Concerns from top university officials didn’t stop Ohio State from investing tens of millions of dollars into a fledgling venture capital fund, records show, but some OSU students are pleased the university made the deal.
OSU recently invested $50 million into Drive Capital, which was launched by Mark Kvamme earlier this year.
Drive Capital was co-founded by Kvamme and Chris Olsen. Both were previously partners at Sequoia Capital, a venture capital firm based in California that has backed companies such as Apple, Instagram and Google. Olsen is also a native of Cincinnati.
Venture capital firms invest money into early stage startup companies. These types of investments are typically seen as high-risk, high-reward.
OSU released more than 100 pages of emails between university officials Friday, fulfilling a public records request filed by The Lantern Oct. 24. Multiple segments of the provided public records were redacted including key partnership terms, fees and target fund size.
Redacting was done in concordance with Ohio law including employees’ personal email addresses and trade secret information, OSU spokesman Gary Lewis said in an email.
The emails showed an extensive back-and-forth between university officials, Kvamme and Olsen, beginning in October 2012 and showed a variety of doubts from top officials.
A March memo prepared by officials was first to reveal concerns raised by officials about the investment.
“While Drive Capital may offer a persuasive story of applying Silicon Valley methods of investing to Midwest companies, it is still very much unproven at this stage,” the memo said. “It does not meet our traditional underwriting standards.”
Several university officials expressed concern at the size of the commitment.
“Is there an opportunity to revisit Drive Capital and the size of the commitment…or is that a done deal?” Jonathan Hook, OSU vice president and chief investment officer, said in an email June 6 to Geoff Chatas, OSU chief financial officer and senior vice president of Business and Finance.
At the end of the 2013 fiscal year, the university’s long-term investment pool totaled more than $3.1 billion, and its operating funds were at nearly $2.9 billion, according to OSU Board of Trustees’ minutes.
Then-OSU Provost and Executive Vice President Joseph Alutto told Chatas in a June 13 email that his worries came from the amount of money that was proposed to be invested.
“The only issue I see is the initial size of the investment. What is the justification for a $50 million investment rather than one in the $20-30 million range that you described as more typical?” the email read.
Alutto stepped into the role of interim president following then-President E. Gordon Gee’s retirement July 1.
Alutto’s concerns about the investment’s size were expressed after a June 11 email Chatas and his executive assistant exchanged mentioning Alutto’s desire to talk about the potential deal.
“Given the recent leadership change, Joe Alutto has asked that we get the group together to discuss Drive and our decision to invest,” the email read.
Records show Gee was an active supporter of the investment. Gee knew Kvamme before working with him on the investment.
At one point, Kvamme headed JobsOhio, a private state development agency that has been a key initiative for Gov. John Kasich. Gee is a board member of that agency.
Kvamme sent an email addressed to “Gordon” May 15 thanking him for dinner. The exact receiving address of the email was redacted in the provided records. The email also thanked “Gordon” for agreeing to work with Chatas and reach out to other universities.
An email sent June 25 to Chatas, signed “G,” said, “I spoke with Joe Alutto today and told him we had to honor the Kvamme agreement. He agreed” The address of the email was redacted in the provided records.
“Make that happen quickly,” the email also said.
In addition, Gee wanted to seek funding from Kvamme following the finalization of OSU’s investment.
Gee is attempting to raise money to fund a higher education center he is creating at the John Glenn School of Public Affairs.
“I just met with Gordon. As you know, he wants me to help him raise $3 million for his center,” said Michael Eicher, senior vice president for Advancement, in a Sept. 19 email to Alutto and Christopher Culley, senior vice president and general counsel for OSU’s Office of Legal Affairs.
The email goes on to say if there are no conflicts, Gee can solicit funds from Kvamme.
“Gordon believes he can get $1.5 million from him,” the email read.
A Sept. 23 email from Eicher to Gee said Gee was clear to solicit Kvamme.
OSU’s long-term investment pool policy states that “it is critical that there be no conflicts of interest or perceptions of conflicts of interest when making investment decisions … Therefore, if a member of the Board of Trustees, Investment Committee or the OSU Foundation Board is connected to an investment firm, the Office of Investments will not invest in any funds managed by that firm.”
OSU invested in Drive Capital in July, shortly after Gee announced June 4 he was retiring from his role as university president.
Gee’s announcement came days after controversial remarks he made at a Dec. 5 OSU Athletic Conference meeting came under public scrutiny. Comments, which he later called “inappropriate,” about Notre Dame and the Southeastern Conference in particular brought national attention.
The investment also followed a provision approved by OSU’s Board at an Aug. 30 meeting that brought together OSU’s two investment portfolios: a long-term investment pool and the university’s operating funds.
The provision also allows the president, provost and senior vice president for Business and Finance, in consultation with the Chair of the Finance Committee and the Board of Trustees, to invest up to $100 million in funds at their discretion, “but in the best interests of the university,” according to minutes from the meeting.
Alutto, Executive Vice President and Provost Joseph Steinmetz and Chatas currently hold these positions, respectively.
Following the decision to invest in Drive Capital, there seemed to be some confusion around finalizing the deal.
“Good to execute at $50 (million),” Chatas said in an email to several OSU financial and legal officials July 8.
Four days later, Michael Mitchell, vice president and associate general counsel for OSU’s Office of Legal Affairs, said, “There appears to be a lack of consensus on the source of funds for the investment,” in an email to Chatas and Hook.
Finally, on July 15, records show documents were taken to Mitchell so he could fill in account information for the source of the investment funds.
“They were supposed to be sent over last week and they never were so we could not complete them. Sounds like it will be finalized today,” Hook said in an email to Mitchell.
Despite concerns from officials, some OSU students were glad to hear about the university’s investment Sunday.
“To me (the investment) is a no brainer. Drive Capital is doing something here in the Midwest that is really a game changer for the region,” said Jay Clouse, president of OSU’s Business Builders Club and fourth-year in marketing.
Clouse said the deal will benefit a variety of areas.
“It’s a great thing for the region, Columbus, Ohio, and the Midwest at large,” he said. “In the past, all access to early stage startup was on the coasts, the East Coast or the West Coast, but we have great ideas here, too.”
Clouse said the size of the investment isn’t consequential.
“The university, they have a $3 billion long-term investment pool and they’re throwing $50 million towards this,” he said. “They’re going to invest that money anyway.”
Other students agreed.
Maggie Echols, a third-year in history, and Katie Adib, a third-year in biochemistry and philosophy, both said OSU should make investments that can lead to job creation.
“Stirring economic development in Columbus and in Ohio is a good thing so OSU graduates can stay in Ohio,” Echols said.
Adib agreed that investing in small businesses could create jobs, potentially helping graduates find employment.
“We should not just invest in helping students while they’re on campus but do things to help them after they graduate,” she said.