So did some of the local hard-working venture capitalists finally opt for fun in the sun this summer?
Let’s not get crazy here. It seems doubtful the VCs took much of a break from the constant chase for deals.
But a bit of mystery surrounds a sharp slowdown in funding for VC-backed startups in the Boston area, as shown Thursday in the PwC/CB Insights report for the third quarter.
Only 87 venture capital-style investment deals closed during the period in the region, making the quarter the slowest one since the end of 2010. A stark number. That represents a drop of 23 percent from the second quarter, and 33 percent from the same quarter last year.
Deal volume slowed nationally, too, but not as much as it did here.
Rudina Seseri, managing partner at Glasswing Ventures, notes the entire industry is coming off a super-hot year, 2018. Still, it was the slowest quarter across the country since 2013.
To some extent, the trend reflects the rise of the mega-deal: More companies are staying private for longer, thus gobbling up bigger slugs of VC funds as they reach out to the market for capital. The total of dollars invested in VC-backed firms fell in Boston and nationally, from last year and from the previous quarter, but the declines were nowhere near as sharp as the drops in volume. (Of $25.9 billion in investments in the third quarter, PwC says, $1.8 billion were made in Boston-area companies.)
Roi Carmel, chief strategy officer at Cybereason in Boston, doesn’t seem fazed. In fact, the decline in deal activity could be a healthy sign, in a way. He thinks the trend shows investors are placing a bigger premium on companies with a clear path to profitability, betting on fewer winners — as opposed to spreading money among a wider range of startups that might be growing quickly but are simply burning through dollars.
This is smart money, Carmel says, finding the right company versus playing roulette. Carmel has no reason to complain about his own firm’s prospects: The cybersecurity business landed the third-biggest funding round in the Boston area during the quarter, equaling a $200 million investment, after DataRobot and Gingko Bioworks.
The executives at DataRobot didn’t notice any sort of slowdown, either. Igor Taber, a senior vice president at the Boston AI software company, says his firm is still receiving inquiries from investors, long after its $206 million funding round closed in late summer.
Tom Ciccolella, the lead partner at PwC for venture capital, says it’s too early for Boston’s innovation community to worry. One quarter does not make a trend. The total dollar amount raised by Boston startups in the first nine months of the year, $6.8 billion, essentially equals or exceeds 12-month totals for any year before 2017.
The alarm bells certainly aren’t sounding yet on Drydock Avenue, home to the MassChallenge accelerator program. Caitlin Brumme, managing director of the nonprofit’s Boston program, says she hasn’t received any indication that participating MassChallenge startups or alums are having much of a problem finding money.
But Brumme pointed to two trends that might explain the lower quarterly figures from PwC: Many life-sciences firms in the Boston area rely, in part, on grants from government programs. And an increasing number of startups are accepting investments by promising a share of revenue instead of equity stakes. Neither of these funding sources show up in the PwC data.
The larger-than-average decline in Boston also puts us behind Los Angeles and into fourth place among the metro areas that attract the most investments.
Boston once dueled with New York for second place, behind San Francisco/Silicon Valley. Those days are long gone. Now, we’re lucky if we can “beat LA.” It didn’t happen in Q3, although Boston’s deal flow and total dollars are still tracking ahead of Los Angeles for the year.
So now we wait and watch for the fourth-quarter results. Whether we regain the number three spot, or fall behind for good, could say more about where Boston ranks in the pecking order than one surprising summer.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.