This story was updated to indicate that Accolade is based in Plymouth Meeting. An earlier version listed the company’s home base incorrectly.
Not so long ago it was considered a smart play for big corporations to set aside hundreds of millions from their profits to buy whatever looks hot.
Two of the region’s largest companies, cable giant Comcast and drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline, were pioneers in this kind of wager. Their venture funds loomed large over Philadelphia’s underpowered start-up scene, though over time both pumped far more money into far-off innovation centers like Silicon Valley.
But the venture capital business has changed. In an era when gene therapy start-ups can sell shares to the public before they have products, when in-demand entrepreneurs have their pick of venture-capital money, firms like Comcast and Glaxo are reevaluating how they bet.
Both Comcast and Glaxo have lately narrowed the focus. Glaxo just spun off SR One, the investment arm it created 35 years ago, to make it an independent company that can raise money from outside investors, spreading the risk and reducing Glaxo’s own.
For Comcast’s part, its says investment arm, Comcast Ventures, has been repositioned to focus on “strategic” investments that align with its core products, rather than engaging in a continued hunt for the next big, disruptive, innovative thing.
Here’s a quick look at how these experiments in corporate venture capital evolved:
In 1985, the company’s Philadelphia-based predecessor, Smith, Kline and French, tapped merger specialist Peter Sears to set up its venture fund, to invest in promising life-sciences start-ups far from its Collegeville R&D labs. An early score was Amgen, the cell therapy pioneer.
As its owner became part of pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline, SR One pumped over $500 million into more than 100 start-ups. It was an early backer of Alios Pharmaceuticals, sold for $1.8 billion to Johnson & Johnson, and of gene-therapy pioneer CRISPR Therapeutics, whose product deals with Bayer and other drug giants have pushed its value to nearly $10 billion.
Simeon George, SR One’s chief executive, made investments around the world, and did well at it. George told me the firm’s long-term internal rates of return” -- a figure combining actual profits with predicted future ones -- has approached 40%.
To get those returns, George said, “We had to get close to where more biotech companies were forming, which meant spreading out beyond Philadelphia, to London, Boston and San Francisco, where the action was.”
The San Francisco office he opened in 2010 is now the company’s effective headquarters, though it still has an administrative office in Conshohocken.
SR One was seen as a way to profit from others’ research at a speed the company couldn’t promise from its own R&D. Gene therapy and other breakthroughs were coming to life, not in corporate R&D labs, but “from institutions such as Penn, from people like Carl June and Jim Wilson,” George said, naming two prominent researchers in gene therapy. “How do large companies access that capability? You partner with small companies.”
But with all the outside billions lately crowding into biotech, Glaxo has adjusted its approach.
Since it spun off last month as an independent fund, George’s staff has been raising new cash from endowments, pension plans and other institutional clients, though Glaxo remains its largest backer. George told me he’s been freed to tap “a broader set of investors to prosecute the best science and build new biotech.”
Dot-com fever was inflating tech stock values in 1998, when Comcast Corp. cofounder Julian Brodsky invited Internet stock guru Mary Meeker to Philadelphia to sell his colleagues on an in-house venture capital fund. Newly armed with $500 million in company cash, Brodsky hired a software engineer with a Wharton MBA, Sam Schwartz, to grill investment prospects for what came to be called Comcast Ventures.
Pure “financial return,” not “strategic” investments in Comcast-related businesses, was the goal, Schwartz said at the time.
The group covered its losses on duds like Pets.com with well-timed purchases and sales of much-hyped wonders like Wayne-based Internet Capital Group, which was briefly among America’s most valuable companies before the 2001 dot-com crash.
Comcast Ventures went on to accumulate stakes in such diverse companies as online document pioneer DocuSign; Accolade, the health advisory firm based in Plymouth Meeting; the Instacart delivery service; the Nextdoor social media network; property insurer Hippo; and online gambling operator FanDuel.
But this summer, Comcast retired the name Comcast Ventures, saying venture investments would be by its business unit, for “strategic” purposes, and moved Schwartz’s office to the company’s cable unit.
Those changes followed the retirement of Amy Banse, the ex-Philadelphia lawyer who oversaw Comcast investments (from her office in San Francisco in recent years), and a review of Comcast’s outside investments by chief financial officer Michael Cavanagh and his predecessor, Michael Angelakis, according to a report by Comcast-owned CNBC.
They decided Comcast should stick to those investments “the company understands best,” CNBC reported. Comcast said Banse and Schwartz would not comment for this article.
If Comcast isn’t taking the same chances with start-ups, it remains committed to other kinds of outside investments. It has put $3 billion into Atairos, a fund started in 2016 by ex-CFO Angelakis that says it seeks “growth-oriented” established companies and would watch them with “hands-on” oversight.
So far, profits are mixed. It sent a net $281 million to Comcast in 2017, but in the next two years cost its parent money.