Teamwork makes the dream work

Investors join forces for citywide alliance to increase access to early-stage capital

Securing funding for your startup is now a one-stop shopping experience. Over 200 accredited investors have teamed up to create the Houston Investment Network Alliance — a platform that promotes investment opportunities and mentorship for early-stage companies.

HINA is a collaboration where participating investors can partner up to co-invest in startups, co-host investor events, and share opportunities.

Behind the alliance are four Houston investment entities: the Houston Angel Network, Rice Angel Network, GOOSE Society of Texas, and Cannon Ventures.

"HAN and the Goose Society have invested over $150M in early stage companies over the last decade. The appetite for startup investing continues to be alive and strong in Houston," says Stephanie Campbell, HAN managing director, in a release. "The birth of new groups like RAN and Cannon Ventures demonstrates a new and growing appetite for investment."

Each of the organizations have connections to Rice University and previously worked together on a sports technology-focused pitch night hosted at The Cannon, a West Houston coworking space lead by CEO and founder, Lawson Gow. Gow is the son of David Gow, owner of InnovationMap's parent company Gow Media.

The Cannon launched its own fund, Cannon Ventures, about seven months ago. It has four startup partners: SEATz, Win-Win, Data Gumbo, and SeeHerWork. Each Cannon Ventures startup partner will received anywhere between $100,000 to $400,000 of seed funding as well as access to space in The Cannon and its accelerator opportunities, Gow says.

Cannon Ventures has already also collaborated with the other HINA organizations. The Rice Angel Network is even based out The Cannon.

"We're increasingly co-investing with other angel networks," Gow says, "because it's hard to start a company and raise money, so the more we can do that to help Houston startups get the money they need."

According to Gow, Houston's thriving startup scene and deep pockets is a perfect opportunity for HINA.

"One of the great things about Houston is we've got a lot of money here," he says. "One of the most transformative things we can do for the startup community is get a lot of high-net worth individuals is get them off the bench and onto the field and activate them as regular angel investors into Houston-based startups. That's a really important goal of Cannon Ventures is to grow our membership base and get ore people involved."

Houston-based Moleculin has three different oncology technologies currently in trials. Getty Images

Immunotherapy and personalized medicine get all the headlines lately, but in the fight against cancer, a natural compound created by bees could beat them in winning one battle.

In 2007, chairman and CEO Walter Klemp founded Moleculin Biotech Inc. as a private company. The former CPA had found success in life sciences with a company that sold devices for the treatment of acne. That introduction into the field of medical technology pushed him toward more profound issues than spotty skin.

"Coincidentally, the inventor of that technology had a brother who was a neuro-oncologist at MD Anderson," Klemp recalls.

The since-deceased Dr. Charles Conrad slowly lured Klemp into what he calls the "cancer ecosphere" of MD Anderson. In 2016, the company went public. And it looks like sooner rather than later, it could make major inroads against some of the toughest cancers to beat.

Klemp observed that while Houston has the world's largest medical center, "the tragic irony" is that other cities have far more biotech money ready to be invested.

"The Third Coast is really starved for capital," he says. "What drew me into this was I was one of the few entrepreneurs that lived here that knew the ropes in terms of tapping into East and West Coast capital structures and could make that connection for them."

The company has three core technologies currently being tested with some success, but the most promising is called WP1066, named for researcher Waldemar Priebe, "a rock star" in his native Poland, according to Klemp, who works at MD Anderson. Though Priebe came to the U.S. in the 1980s, he is still an adjunct professor at the University of Warsaw and conducts some of his trials in Poland because it's easier to get grant money there.

WP1066 uses propolis, a compound of beeswax, sap and saliva that bees produce to seal small areas of their hives, as a base. The molecular compound that Priebe discovered affects STAT3 (signal transducer and activator of transcription), a transcription factor that encourages tumor development. In short, the active compound in WP1066 both downregulates the STAT3, a long-time Holy Grail in the cancer research world, and directly attacking the tumor, but also quieting T Cells, which allows the body's own immune system to fight the cancer itself. Essentially, it works both as chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

WP1066 is demonstrating drug-like properties in trials at MD Anderson on glioblastoma, the aggressive brain cancer that recently took the life of the hospital's former president, John Mendelsohn, as well as John McCain and Beau Biden. It is also being tested against pancreatic cancer, one of the most virulent killers cancer doctors combat.

Priebe also created Annamycin, named for his oldest daughter, a first-line chemotherapy drug that fights Acute Myeloid Leukemia without the cardiotoxicity that can damage patients' hearts even as they beat their cancer.

WP1122 uses yet another mechanism to fight cancer.

"Most people don't know that morphine is essentially a modified version of heroin," Klemp explains.

The difference between the poppy-based drugs? Heroin can cross the blood-brain barrier. It's described as the dicetyl ester of morphine. WP1122 is the dicetyl ester of 2DG (2-Deoxyglucose), a glycolysis inhibitor, which works by overfilling tumor cells with fake glucose so that they can't consume the real glucose that makes them grow.

"The theory is, we could feed you so full of junk food that eventually you'd starve to death," Klemp elucidates. It can cross the blood-brain barrier and is metabolized slowly, meaning that it can be made into a drug in a way that 2DG cannot.

What's impressive about Moleculin is its diversity of drugs. Most companies have one drug that gets all or most of the attention. Moleculin has strong hopes for all three currently in trials.

"It's essentially multiple shots on the goal," says executive vice president and CFO Jonathan Foster.

Moleculin has 13 total employees, five of whom are based in Houston. An office in the Memorial Park area serves as a landing pad for employees and collaborators from around the world to get their work done when in Space City. The virtual office set-up works for the company because experts can stay in their home cities to get their work done. And that work is on its way to saving scores of lives.