The lifeblood of innovation is capital. Investment of capital is the primary difference between great ideas and great teams that go nowhere and those that change the world. From the airplane to the iPod, from wonder drugs to wonder software, innovation requires invested capital to bring concepts to commercial reality. Angel investors play a crucial role in the ecosystem of invention, but they may soon be shut down by Congress in their efforts to “protect” Americans from financial risk.
Risk is a dirty word for those who don’t understand business. Wouldn’t it be nice if government could just protect us from the risk of failure and ensure that we are always safe? But this kind of thinking means stagnation, captivity, and the death of innovation, for the opportunity to succeed inevitably is shadowed by the risk of failure. If success is guaranteed, why put forth the effort to create and innovate? If a venture is protected from failure, we are also protected from the kind of success that inspires innovators and their backers to undergo risk.
Tom Still of the Wisconsin Technology Council has boldly and bravely weighed in on Congressional plans to protect us from risk, plans that would give them even more control over the things they seem to understand least while making it more difficult than ever for innovators to succeed. Tom Still challenges the financial reform legislation proposed by Senator Dodd and points out that his efforts to protect us will crush angel investing, which in turn will stop many innovators from having a shot at success. Ultimately, Dodd seeks to “protect” people from investing their own money the way they want to, and the unintended consequence will be a painful blow to innovation. Tom Still’s article is “Angels on the head of a sharp pin: Financial reform bill poses threat,” published April 21, 2010 at Inside Wisconsin by the Wisconsin Technology Council. Here is an excerpt:
The financial sector reform bill being pushed by U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., takes direct aim at the wings of angel investors for reasons that defy explanation. If passed, this â€œWashington-knows-bestâ€ attempt to regulate some of the nationâ€™s most productive risk-takers could destroy the entrepreneurial economy.
Angel investors are often entrepreneurs who hit a home run in their own start-up businesses and who want to reinvest in other young companies. Angel investors are generally strong business executives with an eye for innovation, and theyâ€™re not afraid to take a calculated gamble on companies that are too new to get financing from venture capitalists or too risky for banks.
They usually invest close to home and most often as individuals or within a family, but increasingly angels invest as members of angel networks or angel funds that offer some safety in numbers and more partners to screen potential deals.
In Wisconsin, angel investors have been in the vanguard of fostering the stateâ€™s early stage economy. Five years ago, there were only a handful of angel networks in Wisconsin. Today, there are nearly two-dozen networks and funds â€“ and theyâ€™re not shy about rolling the dice on Wisconsin companies in sectors such as biotechnology, information technology, medical device, advanced manufacturing and â€œcleantech.â€ …
But if Dodd has his way, these individualistic investors will be regulated out of existence.
The Restoring American Financial Stability Act, of which Dodd is the chief sponsor, would tighten regulation of the nationâ€™s financial system in ways large and small. It contains three provisions that would effectively kill angel investing in the United States:
- It would require start-up companies to register with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, and wait at least 120 days for SEC review, before trying to raise money. Currently, fledgling companies can raise money from accredited investors without regulatory approval. Four months is an eternity in the life of a start-up company, and most would die in the vine before they ever get a chance to grow.
- It would redefine who is an angel. Accredited investors, who are people deemed wealthy enough to invest in start-ups, would be limited to those individuals with more than $2.5 million in assets (up from $1 million today) or a personal income of $450,000 per year (up from $250,000). This will dramatically decrease the supply of angels, which the University of New Hampshireâ€™s Center for Venture Research estimated at 259,000 in 2009. Those angels invested $17.6 billion in about 57,000 deals.
- It would subject investors and start-up companies to state-by-state rules versus a single set of SEC standards. Along with the new SEC filing requirement, that would add red tape, time and cost to the investment process.
In its frenzy to clamp down on Wall Street, Congress is threatening an investment community that fosters innovation, mentors young companies and generally cares about how the economy is faring where they live. Angels have helped to create some of todayâ€™s biggest companies â€“ Apple, Amazon, Google and many more â€“ usually without putting anyoneâ€™s money at risk other than their own.
Angel investing isnâ€™t perfect; the average return on investment proves that. But itâ€™s precisely the kind of bottom-up, largely self-regulated economic activity the nation needs as it struggles to create new companies and jobs. Only those federal lawmakers intent on a top-down, command-and-control economy would think otherwise.
We have enough innovation fatigue factors on our backs already. Clamping down on one of the major arteries that provides capital to start-ups and entrepreneurs is not going to enhance circulation in the atrophying limbs of this economy. We need to back down and let the private sector thrive on its own, taking on both risk and failure, and when we fail, let us fail instead of taking from those who succeed to prop up failures deemed “too big” to fail. The free market offers powerful solutions to some of the problems we face and powerful incentives for innovation, if we can stay out of the way.
Kudos to Tom Still for his insights into the risks Dodd’s bill poses.