Money moves

Houston sees significant jump in annual venture capital investments, according to new data

The city of Houston still lags behind Dallas and Austin when it comes to venture capital funds raised but did outshine compared to its 2018 numbers. Getty Images

While Houston fell behind Austin and Dallas when it came to amount of venture capital raised last year, the Bayou City still closed out 2018 with more funds raised than it reported in 2017, according to Crunchbase data.

Houston had a reported $372.8 million in investments in 77 known deals across 2018. In 2017, Houston had 95 deals reported but with a smaller total of funding dollars — $257.7 million — which gives Houston a 45 percent increase year over year.

Compared to other Texas metros, Houston still lags behind. Austin reported $1,285.5 million and Dallas companies had $601.8 million. These figures reflect only the reported deals to Crunchbase.

Photo via news.crunchbase.com

Even though 2018 overall shows Austin had a huge lead, in the third quarter of last year, Houston reported a similar amount of VC funds as Austin. In Q3, Houston startups pulled in $138.8 million — 39.2 percent of the state's entire VC funding — while Austin startups reported receiving $150.6 million — 42.6 percent of the funds, according to Crunchbase.

The fourth quarter was a slightly different story. Houston still edged out Dallas, but Austin took a significant lead. Houston had a reported $121.4 million from 11 reported VC deals, compared to Dallas' $101 million and Austin's $299.9 million. For Houston, the largest 2018 deal took place in Q4. Apex International, and oil and gas company, raised $75 million.

Austin-based Capital Factory's co-founder, Joshua Baer, tells Crunchbase that it will take some time for Houston's VC economy to catch up to Austin's, but that he doesn't think there's any reason it couldn't happen. Capital Factory, which has contributed to some Houston startups, recently announced it has preleased space in Houston-based The Cannon's new 120,000-square-foot space that's expected to deliver in spring.

Baer tells Crunchbase that Houston's biggest problem is access to venture capital — something that isn't rare of a problem at all. But Houston has a unique opportunity too.

"What Houston has that most places don't is a lot of corporate VCs," Baer says to Crunchbase. "Almost every energy company headquartered in Houston has a venture arm. They tend to fund companies that are Series B and later… so not the seed-stage stuff that is so popular in Austin and they do it all over the world, not just in Houston."

Five different Houston startups closed out 2018 with some funds. Here's how they plan to spend their investments.

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Building Houston

 
 

This UH engineer is hoping to make his mark on cancer detection. Photo via UH.edu

Early stage cancer is hard to detect, mostly because traditional diagnostic imaging cannot detect tumors smaller than a certain size. One Houston innovator is looking to change that.

Wei-Chuan Shih, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, recently published his findings in IEEE Sensors journal. According to a news release from UH, the cells around cancer tumors are small — ~30-150nm in diameter — and complex, and the precise detection of these exosome-carried biomarkers with molecular specificity has been elusive, until now.

"This work demonstrates, for the first time, that the strong synergy of arrayed radiative coupling and substrate undercut can enable high-performance biosensing in the visible light spectrum where high-quality, low-cost silicon detectors are readily available for point-of-care application," says Shih in the release. "The result is a remarkable sensitivity improvement, with a refractive index sensitivity increase from 207 nm/RIU to 578 nm/RIU."

Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

What Shih has done is essentially restored the electric field around nanodisks, providing accessibility to an otherwise buried enhanced electric field. Nanodisks are antibody-functionalized artificial nanostructures which help capture exosomes with molecular specificity.

"We report radiatively coupled arrayed gold nanodisks on invisible substrate (AGNIS) as a label-free (no need for fluorescent labels), cost-effective, and high-performance platform for molecularly specific exosome biosensing. The AGNIS substrate has been fabricated by wafer-scale nanosphere lithography without the need for costly lithography," says Shih in the release.

This process speeds up screening of the surface proteins of exosomes for diagnostics and biomarker discovery. Current exosome profiling — which relies primarily on DNA sequencing technology, fluorescent techniques such as flow cytometry, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) — is labor-intensive and costly. Shih's goal is to amplify the signal by developing the label-free technique, lowering the cost and making diagnosis easier and equitable.

"By decorating the gold nanodisks surface with different antibodies (e.g., CD9, CD63, and CD81), label-free exosome profiling has shown increased expression of all three surface proteins in cancer-derived exosomes," said Shih. "The sensitivity for detecting exosomes is within 112-600 (exosomes/μL), which would be sufficient in many clinical applications."

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