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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

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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