HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 91

Local investment leader talks trends in Houston venture capital activity

Stephanie Campbell joins the Houston Innovators Podcast this week to share some trends in early-stage investing. Photo courtesy of HAN

Backed by fresh funding from limited partners, The Artemis Fund is growing its portfolio at a time when funding female founders is more important than ever.

Stephanie Campbell — general partner and co-founder of The Artemis Fund, a Houston-based venture fund focused on supporting female founders — joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Artemis's first $15 million fund, which closed earlier this year.

"We raised more than half of the fund during the pandemic, so we know what it was like to be a founder raising funds in a pandemic," Campbell says on the episode. "Running a fund, I don't think a lot of people realize, is a lot like starting a startup, except we're raising money and backing startups at the same time."

The Artemis Fund invested in 10 startups — two in Houston — since its launch in 2019 and it was raising its fund I. Now, for 2021, Campbell and her partners — Leslie Goldman and Diana Murakhovskaya — are on the hunt for five more early-stage female-led companies to back.

"We're laser focused on finding the final five awesome women to add to our portfolio and then we'll start thinking seriously about launching fund II, probably at the end of the year," she explains.

Campbell says Artemis looks for seed-stage companies with a product already developed and ready to scale.

"We're really good at finding companies that have essentially bootstrapped, have a product in market with revenue, and we're usually that first institutional check," she says.

Within the companies that already make up the portfolio, a trend has emerged. Campbell says they are targeting fintech and e-commerce companies, as well as startups within caretech.

"These founders — all 10 of them — are in our mind creating a technology that helps people build wealth and care for their families and communities more sustainably," she says.

Speaking on VC trends, Campbell, who's also the managing director of the Houston Angel Network, says that despite the problems the pandemic provided the innovation ecosystem, HAN actually saw sizeable growth in membership and interest.

"I think that given the markets with quite a bit of liquidity, people were looking for new and interesting ways to invest and make a return," Campbell says on the podcast. "In 2020, we actually grew by 30 percent and are up to 130 members of the Houston Angel Network and are continuing to grow through 2021."

The organization pivoted to virtual pitches right off the bat and didn't slow down at all at the emergence of COVID-19. In fact, pitching at HAN has only gotten more competitive, Campbell says, and the membership is looking for early-stage companies that are out of just idea stage.

"It's getting harder and harder to get pre-seed funding in that first check for an idea stage," Campbell says on trends in the industry. "There are just so many deals that have done so much with so little to prove that they have product-market fit — and those tend to be the deals that pitch at our monthly meetings."

Campbell shares more about the trends in VC in Houston on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Building Houston

 
 

This UH engineer is hoping to make his mark on cancer detection. Photo via UH.edu

Early stage cancer is hard to detect, mostly because traditional diagnostic imaging cannot detect tumors smaller than a certain size. One Houston innovator is looking to change that.

Wei-Chuan Shih, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, recently published his findings in IEEE Sensors journal. According to a news release from UH, the cells around cancer tumors are small — ~30-150nm in diameter — and complex, and the precise detection of these exosome-carried biomarkers with molecular specificity has been elusive, until now.

"This work demonstrates, for the first time, that the strong synergy of arrayed radiative coupling and substrate undercut can enable high-performance biosensing in the visible light spectrum where high-quality, low-cost silicon detectors are readily available for point-of-care application," says Shih in the release. "The result is a remarkable sensitivity improvement, with a refractive index sensitivity increase from 207 nm/RIU to 578 nm/RIU."

Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

What Shih has done is essentially restored the electric field around nanodisks, providing accessibility to an otherwise buried enhanced electric field. Nanodisks are antibody-functionalized artificial nanostructures which help capture exosomes with molecular specificity.

"We report radiatively coupled arrayed gold nanodisks on invisible substrate (AGNIS) as a label-free (no need for fluorescent labels), cost-effective, and high-performance platform for molecularly specific exosome biosensing. The AGNIS substrate has been fabricated by wafer-scale nanosphere lithography without the need for costly lithography," says Shih in the release.

This process speeds up screening of the surface proteins of exosomes for diagnostics and biomarker discovery. Current exosome profiling — which relies primarily on DNA sequencing technology, fluorescent techniques such as flow cytometry, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) — is labor-intensive and costly. Shih's goal is to amplify the signal by developing the label-free technique, lowering the cost and making diagnosis easier and equitable.

"By decorating the gold nanodisks surface with different antibodies (e.g., CD9, CD63, and CD81), label-free exosome profiling has shown increased expression of all three surface proteins in cancer-derived exosomes," said Shih. "The sensitivity for detecting exosomes is within 112-600 (exosomes/μL), which would be sufficient in many clinical applications."

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