money moves

Out-of-state VC firm with eyes on Houston actively — but cautiously — continues to invest amid COVID-19

Despite the effect COVID-19 has had on Houston venture capital, this Kansas City, Missouri-based VC is looking to continue to connect with the local tech scene remotely. Getty Images

A Kansas City, Missouri-based venture capital firm has had its eyes on Houston since fall of last year, and it's not letting the pandemic slow down its immersion into the local startup ecosystem.

Flyover Capital focuses on tech startups based in the middle of the country — from Denver to Atlanta, and the Twin Cities down to Houston. Usually funding seed to series A rounds, Flyover's thesis is geared at "creating the next generation of tech success stories outside traditional tech hubs," says Dan Kerr, principal at the firm.

This region, which Crunchbase dubbed "The Mighty Middle" in a recent report, has seen a growth in venture capital invested over the past decade. Annual investment grew from $5.8 billion invested in 2010 to $20.2 billion in 2019 alone, according to the report, and Texas is leading the pack. The Lone Star State accounted for $24 billion of the region's $92.6 billion venture capital invested in the past decade, per the report.

Flyover Capital, which was founded in 2014, has connected a couple dozen Houston startups in the past six months, Kerr says, and the firm is keeping up with several of those to this day. He predicts the firm will "dive in deeper" into some of those companies in the next six months.

Houston is "one of the cities among those that fall in our region where we plan to spend a significant amount of time," Kerr tells InnovationMap. "We cover a lot of ground, but there are certain cities were we try to get there quarterly. Houston is definitely one of those places."

Kerr says his first impression of Houston was its strength as a B2B — especially as that pertains to its entrepreneurs.

"There are a lot of people who are experienced in their career, maybe with a technical background, and are looking to build a business going after some problem that they see," Kerr says.

In a similar vein, Houston's corporate involvement with its startup ecosystem has been a big indicator of opportunity.

"One of the things we've identified as a strength in a lot of the middle America ecosystems is if they get the corporations involved, then that is a good marker for success, especially if you have some of the other ingredients involved," Kerr says.

Houston Exponential, which Kerr says has been helpful in allowing Flyover to tap into the ecosystem — especially in times like these — has also demonstrated Houston's strength as a B2B community with deep corporate connections.

And Flyover isn't the only VC firm that HX has seen interest from recently. This month, HX has planned more immersion days — where it connects VCs to startup development organizations and startups across town — than it's ever had in a single month, says Harvin Moore, president of HX. The immersion days will be happening completely online.

"It's clear from the indication that we get from VCs and angel networks that people are saying, 'Okay, we need to be looking for new deals,'" Moore says.

For Flyover Capital, Kerr describes the VC as "active, but of course cautious" when it comes to investing in new deals in the current economic environment.

"We're not alone in saying we're actively investing," Kerr says. "I think I've seen some surveys that 60 or so percent of investors are saying they're staying the course."

In fact, finding a positive spin, Kerr says the pandemic has had a "moderating effect" to the investment environment. "Rounds were happening in some cases in a crazy manner," he says of pre-COVID conditions.

Plus, while he hasn't seen a huge change to valuations, the economic conditions caused by COVID-19 could correct some of the over-valuations on the coasts.

"As unfortunate as these times are for lots of people, this is where many companies ultimately find their footing and success," Kerr says.

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Building Houston

 
 

UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

The University of Houston is taking a bold step — or, in this case, roll — in foodservice delivery. UH's Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership is now deploying a robot server in Eric’s Restaurant at its Hilton College.

Booting up this new service is major bragging rights for the Coogs, as UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery.

These rolling delivery bots come from the state-of-the-art food service robot called Servi. The bots, created by Bear Robotics, are armed with LiDar sensors, cameras, and trays, and automatically return to their posts when internal weight sensors detect a delivery has been completed.

Not surprisingly, these futuristic food staffers are booting up plenty of buzz at UH.

“People are excited about it,” says Dennis Reynolds, who is dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and oversees the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Launching robot waitstaff at UH as a test market makes sense, he notes, for practical use and larger implications.

The Servi robots deliver food from the kitchen to the table. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

“Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” he says in an announcement. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”

Bear Robotics, a tech company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs, hosted a Servi showcase at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year. After seeing the demo, Reynolds was hooked. UH's Servi robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October.

Before sending the bot to diners' tables, the bot was prepped by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. That meant weeks of mapping, programming, and — not surprisingly — “test driving” around the restaurant.

Tanner even created a digital map of the restaurant to teach the Servi its pathways and designated service points, such as table numbers. “Then, we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything," he adds.

But does having a robot deliver food create friction between human and automated staff? Not at Eric's. “The robot helps my workflow,” Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s says. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”

Once loaded, the kitchen staff can tell the Servi robots where to take the dishes. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Reynolds believes robots will complement their human counterparts and actually enhance the customer experience, even in unlikely settings.

“Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds says. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”

To that end, he plans to use Servi bots in other UH venues. “The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds notes. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”

Critics who denounce robot servers and suggest they will soon displace humans are missing the point, Reynolds adds. “This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds says. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”

Servi bots come at a time of dynamic growth for Hilton College. A recent rebrand to “Global Hospitality Leadership” comes as the college hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation, which includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower. The student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a larger space with plenty of updates. The neighboring Eric’s Club Center for Student Success helps with recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services, and career development.

“To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” Reynolds adds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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