Google looks for a makeover

Google looks for a makeover

men at work: David Krane, left, and Bill Maris, right, the managing partners of Google Ventures, at the Google Venture offices in Mountain View, California on June 23, 2011. NYT

In the hottest market for technology startup companies in over a decade, the Silicon Valley behemoth is playing venture capitalist in a rush to discover the next Facebook or Zynga.

Other pedigreed tech companies are doing the same, as venture capital dollars coming from corporations approach levels last seen in the dot-com bubble era of 2000.

To some, it is a telltale sign of an overheated industry, symptomatic of a late and ill-advised rush to invest during good times. But Google says it has a weapon to guide it in picking investments – a Google-y secret sauce, which means using data-driven algorithms to analyse the would-be next big thing.

Never mind that there often is very little data because the companies are so young and that most venture capitalists say investing is more of an art than a science. At Google, even art is quantifiable.

“Investing is being in a dark room and trying to find the way out,” said Bill Maris, managing partner of Google Ventures, the corporate investment arm. “If you have a match, you should light it.”

Corporate venture funds invested $583 million in startups in the first three months of the year, according to the National Venture Capital Association, up from $443 million in the same period last year and $245 million in 2009, before tech investing began its rapid turnaround. Today, 10 percent of venture capital dollars comes from corporations, nearing the previous bubble-era high of 15 percent in 2000.

Facebook, Zynga and Amazon are investing in social media startups. AOL Ventures restarted last year after three previous efforts, and Intel Capital expects to invest more this year than the $327 million it invested last year. Google Ventures says it has invested as much money in the first half of this year as in all of last, and Larry Page, the company’s co-founder, who became chief executive this spring, has promised to keep the coffers wide open. Corporate venture arms have sprung into action before during boom times, like the early 1980s and the late 1990s. “When the corporates get involved, it means that we’re at the top of the market,” said Andrew S. Rachleff, who teaches venture capital at Stanford and was a founder of Benchmark Capital, the venture firm.

Rachleff also questioned Google’s reliance on its algorithms. “There’s no analysis to be done when you’re evaluating a company that’s creating a new market, because there’s no market to analyze,” he said.

Google says its approach is paying off. One of its investments, Ngmoco, was acquired by a Japanese gaming company, DeNA, for up to $400 million, and another, HomeAway, for renting vacation homes, received a warm welcome from investors when it went public last month.

Google Ventures invests in various areas – the Web, biotechnology and clean technology. It puts large amounts of money into mature companies, but it is also investing small amounts in 100 new companies this year.

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