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What Venture Capital Can Learn from Emerging Markets

Venture capitalists are increasingly interested in emerging markets, and in working with local funds based in those markets (despite the fact that reverse innovation in venture capital seems counterintuitive). The reason for the interest in in part because the industry has suffered from poor returns on investment over the last decade; indeed, some sectors, including biotechnology, report negative aggregate returns. China and India, in particular, offer attractive liquidity and investment opportunities VCs haven’t seen for a while.

The interesting part of this shift is that VCs are taking a more holistic or “systems” approach to investing than they typically do in developed markets. Traditionally, VCs evaluate each investment as a discrete entity; the firms in their portfolio rarely interact with one another. In contrast, emerging-market VCs such as Nadathur Holdings (established in 2000 by N.S. Raghavan, one of Infosys’ co-founders) create intentional links between firms. Nadathur’s portfolio includes firms operating in drug discovery research, companion diagnostics, pharmaceutical analytics, reimbursement claims processing, patient relationship management, and specialty healthcare delivery for running clinical trials — and they all work together. In effect, the VCs at Nadathur Holdings serve as the executive team for a miniature healthcare innovation ecosystem.

Why do VCs in emerging markets take a systems approach? Because of three significant challenges innovators face in emerging markets:

  1. Innovation ecosystems are not well-developed. The supporting industries that an early-stage tech start-up needs simply don’t exist locally. VCs encourage upstream and downstream, often service-based, investments. These can be exited at lower multiples, with the trade-off of higher success rates for the R&D-intensive high-multiple investments.
  2. Technology-intensive firms are expected to generate revenues before they make an exit; local investors are reluctant to put money into start-ups centered on intellectual property. Portfolio firms upstream or downstream can help establish commercial proof, generate retained earnings and make it easier to get additional customers.
  3. Few local financial intermediaries (including VCs) exist. A portfolio that contains an entire ecosystem helps to decrease risk by allowing inferior business models to be refined or killed faster.Continue reading…