Topl the world

Houston blockchain startup closes oversubscribed seed round of funding with local investors

Houston-based Topl has raised over $700,000 in its seed round. Getty Images

Kim Raath is pretty proud of her company right about now. Not only is she proud that her startup, Topl, a blockchain network with applications across industries, closed a 20 percent oversubscribed $700,000 seed round, but because she did it in a way that was directly in line with her company's values.

"Every investor that is invested now has focused on both the purpose and the profit, and I'm big on that," Raath, president and co-founder of Topl, says.

Houston-based Topl was created by a few Rice University graduates and doctoral students — Raath, Chief Technology Officer James Aman, and CEO Chris Georgen. The founders wanted to create a way to track impact in various industries, such as carbon footprints in oil and gas or fair wages for farmers in agriculture.

The team has built six blockchain platforms that operate on the Topl network — two are live now, and four will go live later this year. The platforms are focused on four different areas: agriculture (tracking food products from the farm to the shelves), mining (diamonds, for instance), sustainability and impact (tracking a program to see how it succeeds), and carbon credits and renewables within the energy industry.

"It's a validation time for us," Raath tells InnovationMap. "With two platforms already live and collecting transaction fees, we are now at a point where there are actual blockchain transactions happening on our network."

The fact that Topl's technology is already up and running is rare. For this reason, Raath says she has to focus a lot on educating investors, clients, and the rest of the community — something that's really important to her.

"In the blockchain space, there are not a lot of real applications live anywhere," Raath says. "A lot of people are selling ideas that can be built on blockchains, but have not executed yet."

Topl partnered with European NGO Fairfood to create an agricultural blockchain platform that currently is live. Shoppers in the Netherlands can buy a pack of nutmeg and track the product's progress from the farmer who grew and sold the spice. The other already launched platform is focused on sustainability. Topl worked with the Texas Coastal Exchange to create a carbon credit marketplace that can sell carbon offsets generated through the natural carbon sequestration activities of land the organization holds along the Texas coast.

"For us this round is taking these four spaces and validating ourselves, proving out volume, the blockchain's ability, and then, the big thing is, to build out our next version of our blockchain," Raath says.

Raath says the fundraising round was different from what she expected, but she's excited about her investors. Seventy percent of the round was raised by Houstonians, and 40 percent of the investors were women, she says. Topl also had investor interest across industries and backgrounds — from Rice University professors to former banking execs.

The round doesn't technically have a lead investor, but Samantha Lewis, director at the GOOSE Society of Texas, led a syndicate of investors that made up more than 40 percent of Topl's round. Lewis says the round was too early stage for something GOOSE investors would typically contribute to, but she believes in the company so much that she worked nights and weekends to accomplish some of the things a lead investor would do during a raise.

"Since this was their first big round that they raised, I stepped in to help advise them — thinking about the terms, strategic investors, how to pitch to different people, if they needed to oversubscribe, and little details like that," Lewis says. "Through working with them in this way, I was doing diligence with them, and I got really excited about it."

Lewis, who volunteers a lot within the Rice network, met Raath through Georgen and the two hit it off. Lewis was then able to bring in investors from her network to contribute under her syndicate.

This passionate group of value-add investors who are personally committed to the company is what makes this seed round different for Raath. Their commitment is encouraging to her.

"I 100 percent believe that the investors in this round will not allow Topl to fail," Raath says.

With the money, Topl will be able to grow its platforms, provide better product features, and increase marketing efforts. Topl's customers are drawn to the technology because of the business efficiency the blockchain adds to their supply chain, but they are also excited about how having this technology differentiates them from their competition. Raath says she's interested in growing Topl's ability to do joint marketing campaigns with their customers.

This type of promotion leads to a growing clientbase, and Raath says she sees an overwhelming interest from potential clients. Not only is Topl creating a series of platforms in various industries, but the company itself is connecting other companies through their clients.

"Topl is not just a technology," Raath says, "it's an ecosystem."

At Houston Exponential's second annual HX Capital Summit, four Houston entrepreneurs turned investors discussed their lessons learned. Getty Images

One way to evaluate a city's innovation ecosystem is by the number of successful exits they've had. From startups being acquired by big companies to bringing in a private equity partner, exits can put a city on the map.

Houston has quite a few exits under its belt, and some of those entrepreneurs have stayed in town to fund future success stories. At Houston Exponential's second annual HX Capital Summit, four entrepreneurs discussed their exits, providing key lessons learned for entrepreneurs.

Houston has some perks. 

One thing moderator Samantha Lewis, director at the GOOSE Society of Texas, asked each panelist was what made each entrepreneur start their companies in Houston — and furthermore, what made them stay here after their successful exit.

Panelist Ashok Gowda co-founded and served as COO at Visualase Inc., a real-time tissue monitoring system that exited to Medtronic for over $100 million. He now leads Biotex, a Houston-based medical technology investment firm and accelerator, as president and CEO.

For Gowda, Houston was obviously a key market for med tech, but it provided something even more once he reached the commercialization phase of a product.

"From a commercial standpoint, once the technology became commercial, it was an ideal location," Gowda says. "We were traveling all across the US, and it was a nice hub. We're right in the center of the country, and you can get to either coast very quickly."

The panel also agreed that the quality of life in Houston played a major role in settling down.

You might need to rethink your executive team. 

The panel full of venture capitalists of course touched on the ability to fundraise in Houston, as each panelist had been on both sides of the table. For Gowda, it's pretty simple.

"If you're struggling to raise money, you either have a bad idea or the wrong team," he says, adding that if you really believe in your idea, take a good hard look at who's at the leadership level of your team.

Talent is still a challenge in Houston.

Of course, if you do identify a problem within your team, finding the right leader for your technology might be difficult in Houston.

Keith Kreuer, who was also on the panel, is principal at RedHouse Associates, a group of angel investors that invest like a find would, but without having a fund. Between Kreuer and his team, they were involved in 10 startups before forming the investment group.

"We could find developer and sales talent here, but to get to that higher executive talent, we had to go out to other places," Kreuer says.

However, not all of the panelists agreed that talent was a major challenge they faced. Some noted that they got lucky with the talent they found.

Don Kendall, CEO of Kenmont Capital Partners, came to Houston to run a power company and family office. He turned $100,000 into $1.6 billion and now is a member of GOOSE.

"We had no problem getting the engineering talent," Kendall says. "We really found Houston to be a good environment, and it's only just continued to improve."

Playing to Houston's strengths might be key to success.

For Gray Hall, managing director at Austin-based BuildGroup, which focuses on writing big checks to a small amount of software startups, he knew how to play to his company's and Houston's strengths.

Hall previously served as CEO of AlertLogic, which had a private equity exit in 2013, and Hall stayed on until 2018 as the company continued to grow. He also co-founded Veracenter, which had a strategic exit after growing to $80 million in annual revenue.

"The common theme across both companies and why we were able to grow is real simple: Customer and people," Hall says.

Houston might be one of the country's best kept secrets when it comes to midmarket activity, Hall notes — midmarket companies being defined as those with $50 million to $1 billion in revenue.

"What Houston doesn't get enough credit for is the midmarket in Houston, which I think is tremendous," Hall says. "It's as strong as anywhere else in the country."

AlertLogic was able to tap into this midmarket to quickly grow its client base.

Something else that differentiates Houston from other cities is its culture, which is less focused on the glitz and glam and more focused on hard work.

"Engage with people that have a credible story and a credible plan to solve a problem," he says.

Houston is growing. 

One thing each of the entrepreneurs agreed on is that the city is only growing its resources and quality of startups.

"I see Houston as sort of a startup in the startup world," Kreuer says. "And, what we're trying to do is grow and catch up to the West Coast and the East Coast, but I think Texas as a whole is going to be pretty powerful, and Houston is going to be a central part of that mainly because we have the markets here, and the people in the area and the talent to do that."

As Houston's success stories become more frequent, this provides an avenue for more entrepreneurs turned investors.

"When you've done it before, you've learned the lessons, and you feel like you can do it again and again," Gowda says. "That's what we're trying to do. You see all the possibilities here."