The number of first-time funding rounds into UK seed-stage startups declined for a second consecutive year in 2020, to 36 per cent below the 2018 peak for such deals, according to new research commissioned by SFC Capital.
The data also points to reductions both to the amount of money available for first-time rounds and the number of funds equipped to make such investments. SFC Capital is therefore calling for urgent action to reinvigorate seed-stage investment and secure the future of the next generation of companies that will drive the UK Government’s “levelling up” and “science superpower” economic agendas.
There were 1,427 first-time seed-stage deals completed in 2020, down 17 per cent from 2019’s 1,715, and a 36 per cent drop from the 2,055 completed in 2018, the high water mark for such deals. This analysis is based on Beauhurst’s data which includes every UK announced and unannounced deal.
Commenting on the decline, Stephen Page, founder and CEO, said: “Some of this decline can be attributed to the impact of Covid-19 in 2020 – from dented confidence to changes to the investment landscape and founders’ priorities caused by the Government’s introduction of the Future Fund and other financial relief programmes. But only some. The biggest shock is the low number of early-stage businesses seeking SEIS funding. SEIS is one of the best support schemes available to early-stage companies anywhere in the world, and we saw spectacular year-on-year growth in the number of first-time funding rounds into innovative new companies from its introduction in 2012 until the peak in 2018. There should be tens of thousands of companies taking advantage of SEIS every year, not less than 2,000.”
Introduced in 2012, the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS) transformed the landscape of seed-stage funding, providing the incentive (through tax relief) and convenience (through funds, launched in 2014) for many more individuals to turn themselves into early-stage investors. SEIS has helped a total of 14,921 businesses raise £5.8 billion since its inception, with the volume of first-time seed deals increasing every year from 620 (2011) to 2,055 (2018).
But the data strongly suggests that changes to SEIS in 2018, introducing stricter requirements for applicants, is responsible for the initial decline in first-time seed-stage deal volume before Covid-19 hit in 2020. It also appears that – while an effective incentive for investors – SEIS has had an unintended limiting effect on the size and timing of first-time seed-stage deals. Since its introduction, both the average size of a first-time seed round and the average time taken to raise it have hovered just below the limits imposed by the scheme: median deal size over the period is £140,000, just below the £150,000 SEIS cap, while the mean time to raise is 23 months, one month shy of the two-year limit. Additionally, a “sunset clause” requiring SEIS to be wound down from 2025 as part of EU State Aid regulations threatens to make it harder for early-stage businesses to secure funding.