ready for liftoff

City of Houston's startup competition takes off with $30,000 up for grabs

Applications are now open for Liftoff Houston. Photo courtesy of the City of Houston

The applications for the 2021 Liftoff Houston Startup Business Plan Competition opened this week and local businesses have less than a month to get their submissions in for a chance to be one of three companies to take home seed funds.

"I am excited to see what business ideas and concepts this year's contestants will bring to the table," says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a news release from the city. "We are grateful for Capital One Bank's commitment to helping Houstonians make their small business dreams come true. I encourage all aspiring entrepreneurs not to miss out on this wonderful opportunity that will help move our economy and city forward."

Liftoff Houston, sponsored by Capital One Bank and administered by the Houston Public Library and the Office of Business Opportunity, aims to empower Houston entrepreneurs through workshops and coaching sessions that take place from August through October. The program will name winners in three categories – service, product, and innovation – and award each $10,000 in seed money from Capital One Bank. Applications close Monday, Aug. 2.

"Startup businesses play a critical role in our City's economic future," says Houston Public Library Director Dr. Rhea Lawson in the release. "The Houston Public Library is pleased to support their development by providing access to free and vital business and investment reference resources, market research, state of the art technology equipment with high-speed Wi-Fi, and other valuable services such as fax and copy services and space for meetings and trainings."

The program, which has been supporting startups in town for almost a decade, has had over 12,623 participants and doled out more than $240,000 in prize money from Capital One Bank.

Liftoff Houston is looking for applicants who live and operate their business within the Houston city limits. Other requirements include:

  • must be a for-profit business
  • must be in operation for less than one year
  • must have verifiable revenue that does not exceed $10,000

If not selected for the program, applicants have the option to participate in the Liftoff Houston Educational Pathway, which offers access to all the business education opportunities provided by the program, but without the pitching component.

"Liftoff Houston will provide you with a wealth of knowledge and information about how to successfully start your business, and the Office of Business Opportunity is also available to assist," says Office of Business Opportunity Director Marsha Murray in the release. "I encourage contestants to connect with us for a host of free resources at our 'one stop business center' where you can receive guidance on business permitting, licenses, one-on-one business counseling, legal assistance and much more. These services can certainly supplement the learnings offered by Liftoff Houston, and assist contestants on their entrepreneurship journeys."

Past participants include:

For more information and to apply, interested parties can visit the website.

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Building Houston

 
 

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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