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Houston-based venture firm closes recent fund and reflects on COVID-19's effect on investing

Two Houston venture capitalists weigh in on the state of startup investing in an economic climate recovering from the COVID-19 crisis. Getty Images

It's no secret that — in light of coronavirus-caused closures, market disruption, and historic unemployment — venture capitalist might be a little more hesitant to join in on a startup's investment round. Yet one Houston VC group has managed amidst the crisis — and even succeeded in closing its most recent fund.

Fitz Gate Ventures, which operates out of Houston but with the support of Princeton University, announced the closing of its Fund II on May 5. Focusing on seed and pre-seed rounds, co-founders and managing directors Mark Poag and Jim Cohen will be looking for startups across industries — usually with some revenue and customer base — to write around $500,000 checks to.

At a virtual panel event hosted by Houston Exponential, the investors say they have appreciated focusing on smaller deals in times like these — it's allowed them to work closely with their portfolio of 15 startups, two of which (Cheers and Spruce) have roots in Houston.

"We are definitely more hands-on with our founders," Cohen says on the panel, noting that it feels like they are having board meetings daily — virtually, of course.

Most of these meetings, Poag explains, are focusing on making sure the portfolio startups have enough runway with their cash reserves to make it at least through the end of the year without any new sales. Of course, that's meant cutting salaries and employees and finding other options to operate in a lean way.

Fitz Gate also has stayed in touch virtually with its Friends of Fitz group — a unique network of Princeton-related professionals (such as faculty, fellow VCs, domain experts, etc.) that give the investors and their portfolio companies a strategic advantage.

While the video conferences are useful to stay in touch with existing portfolio companies, Poag says he — as well as other VCs — might be wary of making new investments in this capacity.

"We haven't invested in any new companies since the COVID situation, but it will be interesting to see if we and other venture capital firms get comfortable with making investments without an in-person meeting," says Poag on the panel.

Generally, Cohen says he has observed a different investment environment since the beginning of March, and there's no clear indication when things will change.

"I think in the short-term, investing will be slower. Basically, people are still trying to figure out what's going on," Cohen says, noting how, in March, the tides seemed to change every 24 hours. "Now, things have started to slow down, but the ground is still shifting beneath our feet. I think most venture investors are proceeding cautiously."

Something else to keep an eye on, as the Fitz Gate founders have experienced, is that startups are making changes to their products in order to provide a more relevant offer to customers. One of the fund's portfolio companies is Houston-founded Spruce, which recently started offering disinfecting deals along with its concierge services to apartment dwellers.

"None of our companies have pivoted to change anything they are doing fundamentally to take advantage of the situation," says Cohen, citing some supply chain software startups and a charity-based startup that have also seen business success during the COVID-19 crisis.

However, approaching VCs for the first time is now a different story, amidst the crisis. While the Fitz Gate founders explain that they open and respond to every email inquiry from startups, that's not the case for most VCs who prefer a warm introduction — but maybe not even that considering the current economic climate.

"If you're approaching a venture investor today, you might get a bit of a weird look," Cohen says of startups looking to fundraise.

On the virtual panel, the duo shared some insight on their passion for venture funding, as well as some general advice for startups. One key takeaway from the investors was a reminder that most VCs are funding between 1 and 2 percent of deals that come across their table.

"Don't get discouraged," Cohen says. "Any venture fund you talk to, they're not geniuses. They are operating on very limited information about whatever it is you pitched them in a really short fashion."

While it is disheartening to hear a "no" from an investor, it doesn't mean the startup's idea or product isn't valid.

In wrapping up the call, Cohen remarks on the environment for Houston innovation. While he admits the ecosystem lacks access to funding, he observes that this will change in a matter of time.

"It's amazing how many startups in Houston — and the support infrastructure," Cohen says, noting startup development organizations like The Ion, The Cannon, and more. "So much going on in this ecosystem, so I think, in that sense, it's an incredibly vibrant place to be as a founder."

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Building Houston

 
 

Unlike past awards programs hosted by Ignite Healthcare Network, the Ignite Madness winners accepted their awards via video call. Photo courtesy of Ignite

From the comfort of their own homes, several female entrepreneurs accepted investment and pitch prizes at the finals of an inaugural awards program created by a Houston-based, woman-focused health organization.

Ahead of the Ignite Madness finals on Thursday, October 29, Houston-based Ignite Healthcare Network named nine finalists that then pitched for three investment prizes. The finalists included:

  • Eden Prairie, Minnesota-based Abilitech Medical — medical device company that creates assistive devices to aid those with upper-limb neuromuscular conditions or injuries.
  • New Orleans, Louisiana-based Chosen Diagnostics — a biotech company focusing on custom treatment. First, Chosen is focused on creating two novel biomarker diagnostic kits — one for gastrointestinal disease in premature infants.
  • San Francisco, California-based Ejenta — which uses NASA tech and artificial intelligence to enhance connected care.
  • Highland, Maryland-based Emergency Medical Innovation — a company focused on emergency medicine like Bleed Freeze, a novel device for more efficiently treating nosebleeds.
  • Columbia, Missouri-based Healium — an app to quickly reduce burnout, self-manage anxiety, and stress.
  • Farmington, Connecticut-based Nest Collaborative — digital lactation solutions and support.
  • Palo Alto, California-based Nyquist Data — a smart search engine to enable medical device companies to get FDA approvals faster.
  • New Orleans-Louisiana based Obatala Sciences — a biotech startup working with research institutions across the globe to advance tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.
  • Perth, Australia-based OncoRes — a company that's developing a technology to provide surgeons with real-time assessment of tissue microstructure.
The inaugural event that mixed health care and basketball — two vastly different industries with strong connections to women — attracted support from partners and sponsors, such as Intel, Accenture, Morgan Lewis, Houston Methodist, Johnson & Johnson Innovation, and more, according to Ayse McCracken, founder and board chair of Ignite.

"Our partners and sponsors are an integral part of our organization" says McCracken. "Without each and every one of them, the networks, resources, and commitment to advancing women leaders, we would not have grown so rapidly in just four years and our IGNITE Madness event would not enjoy this vibrant ecosystem that now surrounds female entrepreneurs."

First up in selecting their winner for their investment was Texas Halo Fund. Chosen Diagnostics took home the $50,000 investment.

"While we were impressed by everyone who pitched tonight, one company stood out to us," says Kyra Doolan, managing partner. "[Chosen Diagnostics] exemplifies what we are looking for: an innovative solution, a strong CEO, and a real addressable market."

The second monetary award was presented by Tom Luby, director of TMC Innovation. The award was an $100,000 investment from the TMC Venture Fund, as well as admission to TMCx. The recipient of the investment was OncoRes.

"We are absolutely blown away," says Katharine Giles, founder of Onco. "We've already got a great link to Texas and looking forward to more."

The largest monetary award that was on the table was presented by Wavemaker Three-Sixty Health, a leading Southern-California based, early stage venture capital firm, for $150,000. However, at the time of the announcement, Managing Partner Jay Goss decided to award four startups an undisclosed amount of investment. Goss says he and his team will meet with each company to establish an investment.
The companies that were recognized by Wavemaker were: Healium, Ejenta, Emergency Medical Innovation, and Nest Collaborative.
Lastly, Ignite itself had $27,500 cash awards to give out to the pitch competition winners. The funds will be distributed between the winners. OncoRes took first place, Abilitech came in second place, and Obatala Sciences took third place.

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