[Disclosure: Paul Grim’s firm, SunBridge Partners, invested in Eclipse Aviation, and this article is in part to explain why he thought this made sense, despite lots of people who thought he was nuts at the time. With dozens of companies offering copycat mobile or Web 2.0 technologies lately, his perspective about alternatives is welcome.]
Although there certainly has been no dearth of opining on the problem of copycat, flipmeat Web 2.0 companies and the VC’s that prop them up, it still seems to be the order of the day in the VC blogosphere that this is where deals get done. It is almost understandable, given the struggle to get decent returns in more capital-intensive sectors; most semiconductor and telecom deals take a bare minimum of $40m to really get going, and that assumes you don’t get caught in the crossfire of standards wars. So what else is there beyond the next mobilesocialnetworkphototaggingRSSRubyonRailsP2Padserverplatform?
Here’s a thought: what about looking at crappy, unloved sectors simply crying out for innovation, where a single disruptive concept, technology or company could suddenly change the rules? Case in point (and please bear with me here) is aviation. Yes, the old adage about more money lost than made since the Wright Brothers is probably true. And you want to talk capital intensive? Yeesh.
Yet general aviation has seen no innovation of any major sort since the 1970’s. Typical manufacturing plants hark back to the days of guild craft, with rubber mallets pounding ill-fitting parts into place. So in march the likes of Vern Raburn of Eclipse Aviation, Rick Adam of Adam Aircraft and others, who asked the obvious questions, like why have virtually none of the advances in automotive manufacturing been brought to bear on making small planes?
We were skeptical until getting to know Vern and his team back in 2001. His company took on the industry naysayers (“WCSYC”, or “We couldn’t so you can’t”) by using a variety of innovations to create a model for churning out more than 1,000 jets a year for $1.5m apiece. In addition to opening up corporate, owner-pilot and fractional jet markets, this price point also potentially creates a whole new market for air taxi services.
But as much as we’re happy about how Eclipse is doing, that’s not really my point (honest). Instead, it’s the reactions we got from other VCs when talking about the deal. The typical responses were, “Can you get me on the waiting list for one of those?” followed quickly by, “There’s no way in hell I could ever get that deal through Committee”. For several years, we sat virtually alone on the Very Light Jet (VLJ) runway, and were the only venture investor in Eclipse even as they made progress towards certification.
A few months back, we fell out of our respective chairs when we saw that Doll Capital Management decided to lead Adam Aircraft’s recent financing. Hang on, there’s another VC crazy enough to fund an airplane company? We also had a chuckle at their rationale, because it was ours too • that this was a technology company, not an airplane manufacturer. OK, so the air taxi model isn’t yet proven by a long shot, but it looks a lot more possible now than 5 years ago. And there are a lot of interesting opportunities that crop up if it does start to happen.
So here it is: a plea to my esteemed colleagues in the business, to try harder to look beyond the traditional “Bay Area Approved” sectors, because you will be more likely to find high-multiple deals in areas where few dare to tread, and yet where the underlying advances are equally grounded in technology. There’s often less frenzied competition to invest, and if you look hard, you might find a few real industry-creating disruptors out there. Oh wait, I just found a great ad-supported video search company . . .