HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 64

Houston expert shares how COVID-19 has affected venture capital locally and beyond

Blair Garrou joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss venture capital investing in 2020. Photo via mercuryfund.com

Locally, Blair Garrou, managing director at Mercury Fund, was among the first in the Houston innovation ecosystem to recognize what COVID-19 could do to the world of venture capital, innovation, and more.

At a panel for Houston Exponential's Tech Rodeo on March 6, Garrou observed that the pandemic had the potential to affect the venture capital market regarding valuations and investing.

"I never expected what happened, I just expected the markets to correct," says Garrou on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

While the pandemic posed challenges for startups and investors alike, Garrou says he sees some silver linings to how COVID-19 affected tech adoption. Non-tech and innovation companies have lost a lot of value, according to the S&P 500 Index, but tech and innovation companies have doubled their values. Some experts say that the pandemic has pushed user adoption by a decade or more.

"Everyone finally understands that digital transformation and automation are here to stay," Garrou says. "Just look at our backyard and what the oil and gas industry has gone through. ... I don't think anyone could have through through all of this, but it's put tech ecosystems on notice because what's happened since the end of April to December is unprecedented in the tech space."

With so much uncertainty, it's safe to say the volume of venture capital investing is down, but over the past several months, VC activity has returned, Garrou says. Now, Garrou says he sees later stage deals — like series C rounds — are down, but early stage investing is up as individual investors want in on tech.

"People are realizing that money is in innovation and tech — especially in software," Garrou says. "I can't tell you how many individual investors who call interested in investing in Mercury as a fund or our companies. People are not getting the return they desire from the markets and they are seeing tech companies do great things."

Garrou shares more about what all he's keeping a close eye on as we enter a new year, plus what's happening at Mercury Fund in the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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This UH engineer is hoping to make his mark on cancer detection. Photo via UH.edu

Early stage cancer is hard to detect, mostly because traditional diagnostic imaging cannot detect tumors smaller than a certain size. One Houston innovator is looking to change that.

Wei-Chuan Shih, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, recently published his findings in IEEE Sensors journal. According to a news release from UH, the cells around cancer tumors are small — ~30-150nm in diameter — and complex, and the precise detection of these exosome-carried biomarkers with molecular specificity has been elusive, until now.

"This work demonstrates, for the first time, that the strong synergy of arrayed radiative coupling and substrate undercut can enable high-performance biosensing in the visible light spectrum where high-quality, low-cost silicon detectors are readily available for point-of-care application," says Shih in the release. "The result is a remarkable sensitivity improvement, with a refractive index sensitivity increase from 207 nm/RIU to 578 nm/RIU."

Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

What Shih has done is essentially restored the electric field around nanodisks, providing accessibility to an otherwise buried enhanced electric field. Nanodisks are antibody-functionalized artificial nanostructures which help capture exosomes with molecular specificity.

"We report radiatively coupled arrayed gold nanodisks on invisible substrate (AGNIS) as a label-free (no need for fluorescent labels), cost-effective, and high-performance platform for molecularly specific exosome biosensing. The AGNIS substrate has been fabricated by wafer-scale nanosphere lithography without the need for costly lithography," says Shih in the release.

This process speeds up screening of the surface proteins of exosomes for diagnostics and biomarker discovery. Current exosome profiling — which relies primarily on DNA sequencing technology, fluorescent techniques such as flow cytometry, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) — is labor-intensive and costly. Shih's goal is to amplify the signal by developing the label-free technique, lowering the cost and making diagnosis easier and equitable.

"By decorating the gold nanodisks surface with different antibodies (e.g., CD9, CD63, and CD81), label-free exosome profiling has shown increased expression of all three surface proteins in cancer-derived exosomes," said Shih. "The sensitivity for detecting exosomes is within 112-600 (exosomes/μL), which would be sufficient in many clinical applications."

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