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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

 
 

This month, TMCi is welcoming a slew of health tech and cancer innovators who will advance solutions in medicine over the next several months. Image via TMC.edu

The Texas Medical Center has announced the latest cohorts of its two health tech accelerators.

The Texas Medical Center Innovation has named eight companies that are in the Spring 2023 Accelerator for HealthTech cohort. TMCi also announced 21 participants are set to join the 2023 Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics cohort. Both programs connect the entrepreneurs and innovators to experts at TMC’s campuses to solve unmet clinical needs and reach the next business milestone.

“At TMC Innovation, we start with a promise of uniting cutting-edge innovators in science and medicine with the talent found at the Texas Medical Center," says Emily Reiser, associate director of TMC Innovation, in a news release. "Our 2023 cohort members are tackling some of the most critical issues we face today in healthcare.

"We are excited to welcome a new group of researchers and companies to the TMC Innovation Factory, and to work collaboratively with our new cohort members and our partners from across the Texas Medical Center," she continues.

Here's what 2023 can expect from these two program's cohorts.

TMCi HealthTech Accelerator

The six-month, twice annual HealthTech Accelerator — originally launched in 2014 with over 225 alumni companies — focuses on digital health and medical device startups. The spring cohort are addressing solutions across maternal medicine, mental health, diagnostics, patient experience, and artificial intelligence.

"Uniting talented professionals from across the globe provides a unique opportunity for innovation, creativity, and development in diverse areas of expertise," says Devin Dunn, head of the Accelerator for Healthtech at TMCi, in the release. "Our tailored program maximizes participants' experiences while determining the best match between these companies and Texas Medical Center’s network."

The cohort was selected following a November bootcamp that introduced potential startup members to the TMC and the Houston health care community.

The following companies will join the TMC this month:

  • Based in Roseville, Minneapolis, Bloom Standard is deploying the first self-driving pediatric ultrasound to earlier diagnose heart and lung conditions in primary care, remote and under-resourced settings.
  • San Francisco-based Ejenta automates remote monitoring and care using AI technology exclusively licensed from NASA. “Intelligent agents” learn from connected devices, claims and EMR data to monitor patients, predict health and to provide automated support for patients and automated workflow for clinicians.
  • Kintsugi, based in Berkley, California, is on a mission to see mental health more clearly by developing novel voice biomarker infrastructure to detect signs of depression and anxiety from short clips of free-form speech.
  • San Francisco-based Lana Health is modernizing patient experiences, across the care continuum with an end-to-end, scalable platform, enabling frictionless care transitions, high patient satisfaction, and better clinical outcomes.
  • Liberate Medical, from Crestwood, Kentucky, improves outcomes for mechanically ventilated patients using its breakthrough, non-invasive, respiratory muscle-protective, neurostimulation device, VentFree.
  • Limbix, headquartered in Palo Alto, has a mission to improve mental health with accessible technology.
  • Nua Surgical, from Galway, Ireland, Nua Surgical is an award-winning Irish start-up dedicated to innovating in women’s health.
  • Houston-based Prana Thoracic is developing solutions for the detection and intervention of early-stage lung cancer.

Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics

The TMC has announced the 21 researchers and companies tapped to join the 2023 Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics.

The nine-month program, funded by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas in partnership with the Gulf Coast Consortia and the University of Texas Medical Branch, supports investigators and early-stage biotechnology companies with innovative solutions in cancer therapeutics. Participants will be mentored by a group of scientific, business, and innovation leaders to ultimately be positioned to apply for grants and pitch to investors and corporate partners to further the development of their innovative cancer solutions.

“For this third cohort, we focused on a strategic and extensive recruitment process, including the evaluation of 1,679 cancer research projects. From 56 applications, we selected 21 participants that will gain access to valuable resources, integrated training and mentorship to prepare for clinical trials,” says Ahmed AlRawi, program manager of Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics, in the release. “Our 2023 cohort represents our most diverse cohort to date, including eight companies led by women entrepreneurs. We are excited to continue the momentum and build off the successes of our previous years.”

Forty-five participants have gone through the accelerator program since its launch in 2021, and collectively, the entrepreneurs have raised more than $90 million in funding and three projects are in the clinic.

The 2023 cohort participants are focused on a wide range of therapeutic assets, including small molecule, antibody, peptide/protein, cell therapy, and other. The 2023 cohort kicks off their nine-month program in January.

The participants include:

  1. Dr. Amit K. Tripathi – UNT-Health Science Center
  2. Dr. Darshan Gandhi (ImproveBio, LLC)
  3. Dr. Frank McKeon (Tract Pharmaceutical) – University of Houston
  4. Dr. Hemanta Baruah (Aakha Biologics)
  5. Dr. Joshua Gruber – UT-Southwestern
  6. Dr. Kyoji Tsuchikama – UT Health Science Center-Houston
  7. Dr. Maralice Conacci Sorrell – UT-Southwestern
  8. Dr. Michael Buszczak – UT-Southwestern
  9. Dr. Nadezhda (Nadia) German -Texas Tech-Lubbock
  10. Dr. Parsa Modareszadeh (HemePro Therapeutics) – UT-Dallas
  11. Dr. Robert Kruse (HydroGene Therapeutics)
  12. Dr. Xiang Zhang – Baylor College of Medicine
  13. Dr. Youngwook Won (Singular Immune, Inc.)
  14. Dr. Zhi-Ping Liu (Raphael Pharmaceutical LLC) – UT-Southwestern
  15. Dr. Jonathan Arambula (InnovoTEX Inc.)
  16. Dr. Isaac Chan – UT-Southwestern
  17. Dr. Olga Granaturova (Ruptakine Inc.) – UT Health Science Center-Houston
  18. Dr. Jim Song (Tranquility Biodesign) – Texas A&M-College Station
  19. Dr. Rosa Selenia Guerra-Resendez (Quetzal Bio, LLC) – Rice University
  20. Dr. Cassian Yee (Mongoose Bio, LLC) – UT-MD Anderson Cancer Center
  21. Dr. Manjeet Rao (Niragen, Inc.) – UT Health Science Center-San Antonio


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