Valuing a closely held business is often a debate over hypothetical dollars, particularly when the company’s sole asset is unproven technology. The Business Court confronted such a situation recently in Vernon v. Cuomo.
The company in question developed a new technology with potential widespread medical application: silicone-free syringes, which would enable syringes (especially of high-priced medicines) to be pre-filled without risk of contamination. The potential of the technology, however, was not enough to keep the company together. Two shareholders asserted dilution and self-dealing claims against the other shareholders. After a bench trial, the Court concluded that the defendants engaged in self-dealing and breached their fiduciary duty to the plaintiffs. The Court ordered the judicial dissolution of the company to protect the interests of the complaining shareholders pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 55-14-30(2)(ii). (Mack wrote about the bench trial opinion last year).
In lieu of dissolution, the defendants exercised their statutory option to purchase the plaintiffs’ shares at fair value under N.C.G.S. § 55-14-31(d). That statute neither defines fair value nor specifies the procedures for a court to use in arriving at it. In Vernon, Judge Tennille followed a procedure similar to two previous valuation cases, Garlock v. Hilliard and Royals v. Piedmont Electric Repair Co.: solicit the opinion of an independent appraiser, "but also [take] into account other equitable and practical considerations based on the arguments and submissions of counsel and matters of record."
The added complication of Vernon was that, with the only asset an unproven technology, there was a high risk of windfall on both sides: "One of the key problems faced by the Court in this valuation process has been how to protect against a windfall by the majority shareholders if the technology proves to be extremely valuable while not requiring the majority to pay an initial price that may be too high if the technology is not adopted widely in the industry."
The Court approved of the methodology of the appointed appraiser, who had extensive IP valuation experience. The appraiser’s methodology included:
- the discounted future economic income method to discern fair value
- Latin Hypercube simulation algorithms to generate income estimates
- a Fisher Pry model to project a market adoption rate for the technology
- Monte Carlo simulation methods to consider uncertainties in the company’s underlying earnings potential
However, because of the uncertainties and the windfall risk, the Court concluded that a royalty sharing arrangement would best capture the value of the technology for both sides. The Court found that the plaintiff’s shares were worth a specific amount, plus a royalty sharing arrangement of a specified percentage. (The amounts themselves are redacted in the public version of the Court’s opinion). The Court ordered the closing to take place within 20 days, with 50% of the purchase price paid at closing and the balance paid in two annual installments with no interest.
Recognizing the novelty of the approach (and the appellate courts’ distrust of novelty), the Court also reached a backup conclusion of the total fair value of the plaintiffs’ shares, which would take effect if an appellate court struck down the royalty sharing arrangement.