Aurora Labs is one of a long list of ASX pre-revenue IPO’s that achieved massive gains before crashing when the much-hyped revenue failed to materialize. Listing in August 2016, the stock peaked at just under $4 in February 2017 for a nearly 20X return and then lost 90% of its value over the next year. Recently though, Aurora has been staging somewhat of a comeback. Their shares were trading at around 36 cents in September of this year when they began to release announcements regarding progress with their Large Format Printer. The market reacted with predictable over-exuberance and within a few weeks the stock was back over 90 cents. That investors have willingly jumped back into bed with a company like Aurora is a pretty sad indictment of the Australian small cap market. Aurora’s brief history on the ASX is a tale littered with failed targets, unclear communication and a steadfast refusal to own up to any of their mistakes. It is also a story worth knowing for anyone interested in investing in pre-revenue stocks.
Aurora labs was founded in August 2014 by David Budge, an engineer and product designer from WA when he posted on Facebook that he wanted to start a rocket company. The rocket idea didn’t last long, and the company quickly switched to 3D printing. If you are to believe the official company version of events, within 18 months of that Facebook post Aurora labs developed three separate revolutionary techniques for 3D metal printing with major implications for reducing costs, increasing speed and managing 3D printing software. What exactly these inventions were has never clearly been articulated, but with a message as enticing and marketable as this a public listing was inevitable and by June 2016 Aurora had launched their prospectus to raise $3.5 million.
While the prospectus was largely focused on returns far in the future, a key point in their initial pitch was their Small Format Printer. This printer was designed to be substantially cheaper than their competitors and was apparently already in beta testing with 31 secured pre-sales. The Small Format Printers price was listed in in the prospectus at between $40,000 and $43,000 USD each, so this was a significant amount of sales for such a young company.
The shares listed on the 12thof August 2016 at $0.20 cents and shot up in value quickly. In December 2016 they announced that they were shipping their first unit of the Small Format Printer to customers and by the 10th of February 2017 the share price had reached a staggering $3.93, representing returns of just under 1,900% since listing and a market capitalization of over $216 million.
As is the story with many pre-revenue companies though, it was when the revenue was supposed to materialize that the wheels fell off. On their quarterly activities report on the 28th of April 2017 the company announced that they were now ready to focus on sales, as they had completed the necessary certifications and testing to sell the Small Format Printer internationally. Despite these assurances, cash flows from sales for the March to June period was only $103,000 and dropped to $6,000 for the next quarter. For a company whose product was apparently market leading with a strong order bank of pre-sales this made no sense. How could a company selling 3D printers for $40,000 USD each take revenue of only $6,000 a quarter when they apparently had an order bank of 30 pre-sales to fill?
Investors looking for an answer had to wait until November 2017, when the company finally admitted via a market update that the much-vaunted pre-sales had been sold at a fraction of the current prices. Instead of the $40,000 USD listed in the prospectus, the pre-sale prices were for prices between $7,000 and $9,000 AUD. Given the retail price had now risen to USD $49,999, Aurora labs was now deciding to cancel their pre-sales and refund the prospective customers their deposits.
It is hard to understand how Aurora got away with this announcement without a slap on the wrist from the ASX. Until this announcement Aurora had given no indication that their pre-sales were for anything less than their current proposed price, if anything they had worked hard to give the opposite impression.
The below is a direct screenshot from the prospectus, these two sentences come one after the other:
Any investor reading the above sentences would have naturally assumed the pre-sale prices were somewhere around $40,000 USD. In addition to this quote the pre-sales are mentioned on 6 other occasions in the prospectus, and not once is the fact that the pre-sales were sold at heavily discounted prices disclosed.
After listing, the company continued to mention pre-sales in their announcements. In a January 2017 announcement the company stated that:
For a product that’s main selling point is its cheapness compared to its competitors, how does a sale at less than 25% of the current market price indicate demand from “all corners of the globe?” It is the equivalent of a new phone company using sales of $200 smart phones as evidence for demand of an identical model at $800.
Another obvious question is why Aurora waited until November to dishonour their pre-sales. At the time of their prospectus their retail price was already considerably higher than the pre-sale prices, yet the company waited more than 12 months before deciding to cancel the pre-sale orders. The obvious explanation that they were keeping their pre-sales on the book as long as possible to maintain their share price is hard to overlook.
Even leaving the pre-sales aside, Aurora has made some dramatic promises regarding their Small Format Printer that have failed to materialize. In April 2017, the CEO David Budge gave a speech at an investors conference where he said:
“we’ve pre-sold about 32 machines, andwe’re looking to get up to around about 30 machines a month in the next 3 to 6months at about $50,000 USD a machine.”
A lot of investors took notice of this statement, as if true it meant the company was close to achieving annual revenue of $18 million USD a year from the Small Format Printer alone.
However when their annual report for 2017 was released more than 15 months later, revenue was only $329,970, indicating sales of not even 1 device per month. In typical Australian small cap fashion, not only does the annual report fail to explain why sales were so far off this forecast, it doesn’t even acknowledge that this forecast was made.
You might be wondering at this point why I’m bothering to write about this. Another Micro Cap company played the PR game and managed to pump the share price to a ridiculous valuation with a bunch of promises that they never delivered on. Hardly a unique occurrence for the ASX. It matters because too often the companies getting funding on the ASX seem to be bad companies with good PR departments. A central promise of capitalism is that money can be efficiently allocated from those with money to those who need it. At it’s best, the share market is an effective vehicle for getting money from investors into the hands of companies with great ideas and limited funds. The reality is every dollar spent funding or purchasing a stock of a hype company is a dollar not going to a legitimate pre-revenue company, and there are a lot of legitimate pre-revenue companies out there that desperately need money.
The tendency of companies to make wild predictions also puts pressure on other small business owners looking for investment to be equally optimistic. A friend of mine owns a growing business that has achieved impressive growth of around 40% a year for the last couple of years. Their latest forecasts for 2019 increases this growth to nearly 100% for FY18, yet investors so used to seeing forecasts like Aurora’s remain unimpressed and have asked if there are any ways to increase this. For the industry my friend is in, growth at more than 100% would likely have serious affects on his margins and risk profile, but this is a difficult point to make to investors habituated to start-ups promising multi-million dollar revenues in years.
As investors, we have a responsibility to be more critical when presented with the next slick presentation light on detail but big on promises. If this is asking too much then at the very least we need to ensure that executives of small companies are held accountable for their promises. When a CEO says that he is intending to sell 30 devices a month, he shouldn’t be able to release an annual report 15 months later showing total sales of less than 10 for the year without even bothering to address what went wrong. And when that same CEO starts making chest beating announcements about their latest product, the market’s reaction should be a little more suspicious.