As funding slows in Boston, its early-stage market could shine

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Chris Lynch, a founder and former general partner at Boston-based seed-stage fund Accomplice, remembers “VC Mountain in Waltham.”

Back then, entrepreneurs on funding quests would visit a building overlooking the Waltham Reservoir near Boston where they pitched to a few investors: Matrix Partners, Charles River Ventures and Highland Capital Partners.

“And if they didn’t invest in you, you weren’t getting money to start your company,” Lynch said.

Since then, Lynch has watched the area’s startup ecosystem reach the point where seed-stage firms are ubiquitous, but in a city populated with firms waiting to make first bets, the scene is unsurprisingly undergoing a funding drought. Crunchbase data indicates that the city’s Q2 venture capital pace slowed dramatically, with April seeing far fewer rounds and dollars invested in 2020 than in 2019.

Boston saw just seven known equity funding rounds in April, investments worth a hair under $60 million. In the year-ago April, Boston recorded 24 equity funding rounds worth more than $500 million.

Yet, while the numbers are slow, some Boston tech leaders think seed startups will continue to thrive thanks to accelerators and a healthy base of local early-stage investors. And Lynch, who left Accomplice in 2017, says the venture slowdown might help firms recalibrate their appetite for new deals to a more healthy pace.

“The advantage of more access to capital without a proportional increase in great ideas really waters down the fort,” he said, referring to upmarkets. “A lot of money has been invested in companies before they even proved their ideas were right, and I think even I fell into a trap of competing so hard for deals that I lost sight of a good deal.” He estimates that in our COVID-19 world, investors will start to again take three months for due diligence on a deal, versus three weeks to a signed term sheet.

If Boston’s seed investors becomes more conservative, that means that accelerators — homes of the brightest founders, often before they even have their first customer — will be pressed to react.

Accelerators

Venture Lane, a co-working space and startup incubator for early-stage companies, was nearing its one-year anniversary in the heart of Boston when COVID-19 hit the city.

The incubator, which traditionally hosts 10 startups at a time, made its whole program virtual and reworked existing content to help navigate the climate. Plus, per founder Christian Magel, its tips and workshops were opened up to any early-stage founder, not just the ones enrolled with Venture Lane. Hundreds have signed up, he said.