LONDON - On a gray, misty Tuesday morning, the 5th annual European C21 BioVentures conference began, with an expected 275 delegates making their way to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre to hear, among other things, Steven Burrill speak about ex-U.S. investing.
Standing at a podium here to chair a panel, Burrill, CEO of life sciences merchant bank Burrill & Co., said his firm was "agnostic on geography." With a portfolio boasting seven European investments, his firm has put its money where its mouth is.
Sure, there are difficulties involved with investing overseas, he said, such as the traveling, the "early morning" business calls and occasional difficulties in forming a good relationship with a company's CEO, chief financial officer or chief scientific officer due to distance. In those cases, his firm "relies on our friends" - co-investors, in other words - to help monitor companies that are located thousands of miles away. And while navigating foreign languages can be a barrier, in general he dismissed that as an issue in considering global investments.
Other negatives when looking at European investment: a smaller pool of experienced workers in Europe, as Europeans don't job-hop as much as Americans; clinical protocols from the U.S. usually are accepted in Europe, but the reciprocal isn't always true, he said; and, the U.S. has a better management base, and there are better perceived exit routes in the U.S. than in the EU.
He also listed positives for European investing, including a lower cost for going public and a greater availability of non-dilutive capital.
The panel Burrill chaired included Bernd Kastler, CEO of Elbion AG, which is pursuing small-molecule drugs in inflammatory and central nervous system diseases. It closed in January a €25 million (US$33 million) first-round financing, and he said his firm deliberately looked for an international base. Investors in that funding included San Francisco-based Burrill & Co., as well as 3i, of Munich, Germany (which also had a representative on the panel - director, health care, Andrew Fraser), and investors from Paris, Tokyo and Durham, N.C.
Kastler saw "more commonalities than differences" between EU and U.S. investors, and although some will say that today U.S. VCs are "less concerned with valuation," he saw that to be the case through his experience.
The fact remains, though, that Europe can be a troubling place for VCs. A lack of clear exits has hurt, so much so that Burrill said it has caused the venture capital market "not to exist, basically." The current road to the public markets for biotech firms is hardscrabble, to say the least, so trade sales remain the only way out.
Things are improving, however. Once swollen, European valuations are coming in line and are more attractive. Thomas Taapken, a partner at DVC Deutsche Venture Capital in Munich (which also invested in Elbion's first round, and Taapken sits on that company's supervisory board), said, "We are convinced that there are good companies to invest in now, even if you factor in the dollar-euro exchange."
For VCs, though, what matters is the bottom line: money. If a venture capital firm can invest, add value and leave, it happily will invest wherever possible. If not, attracting interest will be difficult, regardless of location. That point was made most clearly when the panel was opened to the floor and an executive from an agricultural biotech firm made his case for investment.
His company has a defined market - food - a revenue stream and good experience, yet little luck with VCs, he said.
"What does it take for me to meet you?" he asked.
Burrill answered: "There is very little public appetite for agbio, that we can see," he said, and with only about four or five big agricultural biotech firms out there, is there any assurance they are in a buying mood? Burrill wasn't sure. That might leave his firm in a room with no doors.
"Until we figure out how we're going to get out, we're not likely to get in," he said.
The conference ends today.