Look for phone companies to start offering voice mail services to smaller businesses -- and soon. To date, voice mail messaging (whereby callers leave messages in electronic "mailboxes" activated by touch-tone phones) has been used mainly by large corporations able to buy their own systems. But, in March, the seven regional Bell companies got court approval to offer voice mail services to customers. Since then, at least five have planned trials among businesses and residences. If results are favorable, some Bells plan to introduce voice mail services next year.
Several Colorado company founders are trying to organize a national for-profit financing and coaching program for college entrepreneurs. If Campus Capital Fund Inc. is successful, it will provide small loans (up to $5,000 a year) and mentors to promising student companies, with the understanding that the debt can be converted to equity after graduation. To cofounder Britt Blaser, the fund offers a way for small investors to try their hand at low-budget venture capital, and for young entrepreneurs to get help. Blaser hopes to launch a pilot program this school year.
More states are subsidizing small-business borrowing through "linked deposit" programs. Under a typical program, a bank lends money at a below-market rate to a small company planning to create jobs, and the state deposits an equal amount of its funds with the bank at a low interest rate. Ohio popularized the linking concept, which has now spread to at least a dozen states. Banks and entrepreneurs like the programs, says economic-development consultant Bill Nothdurft, because procedures are simple, with little official oversight. State treasurers like them, he adds, because the costs (in forgone interest) are "invisible" to budget-cutting legislatures.
A growing number of strategic alliance matchmaking services are being offered to small U.S. businesses seeking Japanese companies as minority investors. Among the players: consultants, investment banks, and accounting firms, according to Mark Radtke of Venture Economics Inc., which represents 24 Japanese companies seeking U.S. partners. But finding the right Japanese partner is difficult, and negotiations take time, warns William V. Rapp, director of Bank of America's matchmaking program. After two years, he has closed one deal, with 12 still in negotiation. As for cost, Rapp says that fees run about $150,000 on a $5-million deal.
University "technology-transfer" programs are increasing in number and activity, reports Spencer Blaylock, past president of the Society of University Patent Administrators. One measure of the trend: the society, which had only 51 members in 1975, today has more than 500, representing about 400 different programs that license university-held patents to new or existing companies. Behind the growth is a 1980 law that allows universities to patent -- and profit from -- government-funded research.
Union pension funds may become a source of capital for growing companies if a strategy adopted by the Sheet Metal Workers' National Pension Fund pans out. In the past 15 months, that fund has invested in three smaller companies in industries it thinks will create future jobs for members. One example: Chronar Corp., a solar-panels maker. The fund has put $15 million directly into Chronar, placed two people on the board, and will train members to install the company's product. Other pension funds are closely watching what happens, says Richard Prosten, editor of the AFL-CIO's Labor and Investments newsletter.
-- Martha E. Mangelsdorf
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