Podcasts | April 18, 2018

Should impact entrepreneurs beware the strategic corporate investor?

The team at


Corporate venture capital is a thing. And that thing is converging on impact investing.

The amount that global corporations put into strategic investments in startup companies last year reached $31 billion across 1800 deals, both all-time records.

As ImpactAlpha’s Dennis Price reported last week, companies like SoftBank, Salesforce, Orange and others are directing their corporate venture capital, or CVC for short, into the kinds of entrepreneurs and companies also targeted by impact investors. Those growth sectors include cleantech, education, urban infrastructure, financial inclusion, agriculture and food.

>>MORE: SoftBank, Salesforce and Orange signal corporate venture capital’s tilt towards impact investing

Welcome the suits to the impact party? Or Katy bar the door? Our roundtable on ImpactAlpha’s Returns on Investment podcast took up the topic; have a listen as the journalists in the bunch turn the tables on the corporate impact investor in our midst.

On the podcast, Imogen Rose-Smith, an investment fellow at the University of California said three drivers mean the corporate VC boom is likely to continue. First, cost-cutting has sapped in-house innovation, even at companies with once-storied labs and centers, such as AT&T, IBM and Xerox. Second, companies are flush with cash, both from the profits-boom of recent years and the new US tax cuts. And finally, “we’re in an innovation boom,” she says, in which advances in biology, artificial intelligence, space and other frontiers are often generated outside, not within, large corporations.

>>LISTEN: Should Impact Entrepreneurs Beware the Strategic Corporate Investor?

“Impact” has become an additional driver, as companies look to enter new markets, target new customers, deploy new business models, attract new talents and reap new sources of value. Corporates are “feeling that they need to be doing more to earn their license to operate, innovate and lead within today’s complex market,” according to “Investing in Breakthrough: Corporate Venture Capital, a report from Volans, a UK think tank.

“Social responsibility is moving from its traditional role at the business periphery into a core strategy for the business,” the authors write. “As this shift happens, investments and capital flows will also shift, amplified by the interests of today’s top talent.”

So, what happens when the co-investor (much less outright acquiror) is a corporation?

“What do you do with that?” Rose-Smith asked. “On the one hand, it means impact/sustainability has made it. ‘This is a viable business that people will pay a lot of money for.’” On the other hand, she asks, “Do we lose the ability to apply technology to innovation as a force for good? Is it possible to keep the impact DNA that these companies started with as they get picked off by larger firms?”

>>LISTEN: Should Impact Entrepreneurs Beware the Strategic Corporate Investor?

Such concerns put (non-corporate) impact investors in the same position as others who co-invest with so-called “strategic investors,” who may have broader interests beyond the narrow success of the particular ventures. Impact aside, many venture capitalists avoid deals that include corporate venture capital for just that reason.

Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist with Union Square Ventures, said startups that take corporate money “are doing business with the devil.” At a conference sponsored by CB Insights recently, Wilson warned, “If you’re the entrepreneur, do you want [a corporate investor] in the room?” Such companies either “can’t get money from anyone else,” Wilson said. “Or the corporation is paying a higher price than I would pay.”

The discussion about corporate value propositions inevitably turned to the example most close to home. The Liquidnet Impact Fund, chaired by roundtable host Brian Walsh, is not a classic corporate venture fund, in that it’s set up as a donor-advised fund (through ImpactAssets) and thus doesn’t deliver commercial benefits to Liquidnet. (Disclosure: The Liquidnet Impact Fund is an investor in ImpactAlpha.)

>>LISTEN: Should Impact Entrepreneurs Beware the Strategic Corporate Investor?

The fund, and the larger Liquidnet for Good effort that Walsh leads, does deliver benefit to the company in the form of employee engagement, recruitment and, most importantly, purpose.

“There are enormous resources companies have – tools and platforms and tech and talent and brand capital and intellectual capital and data and distribution networks and supply chains,” said Walsh. “Most companies apply only a small fraction of those financial resources to philanthropy and a small fraction of talent to a day off for volunteering. For us, the question is how do you tap into those resources and activate them for maximum social use?”

>>MORE: Global corporations seek innovation by supporting impact entrepreneurs

>>MORE: How big companies are turning to small businesses to expand their reach — and their impact