money moves

Houston small biz tech platform raises $21M series B

Hello Alice Co-Founders Carolyn Rodz and Elizabeth Gore recently raised funds to continue to grow their company that supports startups and small businesses. Photos via helloalice.com

A tech company focused on supporting and growing startups and small businesses has reached its own next big growth milestone this week.

Machine learning-enabled small business support company Hello Alice, founded in Houston with a large presence in California, has closed its $21 million series B raise led by Virginia-based QED Investors with participation from new investors including Backstage Capital, Green Book Ventures, Harbert Growth Partners, and How Women Invest.

The raise comes at a pivotal time for the company, which worked hard during the pandemic to support struggling business and now aims to support entrepreneurs of all backgrounds as the world re-emerges out of the COVID-19 era. The fresh funds, according to a press release, will be used to refine the predictive capabilities on its platform, launch a mobile application, and more.

"These investments signal that despite the recent challenges small business owners have faced, there is an economic tidal wave that will revitalize Main Street, led by the entrepreneurs we serve," says Elizabeth Gore, co-founder and president of Hello Alice, in the release.

Since April 2020, Hello Alice has granted over $20 million in emergency funds and resources for small business owners affected by the pandemic. According to the release, the largest percentage of those grants went to "New Majority owners," especially people of color and women. Additionally, the company has reportedly experienced 1,100 percent growth and has expanded to support 500,000 small business owners weekly, with an increased revenue of more than 600 percent through its SaaS platform.

"We are thrilled to have a cap table as diverse as the business owners we serve," says Carolyn Rodz, co-founder and CEO of Hello Alice, in the release. "Our investors are leaders from the Black, Hispanic, LGBTQ+, Women, and US Veteran communities. As a Latina founder and fellow small business owner, I want to ensure that as our company grows, we are fueling future diversity in capital and breaking through ceilings for the benefit of our community."

According to a recent report Hello Alice produced in partnership with GGV Capital, now is the time to support small businesses. The report found that 83 percent of owners surveyed (which included 97,739 founders operating in all 50 states) believe their business will perform better in 2021 than in 2020. Most of the founders — 93 percent — plan to hire this year compared to the almost half — 45 percent — that laid off employees in 2020. Additionally, founders have an increased focus on tech — 75 percent said they are going to spend more on tech this year compared to last.

"Small business owners are the backbone of the U.S. economy, but many fail before they've had an opportunity to meaningfully serve the community in which they're based," says Frank Rotman, QED Investors Founding Partner, in the release. "Access to both capital and business expertise remain the biggest obstacles for SMBs, challenges heightened for women- and minority-owned businesses.

"Traditionally, corporations and government grants want to engage and support, but there hasn't been a source of truth on who can qualify for their diversity grants, funds and programs," he continues. "Hello Alice solves this problem, building tools that empower the new majority and enabling corporations and governments to support SMBs. Founders Carolyn and Elizabeth and the entire Hello Alice team are having a real, tangible impact on the ecosystem. We are incredibly excited to help them help others."

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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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