Friday, October 05, 2007

If Hamlet Were a VC

To tranche or not to tranche, that is the paraphrasing of a tired cliché.

Cliché or not, it’s an important question venture capitalists often ask themselves when financing a start-up that potentially could require significant capital. (We ask it here.) The obvious benefits are clear. Venture investors can commit large bits of capital to these companies—enough perhaps to carry a company to commercialization—without actually having to hand all the money over at once. (As an added benefit, they boost their IRR by shortening the time between their distribution of capital and their realized--they hope--returns.)

This morning’s panel at our In3 East conference in Boston examined two specific cases of companies running on tranched financings: atrial fibrillation company Endosense SA and spinal implant maker Innovative Spinal Technologies Inc. (IST) In the spirit of obtaining both sides of the argument, the panel included an investor perspective—delivered by Thomas Pollare investment director at 3i and lead investor in Endosense—and management—represented by Scott Schorer, president and CEO of IST.

The discussion—led by colleagues David Cassak and Stephen Levin—didn’t come to any definitive conclusion, pro or con. Pollare and Schorer obviously endorse the concept since each agreed to tranched financings in 2005. Pollare negotiated a $20 million Series A financing with Endosense, which is developing a catheter capable of delivering radiofrequency energy that scars heart tissue and disrupts the irregular electrical flow that leads to atrial fibrillation.

Schorer, meanwhile, signed a $39 million Series B with Orbimed, MPM and JPMorgan Partners taking equal parts. The company is currently selling and developing several new spinal implants.

Both suggested the tranched financing structure gives companies the capital necessary to make serious headway on a business plan. Pollare suggested the inclusion of milestones aligns the interests of management and investors as both will be rewarded by the execution of the business plan. “As an investor it’s important to have the capital working for you so it can be used efficiently,” Pollare said. “Obviously, it’s important for a second reason because if they don’t hit milestones something is wrong. You have to rethink the plan and the valuations.”

Schorer agreed but warned that the milestones could easily become a problem if management and investors don’t share the same interpretation of milestones and results. “I generally don’t like milestones and, as I was telling myself that, I looked back at the last few deals I’ve done and I realized that they all have contained milestones,” Schorer said.

IST, according to Schorer, drew down $20 million in July 2005 when it first closed on the $39 million Series B. The second $19 million came later, after the company and investors renegotiated the terms of the second tranche when the company missed some of its milestones. “We did that in reasonable terms,” Schorer says, concluding that the key to the success of tranched financings is high level of trust and respect between investors and management. The biggest risk is that investors and executives don’t share similar interpretation of results, so disagreements can arise over whether or not milestones have been met.

“There is nothing you can build into the deal structure to make it smoother,” he added. “You have to trust the people you’re working with to be fair.” IST is raising a $30 million to $35 million Series C round. It hopes to close on the financing early next year.

An audience member challenged the structure, saying it was unhealthy because it automatically put management and investors at odds. Experienced investors should be capable of judging management, evaluating performance and rewarding results without dangling the carrot and stick of a tranche investment.

Pollare, however, defended tranching, saying it gave investors an additional level of control over how their capital is used. “You can’t just give the check and say, `Call me in three years,'” he said.

“That, would be ideal,” Schorer joked.

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