Q&A

Houston Exponential leader looks to increase local startup investment through 2022

Serafina Lalany of Houston Exponential sits down to discuss he ambitious investment-focused plans for Houston innovation. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Serafina Lalany is known to crunch the numbers. In her role as executive director of Houston Exponential, which she's held since September, she keeps a close eye on venture capital activity in Houston.

"Following VC data is the closest proxy to other data that is often hard to collect. It actually gives us a sense of the growth over time of the ecosystem," Lalany tells InnovationMap. "Also, it gives us the signal as to like what our strengths are and the areas that we need to continue to build out infrastructure."

This year, Lalany and her team at HX aren't just watching the numbers — they hope to make an impact on the VC activity in Houston with more of their VC immersion days. For those, HX and its partner Republic, a startup investing platform, find local startups and connect them with visiting venture capital firms in hopes to generate investment.

Lalany discusses more of her plans for HX for 2022 and shares how the organization is evolving to be what Houston's innovation ecosystem needs in an interview.

InnovationMap: You’re starting your first full year as executive director of HX — what are you most excited about for 2022?

Serafina Lalany: In my eyes, I think 2022 presents a really interesting opportunity. Just looking back the last year, we had a lot of successes as a collective community. For the first time we saw the rise of more than one unicorn. Outside of High Radius, we've seen Cart.com launch and expand and become a behemoth. We've seen Axiom Space make some cool, critical hires and attract talent from New York City and other high growth companies. We've seen the expansion of companies like Capsule, ClassPass, and GoPuff to the Houston region. We're starting to see some really positive signals here, but also what we're excited about at HX is that over the last two years, entrepreneurship as itself has become a lot more accessible.

We've seen the demographics of entrepreneurs rapidly change. The average founder is a lot younger now, and there are many reasons as to why that's happening. In the knowledge economy, there's a lot more resources available to you as the world switched to completely digital. Suddenly, we found a lot more time on our hands, and the proliferation of things like no code tools helped to launch companies. We've seen probably the highest concentration of early stage companies in Houston to date.

There's something interesting happening on the ground, and that plus the global attention Houston starting to get as a climatetech leader, as a health tech leader, aerospace commercialization — people are starting to recognize what a force Houston is to reckon with. Looking into 2022, I think we'll be elevating Houston on a more global scale.

IM: How has HX evolved since its inception and where is the organization at today?

SL: The interesting thing of being an organization of ex-startup operators is that we operate as a startup ourselves. Along the journey of supporting and building infrastructure for a startup community, we have also been seeking our own product market fit. I think we're at the place now where we have a profound realization of what that is and who we serve. We have crystal clear vision around that.

We exist to position Houston as one of the best places to launch and scale a company. We serve entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs in Houston. We do that in many ways. Of course, most of the community recognizes HX through efforts like the Houston Tech Rodeo, but we're also working on opportunities and initiatives to help lower the barrier of entry for entrepreneurs in Houston. So things like VC immersions, which which allow access to capital in ways that weren't previously accessible. And definitely ramping up our efforts around reporting marketing and media, helping to shine a brighter light on our city. There's more to come as we get into this new year.

IM: Tech rodeo is coming back in a couple of months. What’s should people know about this year’s experience?

SL: A lot has changed this year. We listened to feedback from the attendees last year, which was our highest attended event to date. About 8,600 people came out last year, which blew our expectations out of the water. Having it as a hybrid made lot more accessible to people even outside of the region. This year we learned that from previous years having 130 to 170 events across the week is awesome, but it also forces people to make hard decisions sometimes. So, we're centralizing all of our events downtown on Main Street. We've actually partnered with METRO, and there will be 20 official saloons for Houston Tech Rodeo all along the light rail. Monday through Sunday (Feb. 28 through March 6), We're activating all of downtown and it'll look and feel a lot like SXSW. People will be walking from venue to venue,and we have a few thematic focus areas — health tech, aerospace, climatetech, but also emerging sectors like CPG, which I think we need to give more credit to in Houston.

IM: Last year, you introduced a partnership with Republic. What instigated this collaboration and what's been the impact so far?

SL: Inspiration for partnering with the Republic actually came out of our internal discussions around the time of the transition where we assess that VC immersions program is one of the most vital programs for our ecosystem because it helps lower the barrier to entry for startups seeking capital, especially for their first round of institutional capital. We have seen lots of positive signals over the last like 18 months of having done this gram. We have seen about 1,500 applications come through, 150 or more meetings were facilitated, and $35 million of capital was deployed to those companies. Our number one challenge is scaling — it was really just time and resources. As you can imagine, looking through those applications and the communication with the companies, it takes a considerable amount of time.

So, what we really needed to help us scale was additional venture analysts to look through those applications. Almost serendipitously as we were discussing the program with one of our friends, Abe Chu of previously NextSeed now Republic, we found that there's actually a lot of synergy here. They certainly have the capacity to look through applications — they've got a whole venture team — and we have the reach in the community. We work across the entire region. It ended up being a really cool collaboration. Now with their help, we can actually serve more entrepreneurs and more investors.

With this new model, where we're bringing in five to 15 investors to the city each quarter. Instead of those investors meeting with one founder, as they often do when they're in town, they're meeting with five to 15 founders. It's reducing friction for outside investors — that trip to Houston is very impactful, very busy, but very impactful. For the startups, it's really a great way to get the face time with investors that they can potentially be working with.

IM: HX has made some recent hiring moves — what were your goals in those strategic hires and are still growing your team?

SL: We made two critical hires in the last 30 or so days. One is our new director of inclusive innovation — that's Ivery Boston III. He actually was in the Miami ecosystem on Mayor Suarez's task force, so he's seen it all. We're really grateful to have that institutional knowledge here in Houston, but, more importantly, I think Ivery brings a really interesting perspective to the team and helps to fill a gap in our ecosystem today. I think we all realize and value the diversity in Houston, and how that is a core strength of our community. But we also have to be mindful about creating on ramps for underrepresented communities as well as we build and accelerate our tech economy in Houston.

Part of his responsibilities will be working directly within these communities and alongside these communities to help ensure that all HX activities are of course are built with an inclusive mindset, and they're taking considerations from the community in mind as well as we develop them out. This is all for the goal of helping to create the most equitable startup community we've seen in the country. To our benefit of being a last mover, an advantage, of which there are few, is that we actually get to do things hopefully in a much better way than we've seen on the coasts.

As far as future hires, I think this is pretty much the core team we're looking at for the next 12 months.

IM: I know something super important to you has been tracking venture capital activity in Houston. Why has that been a metric your you've been closely watching throughout your time at HX and what does the data show?

SL: Following VC data is the closest proxy to other data that is often hard to collect. It actually gives us a sense of the growth over time of the ecosystem. It gives us insights into the rate of capital that is deployed and how that's growing over time and where it's getting deployed. Also gives us the signal as to like what our strengths are and the areas that we need to continue to build out infrastructure. Over the last few years we've noticed that there has been more attention around hard tech and in biotech. As ecosystem developers, we must ask ourselves, "do we have the entire life cycle of resources and infrastructure to support companies within those sectors along their journey to scale?" If the answer is no, then we run the risk of potentially losing that talent or losing those companies to other places where there are supportive resources. So, it helps inform a lot of what we do. But it's also one of the few indicators of ecosystem growth in a way that is typically really hard to collect.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Building Houston

 
 

A Rice research team is tapping into materials science to better understand Alzheimer’s disease, a UH professor is developing a treatment for hereditary vision loss, and a BCM researcher is looking at stress and brain cancer. Photo by Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University

Research, perhaps now more than ever, is crucial to expanding and growing innovation in Houston — and it's happening across the city right under our noses.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of research news, three Houston institutions are working on life-saving health care research thanks to new technologies.

Rice University scientists' groundbreaking alzheimer's study

Angel Martí (right) and his co-authors (from left) Utana Umezaki and Zhi Mei Sonia He have published their latest findings on Alzheimer’s disease. Photo by Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alzheimer’s disease will affect nearly 14 million people in the U.S. by 2060. A group of scientists from Rice University are looking into a peptide associated with the disease, and their study was published in Chemical Science.

Angel Martí — a professor of chemistry, bioengineering, and materials science and nanoengineering and faculty director of the Rice Emerging Scholars Program — and his team have developed a new approach using time-resolved spectroscopy and computational chemistry, according to a news release from Rice. The scientists "found experimental evidence of an alternative binding site on amyloid-beta aggregates, opening the door to the development of new therapies for Alzheimer’s and other diseases associated with amyloid deposits."

Amyloid plaque deposits in the brain are a main feature of Alzheimer’s, per Rice.

“Amyloid-beta is a peptide that aggregates in the brains of people that suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, forming these supramolecular nanoscale fibers, or fibrils” says Martí in the release. “Once they grow sufficiently, these fibrils precipitate and form what we call amyloid plaques.

“Understanding how molecules in general bind to amyloid-beta is particularly important not only for developing drugs that will bind with better affinity to its aggregates, but also for figuring out who the other players are that contribute to cerebral tissue toxicity,” he adds.

The National Science Foundation and the family of the late Professor Donald DuPré, a Houston-born Rice alumnus and former professor of chemistry at the University of Louisville, supported the research, which is explained more thoroughly on Rice's website.

University of Houston professor granted $1.6M for gene therapy treatment for rare eye disease

Muna Naash, a professor at UH, is hoping her research can result in treatment for a rare genetic disease that causes vision loss. Photo via UH.edu

A University of Houston researcher is working on a way to restore sight to those suffering from a rare genetic eye disease.

Muna Naash, the John S. Dunn Endowed Professor of biomedical engineering at UH, is expanding a method of gene therapy to potentially treat vision loss in patients with Usher Syndrome Type 2A, or USH2A, a rare genetic disease.

Naash has received a $1.6 million grant from the National Eye Institute to support her work. Mutations of the USH2A gene can include hearing loss from birth and progressive loss of vision, according to a news release from UH. Naash's work is looking at applying gene therapy — the introduction of a normal gene into cells to correct genetic disorders — to treat this genetic disease. There is not currently another treatment for USH2A.

“Our goal is to advance our current intravitreal gene therapy platform consisting of DNA nanoparticles/hyaluronic acid nanospheres to deliver large genes in order to develop safe and effective therapies for visual loss in Usher Syndrome Type 2A,” says Naash. “Developing an effective treatment for USH2A has been challenging due to its large coding sequence (15.8 kb) that has precluded its delivery using standard approaches and the presence of multiple isoforms with functions that are not fully understood."

BCM researcher on the impact of stress

This Baylor researcher is looking at the relationship between stress and brain cancer thanks to a new grant. Photo via Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

Stress can impact the human body in a number of ways — from high blood pressure to hair loss — but one Houston scientist is looking into what happens to bodies in the long term, from age-related neurodegeneration to cancer.

Dr. Steven Boeynaems is assistant professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor College of Medicine. His lab is located at the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital, and he also is a part of the Therapeutic Innovation Center, the Center for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases, and the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor.

Recently, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, awarded Boeynaems a grant to continue his work studying how cells and organisms respond to stress.

“Any cell, in nature or in our bodies, during its existence, will have to deal with some conditions that deviate from its ideal environment,” Boeynaems says in a BCM press release. “The key issue that all cells face in such conditions is that they can no longer properly fold their proteins, and that leads to the abnormal clumping of proteins into aggregates. We have seen such aggregates occur in many species and under a variety of stress-related conditions, whether it is in a plant dealing with drought or in a human patient with aging-related Alzheimer’s disease."

Now, thanks to the CPRIT funding, he says his lab will now also venture into studying the role of cellular stress in brain cancer.

“A tumor is a very stressful environment for cells, and cancer cells need to continuously adapt to this stress to survive and/or metastasize,” he says in the release.

“Moreover, the same principles of toxic protein aggregation and protection through protein droplets seem to be at play here as well,” he continues. “We have studied protein droplets not only in humans but also in stress-tolerant organisms such as plants and bacteria for years now. We propose to build and leverage on that knowledge to come up with innovative new treatments for cancer patients.”

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