VC firms adjust travel plans, encourage virtual meetings

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A passenger wearing a respiratory mask speaks on her phone by the departures board on January 31, 2020 at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, as a number of airlines halted or reduced flights to China amid the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus.

Tiziana Fabi | AFP via Getty Images

Venture capital firms are taking precautionary measures against the coronavirus outbreak, ranging from blocking all travel to Asia to encouraging staff to hold virtual meetings.

Talis Capital, a London-based VC investor, said it had “cancelled travel to China and Asia as a precaution while the situation gets clearer.” Talis’ portfolio includes the likes of U.K. cybersecurity start-up Darktrace and French insect farming firm Ynsect.

“We have investors there and start-ups that we have invested in and they are all working from home right now,” Matus Maar, the company’s co-founder and managing partner, told CNBC.

Meanwhile, two big names in Europe’s VC scene, Atomico and Northzone, also said they were adjusting their approach to traveling overseas as a precautionary measure against the virus.

“What we have decided is some base level common sense aspects, like reducing travel where we can, being mindful of conferences and letting people have full flexibility if they want to work remotely,” Paul Murphy, a general partner at Northzone, told CNBC.

Multiple major tech conferences have been canceled or postponed in recent weeks, as organizers weigh the potential public health risks to attendees. One of those events, the Game Developers Conference, is often used by VCs to hunt for potential gaming partners, Murphy said.

“It’s a tentpole event” he said. “It’s where founders pick up fundraising or use it to have M&A (mergers and acquisitions) discussions. VCs use it to scour for game developers.”

‘A global problem’

Atomico Head of Communications Bryce Keane said the company was advising staff against any “non-essential travel” and is instead encouraging online meetings via the video conferencing platform Zoom.

The company was due to attend the FT-owned TNW conference in June, but the organizers on Tuesday postponed the event to October instead. Reddit CEO Steve Huffman was among the speakers set to attend.

But Keane said the benefit of working in his industry is that “a lot of the day-to-day in VC can be done virtually,” for instance through conference calls and screen-sharing pitch decks. Murphy said Northzone had “gone through full investment processes without having a founder in person before.”

“We don’t prefer to do it that way, but the reality is that’s possible and the technology is there to do that,” he said.

The novel COVID-19 strain of the coronavirus, which originated in China, has fast spread across the globe, infecting more than 93,000 people and killing at least 3,100 worldwide. It has impacted industries of all stripes, but tech has experienced its fair share of disruption.

In addition to the cancellation of big industry events like Mobile World Congress, tech giants including Facebook and Google have had to rethink their own events strategy, with the former scrapping its annual F8 software development conference and the latter shifting its cloud-focused Cloud Next conference to an online-only format.

While the virus has gained headlines for affecting the supply chains of tech giants like Apple, it’s also affected start-ups that need to source certain “complex equipment,” Northzone’s Murphy said. “China may have been where this started but it’s not a Chinese problem, it’s a global problem.”

‘People cancel travel plans to stay safe’

Other VCs say they are carrying on with day-to-day activities while still taking precautions to avert the risk of employees and partners contracting COVID-19. Singapore-headquartered Jungle Ventures for instance said staff are still going into the office, but due to local rules are having to conduct temperature checks twice a day.

“The industry that has been hardest hit by the outbreak is travel, as people cancel travel plans to stay safe,” Amit Anand, co-founder and managing partner of Jungle, told CNBC. “We invest in some travel-related businesses but the long-term demand for their services will not disappear.”

“Our consumer companies have been hit in the short term, but we are also seeing a leap of about a third in sales in online grocery businesses and of 42% in online streaming businesses,” he added. “While a virus of this sort will surely disrupt business, it cannot stop the huge opportunity and transition that we see now in Southeast Asia.”

International VC firm RTP Global, which has offices in New York, Moscow and Bangalore, described its current day-to-day operations as “business as usual,” adding it doesn’t expect the virus to impact on prospective deals.

“We are becoming more careful with travel, not with investment,” Leonid Boguslavsky, the company’s founder, told CNBC. The Russian billionaire, who recently set up a new $650 million fund, has made early bets on now publicly-trading companies like Yandex, Delivery Hero and DataDog.

In the U.S., meanwhile, Sequoia Capital recently had to postpone an event for the media due to public health concerns related to the virus. The company declined to comment on its plans around the disease.

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