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

 
 

This UH engineer is hoping to make his mark on cancer detection. Photo via UH.edu

Early stage cancer is hard to detect, mostly because traditional diagnostic imaging cannot detect tumors smaller than a certain size. One Houston innovator is looking to change that.

Wei-Chuan Shih, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, recently published his findings in IEEE Sensors journal. According to a news release from UH, the cells around cancer tumors are small — ~30-150nm in diameter — and complex, and the precise detection of these exosome-carried biomarkers with molecular specificity has been elusive, until now.

"This work demonstrates, for the first time, that the strong synergy of arrayed radiative coupling and substrate undercut can enable high-performance biosensing in the visible light spectrum where high-quality, low-cost silicon detectors are readily available for point-of-care application," says Shih in the release. "The result is a remarkable sensitivity improvement, with a refractive index sensitivity increase from 207 nm/RIU to 578 nm/RIU."

Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

What Shih has done is essentially restored the electric field around nanodisks, providing accessibility to an otherwise buried enhanced electric field. Nanodisks are antibody-functionalized artificial nanostructures which help capture exosomes with molecular specificity.

"We report radiatively coupled arrayed gold nanodisks on invisible substrate (AGNIS) as a label-free (no need for fluorescent labels), cost-effective, and high-performance platform for molecularly specific exosome biosensing. The AGNIS substrate has been fabricated by wafer-scale nanosphere lithography without the need for costly lithography," says Shih in the release.

This process speeds up screening of the surface proteins of exosomes for diagnostics and biomarker discovery. Current exosome profiling — which relies primarily on DNA sequencing technology, fluorescent techniques such as flow cytometry, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) — is labor-intensive and costly. Shih's goal is to amplify the signal by developing the label-free technique, lowering the cost and making diagnosis easier and equitable.

"By decorating the gold nanodisks surface with different antibodies (e.g., CD9, CD63, and CD81), label-free exosome profiling has shown increased expression of all three surface proteins in cancer-derived exosomes," said Shih. "The sensitivity for detecting exosomes is within 112-600 (exosomes/μL), which would be sufficient in many clinical applications."

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