Marriage made in Net heaven?

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The Independent Online
THEY WERE hardly noticed in a week that saw the latest news from the battered supermarket group Sainsbury, maiden results from the engineering company created through merging Siebe and BTR and the usual bids and deals. But last week saw a pair of financings that their backers believe could make a telling contribution to the UK's prosperity.

Neither the funding of Moreover.com, an Internet-based supplier of news to corporate and media websites, nor the backing of confetti.co.uk, billed as Europe's first online one-stop shop for planning a wedding, is significant on its own. But, taken together, the deals are indicative that European entrepreneurs and financiers are starting to catch up with US counterparts in seeing the potential of the Internet as a source of opportunities for high-growth businesses.

The excitement generated among investors by every business with ".com" in its name has led to speculation that in the United States at least this is a bubble that might be about to burst. But Atlas Venture, the international venture capital firm that has backed both of these start- ups, is confident there is still great potential on this side of the Atlantic.

Indeed, confetti.co.uk is owned and operated by Inter-Europe.com, the Internet development business founded by Andrew Doe and David Lethbridge with the intention of launching European online businesses based on successful US models. "There is a genuine untapped market for quality country-centric content developed specifically with the consumer in mind - we plan to be among the first companies to release the potential of this marketplace," Mr Doe said last week.

It is this clear-sighted approach that impressed Vic Morris and his colleagues at Atlas, a Netherlands-based firm with offices in Amsterdam, Munich, Paris, London and both coasts of the US. Mr Morris believes the company has the momentum to take ownership of "the online wedding space across Europe".

The team behind Moreover attracted Atlas with their ambition that every website should feature its newsfeeds. But, though Atlas has been aggressively buying into Internet start-ups since closing a $400m fund in February, it stresses that it does more than just put the money in and run. Mr Morris's colleague, Christopher Spray, said the background of most of the people at Atlas is operational rather than financial. "We're closely aligned with the interests of management in building a venture," he said.

Atlas, with a clear focus on early-stage investments in life science and technology businesses, provides further evidence that European high- tech start-ups are not necessarily as starved of cash as is commonly supposed.

The Federal Trust report "Venture Capital in Europe" launched at a Cambridge conference last month said European entrepreneurs do not enjoy as favourable a climate as those in Silicon Valley and other US high-tech centres. Firms often face scepticism and ignorance in the banking sector, a lack of stock options and various regulatory problems.

But banks are improving, some British clearers making efforts to understand the dynamics of high- technology start-ups, which tend not to meet traditional bank lending criteria. There is a growing perception that the problem is less one of funds and more one of suitable management. "Probably the most critical element is building the management team," says Mr Spray. "Most don't have a full management team when they start."

He spends much of his time matching appropriately qualified people with his firm's investments. But the shortage of managers who combine the right knowledge and experience with a readiness to take the risks associated with start-ups means there is a developing trend for business partnerships to be established between the start-ups and large players in the same area. The attraction for the larger player is that it provides access to the latest developments and opportunities to make a better return on its investment than it might make from established operations, while the start-up clearly gains from funding and management assistance.

Now wealthy private individuals are getting in on the act. Fortune magazine says the likes of the former American Express chief Jim Robinson, and Frank Biondi, the former second in command at entertainment company Viacom, are launching venture capital firms. In the US attracting funding is important for a start-up for reasons beyond the money it provides. "It adds to the credibility and helps it to form partnerships and hire the right people," says Mr Spray, who likens the business to Hollywood.

"Part of the venture capitalist's role is not just to improve the script, but also to cast the movie," he adds.

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