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Article from SFGate.

It’s suddenly a lot harder for venture capitalists and startups to raise funds, as investors fed up with low returns turn their backs on the sector.

Most industry observers agree that lots of young firms will simply not be able to raise their next round of funding, commencing a period of belt tightening, consolidation and closures. At a minimum, it seems to mark the beginning of a more level-headed investment climate in Silicon Valley, after years of insatiable lust for all things mobile and social.

But if the drop-off is too sudden and steep, this new austerity could spill over into an economy highly dependent on the tech sector. Indeed, as The Chronicle reported last week, the industry has an enormous impact, with each tech job creating 4.3 indirect jobs in the community, according to a Bay Area Council Economic Institute report.

The investors and venture capitalists I spoke to insisted that we’re not on the verge of anything like the dot-com meltdown, characterizing the shift as a minor and healthy correction, or a “rationalization.” One suggested it was little more than the usual process of separating good and bad ideas in the marketplace.

But the numbers suggest something new is afoot. In the third quarter, the amount that U.S. companies raised in venture capital dropped 32 percent from the prior year, according to Dow Jones VentureSource. Venture capital funds themselves raised 17 percent fewer dollars from the second to third quarter, even as the number of funds grew, according to a joint report from Thomson Reuters and the National Venture Capital Association.

Economic uncertainty

Some partially blame the economic uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the election and the “fiscal cliff.” But the main problem seems to be that many of the “limited partners” that fund venture capital are pulling back after years of frustration.

Ever since a brief period in the late 1990s when venture capital burned bright, the industry has been delivering consistently weak returns on the whole.

In fact, despite requiring greater risks and larger capital outlays, venture capital has been underperforming the stock market over the past decade, according to a report this year by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

Joe Dear, chief investment officer for CalPERS, told Reuters this summer that venture capital “has been the most disappointing asset class over the past 10 years as far as returns.” The huge pension fund for California’s public employees didn’t return repeated calls from The Chronicle.

Investment horizons have steadily spread out, from five to 10 to sometimes 15 years, as exit opportunities like acquisitions and initial public offerings fail to materialize. This has sometimes forced investors to put in more money to protect their initial funds.

‘Pretty grumpy’

“The industry definitely, for the last decade, has been a tough place to be,” said Ray Rothrock of Palo Alto venture capital firm Venrock. “We’re all pretty grumpy right now.”

Some of this is due to macroeconomic conditions outside the control of venture capitalists, notably the housing and banking crises. But at least some of it has to do with poor picks and herd mentality, funding companies with few real prospects and driving up the entry price for legitimately promising companies beyond what they could pay off.

“The market overfunded the number of companies in the system,” said Hans Swildens, founder of Industry Ventures in San Francisco. “There’s a glut.”

Even the grand promise of Web 2.0 companies that lured so much recent money hasn’t generated the hoped-for returns. The ones that managed to go public were often disappointments, including Facebook, Zynga and Groupon, in some cases leaving late-stage investors underwater on their holdings.

That was a final straw for some.

Last week, Forbes dug up figures from CB Insights that highlighted a wide and growing gap between the number of companies that raised initial funding and companies securing the follow-on investments, known as a Series A, generally necessary to keep going. This year, there have been 1,747 seed or angel rounds but only 688 Series A deals, underscoring the coming crunch.

Bad businesses

Based on as scientific a survey as the PR pitches in my inbox, there’s a tremendous number of silly, redundant and poorly executed companies out there that don’t warrant additional funding. The real problem isn’t that many of these companies won’t raise more money; it’s that they raised money in the first place.

For the venture capital industry to get back on track, it needs to embrace a renewed sense of discipline – on company picks, deal terms and total spending.

But hope springs eternal in Silicon Valley.

Rothrock stresses that the industry’s trend-line averages mask very strong results and ongoing investment at top firms, as well as growing venture capital activity among corporations like Google. Companies are just being more selective and looking beyond consumer Internet opportunities.

“We’re steady as she goes in terms of funding enterprise,” he said.

Secondary opportunity

Swildens oversees a secondary fund that buys shares from limited partners and venture firms looking to liquidate part of their holdings. He sees this period as a ripe opportunity for bold investors to get into promising companies at suddenly reasonable rates.

“Ours is one of the few firms aggressively putting money into these funds,” he said.

Mark Heesen, president of National Venture Capital Association, is similarly optimistic. He says the industry could be primed for a strong comeback in 2013, as long as the broader economy strengthens.

Above all, what the industry needs are some wins – acquisitions or initial public offerings that put investors clearly in the black and start to restore some lost confidence.

“If we see these exit markets start to generate good returns, I think you’ll see limited partners look at this asset class again,” he said.

James Temple is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. E-mail: jtemple@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @jtemple

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Article from GigaOm.

Sandy isn’t just wreaking havoc for utilities and conventional power plant companies on the east coast. The hurricane is also delaying some solar power plant project work for First Solar, which on Thursday reduced its 2012 sales forecast and also boosted its earnings projection.

The Arizona-based company said the hurricane is also disrupting the supply of components for its solar products, which include panels and trackers that prop up the panels and tilt them to follow the sun’s movement throughout the day. For 2012, First Solar now expects to generate $3.5 billion to $3.8 billion in sales — previously it was looking at $3.6 billion to $3.9 billion. Non-GAAP earnings should hit $4.40 to $4.70 per share, however, instead of $4.20 to $4.70.

The company issued the forecast along with its third-quarter financial results, which saw its sales decline year-over-year sales to $839.1 million from $957.3 million. First Solar posted a net income of $1 per share for the third quarter, down from $2.25 per share in the same period a year ago, thanks to charges related to its restructuring efforts to reduce costs. But still, a profit in a difficult year.

“The solar market remains challenging, but we are continuing to gain traction in the new sustainable markets we’re targeting and expanding our global presence,” said Jim Hughes, First Solar’s CEO, during a conference call with analysts.

First Solar executives highlighted the progress they have made in opening up new markets. The company has vowed to build its business in places with minimal government subsidies, which so far have been responsible for the rise of the global solar market. Europe has been the largest market, but the pace of its growth will likely slow over time as governments gradually reduce their incentives.

During the third quarter, the company announced it was chosen to build a 13 MW power plant for the Dubai Electricity & Water Authority. First Solar inked deals to sell its cadmium-telluride solar panels for a 25 MW project in the state of Rajasthan in India and for two other projects totaling 50 MW in the same state. The company also signed a memorandum of understanding with a power plant operation and maintenance company in Indonesia to work on 100 MW of projects.

First Solar also hired Bruce Yung as its China manager during the third quarter. The company tried to crack the Chinese market before but hasn’t seen much success. Although China presents lots of opportunities, its government also is keen on boosting the domestic market for Chinese solar manufacturers.

In recent years, First Solar has been building its power plant development expertise and amassed an impressive pipeline of projects under development. That business is more lucrative – the company can make money from developing, building and operating solar power plants (for owners it sells the power plants to) that use its own solar panels. The company is building the largest solar power plant project in the U.S. – the 550MW Topaz Solar Farms in central California. The vast majority of the 3 GW of projects under development that it’s inked power sales agreement contracts for are in North America.  Now the company’s hope is to develop solar power plants in other parts of the world.

First Solar has no intention of conquering the rooftop segment – its panels are less expensive but also less efficient at converting sunlight into electricity as other major brands. That means an array with First Solar’s panels will take up more space than the one with more efficient solar panels. Hughes also told analysts that the rooftop market has less brand loyalty and cares less about how well the solar panels will perform over decades.

Photos of Topaz Solar Farms by Ucilia Wang.
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