Three of the largest tech acquisitions in 2014 are hardware companies

By James Robinson , written on June 2, 2014

From The News Desk

Nest, $3.2 billion. Oculus Rift, $2 billion. Beats, $3 billion.

Three of the four largest tech acquisitions in 2014 have been hardware deals. This is massive, iron clad backing to the prevailing “hardware is sexy” narrative. The success stories go past these three, too. GoPro -- who sold of 8.8 percent of their company in 2012 at a $2.25 billion evaluation -- have pulled back the financial curtain for a coming IPO, to universal praise. A Jawbone IPO is rumored, potentially also putting it in the billion dollar club.

Hardware isn’t just cool anymore, it is lucrative. It is an entirely new investment dynamic. Trolling through years of investment data on venture backed exits in tech, it all tells the same story... until now. Hardware deals have been fewer and further between and relatively minor in size with Internet and software acquisitions making up most of the action and most of the value.

Google bought eight robotics companies last year but likely paid less than $100 million.

In the first quarter of 2014, Nest’s sale to Google for $3.2 billion was only one out of 79 acquisitions, but accounted for 43 percent of the combined disclosed value of all deals. (Granted, Facebook’s WhatsApp and Oculus Rift buys were officially cleared in April, so don’t technically count to that number.)

We’ve seen an avalanche of bluster, speculation and op-eds out of this action. But inside the bigger hype, we’re really only looking at a handful of big stories.

Meaningfully then, how does the landscape change from here?

The logical assumption from this flurry of activity is that it will change attitudes about the possibilities of hardware and in turn lead to more investment. The argument goes that with Oculus Rift’s rapid transformation from $2 million Kickstarter campaign to $2 billion acquisition, in the backs of their minds opportunistic investors will look twice at more obscure hardware companies. Which will help. Talk to any hardware entrepreneur, no matter how promising or inevitable their product and they can run off a highlight reel of rejection from venture capitalists reluctant to do hardware deals, usually burned in the past by one that went badly wrong. Even in the midst of the current hardware boom you could still comfortably count the number of VCs doing major hardware deals on one hand. If it wasn’t for this dynamic, crowdfunding might not have got as big as it has. All of the top three, and five of the top ten, largest Kickstarter campaigns are hardware related.

Following the Oculus deal late in March, this progression has rolled as if on cue. In mid-May Survios -- which makes full body motion detection technology for VR platforms -- officially closed its $4 million Series A, led by Shasta Ventures. Immersive 360-video makers Jaunt closed a $6.8 million round days after the Oculus deal was announced and VR startup Virtuix netted $3 million later in April.

But it is worth pointing out, that what made Nest, Beats and Oculus most tempting was that they were all software companies, with a hardware hat on them, as many VCs like to say. And the companies doing the acquiring -- Apple, Facebook, Google -- were all technological monoliths who bought them as much, or more, for the platforms they represented than the technological innovation they brought in with them. In an SEC filing uncovered in March, Google talked about one day delivering advertisements to cars and refrigerators (one could assume, also that this applies to thermostats). When Facebook announced the Oculus-deal, Mark Zuckerberg talked about it as the post-mobile platform of the future and in most analyst’s eyes, Beats’ new music streaming services were infinitely more attractive to Apple than its ritzy headphones.

Toys for toys sake hasn’t proven to hold great value. GoPro has its media tie ins. Jawbone lags behind FitBit in market share, but has made extensive investments in data science and lately has partnered with every company under the sun to expand its footprint.

Maybe the most important factor -- and the most impossible to forecast -- in divining what impact this 2014 spending spree has years from now, is how the landscape of innovation is impacted with all of this IP hoovered up inside huge companies.

Investment and speculation in virtual reality has continued even after Facebook bought Oculus, but we can't know how Oculus' eventual endgame is changed by having Facebook as it's owner. Nest's sale made a splash as a possible Internet of Things inflection point, but it has set the company outside of the swarm of innovation that has happened in the space in the months since.

Google absorbed eight robotics companies in 2013. You only need to look at the slow pace of non-Google innovation around self-driving cars to see what can happen when entrepreneurs assume that one company has too much of an advantage.

Forecasting long term, the spike in VR-investment post Oculus’ sale suggests that a bigger corresponding spike is probably coming. But this isn’t purely a win for hardware. It’s a win for hardware that opens up new platforms and new opportunities for data. And as more of this hardware gets moved inside the tall walls of Silicon Valley’s largest companies, we should always temper our celebration with just a dose of suspicion.