pitch perfect

Female founders win big at this Houston health tech pitch competition

Ria Health took home first place at the third annual Fire Pitch Competition. Courtesy of Ignite Healthcare

All it takes is a spark for something to ignite, and, at the third annual Fire Pitch Competition by the Ignite Healthcare Network, eight female founders set the stage on fire.

The Fire Pitch Competition first started in 2017 to shine a spotlight on female entrepreneurs in health care. With two successful events under her belt, Ayse McCracken says she knew she could do more to help these women with their business ideas.

"What we discovered is that it's not enough. Startups get to pitch all over, and they want to invest their time wisely," McCracken says. "And it's not enough for the rest of the ecosystem — the customers — and the investors want companies that actually are investable."

So, this summer, McCracken and her team launched a mini accelerator. Thirteen companies participated in the Fire Pitch Customer-Partner Program that matched the companies with potential customers, pilot opportunities, and more. Participating customer organizations have included Humana, Houston Methodist, Memorial Hermann Health System, Gallagher, Texas Children's Hospital, Texas Children's Pediatrics, DePelchin, Next Level Urgent Care, University of Houston College of Medicine, VillageMD, and The Menninger Clinic.

Then, eight finalists of the group were selected to go on to pitch at the Fire Pitch.

Also new this year: More cash prizes. In previous years, the Fire Pitch has around $20,000 on the table. This year's awards doled out $265,000 in cash and investment prizes to six of the eight companies that pitched. The panel of five judges included: Babs Carryer, entrepreneur, and director of Big Idea Center for the University of Pittsburgh's Innovation Institute; Tom Luby, director of the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute; Kerry Rupp, partner at True Wealth Ventures; Sarah Sossong, principal at Flare Capital Partners; and Andrew Truscott, managing director for Health and Public Service at Accenture.

Here's which companies took home prizes at the 2019 Fire Pitch Competition at the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute on October 17.

First place: Ria Health

Ria Health, a San Francisco-based elemental health practice that uses technology and care to provide treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder, was the big winner at the pitch event.

Jen Douglas, CFO of the company, took home first place and the $15,000 prize from Ignite Healthcare Network, but the company also snagged one of the new awards this year. The Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute awarded Ria Health with a $50,000 investment prize. Ria Health previously participated in the TMCx08 digital health cohort, so the team is very familiar with Houston and the TMC.

Second place: SoundScouts

Sydney, Australia-based SoundScouts is on a mission to help early detection of hearing in school aged children. Carolyn Mee, founder and CEO, represented the company on the stage. She took home second place, which didn't come with an investment or cash prize.

Third place: Savonix

Savonix also didn't walk away with any money, but was recognized by the judges for founder and CEO Mylea Charvet's pitch. The San Francisco-based company is a digital cognitive assessment platform that can easily and cheaply gauge cognitive function.

Texas Halo Fund $100,000 award: PATH EX

The biggest winner of the night based on investment size was Houston-based PATH EX. Led by CEO and co-founder, Sinead Miller, PATH EX has a solution to hospitals' biggest killers: Sepsis. The current TMCx company has a unique pathogen extraction platform that can directly capture and eradicate bacteria.

Miller accepted a new award for this year's program that came with a $100,000 investment from the Texas Halo Fund.

Texas Halo Fund $50,000 award: PyrAmes 

One award wasn't enough for the Texas Halo Fund, which handed out a second new award to Cupertino, California-based PyrAmes. Presented by co-founder and CTO, Xina Quan, the company has created a wearable blood pressure monitor that is reliable and nonintrusive to patients. Quan accepted the $50,000 investment from the fund.

Houston Angel Network $50,000 award: Materna Medical 

San Francisco-base Materna Medical, which created a device to help protect and prepare expecting mothers' pelvic health ahead of childbirth, took home the last investment prize. President and CEO Tracy MacNeal presented the company and accepted the Houston Angel Network's $50,000 award.

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Building Houston

 
 

"There's something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it." Photo via Getty Images

Houston's seen a growth in startup and venture investment — even amid the pandemic — and a group of Houston innovators sat down for a virtual event to discuss what's lead to this evolution.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted an installment of its Houston Industry Series focused on Digital Tech on Thursday, September 24. The panel of experts, moderated by Krisha Tracy of Google Cloud, discussed how they've observed the paradigm shift that's occurred in Houston over the past few years — and why.

Missed the discussion? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual event.

“I think there really is an interest for venture capital here, both locally and also welcoming it from outside of Houston. … There’s something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it. I think that magical piece is a renewed interest in collaborating.”

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of Houston Angel Network and co-founder of The Artemis Fund. "I think a lot [of this progress] is due to the GHP, Houston Exponential, and the founding of the HX Venture Fund to bring those venture funds to Houston to say, 'what's happening here?'" Campbell adds, saying that this connectivity and collaboration that's happening in Houston VC is unique.

“I think there’s a misconception around all we do is oil and gas and life science in Houston, but when you think about what VC-backable companies look like, they’re tech, they’re B2B SaaS, they’re highly scalable, and they don’t tend to be capital-intensive types of things we see corporate venture backing.”

Campbell says, adding "the connectivity and the interest in VC is really taking off. It's an exciting time to be in Houston and Texas in general."

“Plug and Play’s ventures team is based in Silicon Valley and one thing they enjoy about meeting Houston-based founders is valuations tend to be more reasonable than in the Bay Area."

Payal Patel, director of Plug and Play Tech Center in Houston. "There are gems to be found," she adds.

“I don’t know what it is — if it’s something in the water or just Texans being very friendly, but the investors here share deal flow. It takes a village, and I think we all understand a rising tide lifts all boats."

Patel says on the collaborative nature of Houston. "It's really magical."

“What you’re witnessing is a city that has been waiting for industrial innovation to reach the point where it can be adopted at a really high scale, and that happened around 2017.”

Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge Texas in Houston. Nordby adds that MassChallenge in Houston hasn't been keen on consumer tech, or the "grilled cheese delivery apps," as he describes. "We like companies that are in love with problems, not so much in love with solutions. … We build really meaningful tech."

“Over the last year or two, we’ve seen that sleeping giant get awoken. Open and external innovation is newly adopted by more legacy industries where it wasn’t before — and that’s just created a mountain of opportunities for startups and investors alike.”

Nordby says on the shift toward this meaningful, problem-solving technology, which Houston is full of, as he observes.

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