Who runs the world?

Houston entrepreneur wants to pave the way for female-led startups and VCs

Allison Lami Sawyer is among the small population of female venture capitalists. Courtesy of Allison Lami Sawyer

It took her a second to be able to admit it, but Allison Lami Sawyer — a physicist by training and education — realized what her professional path was going to be when she was finishing up her MBA at Rice University.

"It took me a long time to say that I wanted to be an entrepreneur," she says. "There's just not a lot of little girls in Alabama, where I'm from, that are entrepreneurs. I never met a female tech entrepreneur until probably a few years into Rebellion."

Sawyer started her first company, Rebellion Photonics, when she was 24. The company's technology has cameras that see gas leaks before they cause explosions on rigs, refineries, and pipelines. She ran the company from 2009 to December 2017. She's still on the board of Rebellion.

Once she knew she should be an entrepreneur, she was on the hunt for an idea before she met her business partner, Robert Kester, who was the CTO and co-founder at Rebellion.

"I looked at a few different technologies to commercialize and the one I decided on was a technology invented by a grad student at Rice University and he was our CTO.

Now, Sawyer is on to her next endeavor. She's co-founded a Houston-based seed funding firm called The League of Worthwhile Ventures with Roy Johnston. She uses her experience as a founder and raising money to lead the firm and provide resources for the startups. The company expects to close its first round of funding in the next quarter.

InnovationMap: What was it like moving on from Rebellion?

Allison Lami Sawyer: I think at first it was exciting. Entrepreneurs are not the kind of people who like to do the same thing for nine years, so I was finally like, "oh, thank God, something new," but at the same time, change is always scary. I have a very high threshold for change and uncertainty, an even for me it was scary. We had 40 employees in the Houston office — and more in Asia — and you get used to being so busy. It was weird having time again. I didn't take much time off because I knew what I wanted to do next.

IM: So, you know your The League co-founder Roy Johnston met at Rice, but how did you reconnect?

ALS: He had approached me and said, "hey, whenever you're free, I'd like to do a seed venture fund here in Houston and you'd be the perfect complement to do that." So, that was kind of in the back of my mind. Then I contacted him again, and told him we should do that and that the space I want to focus on is machine learning and artificial intelligence-enabled software companies. That's the space I saw blowing up. He was well versed in that, and had seen that come up. He has the traditional background, and I have the operational experience within machine learning, because that's what I've been doing this whole time. It's just one of those things where you couldn't have planned it, but it's been absolutely perfect.

We're going to start doing investments in the second quarter so we are already looking at deels coming in from all across the country — and even the world. It's the part I've always enjoyed the most: looking at business models, looking at strategy, understanding the business 101 and then merging that with hardcore tech. That combination is really exciting. We're going to look back at this time just like how we look back on the internet age and how it affected every industry. It's the same way it's going to be with machine learning and AI.

Within artificial intelligence, whoever makes the model first and grows it, will have the smarter model. There really is a first-to-scale advantage.

Roy and I have a personal preference for not sexy industries. I come from oil and gas, and he comes from Waste Management. Sexy tech in non-sexy industies is basically our M.O.

It's exciting to be enabling other entrepreneurs to go build really big companies. One of our reach goals for The League is to fund a unicorn. In home run of all home runs, one of them coming from Houston. We haven't had one i Houston before. We would love to be a part of that. Most of our investments will be outside of Texas, but we are already looking to do one Houston investment come secord quarter, so in our first set of investments, one will be from Houston. I love this city and it's fun to do our little bit to see the city grow, and then also to just have women investors.

About four years ago, I had a $10.5 million raise for Rebellion — about 100 meetings or phone calls, which is normal. I only had one meeting with a woman — and she wasn't even a decision maker.

The main way venture capital investments go is getting the warm introduction through your network. Seeing as 92 percent of VCs are guys, they're going to know other guys, that's their network. So, typically, who gets funding, is by no means even slightly a meritocracy. It's how good your network is. The philosophy around that to justify this is that CEOs need to know how to hustle, but what that doesn't acknowledge of basic barriers and systemic flaws. So, I'm excited to add one more female VC out there, join that network, and make my presence known so I can speak very openly on what I see as systematic issues

If we want more female founders, we will have to have female VCs. I would love for houston to be known as the best place in the world to be a female founder.

It's an all-women startup weekend. We're super proud of all the women. It's become this whole thing with a leadership committee and some of the big companies around town are sponsors. All our winners have gone on to raise millions in venture capital.

IM: With you and Ray both doing The League and Start Here Now, will the two ever be connected?

ALS: No, it's just a nonprofit we do. It's just the two of us and we have the same values. A lot of people are nice — most people are nice — but not a lot of people are actively kind, and we think to change some of these problems in venture capital is these proactive steps to change and one of these is giving up our time to do StartHereNow. Another concrete change we've made is you don't need a warm introduction to get a meeting with us. Absolutely anyone can submit their pitch to us on their website and either Roy or I will put eyes on it. We also do office hours — anyone in the community can come in, even if it's not a company we'd invest in. Anyone can come in on the second and fourth Thursdays from 4 to 5 pm, and we're there. Those are actually super fun. We had one female founder come in — and we have a really high bar, we're not going to invest unless we think you can have viral growth — with offers she already had and just wanted to see me to get my opinion on her term sheets. It was an absolute pleasure, and it was no skin off my back.

Is there some lesson you had to learn the hard way that now you're able to guide these women in their careers?

I think this all stems from when I was starting my company at 24. It was brutal, and it was very lonely to be a young female founder in oil and gas. That type of isolation takes the fun out of all this. You see the male founders having huge networks, and it took the joy out of founding a company. I don't want the female founders of today to have to go through that, because it didn't add any value. It was pain just for pain sake.

During my $10.5 million raise, I remember having a meeting with a big venture fund, and it was the fifth meeting, so it was serious. One of the men said, "hey I see you have a ring on your finger." And I said," Yeah, I'm engaged." He said, "What is your maternity plan?" And I said, "oh no, I'm not pregnant." And they were like, "But you will be." And it just changes the tone of the meeting. By the way, my co-founder is sitting next to me and he has three kids all really young, but that conversation never came up with him.

In many ways, we're a very traditional seed fund. We'll do our first close next quarter, and we'll continue to raise $50 mill throughout the rest of the year that we'll continue to raise the rest of the year. It's pretty traditional, but just by the nature of who we are, we're not that traditional.

We're getting to a point in machine learning where the tools are so cheap.

We want diverse deal flow — not just for diversity's sake, but because AI is going to affect every industry. I thin Houston has a real role to play in that. We'll see. I'm shocked we've never had a unicorn come out of here.

IM: With your connections in Silicon Valley, what do you bring to the table for your companies?

ALS: For a good venture capital firm, they they really good deal flow, and they pick the right ones and they exit, and there's a third step that regional firms don't have, and that's connections with later stage VCs. You need to be able to walk them in to those VCs, and I think that's what we offer.

I go out there every quarter, and I give updates on the companies we know we're going to invest in and I give updates on those companies so by the time the companies are ready to scale up, they've already heard about this startup. And I think that's why startup founders are interested in us.

IM: How are you different from other local VCs?

ALS: We're much more focused on user growth over earnings. In fact, if you're making a lot of profit, I wonder why. Let's put this back in the company and grow this thing. And I think a lot of Texas investors are very conservative, and really look for profit quickly, and that's not our end game initially. You need to have a business model that is capable of very large gross margins, but right now I want you to be funneling it back into the company and building your assets. And I can't even believe I have to say that. On the coast, that'd be a no brainer, but here that's what makes us a little different. We're much more a traditional California seed fund without the brofest.

IM: So, what's the significance of firm's name?

ALS: Well, some people think it has something to do with sports. But one of the hardest things about being an entrepreneur is the loneliness, and we don't want anyone to feel that way. We want to have a community. When you join The League, you're joining all of us. It's why we have a massive advisory board and corporations that have agreed to talk to our startups.

IM: What's been the reception of The League?

ALS: I'm actually a little shocked and thrilled to see how much interest we've gotten locally. We've had people reach out to us directly wanting to invest in our fund. I thought maybe Houston's market would be a little too conservative to want invest in a seed AI fund. I was wrong, and I couldn't be more delighted to be wrong. We are really pushing for as much as our investors to be in Texas because we think it's important for a community as a whole to invest in its innovation economy.

I will say that here I have to do a lot more education when I talk about AI. Because I don't really mean robots when I say AI. I mean is software able to make predictions. I think if I wasn't doing this I'd be a science teacher, so I do kind of like that. It's just a bit slower of a process.

IM: Do you imagine The League stays just in Houston?

ALS: We do get asked sometimes about why we are staying in Houston, and it's tricky. We're getting pull, but as of now we are based in Houston. We probably will open a Silicon Valley office. It's really about where are investors are, so if we have most of our investors in Texas, we'll stay in Texas. And I'm southern, and you can't get good iced tea anywhere else.


Portions of this interview have been edited.

Steven Gonzalez wants to give NASA technology to startups for free. Courtesy of NASA

NASA has 1,400 technologies that are available for licensing across industries, but only 20 percent of those technologies have been licensed — traditionally by mid- to large-sized companies.

NASA Technology Transfer Strategist Steven Gonzalez, who's had a 30-year career at NASA at the Johnson Space Center, is responsible for moving these technologies out into the community. About four years ago, his department created a program to target startups and engage them with the organization's technology. Startup NASA is a program in which startups can license NASA technology for free for three years before the licensing fees kick in.

"We thought that once we created this program we'd have startups coming to break the door down to get these technologies, and that isn't the case," Gonzalez tells InnovationMap. "So, what I've been focusing on is trying to find was to connect to ecosystems across the country to introduce them to this program and our technology and find people who will be the bridge between us and these ecosystems."

All this month, with the world's focus on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, Gozalez is able to benefit from this momentum and reenergized focus on space. He spoke with InnovationMap about his career in space and the future Houston will play in the next 50 years.

InnovationMap: What initially got you interested in space and how did it turn into a career?

Steven Gonzalez: Star Trek, the original series. I had the desire to be Captain Kirk and be on the Starship Enterprise. I was born in New York, and raised in the Northeast. In 8th grade, I already had the bug to go to NASA and be the first in my family to go to college. I remember having all my classes picked out with college course credit, and — by this time we had moved to New Jersey, and we were only the second Spanish family there — the guidance counselor looked at my schedule and told me I would be better going to autoshop.

I went to Boston University and then got my master's at Texas A&M University. Right after A&M, I started at the Johnson Space Center in 1988, and I was working in mission control bringing in new technology. I remember getting there and expecting to see something along the lines of the Starship Enterprise, and it looked the same as it did from the Apollo timeframe. After that, I trained astronauts for a couple years before going back and working to bring the new control center online. The Houston Chronicle compared it to the tech on the Starship Enterprise, and I finally felt like I had arrived.

IM: From your strategic roles to now managing technology, what are some of the challenges you've faced in your NASA career?

SG: I looked at the 20-year strategy for the Johnson Space Center and how to get it positioned for the growth of commercial and international space. It was a great role, and the challenge for NASA predicting a long-term strategy was that every four or eight years, we get a new president, and when we get a new president, we get a new direction. We did all this strategy planning and using all the tools — this was in 2006 before we knew what Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos were up to — and we said that over 20 years, we predicted that the commercial market would grow and our role would have to shift. That was a hard message to swallow at that time when we had so much going on.

After working in strategy, I shifted to focus on partnerships, and now my role is technology transfer. After most of my career focused on impacting life space, now this last part of my career is focused on impacting life here on earth. My role now is to move technology out and find technology to bring in — mostly moving technology into startups around the country.

Now, my challenge in my role of moving technology out is that, especially when we go to startups, people think of NASA technology as being space technology. But, of our 1,400 technologies we have, so many of them have already impacted all different industries. So, trying to get people to figure out how to connect to the startup ecosystems is another challenge.

IM: What's been the effect on NASA now that commercialization has ramped up?

SG: First, we were created with a two-fold mission — to explore and to benefit humanity. From day one we have been moving our technology out. Unfortunately, we at NASA have the reputation of giving to the world Tang and Velcro, and neither one of that is true. The reality is so much more fantastic. The camera on our phones and LASIK came from NASA technology. There's a technology I love to talk about. We were working with Texas Children's Hospital, and they had a challenge of moving premature infants from room to room. The gurney would vibrate quite a bit and hurt their internal organs — some would even pass away from this. Our astronauts train two to three hours a day to keep their muscles and bones up and running, so they exercise on treadmills and bikes on the space station. Left unchecked, those vibrations from the equipment would ruin the experiments on the space station. So, we have the technology and expertise here in Houston that we worked with TCH and created a carrier that allows these children to be transferred without any harm to them.

The second part is that our technology is seeding this new commercial space market. Back in the '90s here in Houston, we developed a technology that was an inflatable habitat. When we send astronauts to the moon or mars, they need a spacious habitat that isn't too heavy to be transported via spacecraft. So, we created that technology, and Bob Bigelow, who owns a bunch of hotels and wanted to have the first hotel in space, long story short, he licensed our technology, created this hotel that's circling space and waiting until Uber can transport his paying customers up there. In the process, he thought that NASA and the ISS can use it in the meantime. So it's a technology we started, but we didn't have to commercialize it, someone else did the full development of it.

IM: So, it sounds like it's much more collaborative of a relationship between NASA and commercial entities than it is competitive, would you say?

SG: I'm glad you brought that up. A lot of times people think it's a competition. In the 1960s, it was a competition between us and the Russians. Then, the space station became this collaborative community. With the commercial market now, people keep talking about it being a competition, but in reality we need one another. We have 60 years of history that they can stand on and they are doing things differently that we're learning from. Also, we still are doing things that are tougher to make money on. We do things that has no return on investment, and the commercial companies are focusing on things they can make a market for.

IM: What role do you see Houston playing in the future of space?

SG: Right now, it's a bit premature to really talk about anything, but we're in conversations with various startup organizations about growth and collaborations. Between NASA, the Houston Spaceport, and the annual SpaceCom, Houston in an incredible position to be the hub for this growing, trillion-dollar commercial space market. Through events like SpaceCom, we are a hub for a lot of international activity. Houston already being a hub for international travel and business already, it could be an international gateway for the space industry.

IM: What does Space City Month mean to you and the city of Houston?

SG: We've always been the Space City, but for a while there, it was taken for granted. It's part of our history, but it's nice to see it brought back into the foreground to realize that it's not just history, it's who we are today. It's been better over the past few years as we've seen this conversation increasing. This anniversary is bringing back to the forefront how Houston embraces space for the future.