Technology Company Issues

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

On October 7, 2020, the SEC proposed the creation of “limited, conditional” exemptions from broker-dealer registration for certain “finders” in private company capital raising transactions. This has long been a problem area for private companies, as current regulations impose restrictions that may prevent them from using unregistered finders to raise capital, or impose draconian penalties on them if they do. Since these companies are often unable to raise capital on their own and normally do not have access to the efforts of established, registered broker dealers, the already difficult challenge of raising early stage capital is made even more difficult. The SEC’s October 7, 2020 Press Release and Fact Sheet lay out these proposed exemptions in detail, and the Fact Sheet contains links to a chart and a video that may be helpful.

It’s too early to tell if these proposed exemptions will be beneficial to small companies. Will they actually facilitate small companies’ ability to raise early stage capital? That remains to be seen, but it’s a positive sign that the SEC is expending at least some efforts to help small companies in their capital raising efforts.

Here are the high points of the proposed exemptions:
Continue Reading Will Finders Find Relief from SEC Restrictions?

I’ve often said that lawyers representing corporations should never underestimate the creativity of the plaintiffs’ bar.  However, it seems that the white collar criminal defense bar may not be slouches in the creativity department either.

I’m referring to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal that the legal team representing Elizabeth Holmes, the “disgraced Theranos founder,” is considering using her mental health (presumably, the lack thereof) as a defense in her upcoming federal trial for engaging in a variety of frauds.

I’m prepared to admit that I am totally if morbidly fascinated by the Theranos case: I’ve read the phenomenal book, Bad Blood, by John Carreyrou – twice, in fact – and will surely be among the first to see the movie (which reportedly will star Jennifer Lawrence as Holmes in what strikes me as the best casting choice ever); I’ve attended programs featuring Tyler Shultz, the whistleblower who blew the top off the fraud (and whose grandfather, former Secretary of State George Shultz, was on the Theranos board at the time in a family saga worthy of Aeschylus); I’ve listened to the podcast; I’ve watched the HBO documentary; and much more.  Still, it seems just surreal.
Continue Reading Legal surrealism

Image by Krithika Parthasarathy from Pixabay

On August 26, 2020, the SEC adopted changes to its definition of “accredited investor.” The SEC Release can be found here. The new rules will become effective 60 days after their publication in the Federal Register (around the end of October 2020). These changes are definitely a move in the right direction, and they indicate that the SEC may be willing to further expand and modernize the accredited investor qualification requirements, but I don’t believe they will have a significant impact on the private securities offering process. .

The accredited investor requirements largely determine eligibility to participate in private securities offerings. The current requirements are primarily based on financial status. For most individual investors to qualify as accredited investors, they need an annual income of $200,000 (or $300,000 combined with their spouse) or a net worth (including their spouse’s net worth but excluding the value of their primary residence) of $1 million.

These quantitative requirements have been subject to criticism. They have been in effect since 1982, with the only change being the exclusion (in early 2012) of the value of the investor’s primary residence in the net worth test. Some commentators say that these requirements are too restrictive and exclude too many investors from participation in private offerings, thus stifling the capital available to smaller companies. That criticism may have become less valid over time; when the $200,000 annual income test was first implemented in 1982, less than 1%  of potential investors qualified. Due to inflation and the lack of an increase in the income requirement, approximately 9% of potential investors currently qualify. . Conversely, however, this standard has been criticized by other commentators on the basis that it allows more investors to participate in risky and dangerous private investments because the qualification standards have not changed over time. This has led to some calls for indexing the income standard to inflation. The SEC did review these quantitative standards but declined to make any changes at this time.
Continue Reading SEC changes “accredited investor” definition – good, but not enough

SEC Rule 701 exempts non-reporting companies from registering securities offered or sold to employees, officers, directors, partners, trustees, consultants, and advisors under compensatory benefit plans or other compensation agreements. As discussed in an earlier post, under the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act (EGRRCPA) passed by Congress in 2018, the threshold for the aggregate sales price of securities sold during any consecutive 12-month period that triggers additional disclosure requirements under Rule 701 was increased from $5 million to $10 million.   What may have gone unnoticed was that the SEC has adopted final rules to implement EGRRCPA and has published a concept release “soliciting comment on possible ways to modernize rules related to compensatory arrangements in light of the significant evolution in both the types of compensatory offerings and the composition of the workforce since the Commission last substantively amended these rules in 1999.”

Continue Reading The SEC modernizes exempt compensatory offerings (with more changes in the works)

If you find the title of this posting confusing, let me explain:  On June 28, the SEC announced revisions to the definition of “smaller reporting company”that will significantly expand the number of companies that fit within that category (i.e., “smaller gets bigger”).  As a result, more public companies will be able to reduce the disclosure they are required to provide under SEC rules (i.e., “which means less”).  The new definition will go into effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.

Background

The SEC adopted the reduced disclosure requirements applicable to smaller reporting companies, or SRCs, in 2007. These reduced requirements were intended to ease the costs and other burdens of disclosure for small companies.  The reduced requirements enabled SRCs, among other things, to:

  • present only two (rather than three) years of financial statements and the related management’s discussion and analysis;
  • provide executive compensation for only three (rather than five) “named executive officers”;
  • omit the compensation discussion and analysis in its entirety;
  • present only two (vs. three) years of information in the summary compensation table; and
  • omit other compensation tables, pay ratio disclosure, and narrative descriptions of various compensation matters.

In addition, SRCs that are not “accelerated filers” (companies that must file their Exchange Act reports on an accelerated basis) need not provide an audit attestation of management’s assessment of internal controls, required by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.  More on this below.
Continue Reading Smaller gets bigger, which means less (the new definition of “smaller reporting company”)

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

New platform for private companiesNasdaq OMX Group, Inc. announced today that it will enter into a joint venture with SharesPost, Inc. to form a marketplace for the trading of shares of unlisted companies. This is an interesting and cutting edge move that solves some problems for both Nasdaq and SharesPost. This new marketplace should be very positive for rapidly growing and large private companies which want to allow some trading in their shares but which are not ready to become publicly traded companies. It will also give investors opportunities to buy the shares of large private companies before the shares of these companies become publicly traded. According to a Nasdaq press release issued today this new marketplace, which will be called The Nasdaq Private Market, will “provide improved access to liquidity for early investors, founders and employees while enabling the efficient buying and selling of private company shares”. 

Nasdaq will own the majority of and will control this joint venture, but the joint venture will use SharesPost’s existing trading platforms and infrastructure. The joint venture will be run by SharesPost founder Greg Brogger. Depending on the speed of regulatory approval, this new market for unlisted shares could be operational later this year. 

This move makes good sense for Nasdaq because it should help them to begin to rebuild their credibility with up and coming companies and the technology industry. These market segments have traditionally been Nasdaq’s strength, but Nasdaq has been losing company listings (even from technology companies) to the NYSE and other exchanges. Nasdaq’s problems in attracting new technology company listings may be due to the significant negative issues that occurred in the initial public offering of Facebook’s shares last year. Nasdaq took a huge hit to its credibility as it was roundly blamed and criticized for the technical glitches that occurred with the Facebook offering. Some estimates say that major market makers and broker dealers lost more than $500 million in the Facebook IPO because of Nasdaq’s technical glitches. Nasdaq will also soon feel the economic effects of this matter as it reportedly offered as much as $62 million to settle associated claims and it now faces a possible $5 million fine from the SEC. For a good discussion of the current status of Nasdaq’s Facebook offering woes, see Charlie Osborne’s post on ZDNet

This new relationship should also be very beneficial to SharesPost. SharesPost, which began operations in 2009, experienced substantial success in facilitating trading of shares of unlisted companies. The company provided the platform for trading in unlisted securities of high visibility technology companies such as LinkedIn and Facebook before these companies’ securities became publicly traded. SharesPost eventually encountered regulatory scrutiny, however, and the SEC brought an action against the company for failure
Continue Reading Potential good news for growth companies: Nasdaq to set up new private market for unlisted stocks

The use of social media as a public company information channel encountered a roadblock on December 5, 2012 as Netflix, Inc. and its CEO, Reed Hastings, both received Wells notices from the SEC regarding a prior Facebook post that Mr. Hastings had made. A Wells notice is a notification from the SEC that it intends to recommend enforcement action against a company or individual. This notice also gives the affected parties an opportunity to explain why such an action is not appropriate. 

Mr. Hastings’ July 2012 Facebook post congratulated the company’s content licensing team for exceeding a milestone in monthly viewing hours. It also contained a positive prediction regarding future monthly viewing hours. Netflix did not issue a Form 8-K, a press release or any other disclosure at the time of this post. Mr. Hastings has made a habit of posting company information on his Facebook page. Here is the post that is the subject of the Wells notice:

 FD issue for Netflix

Netflix filed a Form 8-K regarding this matter on December 5, 2012. According to this 8-K, the Wells notices indicated that the SEC staff intended to recommend that the SEC institute a cease and desist proceeding and/or bring a civil injunctive action against Netflix and Mr. Hastings for violations of Regulation FD, Section 13(a) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Rules 13a-11 and 13a-15 under the 1934 Act. Mr. Hastings also provided a statement that was attached as an Exhibit to this Form 8-K. The statement clearly indicates his feeling that the SEC’s application of Regulation FD is incorrect here. 

Regulation FD prohibits selective disclosure of material information. This regulation was enacted to prevent public companies from selectively releasing material information to certain shareholders or other parties without broad distribution. For example, Regulation FD prevents a company from selectively providing information to certain friendly investment analysts or major shareholders before it is publicly. The policy behind this rule is that all investors should have equal access to material information. 

Regulation FD is conceptually a good rule, as it helps to level the playing field among investors and interested parties. The real problem in the social media context is that
Continue Reading Netflix CEO’s Facebook post leads to possible Regulation FD action by SEC – Time for some changes