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Rice University competition to link veterans with NextSeed investors

Rice University's annual Veterans Business Battle is calling for submissions. Courtesy of Rice University

Rice University's Business Veterans Association has helped military veteran raise more that $3.5 million in investments over the last seven years through it's annual pitch competition. And this year, the stakes are even higher.

The Veterans Business Battle — held April 23-24 — allows veterans to pitch their early-stage business or existing company to a panel of investors, as well as engage in educational opportunities and networking. Cash prizes are awarded for first, second, and third place pitches, ranging from $5,000 to $15,000

This year the VBB has also partnered with NextSeed Securities. The registered broker dealer and FINRA member will allow vetted startups invited to present at the event to raise capital from investments by the general public.

"Last year's online-only event gave us an opportunity to think of ways to engage new investors and expand our audience. We're excited to increase opportunities for our finalists and grow our network of investors," event co-chair Matt Wilson says in a statement.

Past competitors have run the gamut, including the likes of oil and gas drone operating company Trumbull Unmanned (which was named a Top 25 Veteran-Founded Startup by Forbes) as well as skin care lines, a body armor manufacturer, ready-to-wear boots, and a health-conscious sauces company. Several have gone on to represent small businesses at the White House.

Last year, YouMeMine, Capsulomics Inc, and Feildcraft were named finalists at the virtual event. In 2019, at a in-person competition, Amor Oral, Welcome Connect and FeedMe Fitness took the stage.

Other partners for the 2021 competition include the U.S. Small Business Administration, Bunker Labs, University of St. Thomas, Houston Community College, and Warrior Rising—a nonprofit for veterans and veteran families which will be hosting education, training, and one-on-one mentorships during the event.

To apply, applicants must submit a business plan on the competition website, vetbizbattle.org, by Feb. 5, according to a release. Businesses must have an honorably discharged veteran or active duty founder and equity holder who is running the venture. Finalists will be invited to make their business pitch at Rice University.

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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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