Investment trends: Consumer market catches VC attention

All hail the consumer in today's market

Software and network infrastructure may be safe -- for now -- but the wireless and Internet industries in which startups targeting the enterprise once enjoyed the majority of venture capital funding are quickly being eclipsed by companies developing online shopping sites, mobile entertainment delivery services and set-top box components.

In other words, all hail the consumer.

Interest in IT companies with corporations as their customers is far from over, but with once-exploding areas such as enterprise software and IT security saturated, venture capitalists in 2006 were distracted by the lure of the consumer in certain segments. A quick glance at the Top 10 venture capital investments for 2006 in both the Internet and wireless sectors tells the story: half of the investments in both categories went to consumer-focused products and services.

That's where most dollars went, too. The largest investment in an IT vendor in 2006 was in Amp'd Mobile, a broadband wireless service provider that offers music, video, sports and gaming content along with voice and text messaging. Amp'd Mobile saw US$153 million in venture capital investments last year, and counts MTV and Universal Music Group among its investors.

Another big winner was Limelight Networks, which operates a content delivery network for digital media with customers including celebrity/fashion Web site Stardoll and online video broadcaster Metacafe. Limelight officials won't say what they plan to do with the US$130 million received in venture capital last year because the company is in a quiet period, which usually means a company is preparing to go public.

Compare those investments with the big winners among enterprise-focused vendors. In the software sector, US$35 million went to Global Market Insite, a maker of online market research tools, while in network infrastructure the top deal was US$50 million in 10G Ethernet switch maker Force10 Networks.

What does this new focus on the consumer mean to enterprise IT users? Fewer dollars are going into development of technology targeted for corporate use, observers say. However, consumer offerings that are attracting venture capital dollars all require significant leaps in technology, and so innovation continues.

"Media and entertainment are very much a technology play, and with all those mobile devices out there to deliver content over the wireless Web, that goes hand-in-hand with the development of networking and communications technology to enable more efficient and cost-effective delivery of those services," says Tracy Lefteroff, global managing partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers' venture capital & private equity practice. PricewaterhouseCoopers and the National Venture Capital Association generate a quarterly report on venture investing in all industries called the MoneyTree Report, based on data from Thomson Financial.

And many believe that the technology innovations fuelling this consumer boom also will find corporate uses. Some say it already has in certain areas.

Digital content -- video clips, Podcasts and other rich media -- that first became popular on consumer Web sites is emerging on business-focused sites, says Steve Krausz, general partner with US Venture Partners in California. He offers examples of Webinars to educate customers on a certain topic, or video clips of medical procedures available from Web sites.

"The signs are there, particularly in the areas of Podcasting and user-generated content. I think all of that is becoming a big piece of [online] marketing budgets" in corporate America, he says. What will follow, according to Krausz, are technologies to help enterprises create, edit, manage and store their digital content.

In the meantime, investments in enterprise IT sectors continue to follow the same patterns as in the past few years.

In 2006 venture capitalists poured US$10.9 billion into network-related companies, down slightly from the US$11.1 billion invested in 2005, according to the MoneyTree Report. Software companies received the highest number of investments with 785 deals, followed by 281 in Internet-related companies, 165 in semiconductor companies, 163 in wireless vendors, and 133 in networking and equipment makers.

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