Tuesday 20 July 2021 12:48 pm

Exclusive: City fund manager calls for reforms as UK first-time funding is down by a third from 2018 peak

The number of first-time funding rounds into UK seed-stage startups declined for a second consecutive year in 2020, to 36 per cent below the 2018 peak for such deals, according to new research shared with City A.M. this afternoon.

The data provided by Square Mile based SFC Capital also points to reductions both to the amount of money available for first-time rounds and the number of funds equipped to make such investments.

Commenting on the decline, Stephen Page, founder and CEO, told City A.M. that “some of this decline can be attributed to the impact of Covid-19 in 2020, from dented confidence to changes to the investment landscape and founders’ priorities caused by the Government’s introduction of the Future Fund and other financial relief programmes. But only some.”

There were 1,427 first-time seed-stage deals completed in 2020, down 17 per cent from 2019’s 1,715, and a 36 per cent drop from the 2,055 completed in 2018, the high water mark for such deals. This analysis is based on Beauhurst’s data which includes every UK announced and unannounced deal.

Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS)

To Page, the biggest shock is the low number of early-stage businesses seeking Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS) funding. SEIS is one of the support schemes available to early-stage companies.

“We saw spectacular year-on-year growth in the number of first-time funding rounds into innovative new companies from its introduction in 2012 until the peak in 2018. There should be tens of thousands of companies taking advantage of SEIS every year, not less than 2,000,” he added.

Introduced in 2012, the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS) transformed the landscape of seed-stage funding, providing the incentive -through tax relief – and convenience – through funds, launched in 2014 – for many more individuals to turn themselves into early-stage investors.

SEIS has helped a total of 14,921 businesses raise £5.8 billion since its inception, with the volume of first-time seed deals increasing every year from 620 in 2011 to 2,055 in 2018.

But the data strongly suggests that changes to SEIS in 2018, introducing stricter requirements for applicants, is responsible for the initial decline in first-time seed-stage deal volume before Covid-19 hit in 2020.

Limiting effect

It also appears that – while an effective incentive for investors – SEIS has had an unintended limiting effect on the size and timing of first-time seed-stage deals.

Since its introduction, both the average size of a first-time seed round and the average time taken to raise it have hovered just below the limits imposed by the scheme: median deal size over the period is £140,000, just below the £150,000 SEIS cap, while the mean time to raise is 23 months, one month shy of the two-year limit.

Additionally, a so-called “sunset clause” requiring SEIS to be wound down from 2025 as part of EU State Aid regulations threatens to make it harder for early-stage businesses to secure funding.

Page called on the Government to focus on SEIS reform, increasing the amount of public money allocated to seed-stage funds, and simplifying bureaucracy for early-stage fund managers.

“More needs to be done to incentivise angels to take the risk of investing in innovative early-stage companies, in greater numbers and at larger volumes. In its obsession with growth funding, the Government is grossly underestimating the importance of seed-stage investment,” he explained.

Page added that countless companies that are household names today – the likes of Bulb, Deliveroo, and Bloom & Wild – all benefited from SEIS, taking initial rounds of a qualifying size.

“The Government doesn’t understand SEIS, in fact, many ministers seem completely unaware of it. But if SEIS dies, innovation dies; it really is that simple. The UK currently punches well above its weight on the global innovation stage, but without the required support for early-stage companies, we could tumble down the league table with innovators stifled before they even get going,” Page concluded.