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Overheard: Houston venture capital experts weigh in on the city's investment future

Is the venture capital model broken? Are lower middle-of-the-country startup valuations a benefit or a hindrance? And what will the impact of the coronavirus be on startup investing? Getty Images

Last week's Houston Tech Rodeo celebrated Houston's development as an innovation ecosystem. One major component of the Bayou City's innovation growth is the amount of venture capital activity happening in Houston.

At a panel on Monday, InnovationMap hosted a discussion between three local investors about whether or not the VC model is broke, if Houston is too far behind the coasts, and even the effect of coronavirus on investment.

If you missed the event, here are some overheards from the panel.

“We weren’t sure whether [Houston] would be the best place or the easiest place to raise money in, but it’s been incredibly welcoming."

— Leslie Goldman, general partner at The Artemis Fund. The female-founded, female-focused fund launched last year and has made two investments so far — with three more to announce in the next few weeks.

“We have a lot of experience and expertise, and a lot of money and deep pockets. But how do we make sure we are taking advantage of everything going on in Houston outside of just investing in other funds?”

— Samantha Lewis, director of Goose, explains that Goose's model is a network of high net worth investors who share deal flow and diligence duties. The organization invests $10 million annually.

“We have a much more operator and business fundamental mindset. When we look at companies at Goose, we ask, ‘what’s the path to profitability?” — not just what the growth rate is.”

— Lewis says, adding that Houston has a different psychology of success than coastal innovation ecosystems, and that's apparent in her investors at Goose.

“As an entrepreneur in Houston you have to understand one thing, and that one thing is that companies in the middle of the country generally get a discount to companies on the coast."

— Blair Garrou, managing director at Mercury Fund says on the discrepencies between valuations of Houston companies versus coastal companies. Garrou explains that, "companies in the middle of the country grow at lower rates than their coastal counterparts not because of their company but because of the amount of capital that you put to work." Coastal VCs want to go all in on the startups with technology that's going to disrupt and take over an entire market.

“I think the question now is can Houston get caught up in the somewhat irrational exuberance so that you as entrepreneurs don’t have to get diluted as much in your investment. My thought is probably not, if I’m being honest.”

Garrou says of this big-money, all-in approach to venture capital you see on the coasts.

“When you talk about all-female-founded companies, the average valuation is $12 million, and all-male-founded companies, $25.5 million is the average. That’s a female discount.”

— Goldman says, acknowledging that while Houston companies are discounted compared to the coasts, companies with all female founders are also discounted despite making up 17 percent of exits last year.

“VCs have raised larger, and larger funds. With more funds, they have to deploy more money. A lot of them are competing with each other and that drives up valuations.”

— Goldman says, adding that she's heard the VC model being referred to as "broken" on the coasts, and it all comes down to valuations and growing VC funds with too much money.

“Whether or not coronavirus becomes the epidemic that everyone things it will be, what’s happening is it’s correcting the market.”

— Garrou says, comparing the pandemic to the 2008 recession. "I think we have an opportunity. If you look at every single downturn in the market, the greatest companies have come from those downturns," he adds.

“So many people are interested in Houston because they do believe Houston has great deals at more reasonable valuations. It should be really good for founders — it’s just a matter of not comparing yourself to what the coastal companies are getting.”

— Garrou says, adding that what's missing is a sophisticated angel investment foundation. While organizations like the Houston Angel Network and Goose exist, Houston is too big for just what exists now.

“I think one of the important things to do as we are growing the ecosystem is remember that we are not going to be a copy and paste model. We need to do it in our own way.”

— Lewis says about Houston's innovation ecosystem. "What we need to think about and embrace is different models of deploying capital," she says citing Goose as an example. "We need to get creative about that."

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Building Houston

 
 

These three startups walked away from a pitch competition with thousands of dollars in equity-free prizes. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Three startups founded by Rice University graduates have won investment prizes at an annual pitch competition.

The annual H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge, or NRLC, welcomed a panel of judges to hear from six alumni-founded startups in the finals last week. The prizes on the line totaled $65,000 in equity-free funding. The event, which is separate from the student version of the competition, is hosted by Rice’s Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

The big winner of the 2022 competition was Rhythio Medical, a preventative heart arrhythmias treatment startup. The company won first place, which included $30,000 in equity-free funding, as well as the Audience Choice Award that came with $1,500.

Taking second place, Synopic, which facilitates faster and more accurate surgical procedures through improved endoscopic vision technology, won $20,000 in equity-free funding. Lastly, Green Room, a platform that streamlines taxes and payments for touring artists, clinched third place and $15,000.

The event, named for Rice professor emeritus and entrepreneurship program founder H. Albert Napier, was sponsored by Mercury Fund, T-Minus Solutions and Chevron Technology Ventures. This year's finalists were selected by judges made up of Rice alumni. Three judges — Danielle Conkling, director at Silicon Valley Bank, Paul Manwell, senior director at Google, and Joanna Nathan, manager of new ventures at Johnson & Johnson — listened to and evaluated each company's five-minute pitch and followed up with questions.

Rhythio Medical was founded by CEO Kunal Shah, class of 2022, and Savannah Esteve, who also serves as head of product. The technology includes a surgically injected wire that makes an irregular heart work like a healthy one. It works alongside a traditional implantable cardioverter defibrillator, however, the wire but works to prevent arrhythmias, while ICDs treat arrhythmias with a painful shock to the patient’s heart. The company lists the Texas Heart Institute and the University of Texas at Austin as its research partners.

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