Why Web 2.0 is an easier investment than biotech

More venture money goes into life sciences than any other category. But it's not easy to make those investments pay off.

Just five years ago, the high-tech industry was in the dumps and fickle Silicon Valley hearts were turning to biotechnology and so-called convergence companies that would combine computing know-how with life sciences.

At the time, it seemed like the best place to move the investment chips: The ideas behind social media were just starting to coagulate. The telecommunications build-out of the 1990s had long since ended. And big tech-boom buyers like Yahoo (which my CNET News.com colleague Charlie Cooper to this day curses for forever saddling us with billionaire basketball maven Mark Cuban ) had shut the money spigot.

Meanwhile, human genome research was opening new windows for start-ups. And the potential for harnessing for genetics research the high end but low-cost computing power demonstrated by Google's Linux-based data centers had entrepreneurs thinking big.

So why don't we hear very much about biotech, and so, so much about Internet companies? Well, it turns out biotech is a difficult business, and Web 2.0, by comparison, isn't. (News.com's Stefanie Olsen has a broader look at how VCs are girding for what could be a rough economy in the months ahead.)

A former colleague who covered the biotech boom of the early 1990s once explained to me why some venture capitalists steer clear of biotech and health care: In tech, you have product cycles that last two or three years, maximum. It doesn't take all that long to see if you're going to get a return on your money. (With Web 2.0 investments that cycle is probably even shorter.)

But in biotech and health care, product cycles last two or three decades because of everything from regulatory approval to testing. If you're a middle-aged investor, you're hoping you'll live long enough to see your money pay off. Some of the savviest investors in Silicon Valley, such as Elevation Partners' Roger McNamee, have traditionally steered clear of biotech for exactly that reason. Even for people accustomed to taking financial risks, biotech can be too risky.

That's not to say there's no money going into biotech and health care research. In fact (and here's where the analysis gets a little tricky), the life sciences category received more investment than any other category last year: $9.1 billion in 862 deals, according to Thomson Financial and the National Venture Capital Association. That was 31 percent of all venture capital invested and well up from $7.6 billion in 2006.

But these are long-term investments. Making money pay off in life sciences is still as hard as it ever was. In the first quarter of 2008, there were five venture-backed M&A deals in life sciences, according to NCVA. Three of them had a combined disclosed value (the other two weren't disclosed) worth a combined $229.3 million.

The real action was in information technology, where there were 41 deals in the first quarter, 15 of them disclosed for a total of $1.996 billion. Of those, 12 were Internet companies, 8 of them disclosed for a $1.678 billion total.

Life sciences did have a big advantage on the public markets. There were four life science initial public offerings (only one of those in biotech) in the first quarter that raised a combined $221 million. There was only one information technology IPO--ArcSight, a security management software and service company that raised $61.8 million.

So the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. Even with little appetite for tech IPOs, investing in a Web 2.0 provides a VC with an easier way to cash in than investing in biotech or health care. Are the rewards for a big hit not as great in Web 2.0 investments? Maybe so. But with increasing pressure from their investors to show how they're putting their funds to work, VCs are making the safer call.

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About the author

Jim Kerstetter has been writing about the high-tech industry since the 1990s. He has been a senior editor at PC Week and a Silicon Valley correspondent at BusinessWeek. He is now senior executive editor at CNET News. He moved back to Boston because he missed the Red Sox. E-mail Jim.

 

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