Guest column

Failing to fundraise can be the downfall of Houston startups — here's what you need to know

The second most common reason for startup failure is running out of funds. A Texas expert has tips for avoiding that downfall. Getty Images

Startups are pulling outsized financing rounds and debt acquisitions at an unprecedented rate despite the high 80 percent failure rate of startups overall. Among the three primary reasons why startups tend to fail, running out of cash falls in the number two spot on the list at 29 percent — following no market need.

But startups need to recognize that their time and a strategic fundraising effort are tied together as critical resources to allocate properly to drive their fundraising efforts.

Despite a multitude of ideas and approaches in the pursuit of the very elusive product-market fit and monetization, the majority of startups fail to raise funds or run out of cash after initial fundraising success. For the startup to be successful, it is imperative that funds, finances, and related resources are allocated productively and precisely.

A key part of the startup CEO's job is to understand how much total cash remains on hand and whether it is enough to carry the startup towards a milestone that can lead to successful financing as well as a positive cash flow. Just as important is how to allocate their time and efforts to the fundraising process along the way.

A constant battle

For starters, valuations of a startup do not change linearly over time. Simply because it was twelve months since raising a series A round does not mean that it will be easier to raise more money or be ready for a step-up in valuation. To reach an increase in valuation, a company must achieve certain key milestones that are relevant to showing progress to market and in most investors eye's progress towards monetization.

It is important to understand what potential investors think is worthy of a step up, but generally valuation is pretty flat in between inflection points where key milestones are reached that earn a big increase.

Active vs. passive investment pursuits

Given that it often takes six to nine months and two-thirds of a CEO's time during a major round of fundraising, optimally you should align progress points into major milestones where efforts can be concentrated for fundraising success approaching the inflection points. That does not mean that the CEO can ignore fundraising in between those major milestones, but should think about waves of active and passive fundraising activities.

Active fundraising is obvious, which is the typical efforts to craft a pitch, meet with investors, nurture investor prospects into lead and following investor types. Most of the effort should be put into the early investors that will lead the round as the first checks are always the hardest.

From my experience rounds develop their own momentum when reaching about 40 percent of their target and even more when reaching 60 percent as long as the prospective investor pool is large enough. However, the CEO cannot ignore the company's progress while the raise is actively underway, as they will typically meet with prospective investors multiple times who will want to hear about progress each time.

Passive fundraising is less obvious, which happens in the gaps in between active fundraising where one round closes and before the next round starts. The primary passive activity is general investor networking, where the CEO should be out expanding their network, meeting new prospects and trying to identify the mostly likely early investors or best fit for the company.

I'm not suggesting this is really a passive activity, as it takes a lot of work. But this should be an ongoing between rounds. This passive effort gives the CEO a chance to put most of their emphasis on the progress of the company to the next milestones, but avoids a cold start to the next fundraising round.

Regardless, there are two best practices in this passive mode. First, use networking techniques to identify good prospective investors for your company and two to work on getting referrals to investors well before an actual fundraising round is open. Getting a referral is obviously to your advantage, because it takes you out of cold-calling mode that has a low success rate.

Meeting an investor while you are not fundraising takes the pressure off both the CEO and investor and gives them a chance to get to know each other personally. Again, many will not be your round leaders or champions to other investors, but this lower pressure effort gives investors a chance to listen and reach out to potential experts in their networks to validate the problem and your solution.

With the relationship established and your solution validation received, moving to an active discussion about investment comes more naturally as well as targeting of the best lead investor candidates leading to due diligence, negotiation and closing the funds.

Within a technology development firm like my firm, VIC, we have the benefit of "always-on" VIC Investor Network that we are constantly working to refresh and expand. Because of our large portfolio, seventeen companies at the time of writing this, there is a good chance that almost any life science investor can find something that suits their interest, experience, or passions.

Each member of the firm can allocate their time between active and passive efforts for the companies they are most closely involved with while still providing a wide portfolio of other companies that might be of interest to a prospective investor. Even with a portfolio of companies, the same concepts of active and passive efforts apply.

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James Y. Lancaster is the Texas branch manager for Arkansas-based VIC Technology Venture Development. Lancaster, who lives in College Station, oversees business there, in Dallas, and in Houston.

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Building Houston

 
 

Koda Health, Houston, uses AI to help guide difficult conversations in health care, starting with end-of-life care planning. Image via kodahealthcare.com

A new Houston-based digital advanced care planning company is streamlining some of the most difficult conversations in the health care industry around palliative care.

Founded by Tatiana Fafanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry, Koda Health uses AI to help patients create advance medical care directives and documents—such as a living will—through an easy to use web-based interface.

Koda Health uses a conversational platform where users can enter information about their values, living situations, quality of life wishes, and more while learning about different care options at their own speed. It also uses a proprietary machine learning approach that personalizes audio-video guided dialogue based on the patient's individual and cultural preferences.

The app then autogenerates legal and medical documents, which patients can notarize or electronically witness the forms through the app or on their own.

According to Fafanova, who earned her PhD in in Molecular Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and now acts as the company's CEO, what historically has been a time consuming and expensive process, through Koda Health, takes an average of 17 minutes and is completely free of charge to the end user.

"We hope to reduce any outstanding barriers to access that might exist," Fafanova says. "It is very frequently the oldest and the poorest that are the highest utilizers of health care that don't have access to these solutions."

The app is also projected to save health care systems roughly $9,500 per patient per year, as it allows for hospitals and organizations to better plan for what their patient population is seeking in end-of-life-care.

The B2B platform was born out of the TMC's Biodesign Fellowship, which tasked Koda's founding members with finding solutions to issues surrounding geriatric care in the medical center. In March 2020, Koda incorporated. Not long after ICU beds began to fill with COVID-19 patients, "galvanizing" the team's mission, Fafanova says.

"It was no longer this conceptual thing that we needed to address and write a report on. Now it was that people were winding up in the hospital at alarming rates and none of those individuals had advanced care planning in place," she says.

After accelerating the development of the product, Koda Health is now being used by health care systems in Houston, Texas, and Virginia.

The company recently received a Phase I grant of $256,000 from the National Science Foundation, which will allow Koda to deploy the platform at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist and test it against phone conversations with 900 patients. Fafanova says the company will also use the funds to continue to develop personalization algorithms to improve Kona's interface for users.

"We want to make this a platform that mimics a high quality conversation," she says.

After Koda completes the Phase I pilot program it will then be eligible to apply for a Phase II award of up to $1 million in about a year.

Koda Health was founded by Tatiana Fafanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry. Photos via kodahealthcare.com

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