Venture capital investment in UK (England and Wales): market and regulatory overview

A Q&A guide to venture capital law in the UK (England and Wales).

The Q&A gives a high level overview of the venture capital market; tax incentives; fund structures; fund formation and regulation; investor protection; founder and employee incentivisation and exits.

To compare answers across multiple jurisdictions visit the Venture Capital Country Q&A Tool.

This Q&A is part of the global guide to venture capital. For a full list of jurisdictional Q&As visit www.practicallaw.com/venturecapital-mjg.

Contents

Market overview

1. What are the main characteristics of the venture capital market in your jurisdiction?

Venture capital and private equity

Venture capital is private equity funding into businesses that have a high potential for growth and are generally at an early stage in their development. Mainstream private equity is generally regarded as the equity funding for institutional buyouts, where the funder will typically leverage its investment to take a controlling interest in an established business with the potential for adding value in the short- to medium-term through growth, acquisition or reorganisation.

Sources of funding

Venture funding can come from a number of sources, including:

  • Business angels: wealthy individuals who are in a position to support investments with a high risk/return profile.

  • Funds: focusing on university spin-outs, to allow universities to have the opportunity to monetise intellectual property developed by its people.

  • Venture funds: professional investors managing third party institutional or retail funds.

  • Corporate investors: that make strategic investments to provide them with access to new technologies and businesses.

  • Crowdfunding: a means of raising funds from a large number of small investors, typically through an internet platform.

Types of company

Venture investment is drawn to businesses with a high potential for exponential growth. This typically lends itself to sectors receptive to market disruption such as technology, digital business, cleantech and life sciences. Areas with low growth and/or very high capital costs will generally not be suited to venture investment although there are always exceptions.

Investment in renewable energy infrastructure, offers an attractive alternative to the higher risk/return profile of high growth disruptive business and many venture fund managers now have funds focussed on these investments.

Market trends

Crowdfunding has been a recent development in venture investment and is continually gaining momentum as both regulators and investors gain confidence in the investment models and methodologies. There are many crowdfunding platforms offering different investment models to diverse investment sectors.

 
2. Are there any recent or proposed regulatory changes affecting the venture capital industry?

The Alternative Investment fund Managers Directive 2011/61/EU (AIFMD) imposes a wide range of restrictions on venture capital fund managers based in or promoting funds into the European Economic Area (EEA) and also creates a regulatory passporting regime to dispense with the requirement to obtain authorisation in each EEA jurisdiction in which the fund manager is active.

The AIFMD will not apply to all managers, but managers can choose to opt into the directive to avail of passporting rights. The Directive was implemented in the UK on 22 July 2013 and fund managers are required to become authorised by 22 July 2014.

The Regulated Activities Order (RAO) has been amended to bring it into line with the AIFMD, creating the new regulated activities of:

  • Managing an alternative investment fund (AIF).

  • AIF managing an Undertaking for the Collective Investment in Transferable Securities (UCITS).

  • Acting as depositary of an AIF and a UCITS.

See Question 9 for how this affects fund managers authorised prior to the amendments.

The Regulation on European Venture Capital Funds regulates venture capital fund managers that fall outside the scope of the AIFMD who choose to opt in to avail of passporting rights. The Regulation creates a lighter regulatory venture capital regime than the AIFMD, with the aim of increasing access to venture capital on a cross-border basis.

The Financial Services Act 2012 abolished the Financial Services Authority and created a new regulatory structure in April 2013. Fund managers are now subject to capital and conduct regulation by the new Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).

In terms of voluntary self-regulation, the:

  • European Venture Capital Association's handbook on the professional standards to be observed by the European private equity industry was published in October 2011.

  • International Private Equity and Venture Capital Valuation Guidelines Board's investor reporting guidelines aimed at general partners was published in October 2012.

 

Tax incentive schemes

3. What tax incentive or other schemes exist to encourage investment in venture capital companies? At whom are the schemes directed? What conditions must be met?

Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS)

Description. The EIS is designed to encourage entrepreneurship and assist small/medium-sized unquoted trading companies to raise finance by offering tax relief to investors who purchase ordinary shares.

Benefits offered. The EIS offers the following benefits on the subscription for shares in a qualifying company:

  • Income tax relief of 30% of the amount subscribed (subject to a maximum annual investment limit of GB£1 million) provided the shares are held for at least three years.

  • Capital gains tax exemption on sale after three years provided that the income tax relief has not been withdrawn within those three years.

These benefits are referred to as Investment Relief in this article. In addition, EIS relief allows a taxpayer to defer capital gains made on the disposal of assets, by reinvesting the gain into the subscription for shares in an EIS qualifying company. The shares must be issued at any time beginning one year before and ending three years after the disposal of the asset. This is referred to as Reinvestment Relief and there is no maximum limit for this.

Who can claim it? There are some significant restrictions for Investment Relief and it is more likely to be available to an outside investor than to someone who works in the business.

The rules for directors are complex. Careful planning and timing is critical, but it could allow a seed investor to be a director.

Conditions that apply to the target company. The following conditions dictate the nature of the investment and apply to both Investment Relief and Reinvestment Relief:

  • The shares in the target company must be eligible shares, which are new ordinary shares and are issued fully paid.

  • The shares must be issued to raise money for a qualifying activity and the money must be employed within two years of issue.

  • The company can only raise GB£5 million under the relevant schemes in any 12-month period (generally EIS and venture capital trusts (VCTs) (see below, Venture capital trust (VCT)).

  • The gross assets of the company must not exceed GB£15 million before the issue of shares and GB£16 million afterwards.

  • The company must have fewer than 250 full-time employees or part-time equivalent (including directors).

In addition, there are rules as to the extent to which the company can own or control other companies, and to which other companies can hold shares and investments in the company.

Loss of relief. Certain conditions must be satisfied for three years after the investment, failing which the tax benefits of EIS will be withdrawn. From April 2012, there must also be no disqualifying arrangements in place, that is, the company should not have been set up for the purpose of accessing and benefiting from venture capital reliefs.

Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS)

Description. The SEIS was introduced on 6 April 2012. This is similar to EIS, save that it is focused on smaller/early stage unquoted companies.

Benefits offered. The main benefits are:

  • Income tax relief will be available at 50%, but the annual investment limit for any investor is limited to GB£100,000 and the issuing company cannot raise more than GB£150,000 through SEIS investments.

  • Any gain made on the SEIS shares is free from capital gains tax on sale provided the shares are held for at least three years and the income tax relief has not been withdrawn (Disposal Relief).

  • An exemption of up to GB£50,000 on capital gains tax (Reinvestment Relief), on any gain made on the disposal of an asset in the 2013/14 tax year that is reinvested in SEIS qualifying shares within the same or following tax year. The exempt amount is restricted to half the qualifying re-invested amount (up to a maximum of GB£100,000).

It is also possible to make a claim to carry back relief for a reinvestment in the 2013/14 tax year, to exempt a gain in the 2012/13 tax year, if the claim is made for income tax purposes.

Who can claim. An investor must meet certain criteria to qualify for SEIS relief, as with EIS and VCT relief. An investor cannot be an employee of the company, but can be a director.

Conditions that apply to the target company. Many of the conditions are the same as for the EIS (see above, Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS)). The main variations are:

  • The company must be a genuine new venture.

  • The company can only raise GB£150,000 through SEIS and other state aids and no EIS or VCT investments must have been received before the SEIS qualifying shares are issued.

  • The company must have 25 or fewer employees and assets of no more than GB£200,000.

Loss of relief. If the above conditions are not met within three years, then the relief is lost and the SEIS tax benefits will be withdrawn. As for EIS and VCT there must be no disqualifying arrangements in place (see above, Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS)).

Venture capital trust (VCT)

Description. VCTs are also designed to encourage investment in small/ medium-sized and start-up trading companies. The individual invests in the VCT and the VCT invests in the company.

Benefits offered. An individual making an investment in a VCT is entitled to income tax relief of 30% of the amount subscribed (maximum subscription of up to GB£200,000 per indivdual, per tax year) provided the shares are held for at least five years. Dividends are exempt from income tax and any gain made on disposal is free from capital gains tax, provided the VCT continues to be approved.

Approval of the VCT. The VCT must be approved by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC). There are a number of conditions which apply, including that it must be listed on the Official List of the London Stock Exchange or an EU regulated market.

Conditions that apply to the target company. There are further conditions that apply to the nature of the investment by the VCT:

  • Investments can be made into loans and preference shares that meet qualifying conditions, but at least 10% of the total amount invested in an individual company must be in eligible shares. As with the EIS, there are rules that restrict those eligible shares from having certain preferential rights.

  • The VCT cannot control the company.

Loss of relief. Income tax relief will be withdrawn in whole or in part if the investor disposes of the shares within five years of issue. Relief will also be lost where the VCT loses its approved status or has put any disqualifying arrangements in place.

 

Funding sources

4. From what sources do venture capital funds typically receive funding?

Venture capital funds source equity from a wide range of investors, both public and private. Private investors can include:

  • High net-worth individuals.

  • Family offices.

  • Pension and insurance funds.

  • Endowments.

  • Funds of funds.

  • Sovereign wealth funds.

  • Corporate investors.

Public investors include:

  • Local and central government pension schemes.

  • Charities. These are becoming increasingly important sources of funds, particularly for venture capital funds that have a wider social purpose.

  • A range of quasi-governmental institutions. For example, Big Society Capital Limited (BSC) is a UK social investment bank started in 2011 which launched a GB£600 million investment fund on 4 April 2012. It was conceived as the Big Society Bank (BSB) by the UK Government to help finance projects under the banner of the Big Society. BSC follows in a long line of public sector-backed venture capital investors, including regional venture capital funds and enterprise capital funds.

At a European level, significant investment in venture capital funds is also available from a number of supra-national organisations, including the European Investment Bank (EIB) and its venture capital/private equity focused arm, the European Investment Fund (EIF), both of which are active market participants.

 

Fund structuring

5. Can the structure of the venture capital fund affect how investments are made?

The investment policy of a venture capital fund is normally set out in its constitutional documents, typically an English limited partnership (ELP) agreement (although it may take other forms depending on the type and location of investors). These documents normally specify the industry sector, investment size and geographic regions in which investments can be made. They will also often contain diversification requirements to ensure that the fund is not overly reliant on a small number of similar investments. If the fund has been structured with particular tax planning in mind (such as a VCT or EIS) then the rules governing these schemes will also have an impact on how investments are made.

 
6. Do venture capital funds typically invest with other funds?

Given the desire to manage portfolio risk, as well as a recognition that early stage businesses will often need multiple rounds of investment, investors often club together in syndicates so as to be able to support a business' funding needs through to exit.

 
7. What legal structure(s) are most commonly used as vehicles for venture capital funds in your jurisdiction?

The most common legal structure for venture capital funds is an English Limited Partnership (ELP) formed under the Limited Partnerships Act 1907. ELPs have been used for a variety of VC/PE investment funds and are familiar to most investors. They allow significant flexibility around the commercial terms for the fund and are tax transparent. In addition, they are lightly regulated from a corporate governance perspective, can be structured to avoid onerous publication requirements (giving investors a high level of privacy as to financial returns) and, provided investors do not involve themselves in day-to-day management, offer investors limited liability protection.

Other structures that may be used include public companies for VCT structures, private companies for club-style investments and limited liability partnerships. Where investors are located outside the UK, a number of non-UK structures are also commonly seen, even if the underlying investment company is in the UK.

 

Investment objectives

8. What are the most common investment objectives of venture capital funds?

Venture funds are typically looking to invest money raised in a three- to five-year investment period and to then realise the investments made before the end of the life of the fund, which is normally around ten years. While the specific objectives of the fund are set out in the investment objectives and criteria, most funds seek to generate a three times multiple on money invested. Because of the risk associated with investments of this nature (only around 20% of investments will be successful) there is significant pressure on fund managers to generate exceptional returns from the successful investments to compensate for those investments that have failed.

 

Fund regulation and licensing

9. Do a venture capital fund's promoter, manager and principals require licences?

A fund promoter (distributor) generally must be authorised by the FCA to conduct the regulated activity of arranging deals in investments where this is conducted in the UK. Where the promoter targets retail investors, it is also common for the promoter to undertake the additional regulated activity of providing investment advice to the investor, and thereby assumes responsibility for ensuring the suitability of the investment for that particular investor.

With effect from 1 January 2014, exemptions previously used by independent financial advisers to promote unregulated collective investment schemes and similar vehicles to certain retail investors, were removed by the FCA. As a result, marketing of such products to individuals is only permitted where they are certified as high net-worth or sophisticated. VCTs are excluded from these restrictions.

Currently, fund managers operating within the UK must be authorised by the FCA, typically because they will be carrying out the regulated activity of managing an alternative investment fund (a new regulated activity created when the AIFMD was implemented in the UK with effect from 22 July 2013). The fund manager's principals will need to be approved by the FCA for the purpose of carrying out certain functions.

Other UK entities in the fund structure, for example, entities who are delegates of the fund or fund manager in relation to its regulated functions, may also need to be authorised by the FCA because they will be carrying out one or more regulated activities in relation to the fund, such as:

  • Managing the fund.

  • Providing investment advice to the fund.

  • Arranging, dealing in, and safeguarding and administering, investments.

  • Acting as depositary of the fund.

 
10. Are venture capital funds regulated as investment companies or otherwise and, if so, what are the consequences? Are there any exemptions?

Most venture capital funds (other than VCTs) are not targeted at retail clients, and are unregulated. Therefore, the fund vehicle itself is not approved by the FCA, but the fund manager does need to be authorised (see Question 9).

A venture capital fund which is structured as a UK listed company (typically, a VCT) must generally prepare an FCA-approved prospectus to be marketed to the public, although there are exceptions to this requirement.

 
11. How is the relationship between investor and fund governed? What protections do investors in the fund typically seek?

The relationship between the investor and fund is set out in the fund's constitutional documents, most typically an ELP agreement. This will contain a number of provisions that address the relationship between the fund manager, the fund and the investor. These include:

  • The role of the fund manager, the fees paid to it and the decisions it can take. Many funds contain investment committees or advisory boards that act as check and balance on the activities of the fund manager and consider/give their views on governance and conflict provisions.

  • Provisions for the removal of the fund manager for cause and, increasingly, without cause (no fault divorce provisions).

  • Key main provisions to ensure that the key individuals responsible for the operation of the fund remain involved throughout the life of the fund.

  • Exclusivity provisions to ensure that the fund manager is, at least during the investment period, focused on the fund in question and not other funds in its stable.

  • Provisions relating to the drawdown of investors' commitments, the investment (and potential reinvestment) of those amounts, excuse provisions and default provisions to deal with non-funding investors.

  • The waterfall which deals with the allocation of profit between investors and the fund manager.

  • Information, reporting and governance provisions.

 

Interests in investee companies

12. What form of interest do venture capital funds take in an investee company?

Venture investors will typically invest by way of preferred equity. In very early stage businesses, convertible loan notes may be used as a means of mitigating risk and deferring a valuation decision until a later stage, but the risk profile of venture investing will usually only support an equity investment.

Investments made through crowdfunding platforms can take different forms depending on the platform involved. These could be individual equity investments, aggregated investments with the platform operator acting as nominee, or investment into debentures (loans) issued by the company.

 

Valuing and investigating investee companies

13. How do venture capital funds value an investee company?

Valuation of early stage businesses is a challenge. If it has revenues then it might be possible to form a valuation based on a multiple. However this will often not be the case, so it can be somewhat arbitrary. In reality, an investor will not want its investment to dilute the founder equity to such an extent that they become disincentivised from growing the business. Therefore, the valuation may ultimately be implied from determining the funding needs of the business and applying that to an equity stake which will not leave founders' equity overly diluted.

 
14. What investigations do venture capital funds carry out on potential investee companies?

Venture investors will normally carry out a number of investigations into the business it is investing into. These may include broad financial and legal due diligence but it is more likely that a bespoke approach will be taken. The investor's priority will be to ensure that:

  • The business's core assets (often IPRs) are owned and protected.

  • The management team are tied down to arm's length service agreements.

  • Proper incentive arrangements are in place.

Therefore, some legal review is often required, with risk exposure being addressed through the warranties and disclosures in the subscription and shareholders agreement. In addition, for some investors (such as VCTs) it will be important to ensure that the nature of the business it is investing in is consistent with the rules which apply to its fund.

 

Legal documentation

15. What are the principal legal documents used in a venture capital transaction?

The main documentation usually associated with a VC investment includes:

  • A subscription and shareholders agreement. This will contain:

    • the terms on which the investor makes its investment, what it gets for its cash and how the investment will be made (for example, in a single drawdown or series of tranches);

    • warranties provided by the target company and founders as to the position of the company, and to a limited extent, the founders other business interests;

    • restrictive covenants to be provided by the founders;

    • a series of obligations as to the management and governance of the company and matters which specifically require investor consent.

  • Articles of association, that deal with:

    • the rights attaching to shares;

    • new share issues and transfers;

    • the operation of the board;

    • general constitutional matters.

  • Service agreements. If the management team does not have robust service agreements it is likely that an investor will require these to be put in place.

 

Protection of the fund as investor

Contractual protections

16. What form of contractual protection does an investor receive on its investment in a company?

Contractual protections are dealt with in the subscription and shareholders agreement, articles of association and service agreements (see Question 15).

Forms of equity interest

17. What form of equity interest does a fund commonly take (for example, preferred or ordinary shares)?

A venture investor will normally invest in preferred shares.

Preferred shares

18. What rights does a fund have in its capacity as a holder of preferred shares?

The preferred nature of the shares will mean that they will have the same rights as ordinary shares (and so will be regarded as "equity" unlike preference shares) but will likely have enhanced entitlements to capital and income, specific class protections and downside protection, such as anti-dilution.

Management control

19. What rights are commonly used to give a fund a level of management control over the activities of an investee company?

The investment documentation will normally include undertakings on the part of the company and the management not to do various things without the consent of the investor. These will generally be non-ordinary course matters such as the acquisition or disposal of significant assets. Regular supervision will be effected through the investor's monitoring of the board, either from its ability to appoint a director or an observer.

Share transfer restrictions

20. What restrictions on the transfer of shares by shareholders are commonly contained in the investment documentation?

Share transfers are restricted to ensure that all shareholders in an investee company stand together and exit together to maximise shareholder value. The following methods are commonly used:

  • Pre-emption rights on transfer. The articles of association will almost certainly contain pre-emption rights preventing shareholders (subject to certain exceptions) from transferring their shares to third parties, unless they have first offered those shares to existing shareholders on the same terms.

  • Tag-along. The articles often prohibit share transfers to third parties that would result in a third party holding a controlling interest in the investee company, unless that third party has offered to acquire all shareholders' shares on the same terms.

  • Co-sale. These prevent a shareholder from transferring a proportion of his shareholding to a third party, unless all shareholders have been given the right to transfer a similar proportion of their shares to that buyer on the same terms.

 
21. What protections do the investors, as minority shareholders, have in relation to an exit by way of sale of the company?

Shareholders in the investee company will typically agree an exit plan in the investment agreement to record who does what and the timing of an exit.

In addition to the restrictions on the transfer of shares in the investee company, the articles of association will usually contain drag-along rights. These rights allow the holder(s) of an agreed proportion of the shares to oblige all shareholders to accept a buyer's offer. Clearly, this makes an exit much easier for investors to achieve, as not all shareholders need to consent to it.

In addition, on exit, some investors will have the right in the articles of association to have their investment repaid (sometimes with an agreed uplift or return) from the sale proceeds before other shareholders get any capital return.

Pre-emption rights

22. Do investors typically require pre-emption rights in relation to any further issues of shares by an investee company?

No investor would invest in any company without having the right to participate equally on any new issues of shares (so as to maintain their shareholding stake in the investee company).

In addition to this, it is very common for the investment agreement to contain a contractual restriction on the investee company from issuing new shares without investor consent, except for agreed actions to satisfy employee share options.

Consents

23. What consents are required to approve the investment documentation?

The following consents are generally required:

  • The board of the investee company will formally approve the terms of the funding as being in the best interests of the company, subject to contract. The investee company will then usually sign the investor's term sheet or heads of terms, so that the transaction can progress.

  • The investee company will then obtain all necessary consents from its shareholders. Shareholder consent is often required to:

    • adopt new articles of association;

    • give the board authority to allot new shares and;

    • waive pre-emption rights on the issue of those shares.

  • The investee company may also need to obtain consent from other third parties (such as its bank).

 

Costs

24. Who covers the costs of the venture capital funds?

It is often a term of the funding that the investee company pays the investor's reasonable costs incurred to make the investment. These costs can also cover due diligence.

 

Founder and employee incentivisation

25. In what ways are founders and employees incentivised? What are the resulting tax considerations?

Incentives

Incentivisation can be achieved through a bonus scheme, but these are not popular with the current rates of tax see below, Tax) and equity incentives can be a more attractive alternative. Founders should take equity as early as possible to secure it at the lowest price possible. Where a founder is also an employee or director in the business there will be income tax issues to consider.

Tax

If an employee acquires the shares at less than the market value, there can be an immediate charge to income tax (currently up to 45%) and possibly national insurance contributions (a payroll tax on the employee and the employer).

Further charges may apply in the future, particularly at the point of disposal. Careful planning can mitigate the income tax risk and it is important to consider making tax elections on acquisition (known as section 431 elections).

There are a number of tax-favoured share schemes which provide capital gains rather than income tax treatment. In the context of small- and medium-sized companies, the enterprise management incentive (EMI) is available. This is designed to allow the shares acquired under an EMI option to be subject to capital gains tax, including entrepreneur's relief where applicable. The company must meet qualifying conditions, in many respects quite similar to those under EIS or VCT schemes (see Question 3).

Individual investors usually hope that their investment will be subject to capital gains tax alone. The typical rate is 28%, but this can be reduced to 10% on the first GB£10 million of lifetime qualifying gains where entrepreneurs' relief applies.

 
26. What protections do the investors typically k to ensure the long-term commitment of the founders to the venture?

Ensuring that founders are committed to investee companies is very important to investors, yet it is impossible to make somebody work against their will. Accordingly, protections are designed to be punitive in nature to discourage certain behaviours. Negotiations in this area can be contentious and should be handled delicately. The methods commonly deployed are:

  • Leaver provisions.

  • Restrictive covenants.

Leaver provisions

The articles of association typically provide that if an employee shareholder leaves the business, that employee is automatically required to offer to sell his shares to other shareholders (or that their shares will suffer an automatic conversion into worthless shares). This has the effect of eliminating the leaver's stake in the business, which can then, if necessary, be used to incentivise that leaver's replacement.

It is common for leavers to be paid different prices for their shares, depending on why they left the business:

  • Bad leavers commonly get a restricted price for their shares. Bad leavers are usually employee shareholders who leave before an agreed period of time or have done something wrong within their control (for example, a breach of their employment contract, poor performance or gross misconduct).

  • Good leavers usually get fair market value for their shares. Good leavers are usually employee shareholders who leave after an agreed period of time and/or have otherwise done nothing wrong.

However, there are many variations to the above, for example:

  • Allowing leavers to retain some of their shares from the outset (often used to recognise the value of an employee shareholder's contribution before the investment was made).

  • Allowing leavers to retain an increasing proportion of their shares or to get more favourable pricing terms, as time passes, thereby alleviating the impact of the leaver provisions as the business grows (sometimes called vesting).

  • Taking away all or some of a leaver's voting rights so that they have less influence over the investee company and, in particular, less influence on an exit.

Leaver provisions can also be found in some employee share option agreements and are used to extinguish or reduce an option holder's right to exercise share options once they have left the business.

Restrictive covenants

The investment agreement and a founder's employment contract almost always contain restrictive covenants from the founders to the investee company and/or the investors that:

  • While engaged in the business, the founder will devote his full time and attention to the business to the exclusion of any other business opportunity.

  • Should they leave the business, the founders will not work for or be involved with any competing business for an agreed period and will not try to take away any of the investee company's employees, customers, suppliers or other key business contacts.

 

Exit strategies

27. What forms of exit are typically used to realise a venture capital fund's investment in an unsuccessful company? What are the relative advantages and disadvantages of each?

It will always be harder for an investor to exit from an unsuccessful investee company because there is likely to be a smaller group of buyers and/or new investors prepared to do a transaction. The usual options are therefore:

  • Sale to a specialist acquirer/ investor. There are investors and trade buyers who specialise in buying distressed assets. This is a risky market, so the purchase price will be low (often based on the underlying value of the investee company's assets) rather than any profit valuation (as this can be too uncertain).

  • Solvent (voluntary) liquidation. The shareholders can decide to close down the business in an orderly fashion by putting the investee company into voluntary liquidation. Once the investee company has paid off its creditors, any remaining assets, which the liquidator will more than likely have converted into cash by that stage, would be distributed to shareholders.

  • Insolvent liquidation. Sometimes shareholders do not have time to carry out a business sale or a solvent liquidation and, if the investee company becomes insolvent, the fate of the investee company is taken out of their hands. The process of distributing assets is the same as for a solvent liquation, save that there is an increasing risk that there will not be any proceeds left to return to shareholders, as the investee company' creditors are likely to outweigh the value of its assets.

Liquidation processes can provide stakeholders with the opportunity to take control of the core assets of the business and seek to exploit them in the context of a new business. These "pre-pack" schemes can be controversial as they will generally leave creditors of the original business out of pocket.

On an unsuccessful exit, investors will be concerned to maximise the recovery of their investment, so the best process for them will often be the one that achieves this goal most efficiently. Investors will also be concerned about their market reputation and, if they have a director on the board of the investee company, their directors' duties. The main relevant duties are to:

  • Act in the best interest of the investee company and its creditors.

  • Prevent the investee company from trading whilst insolvent, which can expose the directors to personal liability.

Redemption. Finally, an investor may have the right in the articles of association to demand that the investee company redeems its shares at a pre-agreed valuation. Clearly this is only useful if the investee company has money to fund the redemption.

 
28. What forms of exit are typically used to realise a venture capital fund's investment in a successful company? What are the relative advantages and disadvantages of each?

The most common forms of exit from a successful investee company are:

  • Trade sale. The main advantage of a trade sale is control, particularly if there is interest from competing buyers, as the sellers will be able to take advantage of the competitive tension involved. The process also provides a fair degree of certainty of execution. The main disadvantage is that management shareholders might lose their jobs and/or influence if the investee company is being acquired by a larger company who plans to assimilate the investee company into its own business. Care also needs to be taken to manage secret "business critical" information during the sale process in case the transaction aborts, particularly if the buyer is a competitor, or could become so.

  • Buyout. As well as having the advantages of a trade sale, buyouts can also be great events for management shareholders, as they get the chance to realise some cash, retain their position within the business and reinvest into attractive equity instruments in the new company. However, there is likely to be more uncertainty around execution. This is because private equity firms usually undertake a much more thorough due diligence process, particularly about the market in which the investee company operates, as private equity firms might know less about this than a trade buyer. In the current market, it is extremely difficult to raise bank debt to support larger buyouts because of the reduction in availability of acquisition finance.

  • IPO. The main advantages of an IPO are that management shareholders will retain their position within the business. There is also a degree of profile raising/feel good factor for any business that is listed on a major stock market. However, an IPO is not really an exit at all, but is more like a partial refinancing of the shareholder base. Investors and management shareholders are often required to agree that they will not sell their shares for an agreed period. This is called a lock in arrangement, and is used to create an orderly market in the investee company's shares, once listed. In addition, in terms of execution, IPOs are still risky, depending on whether the investee company can secure sufficient interest from initial investors. This will often only become clear late in the process once the marketing phase has begun. IPOs are also expensive to do and are very consumptive of management time.

 
29. How can this exit strategy be built into the investment?

An agreed exit strategy will be important to all shareholders, not just investors, so it should be discussed and be built into the investment documents from the outset as part of the overall investment negotiations. Depending on what is agreed, the exit strategy will influence a number of the provisions in the investment documents that have already been discussed in this article, including:

  • Drag-along rights, which may enable an investor to have more control on the timing of an exit by giving effect to some elements of the exit policy.

  • Liquidation/sale preferences, that may give an investor a priority return protecting them from marginal exits.

  • Restrictions on share transfers, designed to make it hard for shareholders to exit without all other shareholders.

  • Leaver provisions, which dissuade employee shareholders from leaving the business before an exit is achieved.

Despite best efforts, shareholders should also be flexible to take advantage of exit opportunities as and when they arise. Even the most successful investee companies can sometimes achieve an exit that was not foreseen at the start. This illustrates the exciting nature of venture capital investment.

 

Online resources

legislation.gov.uk

W www.legislation.gov.uk

Description. The official online resource for UK legislation enacted since 1267.

HM Revenue & Customs

W www.hmrc.gov.uk

Description. The official website of HM Revenue & Customs including an online version of its venture capital schemes manual, providing information about EIS, SEIS, VCT and other schemes.



Contributor profiles

Matthew Lewis, Partner

Osborne Clarke

T +44 117 917 4244
F +44 117 917 4245
E matthew.lewis@osborneclarke.com
W www.osborneclarke.com

Professional qualifications. Solicitor, England and Wales

Areas of practice. Venture capital; private equity; corporate M&A; renewable energy projects.

Recent transactions

  • Advising Foresight Group on solar investments.
  • Advising Oxford Capital Partners on renewables investments.
  • Syndicate led by DFJ Esprit on investments in Light Blue Optics.
  • Advising YFM Equity Partners on investment in Seven Technologies Limited.

Robert Wood, Partner

Osborne Clarke

T +44 118 925 2104
F +44 118 925 2105
E robert.wood@osborneclarke.com
W www.osborneclarke.com

Professional qualifications. Solicitor, England and Wales

Areas of practice. Venture capital; private equity; corporate M&A.

Recent transactions

  • Advising PROFounders on the GB£6m series B funding round in Made.com (the well-known online furniture retailer).
  • Advising Benchmark Capital (in the US) on their US$11m series B investment in the social games company, Natural Motion.
  • Advising Imperial Innovations and Invesco Perpetual on the GB£17m funding round in Cell Medica.
  • Advising Ubiquisys on its US$19m further funding round from a large syndicate of investors including Accel, Atlas and Advent.
  • Advising Nujira on its GB£12m funding round from SAM Private Equity, Amadeus, Climate Change Capital, ETF and NES Partners.

Tim Simmonds, Partner

Osborne Clarke

T +44 117 917 4434
F +44 117 917 4435
E tim.simmonds@osborneclarke.com
W www.osborneclarke.com

Professional qualifications. Solicitor, England and Wales

Areas of practice. Funds.

Recent transactions

  • Launch of Invest2Play, a computer games VC fund.
  • Launch of Bridges Ventures Results fund.
  • Launch of NESTA's social impact fund.
  • Restructuring Lachesis (a University VC fund).
  • Restructuring of Curzon Capital's UK VC fund.

David Blair, Head of Financial Regulation

Osborne Clarke

T +44 207 105 7056
M +44 755 728 4237
E david.blair@osborneclarke.com
W www.osborneclarke.com

Professional qualifications. Solicitor, England and Wales

Areas of practice. Financial regulation.

Recent transactions

  • Advising venture capital firms on becoming FCA authorised and operating outside the scope of authorisation.
  • Advising companies on alternative finance structures for small businesses, including crowd funding and non-bank lending platforms.
  • Reviewing fund marketing materials in the context of FCA rules, financial promotion exemptions and prospectus requirements.

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