Follow the money

Leading venture capitalists forecast the future of funding in Houston

Venture capital panelists discussed Houston's venture funding future — both the good and the bad. Houston Exponential/Twitter

Despite Houston being known for its money, venture capital has struggled to hit its stride until recently. Now, as Houston has attracted more money for its startups — even coming close to Austin, according to recent data — the Bayou City faces a challenge ahead.

"We will go through a massive tech correction — period. End of story," says Blair Garrou, managing partner of Houston-based Mercury Fund, at the inaugural HX Capital Summit.

The correction, Garrou says, would have happened a few years ago, but Middle Eastern and Chinese investments have been holding down the fort, so to speak.

"Whenever this correction happens, whether it's a year, two years, or three years, [my hope is] that the capital here invests through the cycle," Garrou says. "Anyone who invests through the cycle will win."

Garrou was joined by a few other venture capitalists on the panel hosted by Houston Exponential at the TMC Innovation Institute on December 4: Tim Kopra, partner at Houston-based Blue Bear Capital; Mark Friday, associate at Houston-based Cathexis; Joe Milam, CEO of Austin-based Angelspan; Jay Zeidman, managing partner of Houston-based Altitude Ventures Texas; and moderator Rashad Kurbanov, CEO of Houston-based iownit capital and markets.

While the tech correction looms, Houston's current venture ecosystem blooms, thanks to a rise in high net worth personal and family investments.

"There's a real hunger from a lot of ultra-high net worth families to get into this sector, and it'd be really interesting if we can cultivate that here in Houston," says Kopra.

People have gotten more comfortable investing in tech, says Garrou, so the investment opportunities have grown.

"There's a greed component to it that people don't like to talk about," Garrou says. "When people see people making money in a certain sector, they say, 'why not me.'"

However, there are a few things holding back some investors. One being that companies from earlier venture funds have yet to reach their full potential, says Garrou, and he and other venture capitals need to move the needle on that to demonstrate success. He says, once that happens, more capital will flow.

Another hesitation Zeidman says he's seen is within investing in funds, rather than directly into startups.

"There's a difference in investing in companies and investing in funds," Zeidman. "I think a lot of folks are skeptical about investing in funds. I want to be in a deal — I don't just want to give you money and you go decide what to do with it."

Houston Exponential, the city-backed innovation arm for Houston, launched a fund of funds in October. The HX Venture Fund has the potential to create a "flywheel effect" in Houston, says Garrou.

"We're going to see dozens and dozens of funds from across the country come to Houston — they're already coming," Garrou says. "But what's important is they are going to want to co-invest with local investors, and that's the key to venture capital."

While encouraging out-of-city investors is a key part of the equation, Houston does stand well on its own, Milam says. Houston has historically been compared, perhaps wrongly, to Austin., because it got a head start when it came to startup growth. But it's a different story now.

"Austin isn't as advanced as people give it credit for," says Milam. "I don't think Houston at all has [to] look at Austin as a role model or for guidance. Houston has a far better and brighter future when it comes to mobilizing capital and Houston-born startups."

Ultimately, the panelists agreed that despite Houston's slow start and rough waters ahead, Houston's future is bright when it comes to venture capital and startup growth.

"When you look at Houston, we've got a huge economy here — a huge number of customers here," Friday says. "I think we can close the gap of the ratio the amount of venture and startup activity to the overall size of our economy."

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Building Houston

 
 

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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