Nearly two weeks ago, HM Treasury launched the Future Fund, the latest in a series of schemes to support businesses through the economic crisis brought on by Covid-19 and lockdown. Having been overlooked by the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme, start-ups are now eligible for government financial assistance via the Future Fund. While this funding will help many pre-profit firms through the immediate disruption, it could also present opportunities for VCTs down the line.
The Future Fund, administered by the British Business Bank (BBB), provides an initial £250 million in funding to UK start-ups. Through the Fund, firms have access to convertible loans of between £125,000 and £5 million as long as government investment is matched by third-party investors. Funding is offered in the form of a convertible loan, with no requirement that companies make regular payments; the convertible loans will convert into equity at the next funding round. Firms must have raised at least £250,000 in third-party equity investment over the last five years to be eligible for future fund investment.
As with almost every government intervention since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Future Fund has been created against a very tight timetable which led to initial criticism of the scheme on the grounds it was not compatible with the existing Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS). The EIS is a government scheme to help early-stage firms raise money by offering tax reliefs to individual investors that buy shares in a company, but the EIS could only be made compatible with the Future Fund following new legislation. Having been keen to avoid further delays to launching the Future Fund, the government decided to exclude the EIS; this decision led one investor to claim: “If it’s not EIS-able, the scheme just doesn’t work.”
Despite this criticism, there has been significant take-up of the government’s offer of matched funding through the Future Fund, with the BBB receiving requests for £515 million of funding on the day of launch. Funding is being allocated on a first-come-first-served basis, with those firms that have all their application materials in order at the front of the queue to receive a slice of the £250 million on offer. However, the BBB has indicated it is confident the Treasury will increase the size of the Future Fund following the strong initial response from investors, and an announcement setting out additional funding is likely to be made soon.
The popularity of the Future Fund may have dispelled fears prompted by its lack of compatibility with the EIS, but Katherine Griffiths, writing in The Times, points out there are issues with the Future Fund that will only be realised once the crisis has passed. Griffiths argues that the way the Future Fund is set up means that there will inevitably be a battle for control of the business at some point because “the government and its matching investors will decide whether to convert the loan into equity at the end of the term, removing significant freedom from the founders.”
While this may be suboptimal for founders, it could be a bonus for VCTs. In the event the government does convert loans to equity, it will have little interest in holding the equity stakes for a long period of time, particularly given the coming pressures on the government’s balance sheet. When the government does choose to sell, it will provide investors with the opportunity to take equity in firms that have received a healthy dose of government funding to help them to the position they are in. While investors will have to pay government for the privilege, it is possible the Future Fund may be responsible for a wave of high-growth firms coming to market at the same time, ready for VCTs to use their knowledge and expertise to propel them to further growth.