Spin-out doctor – Jonathan Kestenbaum interview

NESTA’s chief executive Jonathan Kestenbaum tells GrowthBusiness why he's delighted by the Budget and explains why the private sector alone is unable to provide adequate support for the UK's most innovative ventures.

Reactions to Chancellor Alistair Darling’s Budget speech generally ranged from the ambivalent to the scathing. Jonathan Kestenbaum, chief executive of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), struck a different note.

‘Today the Government took a vital step on the road to recovery and the future looks a lot brighter for the UK’s entrepreneurs,’ Kestenbaum commented shortly after the speech.

His approval was focused on Darling’s promise of a £750 million ‘strategic investment fund’, earmarked for emerging technologies in sectors such as advanced manufacturing, biotech and digital industries.

From NESTA’s point of view, this is a step in the right direction. In December, the organisation had called for a fund of £1 billion to be created, half of which would come from the taxpayer and half from private sources, to stimulate the most innovative sectors of the UK economy through venture-style investment.

The Budget appears to promise at least three-quarters of what NESTA asked for – more if you factor in some of the money allocated to the cleantech sector. But it remains to be seen how all this cash will be made available. For Kestenbaum, it is ‘vitally important’ that a proportion of it is reserved for innovative, early-stage technology businesses, which rely for their survival on a venture capital (VC) industry currently smarting from the pain inflicted on it by the credit crunch.

Shrinking funds

NESTA’s own research shows that only £179 million of VC finance was raised in 2008, a fall of 70 per cent on the year before. The average size of an early-stage fund has dropped from a peak of £38 million in 2004 to £26 million, and only 13 out of 39 active funds have more than £5 million left to invest.

‘Risk capital is eroding,’ says Kestenbaum. ‘There is no longer the patience to accept a five to seven-year pre-profit time horizon.’

In his view, venture has been damaged both by the credit boom and the subsequent crunch. In the boom, it was easy to make money through buying large businesses via leverage, with the result that ‘many pioneers of the [VC] industry have essentially become buy-out houses’. In the crunch, all-round risk aversion has reduced the pool of funding available for early-stage enterprises as depleted funds are forced to pump more money into their existing investments to keep them going. All this at a time when ‘we have never had a richer crop of interesting opportunities, particularly in the [university] spin-out world’.

Kestenbaum is a persuasive speaker, who would surely have enjoyed a successful career in politics. But his aspirations took him in a different direction. Born to American parents in Japan but educated in Cambridge and London, he helped set up a commodity trading business with members of his family before ‘going off to do other things’. That included taking the position of chief executive in the office of the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks.

‘My identification with the Jewish community in Britain is an important part of my life,’ says Kestenbaum. ‘It’s an interesting case study of a community, many of whom like me were immigrants within the last 100 years, who have made this country their home and I think benefited the UK in terms of their entrepreneurship and their determination to make a wider national contribution.’

The vision thing

After a spell as chief executive of Jewish youth charity UJIA in the late 1990s, another dramatic change of direction saw Kestenbaum join private equity firm Apax Partners, working as chief of staff in the office of co-founder Ronald Cohen.

‘He remains the single most significant influence on my career,’ he says. ‘Working with him really taught me how you can blend focused rigour and tremendous attention to detail on the one hand, with a soaring vision on the other.’

Cohen’s own career, of course, took him towards ethical investment: he was a driving force behind the launch of “social” investment company Bridges Ventures and still chairs the organisation. Kestenbaum points out that NESTA recently backed one of Bridges’ new funds.

‘[Cohen] showed me there is a false choice you do not need to make between being very mission-driven and very commercial. You can be both at the same time – and that’s the value at the heart of NESTA,’ he declares.

NESTA has endowment funds of £300 million, the interest from which funds all its investments. The core of the organisation is financing high-tech enterprises in the UK, either directly or through third parties such as AIM-listed investor IP Group and software-focused Pentech Ventures. This is accomplished through an ‘evergreen fund’ of £50 million, returns from which are reinvested.

Kestenbaum accepts that some are sceptical about the notion of public sector venture capital. ‘Public capital in the early-stage space has had a mixed record at best,’ he concedes. ‘The reason for that is because it has been insufficiently preoccupied with making a commercial case for pre-revenue venture finance. It has been overly preoccupied with a lot of other things, mostly political, such as job creation, regional development, sectoral interests.

‘One thing we’ve learnt is that it’s hard enough to make money investing in pre-revenue companies – each new objective you add diminishes your opportunities of making a commercial return.’

This is why the venture side of NESTA is run separately from its social enterprise arm. ‘We have decided that as yet our investments [in social enterprise] can’t be commercial, so we have split off that side of the business,’ Kestenbaum states.

The trend towards social enterprises as an entrepreneurial alternative to charities is well-established, but Kestenbaum feels the concept is still in its infancy. ‘The fanatics of the social investment field are overstating the potential economic return to the investment community, and that does the field a disservice,’ he argues. ‘It can certainly be more than charity, but venture returns you are never going to get.’

Playing the long game

As for NESTA’s commercial operations, Kestenbaum argues that ‘patient capital’ from the public sector has an important role to play in UK innovation, given that VCs are increasingly unprepared to invest for several years before seeing a sale.

‘There is this notion that “if it’s an investable proposition, they’ll get investment”, but that’s complete nonsense, a misunderstanding of the field,’ he claims. ‘Because even if they meet the classic requirements [of VCs], if they are six years pre-profit, private funds simply can’t absorb that. That’s where the government comes in.’

That said, NESTA rarely invests without ‘a pretty keen sense of where the co-investment is going to come from’. It tends to back companies with an initial investment of £100,000 to £250,000 and can invest up to £750,000 in any one enterprise, while total follow-on funding requirements can be as much as £10 million.

‘Follow-on finance is the key to success,’ says Kestenbaum, adding that helping a fledgling company assemble a strong management team and instilling sound corporate governance are crucial parts of NESTA’s contribution.

It isn’t always easy. ‘We back a lot of science entrepreneurs who invariably are geniuses,’ says Kestenbaum. ‘But in most cases they are utterly uncommercial. They have a limited grasp of the financial engineering involved [in a deal], and not a huge grasp of where their product meets the market.’

In the worst cases, entrepreneurs fall in love with their product. ‘That is the kiss of death,’ Kestenbaum remarks. ‘They feel that no-one appreciates the pure genius in their product, and they are probably right. But what you really want to be doing is building great businesses.’

NESTA’s portfolio companies include medical imaging company Dexela, “alternate reality game” producer Six to Start, and clean refrigeration specialist Camfridge. Kestenbaum says the organisation typically gets 300 proposals a year, of which around 50 are taken to due diligence, and ten to 12 ultimately receive investment. A similar number of follow-on investments are made in existing portfolio companies. Kestenbaum claims that NESTA is ‘probably the largest source of seed capital for pre-revenue high tech [companies] in the country’.

See also: Bridging the equity gap between seed capital and institutional fundraising

As for exits, there were only three last year and prospects are not much better for this one. ‘Our projections for this year were for at least four exits through public markets, and at the moment they are [virtually] closed,’ says Kestenbaum. ‘We will probably be holding onto investments for longer.’


Year of birth: 1961

Marital status: Married

Children: Four (aged 14 to 19)

Place of birth: Tokyo, Japan

Favourite book: The State We’re In, by Will Hutton

Football team: Arsenal

Other interests: Theatre (he is on the board of the Royal Shakespeare Company)

Pet hates: Excuses

Nick Britton

Nick Britton

Nick was the Managing Editor for growthbusiness.co.uk when it was owned by Vitesse Media, before moving on to become Head of Investment Group and Editor at What Investment and thence to Head of Intermediary...

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