Houston Voices

7 ways to escape the Valley of Death, according to University of Houston research

Finding funding is tough and might get you in the mother of all holes — the Valley of Death. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

To walk through the valley of death means that death and misery are low points (valleys) in the human experience through which we all must inevitably walk and experience.

Although not as morbid, in the world of startup businesses, the valley of death is still grim. It is a low point in your startup's life where your business suffers and all seems lost. Specifically, it describes how hard it is to cover negative cash flow while you wait for your startup to start generating revenue from actual consumers. Sadly, only 10 percent of startups will survive the valley of death after the first three years, according to a Gompers and Lerner analysis.

"Our startup overcame the valley of death by making believers out of investors. Often, you have ideas that are worthwhile, but you have to find investors who also believe that," says Jason Eriksen, Ph.D., associate professor of pharmacology and chair and co-founder of Alzeca Biosciences.

Alzeca develops advanced imaging technology that helps physicians detect Alzheimer's at a much earlier stage than ever before. Alzeca is one of 28 groundbreaking and innovative startups changing the world at UH's Technology Bridge.

"Initially, our investors rejected us because they were disappointed that we couldn't cure Alzheimer's, and that we could merely stage it. That sent us spiraling into the valley of death. We overcame that by making other investors believers. We made them believe in our technology for detecting the disease early and that it would be life-changing for millions of sufferers," Eriksen says.

Here are another seven ways to dig yourself out of, not just a hole, but the mother of all holes: the valley of death.

1. Gather resources.

Planning your business is a good way to minimize risk. Such preparation involves determining how much money you will need to get to the revenue generation stage, and how much money you will need to cover costs in the likely event you fall into a financial hole. The more resources you've accumulated beforehand, the more padding you'll have if you fall on your face.

2. Don't quit your day job.

Keep your day-to-day job to keep money coming in and your personal finances covered. Use your weeknights and weekends to put in work on your company while you wait to generate revenue. You'll be making money while you wait for money. This way might take longer, but with proper planning, you can ensure that your lights will stay on while your startup struggles to bring in revenue while spiraling in the valley of death.

3. Find funding from friends and family.

"Angel investors and venture capitalists will feel a lot better about investing if they see you already have money at stake," Eriksen says.

That pre-investor money usually comes from friends and family. There is some weight to the idea that you should never mix business with family, but there are exceptions.

You're more likely to secure funding from friends and family if you show them you have a more-than-solid business plan. Your loved ones will want to see figures and metrics that have tracked what your business has done or what it is projected to do. They will also want to see that you are an expert in your business. It would also help to show them a payment plan where you outline when and how you will pay their money back.

Once you have friends and family funding secured, you're a lot more likely to acquire more funding from investors, and the long, hard road out of the valley of death begins.

4. Call for crowdfunding.

One smart way to jet pack out of the valley of death is to launch a crowdfunding campaign. If you know your tech, service, or product is a game changer, crowdfunding will put that to the test. This is where you'll obtain funding from everyday people who like what you have to offer enough to put all their faith in it in the form of dollars and cents.

5. Enter competitions and apply for grants.

Enter as many competitions as you can.

"Because of the government's recent surge in focus on tech-based and energy-based startups, there are now more startup competitions available in major VC (venture capitalist) geographic hotspots like San Francisco, Boston, New York, LA, and San Jose," Eriksen says.

While those cities are the startup hotspots, their activity reflects the current market for startups all over the country. Thankfully, that activity is at an all-time high, so you can rest assured that startup competitions are abundant in your own city, too.

This is your chance to show the world your hoverboard and attain funding you don't have to pay back, all without even relinquishing any equity. These competitions are, get this, competitive, so it would wise to register as early as you can.

6. Consider joint venture.

There might be a company out there that sees your product or services as congruent to their own business. Reach out to them and try to convince them that a joint venture would behoove both companies. This approach is not uncommon, and companies have been known to advance funding early on with the expectation that you'll reimburse them once your revenue starts rolling in.

7. Borrow if need be. 

Somewhere out there is a loan with your name on it. Wallowing in the valley of death can really leave a business owner feeling desperate and alone in the world. So desperate, that is, that they might mess around and apply for a loan. This alternative is the nuclear option. A last resort. It's only a viable approach if you're willing to put your home or other big assets on the line as collateral.

Typically, banks will only approve loans to startups that are cash-flow positive. So maybe this option is best if you've succeeded with a few of the aforementioned approaches so much that they helped your company start generating revenue. Once you've reached that point, that's the prime time to apply for a loan or line of credit.

"The phrase 'valley of death' is appropriate because it is a death sentence for the vast majority of startups," warns Eriksen.

That doesn't mean you go down without a fight.

When Buster Douglas fought Mike Tyson, every fan, expert, and sportswriter counted him out. For the entire fight, they were right. His defeat was inevitable. Then the tenth round happened.

Not only did he not go down without a fight, he won the bout. He beat the champ, and the odds. If you want your best chance at beating the odds, you do everything you can. You fight. Loans, competitions, crowdfunding, joint ventures; whatever it takes.

"The valley of death is only a death sentence if you allow it to be."

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

The author, Rene Cantu, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Breakthrough research on metastatic breast cancer, a new way to turn toxic pollutants into valuable chemicals, and an evolved brain tumor chip are three cancer-fighting treatments coming out of Houston. Getty Inages

Cancer remains to be one of the medical research community's huge focuses and challenges, and scientists in Houston are continuing to innovate new treatments and technologies to make an impact on cancer and its ripple effect.

Three research projects coming out of Houston institutions are providing solutions in the fight against cancer — from ways to monitor treatment to eliminating cancer-causing chemicals in the first place.

Baylor College of Medicine's breakthrough in breast cancer

Photo via bcm.edu

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Harvard Medical School have unveiled a mechanism explains how "endocrine-resistant breast cancer acquires metastatic behavior," according to a news release from BCM. This research can be game changing for introducing new therapeutic strategies.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and shows that hyperactive FOXA1 signaling — previously reported in endocrine-resistant metastatic breast cancer — can trigger genome-wide reprogramming that enhances resistance to treatment.

"Working with breast cancer cell lines in the laboratory, we discovered that FOXA1 reprograms endocrine therapy-resistant breast cancer cells by turning on certain genes that were turned off before and turning off other genes," says Dr. Xiaoyong Fu, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and part of the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor, in the release.

"The new gene expression program mimics an early embryonic developmental program that endow cancer cells with new capabilities, such as being able to migrate to other tissues and invade them aggressively, hallmarks of metastatic behavior."

Patients whose cancer is considered metastatic — even ones that initially responded to treatment — tend to relapse and die due to the cancer's resistance to treatment. This research will allow for new conversations around therapeutic treatment that could work to eliminate metastatic cancer.

University of Houston's evolved brain cancer chip

Photo via uh.edu

A biomedical research team at the University of Houston has made improvements on its microfluidic brain cancer chip. The Akay Lab's new chip "allows multiple-simultaneous drug administration, and a massive parallel testing of drug response for patients with glioblastoma," according to a UH news release. GBM is the most common malignant brain tumor and makes up half of all cases. Patients with GBM have a five-year survival rate of only 5.6 percent.

"The new chip generates tumor spheroids, or clusters, and provides large-scale assessments on the response of these GBM tumor cells to various concentrations and combinations of drugs. This platform could optimize the use of rare tumor samples derived from GBM patients to provide valuable insight on the tumor growth and responses to drug therapies," says Metin Akay, John S. Dunn Endowed Chair Professor of Biomedical Engineering and department chair, in the release.

Akay's team published a paper in the inaugural issue of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society's Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine and Biology. The report explains how the technology is able to quickly assess how well a cancer drug is improving its patients' health.

"When we can tell the doctor that the patient needs a combination of drugs and the exact proportion of each, this is precision medicine," Akay explains in the release.

Rice University's pollution transformation technology

Photo via rice.edu

Rice University engineers have developed a way to get rid of cancer-causing pollutants in water and transform them into valuable chemicals. A team lead by Michael Wong and Thomas Senftle has created this new catalyst that turns nitrate into ammonia. The study was published in the journal ACS Catalysis.

"Agricultural fertilizer runoff is contaminating ground and surface water, which causes ecological effects such as algae blooms as well as significant adverse effects for humans, including cancer, hypertension and developmental issues in babies," says Wong, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Rice's Brown School of Engineering, in a news release. "I've been very curious about nitrogen chemistry, especially if I can design materials that clean water of nitrogen compounds like nitrites and nitrates."

The ability to transform these chemicals into ammonia is crucial because ammonia-based fertilizers are used for global food supplies and the traditional method of creating ammonia is energy intensive. Not only does this process eliminate that energy usage, but it's ridding the contaminated water of toxic chemicals.

"I'm excited about removing nitrite, forming ammonia and hydrazine, as well as the chemistry that we figured out about how all this happens," Wong says in the release. "The most important takeaway is that we learned how to clean water in a simpler way and created chemicals that are more valuable than the waste stream."