who's who

3​ Houston innovators to know this week

This week's innovators to know roundup includes Youngro Lee of NextSeed, Joy M. Hutton of Google's Digital Coaches, and Aaron Knape of sEATz. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In today's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators across industries — from sports tech to startup mentorship.

Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed

Youngro Lee NextSeed

With the acquisition, Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed, has been named the COO of Republic. Courtesy of NextSeed

Youngro Lee has a new title thanks to an acquisition. Republic, a growing New York-based private investment platform, has acquired Houston-based NextSeed, according to announcements from both companies. With the acquisition, Lee now also serves as COO of Republic.

It's a pivotal moment for the private investment community as just two weeks ago the SEC announced changes to Regulation Crowdfunding that included raising the fundraising caps from $1.07 million to $5 million. Between the new regulations and the new Republic deal, investing on NextSeed's platform will grow in scale.

"Now, by partnering with Republic, we believe that we can achieve so much more together for our entire business and investor community," NextSeed's executive team says in an email to investors. "We have known and worked with the Republic team for over four years, as both firms tried to strengthen and grow this industry since the very beginning of this movement." Read more.

Joy M. Hutton, Grow with Google Digital Coach for Houston

Joy M. Hutton will lead Grow with Google in Houston. Photo courtesy

A new Google initiative is expanding its Texas presence this month, and Houston entrepreneur Joy M. Hutton, founder of Joy of Consulting, will serve as the Grow with Google Digital Coach for Houston.

"The Grow with Google team is making an effort to close the gap in resources that Black and LatinX small business owners have not generally had access to — in Houston and beyond," Hutton says in the release. "I live and breathe entrepreneurship, so I'm honored to participate in the Google Digital Coaches program and excited to work with Houston entrepreneurs who are traditionally underrepresented." Read more.

Aaron Knape, co-founder and CEO of sEATz

Houston-based sEATz has raised funding to help scale to the demands as fans safely return to stadiums. Photo courtesy of sEATz

When COVID-19 hit, Aaron Knape and his team at sEATz had to think long and hard about how their tech platform for in-stadium food and merchandise delivery would survive. However, what seemed like an insurmountable challenge became sEATz's biggest opportunity.

"We really started seeing how integral our platform was going to be for the safe return for sports and entertainment," says Aaron Knape, CEO and co-founder of sEATz."When we started getting that momentum and traction with our clients, our investor base and perspective investor base got really excited."

And those excited investors allowed the startup to raise a second seed round of venture capital to the tune of $1.6 million. Read more.

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Building Houston

 
 

2020 brought over $700 million in venture funding deals into Houston, and startups saw larger deals in the first half of the year with a growing interest in angel activity. Image via Getty Images

Houston startup's venture capital deals continue to grow in 2020, according to a new report from Houston Exponential. Last year, VC dollars were up, while deal count was down, representing more mature deals coming into the ecosystem — but the second half of the year was defined by a growth in angel investment interest.

The report by Serafina Lalany, chief of staff for HX, found that the Bayou City brought saw $715 million across 117 VC deals, according to Pitch Book data. It's the fourth year Houston has seen VC growth, and last year the city reported over $563 million across 168 deals.

"Houston has put concerted efforts into building its innovation ecosystem," says Harvin Moore, president of HX, in a release, "and 2020's record-breaking results show we are seeing not only resilience in the tech sector, but a significant increase in the rate of formation and success of growth-stage companies, which have an outsized effect on our local economy in terms of high paying job potential and Houston's increasing attractiveness as a great place to work."

Last August, HX published a report on the first half of the year and that study found that Houston — facing the challenges of both the pandemic and the oil price drop — managed to see a 7 percent increase in funding compared to the national average of 2.5 percent. With the second half of the year, the city's VC increase from last year was over 25 percent and up 252 percent since 2014.

The other difference between the first and second halves of the year for Houston VC was the stages of the deals made. Most of Houston's larger deals took place in the first and second quarters — and even the beginning of Q3 — of 2020:

But the second half of the year seemed like Houston's earlier stage VC activity returned, and Blair Garrou, managing partner at Houston-based Mercury Fund, confirmed this to InnovationMap on the Houston Innovator's Podcast in December.

"Seed rounds have definitely bounced back. We're seeing a lot of seed activity, because there's been a lot of seed funds raised," Garrou said on the podcast, adding that he's observed an increase in angel investment interest. "People are realizing that money is in innovation and tech — especially in software."

In her report, Lalany found that in Houston, angel investments are out-pacing seed, creating a "competitive environment."

"The addition of multi-stage and nontraditional investment firms into the arena has created upward pressure in deal valuations and sizes. The average seed round in 2015 was $1 million, whereas today it's double that," the report reads. "With these firms turning inward to focus on protecting their current investments at the start of the pandemic, the propensity for smaller, more riskier investments have declined."

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of the Houston Angel Network, said she's seen a rise in new membership for the organization. Last August, she was on track to get to 150 members — up from just 60 in 2018.

"Despite COVID, we've continued to grow," Campbell told InnovationMap, adding that she's heard investors express that they have more time now to dive in. "People are very much still interested in learning about deploying their capital into early-stage venture. They're looking for a network of like-minded individuals."

In contrast to this early stage activity, the VC activity that was still occurring was defined by larger deals. With VC essentially halting in March and April — especially in cities like Houston, Garrou adds — it makes sense that investors wanted more "sure things" and would invest more funds into companies they already know, versus being able to source new deals in person.

"When you go to later stages, there are a lot fewer deals going on," Garrou continues on the podcast. "Now, there may be larger investments being made, but I think they are into fewer companies, and I think that's just due to the the pandemic and the ability just to not be able to do face-to-face."

As Houston moves through 2021, the city is poised well for more growth and a continued diversification from just oil and gas, as Moore says in the release.

"Houston Exponential was created four years ago by civic and business leaders to deal with an existential problem: our dependence on the energy and medical sector without a thriving startup culture to lead us towards a future that will look very different from the past," he says. "COVID and the de-carbonization movement have made that need much more urgent — it's both a huge challenge and an enormous opportunity."

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