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The future of venture capital in Malaysia

Oliver Christopher Gomez
Oliver Christopher Gomez • 12 min read
The future of venture capital in Malaysia
(Jan 31): The venture capital sector in Malaysia has enjoyed a decade of global prominence amid record levels of fundraising. This has been particularly true for Southeast Asian start-ups raising funds in the early stage. However, industry players believe
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(Jan 31): The venture capital sector in Malaysia has enjoyed a decade of global prominence amid record levels of fundraising. This has been particularly true for Southeast Asian start-ups raising funds in the early stage. However, industry players believe this has caused valuations to be inflated in recent times.

The sector continues to attract significant inflows locally and regionally. However, the recent failures of several multibillion-dollar unicorns may have an impact on start-up valuations going forward.

Industry players believe that the push by some venture capitalists (VCs) for excessive valuations in investee companies will not be sustainable going forward because with every funding round, the start-ups become more hard-pressed to deliver increasingly unrealistic returns to subsequent investors.

In fact, Chok Kwee Bee, a partner at Malaysian venture capital firm Intres Capital Partners, says start-up valuations have entered a period of correction, starting last year. She cites the 2019 implosion of co-working giant WeWork as a catalyst.

“Although the correction has already started, I believe overall valuations are still too high. I expect it to continue falling over the next few years,” she adds.

TBV Capital founder Andrew Tan believes that going forward, valuations will more realistically reflect a company’s addressable market as well as its ability to service that market. “Over the last few years, VCs have had to contend with a lot of ‘dumb money’ entering the early-stage investing ecosystem, thereby pushing valuations up,” he says.

This refers to individual investors who simply buy into the marketing hype and hope to exit at wild valuations in a relatively short span of time. “These investors are not necessarily concerned about the long-term commitment or the importance of reinvesting profits for the portfolio company to continue growing,” he adds.

Chok and Tan’s observations fall broadly in line with recent market trends. US ride-hailing and technology giants Uber Technologies Inc and Lyft Inc, both of which went public last year, have significantly underperformed since their debut.

Both companies were multibillion-dollar unicorns in the years before going public and had raised long-standing questions about their profitability and cash burn rates. As at Jan 8, Uber was 21% below its IPO price while Lyft was down nearly 44%.

Last month, Reuters reported that technology-as-a-service platform OneConnect Financial Technology significantly downsized its planned IPO in the US by 28% and lowered its target valuation. The company is owned by China-based Ping An Insurance and counts Japan-based mega investor SoftBank as a key investor.

Excessive valuations hamper returns in the long run, says Chok. “Just consider the cost of investment. If I entered an investment round that valued the start-up at US$20 million ($27 million), I would have a more realistic chance of making, say, five times my investment at a subsequent funding round than if the start-up had been valued at US$50 million.

“In the second scenario, if I wanted to make five times my investment, the subsequent funding round [or exit] would need to yield a company valuation of US$250 million. Contrast this with the first scenario. To make five times my investment, the start-up would only have to achieve a valuation of US$100 million.”

In fact, Amin Shafie, a partner at Intres Capital, does not rule out the possibility of a Southeast Asian implosion of WeWork proportions. “The venture capital ecosystem is extremely competitive and aggressive. The pursuit of market-beating returns naturally leads to valuations climbing over the years. That is probably never going to change,” he says.

“Furthermore, there are huge amounts of dry powder still available in the Asian ecosystem, in addition to a large number of potential deals. Under the circumstances, I do not think we can definitively say that Southeast Asia will not see its own WeWork one day.”

However, the collapse of WeWork’s IPO sparked a measure of soul-searching in the ecosystem, he adds. Just one or two years ago, it was not uncommon to hear of companies announcing fundraising rounds at six-month intervals. But having lived and worked through the infamous dotcom bust at the turn of the millennium, Amin knew that raising funds multiple times a year was just not sustainable.

“WeWork forced the wider investing community to refocus on the question of sustainability and company fundamentals. A practical implication is that we may see companies calling for relatively fewer funding rounds in the years ahead,” he says.

Falling valuations bode well for investors who may be entering subsequent funding rounds for the first time. They get to acquire more equity at a relatively lower price compared with investors in previous funding rounds.

However, existing investors, who entered earlier rounds at a premium, would see their shareholding shrink as a result of falling valuations. In investing parlance, this is known as a “down round”, according to TBV Capital’s Tan.

“To use a very simple example, suppose I invest US$5 million in exchange for 10% equity, thereby valuing the company at US$50 million. But a year down the line, the company unexpectedly needs to raise more cash. It announces a subsequent funding round of US$5 million in exchange for 20% equity.

“Just like that, the company’s valuation has been cut in half to US$25 million. As an existing investor, this basically means that my total share price has halved. Yes, this is a discouraging sign for an investor, but I would not necessarily call it a failure.

“Given that the company called for an additional funding round, there was every possibility that it would have gone out of business without the capital injection. Had the company not raised the additional funds, it would have failed and all the investors would have lost their money anyway.”

Having said that, Chok and Tan emphasise the importance of investing in companies that have a clear path to profitability. The WeWork debacle has brought into sharp focus the need for VCs and their portfolio companies to build sustainable ventures for current and subsequent investors.

Over the last few years, Chok has seen the early-stage investing community pump massive amounts of money into their portfolio companies, all for the pursuit of size and scale. But that is changing.

“Just a few years ago, investors emphasised exponential growth in subscribership, monthly active users and so on. But over the last year, particularly since WeWork, investors have been pressing their portfolio companies to show realistic strategies for profitability,” she says.

Chok advises investors to consider a company’s valuation before investing. A high valuation is no guarantee that it will continue climbing in the future. “If the valuation is too high relative to the company’s performance, you will need to be disciplined and turn it down as there is a good chance you will lose money on it.”

She says investors should be mindful of how and why venture capital funds invest money. For example, customer acquisition is a very important metric for a high-growth company, but it is an exceedingly costly endeavour.

“Over the years, VCs’ portfolio companies have spent billions of dollars on customer acquisition. The funds are used to support vast amounts of discounts and promotions. While it is necessary to create a user base, these promotions are not always profitable and must be balanced against longer-term R&D priorities,” says Chok.

“Companies that are able to develop their own intellectual property give themselves a potentially invaluable revenue stream, one that will continue making money long after the investment dollars have been exhausted.”

New plays

Despite the questions raised about the valuations of early-stage start-ups in recent times, the venture capital sector continues to attract significant interest and fund flows. This bodes well for investment prospects in the next few years.

Going forward, the local and regional venture capital scene will be characterised by an emphasis on enterprise-level technology investments, with investors looking to the business-to-business segment as a major growth engine.

Amin says that while consumer-related technology themes have dominated in the last few years, that momentum alone will not sustain venture capital returns in the long run. Intres Capital is looking at enterprise-level investments with a bias towards AI and Internet of Things (IoT) applications. According to Chok, more businesses are open to deploying AI in the course of their operations because of the data they regularly generate. “AI will help businesses discover new trends, markets and challenges so they can effectively plan around these. However, making sense of all this data — and being able to do so at scale and speed — will only be viable with AI,” she says. Amin says, “Ironically enough, e-commerce giant Amazon Inc has effectively capitalised on the global enterprise market over the last decade.” The company’s cloud-based enterprise computing and data storage service, Amazon Web Services (AWS), is now a major earner for its parent company. Tan believes that the next few years will see enterprise opportunities at the intersections of e-commerce, e-hailing, last-mile logistics services and third-party mobile payment services. He is on the lookout for services that will make the entire shopping and payment experience that much more seamless. “To me, this entails investments in advanced security and authentication services. Specific opportunities that I am looking out for are voice and perhaps even facial recognition services. These services will one day enable us to authorise mobile payments via voice or facial recognition technology,” he says.

Interestingly, Tan views the burgeoning digital wallet operations segment as a mass, intangible, public infrastructure that will present opportunities for savvy investors. “In addition to security and authentication, this infrastructure will drive the demand for big data analytics services, for companies to create more effective and targeted marketing campaigns,” he says. Tan, who is also an impact investor, is looking to capitalise on a number of trends in themes like food security and healthcare technology. Specifically, he sees agriculture technology becoming a key investment trend in the next few years. “I see food security issues, specifically food shortages brought about by rising production and transport costs, as being a major problem over the next decade. One way to combat this issue is to improve crop yields by means of technology. I believe there are huge investment opportunities here.”

Over the last nine months, Tan has invested in several farms across the country. In particular, he has invested into two ginger farms — one in Tanjung Malim, Perak, and the other in Bentong, Pahang. Both farms cultivate the famous Bentong ginger.

“According to official statistics, Malaysia consumes about 60,000 tonnes of ginger a year. However, we produce less than 5% of that capacity. We import most of our supply from China and Thailand. But with rising food storage and logistics costs, we need to maximise the local supply of ginger and other key food crops,” says Tan.

Malaysia is a known net importer of food. One way to reverse this trend is to significantly improve crop yields and resource efficiency, thereby making conventional food crops more profitable, he adds.

Tan has sourced for and curated a host of international technologies to significantly improve crop yields. He then brings these technologies to the farms he has invested in.

“For example, I have managed to source advanced sensors that can be planted in the soil to determine its composition. I have also acquired technology from Amsterdam that allows us to distribute crop nutrition with a great deal of precision. I have also sourced advanced greenhouse technology from Taiwan that provides much better climate control,” he says.

It is early days yet, but returns have been encouraging. Returns on capital are realised every harvest when the crops are sold to the market. “Over the last nine months, I have been able to get a 33% return on investment after accounting for capital expenditure,” says Tan.

Another investment opportunity he sees on the horizon is in healthcare technology (healthtech). “Healthcare will become a compelling early investment theme over the next five years [both locally and regionally]. As Southeast Asia becomes more prosperous, people are increasingly exposed to processed and genetically modified foods. I believe humans will be increasingly prone to illnesses as a result. A major driver to fight this would be through healthtech,” he says.

Indeed, there is already a compelling case for investments in healthtech. According to an August 2019 funding report by Singapore-based VC Cento Ventures, healthcare start-ups have been steadily receiving investments since 2014.

According to the report, it has been a prominent beneficiary in Southeast Asia, alongside investments in logistics. The report cited a total of US$12 million invested in early-stage healthcare start-ups in 2014. As at the first half of last year, that amount had ballooned to US$128 million.

Tan believes there will be more innovative investment prospects for Malaysian investors in the next five years. “I think we are at the stage where we have the infrastructure to support high-technology and high-value-added, early-stage businesses,” he says.

More broadly, despite rumblings of recessions, Tan does not believe it will be as deep as certain quarters fear. Southeast Asia’s economy has grown at a reasonable tick over the last few years, thanks to an expanding middle class and young population.

He advises investors to keep faith with their existing investments and be mindful of continually reinvesting their profit back into the companies. “I think Malaysian investors have a tendency to reap returns within just a few years. Generally speaking, venture capital investment horizons tend to last about five years. That said, I advise investors to reinvest their profit and commit to a longer-term process of building businesses that are profitable and sustainable,” he says.

“I would also call on investors to bring more than just their net worth to venture capital firms. Of course, the investment dollars are great, but what portfolio companies really require are networks, market access and decisive industry know-how.”

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