Houston Voices

Houston isn't Silicon Valley — and that's a good thing, according to these experts

While everyone always looks to Silicon Valley as the model of the ideal startup ecosystem, Houston is forging its own path. Getty Images

As WeWork's fall from grace continues to dominate the headlines and we monitor the slew of layoffs and dipping share prices afflicting this year's Silicon Valley darlings, we reflect on Houston's own startup ecosystem. How are Houston startups and investors similar to and different from Silicon Valley early-stage deals? What are the drivers and factors that may be unique to Houston and how do they influence outcomes?

Jamie Jones, executive director of Lilie, sat down with early stage investor and Rice Business alum, Dougal Cameron of Golden Section Technology Venture Capital (GSTVC), to discuss the Houston startup and funding ecosystem. From that discussion, a number of key features emerged:

From Cameron's experience, Houston investors have historically focused on unit economics and profitability, in addition to top line growth, as their key performance measures. As an enterprise software investor, he notes that an indicator of a healthy venture that warrants early stage investment is one where profitability can be achieved as the venture reaches the $1 million revenue mark. Cameron, like other early stage investors in Houston, are interested in ventures that produce sustainable growth not only growth for growth's sake.

While early stage investment capital in Houston does flow, it does not do so at the same check sizes and the same velocity that you may see in Silicon Valley. Analysis of Pitchbook data indicates that Houston firms raised $28.1M in seed and early-stage funding in Q3 2019 versus $2.86B for Silicon Valley based ventures. The belief is that the density of the capital network in Silicon Valley means that if you get one $500,000 check then you will very likely to get others. Cameron noted that he believes the effects of loss aversion are on full display — no firm wants to be the one that passes on the next Google.

However, in Houston, entrepreneurs must be scrappy to pull together funding and ensuring they hit milestones along the way in order to drive scarcer investment into their ventures. From Cameron's perspective, Houston entrepreneurs own their cash balance and strive to keep their overhead low by working out of cheaper spaces, leveraging friends and family to contribute to the venture in its early days, etc.

With fewer investment dollars flowing in Houston, the use of Simple Agreements for Future Equity (SAFEs), which are common in Silicon Valley, are rarely used in Houston. Why? Cameron believes that using unpriced and loosely binding agreements may work in an ecosystem where startups are pushed for rapid top-line growth and may be burning through tens-of-thousands of dollars per month and will need to raise capital quickly, which will drive a pricing event. However, in Houston, investors may prefer arrangements that provide some downside risk.

Examples include convertible notes that include a lien on assets, which would be virtually unheard of in Silicon Valley, or through priced fundraising rounds. Without broad and deep capital networks and the pressure of rapid top-line growth, near term pricing events are not guaranteed, pushing Houston investors to prefer other deal structures.

While everyone agrees that Houston and the robust startup ecosystem that is growing across the city needs more cash to catalyze growth, Cameron firmly believes that new capital coming into the city must be the right type of capital. Capital that will not negatively distort the ecosystem by driving early-stage entrepreneurs to strive for top-line growth that is not sustainable through a profitable business model. This type of capital will not offer exorbitantly-sized seed rounds removing the entrepreneur's need to be scrappy and cost conscious.

We must understand that many Houston entrepreneurs seek to build businesses that have lasting impact and are not only "growing to close," the model Silicon Valley seems to have embraced over the past 7 to 10 years. Cameron is nervous that first big checks that come from outside Houston will push unprofitable businesses forward and will sour the market for local investors that are starting to engage in startup-investing.

While everyone always looks to Silicon Valley as the model of the ideal startup ecosystem, Houston may offer a look into the model of the future — one that is focused on building durable, profitable businesses by right-sizing growth over the venture's life-cycle. For Houston-based entrepreneurs, this means the opportunity to access capital that emphasizes sustainable, smart growth.

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Jamie Jones, executive director of the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Rice University, and Dougal Cameron, managing director of Gold Section Technology Ventures and 2013 Rice Business alum, wrote this article for LILIE.

This article originally appeared on Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship's blog.

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Building Houston

 
 

UH has found a way to instantly zap COVID-10. Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

While the world rushes to find a COVID-19 vaccine, scientists from the University of Houston have found a way to trap and kill the virus — instantly.

The team has designed a "catch and kill" air filter that can nullify the virus responsible for COVID-19. Researchers reported that tests at the Galveston National Laboratory found 99.8 percent of the novel SARS-CoV-2 — which causes COVID-19 — was killed in a single pass through the filter.

Zhifeng Ren, director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, collaborated with Monzer Hourani, CEO of Medistar, a Houston-based medical real estate development firm, plus other researchers to design the filter, which is described in a paper published in Materials Today Physics.

Researchers were aware the virus can remain in the air for about three hours, which required a filter that could quickly remove it. The added pressure of businesses reopening created an urgency in controlling the spread of the virus in air conditioned spaces, according to UH.

Meanwhile, to scorch the virus — which can't survive above around 158 degrees Fahrenheit — researchers instilled a heated filter. By blasting the temperature to around 392 F, they were able to kill the virus almost instantly.

The filter also killed 99.9 percent of the anthrax spores, according to researchers.

A prototype was built by a local workshop and first tested at Ren's lab for the relationship between voltage/current and temperature; it then went to the Galveston lab to be tested for its ability to kill the virus. Ren says it satisfies the requirements for conventional heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

"This filter could be useful in airports and in airplanes, in office buildings, schools and cruise ships to stop the spread of COVID-19," said Ren, MD Anderson Chair Professor of Physics at UH and co-corresponding author for the paper, in a statement. "Its ability to help control the spread of the virus could be very useful for society."

Medistar executives are also proposing a desk-top model, capable of purifying the air in an office worker's immediate surroundings, Ren added.

Developers have called for a phased roll-out of the device, with a priority on "high-priority venues, where essential workers are at elevated risk of exposure — particularly schools, hospitals and health care facilities, as well as public transit environs such as airplanes."

The hope, developers add, is that the filter will protect frontline workers in essential industries and allow nonessential workers to return to public work spaces.

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