One thing many cleantech VCs are good at is connecting with large corporations' strategy and venture groups. They regularly chat to compare notes, discuss market trends, share investment perspectives, identify areas of needed investment, opportunities to work with the VCs' portfolio companies, etc. It's a win-win.
I was surprised upon joining the family office community to discover that these groups are (with some definite exceptions) not as good at this. There are probably several reasons: 1) family offices are often already affiliated with some companies that the family owns, dampening the supposed need; 2) corporate strategic groups don't think about family offices because the FOs aren't asking them for money as LPs; and 3) family offices are generally not very good at networking to begin with. There are certainly some FOs that do have good outreach to corporate groups and vice versa, but it remains an untapped opportunity.
I've been meeting and speaking with corporate leaders for the past few months, to argue for a need for much more regular communications between the two communities. The reasons for family offices to more regularly connect with strategics are the same as for VCs. And smart corporate teams are starting to recognize the unique and additive value to holding such conversations with family offices in addition to their existing conversations with VCs.
First of all, family offices are much less limited in terms of the types of business and projects they can invest in. They can be more patient and more flexible. This means they'll often be looking at a different scope of opportunities than the VCs might be. Some FOs will be looking at very early, long-development, really-big-upside opportunities that would take too long for VCs to invest in, at least at that seed stage. This is especially true when one broadens the definition of FOs to include very wealthy individuals. Others will be more open to investing in different service and business models instead of the proprietary technology plays that VCs continue to favor (at least in this sector). Still others will be able to invest in project finance opportunities. In one of our investments at Black Coral Capital, we invested as project investors into a pool of capital alongside a venture-type corporate equity investment by a large corporation in the developer of the pool. These are the kinds of collaboration opportunities that corporates miss if they're not engaging with the family office community.
Secondly, despite some instincts to the contrary, the fact that the family office is often tied to other, larger family-owned businesses means that there are other reasons to hold the conversation as a means of building broader relationships than just common investment opportunities.
Thirdly, that family offices aren't looking for LP dollars means they will be able to express a different perspective than many VCs will in the same situation. No one ever provides a 100% objective perspective, but at least in these conversations the corporate team is talking with a professional investor who's not trying to sell them on investing in their next fund.
So should corporate strategy teams start reaching out broadly to the family office community?
Unfortunately, if you know one family office...you know one family office. No two are alike. There are an estimated 3,000 or so single-family offices of significance in the U.S. (BTW, here's a useful primer). But many aren't going to be as valuable a connection as they should be for the corporate team.
Most family offices aren't in the business of doing direct investments into applicable companies. Many have wealth preservation, rather than wealth creation, goals. When they refer to doing "alternative investments," they may simply mean they're allocating dollars into hedge funds in addition to mutual funds. Very few family office gatherings revolve around the challenges and trend-spotting involved in direct venture and project investing.
Many family offices have simply been passive co-investors with big-name venture and private equity firms. I'm not going to criticize that strategy (in this column, at least), but for the purposes of this discussion it's enough to note that the corporate teams will get more insight from talking with the lead institutional investors these FOs are following.
And fewer still family offices do direct investments into cleantech. Starting from 3,000+ applicable single family offices, the number of FOs doing direct lead investments into cleantech private equity is bigger than you might think -- but it's certainly a very small subset of the 3,000+.
All of which is why we co-started the Cleantech Syndicate a couple of years ago (along with over a dozen other family offices, plus our friends at McNally Capital). We found it was best to aggregate a bunch of these rare entities upfront and build relationships across the teams, rather than wait until we had specific co-investment opportunities and then had to go seek them out in this opaque community on short notice.
Which speaks to the need for corporate teams to be very targeted in their outreach to the family office community. My message to the corporate teams I've been meeting with recently has been, "You should do more to engage with family offices and high net worths. But you should do it selectively, using these specific criteria." There's no magic here, there's just some simple catching up to do to get conversations between corporates and FOs up to par with existing conversations between corporates and VCs. It's worth doing. But it's important to do it right.
Allow me to hijack this space real quick for something different. An old colleague of mine reached out and is doing something very cool, so I offered to let him write a blurb about his efforts to share with all of you. Enjoy!
"I'm writing about an exciting education program my organization, The Keystone Center, runs around the country called the Youth Policy Summit (www.youthpolicysummit.org). We take groups of students to analyze a tough public policy problem, like water scarcity, climate change or childhood nutrition. We teach the students to analyze the different facets of the problem, including the political, social, economic and technological, as well as different stakeholder views from industry, advocacy groups and government regulators. We provide the students with mediation and negotiation training.
"Students meet with adults from these different stakeholder groups, and then assume the roles of these players as they work to find consensus-based recommendations. They take their suggestions back to their communities and to local legislators and business leaders. More importantly, we have worked with past sponsors to identify future interns and workers. We truly feel that we are creating the leaders of tomorrow's workforce.
"We have conducted 22 summits over the past eight years, and have found that students care passionately about sustainability, and are passionate about energy and water issues whether they are from rural Appalachia, downtown Detroit, or the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The program trained 125 future entrepreneurs last year, 80 of whom were non-white. They are now entering college with a newfound vision to make the world more sustainable, and to seek opportunities in science and technology to help us get there."
Anyone out there who wants to get involved or support this effort should feel free to track down Jeremy Kranowitz at the Keystone Center (http://www.keystone.org).