Google is already the technology world’s top dealmaker. In the last three years, it was involved in 126 deals worth $17.6 billion according to Bloomberg, and its venture capital arm, Google Ventures, has already funded 14 startups in 2014, according to Crunchbase.
“Growth equity” is a somewhat nebulous term used to describe investments in privately held, fast-growing firms that need capital, falling somewhere between later stage venture capital and the domain of traditional private equity. Last year, the investment advisory group Cambridge Associates declared that growth equity had arrived as an asset class in its own right. It defined growth equity companies as firms still owned by their founders, with proven business models and existing customers, high revenue growth and profitability at least on the horizon. Google Capital describes its approach as follows:
While Google Ventures focuses mainly on early-stage investments, we’ll be looking to invest in companies solely as they hit their growth phase. That means finding companies that have already built a solid foundation and are really ready to expand their business in big ways.
The division, which has been operating in the shadows for about a year, has already struck investments in Survey Monkey, an online survey software company; Lending Club, a peer-to-peer lending community; and this morning, the education technology company Renaissance Learning.
Google has so much cash on its books ($58.7 billion at the end of 2013) that its investment bets don’t really move the dial for its own shareholders. And they aren’t about generating short-term returns, either. Rather, they are designed to help the company keep abreast of the latest technologies—which are often easier to develop in small, entrepreneurial shops, rather than at monolithic companies such as Google.
Corporate venture capital funds can help companies like Google “move faster, more flexibly, and more cheaply than traditional R&D [research and development],” the Harvard Business Review said last year. They can also help Google get involved with promising—and potentially disruptive—companies before anyone else does. Google Ventures was already an investor in Nest before Google acquired the smart thermostat maker for $3.2 billion earlier this year. That represented Google’s first acquisition in the “internet of things” and the deal has the very real potential to totally transform the company.
Nobody knows how the internet of things—and the ensuing battle for control of the future—is going play out. Google’s investments are a hedge against this uncertainty. Expanding into growth equity just widens the net, so that if and when the next competitor emerges, Google might already be invested in it.