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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

 
 

Halliburton Labs has announced the addition of three clean energy tech companies. Photo courtesy of Halliburton

Halliburton has again added a handful of energy tech startups to its Houston-based incubator.

Three companies — Matrix Sensors, Renew Power Systems, and SunGreenH2 — have joined Halliburton Labs as its newest clean energy participants.

“Companies across the energy landscape are interested in scalable innovations that improve the cost, reliability, and sustainability of energy,” says Managing Director Dale Winger in the news release. “Our tailored program combines expert support, access to a global network, and the physical resources for participants to scale. We’re excited to help these companies accelerate their market traction.”

Halliburton, a provider of energy equipment and services, launched Halliburton Labs in 2020. Last September was the incubator's last cohort addition. The next Halliburton Labs Finalists Pitch Day is Friday, January 27, at the Ion. The event will include pitches from 10 innovative, early-stage energy tech companies. Registration is open for the event.

Here are details, according to Halliburton, about the three new startups at the incubator.

Matrix Sensors

Using a new class of gas-adsorbing materials known as metal-organic frameworks to develop the world’s first quantitative gas sensor on a chip, Matrix Sensors has created a touch-free technology that enables advancements in sensor size, power, cost, and performance to address limitations of current gas sensor technologies, which require manual calibration every six months. The company is based in San Diego, California.

“With Halliburton’s global reach, we can apply our technology to some of the biggest problems facing the energy sector today, including CO2 sensors for energy efficient buildings and methane sensors for leak detection,” says Matrix Sensors CEO Steve Yamamoto in the release.

Renew Power Systems

RPSi, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is a clean-tech company that develops hardware and software solutions that enable flexible and sustainable grid infrastructure. RPSi uses power electronics to connect renewable energy resources, such as wind and solar, with each other and the grid.

“Our mission is to help change the way the world generates and distributes energy,” says CEO Zach Emond in the release. “With RPSi technology, a diverse range of domestic and global communities will benefit from the acceleration of renewable energy resources that work with new and existing grid infrastructure and improve access to affordable, sustainable, and resilient electricity.”

SunGreenH2

Singapore-based SunGreenH2 builds high-performance hardware for electrolyzer cells, stacks, and systems that increase hydrogen production, decrease energy use, and reduce platinum group metals use. The company supplies hardware components for alkaline and proton-exchange membrane electrolyzers. Its modular, high-efficiency anion exchange membrane (AEM) electrolyzer stack, which is being commercialized, uses renewable power to produce low-cost green hydrogen for industries, transport, and energy storage.

“We are excited to unlock the future of green hydrogen production. With the help of Halliburton’s engineering and manufacturing expertise, we plan to commercialize and roll out our product in major international markets,” says Tulika Raj, co-founder and CEO of the company, in the release.

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