The venture capital industry is fairly well-known: they raise funds from investors, often pension funds or university endowments, to invest in start-up companies at an early stage, knowing that a most of those companies won\’t do very well, but hoping to make a good return when about one in ten of those companies hits it big. The National Venture Capital Association estimates that VC funds raised $28 billion in 2015, and have about $168 billion under management. This isn\’t a large amount in the context of an $18 trillion US economy, but the effects of VC firms in choosing and nurturing start-ups are much larger than the dollar value would suggest.

But behind or perhaps along-side of the VC firms are a more shadowy group known as \”angel investors.\” which may well be investing more money than their better-known VC cousins. Angel investors are not raising a fund from others; instead, they are investing their own money in small start-ups.  Not much is known about them. But Josh Lerner and Antoinette Schoar present some evidence in their report \”Rise of the Angel Investor: A Challenge to Public Policy,\” written for the Third Way think tank (September 23, 2016). They describe the subject this way:

Angel investors are high-net-worth individuals, often (but not exclusively) former entrepreneurs and corporate executives, who make private investments in start-up companies with their own money. While individual angel investors have a long history—for instance, Naomi Lamoreaux and co-authors highlight how Cleveland’s angel investors played a critical role in financing the early electricity and automotive industries—organized angel groups are a quite recent phenomenon. Beginning in the mid-1990s, angels began forming groups to collectively evaluate and invest in entrepreneurial ventures. …  

Angels typically invest at the seed funding stage, making them among the first equity investors in a company beyond its founders. … Angels invested a total of $24.6 billion in 2015 with an average deal size of $345,390, according to the Center for Venture Research. …  The Angel Capital Association (ACA) lists more than 300 U.S. groups in its database. The average ACA angel group in 2015 had 68 member angels and invested a total of nearly $2.5 million in 10.3 deals in 2007. At least between 10,000 and 15,000 angels are believed to belong to angel groups in the U.S. … 

The precise measurement of the total size of the angel investment market is difficult to ascertain due to the fact that most angel investments are made on an individual basis and thus typically are not subject to regulatory disclosure requirements. But estimates suggest that the total size of angel investment has long surpassed venture capital investment in the U.S. and increasingly in some other countries as well. For instance, survey estimates suggest the projected size of the total angel market in the U.S. grew from $17.6 billion in 2009 to $24.1 billion in 2014. The estimated capital
deployed by angel groups in Europe has almost doubled over the past five years, and in Canada, it almost tripled. Some estimates suggest that these investors are as important for high-potential start-up investments as venture capital firms. But despite their
rapid growth, we know very little about the role that angels play internationally and the type of firms in which they invest.

 As Lerner and Schoar describe them, angel investors are \”a growing form of start-up investing that is less formal than the VC market but more professional than receiving funding from friends and family.\”  Venture capitalists often have a few seats on a company\’s board of directors, but angel investors are more likely to be personal mentors to entrepreneurs who are starting a company and to play a fairly direct role in using their connections and experience to help the company grow. Their average investment in a company is fairly small, measured in  hundreds of thousands of dollars, not millions. Here\’s a description of the process for a typical angel group:

Angel groups follow mostly similar templates. Entrepreneurs typically begin the process by submitting to the group an application that may also include a copy of their business plan or executive summary. The firms, after an initial screening by the staff, are then invited to give a short presentation to a small group of members, followed by a question-and-answer session. Promising companies are then invited to present at a monthly meeting (often a breakfast or dinner). The presenting companies that generate the greatest interest then enter a due diligence review process by a smaller group of angel members, although the extent to which due diligence and screening leads or follows the formal presentation varies across groups. If all goes well, this process results in an investment one to three months after the presentation.

The authors describe some of their recent research on angel investors. For one study, they got detailed data on two groups of angel investors, so they could compare companies that just barely made the cut to receive funding with companies that just barely missed the cut–and thus firms whose prospects  looked quite similar–the firms that got funding were measurably (although not extremely) more successful over the next few years. For another study, they looked at \”the records of 13 angel investment groups based in 12 nations and with applicants for financing transactions from 21 nations,\” and again find that firms which just made the cut for funding do better over time. 

A lot of angel investors have historically preferred to do private deals behind the scenes. But as their importance increases, and as at least some angel investors start working with web-based \”crowd-funding\” techniques for start-ups, a number of of them are going to emerge from the shadows. As the subtitle of the Lerner-Schoar paper implies, politicians and regulators are likely to grab for a more role in regulating angel investors, too.

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