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Houston biotech company closes $120M Series B, Chevron taps local startup for program, and more innovation news

Houston-based Sensorfield was selected to participate in a Chevron Technology Ventures program. Courtesy of Sensorfield

Big things are happening in Houston — from a $120 million close to the U.S. Department of Energy picking a Houston-area company for nuclear energy research. Here are the highlights of Houston innovation news you might have missed.

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Houston immunotherapy company raises $120 million in funding

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AlloVir, a Houston biotech company founded at Baylor's Center for Cell and Gene Therapy, has closed a $120 million Series B round that was led by Fidelity Management and Research Company. Other contributors included Gilead Sciences, F2 Ventures, Redmile Group, Invus, EcoR1 Capital, Samsara BioCapital, and Leerink Partners Co-investment Fund, LLC.

The company is currently in clinical trials for its immunotherapy technology and also announced it is joining the ElevateBio — a Boston-based organization that combines a group of cell and gene therapy companies — portfolio.

"We are excited to now be building AlloVir as an ElevateBio portfolio company," says Ann Leen, AlloVir co-founder, CSO, and Professor of Pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, in a release. "This partnership provides AlloVir with fully integrated bench-to-bedside capabilities to accelerate the development and commercialization of our allogeneic, off-the-shelf, multi-virus specific T- cell immunotherapies."

Allovir, which until recently was known as ViraCyte, was founded in 2013.

Chevron taps Houston startup for pilot program

Photo courtesy of Sensorfield

Houston-based Sensorfield LLC, which has developed a suite of wireless sensors for industrial monitoring, has announced that it has been selected for Chevron Technology Ventures' Catalyst Program.

"Technology has finally reached the point where embedded solar-powered, plug-and-play industrial wireless sensors are possible at a low cost,'' says Sensorfield founder and CEO, Strode Pennebaker, in a release. "Our exciting new association with Chevron is a major step in our goal to bring cost-effective, high-quality intelligent remote monitoring to asset owners at any scale."

Department of Energy selects a Houston-area company for funding

Courtesy of the DOE

U.S. Department of Energy is awarding $10.6 million for nuclear technology development across three projects in three states — one is in Wadsworth, Texas, about 80 miles outside of Houston.

The company, STP Nuclear Operating Company, will receive $1.18 million in DOE funding, according to a release, to develop and implement advanced fire probabilistic risk assessment — or PRA — modeling techniques.

"These projects are important because they will help the U.S. continue to develop advanced reactors and technologies to support nuclear energy as a safe, zero-emissions baseload energy source," says Carrie Edwards, senior adviser for the Office of Nuclear Energy at the DOE, in an email.

Rice University launches executive education program in The Woodlands

Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business — in partnership with The Woodlands Area Economic Development Partnership — has created The Leadership Accelerator. It's the first time Rice has brought an open enrollment program to the area.

The program will take place from October 7 to 10 program at the former Chicago Bridge & Iron Co. office buildings in Hughes Landing (2103 Research Forest Drive). Professor Brent Smith will lead the course .

The four-day course will build upon established managers' careers and give them an opportunity to study best practices for creating a more productive organization.

Carnrite Ventures expands to Austin

Courtesy of Nick Carnrite

Houston-based The Carnrite Group's investment arm, Carnrite Ventures, has agreed to invest with Seraph Group. The partnership allows for the Houston VC group to expand its portfolio to Austin, as that's where Seraph's last fund focused on.

"Austin's venture capital funds have moved up-market to series B and C funding rounds, which has created a need for more capital in earlier stages and provides us with an opportunity," says Nick Carnrite, Managing Director of The Carnrite Group and Carnrite Ventures, in a release.

Houston scientifically-designed athleticwear startup launches men's line

Courtesy of Accel Lifestyle

Accel Lifestyle, a Houston-based athletic clothing line made with its patented anti-stink material, has launched its menswear line.

"After three years in the making, I'm beyond thrilled to announce that Accel Lifestyle Men's Collection has launched," says Megan Eddings, founder of Accel. "We are focusing on shirts (t-shirts and tanks), and we are planning to launch the women's collection late next month."

The products are made in America and all ethically sourced — even the product's shipping material, as it has zero plastic involved.

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Building Houston

 
 

AvidXchange executives explain why a crisis like the pandemic can provide opportunities for growth or realignment. Photo via Getty Images

From esports to telemedicine, some technologies are having a major moment during the COVID-19 crisis. As many businesses are operating remotely with work-from-home policies in place indefinitely, payments automation is another technology that's seen an opportunity amid the pandemic.

AvidXchange, which has invoice and payment processes automation software for mid-market businesses, is one of the companies in this payment automation space that's seen growth in spite of the economic downturn caused by the virus. The Charlotte, North Carolina-based company was founded in 2000 and went on to acquire Houston-founded Strongroom Solutions Inc. in 2015.

Since the acquisition, AvidXchange has quadrupled its presence in Houston and does a good deal of business locally. Equipping companies with tools for remote work is crucial — now and especially in light of Houston's propensity for challenges. Tyler Gill, vice president of sales for AvidXchange based in the Houston office and former CEO of Strongroom, joined Houston Exponential on a virtual panel to discuss this topic.

"We've had a history of disasters in Houston. Any time we can help businesses move to a more cloud-based infrastructure is going to be better," Gill says on the livestream. "I think working from home is maybe the new normal for a lot of employees — so how do we enable this?"

Gill and his colleague, Chris Elmore, senior sales performance director at AvidXchange, joined Joey Sanchez of HX for the talk about the acquisition, the pandemic, and growth for the company. If you missed it or don't have time to stream the whole conversation, here are some impactful moments of the chat.

“Economic downturns have a tendency to put a very bright light on a feature set or a product or a service that’s underperforming."

— Elmore says on how the pandemic affects innovation and startups. "My hope is that entrepreneurs will see this as a real time to get focused on their business — what's working well and what's not working well — and my hope is that they'll say, 'I need to fix that,' not 'I wish this was better,'" he says.

“For a young entrepreneur looking to build a business, make sure you’re looking for the people who are germane to your business.”

— Gill says about starting his business in Houston. At first, he was trying to find investors in oil and gas, but he found more success working with companies with a background in finance technology. "Houston has a history and density in fintech — I just had to find it."

“The fact that Strongroom owned the automated payment process in HOA that made them so attractive to AvidXchange because we didn’t.”

— Elmore says on the 2015 acquisition. He explains that AvidXchange had set up a presence in multifamily and commercial real estate, while Strongroom had a hold on homeowner's association, or HOA, business. The two companies competed for a while, and if Strongroom hadn't had their HOA specialty that made the company ideal for acquisition, Elmore says the two companies would still be competing today.

“When Strongroom was added to AvidXchange, our culture improved. By the way, we went from 40 employees to 1,000 within 14 months, and Strongroom was right at the beginning of that.”

— Elmore says on growth following the acquisition. The company now has 1,500 employees across seven offices and just closed a $128 million round of fundraising in April.

“Customers don’t care how big you get or how much money you raise from investors. They care about if your service is still doing the things they need to operate their business.”

— Gill says, reminding entrepreneurs to always prioritize and be focused on the client experience — through mergers or acquisitions, fundraising rounds, growth, etc.

“When you replace human interaction with technology, what you have to do, is to now move that person on to something more impactful and more important for the business. I don’t like tech for tech’s sake.”

— Elmore says on the importance of automation. "When you automate something, the output of automation is time," he adds.

“Houston couldn’t be a better place to build a business — I found great investors and employees here. It’s a city that’s used to risk. But it’s got to be you, the entrepreneur, that’s got something festering — that’s how you know it’s a great idea.”

— Gill says on inspiring future innovators. "What kept me motivated was I wanted to win. I felt like we had a great product, and we had a big market to serve. … I wanted to build something lasting and build a great team."

“We continue to be a great Houston story — some of my angel investors in Houston are still benefiting."

— Gill says on AvidXchange's presence in Houston. He adds that he's proud of how his former Strongroom team members have risen through the ranks of the company following the acquisition and that he sees the company, which is still privately held, moving toward IPO.

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