Future funders

Houston fundraising platform launches for the next generation of investors

LetsLaunch, a new Houston-based fundraising platform, helps companies of all sizes get funding from any type of investor. Courtesy of LetsLaunch

Millennials are expected to exceed the Baby Boomer generation for the United States' largest living adult generation this year, and this massive population of people have a completely different approach to investing.

Nick Carnrite saw that Millennials were to a point where they had extra income, but when he looked at the statistics, he noticed they aren't buying houses for the most part and were turned off of the stock market. There was a huge amount of stranded capital, and he wanted to figure out how to get that invested into businesses.

"The younger generation isn't interested in typical investing, but they are absolutely interested in supporting their community and the businesses in it, especially if the investment lets them experience the business and come along for the ride if it works," Carnrite, who is the co-founder and CEO of LetsLaunch, says.

Houston-based LetsLaunch is a new investment platform that launched December 28, though has been in the works since January 2018. The site works, in many ways, like a crowdfunding site, only investors receive equity. Due to regulations, investment campaigns max out at around a million dollars.

In the past, entrepreneurs have had to seek out major investors through venture capitalists or large funds, since taking smaller investments is tedious and almost more trouble than its worth. However, LetsLaunch provides a platform where smaller investments are streamlined and encouraged.

"Our goal in all of this is just to take a complicated process and make it simple, the same way Turbotax takes something awful like taxes and makes it simple, we are trying to do that with investing," Carnrite says.

Investors don't have to be accredited or invest a certain amount of money — something that for so long has hindered startups' ability to raise money.

"For whatever reason, we've decided to alienate about 95 percent of Americans as far as being able to invest in private businesses," Carnrite says. "Finally, we're at the point where all of that capital that was stranded and not allowed in private companies is being funneled into that cause."

According to Carnrite and his associate, Rhian Davies, who is the company's director of business operations, the mission is to educate and simplify the investing process.

"For us, one of the things we're working on with other organizations is putting together a next-gen investor series, where we are teaching the next generation of investors how to invest and give them a platform to do it," Davies says.

Much like in a normal investment process, the companies provide a pitch deck for potential investors that outlines the business plan and scope of the company. The company simply creates an account and uses the website to develop those materials.

"We standardize that process, so from a user standpoint, everything looks fairly similar on our site and it's a pretty tried and true template," Carnrite says.

While LetsLaunch does its due diligence making sure the business is legitimate and makes sure the pitch deck is sufficient, the investors take it from there.

Since ease of access to funds is the top priority for LetsLaunch, the investment platform has a much lower fee for companies. While some crowdfunding platforms take 10 to 12 percent, LetsLaunch's fee is around 3 percent.

"We really want it to be simple and affordable to businesses and for investors as well," Davies says. "We maintain a much lower fee than other crowdfunding sites."

LetsLaunch will continue to fine tune its existing features on the site, while also adding more tools for businesses, including an iOS mobile app, which Carnirite says will be ready this year. In addition to fundraising tools, Carnrite wants to help their businesses after the campaigns with software that streamlines investor relations and reminds business owners of important deadlines.

"We want to evolve into a website that not only helps you raise capital for a company, but that also helps you run that company after your raise, Carnrite says."

While Houston is home base for the company, the team expects to expand to other markets where fundraising is hard, like Denver, Atlanta, Dallas, and more. Strategic partnerships are another opportunity for LetsLaunch, and the company expects to finalize some of those moving forward.

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Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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