Venture Capital Funds all have a thesis about what makes them tick and why institutional and individual investors would join them as Limited Partners. Social and Environmental Impact Funds often struggle to articulate their social or environmental impact thesis because of a variety of conflicts within the impact investing space – not the least of which is the false dichotomy of “purpose over profit” while others struggle with being hyper-focused on one cause vs. taking a holistic approach.
Here is a chance to read an Impact Venture Capital Fund’s thesis that reconciles this dichotomy and offers a way for investors to make significant and measurable social and environmental impact while also achieving top quartile market rate returns.
The Fund is the Rockies Impact Fund, based out of Denver, Colorado. The Fund is launching in 2020 with a mission to invest in the most innovative impact companies in the U.S. Led by an experienced management team with over a hundred investments, this new fund is pioneering a way to make the most impactful investments targeted at top quartile market rate returns. Read on to learn how they do it.
Rockies Impact Fund Investment Thesis:
Our thesis is that we will achieve top quartile venture capital returns while focusing our investments innovative companies that are the drivers of human growth creating measurable impact in social and environmental sectors such as healthcare and life sciences, education, food and employment security, and cleantech.
The Rockies Impact Fund thesis unpacked.
Our thesis is comprised of five elements, each of which has deep thinking behind it based on our experience in the venture capital investing world, intensive work in social and environmental impact companies and our engagement in the world of impact investors and how they think about “impact”.
We’re concerned about attitudes about “impact investing” and general confusion about what this means exactly. We find little in common between early stage venture impact investing and public “ESG” (Environmental and Social Governance) companies. The differences are far more substantial than just size and corporate structure. The “ESG” companies are rarely innovative in the way that startups are, and worse, their impact may actually be negative overall. We’re skeptical of the greenwashing that companies like Exxon, ConocoPhillips, CocaCola, Nestle, Clorox and others use when they raise the ESG banner over their names. There is simply no way that the net impact of these companies is positive, despite their ability to comply with ESG metrics that somehow don’t take the massive negative environmental and social impacts these companies create into consideration.
The Rockies Impact Fund seeks to distance itself from these companies, and the disfunctional metrics that allow them to be considered “impact investments. The Rockies Impact Fund is in search of high returns in truly innovative companies that are solving problems for the future of all of us, our children and our children’s children.
Please take a moment to consider the perspective of these five elements of the Rockies Impact Fund’s thesis to better understand where the leaders in impact investing are headed.
1. “Our thesis is that we will achieve top quartile venture capital returns”
Top quartile returns in the VC industry have ranged from 18% to 37% in annual growth over the past decade with an average across vintages of 25.59%. The current investments in the Rockies Venture Family fall squarely within the upper quartile returns spectrum, based on year over year increase in Net Asset Value. Our experience has been that impact companies in our portfolio have actually slightly outperformed other sectors such as SaaS technologies, Artificial Intelligence and E-Commerce. The surprising conclusion is that impact companies don’t need to have reduced expectations of growth or investor returns that many people in the impact world seem to expect.
Our thesis is that if we’re investing in a company that creates positive measurable social or environmental outcomes, everyone involved should be working to grow this company as large as possible to create positive returns and exponential growth in impact and financial return upon acquisition. The more these companies grow, the more good we create in the world. It’s that simple.
Many impact funds and investors believe that “zebras are better than unicorns” and focus on small business. While there is a place for this, our belief is that it is not a place for venture capital. The concept of “concessionary” returns for impact companies which may seek to return only one to five times the investment is simply not necessary when companies that are creating true innovation and are driving human growth in so many ways, while also having the potential of returning 10X the investment or more.
Rockies Impact Fund has had a geographical secret weapon for creating better returns that other Funds may not have in their arsenal. While the Fund may invest in the best companies anywhere in the U.S., its portfolio is weighted towards Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Region. Companies here are valued at up to 30% less than similar companies in Silicon Valley or New York. Silicon Valley Bank has done research for us showing this discount is consistent over time, but that as companies move towards acquisition, their valuations converge with those of coastal firms, thus resulting in potentially higher returns for portfolio companies in our region.
The Fund also benefits its individual Limited Partners by primarily investing in QSBS stocks that qualify for Section 1202 tax free status for individual investors. The Fund additionally passes through Colorado tax rebates of 25% on qualifying investments, also to individual Limited Partners who are Colorado taxpayers. These tax favored structures benefit individual L.P.s with increased cash on cash returns without detriment to institutional investors who may not qualify for these tax breaks.
To create top quartile returns, we have a portfolio strategy that includes diversification into approximately 25 portfolio companies. We believe that smaller portfolios increase concentration risk to Limited Partners and defeat many of the reasons for investing in a managed fund. We also believe that significantly larger portfolios suffer from a lack of the hands-on engagement with management teams and boards which has been shown to increase returns. The “spray and pray” method of investment does not foster best investment and portfolio practices and makes thorough due diligence and management difficult.
Our portfolio theory also holds that a significant portion of the Fund, ranging from 50-66%, should be held in reserve for follow-on investment. Our first round investments typically include rights to participate in follow-on rounds. We believe that after investing and working closely with a portfolio company, we have better inside information than new investors, and we are in a better position to invest (or not) in subsequent rounds. By continuing to invest in follow-on rounds, we reduce overall risk to the fund, by shifting a portion of the capital to increasing later stages of company development where many of the early stage risks have been mitigated. Additionally, this strategy allows for any of our portfolio companies to grow to the point that just one company can “return the fund”.
2. “Focusing our investments on innovative companies”
The companies we invest in are truly innovative and are bringing new technologies, products and services to markets that don’t have the ability to develop innovation on their own. We have a saying, “M&A is the new R&D”. Large corporations are no longer innovating as much as they did in the past, and they are using M&A to acquire innovation instead of developing it in house. This simultaneously reduces risk for them, and creates opportunities for social and environmental impact companies that have created scalable impact solutions.
While R&D budgets have been on the decline, a combination of the 2017 corporate tax breaks, cheap access to plentiful capital, and large corporate cash reserves, have all led to an increase in acquisitions in recent years.
Impact investments in so called ESG companies in the public markets don’t provide the same level of impact innovation that early stage startups can, so Limited Partners in early stage impact funds can have a chance to support game-changing technological advancements rather than incrementalism of the incumbents.
As an example, one of our portfolio companies, PharmaJet, Inc. based out of Golden Colorado, is innovating in healthcare vaccine delivery in ways that create multiple positive social and economic benefits. Their patented, innovative needle-free delivery system for both subcutaneous and intramuscular vaccines is game-changing in providing the following health care benefits:
- The needle-free system engages more members of the community who may have been needle-phobic, to get vaccinations, resulting in higher overall public health outcomes.
- The needle-free system eliminates needle-prick infections for healthcare practitioners, resulting in significant savings.
- The needle-free system results in elimination of needle re-use, especially in third-world countries where a single syringe may be used ten or more times, with resulting infection increase.
- The PharmaJet cartridges have zero waste vs. up to 35% vaccine waste in traditional needles and vials. This makes a huge community impact for vaccines such as polio which are currently in a world wide shortage.
- The PharmaJet delivery methodology pierces the skin, and also the cells below the skin. This makes delivery of new DNA based vaccines extraordinarily more effective because of the need for these vaccines to interact with the DNA within the cells. Traditional delivery methods require much more of these expensive and difficult to manufacture vaccines to achieve the same results.
3. “Companies that are the drivers of human growth”
A unifying theme of the Rockies Impact Fund is that the companies we are investing in are all driving factors of Human Growth in one way or another. Right now we are facing an unprecedented number of global challenges to human growth, despite exponential technological advances.
We are investing in a portfolio of companies that look at human growth from many different angles rather than a hyper-focused impact theme. We believe that a holistic approach is necessary to tackle the complex, multidisciplinary challenges that the world is facing.
Human growth is a multi-disciplinary area that moves through Maslow’s Hierarchy from bottom to top including decent standards of living, housing, availability of healthy food and clean water, education, smart cities, reliable clean energy systems, equality of opportunity, and communities that foster freedom and dignity for their members.
The concept of human growth is one that has expanded significantly in the past decade. Social OR Environmental concerns were previously articulated by many organizations. Today we need to think of Social AND Environmental concerns as it becomes clear that environmental change IS social change. We are on the brink of seeing massive social change, migration, shifts in wealth, previously unseen environmental health impacts, and battles for limited resources – all caused by changes in environment.
Human growth is the most important theme for all of us in the coming decades, amidst massive change and a comprehensive approach versus point solutions is the way we must be thinking about how to solve the complex problems the world is facing.
4. “Creating Measurable Impact.”
There’s no sense in creating impact if you can’t measure it.
The Rockies Impact Fund has been a student of Impact Measurement over the years and has evolved from rejecting the one-size fits all “metrics” that really don’t measure much at all in a way that investors can usefully compare investments to generally adopting the processes and standards as described in the Impact Measurement Project. www.impactmeasurementproject.com The IMP provides general guidelines which ultimately lead to metrics that are targeted to the core impacts of the portfolio company rather than generic metrics, that even when modified to be sector specific, never seem to adequately measure what the company really does to create positive impact.
Our interest in impact investing is to invest in “Primary Impact” companies who create positive social or environmental impact through their primary business model. These companies are doing good every day and by measuring their corporate output, we can also measure their social and environmental impact. Some measurement models focus on Secondary Impact which measures “how” the company operates vs. “what” the company does to create impact. We support the measures that secondary impact metrics support such as supply chain transparency, recycling and energy use, fair pay, and more, but these are good guidelines for all businesses vs. metrics that track true innovation. For example, we can calculate the positive social impact of PharmaJet based on some of the criteria listed above. The more PharmaJet sells of their product, the more positive measurable good we can find. We happen to know that they recycle and have fair employment and supply chain practices, but we invest because they are creating massive improvements in healthcare delivery.
Measuring positive outcomes is a good idea for impact investing, and this includes having a clear framework for measurement of a company on a pre-investment basis to determine if it is sufficiently impactful to call it an impact investment. We’ve found in our own portfolio, that impact comes in shades of gray and some companies are more impactful than others. Without a pre-investment impact criterion, an impact fund could consider every potential investment to be an “impact” investment. We have seen this happen and have developed a point system to help us to determine how impactful our investments will be, and reserve only the most impactful for our fund.
The Rockies Impact Fund measures three criteria to determine impact before investment. 1) Depth of impact – how much of an innovation is this company producing? Is it a 10% improvement, or is it game-changing? 2) Breadth of impact – how many people will be affected by this impact? Is it thousands, millions, or potentially a billion people? 3) Financial impact – will this company return 10X the investment or more on strictly financial terms?
The Rockies Impact Fund requires a score of at least 19 out of 30 in order to meet all three of these criteria for impact before it makes an investment. This scoring system helps us to calibrate impact compared to all of the investment opportunities available to us.
By going through this exercise we can create an “impact proforma” for each company we are considering adding to our portfolio. Just like all venture capital funds need to analyze the company’s proforma to determine its investability, we can model the impact as well as the financial returns. Using a Triple Bottom Line (Social, Environmental and Financial) analysis is a well understood concept, and by translating the triple bottom line principles into an impact proforma is not a common practice among impact investors. The Rockies Impact Fund has studied the Impact Proforma concept in order to ensure alignment among investors and founders as well as to help it to prioritize the companies for its portfolio that provide both high Return on Impact as well as Return on Investment.
5. “In social and environmental sectors such as healthcare and life sciences, education, food and employment security, and cleantech.”
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals have become the lingua franca of the impact investing world. We are in support of all seventeen of the goals and the Rockies Impact Fund can effectively address any of the goals via a direct or indirect investment thesis.
While we believe that a holistic approach to impact is important, we also believe that nobody can be an expert in all things.
The Rockies Impact Fund has a deal flow funnel larger than most Impact Funds. We see about 1,500 deals per year and dig deep into about 250 of those in order to make about ten or twelve investments a year. Having a large deal flow funnel allows us to be picky and to invest in the companies that we know the most about and that match our thesis.
The Rockies Impact Fund has a large set of hundreds of resources who help to source, diligence and manage our investments, yet like any organization, we have more strength in some areas over others. Looking at our historical investment behavior, we have invested heavily in the life sciences and healthcare, education, agriculture and food tech, companies that provide access to capital, decentralized employment and employment security, cleantech, energy and water.
The Rockies Impact Fund is perhaps one of the most exciting impact investment vehicles available for individual and institutional investors today. It is addressing an important gap that traditional public market focused ESG funds have missed – early stage innovation investments. If most of our investments continue to go to these large ESG focused funds and ETFs, then true innovation in social and environmental issues will suffer.
Capital in the impact world has become “gentrified” by moving upstream to bigger vehicles and publicly traded funds. This “gentrification of capital” has left a significant gap in the most important sectors of impact – the early stage innovators who can take the risks to make a big impact in ways that the large public incumbents can’t.
If you would like to consider joining the Rockies Impact Fund as a Limited Partner in our mission to create True Impact, please contact us at:
Peter Adams, Managing Partner, at (720)353-9350 firstname.lastname@example.org