Burrill’s comments on Elk Run give me whiplash

Steve Burrill, CEO of Burrill & Co.

Pop quiz time: when did Steven Burrill say he hopes to complete a $1 billion deal to finance the Elk Run BioBusiness Park in Pine Island, Minnesota?

A. End of September

B. End of the year


C. Neither of the above

D. All of the above

If you answered D, give yourself a cookie.

The San Francisco-based biotechnology investor is known as an eloquent, thoughtful speaker. But when it comes to the $1 billion fund, Burrill seems to trip up.

Consider the past two weeks. In early September, Burrill told MedCity News that he hopes to sign papers with a sovereign wealth fund in 30 days.

On Wednesday, he told the Star Tribune that he hopes to close the deal by year’s end — a revelation that earns front page coverage.

On Thursday night, Burrill & Co. issued a press release that sought to “clarify that investment discussions are ongoing.”

“We have been in active discussions for several months with one potential investor who has an interest in the project,” Burrill said. “However, contrary to the impressions conveyed in the press coverage, no decisions have yet been made, and there can be no guarantees about the actual outcome, at this point.”

Perhaps the press wouldn’t get the wrong impression if Burrill stuck to one answer, which maybe should be, “I just don’t know.”

Let’s be completely frank. Burrill’s zig-zagging on the fund hurts his credibility and that of Elk Run, which already has plenty of skeptics. These days, raising  just $10 million can earn you rock star status, never mind $1 billion. So Burrill’s perpetual teasing is starting to wear a little thin.

Yes, raising money is tough. Yes, there can be no guarantees. That’s why it’s best to avoid giving meaningless timelines and using phrases like “firm commitment” and “we’re at the goal line.”

As Burrill noted himself, a deal is not done until a deal is done.

Burrill has been on a public relations offensive lately, correctly noting that he already has brought considerable money and clout to Minnesota.

He’s clearly stung by the criticism of Elk Run. Perhaps that’s why Burrill feels he has to demonstrate progress on the fund. But his inconsistent timelines and vague promises only fuel the critics and skeptics.

An investor asked me the other day why Burrill would say anything at all until he had actually raised the money. Good question.

In hindsight, the press release is probably the script Burrill should’ve stuck to: “We’re making progress. Hopefully, we’ll have a deal soon.” I can live with that.

Of course, no one will remember this if Burrill raises the fund.

But until then, silence is worth a billion bucks.

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