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Overheard: Experts share advice on investing in health tech amid the pandemic

Here's how the health tech investing industry has had to rethink investing amid a global pandemic. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

The coronavirus pandemic has upset countless industries, but if you zoom in on health tech you'll find a mix of opportunities and challenges for both health tech startups and investors.

On a virtual panel hosted by TMC Innovation and Ignite Healthcare Network, four female investors or founders discussed the health tech startup landscape. From advice for getting the attention of investors amid COVID-19 to inequities in health care and innovation, here's what the panel covered.

“I never thought I’d make an investment without meeting the founder face-to-face and visiting their site. The way I got comfortable with it was the opportunity was referred to me — it was a warm lead.”

— Karen Kerr, lead partner at Portfolia Rising America Fund. Kerr says those warm leads are more important now than ever, as is sharing a network.

“The first thing you need to do is understand our fund — or whatever fund you’re trying to go after — and pitch in a way that’s personal. You have to stand out from the beginning.”

— Kyra Doolan, managing director of Texas Halo Fund, says on reaching out to investors. She adds that she looks for a strong team, an innovative solution, a market need, and the terms of the deal. Meanwhile, red flags include if a startup says it has no competition, has unreasonable projections, is led by entrepreneurs who think they know everything, has an unwillingness to be upfront about COVID challenges, and doesn't have enough money in the bank.

“It’s important for companies to be upfront about the problems they’re facing — we all know these problems exist. Addressing that head-on with investors is a good way to go because having trust in a company you’re investing in is important.”

— Doolan continues on the importance of transparency between startup and investor.

“I’m looking for great entrepreneurs that are high integrity people. I’m looking to see that they really understand the industries they are in.”

— Kerr says on what she looks for in a founder. She adds that she tries to understand how they think and the advantages and disadvantages of their leadership are.

“You have to have the art of persuasion. You have this dream and vision — and there may not be anything there yet — but you need to be able to take people on this journey with you.”

— Damayanti Dipayana, CEO and co-founder of Manatee, a member of TMCx's 2020 cohort. She adds, representing the entrepreneur side of the table, that you really have to know yourself and your shortcomings.

“Any investor will look at it like if you can’t get the right people around and sell it to them, how are you going to uproot an industry.”

— Dipayana expands on the importance of growing your team and being persuasive.

“I think the pandemic has certainly shone a bright light on the inequities that exists, so solutions to these challenges are interesting things to think through.”

— Kerr says adding that the first investment from the Rising America Fund was into a fintech startup that serves underbanked communities.

“We’re seeing lower valuations maybe than we would have before this because the effects of this are going to go on for a long time, I would guess. Even when COVID starts to come down, the economic downturn is still going to exist.”

— Doolan says on where investment is at amid the pandemic.

“Ultimately if you want to have real bargaining power over your valuation, find other people who are interested.”

— Dipayana adds to the conversation about valuations. "If only one person interested, they are going to drive the valuation."

“Picking the right partners is such an important decision — don’t take that lightly just because they have money.”

—Chantell Preston, lead partner at Portfolio, co-founder and CEO of Facilities Management Group, and moderator of the event.

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A Rice University team of engineers designed a low-cost ventilator, and now the device, which has been picked up for manufacturing, has received approval from the FDA. Photo courtesy of Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

A ventilator that was designed by a team at Rice University has received Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ApolloBVM was worked on March by students at Rice's Brown School of Engineering's Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, or OEDK. The open-source plans were shared online so that those in need could have access to the life-saving technology. Since its upload, the ApolloBVM design has been downloaded by almost 3,000 registered participants in 115 countries.

"The COVID-19 pandemic pushed staff, students and clinical partners to complete a novel design for the ApolloBVM in the weeks following the initial local cases," says Maria Oden, a teaching professor of bioengineering at Rice and director of the OEDK, in the press release. "We are thrilled that the device has received FDA Emergency Use Authorization."

While development began in 2018 with a Houston emergency physician, Rohith Malya, Houston manufacturer Stewart & Stevenson Healthcare Technologies LLC, a subsidiary of Kirby Corporation that licensed ApolloBVM in April, has worked with the team to further manufacture the device into what it is today.

An enhanced version of the bag valve mask-based ventilator designed by Rice University engineers has won federal approval as an emergency resuscitator for use during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Stewart & Stevenson

The Rice team worked out of OEDK throughout the spring and Stewart & Stevenson joined to support the effort along with manufacturing plants in Oklahoma City and Houston.

"The FDA authorization represents an important milestone achievement for the Apollo ABVM program," says Joe Reniers, president of Kirby Distribution and Services, in the release. "We can now commence manufacturing and distribution of this low-cost device to the front lines, providing health care professionals with a sturdy and portable ventilation device for patients during the COVID-19 pandemic."

Reniers continues, "It is a testimony to the flexibility of our people and our manufacturing facilities that we are able to readily utilize operations to support COVID-19 related need."

The device's name was selected as a tribute to Rice's history with NASA and President John F. Kennedy's now-famous speech kicking off the nation's efforts to go to the moon. It's meaningful to Matthew Wettergreen, one of the members of the design team.

"When a crisis hits, we use our skills to contribute solutions," Wettergreen previously told CultureMap. "If you can help, you should, and I'm proud that we're responding to the call."

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