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Prioritising profitability – for your investors, and for your business

As a corporate investor that backs growth-stage businesses with operational capital as part of a funding round, we have always advocated for good business fundamentals just as much – and in fact as a priority – as the focus on burning through investment just to achieve unsustainable growth.

Here’s a good reality check for founders striving for success. Businesses have to make money to survive and to succeed, and investors are increasingly losing patience with the tried, tested (and often failed) attitude of ‘growth through negative burn’. In a recent survey of founders at the time of writing this article, 84% said they were under more pressure (from their investors) to prioritise profitability. An unsurprising sentiment given the tighter early stage investor landscape – it will be interesting to know what others think?

The upside being that founders have mostly followed that advice, with 64% having cut back on new hires and 57% trimming staff costs; and 49% have also made savings on office costs.

Increasingly founders have said they’d like more help with fundraising and industry connections and customers, which is exactly the strategic support we believe investors, whether cash or corporate in their model, should focus on when backing growth-stage companies.

The survey also found that 71% of startup founders feel like their relationships with their investors have gotten worse, not better over the past year with 44% of founders acknowledging that many VC investors were not helpful when it came to business strategy – meaning that founders, often first-time leaders, are left unsupported in executing on the growth initiatives that all stakeholders have ultimately bought into by backing the business. It’s high time that founders and funders alike leverage the real value of ‘better together’ when scaling for success.

Equity for your efforts.

Big salaries don’t always equate to big opportunity, and for the right talent with the right ambition a growth-focused company that needs your skillset can be the right opportunity. And if you’re a founder then you already know what we mean! When we commit our resources to a portfolio company it’s usually when that company has proven that a substantial market exists for their service or technology, and it’s usually at a time where just a couple of founders are juggling much of the operational growth – and the headaches. This is where growth investing comes into its own.

The balance to be struck for a founder is to get the best possible skills and know-how into the business at a time when cashflow is often at its tightest. And for those with the talent to generate the accelerated results that an early stage business craves the upside needs to be attractive enough for the effort required – with an aligned objective to make big things happen for the business. So, how to square the circle?

The team that ultimately builds a business is often not just the founder and a core group of employees. To create a camp of knowledgeable or well-connected shareholders and advisors, along with operational team members that share your vision and will benefit when the business does well, can serve a business well to accelerate growth. That shared vision and shared reward-for-effort can (and often should) be a fundamental component of the returns that each member of the camp will work toward, and tying equity to that involvement is the ultimate reward mechanism.

Aligning equity accrual and income upside for your supporting ‘camp’ will keep everyone focused on the blue-sky objectives of the business, and at the same time will encourage more engagement on challenges and opportunities – and importantly, ideas and solutions to keep the momentum you want. Once you create alignment that encourages a win-win culture for everyone who supports your business, then you’ve created a collective vision that everyone can buy into.

So what next? It’s time to think about what skills and value-add you’d like to bring into the business, then think less about how much cash you want to raise to ‘buy’ those skillsets, and instead think about how to align interests for everyone so value is earned and shared. Talk to us about it, we take that approach across our portfolio every day.

Time to expand into the US? Let’s get sensible.

We recently read that since 2015 almost a third of European companies who expanded to the US did so even before they had raised a Series A. That’s a big step at such an early stage. Expanding to the US is a strategic decision for a startup, and expanding too soon could potentially be at the expense of continued growth on your home turf. But expand too late and you risk losing the US market to a competitor.

The ideal scenario for any scaleup is to get traction and to position yourself both in your home market and in further growth markets – at the same time. Getting your business to a place where you have users in a target market already engaging with you, rather than going in cold with full commitment and a big investment risk, can make executing your growth plan a lot easier. And that’s a strategy that can pay dividends if it’s executed the right way.

Axial Capital has established a presence in key markets including the US and Europe to support our portfolio companies with a lean platform for accessing these new markets, providing a soft-landing approach for accessing the international marketplace. The creation of a US subsidiary will immediately bring you within the US tax net in one sense or another, so a soft-landing approach can be the ideal way for ambitious business operators to spearhead in-country market testing and business development ahead of making a more substantial commitment.

By investing our resources in first phase US expansion for British and European scaleups – or vice versa for US businesses that want to enter the UK market – our portfolio companies can manage this expansion from their home operating base until it feels right to ‘follow that growth’ with a new corporate entity in-country. As the post covid-era of growth businesses increasingly have a tech-enabled bias and are scalable by nature, the obtainable market for so many of them is as exciting as it’s ever been!

Investing across AgriTech

Technology advancements in indoor farming are revolutionising agriculture. When you think of the thousands of food varieties being farmed differently across countries and continents, the impact is truly global.

These innovations promise more sustainable and efficient food production, even in urban settings, and Axial Capital is leading investment and research collaborations for AgriTech startups in a number of these verticals. 

How do you define ‘AgriTech’? In short, broadly! Cutting-edge lighting and imagery systems provide tailored spectra for optimal plant growth while conserving energy as compared with legacy methods. Automated climate control systems adjust and balance temperature, humidity, and CO2 levels precisely across the breadth and varying height levels of each indoor environment – pivotal for accurately managing rising heat and pockets of humidity.

And further yet: hydroponic and aeroponic systems deliver essential nutrients directly to plant roots, enhancing yields and reducing water usage. And sensors driven by AI algorithms continuously monitor plant health, detecting issues before they escalate – a particular vertical we are supporting very actively.

These advancements not only boost crop productivity but also reduce the need for pesticides and herbicides. The very real threat of food shortages is an increasingly common news piece, but we’re highly conscious too of the long running use of chemicals and excessive water consumption in our food chain, and as new technologies improve yields across global centres it is slowly but surely contributing toward a healthier planet at the same time. Indoor farming’s future looks promising, being more than a glimmer of hope for the world’s food security and environmental challenges. A worthy commitment of time and resources in our view!

Navigating Alternative Financing for Growth

In the ever-evolving world of a business growth, traditional funding source of venture capital is no longer the outright lead provider of capital that it once was. As the funding landscape shifts, entrepreneurs are turning to alternative strategies like growth-debt, government-sponsored funding, and accelerator programs to fuel their ambitions. Let’s take a closer look at the current funding environment and the innovative pathways that are increasingly driving capital models and avenues for growth.

The funding scene in North America has experienced some stagnation across all stages, with later-stage startups and tech-focused companies taking the hardest hit. Since the first quarter of 2023, investments in these sectors have notably decreased by 33%. The root cause can be traced back to a broader market decline affecting technology and life science companies generally, leading to lower valuations and delayed pre-IPO rounds for startups.

Nearer to Axial’s HQ in the UK and Europe, a similar situation is unfolding. External factors such as the war in Ukraine and a struggling global economy have contributed to surging inflation and increased interest rates. These economic challenges starkly contrast with the record-breaking cash inflows that high-growth businesses enjoyed 18 months ago. As a result, startups in Europe are facing familiar territory in the cultural expectation that they should establish robust market positioning and demonstrate growth in topline income before funding might flow more freely.

In response to these shifting dynamics, founders and operators are exploring various avenues to sustain and grow their businesses. M&A has increasingly offered a mechanism to bolster market share (and ideally a stronger combined balance sheet) with businesses consolidating their funding via strategic partnerships – and at Axial we are leading on transactions on this basis both for accelerated growth and for more urgent defensive strategies. The realities for founders is this often requires a considerable amount of time and may even lead to valuation down-rounds.

Financing driven by forward revenues is another funding model that we build into our support for growth-companies. In this approach, a company receives an upfront sum of capital and future recuring earnings serve as both the rationale for for the financing and for repayment. This model aligns the interests of investors with those of the startup, promoting sustainable growth without the burden of traditional debt.

Corporate partnerships and sponsorships are also proving to be lifelines for businesses looking for growth. Larger companies are investing in startups, often in exchange for access to innovative products or supply chain advantages, and cross-border partnerships can be a pivotal catalyst for accelerating new business. These strategic partnerships can provide startups with the resources and expertise they need to thrive – whether in a new market or a challenging market – and with our offices operating across the US, Europe, UK and Canada, Axial’s team takes this approach with many of our portfolio clients.

Despite the challenging funding landscape, entrepreneurs are natural risk-takers and innovators, and the current funding dynamic is likely to drive even more creativity and open up unique opportunities for those who can adapt and pivot effectively.

The road ahead for ambitious business operators may be unchartered in many cases, but there’s nothing like a challenge to truly define the entrepreneurial journey. By embracing alternative funding avenues, strategic partnerships, and a resilient mindset, startups and growth-driven SMEs can weather the storm and re-shape the future of their industries. The entrepreneurial journey is ever-evolving, and those who navigate the changing tides with creativity and determination will undoubtedly find success in the new landscape.

Second guessing with AI

Is it time to hand important financial decisions to GPT? The answer to that question was a resounding No not too long ago, but the ‘intelligence’ bit of AI has moved on rapidly in just the recent year, notably enhancing precision and adaptability, to the point where a recent market-review article illustrated how AI was fed technical data to undermine Reuters’ bullish stance on Rivian stock – ultimately giving a result of ‘under-perform’ when taking into account previous stock data, and suggesting a sell recommendation on stock that Reuters was openly positive about. Right or wrong, that’s interesting.

Across our client portfolio we are increasingly seeing AI (or at least an attempt at it; automation is not AI) bolster services and solutions that are being deployed across sectors from agri through to InsurTech and workflow management. If, like us, you have asked Bard or GPT the same question in different ways to ultimately get to a reasonable answer, you’ll appreciate that even if a certain level of manual intervention is still relevant, the emotive or ‘human factor’ is not – and that’s where the potential for value (and to outmaneuver a human) really runs deep.

One reason we really like the concept of bringing AI into the markets or sector applications across our client portfolio, is that it generally means the degree of scalability for that business is greater than before – and with our operational model being focused on expansion as much as investment, supported by our team across multiple geographies, the results from our collective efforts with each client can be all the more enhanced. A great case in point is a client in the AI process automation space, whose technology we are introducing across our portfolio for testing and circular feedback, so ultimately the collective financial returns can be incredibly impacting. It’s not quite a focus on financial decisions in the end, but the financial results speak for themselves!

Ways to enter new markets with growth investment

Having our team located across North America, the UK and Europe gives our clients access to a uniquely international network of investors and strategic partners. By involving Axial team members from multiple geographies on many of the transactions we manage, we help to open new market opportunities through our extensive relationships – further enhanced by the pull effect of engaging new capital from multiple regions. In periods when capital markets & private equity in general face headwinds it’s our multi-channel, multi-region operating model that allows our clients to continue achieving more forward momentum than a single market might provide – and with a view to achieving enhanced operational outcomes through those strategic financing activities.

So what does strategic growth capital look like? Ultimately this is a factor of sector, geography, corporate objectives, and a multitude of more nuanced considerations that will see the process managed differently for each founder going through an exciting period of growth. Through distribution and partnership collaborations our clients gain access to know-how and networks in new markets, and potentially enhanced opportunities for deploying their services and technologies – and with scope for resource sharing and cost efficiencies as a result.

As every founder knows growth is not without its challenges, and the investment of time with the support of Axial’s network of consultants can put shape and structure to the milestones a business wants to hit as it passes through funding rounds. Every founder talks about their roadmap, and the trick is making sure it’s the right one!

Ultimately commercial and strategic alignment in the growth objectives of a business can be a great way to accelerate growth, and to leverage the strength and collective knowledge of a more significant network. With our consultants having backgrounds from private equity, capital markets, and international consulting firms the perspectives that our project teams bring to each client engagement makes each year of expansion all the more enjoyable!

Building a successful CleanTech

The boom in the European CleanTech startup sector, and in the capital markets that have poured billions of pounds into accelerating those enterprises, has seen an incredible array of waste-repurposing and pollutant-reducing innovations come to market. We’ve been fortunate to see a few of these in our client portfolio, from green energy storage & managed-distribution systems, through to conversion technologies that bring cleaner outcomes to the fossil-fuel-driven logistics industry.

Deal values last year across the CleanTech space once again increased significantly on previous investment levels, rising from €7.3 billion to €9.7 billion across Europe. Looking at the stats behind the headlines, the number of transactions being financing is flat-lining, whilst the value of those deals is increasing. The average size of a financing round has risen from €3.3m in 2020, and €6.6m in 2021, to reach €10.7m average investment ticket in 2022. And there’s logic behind those numbers.

The upward trend we’ve witnessed is largely due to the industry maturing from its emergence as a nascent sector just a few years ago, which has led to a higher number of later-stage and follow-on financings at higher ticket levels. On top of this the sector has witnessed a number of notable megadeals including Northvolt, Climeworks, Sunfire, and Infarm to name a few – all of which booked rounds in the hundreds of millions. Impressive values, irrespective of the sector.

So if you’re a CleanTech founder pushing the boundaries – and pushing on the doors of venture capitalists – where is the optimal country to put down roots? If we look at recent stats (yep, we keep going back to the stats) Sweden tops the table, at least by deal volume. With a cumulative financing volume of €6.4 billion over the past four years, Sweden is significantly ahead of second-runner, the UK, with €4.0 billion, and Germany in third with €2.8 billion. Admittedly these numbers are a tad misleading, with Sweden’s Northvolt running four successive mega rounds, single-handedly taking €4.7 billion of that funding.

And if you’re still contemplating which vertical to delve into for your next CleanTech venture? The recent few quarters have seen energy-storage & E-mobility attract the highest funding. With a deal volume of €6.8 billion, the energy storage sector leads the way across Europe. Interestingly this is driven in part by the rise of the second largest vertical, e-mobility, as well as the expansion of renewables, which collectively create additional storage demand. Again, without Northvolt’s bull run the energy storage vertical would only be ranked 4th, with energy generation running up alongside storage.

A clear pattern has emerged through this first era of CleanTech, with the largest verticals being notably synergistic and helping to spur growth and innovation interconnectedly, whilst still remaining specialist enough in their own right to evolve independent industries unto themselves. Though, as time has shown us on many occasions, convergence and consolidation are never too far into the distance. Nevertheless we see exciting times ahead for a welcomed and warranted industry of innovators.

A drone for all occasions

In advisory and capital raising we provide strategic support and financing to businesses in many sectors, and one that we particularly enjoy spending time on is the broader UAV space. When drones are put to good use it’s impressive to witness. We have seen drones that make emergency blood deliveries in Italy, drones that are launched from remote bases around London to inspect potential crimes in real time, and drones that monitor and report on industrial assets from the North Sea to the Middle East.

Where does the true value lie in each of these innovations? Primarily it’s a question of genuine IP and proven engagement with the markets that those drones are designed to serve. To move beyond the realm of being a short-term solution, and into a position of being integral – even pivotal – to the operations of their client base, is where long term value can be recognised. And in turn this is fundamental to the sustainable value proposition that we present to our institutional investor base. After all, when asking for investment to accelerate the market rollout, a clear return on that investment – and a clear path to liquidity – will sway the argument for choosing one opportunity over another. With both private capital and listed investment vehicles in our network looking at these investments with us, the market continues to simmer with some heat.

With so many factors influencing how the UAV market can evolve, whether it be regulatory restrictions, advancements in other technologies that bring about new opportunities for drone applications, or societal considerations such as privacy that present ethical boundaries in some use-cases, we will continue to watch the industry with interest!

International small-caps are still coming to Europe

As one of the world’s oldest markets, London is as much a destination for a dual listings as it is a primary market for companies with global ambition. Equally, Frankfurt remains a gateway for access to liquidity and broader investor exposure – and collectively this is proving a draw for Canadian and Australian companies at an increasing rate. It’s not surprising, given the Frankfurt and London markets have a long track record – offering deep pools of institutional capital, high liquidity, and sophisticated long-term investors.

Access to longer-term capital is a common driver for expanding market presence, but it can also be about developing an international profile and gaining greater liquidity for existing shareholders. Using our extensive network of investor and banking institutions, we build an ecosystem around listed companies that want to create a presence in the European and London markets, to broaden shareholder spread and strategic partnerships, ultimately providing those companies with access to international pools of capital.

The AIM market was launched in London to help smaller-mid-cap companies raise equity and engage with investors, and with over 3,000 companies from around the world having listed in London to date many of these come from international roots. Via Frankfurt those same companies can also access a broader European support base. For those companies already listed on exchanges like the ASX or the TSX, adding a Frankfurt or AIM listing can accelerate access to a new pool of liquidity, active in a separate time zone even when the home exchange is out of hours, opening doors to a global investor base.

The international investment profile of Frankfurt and London is increasingly geared toward advancing ESG, which in itself is a major attraction for resources and mining groups that want ensure they are not just making money for investors but also demonstrating commitment to a better world. With major investor conferences scheduled for this month both in Frankfurt and London, we expect this will be integral for strategies going into next year.

The way in which Canadian and Australian companies can approach these markets is also flexible. While it is helpful to raise money on listing to create local liquidity, various dual listed companies have chosen to build up a local profile through research and PR, so that when they are ready to raise funds the investment community will be more aware of their relevant activities and keener to invest. We continue to welcome international business growth!

Investor relations for your cap-table

Investor relations activities are fundamental in broadening your shareholder register, whether your company is climbing the startup ranks or is already a small cap listed company. Ultimately this is where your ongoing liquidity and financial support will come from, so the importance of a continued process of investor engagement shouldn’t be underestimated.

For early stage and private companies it’s typically your cornerstone and strategic investors that warrant the most attention, and for listed companies a broad spread of supportive investors – both institutional and retail – should be kept engaged and informed on operational updates and news releases. To communicate that news flow positively for the greatest investor response, an investor relations team is core to your financing activities and your valuation objectives.

With our associates on the ground in key centres across the UK and Europe, North America and Australia, those relationships can be managed for enhanced investor engagement, so each client we work with can benefit from a focused approach to an efficient capital structure. The combined effect of supporting your valuation, and maintaining a sense of positive presence for your investors, puts your business on a stronger footing as you progress through funding rounds and expansion strategies. All the better for those who keep ahead of the curve!

Axial Capital enters the US

With Axial associates now based in the UK, EU and US, our reach into investment and capital markets is extensive. Following the addition of two advisors this year we look forward to 2022 being a stellar year for providing investment.

We want to say well done to our team member Chris in the US for securing the mandate for AVM’s current investment round, to accelerate the development of their immuno-therapy technology. This immuno-response basis to their treatment may also result in a reduction in the number of chemotherapy cycles needed for a complete response, bringing about greater efficacy with reduced side effects.

Whilst medical isn’t Chris’s only focus area, it’s great to see our advisory services bringing value to such a worthwhile technology.