must be the money

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

 
 

Houston-based Adapt2 Solutions has created AI-backed technology to help energy companies make strategic predictions in these unprecedented times. Getty Images

Among the many complications presented by the coronavirus pandemic is coping with power needs. Movie theaters, malls, schools, and stadiums are among the places where energy use has been uneven at best. And the unevenness promises to continue as a lot of locations turn the lights back on but their operating hours remain in flux.

Houston-based Adapt2 Solutions Inc. believes its software can help energy companies power their way through the pandemic-driven haziness of power demand from commercial and residential customers.

"Today's energy companies need the speed and flexibility that cloud-native technology provides to fully leverage the massive amounts of data available to them," Jason Kram, executive vice president of Adapt2 Solutions, said in a December 2019 release.

Kram says that by capitalizing on artificial intelligence, machine learning, and cloud computing, his company's predictive analytics models forecast unexpected fluctuations in power capacity. Amid the pandemic, this technology enables energy companies to map out demand at a time when they're balancing strained revenue and squeezed spending is paramount, according to Kram.

Armed with this forecast data, Adapt2 Solutions' customers — including utility companies, energy traders, and power generators — can more easily plot power production, sales, and purchases, Kram tells InnovationMap. This data can be applied to conventional power, renewable energy, and battery-stored power.

"In times of disruption, big data can inform decision-making for energy companies to optimize energy-market operations with timely and reliable data," Kram says.

Adapt2 Solutions' load forecasting feature generates the predictive analytics models. This feature is embedded within the company's Adapt2 Bid-to-Bill flagship product, which helps energy companies manage front-office and back-office operations. Its other products are Adapt2 Green, designed for the renewable energy market, and Adapt2 Trade-to-Tag, aimed at improving management of energy trades.

"With Adapt2's AI-enabled solutions, we strive to help more customers focus on their core operations and bring business units together on a single platform to create an integrated approach," Kram says.

The company's customers include Consolidated Edison Inc. (ConEd), Duke Energy Corp., the East Kentucky Electric Cooperative, Exelon Corp., Invenergy LLC, Sempra Energy, the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Tyr Energy LLC, and Vistra Energy Corp.

Adapt2 Solutions employs about 40 people, Kram says, and plans to grow its revenue and headcount by 25 percent to 40 percent this year. He says Adapt2 Solutions has managed to turn a profit even though it hasn't taken any outside funding since Francisco Diaz founded the company in 2008.

In March, Inc. magazine placed Adapt2 Solutions at No. 222 on its inaugural list of the fastest-growing private companies in Texas. The company's revenue shot up 72 percent from 2016 to 2018.

"The growth in our business reflects a growth in our customers' business, further validating that we have taken the right steps to help energy enterprises better respond to market and technology changes," Diaz said in a March release.


Jason Kram is the executive vice president of Adapt2 Solutions. Photo courtesy of Adapt2 Solutions

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