Photo of Robert C. White Jr.

Bob White is a business, corporate and technology lawyer. He is a member of Gunster’s Corporate and Securities and Corporate Governance Practice Groups, and he is the Co-Chair of the Technology and Emerging Companies Practice Group. He works with innovative companies, entrepreneurs and in-house lawyers on a wide variety of topics including mergers and acquisitions, venture capital and private equity investments, corporate structuring, corporate contracts and technology matters.

SMU Central
SMU Central

Things are looking pretty good for the venture capital industry. Potential VC investors have a lot of money available, and industry and geographical trends show a positive outlook for VC investing in the near term. There are numerous factors that could negatively affect the outlook for VC investments, but it certainly appears that substantial VC investment activity could occur over the next twelve months.

The most significant positive factor for VC activity in the near term is the supply of available cash. According to a recent report, VC funds currently have approximately $120 billion available for investment. Even though this is a composite number that is applied across the whole VC industry, it is a huge amount of available investment funds.

Another positive factor is the increase in corporate VC investment. In a relatively short time (aided by large amounts of cash on corporate balance sheets), corporate investors have begun to play a key role in the VC industry, especially in larger deals. Last year corporate VC deals comprised 25% of total VC deals, and this percentage will continue to increase. See my prior blog post on the rise of corporate VC investors (Corporate Venture Capital Investments – Good for Startups?).

Continue Reading It’s a good time to be a VC fund

Photo by Carlo De Pieri
Photo by Carlo De Pieri

President Barack Obama signed into law Wednesday, May 11th, a bill that will provide protection for trade secrets on the federal level.

This new legislation, called the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016, or DTSA, has been hailed by commentators as an extremely significant addition to federal intellectual property law. The DTSA was created as an amendment to the Economic Espionage Act of 1996 to provide civil remedies for trade secret violations under federal law. While some potential issues exist, I believe that this new law should be beneficial to many companies because of the possible increased trade secret protection and aggressive potential remedies that it will provide.

Trade secret protection in the U.S. has primarily been available under applicable state law. The Uniform Trade Secrets Act provides some consistency, and it has been adopted by 48 states. The trade secret laws of the various states are not totally uniform, however, and this has sometimes made it difficult for companies to protect their trade secrets under the various state laws. Legal actions involving trade secret protection have generally been brought in state courts. Since the DTSA is a federal law, more trade secret actions will now be able to be brought in federal court, providing an additional potential venue for these actions.

The DTSA does not replace or preempt existing state laws. As a result, this could be an advantage to companies as it may provide a separate method of protecting their trade secrets. The DTSA also defines trade secrets a little more broadly, using “public economic value” as the heart of the trade secret definition. This broader definition of what constitutes a trade secret may expand the range of information that a company can claim as a trade secret.

That said, there is a potential problem here: the DTSA does not provide a uniform system of trade secret law and instead establishes a federal level of trade secret law on top of the existing states’ trade secret laws. This could increase the number and the complexity of legal actions involving trade secrets. Therefore, a company that wishes to assert a trade secrets action will need to analyze which court — state or federal — will be more advantageous, and this will likely vary with the different circumstances of each situation.

One-sided seizures

The DTSA contains fairly aggressive potential remedies that may be advantageous to companies which believe that a trade secret violation has occurred. The provision that has drawn the most interest is the ability of a court to issue an ex parte seizure order in certain extraordinary circumstances. Continue Reading New federal law provides additional protection for trade secrets

Photo by Michael Tipton
Photo by Michael Tipton

The SEC’s crowdfunding rules (under Regulation Crowdfunding) became effective earlier this week. From the legal and legislative perspectives this was a big day since it marked the effective date of

one of the most heavily anticipated and promoted components of the JOBS Act. It is also the last provision of the JOBS Act to be put into practice. Reward-based crowdfunding has been operational for a long time and has had some pretty positive results, but the SEC’s equity crowdfunding rules were going to be a way for small investors to make equity investments in small companies and help foster the growth of the tech and innovation economies.

Unfortunately, as reported in my prior blog post and just about everywhere else, the execution of the final crowdfunding rules has resulted in a system that is probably not viable for most situations. While the new rules may work in some cases, they create barriers that I believe will prevent widespread use of equity crowdfunding as a financing vehicle. One of the best summaries of Regulation Crowdfunding problems and deficiencies can be found in this post which quotes Jeff Lynn, the CEO of Seedrs (a prominent crowdfunding platform). He is certainly a guy who believes in the crowdfunding concept, but he says that the crowdfunding regulations in their current form are not workable. Lynn also advises US regulatory authorities to study the UK crowdfunding model, which he believes allows companies to raise funds while still providing investor protection.

The main problems with the new crowdfunding regulations are practical ones. First, the funding limit of $1 million each year is just too low for most companies. This is similar to the problem that we saw with Regulation A for a long time – essentially no one used it because the limit was too low in relation to the costs (although the old Regulation A limit was $5 million, substantially higher than the current crowdfunding limit). Regulation A+ has fixed this problem for Regulation A offerings, but the low limit remains a huge challenge for crowdfunding offerings. This low limit problem is made worse by the costs associated with a crowdfunding offering, which will be substantial for a small company. Legal and accounting work will be required. Companies must also use a registered funding portal in connection with the offering, and this will add to the cost burden. Finally, companies cannot “test the waters” before beginning an offering to see if the offering is even viable for them. The combination of all of these factors creates significant practical roadblocks for crowdfunding that cannot be overcome without some adjustments (as discussed below).  Continue Reading What’s up with Crowdfunding? So far, not much (but a fix may be coming)

Corporate Venture Capital
Photo by Saulo Cruz

Corporate venture capital has quickly developed into a major funding source for startup companies. This type of startup funding is available to some innovative startups and early stage companies, and the dollars involved are significant. This all sounds great, but is this type of funding right for your startup?

According to the National Venture Capital Association and PWC’s Money Tree survey, 905 corporate venture capital deals were closed during 2015 with $7.5 billion invested (primarily in high growth startup companies). These transactions comprised 21% of the total number of venture capital deals closed in 2015 and represented 13% of the total venture capital funds invested in that year. Not surprisingly, the biggest chunk of these investments went to software companies ($2.5 billion in 389 deals, which represented 33% of all corporate venture deals in 2015), while biotech deals were second ($1.2 billion in 133 deals, which represented 16% of all corporate venture deals that year).

Many large and familiar companies have implemented venture capital programs. Some of the most well-known corporate venture funds are Alphabet’s GV (formerly Google Ventures), Microsoft Ventures, and Salesforce Ventures. Most of these corporate venture funds are sponsored by large technology companies, but Airbus Group Ventures is an example of a fund established by a non-technology company in a specific industry space. While each of these programs has some independent characteristics, the commonalities are a strong desire to foster innovation (either generally or in specific industry segments) and an ability to step out of the normal corporate mold and commit funds to situations with higher risk profiles when compared to normal corporate investments like real estate and straightforward corporate industry acquisitions.

There are a number of significant potential advantages associated with corporate venture capital. For me, two of the biggest potential advantages are the broader investment scope and the more long-range expectations which may result in a corporate venture investment as compared to a normal external venture investment. A corporate venture capital investor can Continue Reading Corporate venture capital investments – Good for startups?

Photo by Dieter Drescher
Photo by Dieter Drescher

After much anticipation, the SEC adopted final crowdfunding rules on October 30, 2015. These rules (called Regulation Crowdfunding) will become effective 180 days after they are published in the Federal Register. Here are links to the SEC’s press release and a helpful summary of these new rules as well as some good background commentary from Chair White. Click here for the final rules. VentureBeat also recently posted a helpful and practical summary of Regulation Crowdfunding.

There is a lot of optimism regarding these crowdfunding rules and their potential positive impact on capital raising, and there is certainly a high degree of good intent behind these rules. I continue to doubt, however, that crowdfunding will have a major impact on capital raising for many companies because of the associated regulatory requirements and high costs (particularly the costs associated with audited financial statements and the use of an intermediary).

The most important components of these crowdfunding rules are:

  • Issuers can raise up to $1 million during each 12 month period in crowdfunding offerings.
  • There are substantial limits on the amounts that an investor can invest. If an investor has less than $100,000 in either annual income or net worth, that investor can only invest the greater of $2,000 or 5% of their annual income or net worth in all crowdfunding transactions over a 12 month period. Investors whose annual income and net worth are both at least $100,000 can invest up to 10% of their annual income or net worth in all crowdfunding transactions over a 12 month period. It is important to note that during this 12 month period the aggregate amount of securities sold to an investor in all crowdfunding transactions cannot exceed $100,000.
  • Certain entities, such as Exchange Act reporting companies, non-U.S. companies, “blank check” companies and certain disqualified companies, are not eligible to use Regulation Crowdfunding.
  • Issuers must submit detailed reports to the SEC and to investors in connection with each crowdfunding transaction and also annually. These reports must contain, among other things, information about the issuer’s officers, directors and principal shareholders, related party transactions and the use of proceeds. Audited financial statements (prepared by an independent accounting firm) are generally required, although there is some relief from the audit requirement for certain issuers who are utilizing Regulation Crowdfunding for the first time. In these cases the financial statements must be reviewed. The issuer’s principals may be required to disclose certain personal financial information.
  • Securities purchased in a crowdfunding transaction can generally not be resold for one year.
  • Holders of securities obtained in a crowdfunding transaction will generally not be counted in the determination of whether an issuer must register under Section 12(g) of the Exchange Act.
  • An intermediary (called a funding portal) must be used. The requirements for an intermediary under Regulation Crowdfunding are complex and contain numerous important provisions and restrictions that are specific to crowdfunding transactions.

The SEC’s press release also described some interesting proposed Continue Reading SEC adopts final crowdfunding rules – Last gasp of the JOBS Act (plus some bonus proposed new rule amendments)

Courtesy of JasonHerbertEsq
Courtesy of JasonHerbertEsq

The SEC continued its program of enforcement actions in connection with the Federal EB-5 Program by bringing charges against two firms which raised approximately $79 million for EB-5-related situations. This matter is a little different in that it is the first SEC action to be brought in connection with unregistered broker-dealer activities in the EB-5 context. This action is important and should be reviewed by all participants in the EB-5 arena because it demonstrates the SEC’s willingness to exercise its enforcement powers in connection with these immigration-related matters. It also shows the SEC’s willingness to partner with other regulatory agencies (in this case the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS)). The SEC’s action is summarized in its June 23 press release.

The Federal EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program is designed to provide a way for foreign nationals to achieve legal residency in the U.S. by investing in certain approved U.S.-based businesses or designated regional economic development centers. The requirement for investment in a regional economic development center is generally less than the amount required to invest in a U.S. business under this program.

According to the SEC’s Order, Ireeco LLC and a successor company, Ireeco Limited, acted as unregistered broker-dealers in raising funds from a number of foreign investors. According to the Order, these companies promised to help investors locate the best regional center in which to make their investments, but they allegedly only directed these investors to a small number of regional centers. These regional centers allegedly made payments to the Ireeco companies once the CIS granted certain approvals for conditional residence to the investors. The SEC alleged that the two Ireeco companies raised approximately $79 million in this manner

Continue Reading SEC charges unlicensed broker/dealers in EB-5 Program

Doom over crowdfunding?The first enforcement action involving a crowdfunding project was recently brought by the Federal Trade Commission. It involved the development of a board game which did not go well despite a successful crowdfunding campaign. This matter is interesting and instructive not only because it is the first such case, but also because it highlights some of the significant risks inherent in the crowdfunding process. The FTC’s official press release on this matter contains a good summary of the relevant events.

According to the FTC complaint, Erik Chevalier discovered an idea for a board game called The Doom that Came to Atlantic City! This game was designed to be a dark fantasy take on the traditional Monopoly board game. The game had originally been developed by two designers, but Chevalier planned to take their concept and produce and distribute a finished game. To raise money for this venture, Chevalier turned to Kickstarter, probably the best known crowdfunding platform. According to the FTC complaint, Chevalier represented to investors that the funds raised would primarily be used for the development, production, completion, and distribution of this game, and that participants would receive certain rewards, such as copies of the final game and action figures, in return for their participation in this campaign.

This crowdfunding campaign was very successful. Chevalier’s original goal was to raise $35,000, but this campaign raised more than $122,000 for the development of this game. Unfortunately, things went bad as the game development process encountered delays.

According to the FTC complaint, Continue Reading First crowdfunding fraud enforcement action

SAFE and KISSEarly stage and startup companies often face difficulty in obtaining initial financing.  These companies normally do not have access to traditional venture capital, angel, or bank financing.  Even when a startup finds an investor, the company may not have the time or the funds to pursue the long and complicated negotiation and documentation process required for a convertible debt or preferred stock investment.

Y Combinator (a Silicon Valley technology accelerator) developed a possible solution for this situation:  the SAFE (Simple Agreement for Future Equity). This is a short document that contains the basic terms of an investment in an early stage company. Y Combinator’s goal was to create a standard set of terms and conditions that the investor and the startup can agree upon without protracted negotiations so that the startup can obtain its initial funding relatively quickly and cheaply. Y Combinator offers both a summary of SAFE concepts and sample SAFE documents on its site.  Y Combinator first proposed this instrument in December 2013, but it is just now beginning to be used outside of Silicon Valley.

While the SAFE has appeared in a number of forms, the basic concept is that the investor provides funding to the company in exchange for the right to receive equity upon some future event.  The standard SAFE contains no term or repayment date, and no interest accrues.  The investor gets the right to receive the company’s equity when a future event occurs (normally a future equity financing). There is no need to spend time or money negotiating the company’s valuation, the terms of the conversion to equity or any similar items (which can often be tough and protracted negotiation items) – all of those decisions can be deferred into the future. The investor will receive shares in the subsequent offering, often at a discount to the price that other investors pay in that offering. The parties can also negotiate a cap on the valuation used in connection with the SAFE, and this may provide additional protection to the investor.

The beauty of the SAFE concept (from the company’s standpoint) is that it Continue Reading SAFEs and KISSes – Alternative investment vehicles can help early stage companies get financed

Photo by JMR_Photography

On September 19, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba completed the initial public offering of its stock. The underwriters for the offering subsequently exercised their option to buy additional shares, making this the largest IPO in history at $25 billion. The stock’s price immediately jumped by a huge amount, finishing its first day of trading at $93.89, a 38% increase over its $68.00 IPO price. The stock has since lost some ground, closing at $87.17 on Tuesday.

What does this massive IPO mean for U.S. technology companies? I see four possible areas of impact:

  1. U.S. technology companies may delay their IPOs until they see how the Alibaba stock performs. This could be a short delay if the stock price holds up or does well. Right now U.S. technology companies Hubspot, Lendingclub.com, GoDaddy.com and Box, among others, are expected to conduct IPOs this fall.
  2. If the substantial demand for Alibaba stock holds up, fund managers may reduce their Continue Reading Alibaba’s record IPO – How will it affect U.S. technology companies?