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Exclusive: Clayton Christensen gets into crowdfunding

June 13, 2012: 11:33 AM ET

"Disruption" expert buys into the investment industry's next big thing.

FORTUNE -- Last month we noted that CircleUp, a new crowd-funding platform for small retailers and consumer brands, had launched with $1.5 million in venture capital from Maveron and individuals like David Topper. What we didn't know at the time was that the round's largest investor actually was Clayton Christensen, the noted Harvard Business School professor and author of books like The Innovator's Dilemma.

He did the deal via Rose Park, an investment vehicle Christensen and his son launched around five years ago. Other Rose Park portfolio companies include Coupang and BioLite.

Given Christensen's area of study, I asked him to discuss whether crowdfunding is disruptive, or just a reflection of government-endorsed social media hype. His reply, via email:

"I do think it can be disruptive (depends on the business model, and the target market).  For now, as it takes root, I think that the disruptive crowdfunding opportunities are targeting non-consumptive areas – consumer being one.  The sorts of opportunities that KickStarter targeted being another example.

These are companies or projects that otherwise struggle to get funding. While I wouldn't say that most entrepreneurs find it easy to get funding, there are certainly more people out there funding technology and healthcare companies than in other areas. So I think that crowdfunding platforms in those spaces (technology and healthcare) will find that they have a harder time (since they're essentially taking on incumbent seed and angel investors), and face other complicated issues, like adverse selection (only go to the crowdfunders after they haven't been able to get well-known angels or angel groups to invest).

I would say that for now the areas where it has the most opportunity to disrupt is by taking root in these underserved areas that traditional financiers have traditionally found unattractive.  This is a classic entry point for disruption – expand participation in the market by lowering cost at the low end of the market, where incumbents don't see profit opportunities. Later, as the platforms gain scale, then they may start to add scope, or may start to add later-stage funding opportunities.  That's likely where all of this goes next."

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Dan Primack
Dan Primack
Senior Editor, Fortune

Dan Primack joined Fortune.com in September 2010 to cover deals and dealmakers, from Wall Street to Sand Hill Road. Previously, Dan was an editor-at-large with Thomson Reuters, where he launched both peHUB.com and the peHUB Wire email service. In a past journalistic life, Dan ran a community paper in Roxbury, Massachusetts. He currently lives just outside of Boston.

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