money moves

Houston investor recovers from COVID-19 — then funds startups innovating solutions for the disease

Diane Yoo, who was hospitalized due to COVID-19 earlier this year, created a VC fund that's investing in health tech solutions for the disease. Photo courtesy of Medingenii

While so many of Houston's venture capital groups and entrepreneurs have been figuring out the best ways to navigate fundraising amid a pandemic, Diane Yoo managed to close an oversubscribed initial fund and deployed investments into health tech startups during COVID-19 — while also recovering from the disease itself.

Entrepreneur turned investor Diane Yoo launched her health tech-focused venture capital fund, Medingenii Capital, last year, but didn't start fundraising for its initial fund until this year.

Yoo says she and her partners, entrepreneur and investor Greg Campbell, neurologist Dr. Eddie Patton, Dr. Sreedhar Mandayam, and investor Gen Fukunaga, were virtually meeting with over a dozen potential investors weekly and closed the round in under two months.

It was right around closing when Yoo says she caught COVID-19.

"It ravaged every part of my body, and I ended up having to be hospitalized because I couldn't breathe," she says.

Yoo recovered after a month and a half of enduring the disease, only to come out of that experience to fund innovative Houston companies working on COVID-19 solutions. Medingenii focuses on early stage health tech, including genomics, health IT, medical devices, and patient engagement.

"The pandemic has really validated some of the business models we're invested in," she tells InnovationMap.

One example from Medingenii's portfolio is Houston-based medical device company, Vitls. The company's technology includes a wearable device that can monitor vital signs and sync with a smartphone app and sends key information to doctors remotely.

As Yoo thinks back to her COVID-19 treatment, Vitls could have helped her and her fellow patients get out of the crowded hospital wing and home to recover sooner — with the peace of mind of remote care thanks to the device.

"When I was in the ER room, it was overcrowded," Yoo says. "If you were not seriously ill, they would dismiss you because there was just no room. But if you went home with Vitls, you could have sent all your vitals to your doctor from home."

Fueled by a mission to find more health tech solutions like Vitls and with the quick pace of her first fund — Yoo says she's already deployed the capital into Houston-based startups and is looking toward the second fund, which will again focus on Houston startups.

"We really love Houston," Yoo says. "We want to invest a lot of our fund here, and we continue to do that and plan to do that. We see a lot of opportunity in Houston and look forward to working with the innovation ecosystem here."

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Building Houston

 
 

Axiom Space — along with Collins Aerospace — are teaming up with NASA to create the next generation of astronaut gear. Image via NASA

Two startups — including Houston-based Axiom Space — have been tasked with helping NASA gear up for human space exploration at the International Space Station and on the moon as part of a spacesuit deal potentially worth billions of dollars.

NASA recently picked Axiom and Collins Aerospace to help advance spacewalking capabilities in low-earth orbit and on the moon by outfitting astronauts with next-generation spacesuits. While headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, Collins has a significant presence in the Houston Spaceport.

This deal will help support landing the first woman and the first person of color on the moon as part of NASA’s return to our lunar neighbor. The equipment also will help NASA prepare for human missions to Mars.

Under this agreement, NASA, Axiom and Collins “will develop advanced, reliable spacesuits that allow humans to explore the cosmos unlike ever before,” Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, says in a news release. “By partnering with industry, we are efficiently advancing the necessary technology to keep Americans on a path of successful discovery on the International Space Station and as we set our sights on exploring the lunar surface.”

Axiom and Collins were chosen under an umbrella contract known as Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services (xEVAS). The contract carries a potential value of $3.5 billion.

Michael Suffredini, co-founder, president, and CEO of Axiom, says his company’s “innovative approach to xEVAS spacesuits provides NASA with an evolvable design that enables cost-efficient development, testing, training, deployment, and real-time operations to address a variety of EVA needs and operational scenarios for a range of customers, including NASA.”

Axiom’s partners on this project are KBR and Sophic Synergistics, both based in Houston, along with Air-Lock, David Clark Co., Paragon Space Development, and A-P-T Research.

NASA says Axiom and Collins will own the spacesuits, and are being encouraged to explore non-NASA commercial applications for data and technology they co-develop with the space agency.

The EVA & Human Surface Mobility Program at the Johnson Space Center is managing the xEVAS contract.

NASA astronauts have needed updated spacesuits for years.

“The decades-old spacesuit designs currently in use on the International Space Station are well past their prime. NASA had been working on new suits and showed off a patriotic prototype of a moonwalking outfit — called the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU — back in 2019,” according to CNET.

A 2021 report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General called out delays in developing the spacesuits that would make a proposed 2024 human moon landing unfeasible, CNET says. Now, Axiom and Collins, instead of NASA, will create the spacesuits. Demonstration-ready spacesuits are supposed to be ready in 2025.

The spacesuit deal is the latest in a string of milestones for Axiom.

Axiom recently broke ground on its new headquarters at Houston Spaceport. There, the company will build Axiom Station, the world’s first commercial space station.

Axiom also recently welcomed home the crew of Axiom Mission 1 after their successful completion of the first all-private astronaut mission to the International Space Station. The crew came back to earth in a SpaceX capsule. The company has signed agreements with several countries, including Italy, Hungary, and the United Arab Emirates, for future space missions.

Axiom recently tapped Italian Air Force Col. Walter Villadei as its first international professional astronaut. He currently is being trained in Houston and will serve as a backup on Axiom Mission 2.

Founded in 2016, Axiom employs more than 500 people, most of whom work in Houston. The company expects its workforce to exceed 1,000 employees by 2023.

To date, Axiom has raised $150 million in venture capital.

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