acquired, an investor can start seeing returns almost immediately. This approach means investors should be able to fund a much wider range of startups than just those that typically receive venture backing—the ones that have potential to grow huge, fast. The downside is that your returns are capped, so if you do end up backing the next Google or Amazon, you still only get five times your investment back. Meanwhile, for entrepreneurs, it provides startup money without having to give up an ownership stake in the company.

Royalty-based financing is not new, but it’s only been in the past few months that investors around Seattle, including the seed-stage fund Founder’s Co-op, have been openly exploring the model. In New England, a few investment firms are actively using it, led by Lexington, MA-based Royalty Capital Management, Wakefield, MA-based BDC Capital, and Portland, ME-based Rockwater Capital. Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen (of The Innovator’s Dilemma fame) is a supporter of the model, and views it as disruptive to the venture capital industry.

The idea actually dates back to mining companies getting financed to dig for oil, natural gas, and minerals, and government-funded economic development programs. But it is getting renewed interest from VCs and angel investors who increasingly need returns fast, in a tough climate for exits. Indeed, royalty-based venture financing “has the real potential of becoming a major new sector in the private capital market,” says Arthur Fox, the founder of Royalty Capital Management, who first used the approach with startups in the early 1990s.

Back then, Fox was an advisor to several startups; he’s an MIT alum and was previously an engineer with HP and Westinghouse before co-founding three tech companies of his own. He first tried out the royalty-based idea as a way to get compensated by the companies he was mentoring, instead of taking some stock. He found that this made them more efficient with his time, plus he would get paid every month. So he decided to try out the strategy as an investor. “It changed everything, because the normal criteria in selecting companies as a venture capitalist is a high-growth one,” Fox says. “When you invest in a company, buying stock and equity, you have no way of getting out unless they become significantly large enough to have a liquidity event.” With the new approach, he says, “every month you get a check, and it doesn’t matter if they ever have an IPO, or get bought out.”

Fox’s two previous funds have returned good profits. His biggest win was Andover Advanced Technologies, a multimedia software startup that had no revenues when he originally invested $100,000 in 1993. After two years, Fox had gotten back $125,000 in his cut of the revenues, and he invested in a second round with an angel investor, in which he took some equity. The company (renamed Andover.net) went on to ride the dot-com wave with a successful IPO in 1999, and was acquired for $1 billion by VA Linux Systems in 2000. Fox’s stock ended up being worth $15 million. It’s an example, he says, of how … Next Page »

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Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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