I believe in angels

October 31st, 2009

Things are going well at Camvine.

Of course, we’ve had the usual trials and tribulations that any startup company goes through, exacerbated by the worst economy for decades in which to try and launch a new company with a new product! But we now have an excellent system in our CODA platform, and customers are starting to buy it and deploy it: you might well find yourself in a school corridor, garden centre, industrial factory, hospital waiting room, conference centre, or university faculty, and find yourself looking at information displayed on our internet-connected CODA screens.

So I’m now starting the fun process of raising further investment to take the company to the next stage. In preparation for this, I’ve been picking the brains of VCs, angel investors, executives and other knowledgeable people about the current state of the investment market, and thought I’d note down a few miscellaneous things I’ve heard.

This is a million miles from being a statistically-valid survey. It’s based on a small number of discussions so far. But I offer them in case they’re useful to others in a similar situation, and would welcome comments and further thoughts from others:

The timing is crucial with VC funds

Any VC fund that’s been around for a while is likely to have companies already in its portfolio that have been financially challenged over the last couple of years. They may have to support those with extra funding at the moment, rather than taking on new investments. The best opportunities are therefore coming from funds that raised their capital just before the downturn, and haven’t yet spent it all. Even some of those are being cannibalised to support earlier investments. Different funds have different degrees of freedom to do this, but in general it seems to be a common issue.

Many VCs are moving later-stage

For those of you who don’t speak VC – I myself am far from fluent – let me attempt to translate. One VC told me that the average time between putting money into a company and some sort of ‘exit’ (when they get their money back) has lengthened – it’s now about eight years. Since many funds operate with a ten-year lifespan, that doesn’t give them much room to manoeuvre. They need to have invested pretty quickly after the start of the fund to be able to tidy things up before the end, and remember that the eight year figure is an average. Some exits will take much longer.

As a result, many are investing in companies that are a bit more mature, even though the potential gains are smaller for the VC, simply to reduce this timespan. This isn’t such good news for startups.

The deals are still happening

VC Reported Investment US & Europe. Past thre years.Or rather, they’re coming back. Mark Littlewood gathered some statistics together in a very interesting post recently.

The numbers suggest that venture investments in the US, in particular, tumbled dramatically from a peak in mid-2007 to a nadir at the end of 2008, but are rebounding with equal gusto now. Even back in January an executive bubbled enthusiastically to me on the phone. “Here in California it feels as if the recession finished six months ago!” She may be right, but others have told me there’s precious little appetite at present for investing in European companies, so those of us on this side of the pond need to look for funds closer to home.

Mark’s statistics also suggest that European deals have fluctuated much less during this period than might have been expected, and certainly less than the US, though the UK perhaps more than anywhere else has followed the American rollercoaster ride. That’s the special relationship for you.

You may not need a VC

Doing a deal with a VC has always been a somewhat Faustian affair, and even if you avoid actually selling your soul to them, you may need to sell your shirt to pay your lawyers. One long-established Cambridge VC firm who shall remain nameless became something of a local laughing stock recently when they presented a modest-sized company with a term sheet that ran to 290 pages! But the VC route can be hard to avoid if you’re needing to grow fast.

I’ve generally worked on a rough rule of thumb that you can raise about £600K, maybe a bit more, from angel investors or groups of angels, and that VCs start to be interested once you get over about £1.5M. A million pounds is therefore the hardest amount to raise, and you either need to do it in smaller chunks or present a bigger, more dramatic vision, get more funding, and suffer more dilution than you might want at this stage. That, at least, has been my thinking.

But I was very encouraged when speaking to two separate CEO friends recently, each of them running a company which must have taken a few million in funding, to discover that they had both done it entirely on angel funding, sometimes with the help of government grants. Camvine has been blessed thus far with excellent angel investors who have been supportive at the right times and also asked the difficult questions when they needed to be asked. Angels can also generally move much faster than VCs when timing is tight. The idea that such a model might be something that could be extended much further than I had previously imagined was most encouraging.

So, for now, we’re expecting to raise this next round from individuals rather than institutions. I’m hoping that people will have realised their savings aren’t earning any interest in the bank, and that now is a great time to be investing in companies who have a product to sell as the economy starts to turn upwards again. (Though I’d also be keen to talk to any VCs who want to prove me wrong on any of the above assertions!)

Hope this is useful to somebody out there!

The pen is now even mightier

October 30th, 2009

Back in February I wrote about my latest gadget – the LiveScribe Pulse pen. I’ve been using it extensively since then and am very pleased with it.

But I’ve just discovered that the update to the Mac software I installed a month ago has a very significant new feature: search. Yes, it recognises enough of your writing to do a remarkably good job at searching it. Anyone who knows my writing knows that this is no mean feat.
Livescribe desktop

Of course, this is the easy way to do handwriting recognition: you don’t actually have to transcribe it, you just have to work out a few possible interpretations which might match, with various degrees of probability, the thing being searched for.

It’s the same technique we used to search video mail archives and TV broadcasts back at ORL… you didn’t have to recognise the speech perfectly, you just had to get close enough that when someone searched for a word you could list the things that might be a match in rough order of probability.

It’s still incredibly useful, though!

Thinking periodically…

October 30th, 2009

Periodic table

A lovely periodic table from Make magazine.

“Could you pass the salt? It’s over there near Bromium…”

Thanks to @adamnieman for the tweet.

The Little People

October 28th, 2009

I love this gallery of images by Vincent Bousserez on the Telegraph website.

Tweets bring back the olden days…

October 24th, 2009

Those of my readers who are outside the UK will have been spared the whole ‘Question Time’ thing: the national debate about whether the head of the British National Party – the nearest thing Britain gets to far-right politics – should have been allowed to appear on the BBC’s Question Time debating programme.

He did appear, looked like rather a buffoon, and so today the papers are saying that he was so ridiculed that the BNP will do well out of it. Why? Because it looks as if the Beeb recklessly allowed him to be so overwhelmed that they made him into a martyr. The Beeb really can’t win on this one. Actually, of course, that’s not the reason the papers are printing this. They’re simply printing it because ‘BNP backlash’ makes a more profitable headline than some of the other possible speculations.

Anyway, since I don’t really do politics, and I don’t really watch TV, I might have remained blissfully ignorant of the whole thing if it weren’t for Twitter. Relaxing in the bath of a remote northern hotel room, I checked up on what my friends were tweeting about. (What? You don’t read Twitter in the bathroom? I thought that’s what it was for!) A lot of them were mentioning #bbcqt, and since I hadn’t come across Question Time before it took me a while to work out what this acronym meant. It was a bit like overhearing snatches of conversations in a café without knowing the topic of discussion.

Eventually I worked it out, and realised that it was probably big enough that I should try and watch some of it. It reminded me of my schooldays, when there were only three or four TV channels, so the chances of your schoolfriends having watched the same thing as you were really quite high, and it would be the topic of conversation the following day. Then, we knew what our friends were viewing because we had little choice. Now, we know because of social networks…

So, after towelling myself dry, I sat on the bed and spent a while seeing if my iPhone’s 3G connection was good enough that I could pull up the programme on iPlayer or some similar site. I was a little way into this when it hit me. Right in front of me was a TV set! It’s something I now ignore so totally when going into a hotel room that I hadn’t even noticed it was there!

I turned it on and, though the picture wasn’t as good as I would have got from iPlayer, I was able to watch the latter part of the programme that all my friends were watching… a somewhat fuzzy version but quite watchable after I had tweaked the little internal aerial a bit. It was just like the old days.

Except, I guess, for the tweeting-in-the-bath bit.

Chronological Conundrum

October 24th, 2009

Alarm clockTonight, in the UK at least, we perform that ridiculous ritual of ‘putting the clocks back’. How much longer must we put up with this, for heaven’s sake? For once, though, I’m grateful, since Rose is catching a distressingly early flight in the morning, and the hour of our rising will at least feel less abominable than it would otherwise.

It leaves me with a problem, though: what to use as an alarm clock?

Some of my gadgets are clever enough to take note of the time change automatically, others aren’t, and some (like my RDS clock radio) will pick up the change once they’re turned on. I’m really not sure whether they’ll do the right thing if I set an alarm tonight for a time in a different timezone tomorrow. So which of these should I take to whichever faceless Heathrow hotel is to be blessed with our patronage tonight?

I certainly don’t want to have any fewer hours of sleep than I’ll be getting already, but I also don’t want to gamble with getting to a transatlantic flight on time. So, ironically, I may take the most basic, least high-tech alarm clock which I know won’t try to do anything clever and I can then work out the time changes myself…

Indexing the firehose

October 22nd, 2009

Both Google and Bing have signed agreements with Twitter to be able to index the live feed of ‘tweets’. There are several things I’d love to know about this.

Firstly, just from technical curiosity: how fast is that data flow, exactly? I wonder what kind of infrastructure is needed to index it in real time. Presumably they’re going to index everything?

Secondly, the business side… Several companies have exited successfully by creating something interesting enough for Google or Microsoft to want to buy. I wonder how many healthy ongoing businesses can be made from creating a data stream interesting enough for them to want to index?

And thirdly, the statistics will be fascinating, if we ever get to hear them. For example, I wonder how often the search query will now be longer than the item returned…

Think outside the box to get inside the box

October 19th, 2009

Here’s a wonderful hardware project, very nicely written up by Mikal Hart.

Thanks to Stephen Turner for the link.

Thought for the day

October 18th, 2009

Once upon a time, only the rich could afford to buy books.

Now, only the rich can afford the time to read them.

CamTube

October 11th, 2009

I’m very impressed at what the Cambridge University Office of Communication have been up to recently. There’s a wonderful selection of stuff on iTunes U (which is now easy to access directly on an iPhone or iPod Touch).

But I’ve also just discovered the Cambridge University YouTube Channel which also has much of the same material in a different layout. The quality is excellent.

There are some lovely shorts produced by Windfall Films, too, in the Cambridge Ideas playlist. Here’s six minutes of my pal David Mackay:

On the origin of puddings by natural selection

October 11th, 2009

I worry about the future. In particular I worry, as so many of us must, about whether the progress in desserts that has been achieved over the last few millennia will slow down in the centuries to come.

There are probably those who believe that puddings were all created long ago in a dramatic few days’ work, and collected together in Mrs Beeton’s ark, and have been fairly static ever since. Indeed, if one considers a beautiful specimen of Sticky Toffee Pudding, it is hard to believe that there wasn’t one, single infallible designer somewhere near the Garden of Cartmel who came up with the perfect dessert in one glorious act of creation.

But in truth the evidence for culinary evolution is all around us. I remember, when the family were invited to friends’ houses in my childhood, my mother would often ask for the recipe of any particularly delicious courses, and she in turn would pass the recipe on to others when requested. Sometimes, variations would be introduced by, say, an expected local shortage of brown sugar requiring a substitute to be found. If that mutation proved particularly successful, it would increase its likelihood of being replicated both in our own puddings, and of the recipe being transmitted more widely elsewhere. See? All the Darwinian… umm, ingredients… are there!

Now, I’m sure this process still occurs amongst those who have more frequent culinary intercourse than I do, but I wonder if the wide availability of standard recipes, of mass-media to transmit them, and the rarity of brown sugar shortages in this time of plentiful supply, means that the process of culinary evolution has slowed. On the other hand, it could be argued that, while mutations may be less frequent, the adoption of successful ones can now be much swifter.

Anyway, this is particularly exciting for me, because I’ve occasionally contemplated a return to academia, and have wondered about finding a topic of research that could truly capture my heart. Now, though, I intend to start submitting grant applications for a major project to trace the evolution of desserts, do extensive studies of the true qualities of various historical recipes around the globe, and explore whether such factors as online social networks can be harnessed to keep up the pace of culinary progress so that future generations have something to look forward to.

It would, of course, be tragic to make such research so theoretical that it was of little use beyond the ivory towers, so my proposal will be for a very ‘applied’ approach, involving extensive user testing…