Jul 21, 2011 | Post by: Kathleen Avery Comments Off on Google's Secret Sauce

Google's Secret Sauce

The New York Times’ Claire Cain Miller writes about the venture world according to Google. In the article she notes that as Silicon Valley is once again flush with investor dollars looking for that insanely great next play, corporate funds have stepped up their game, with $583 million invested in the first three months of this year, up from $443 million in the same period last year.

Google Ventures has a huge footprint in this market, and Larry Page, the company’s co-founder and CEO, has committed to staying in the game in a massive way. His marching orders are to, “’do as much as you can, as fast as you can, in as big and disruptive a way as possible.’” You’ve gotta love that.

The company is betting that their genius for creating data-driven algorithms can be used to analyze and evaluate potential investment targets. And then there are all those special Google value-added options…

Link to the article here:   http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/20/technology/google-spending-millions-to-find-the-next-google.html?ref=business

Or see the full article text below:

Published: July 19, 2011

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Google thinks it can be young and crazy again. And it is betting $200 million that it is right.

In the hottest market for technology start-up 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 analyze 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, the 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 start-ups 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.com are investing in social media start-ups. 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, but they have had mixed records.

“When the corporate guys get involved, it usually 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.

Mr. 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. “You have to apply judgment.”

Although even Mr. Maris compares venture investing to “buying lottery tickets,” Google says it has faith in its algorithms. At the same time, it is taking the unusual step of providing the chosen start-ups with access to its 28,770 employees for engineering, recruiting and business advice, and offering office space at the Googleplex and classes on building a business.

Mr. Page, who declined a request for an interview, has already promised Google Ventures $200 million this year and says a virtually unlimited amount is available, Mr. Maris said, as Google reconnects with its start-up roots. “I’ve had conversations with Larry when he says, ‘Do as much as you can, as fast as you can in as big and disruptive a way as possible,’ ” 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. A third, Silver Spring Networks, a smart-grid company, filed to go public last week.

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.

To make its picks, the company has built computer algorithms using data from past venture investments and academic literature. For example, for individual companies, Google enters data about how long the founders worked on start-ups before raising money and whether the founders successfully started companies in the past.

It runs similar information about potential investments through the algorithms to get a red, yellow or green light.

Google says the algorithms have taught it valuable lessons, from obvious ones (entrepreneurs who have started successful companies are more likely to do it again) to less obvious ones (start-ups located far from the venture capitalist’s office are more likely to be successful, probably because the firm has to go out of its way to finance the start-up.)

Start-ups backed by Google Ventures can work in a 20,000-square-foot space at the Googleplex, supplied with a Ping-Pong table and a snack-filled kitchen. In exchange, they make a $5-a-month donation to the barbecue fund.

But the company offers a lot more than space, say the chosen entrepreneurs. Adimab, a biotech company, is using free space on Google’s enormous servers. EnglishCentral, an English-language education site, tested its coursework and accents for Japanese speakers with employees in Google’s Japan office. Google shared a contact list for airport chief information officers with Scvngr, a mobile gaming company, when it wanted to partner with airports.

Craig Walker, a serial entrepreneur who recently started Firespotter Labs, backed by Google Ventures, said a Google recruiter had helped him hire engineers.

“A lot of times V.C.’s will say, ‘We’re not just money, we’re value-add,’ and I’ve always been somewhat doubtful of those claims,” Mr. Walker said. “With Google Ventures, those claims are completely justified.”

Still, some entrepreneurs who have worked with Google Ventures say Google’s drive to analyze everything exhaustively, even for small investments in untried companies, slows the investment process when compared with other firms.

Google Ventures also turns to Google employees to find investment ideas. It offers $10,000 to anyone who suggests a start-up that results in an investment. And the company has invested in three of the ex-Google employees who have been leaving as the company grows.

Like the entrepreneurs, Mr. Maris has learned a lesson from Google: meet founders, even if their start-up idea sounds crazy.

Fifteen years ago, a friend of his, Anne Wojcicki, suggested he meet a couple of engineers who were working on a start-up in her sister’s garage, but he declined. The start-up was Google, which still makes him cringe.

“It’s ironic I’m running the venture business now,” Mr. Maris said, “because I missed the biggest venture idea of all time.”

A version of this article appeared in print on July 20, 2011, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Google Looks for the Next Google.

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