Are VCs throwing in the towel on science?

By Sarah Lacy , written on April 19, 2013

From The News Desk

In contrast to the numbers released last week by CB Insights, Thompson Reuters and the National Venture Capital Association released numbers today that showed a decline in venture funding in the first quarter of this year.

What may explain the difference? The NVCA closely tracks two sectors a lot of research groups don't care about: clean tech and life sciences. Two segments that -- compared to software, media, and Internet companies -- haven't produced the lion's share of the industry's returns, take far longer to develop a marketable product, and require more technology and market risk. They are two sectors that frequently require more of an investment in real research and science. And it's exactly the two sectors that saw the biggest declines in funding.

Investments in biotech fell 33 percent in terms of dollars and 30 percent in terms of deals from the prior quarter. Medical devices and equipment fell 20 percent in dollars and 10 percent in terms of deals. Meanwhile, clean tech declined 35 percent in dollars and 13 percent in deals from the prior quarter -- the lowest number since 2006.

Meanwhile media and software surged, which researchers credited to the comparative shorter time frame to liquidity.

Investing in so-called "science fair projects" has long had a bad rap in venture circles. Most VCs argue that it's only their job to build companies, not develop core science and technology that's nowhere close to commercialization. Likewise, VCs loathe being reliant on the government for loans or other subsidies.

But in the last 10 years, several big name VCs pushed back on that conventional wisdom, embracing more science-oriented deals in the name of how big the clean tech opportunity could get. But quarter-after-quarter, that resilience appears to be waning.

VCs are right that their job isn't to fund fundamental research that can't easily be commercialized. But this is one of those unfortunate good-for-the-indutry, bad-for-humanity trends.

As we've said many times, the venture industry is one of exceptionalism. Just because it's trending this way generally, doesn't mean no one will invest in wild, change-humanity ideas anymore. This is not to say we won't get the flying cars we were promised. But as the venture industry focuses more on traditional Valley startups, it'll likely take a near-crazy Elon Musk-type entrepreneur to deliver them.