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Robert Trigaux

Can new fund boost Florida's venture capital?



Moneytreeventurecapital Wake up, good morning and happy holidays: Amid the worst recession in a generation, a cynic might consider Florida's new "opportunity fund" to help inject venture capital into start-up businesses about as timely as starting a "Go Bucs" campaign after Sunday's playoff-ending loss to Oakland.

Still, money is money and these days it is in tighter-than-ever supply. So what's up with Enterprise Florida's new $30-million venture capital fund called the Florida Opportunity Fund? For its large population size, Florida remains starved for venture capital for several reasons.

*First, Florida is late to the serious game of business start-ups and technology commercialization and remains behind the curve of leaders like Silicon Valley, Boston and the greater Washington, D.C.-Baltimore area.

*Second, Florida is still addicted to retirement and tourism industries --  which is fine -- but they are old school and not overly compatible with the laser-like obsessions of other parts of the country on nurturing new tech and capturing new tech money.

*Third, Florida still suffers geographic discrimination as a long southeastern appendage sticking out into the Atlantic and Gulf waters -- far from established VC centers that prefer investing in start-up businesses that are easy to get to or, ideally, just down the block. (So maybe we should nurture our own venture capital industry as much as new tech companies? Check out the Miami Herald plea: "Florida needs to be nicer to angels")

*And fourth, Florida -- while definitely making strides in attracting high-tech satellite facilities of established tech players like Scripps Research, Burnham Institute, SRI and Draper Labs -- still suffers from chronic underfunding of its educational system and especially its state university system. There's a reason the mean joke of Flori-Duh persists.

I digress. Enterprise Florida, the state's Orlando-based economic-development arm, earlier this month said its Florida Opportunity Fund is recruiting venture-capital firms to join its investment management network and to provide financing to newer leading-edge companies. According to the Orlando Sentinel, the agency also has hired Orlando-based Milcom Venture Partners and Credit Suisse Customized Fund Investment Group of New York to manage the $30-million opportunity fund. The fund-management team is known as Florida First Partners. The state legislature passed a law in late 2007 to establish the fund, hoping to energize the state's effort to obtain a greater share of the nation's multibillion-dollar venture-investment market. Here are some of the people behind the Fund.

The fund's emergence even caught the eye of the New York Times this week, though let's be clear the bar for reporting business news between Christmas and New Year's Day is low. In a Dec. 29 posting on its Bits blog, the Times headline reads: "Florida, the Next Hotbed of Venture Capital?" Okay, it's a stretch. Still, notes the posting:

"Venture capital is spreading outside its historic hotbeds in Silicon Valley and New England, but so far, Florida has not been getting a significant chunk of the money. The fastest-growing regions for venture capital investment over the last decade are New Mexico, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Los Angeles and the District of Columbia, according to the National Venture Capital Association. Florida will receive only a small fraction of the $30-billion that is expected to be invested in start-ups this year.

"The Florida Opportunity Fund hopes to change that. It is tapping into the state’s existing industries, including aerospace engineering, homeland security, military and clean energy, and hoping to build up its life sciences and information technology sectors."

It sounds good, but Florida has a truly uphill climb. As I reported last month on this Venture blog, Florida companies took in only $54-million from venture investors in the third quarter. That's off 65 percent from the first quarter and one of its lowest totals this decade. Florida fell to 17th among the states with 11 companies (just three in Tampa) receiving venture capital in the quarter.

Let's get a conversation going here on how to boost venture capital activity in Florida.

-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist

[Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 11:23am]


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