Venture capitalist Bruce Luehrs, who weighed startups and pitched investors for Princeton’s pioneering Edison Venture Fund back in the dot-com boom, is back on the road.
He says he wishes he had more competitors.
“We’re an honest-to-God Philadelphia early-stage venture fund,” Luehrs told me about his latest pile, $18 million Rittenhouse Ventures II, which includes $4 million in funding from state sources and Ben Franklin Technology Partners.
Rittenhouse Ventures I is the current name for the 2008 fund formerly known as Emerald Stage2 Ventures, which Luehrs started in 2008 with partner Saul Richter, backing from Joe Besecker’s Emerald Asset Management, and millions more in state funding.
That fund invested early in Tabula Rasa, the profitable $80 million (yearly sales) Moorestown medication-therapy manager that filed early this year for an initial public stock offering, raising the prospect of fat investor profits.
There were a dozen similar-size funds in the region during the dot-com bubble, trying to build a local variant on the “West Coast model,” a community of shared risk and reward, with three to five wary partnerships plunging in together on deals.
Some venture-capital operations – Anthem, Zone, and Keystone, for example – lost money and wound down. Others – Ira Lubert’s LLR Partners, Mike DiPiano’s NewSpring Capital, Robert Adelson’s Osage Partners – have gotten so big they focus on larger firms outside the immediate Philadelphia area. Luehrs counts Ben duPont’s yet2Ventures of Wilmington among the few funds now buying into local firms with $1 million to $5 million in sales.
“We hang in there, trying to find those little software companies, health-care IT, pharma IT, and fin tech,” Luehrs said. “Here in the trenches, where it’s fraught with risk. And opportunity.”
Last month’s columns about drug firms moving biotech work from suburban Philadelphia to Boston in search of investors touched a nerve.
“Talent is migrating to Boston from Philadelphia,” and not just in biotech research, affirmed Michael Costonis, senior managing director at consulting giant Accenture’s East Coast insurance group. For this native Bostonian who came south to attend Swarthmore and stayed, “this is beyond troubling.”
But haven’t our civic leaders offered tech firms tax breaks? Hasn’t the state seeded millions in start-up funding? Aren’t our colleges and office landlords promoting “innovation neighborhoods?”
“It’s hard to declare yourself an innovation center but maintain practices that are challenging for most businesses to grow in,” Constonis told me. “Boston has a much friendlier relationship with its corporate base than Philadelphia.”
The “preferential attraction of the Boston/Cambridge area for pharma/biotech startups and R&D sites . . . has occupied the minds of a great many good people in the Greater Philadelphia region for a long time,” said Thorir Bjornsson, president of the St. Davids-based Therapeutics Research Institute. A few years back, after leaving Wyeth, he consulted with dozens of peers and drafted a 19-page “Pharma/Biotech Startup Ecosystem for Greater Philadelphia.”
“This region has everything,” if you look at the parts, Bjornsson added. But pulling together to support small firms “will take a lot of dedicated, comprehensive effort by many.”
Ryan Udell, an attorney at White & Williams, which has offices and life-sciences clients in Philadelphia and Boston, says the gap “is near and dear to the Life Sciences Collaborative, a Philly-founded industry group that has recently expanded northward. “We intend to have a Philly-Boston summit in the fall, to discuss how Philly can learn from Boston’s successes, and vice versa.”