Venture funding tumbles in Sonoma County

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The funding drought for Sonoma County?s technology startups continued in the first quarter of 2009, with just one company reporting a venture financing deal.

Instead of looking for new investments, venture capital firms are helping startups they?ve already funded navigate through the global economic downturn, said Jessica Canning, research director for Dow Jones VentureSource.

?We?re seeing continued retrenching in the venture capital industry,? she said. ?Over the past several quarters, venture capitalists have pulled back significantly on early-stage investments in the U.S.?

Tech investors put just $3.9 billion into U.S. startups in the first quarter, down 50 percent from $7.9 billion in the same period a year ago. It was the lowest total since 1998.

The drop-off in Sonoma County was even steeper. A year ago, Santa Rosa medical technology developer TriVascular2 raised $65 million while Petaluma solar energy startup Enphase Energy brought in $6.5 million during the first quarter.

But this year, the only reported deal in the first quarter was for Soladigm, a Santa Rosa startup that is developing energy-efficient ?smart? windows.

Soladigm has raised $10.6 million from Khosla Ventures and Sigma Partners in three rounds of funding since early last year ? including a round reported in February 2009 ? according to documents filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and a report from VentureWire, a firm that tracks private investments in startups.

Founded in 2007, Soladigm is working on switchable glass, a technology that can block light in the summer and let it through in the winter. The technology uses thin-film optical coatings and semiconductors to control light penetration. It promises to cut the costs of heating and cooling buildings, according to Soladigm.

The U.S. Energy Department also is interested in the technology.

The startup was co-founded by Mike Scobey, who formerly headed Cierra Photonics in Santa Rosa, now part of Bookham Inc. Scobey also was an executive at Santa Rosa?s Optical Coating Laboratory, now part of JDSU.

Soladigm is backed by billionaire technology investor Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems and a leading sponsor of green tech startups.

Soladigm doesn?t have a product on the market yet and is still in ?stealth? mode, said spokesman Scott Hoover.

Deals for Sonoma County tech startups fell sharply in the second half of last year, as the economy slipped deeper into recession. Local companies raised $39 million in the last two quarters of 2008, compared to $72 million for the same period in 2007, according to VentureSource.

Sonoma County technology investor Steve Weiss predicted in January that venture funding would be ?extraordinarily tight? in 2009.

?It?s going to make financing more difficult for projects that require follow-on funding,? said Weiss, a founder of North Bay Angels, a group that invests in early-stage companies.

Most of the U.S. venture deals in the first quarter went to information technology, medical technology and green energy startups.

IT deals, including software and Web 2.0 startups, dropped 52 percent from the prior year, while the deals in the medical sector fell 34 percent.

Green technology investment is down 59 percent.

Bay Area companies, which receive the largest share of U.S. venture funding, raised $1.14 billion in 139 deals, the region?s worst performance in more than a decade.

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