What’s the outlook for mobile payment startups?

-Contact Thomas Rasmussen

The consolidation in the mobile payment market that we outlined recently is still on. Startup Boku announced on Tuesday a $13m venture capital infusion in the form of what we understand was a $3m series A round followed quickly by a $10m series B round a little over a month later. Benchmark Capital led the latest round, with Index Ventures and Khosla Ventures also pitching in some cash. The money was used to acquire two competitors, Paymo and Mobillcash. We estimate that very little of the cash was used to buy the vendors. We understand that the purchase of Paymo, which raised a reported $5m itself, was primarily done in stock. The deals were largely a way for Boku to gain customers and technology, as well as expand its international reach. It’s increasingly important for mobile payment startups to do something to stand out among the dozens of rivals also trying to crack this market. What’s unusual about Boku is that this strategy is playing out so quickly. The company only incorporated in March.

The real question for Boku and other promising startups in the mobile payment space such as RFinity is what will ultimately happen to this hyped market. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars poured into startups, they haven’t been able to generate much revenue, certainly not to the level that would make them viable businesses at this point. We believe the best outcome for these firms is an exit to a larger strategic acquirer. An example of this that may well be in the offing is Obopay, which took an investment from Nokia a few months ago. We suspect that could be a ‘try before you buy’ arrangement for the Finnish mobile company. Research in Motion and others could look to use acquisitions to catch up, as well.

However, we wonder how long it will be before other smartphone providers, platforms and mobile operators do as Apple has done. Micro-transactions are a huge selling point for the new iPhone 3.0 update and, frankly, one of the few bright spots for the mobile payment sector. However, all transactions for iPhone applications are done through Apple itself, leaving companies such as Boku out in the cold. If other vendors – including RIM, Palm Inc, Google, Microsoft and even application platforms like Facebook – stay in-house to develop the technology, there isn’t much need to go shopping. That could well hurt the valuations of mobile payment startups, even those that survive this current period of consolidation.

Intuit-PayCycle: A kind of homecoming

by Brenon Daly

Looking at Intuit’s acquisition of PayCycle Inc, we might note that the alumni network can pay off – and pay off big. Intuit picked up the payroll services startup earlier this week for $170m in cash. We understand that PayCycle generated only about $30m over the previous four quarters, meaning Intuit paid an estimated 5.7x sales. (Granted, by looking solely at revenue, we’re arguably shortchanging PayCycle. The company, which has some 85,000 customers, sells its payroll services on a subscription basis, meaning revenue substantially lags actual contracts it has billed.) In a somewhat unusual mandate, Goldman Sachs advised Intuit, while Lane, Berry & Co., now owned by Raymond James & Associates, advised PayCycle.

There are a number of connections between Intuit and PayCycle. The Palo Alto, California-based startup was founded by a pair of former Intuit executives (Martin Gates and Rene Lacerte) who then turned the company over to Jim Heeger, Intuit’s former chief financial officer. Also, board member David Hornik of August Capital formerly drew a paycheck from Intuit, as did fellow investor Tom Blaisdell of DCM.

For sale: Supercomputer startup SiCortex

Contact: John Abbott

Supercomputer vendor SiCortex appears to have run out of funding options and has put itself up for sale. Gerbsman Partners has been retained to find a buyer for the assets, including the intellectual property, in whole or in part. Founded in 2003, SiCortex sought to lower the cost of developing a supercomputer by sourcing up to 80% of its chip development from off-the-shelf components, primarily multiple low-cost MIPS cores, leaving only 20% of the work to do on custom logic. There are three families of systems, Desktop, Department and Division, ranging from 72 to nearly 6,000 processors. A big selling point was energy consumption, with claims of 60-80% less electricity use than Intel-based clusters. The technology approach is similar to that of IBM’s Blue Gene supercomputers, except that SiCortex was aiming at the bottom 50,000 supercomputer users, rather than the top 500.

Over the years the company raised $68.1m in funding from Flagship Ventures, Polaris Venture Partners, Prism Venture Partners, JK&B Capital and Chevron Technology Ventures. It also acquired the PathScale multicore compiler suite from Qlogic in August 2007. A year later, ex-Novell executive Chris Stone was hired as CEO in hopes of taking SiCortex into its next phase of growth. Momentum appeared to be gathering: 75 computers shipped to customers (including NASA, Lockheed Martin and Argonne National Laboratory), 300 applications up and running plus first-quarter revenue doubling from the previous year. Gross margins were more than 50%.

Sealed bids to Gerbsman are due by June 25. However, with the venerable Silicon Graphics recently selling to Rackable Systems for less than $50m, the prospects for a richly valued sale of SiCortex don’t look very good. We would also note that fellow supercomputer systems startups Fabric7 and Panta Systems have already closed their doors. Look for a full report on the sector in tonight’s MIS sendout.

IBM-Exeros: the wind-down and the bid-up

Contact: Brenon Daly

Even in the ongoing recession, the fundamental economic laws concerning supply and demand still haven’t been overturned. That’s at least one lesson we can draw from the recent sale of the assets of data discovery startup Exeros. Although terms weren’t disclosed, we believe IBM paid about $13m for Exeros. While that hardly seems like a blockbuster exit for a VC-backed startup that raised some $19m, we would note that the price is four times higher than the offer Exeros received from its first bidder.

As we understand the process, SAP offered just $3m for the assets. Exeros gambled and let the ‘no shop’ period expire on SAP’s bid and then successfully enticed IBM. (Big Blue will slot in the Exeros technology alongside a number of other tools in its Information Management portfolio.) One source added that IBM agreed to an earn-out that could take the final price up to $20m, potentially making Exeros’ backers whole on their investment.

Whatever IBM ends up handing over for Exeros, the target should probably consider any amount over SAP’s initial bid a windfall. The last time we spoke with Exeros (in mid-September, just before capitalism as we know it ended), the unprofitable startup said it was looking to raise a third round of funding that would carry it through to break-even status. Of course, we can all imagine how those fundraising conversations must have gone.

So instead of drawing down money, Exeros was wound down. However, the resulting transaction wasn’t like the dozens of scrap sales that we’ve seen in recent months, where a single buyer pushes the price down so low that the startup’s investors get just pennies on the dollar. With both SAP and IBM bidding, Exeros’ backers may well break even. And that’s not a bad return, given what they were facing.

WDC goes SSD

-Contact Thomas Rasmussen

The market for solid-state-drive (SSD) technology is heating up. As an increasing number of consumer and enterprise products (including servers, desktops, laptops and netbooks) incorporate the technology, some old-line technology companies are looking to expand their SSD offerings. Western Digital acknowledged that last week by acquiring SSD vendor SiliconSystems for $65m in cash after about a year of on-and-off talks. (It was Western Digital’s first purchase since its $1.14bn acquisition of Komag in mid-2007.) On the other side, SiliconSystems had taken in just $14m in venture capital since its inception in 2002 from Miramar Venture Partners, Rustic Canyon Partners, Samsung Ventures America, Shepherd Ventures and SanDisk.

We understand that SiliconSystems generated about $50m in trailing 12-month (TTM) sales, meaning Western Digital paid about 1.3x TTM sales for the startup. This is in line with historical averages for the space, but comes at a time when the median valuation for venture-backed startups has been nearly cut in half. In the first quarter of 2009, the median valuation in a sale for a VC-backed tech company sank to just 2.1x TTM sales, compared to 3.8x TTM sales during the same period last year. (See our full report on first-quarter M&A.)

SiliconSystems will be re-branded as Western Digital’s Solid-State Storage business unit and will be headed by former CEO Michael Hajeck, who used to run STEC Inc’s enterprise SSD division. The importance of this relatively small acquisition should not be underestimated. Having essentially become a player in the SSD space overnight, Western Digital has taken the first step toward securing its future survival. With $1.4bn in cash, we wonder if Western Digital will continue to use acquisitions to expand in this market. Possible targets are Hajeck’s former employer STEC, which we previously speculated might be on sale, as well as Smart Modular Technologies. There are also a few potentially disruptive startups out there worth looking at such as Pliant Technology, Texas Memory Systems and Fusion-io.

Western Digital M&A

Date announced Target Enterprise value Price to sales multiple
March 30, 2009 SiliconSystems $65m 1.3x*
June 28, 2007 Komag $1.14bn 1.1x
July 24, 2003 Read-Rite $172m 1.0x

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase *451 Group estimate

Tough exits for VCs

Contact: Brenon Daly, Thomas Rasmussen

After being frozen for more than six months, there were some signs of a thaw this week in the tech IPO market. Chinese game maker Changyou.com enjoyed a strong debut on Thursday, and only inched down slightly in the following session. In addition, language software maker Rosetta Stone set the terms of its planned offering earlier in the week.

While the offerings are encouraging from a capital markets perspective, the same can’t be said for the VC community. The IPOs of Changyou.com and Rosetta Stone won’t mean a payoff for any of the Sand Hill Road crowd. (Changyou.com is a spinoff from online portal Soho, while Rosetta Stone counts a pair of buyout shops as its majority owners.) Of course, VCs have long since given up on betting on IPOs to boost their returns. Most acknowledge that for every portfolio company that does make it onto the public market, nearly 10 startups will get snapped up in a trade sale.

Unfortunately, there’s bad news on the M&A front, as well. My colleague Thomas Rasmussen calculated that the median valuation in the sale of VC-backed companies in the first quarter of 2009 slumped to 2.1x trailing 12-month (TTM) sales, compared to 3.8x TTM sales during the same period last year. Granted, that multiple was about twice as rich as first-quarter sales of non-VC-backed companies. But we would be quick to add that the 2.1x TTM sales multiple essentially matches the level for non-VC-backed startups in the first quarter of 2008. For more on first-quarter valuations and overall deal flow, see our first-quarter M&A report.

Not ad(d)ing up

-Email Thomas Rasmussen

Contrary to our pronouncement last year, the online advertising industry is in a tough spot at the moment. Venture funding for these companies has been shut off as the slumping demand for Web-based advertising has hit the sector harder than it anticipated. (At least it’s not as bad as the regular advertising market. As one VC quipped recently, “While the online ad market has caught a cold, the offline ad market has caught pneumonia.”) Still, the decline in the space has created numerous opportunities for buyers looking to pick up scraps.

One such company having a field day in the current environment is Adknowledge. Just this week, the company picked up the advertising business of struggling MIVA for the bargain price of $11.6m. The division has estimated trailing 12-month revenue of about $75m, down sharply from $100m a year ago. The acquisition came after Adknowledge tucked in two small social networking ad networks for less than $2m, much less than the more than $4m the two raised in venture capital. Furthermore, Adknowledge, which has raised an estimated $45m, tells us that it is still shopping.

Of course, it’s not all gloom and doom for the online ad market. One area where there’s actual growth – and at least the promise of rising valuations – is in online video advertising. VCs have put hundreds of millions of dollars into this sector. Their bet: More Web surfers will increasingly look to online videos for information and entertainment. Granted, it’s still a small space. (Consider the fact that YouTube probably contributed only a few hundred million dollars of revenue to Google’s total revenue of $21.8bn in 2008.) Still, the promise is there. Also encouraging VCs in this market is that the online ad giants (Google, Microsoft, AOL and so on) may well need to go shopping to get video ad technology. We recently published a more-thorough report on that, matching potential buyers and sellers.

IPOs: nothing to offer

Contact: Brenon Daly

Security vendor ArcSight marked its first full year on the public market with an unexpectedly solid fiscal third-quarter report Thursday. (That said, my colleague Nick Selby reads between the lines and sees some potential problems at the company, which now sports a market capitalization of nearly $350m.) Heading into the release, ArcSight shares traded essentially where they did when they hit the market last February, though an after-market rally pushed the stock above $11 for the first time in seven months.

The fact that ArcSight is now above its offer price is nothing short of astounding, given that both the Nasdaq and the Dow have nearly been cut in half since the debut of the security company. (Rackspace, which was the only other VC-backed tech IPO in 2008, has likewise been cut in half since going public last summer.) It’s telling that we have to limit our discussion about the IPO market to after-market performance, rather than new issues. Not to put too fine a point on it, but we all know that the IPO market is dead right now. (As if to reiterate that, GlassHouse Technologies on Thursday pulled its planned $100m offering, which it filed in January 2008.)

And even when the market opens up once again for debutants (and we think that date is a long time off), it will almost certainly provide even fewer exits for VC-backed companies than in the past. Sandy Miller, a general partner at late-stage venture firm Institutional Venture Partners (IVP), recently noted that roughly one-quarter of IVP’s past exits had come through an IPO. (Included in that number is ArcSight; IVP was its second-largest holder before the IPO.) In the future, however, Miller projected that the percentage of portfolio companies exiting to the public market would drop to ‘single digits.’

Done dabbling in VC

Contact: Brenon Daly

During the tech recession at the beginning of this decade, many of the venture efforts started by both corporations and investment banks ground to a halt and quietly went away. In the current downturn, it’s the venture efforts from the buyout shops that seem to be vanishing. Over the past year, marquee PE firms The Carlyle Group and 3i have both shuttered their VC investment programs. On Wednesday, Jafco Ventures announced that it had picked up former Carlyle venture capitalists Nick Sturiale and Jeb Miller.

The pair had only recently moved over to Carlyle to help accelerate its planned push into VC. Washington, D.C.-based Carlyle had raised some $1.4bn in three US funds, dating back to 1997. The funds not only invested in early-stage ventures, but also financed expansion-stage growth companies and smaller buyouts. The move comes after UK-based 3i stopped its early-stage investments, and the head of US tech investments, Sandy Miller, joined late-stage venture firm Institutional Venture Partners.

The fact that some ‘merchants of debt’ are done dabbling in venture capital is understandable given the pressing problems in their core business of taking companies private. With the credit market largely closed and the IPO window firmly shut, PE shops have virtually no chance to book any gains. In fact, few – if any – LBO firms are talking about gains in their current portfolio. The general business slump, exacerbated by the heavy debt loads of many of these companies, has already driven a few into bankruptcy. This has been particularly true of the retail companies taken private in the past few years. But the Chapter 11 contagion is likely to spread to other sectors – including technology.

Divesting at any costs

Contact: Brenon Daly

We recently noted how VCs are having to settle for scrap sales as they go through a bit of portfolio clean-out. But, hey, at least the value destroyed in each of the companies is only in the tens of millions of dollars. Companies that have been recently cleaning out their own portfolios in the form of divestitures have been eating hundreds of millions of dollars. Even billions of dollars.

Last week, two companies were in the news for what we would consider ‘divest at any cost’ transactions. First up, Motorola unwound its two-year-old purchase of Good Technology. After paying about $500m in November 2006 for Good, we would guess that Motorola almost certainly received less than $50m in selling the mobile messaging infrastructure vendor to privately held Visto. (At least there was something left to sell. The same can’t be said of Intellisync, which Nokia bought three years ago for $354.3m but recently said it will be shuttering.)

More dramatically, Nortel Networks looks likely to pocket just two pennies for every $1,000 that it handed over for Alteon WebSystems in mid-2000. (Keep in mind, however, that Nortel paid the $7.8bn total is stock, not cash.) The bankrupt telecom equipment vendor has put Alteon on the block, and the reported frontrunner is Israel-based Radware, which has put forward a bid of some $14m. (Since Nortel filed for Chapter 11, Alteon is being sold under an auction process run by the bankruptcy court, and other bidders could emerge.) As a final thought on both the Motorola and pending Nortel divestitures, we would note that both castoff divisions are landing in other companies, rather than a buyout shop.