May 14, 2020 / 7:02 AM / 14 days ago

CORRECTED-China unicorn creation falls to six-year low as investors play it safe

(Corrects milestone in the first paragraph to six, not seven)

By Kane Wu

HONG KONG, May 14 (Reuters) - China’s rate of creating unicorns has dropped to a six-year low as venture capital funds shy away from early-stage funding while the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak batters portfolio investments.

Only four Chinese startups have reached unicorn status – valued at $1 billion or above - as of May 13, the lowest number for the same period since 2014, showed data from PitchBook.

The slowdown comes as many businesses across the country suffer falling sales and tighter cash flow after the outbreak paralysed the country for over two months from late January.

A slowing infection rate has allowed the government to relax virus-busting restrictions on movement and business. Still, investors are in no rush to deploy cash as sporadic cases of new infections make it impossible to return to pre-virus activity.

Early-stage venture funding has dropped with just 13% of fundraising going into “angel” and “seed” rounds as of April-end, down from a third five years earlier, showed Reuters calculations based on PitchBook data. Angel and seed funding typically help entrepreneurs get business ideas up and running.

In comparison, venture funding into the series B round - when investors help startups expand - accounted for nearly 29% of total fundraising, versus just 19% in 2015.

Venture investors now demand even more clarity and detail in business plans before investing early in a startup, said investor-turned-entrepreneur Zijing Wu, whose Moli Culture & Technology designs dolls and picture books and offers related online courses based on inspirational female characters.

“During the heyday of tech startups, a good business idea would already be valued at millions of dollars and startups would be burning cash while looking for ways to profit. Those days are gone,” said Wu, whose firm was able to close its angel round in February, when China was still under lockdown.

The number of venture capital investments for the first four months has fallen 35% this year, and the investment value has dropped 6.6%, according to data provider Preqin.

“The pandemic is not just a stress test for startups. It is a critical, life-threatening moment for them,” said JP Gan, founding partner of INCE Capital and popularly called “unicorn hunter” due to his previous role at Qiming Venture Partners.

Data from researcher IT Orange showed 27 startups have failed so far this year, and only 170 were founded in the first four months - a drop from 1,980 in the same period last year.

SURVIVAL

Venture investors interviewed by Reuters said they are currently more focused on helping portfolio companies survive the pandemic than investing anew. Those in offline sectors such as retail, travel and car rental have been worst hit, they said.

David Tang, partner at NGP Capital, said most startups in his firm’s portfolio need to cut costs through reduced spending or redundancies because fundraising has been difficult.

He said portfolio education firm Squirrel AI, which offers artificial intelligence-based teaching for primary and secondary schools, suspended all offline business during the pandemic. Another - a recruitment website for blue-collar workers - suffered as China locked down factories.

“All of our companies have entered a state of emergency,” he said, adding his firm had dropped pipeline deals as face-to-face communication and due diligence had been impossible.

To be sure, Nisa Leung, managing partner at Qiming, said there is still plenty of unutilised cash in China and that portfolio firms in online education and cloud computing were able to raise funds during the outbreak.

“It’s important for companies to be laser focused on what they do best,” she said. “For companies yet to establish a track record, you really need to save money and cut costs. Things will only get tougher and tougher.” (Reporting by Kane Wu in Hong Kong; Additional reporting by Samuel Shen in Shanghai; Editing by Jennifer Hughes and Christopher Cushing)

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