Lisa Lambert, vice president at Intel Capital, likes hanging out with upstarts -- "industry disrupters," as she puts it. Judging by her group's investment portfolio ($2.2 billion), she has plenty of company. Industry disrupters are entrepreneurs who have become a core part of Intel Corp.'s growth strategy over the past several years.
"It's a mindset, an edge, a differential advantage in staying ahead. Big companies tend to focus on their core business, and that may not be where innovation is occurring. So we help bring that perspective," she says of ICap, the chip giant's venture capital arm.
Take Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel's $7.68 billion acquisition of security technology giant McAfee Inc., which closed in February. The deal took many by surprise. "McAfee came out of left field," says Andy Ng, an analyst with Chicago-based research firm Morningstar Inc. "It sort of makes sense -- hey, realize that security will become more important. But it's so completely different from what they do. Why not do a venture capital investment or partnership?"
In fact, Intel's venture capital arm has spent the past decade creating a network of investments in security. The first was its investment in Crossbeam Systems Inc., a group that runs third-party security applications, in 2001. Since then, ICap has acquired stakes in 15 security companies, the most recent being San Francisco-based Mocana Corp., in which it invested last year and which produces security software for embedded and mobile devices, similar to what McAfee does. Some suggest that Intel's long history of investing in this industry ultimately helped it to better understand McAfee's significance.
"We invest in strategic initiative areas for Intel, and there's a clear strategic synergy with Intel and security," Lambert says. The ICap team works closely with the corporate development and M&A groups, which report to Arvind Sodhani, Intel Capital's chief executive.
That kind of integration is unusual. VC arms of many companies tend to be aligned primarily with R&D and are measured primarily by financial returns, which mostly come if their investments go public and deliver outsized returns. Lambert says ICap keeps scorecards on investments to track financial as well as strategic payoffs.
Still, it's tough to track the success of corporate VC, which tends to make small investments of $5 million to $20 million and which can take years to realize a return -- if at all. "If you have a successful startup and it gets a good return, it's not entirely clear the stock price is going to reflect this one-time return," says Mark Jensen, managing partner in the technology sector group of Deloitte & Touche LLP's San Jose, Calif., office
That's why analysts typically don't focus much on corporate equity portfolios. For example, Intel's VC arm is one of the most established and successful around (it has topped numerous cross-industry surveys in recent years). And yet, its $2 billion equity investment portfolio looks small compared with the parent's annual sales of roughly $40 billion. "It doesn't move the needle," Ng says of ICap portfolio's contribution to revenue.
But strategic venture capital investing can make a difference. "We are the eyes and ears for the corporation to the entrepreneurial community. It's our job to understand markets and to anticipate trends," Lambert says.
More companies are starting to think along these lines, according to a survey done last year at a venture capital summit sponsored by Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. The results showed that 47% of companies that participated plan to boost their invested capital by more than 20% in the next two years. "The big theme was that investment activity is back in a very strong way, which we haven't seen in a decade," says Colin Blaydon, a former dean of the school and director of the Center for Private Equity and Entrepreneurship. One reason, he says, is all the cash companies have accumulated and a need to put it to work.
Many of these companies are just resurfacing from the 2008 crisis, which choked off VC investing. Intel's equity investments plunged from $1.65 billion in 2008 to just $327 million in 2009 and a similar level in 2010. Lambert says her group is less focused on hitting target deal numbers and more on scouting for opportunities in key growth areas like security and embedded software; software products aimed at enabling smartphones, tablets and netbooks; and cloud software technologies.
"We're evaluating a number of projects to identify new sources of revenue, including a cloud incubator," she says. Many of those calls will likely go to those disrupters because, as she puts it, "industry disrupters ... don't rest on past successes."