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Posted: October 01, 2011

Filling the gap

Aravaipa Ventures focuses solely on Colorado companies

Robert Fenwick-Smith might seem like an unlikely champion for Colorado cleantech companies, a Brit whose career includes running a company whose holdings were in pharmaceutical packaging and processing machinery. The kind of job that had him traveling to the company's factories and distribution centers on five continents.

Thing is, Fenwick-Smith doesn't think running a company whose holdings are scattered around the globe is the most efficient way to run a business. He'd rather be able to meet with his managers whenever they need to see him.

Three years ago, the Harvard Business School MBA founded Aravaipa Ventures, named for a canyon in Arizona that made him fall in love with the West. By venture capital standards, it's a modest fund, but its focus on early-stage companies is helping to fill a gap left by the larger players.

The fund's seven companies include four that are clearly in the cleantech camp: Lightning Hybrids, which develops hydraulic hybrid systems for light trucks and is now working with General Motors; RavenBrick, a maker of thermochromic windows that control how much of the sun's heat enters buildings; and SUNDOLIER, which offers the first off-grid commercial solar lighting solution.

"They're all in Colorado. They're all green and sustainable, and they're all low capital-intensive," says Fenwick-Smith, who built a LEED Platinum home in Boulder that was the first in the city to use gray water. "But the last element is they all have founder manager teams that I felt I could work with and help take them forward. It's the unwritten criteria, but at the end of the day, it's almost the most important one. If I like the people and I feel that they are prepared to work under constructive criticism and a brainstorming environment, then I want to work with them."
For these fledgling companies, finding someone who will work with them is not generally an easy task.

"There is a huge funding gap in Colorado for early-stage funding. It's really a funder's market," Fenwick-Smith says. Skeptics who question the wisdom of the fund's local focus simply don't understand, he says. "There really is a huge amount of deal flow."

Fenwick-Smith's partners in Aravaipa are Tim Reeser of Cenergy, Colorado State University's Clean Energy Commercialization Arm, and William Shutkin, president of the Presidio Graduate School. But Fenwick-Smith is the only full-time member of the management team. And because of the structure of the fund - it does not take a management fee - he spends much of his time consulting with the companies in Aravaipa's portfolio, and the companies pay him for his time instead.

"Anyone who wants to start a traditional VC fund today is forced to shoot for $100 million minimum. The equation is very simple. You have a 2 percent management fee. You want five or six partners. And $2 million a year is about right to cover salaries and expenses .

"But it doesn't help fill the gap. To get into the gap, unfortunately, you can only really have a fund that is maximum $20 million or $30 million because otherwise you can't afford to deploy the smaller amounts," he says.

Aravaipa typically becomes the lead investor in a startup's early stage with an initial investment of $150,000 to $500,000. It invests only in companies expecting to need less than an additional $5 million to reach profitability. Aravaipa actively seeks strategic investors for its companies.

With that approach, Fenwick-Smith sees his fund as an alternative for angel investors.

"If you want to do angel investing, you should do it through something like Aravaipa," he says. "First, you get a portfolio. For your $100,000 investment you are immediately invested in seven companies and not one, and in addition you get a manager who is actually following it for you day to day so you can be a pure angel." ∴
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