money moves

Austin VC has its eyes on Houston with new $210M fund

Krishna Srinivasan and Venu Shamapant have been investing in Texas startups for 20 years. Now, with the latest LiveOak Venture Partners fund, the duo has more money to focus on Houston. Photos via liveoakvp.com

A venture capital firm that's focused on funding startups across the Lone Star State has closed its latest fund and is set on doubling down on Houston.

LiveOak Venture Partners has been around for almost a decade, and its third fund closed last week at $210 million. It's the firm's largest fund yet — twice its last two funds, which each closed at $105 million. Krishna Srinivasan tells InnovationMap that the original plan was to raise a similarly sized fund but interested limited partners brought even more to the table.

"There was tremendous interest from LPs for this fund," Srinivasan says, adding that the firm could have raised even more based on interest. "People love the white-hot, broad Texas market. ... It's been an exciting journey to take the firm to the next stage."

Srinivasan and Venu Shamapant, founding partners at LiveOak Venture Partners, raised the fund in just over three months — completely on video conferences. The duo has been investing in Texas technology companies for over 20 years and has seen a lot of momentum and excitement for their strategy. While the fund is bigger and brought in new LPs — some based in the Houston area — Shamapant says to expect a continuation of the fund's strategy.

"We don't really see a strong reason to change anything," Shamapant tells InnovationMap. LiveOak targets early stage tech companies in Texas. "On the edges though, the larger fund allows us to tweak (our strategy) a little bit and adapt to the market environment. We've been doing this for 20 years and this is one of the strongest markets we've seen in Texas."

Shamapant says they now have the ability to back more companies with slightly larger checks and longer term support. He also says they might make an investment or two in growth-stage companies, expanding a bit from just funding early-stage startups.

While most of the startups LiveOak has supported reside in Austin where the firm is based, the new fund is particularly geared at investing in startups across Texas.

"We are fiercely committed to adding a lot more portfolio companies in Houston," says Srinivasan. "Houston's got all the raw DNA that would constitute a great fit for the kind of deals we love to do."

LiveOak is no stranger to Houston. The firm was supported by the HX Venture Fund, a fund of funds that invests as a limited partner to VC firms based outside of Houston but with an interest in investing in local startups.

Additionally, one of the firm's early investments was in Houston-founded CS DISCO, a legal software startup that has seen great growth and success over the years. The company later relocated to Austin, which became a bit of a trend for Houston companies that needed to relocate to find success. Srinivasan says he's not seeing this trend so much anymore thanks to a more developed workforce in Houston.

"We believe there is a real depth of talent in the Houston market," Srinivasan says. "We are not at all interested in migrating companies out of Houston. I think there is enough tech strength and success locally."

Shamapant adds that the effect of the pandemic had and a rise in a distributed workforce will only benefit Houston ability to attract and retain tech talent and startups.

"A lot of the trends we talk about in terms of talent, aren't triggered by the pandemic. These are long-term trends we have seen over 20 years," Shamapant says, adding that this means the momentum is here to stay. "The pandemic probably brought it to a tipping point that has accelerated these trends."

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Building Houston

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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