Chris Farmer at General Catalyst is pretty open in talking about his data driven investment approach. He is doing a big data play, mining source code repositories, LinkedIn profiles, CrunchBase, etc... He wrote up a little slice of his research here: http://techcrunch.com/2011/05/25/top-10-vc-firms-investorran...
I know that SVAngel keeps pretty good stats on their investments, and relies on a good bit of data to make their investments.
A number of top tier VC firms I've talked to this past summer are actively building systems to do more data driven investment.
Brendan Baker's Anatomy of Seed study is one of the best data driven studies of early stage investment I know of. He is working with a grad student to replicate the study to see if his conclusions are reproducible. ref ( http://www.quora.com/Brendan-Baker/Anatomy-of-Seed-An-Inside... )
BlackBox.vc did the startup genome project, and are actively pursuing early stage investments based on that data. http://blackbox.vc/
OTOH, as an angel, I've invested in ~50ish startups. Lots of patterns (YC vs non YC, equity seed vs convertible seed, etc) emerge.
This is, obviously, a generalization -- there are a few companies that stand on their own feet, and have even done so without outside investment. But in the majority of cases it seems like startups are acquired because some kind of "inside" deal is going on. When you think about it, most companies rarely benefit from acquisitions and mergers - instead they slowly die. To list a few: AOL, Bebo, Myspace, Flip, Map Quest, Alta Vista, Netscape, Broadcast.com, Excite, Lycos, Ask Jeeves, Sun Microsystems...
What startups are still going strong post-acquisition? I can think of Youtube off the top of my head...what else? If the parent companies are (generally) not benefiting from acquisitions, why are they happening?
There are plenty of startups which have thrived after acquisition. There are also spectacular failures. M&A is risky, but can have a very high payoff.
There's a quite story from not too long ago involving the LA Dodgers - for the life of me I can't remember the names or the time period, but it will hopefully come to me when I'm more awake (or someone here might refresh my memory). Every day, an expert in sabermetrics (aka baseball stats) would pprepare a huge load of paperwork for the Dodgers manager ahead of that day's game, and every day the manager would say thanks, wait until he had left the room, then chuck it all in the trash.
Tech investors aren't the only peope who value gut feelings over statistics.
It sounds like a sloppy thing to measure; but Martin Seligman (learned helplessness/learned optimism) has quizzes to measure optimism/pessimism, which have experimentally demonstrated predictive power (and actually have been used to supplement job interviewing, with measurable success). So measuring determination might be possible. There's even checks to prevent/detect cheating. Of course, extra smart candidates with million dollar (VC) motivation may quickly subvert any a test. Still, it would be interesting, intellectually, to see if it did work.
Might also be interesting to ask one of Seligman's students to assess YC candidates for optimism (his definition means that you bounce back from failure with energy - e.g. a pivot). It seems plausible to me that that would also be predictive of startup success (and also predictive of determination - the ability to keep going).
An interesting conjecture is that numerically predicting startup success (defined as a high standard deviation of return on investment) might actually be impossible because any venture risky enough to get those kinds of results would fall outside the acceptable error bars of the predictive model. The equivalent in spam filtering would be if you wanted a system to show you only messages that were 99% likely to be spam, but still not spam.
I'm not sure if that actually makes any sense, someone feel free to jump in and tear it to shreds.