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October 30, 2007

Searching for the true Indian VCs – A LP’s Perspective

The following article, by Anand Sunderji, originally appeared in the latest quarterly India VC Report.

Recently, a well known venture fund announced their India plans. However, further information revealed that while the fund plans to be loyal to its venture capital strategy offshore, in India they would largely concentrate on growth capital. Needless to say, something about India makes traditional venture capital funds veer off their beaten path.

Several funds that look exclusively at venture capital deals outside India, have changed track when operating in India and have been dabbling in what would be called growth capital deals or even larger ticket transactions. “Venture” firms are now entering sectors as varied as manufacturing, hospitality and auto components. This was, however, not always the case.

The late 1990s witnessed a surge in venture capital activity in India. Venture capitalists largely looked to replicate the Silicon valley success stories on the Indian subcontinent. Start-ups that looked to bring U.S. success stories to India found favor with the venture funds. Several bad investments and a technology bust later, the U.S. model for Indian market was no longer an accepted path. The 1999-2000 debacle led the venture capital movement to take a beating and the survivors to severely realign their strategies and portfolios away from high risk early stage investing. Today, as the Indian private equity is seeing a veritable boom, the venture capital segment in India still remains underserved.

But the burst of the technology bubble is not the only reason for the dwindled venture capital industry. While the private equity is the current media darling, the Indian entrepreneur’s familiarity with the concept still remains rather basic. Also, Indian firms apply for their initial round of financing at a much advanced stage of development. Hence, as the entrepreneur looks for capital for his/her fledgling enterprise, venture capital does not feature among the available options.

This makes one wonder that if the venture firms are doing the growth deals, who is taking care of the venture capital requirements in the country? The venture space in India, as it exists today, consists mainly of local teams, usually with successful entrepreneurial track records. These venture capitalists are mainly looking to fund business plans that cater to unmet local demands and are tuned to the domestic business environment, quite unlike the preferred models of the 1990s. Typical investments include the travel services company Flightraja/Via with its wide network of local travel agents and the multimedia and animation company DQ, both of which exploit niche demand and talent available locally.

Also bridging the gap to an extent have been angel investors. Groups such as the Indian Angels and Mumbai-based Mumbai Angels have to their credit investors who helped create landmark brands such as Indiabulls. These groups largely consist of successful entrepreneurs that have the experience and expertise, in addition to the capital, to help budding entrepreneurs set up their businesses.

The last few years have seen an increase in reported deals, diversified across sectors (beyond technology) as well region (beyond Bangalore). The investor’s work, however, remains cut out for him. With the traditional venture players doing big ticket deals, we need to dig deeper to find the true venture capitalist with the deal pipeline and the talent to find the next big story.

Anand Sunderji, Director and Head of Asset Management at Thomas Weisel International in Mumbai (which manages a Private Equity Fund-of-Funds for India with an active interest in the Venture Capital segment), provides an overview of the VC landscape from a Limited Partner’s perspective. He can be reached at asunderji (at) TWeisel.com