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Brazil’s Start-Up Generation

Marcelo Marzola, the 33-year-old co-founder of Predicta.net, is a perfect example of how hot Brazil’s $1.6 trillion economy has become — and why its entrepreneurs are now getting their phone calls returned by venture capitalists after a decade of “You’re from where?”

Marzola was invited to present his company’s free online behavioral-targeting tool, BTBuckets, at the Google I/O Web-developer conference in San Francisco in May. To get ogled at the Google conference is the goal of any Web developer. Marzola earned rave reviews for creating what has become a de facto standard, used on more than 2,000 websites in 90 countries by such corporate titans as Pfizer, Motorola and Unilever. The product fills an overlooked niche in the industry by allowing websites to segment their users according to their online habits and then direct targeted content and advertising to them in real time. “It has turned the industry on its head, and it’s gaining mass recognition,” says Daniel Waisberg, an industry consultant and a former chair of marketing of the Web Analytics Association.

The spotlight has attracted about 10 VC firms to Marzola over the past six months. His track record will impress them: the company has been growing at a compound rate of 40% annually since 2005 and has a profit margin of more than 20% on $12 million in revenue. Now he is in the midst of closing a deal with DFJ FIR Capital, a local venture firm with $160 million under management, to raise $15 million to $20 million in exchange for a 35% equity stake to fund his company’s expansion efforts. BTBuckets plans to open offices in major markets in Latin America and the U.S.

To Marzola, who had to hustle $80,000 in start-up capital from family and friends, the newfound interest is indicative of a VC power shift from Silicon Valley to developing economies like Brazil’s. “Ten years ago, when I launched my business, getting start-up capital was impossible,” he says. “At the time, I called on 20 banks, venture-capital and private-equity firms, and everyone turned me down. No one wanted the risk of investing in a fledgling. Finally, there are signs that the equity-capital market for entrepreneurs is igniting.”

This is a breakout that thousands of Brazil’s newbies have been waiting for. Today there are only about nine players — including Antera, Confrapar, DFJ FIR Capital, Monashees Capital and Status Capital — with an estimated $1.9 billion in assets under management, according to the Latin American Venture Capital Association (LAVCA). These firms are run by trailblazers who have been promoting the merits of entrepreneurship to a Brazilian business community that has been risk-averse and to the government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, which has been leery of California capitalism.

Preaching the gospel of Silicon Valley has been missionary work. “Venture capital is a concept just beginning to filter into the public’s consciousness,” explains Robert Binder, CEO of Antera Gestão de Recursos, an asset-management company established in 2004 that runs the $50 million Criatec Fund, an early-stage equity fund capitalized by BDNES, the Brazilian development bank. For a country with a huge state investment in technology, it’s been a surprisingly tough sell. The 123 national institutes of science and 400 incubators scattered across the country are wellsprings of ideas. But only recently have CEOs from private midsize Brazilian corporations been willing to lend a hand to promising upstarts by offering mentoring support and angel finance.

Their timing is understandable. The IMF projects that Brazil’s economy — now the eighth largest in the world — will grow by 7.1% this year and soar throughout the decade. A confluence of factors will contribute to growth: abundant natural resources, stable government policies, a sophisticated banking sector, a rapidly growing middle class that now comprises about half the population of 190 million and a surge in real estate and infrastructure development to prepare for Brazil’s hosting the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

The Tech Transformation
Another catalyst has been the focus on developing world-class high-tech industries in a variety of sectors — from aerospace, agribusiness and energy to information technology, business-process outsourcing, semiconductors and telecommunications. “The goal is to push the country’s exports up the value chain,” explains Antonio Gil, president of Brasscom, an association of Brazilian IT and communications companies. He notes that today Brazil can claim 1.7 million IT professionals. This brainpower has helped the country attract top-tier multinationals like IBM, which in June announced it is opening its ninth research center in Brazil and its first in Latin America.

As part of its grand plan, the government is investing heavily in programs that spark homegrown innovation around these key industries. These initiatives — from venture forums to R&D grants — are led by the Financing Agency for Projects and Studies (FINEP), the innovation arm of the Ministry of Science and Technology. “Our country invests 1% of GDP in R&D and leads the region in entrepreneurship,” explains FINEP’s Eduardo Sette Camara. “Now 15 out of 100 residents are involved in a start-up.”

Tiago Lins, business-development director and co-founder of SiliconReef, a company that has developed a microchip that harvests energy from the environment to power mobile devices and wireless networks, has been a prime beneficiary of government support. He and his partner, CEO Marília Lima, incubated their breakthrough technology at CESAR, the country’s well-known R&D center and incubator in Recife. Since incorporating two years ago, the duo have raised grants from FINEP to design and test their product, known as EHO1. They are looking to raise an additional $1 million to fund a product launch. “Right now our biggest hurdle is gaining credibility in the international business community,” Lins says.

Lins’ quest for entrepreneurial success is an aspiration now shared by many young Brazilian mavericks. “Over the last five years, more college graduates have become enamored with the idea of starting their own business,” says Michael Nicklas, an angel investor who runs SocialSmart Ventures, based in New York City, and focuses on early-stage Internet ventures in Brazil. “There is a raw-talent pool in the technology sector. The country has one of the strongest Java, open-source and Ruby communities in the world. The fact that the Internet, cloud computing and open-source databases have lowered the capital requirements of launching a tech business has created the opportunity for these webmasters to strike out on their own.”

Nicklas has been scouring the countryside — from Belo Horizonte to Curitiba to São Paulo — for three years looking to put his money to work. A serial entrepreneur, he has been impressed with the country’s early adoption of social media. That has led him to invest in three upstarts, including Compra3, a company that has developed a unique buying platform for social-media networks that gives users discounts and cash back on purchases and allows them to comment on items. After sinking $150,000 into a 2.5% stake in the business, Nicklas helped founders Bruno Medeiros and Andre Monteiro refine their business plan and prepare for their August road show in the States. The hope is that VCs will dole out $12.5 million in equity finance so the company can consolidate its model in Brazil and break into the North American market. Compra3 already has a partnership with Walmart and 18 Latin American retailers, including Americanas.com. “Nicklas is our bridge to foreign investors, and we need his connections to get to the next level,” explains the 29-year-old Medeiros, who has been spawning new businesses with his own money since he was 19.

Those connections are key, since there is a huge funding gap in Brazil between seed-financing rounds and the second and third rounds of venture capital critical to growth. Instead, most of the investment capital flows into private-equity funds. There are now more than 30 PE funds, with some $12.3 billion in assets under management, according to LAVCA. These funds — for example, Advent International’s $1.65 billion Latin America Private Equity Fund V that closed in May — specialize in large buyouts, M&A and infrastructure projects. But even that capital pool is tiny when you consider that India, a BRIC rival, boasts a private-equity market five times as big.

Against the Odds
According to marcus regueira, a former investment banker in the U.S. and founding partner of DFJ FIR Capital, Brazil still suffers from inefficiencies with capital flow and an IPO market that has barriers to entry for small- or medium-size companies. To find liquidity, VCs have to be attuned to the domestic market and know how to figure out strategic partnerships or exit strategies for their portfolio companies.

Another inhibiting factor has been the lack of local expertise on how to operate a private-equity or venture-capital limited partnership. That’s why FINEP is taking an active role in training local businesspeople on the ins and outs of being a general partner. Some foreign transplants, like private-equity firm Advent International, do this on their own. They hire top collegiate engineers, send them to U.S. business schools for their MBAs and then groom them to become partners in the firm. Many are even placed as interim CEOs.

And vestiges of the past remain. Brazil’s taxation and regulations are among the most onerous in the world for business. The corporate income tax rate is 34%, and Social Security taxes and other compulsory employee benefits add up to a whopping 80% to 90% of an employee’s salary. That’s not to mention taxes on bank loans and Brazil’s somewhat archaic labor laws.

Considering the challenges, any entrepreneur able to launch a business and survive is part of an elite class. “It takes a superstar who is an astute cash manager from the get-go to win in this market,” stresses DFJ FIR Capital’s Regueira. “This is economic Darwinism at its best.” Gustavo Caetano, the founder and CEO of Samba Tech, a three-year-old company that has created a platform to help third-party developers migrate and distribute video over the Internet, is another survivor. In just three years he built his business with a $100,000 loan from his father into a profitable $7 million-a-year concern with 50 employees. It has been growing at an annual rate of 300%. “In Brazil you need to have a strong payback model right at the beginning. VCs won’t wait to see if one day there is an exit for your company since they don’t want the risk. In the U.S., a start-up is cut some slack. It can operate for two years without any revenue. We don’t have that luxury.”

There are signs that times are changing. More overseas venture capitalists interested in diversifying their assets are looking at Brazil. They are being prodded by institutional investors, who for a second consecutive year ranked the country as the second most attractive emerging market (after China) for private-equity investment, according to the 2010 EMPEA/Coller Capital Emerging Markets Private Equity Survey. “A lot of investors feel they are overweighted in Asia and are turning to Brazil,” says Alberto Camões, founder and managing partner of Stratus Venture Capital, which is raising a $300 million private-equity fund.

What Brazil needs to turn the trickle of outside funding into a river is a dazzling IPO that generates global buzz and demonstrates the breakthrough thinking and true grit of the Brazilian entrepreneur. The hope among local VCs is that this will happen within the next two years — perhaps to a company like Predicta.net that has so much potential.

The possibilities are legion. Just ask Great Hill Partners in Boston. It took the firm four years to make an 860% return on its investment in BuscaPé, an e-commerce services provider; it sold a 91% stake for $340 million to Naspers, the South African media giant, last September. Nicklas sums it up nicely: “Venture investors run in herds, and when they see fertile ground, they swarm in to stake a claim. Now they have Brazil in their sights.”

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