Going Around Banks

Small companies are finding more alternate routes to fresh capital. But all of them could prove to be dead ends.

Growing up is hard to do. Quintessence Photonics had no trouble attracting venture capital when it started in the “optoelectronics” business, which combines laser and semiconductor technology to cut and join metal. But finding funds for its next stage of growth wasn’t as easy. “The terms on follow-on venture capital rounds were too restrictive and much more onerous than funding from other sources,” says co-founder George Lintz. And an initial public offering for a research-intensive outfit that has yet to make a profit isn’t an option these days.

So Lintz instead is contemplating a reverse merger, in which a private company in need of capital sells itself to a publicly traded “shell” — a company with few if any assets besides its Securities and Exchange Commission registration statement. If successful, Lintz expects his firm to gather more capital than it could through an IPO, and he hopes for “the potential of higher valuations sooner.” The fact that Quintessence won’t have to pay an underwriting fee to a banker doesn’t hurt.

The company considered another detour around bankers: the so-called pink sheets (see “Weighing Transparency,” below). That means paying a broker-dealer to sell stock in the company through other market markers alone — that is, without the help of the public price quotation a stock exchange listing provides. This approach is more viable today, thanks to the development of the Electronic Quotation Service, which handles bid and ask prices via the Internet. Still, Lintz is pursing a reverse merger because exchanges provide more liquidity.

Gaining Traction

Quintessence isn’t alone. More companies in its position are seeking alternatives to traditional routes to capital. Increasingly abandoned by venture capital firms more interested in taking public companies private, and ignored by banks that won’t lower IPO underwriting fees, more small private firms are casting their lot with shell companies. Through mid-September, 103 reverse mergers were completed, compared with 114 for all of 2004, according to Reverse Merger Report. “There’s no question that reverse mergers have blossomed,” says David Feldman, a managing partner at New York law firm Feldman Weinstein LLP.

And higher-profile deals, including the acquisition of Archipelago Holdings by the New York Stock Exchange, increasingly use the technique, so that their size, once typically no greater than $10 million, now sometimes approaches $100 million. Bigger deals, however, usually require the help of investment banks to serve as brokers, which raises the cost. Yet they still typically amount to less than half as much as the standard 7 percent levy for underwriting an IPO.

Gregg Mockenhaupt, a managing director of Los Angeles investment bank Sanders Morris Harris Group, says he sees more inquiries into reverse mergers “every day that goes by.” In June, he wrapped up a $50 million reverse merger for Ronco Corp., whose founder, Ron Popeil, sells kitschy trademark inventions like the Veg-O-Matic via infomercials. Ronco merged with a shell set up in 1990 with no earnings or products. The process took six months, but the payoff was “easy entrée into the public markets,” says Ronco CFO Evan Warshawsky.

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