Legislature renews push into venture capital realm

mlee@macon.comMarch 24, 2013 

ATLANTA -- From his office sandwiched between the Ocmulgee River and Interstate 75, Robert Betzel is watching a bill in the state Legislature that he thinks will show the nation that Georgia -- including Macon -- is ready for the next blockbuster tech company.

“These start-ups, like WebMD in Atlanta, that’s what we want in Macon,” Betzel said.

His company, Infinity Network Solutions, is 13 years old but still a start-up itself, he said. Its typical client is an even younger business that uses his company as an IT department.

For that reason, he’s interested in start-ups, but as a member of the Technology Association of Georgia’s Middle Georgia advisory board, he’s also part of a team trying to promote the industry statewide.

“One of my big pushes is around incubation and venture capital,” he said.

The association is among the advocates of Georgia putting some of its own money into start-ups through venture capital.

Venture capital funds are organized something like mutual funds, said Blake Patton, interim general manager of the Advanced Technology Development Center, a start-up accelerator based on the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta.

People put money in a venture capital fund, and a professional investment manager figures out where to make investments. Venture money targets start-ups that are too young and too risky to attract more cautious bankers or mutual funds. Once the target company has grown, the venture fund sells its stake, or otherwise exits, and distributes profits to investors.

“It doesn’t just mean technology companies,” said Patton, “though there’s a lot of that.”

Betzel said it doesn’t just mean Atlanta, either.

“Macon is an under-the-radar area,” he said, but it has big assets and talent, especially in software and biomedical companies.

Also downtown, the College Hill Alliance is looking to attract and keep the kind of creative professionals who are likely to create start-ups in the midstate. It’s in the first stages of an 18-month study of Bibb and surrounding counties with JumpStart, a nonprofit that aims to beef up regions’ entrepreneurial ecosystems with planning, advice and more.

It’s too early to say what College Hill Alliance or JumpStart might cook up in Macon after the study, but a small-company incubator is among the possibilities.

Lawmakers propose buy-in

The state Senate is fairly enthusiastic about getting Georgia into the venture capital field.

By a 42–4 vote, they approved House Bill 318, which creates the Invest Georgia Fund. That fund would channel state dollars into investments in technology, manufacturing or agricultural companies in Georgia in the early stages of business development.

State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, has sponsored bills in two separate years trying to establish the fund.

“It sends a signal to the venture capital industry that we’re ready to do business,” Peake said. “I think this may be the year we finally at least move the structure and the form.”

The fund would be a function of the state Seed-Capital Fund and would have a five-member board, with three members appointed by the governor, one by the lieutenant governor and one by the House speaker.

That board would select a third-party fund administrator, and state money would have to be more than matched by private funds in any given investment. Patton’s development center in Atlanta would have some oversight powers on spending.

Macon Democrat state Sen. David Lucas voted against the bill.

“Because it’s risky,” he said. “We’re doing all these things, but we’ve got schools that need money.”

If the investments make money, the state would plow it back in the Invest Georgia Fund.

“But suppose we invest in a company that fails? These are high-risk companies,” said state Sen. Bill Heath, R-Bremen, during Senate floor debate. “Then there is no return.”

Peake’s original proposal would pool $100 million in total funds over five years for the venture fund by selling insurance premium tax credits -- essentially giving insurance companies a small tax discount if they pay future taxes early.

He did not convince the House to accept the $100 million tax credit option, but the House Ways and Means Committee has approved Senate Bill 224 that sets up Invest Georgia.

And the Senate has found $10 million for it. Its proposed budget for the year beginning this July cuts that amount from the OneGeorgia Authority. OneGeorgia offers rural counties help in attracting investments by paying for sweeteners, such as lot grading or sewer work.

The venture capital outlay “we believe will keep new jobs in Georgia,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Riedsville.

The House and Senate have until the session’s end to settle their differences over Invest Georgia and the cash for it. Then they would pass it all to Gov. Nathan Deal for his approval.

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