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TMC Venture Fund director shares how the organization is growing its global presence

Juliana Garaizar has worked around the world. Now she's taking her international expertise and using it for global initiatives within the Texas Medical Center. Courtesy of TMC

In November, when the Texas Medical Center launched its venture fund closely tied to its accelerator program, they were betting on the ecosystem — and the organization itself.

TMCx was seeing a lot of achievement from its cohorts, TMC Venture Fund Director Juliana Garaizar says, and it was time to expand on the impact they were making in life science innovation.

"While we thought we had so many success stories, we felt like we weren't really taking advantage of them," she says. "So, we bet on the ecosystem and started the fund. It was the next logical step into the creation of value after the program."

The $25 million nonprofit fund is all TMC money, and the fund plans to invest around $2 million a year. All the investments made are to companies that have a tie to TMC — through the accelerator program or a shared workspace, for instance. Funding grants range between $250,000 to $500,000, and can go up to $1 million in a deal, Garaizar says. Ten companies have received investments, with five more soon to be announced.

"I see us like a corporate venture fund that invests not only in companies that have a good ROI but also that can bring value to the TMC as a whole," Garaizar says.

Garaizar knows quite a bit about investing. Born in Spain near the French border, she's worked in finance around the world from Singapore to London before settling in Houston. Prior to TMC, was the managing director at the Houston Angel Network. Now, she's using her international investment know how to help grow TMC's global presence.

InnovationMap: How has your international background helped you here in Houston?

Juliana Garaizar: I think TMC wants to be positioned as a strong competitor to the East and West Coasts as a point of entry for companies coming to the United States, but also for technology and commercializations from hospitals. The fact that I'm already very connected to other countries — not only from the funding side but also from the research side, is really helpful.

IM: You are also connected with international consular representatives — how is that an asset to TMC?

JG: Houston has the third-most number of consular representatives in the U.S., which makes it easier for the TMC to connect with other countries because a lot of the consulate entities are here. And that's a big reasons the biobridges initiatives was created. We were receiving a lot of interest from these entities.

IM: Tell me about your involvement with TMC's Biobridge program.

JG: It's an international partnership between the TMC and different countries. They've already started with the UK and with Australia. The collaboration focuses on joint research and there's the commercialization part and the funding part — I'm mainly taking care of the funding part. We want to try to not only have the joint research and commercialization, but that those efforts get funded — not only from our side but also from the other country's side. We really believe that the biobridges can be a perfect source for deal flow for our funds. As you can see in your interview with Lance [Black], we have more and more international companies in our TMCx cohort. We believe we are positioned in the perfect way to become the point of entry of many excellent life sciences companies all over the world.

IM: How does Houston's VC ecosystem compare to some of the places you've worked in?

JG: London was very accepting of differences and open to any kind of innovation coming from all over the world. It's very easy for them to invest in deals coming from early stage and other countries. That's a little different from the U.S. One of the differences I saw coming from the early stage investment in Europe, we are pretty used to cross-border investing because our countries are pretty small. If we only had deals coming from our countries, we wouldn't get very far. So, we were very used to dealing with different tax rules, contracts, and navigating all that. One of the things you hear from U.S. investors is that they want the company they want to invest in to have a presence here. That's just not the case in Europe.

Another one of the things I also noticed was there is less money as a whole in Europe. As an entrepreneur, you really needed to learn to work together. The European Union and the French government, for instance, would only give funding if you had put a project together with partners from different countries, has private-public partnerships, and an educational institute — otherwise you wouldn't get the money from the government. That's not required here in the U.S. because there's more capital here. I can feel sometimes we are not as forced to collaborate here, and in some ways I see a lot of initiatives that are kind of reinventing the wheel. Sometimes I think if we put more resources and if we were more aware of what was going on in the ecosystem, we could get more synergy and collaboration together.

IM: How is TMC's fund different from others in Houston?

JG: From the acceleration side of things, TMCx is different from most in that we don't take any equity. A lot of companies that are not in a typical accelerator stage and have raised a couple rounds of funding even decide to come to TMCx because of this reason and because there's a lot of opportunities from the program including connections. That's our competitive advantage, to have these companies that are more advanced.

IM: What are some of your goals for the fund?

JG: Short term, I've been focusing on securing a lot of deal flow sources. I wanted to make sure I could bring my network in.

In the long term, we would like to raise a bigger fun, around $100 million fund. We would need to make sure we have our deal flow ready for that, and a big part of that would be international deal flow.

Maybe, we've discussed this, but in the shorter term, before raising that $100 million fund we might take some of the offers that some people have put on the table to create a sidecar fund. It would be another structure that would follow our fund, as a sort of index or passive instrument that people can use to invest alongside us.

IM: How does the industry get more women into venture capital roles?

JG: We need to take matters into our own hands as women. Often, people say there's not enough women in venture funding because there's a pipeline problem, which comes from education in STEM. I think that's an excuse. A lot of VCs hire their friends and people they know. I really believe that women need to harness their financial power and start investing in things they consider important to them. I became a lot more vocal in what I wanted to see and I started investing myself. At the end of the day, women make 80 percent of the purchasing decisions, so we might as well be deciding what's in the market if we're the ones buying it.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

BrainCheck has moved to a new office as it grows its team and expands its product. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Following a series A round of fundraising, a Houston digital health startup is on a bit of a hiring spree, leading to new office space the company has room to grow into.

BrainCheck, which was founded in 2015 by neuroscientist David Eagleman, is a cognitive assessment startup that has developed a software tool for primary care doctors to use to assess their patients' cognitive health so that they can more quickly diagnose and treat them for maladies like dementia.

The 19-person company headquartered in Houston — with a secondary office in Austin focused on product development — has relocated its operations from coworking space in the Texas Medical Center to an office in the Rice Village area. The move was made possible by an $8 million series A financing round that closed in October.

"It's pretty exciting to have reached this milestone where we need more space," Yael Katz, co-founder and CEO of BrainCheck, tells InnovationMap. "We were pretty much bursting at the seams in our old office."

The move comes at a time when the company is building out its team. Katz says she is looking to fill a few roles within marketing, sales, and R&D. The team expects to expand to around 25 people by the end of Q1 and then again to 32 employees by the end of the year.

The new positions are needed in part to support the company's product development growth. Rather than just assessing cognitive health, BrainCheck is piloting some automated care plan technology.

"We have a lot of new product development that's underway," Katz says. "A big focus is expanding the output of the cognitive assessment into the cognitive care management."

Following the BrainCheck assessment, this new software will automate a cognitive care plan that doctors can then customize for his or her patients.

"The care plan process right now takes a very long time for the doctors to do, and therefore is very seldom done," Katz says.

And, in some cases, care plans aren't done because there's no cure or limited medications that help these types of cognitive diseases.

"A lot of people think of dementia sometimes as something there's no treatment for," Katz says. "It's true that there are limited pharmaceutical treatments for it, but there's evidence that comprehensive management of the disease is effective."

BrainCheck has opened the door on cognitive assessment. Traditional cognitive assessment used to only be done through a lengthy process and only by a small group of neuropsychologists. It's difficult for patients to find a neuropsychologist and then book an appointment.

"There's a big need to empower primary care doctors to have that ability to assess and manage patients' cognitive help," Katz says, explaining that this creates a perfect market for BrainCheck.