Growing investments

Houston startup founder plants the seeds for innovative capital raising

Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed, wants to create a connection between business and their communities. Courtesy of NextSeed

After eight years as a private equity lawyer, Youngro Lee quit his job to start NextSeed, a digital avenue for businesses to raise capital from the community they serve.

"One thing that I always realized in my professional career is that private equity is not the stock market," Lee says. "It's only open to wealthy, accredited individuals. I didn't like that. I thought it was in inefficient process. It's really hard for entrepreneurs to raise money if it's only open to this small group of people."

Since its founding in 2015, NextSeed has helped dozens of companies — like restaurant group, Peli Peli, and brewery, Buffalo Bayou Brewing Co. — raise money online from individual investors.

"Our mission is to connect businesses and individuals to their communities," Lee says. "That's why our businesses and the people we work with are largely focused on retail or consumer-facing businesses. No matter how our company evolves, we will stick to that as much as possible."

NextSeed is expected to grow and evolve its services in the near future.

InnovationMap: What changed so that NextSeed could exist?

Youngro Lee: When the Jobs Act happened in 2012, essentially a series of laws allowed for online fundraising for companies — including to non-accredited investors. That really caught my eye. I decided to leave my legal career to leverage this new law to start NextSeed, which is a platform for businesses to raise capital for from anybody.

IM: What were your first steps in starting NextSeed?

YL: It was really just understanding the changing law to really come to the conclusion that this could work — and then understanding the parameters that need to be put in place to make it happen. And then there's no easy way to do it, so I just quit my jobs and went for it.

IM: How did NextSeed get its initial funding?

YL: We found angel investors to get the company started. As we made some progress over time, we found some other investors along the way.

IM: How is NextSeed different from anything else out there?

YL: For businesses, it's a completely different way to raise capital. We find businesses legally compliant ways to raise money and put it online, and they get to engage with the community through their page.

IM: How is it different from crowdfunding sites?

YL: There are so many different types of crowdfunding platforms. What we're doing is investment or securities crowdfunding. Kickstarter, for instance, is asking for support or donations with a reward, but NextSeed is allowing for investing in financial securities that's being issued by the businesses. Even amongst the investment crowdfunding platforms, there's usually a focus on specific assets, like real estate, tech startups, or small businesses — that's what NextSeed focuses on, small businesses debt securities.

IM: How do you get new clients and relationships?

YL: A lot of it really is people to people. Investors telling people about it, and businesses telling other businesses about a new way to raise capital.

IM: What do you wish you'd known before you started NextSeed?

YL: Nothing ever goes to plan. I think especially for startups, there's a lot of accomplished companies out there, and a lot will try to give you advice or support. It's helpful, but the reality is that circumstances of a startup is so unique that you really have to be flexible to the feedback from the market when you're starting your business or launching your product.

IM: How does Houston's startup community compare to other major cities?

YL: I think it's changed dramatically. When I started in 2014, there was nothing like what there is now. There was nothing like Station Houston or Houston Exponential. In general, the Houston community has really embraced and has an interest in what a startup is and how it can make a good impact on the Houston economy.

IM: How has startup funding changed throughout your career?

YL: There's definitely more people interested in investing in startups, but a lot of misconceptions on both sides — companies and investors — on what a startup needs in terms of support. It is a lot better now than it was four years ago. I think the key for Houston to understand is Silicon Valley is Silicon Valley. New York is New York. Houston's innovation ecosystem is really different from other markets. I think Houston needs to find what works for Houston and not necessarily replicate what other markets seem to be doing.

IM: What's a mistake you've made in your career and what did you learn from it?

YL: There's so many. One I made, and I keep making, is as a startup founder you're so used to doing everything in a specific way. I've definitely held on to more responsibilities or decisions that I should have delegated and entrusting others to do them. As you get to different stages as a startup you have to grow the organization. What I've learned from not being able to give up control or be more flexible is that it doesn't work. It's a team effort, and you need every member of the team to feel empowered and part of the entire process.

IM: How has NextSeed's team grown over the past four years?

YL: NextSeed started with three co-founders and now we have around 18 people. We are definitely still in transition process from a mature startup to an innovative financial institution. We are officially becoming a broker-dealer to be able to service a larger base — financial side, business side, as well as our investors. The goal was for NextSeed to keep innovating and bring in new technologies and processes

IM: What's next for NextSeed?

YL: Over the next couple month we will be expanding our capabilities to work on larger projects and different types of investment opportunities.

IM: What keeps you up at night, as it pertains to your business?

YL: As a startup, "almost good" doesn't work. You have to get it right because competition and standards are so much higher for startups. So, especially given that we are focused on technology and finance, I want to make sure we set ourselves up for a high standards and meet expectations.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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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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