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METRO launches self-driving shuttle, Data Gumbo hires new exec, and more Houston innovation news

METRO launches a driver-less route, Houston biotech company raises millions, and more quick innovation news. Courtesy of METRO

So much Houston innovation news — so little time. In order to help keep in touch with all the news happening among startups and technology in Houston, we're hitting the highlights in this innovation news roundup.

If you know of innovation-focused news happening, email me at natalie@innovationmap.com with the details andsubscribe to our daily newsletterthat sends fresh stories straight to your inboxes every morning.


METRO launches a self-driving shuttle on Texas Southern University's campus

Courtesy of Metro

The first autonomous shuttle in Houston recently had its maiden voyage on Texas Southern University's campus. The route is a one-mile stretch that is called the "Tiger Walk.' The EasyMile shuttle can transport 12 passengers and is operated by First Transit. The project is a pilot program for METRO to see if it has successful applications in other public transportation efforts.

"When passengers board this all electric vehicle they will be riding into the future and experiencing a mode of transportation that in just a few years may become commonplace," says METRO Chair Carrin Patman in a release.

The first phase of the pilot kicked off June 5, as reported in a previous InnovationMap article.

After being deemed a hot tech company by Crunchbase, Data Gumbo grows its C-suite

Courtesy of Data Gumbo

In June, Data Gumbo was named among Crunchbase's top 50 hottest tech companies. The list looked for growing tech startups that have raised between $5 million and $20 million, with a recent round closing in the past six months. The Houston-based company closed its most recent round of $6 million in the spring.

Following the round completion, Data Gumbo's CEO, Andrew Bruce, noted the funds were intended to further develop the company's technology and grow the team. As of last week, Bruce made good on the promise and announced the company's new chief commercial officer, Sergio A. Tuberquia.

"As our new capital is being used to expand our commercial blockchain network, we are also expanding our internal teams to support our rapid global growth," says Bruce in a news release. "With Sergio joining to lead revenue efforts, this will further our company's mission to help oil and gas companies — and ultimately all industries -—realize greater efficiencies and cost savings in the supply chain. Sergio's mix of startup technology and oil and gas industry experience will greatly benefit Data Gumbo and its customers as the industry moves into digital oilfield solutions like blockchain."

Biotech company extends its Series D round to $43 million

Getty Images

Following a $20 million commitment from Sanford Health, Houston-based InGeneron Inc. has extended its Series D round to $43 million. The funds will go toward further developing the company's regenerative medicine and cell therapy. InGeneron currently has a clinical study for rotator cuff recovery.

The investment by South Dakota-based Sanford Health was announced in March, and last month, InGeneron made the call to expand the series.

"Sanford Health's continued support helps advance InGeneron's regenerative cell therapy into the expansive pivotal trial phase, a significant step toward bringing our therapy into the clinic," says Angelo Moesslang, CEO of InGeneron, in a release. "This is an exciting time for the company, as one of the largest health systems in the United States further affirms the potential of adipose-derived regenerative cell therapy, while we diligently work to make it available to patients."

Rice Business Plan winner to ring the Nasdaq bell

Courtesy of Rice University

The company that won the top prize at the Rice Business Plan Competition and walked away with almost $700,000 is claiming another one of its prizes. Vita Inclinata Technologies will ring the opening bell at Nasdaq on July 3.

The company, which created a technology to advance helicopter safety, will be represented by its CEO, Caleb Carr, and Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, and Will Roper, the U.S. Air Force's assistant secretary for acquisition, will also attend. The livestream footage is available online, beginning at 8:30 am central.

Mercury Fund raising money

Texas Money

Getty Images

Crunchbase broke the news that Houston-based Mercury Fund has secured $82 million of its fourth fund, Mercury Fund Ventures IV, that will total $125 million, per a regulatory filing that PE Hub reported on. Mercury Fund refused to comment on the ongoing raise, but intends to release more information following the close, a representative confirmed to InnovationMap.

According to Crunchbase's proprietary data, it's the largest fund to date for the firm. The most recent fund closed in 2014 at $105 million. Mercury Fund specializes in SaaS, cloud, and data science technology, according to its website.

Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine researcher recognized

Courtesy of Rice University

Olga Dudchenko, a genomics researcher at Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine, been named to MIT Technology Review magazine's 2019 list of 35 Innovators Under 35.

Dudchenko, who is completing her postdoctoral fellowship at Rice's Center for Theoretical Biological Physics, has developed a method to sequence and assemble the genome of any organism for less than $1,000. Her process is comparable the that of the Human Genome Project, which cost $3 billion.

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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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