SpaceFund, based in Houston and Austin, has almost reached halfway for its $20 million fundraise. Photo via NASA/Unsplash

A venture capital firm co-located in Houston and Austin has announced a recent closing of a $20 million fund.

SpaceFund has raised $9 million toward its its $20 million BlastOff Fund as of this week — surpassing its initial first close goal of $5 million.

"We are thrilled to see how many investors are placing their trust in our team," says SpaceFund founder Rick Tumlinson in a news release. "We spent a lot of time slowly and carefully developing our processes and credibility, so we can better serve both investors and the amazing space startup community, and it's paying off."

Launched in 2019 with an initial fund that closed in August of 2020, SpaceFund has already invested in 13 exciting space startups. The new fund will build on those investments while also expanding its portfolio, according to the release.

"SpaceFund is about combining a bold approach with a very conservative diligence and investment process," says Meagan Crawford, SpaceFund's managing partner, in the release. "The BlastOff Fund continues our careful growth plan but is designed to accelerate our ability to place investment into those companies that are leading the Space Revolution."

San Francisco-based innovator Jed McCaleb — co-founder and the CTO of Stellar Development Foundation, a nonprofit building an accessible cryptocurrency platform — anchored the BlastOff Fund.

"I came to SpaceFund to ask questions because they are seen as credible thought leaders in the space investment industry," McCaleb says in the release. "By the time we finished talking, it was clear they were an obvious choice to help me invest in this amazing field."

McCaleb has a keen interest in commercial space, according to the release.

"Jed is a well-informed investor and one who deeply cares about the future of space and humanity," adds Crawford. "He is exactly the kind of investor we hope to attract into the SpaceFund family. For us, this isn't just about money. It is about how we can best impact the future. Jed and the other investors in the fund get that."

Houston-based space companies Axiom Space, Eden Grow Systems, and Cognitive Space are among SpaceFund's current portfolio.

"There is a reason we call this the BlastOff fund," says Tumlinson. "Anyone who follows what is happening in space can see that after almost 60 years, this industry is taking off. Our job is to help investors climb aboard the right companies to carry them to their financial destinations as we open the Frontier."

These Houston startups are starting the year off funded. Photo via Getty Images

5 Houston startups start 2021 strong with fresh funding

following the money

Houston startups saw a tumultuous year last year when it came to funding, but some local businesses are seeing an uptick in various stages of venture funding — from a $130 million series B round to a few seed and pre-seed fundings.

In case you missed some of these headlines, InnovationMap has rounded up these seven deals based on previous reporting. Scroll through to see which Houston startups are catching the eyes — and cashing the checks — of investors.

Houston software startup closes $7.5M series A led by two Houston-area​ VC firms

A Houston startup has closed a $7.5 million round of funding with mostly local investment. Photo courtesy of WizeHire

A Houston B2B software startup has closed a new round of funding led by two Houston venture capital firms.

WizeHire, a tech-enabled hiring solution for small businesses, closed a $7.5 million series A funding round that was led by Houston-based Mercury Fund and Amplo, which is based just north of Houston in Spring. Additional support came from existing backers Ruchit Shah and RigUp co-founder Sandeep Jain. The company was co-founded by Sid Upadhyay, Nick Carneiro, and Jay Niblick.

According to a news release, WizeHire will use the funds to scale their business, which is centered around providing personalized hiring resources to small businesses, as well as to hire more staff and expand its partner program.

"We're a small business helping small businesses with a team of people looking out for you," says Upadhyay, who serves the company as CEO, in the release. "Hiring is complex and personal. Our customers see what we do not just as software; they see us as a trusted advisor." Click here to continue reading.

Houston B2B software company raises $3.2M in seed funding to grow team and product

DocJuris has raised its first round of venture funding to grow its team to keep up with demand for its legal software platform. Image courtesy of DocJuris

A Houston-based software-as-a-service company that is revolutionizing the contract process has closed a round of funding this week.

DocJuris, founded in 2018, raised $3.2 million in seed funding led by New York-based RTP Seed with additional support from Houston-based Seed Round Capital, California-based Watertower Ventures, Maryland-based Crossbeam, and Remote First Capital.

It's the startup's first round of venture funding and Henal Patel, CEO of DocJuris, says he was looking for funds as well as support from investors who had experience with software and could open doors to new clients for the legal software. Click here to continue reading.

Houston space tech company raises $130M series B

Houston-based Axiom Space has raised more funds for its growing commercial space business. Image via axiomspace.com

Just around a year ago, Houston-based Axiom Space Inc. closed a $100 million series A round. Now, the space tech company has announced even more financing as it grows and scales to support a NASA-commissioned project.

Axiom raised $130 million in its series B round led by C5 Capital with support from TQS Advisors, Declaration Partners, Moelis Dynasty Investments, Washington University in St. Louis, The Venture Collective, Aidenlair Capital, Hemisphere Ventures, and Starbridge Venture Capital.

"Axiom Space is a force in the space sector, and it will become a centerpiece of the C5 Capital portfolio and enhance our vision for a secure global future," says C5 operating partner Rob Meyerson, who will join the Axiom board of directors, in a news release. "The Axiom Station will be the infrastructure upon which we will build many new businesses in space, and it will serve as the foundation for future exploration missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond." Click here to continue reading.

Houston construction staffing startup emerges from stealth with $1.5 pre-seed funding

Houston-based Buildforce is developing a technology to better connect contractors and the trade professionals they employ. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston startup has been quietly working on a tech solution for construction staffing and has now emerged from stealth mode to announce a recent funding round as well as an acquisition.

Launched in July of 2020, Buildforce is a construction staffing app that aims to more efficiently connect contractors to skilled workers in trades ranging from electrical, mechanical, and plumbing to flooring, concrete, painting, and more, according to a news release. The company raised a $1.5 million pre-seed round led by Houston-based Mercury Fund.

Co-founder and CEO Moody Heard, who previously served as senior investment analyst at Mercury, says the tech product — the Buildforce Contractor App — will have a big impact on Texas, which is experiencing growing construction volume across the state. Click here to continue reading.

Houston digital studio closes $2M seed round with local investment

Umbrage, a Houston-based developer of enterprise software, has closed its seed funding. Photo via umbrage.com

A software startup in Houston has leveled up thanks to new funding. Houston-based digital studio Umbrage has reportedly raised $2 million.

Founded in 2019 by Will Womble, Umbrage creates custom software solutions for companies within digitally transforming industries, such as oil and gas, healthcare, and supply chain.

"Umbrage is a new way that enterprises can overcome the inherent challenges of building and scaling digital solutions," Womble, who also serves as CEO, says in a news release. "Umbrage partners with internal technology teams to create scalable products that directly impact business' success. And by training our clients to effectively scale and improve these custom-built solutions, we're setting up our customers for long-term, sustainable success." Click here to continue reading.

Despite the hit on the economy from the pandemic, Houston's prosperous economic development activity from 2020 has earned it a top spot on a new nationwide ranking. Photo via Getty Images

The future of Houston's economy shines bright, according to new report

we're No. 3

The Houston metro area shed 141,300 jobs last year — the worst one-year job loss ever recorded in the region — and the area's unemployment rate peaked at 14.3 percent last April. But, according to a new ranking, there's at least one bright spot in Houston's economy.

Site Selection magazine's latest report shines a bright light on last year's economic development activity in the Houston area and on the future of the region's economy. The area ranks No. 3 among major U.S. metro areas for the number of economic development projects secured last year (213). Houston shares the top 10 with two other Texas metro areas: Dallas-Fort Worth (ranked second with 262 projects) and Austin (tied for No. 6 with 84 projects). Chicago claimed the top spot, landing 327 economic development projects last year.

Site Selection lists several Houston-area projects among the top projects that Texas gained last year, including:

Measured another way, Houston ranked sixth for the number of economic development projects per capita last year (32.8) among major metro areas. Austin grabbed the No. 2 spot (43.2 projects per capita), and Dallas-Fort Worth appeared at No. 3 (37.7 projects per capita).

In remarks January 26 at the 2021 annual meeting of the Greater Houston Partnership, board Chairwoman Amy Chronis cited the 1,000-job Axiom Space project as one of last year's economic highlights for the region.

"This is a game-changing project for Houston as we position our region as one of the country's leading tech hubs," Chronis said. "It is the type of catalytic project that will drive meaningful growth of the commercial aerospace sector in Houston."

Chronis noted that Houston already is home to nearly 23,000 aerospace manufacturing professionals, along with more than 500 aerospace and aviation companies and institutions, "but the potential is so much greater."

"The space race is shifting to a commercially funded and operated industry, and it is critical that Houston maintains our leadership position," Chronis said.

NASA announced the Axiom Space project — the world's first commercial space station — in January 2020. Axiom Space aims to begin attaching its space modules to the International Space Station in 2024.

"NASA has once again recognized the hard work, talent, and experience of Houstonians as we expand the International Space Station and promote commercial opportunities in space," U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said in a release touting the Axiom Space project.

Just last month, Axiom Space raised $130 million in a Series B round led by London-based investment firm C5 Capital. The funding will go toward bulking up the company's workforce and developing the space station.

Rob Meyerson, operating partner at C5 and a new member of Axiom Space's board of directors, called the company "a force in the space sector," and the startup's space station "the infrastructure upon which we will build many new businesses in space" and a launchpad for exploration of the moon and Mars.

"Axiom's work to develop a commercial destination in space is a critical step for NASA to meet its long-term needs for astronaut training, scientific research, and technology demonstrations in low-Earth orbit," Jim Bridenstine, a Rice University graduate who resigned earlier this year as NASA administrator, said in January 2020. "We are transforming the way NASA works with industry to benefit the global economy and advance space exploration."

Houston-based Axiom Space has raised more funds for its growing commercial space business. Image via axiomspace.com

Houston space tech company raises $130M series B

money moves

Just around a year ago, Houston-based Axiom Space Inc. closed a $100 million series A round. Now, the space tech company has announced even more financing as it grows and scales to support a NASA-commissioned project.

Axiom raised $130 million in its series B round led by C5 Capital with support from TQS Advisors, Declaration Partners, Moelis Dynasty Investments, Washington University in St. Louis, The Venture Collective, Aidenlair Capital, Hemisphere Ventures, and Starbridge Venture Capital.

"Axiom Space is a force in the space sector, and it will become a centerpiece of the C5 Capital portfolio and enhance our vision for a secure global future," says C5 operating partner Rob Meyerson, who will join the Axiom board of directors, in a news release. "The Axiom Station will be the infrastructure upon which we will build many new businesses in space, and it will serve as the foundation for future exploration missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond."

"Axiom Space was founded on the knowledge that commercial infrastructure and innovation in space would offer unique ways to improve life on Earth," says Axiom co-founder and executive chairman, Kam Ghaffarian, in the release. "Axiom's sole-selection by NASA to connect to ISS and ability to leverage its key revenue lines are evidence of the company's expertise and a business model that is set up to optimize across a variety of commercial on-orbit opportunities.

"This highly successful round is a pivotal moment for on-orbit commerce and its implications for our civilization's potential are far-reaching."

In January 2020, NASA selected Axiom to work on designing and building modules to be attached to the International Space Station. The projects could be ready as early as 2024. Axiom is working to create a commercial space station that would eventually serve as a replacement for ISS. This transformation is expected in late 2028.

In December, Axiom released new details of its 14-acre headquarters near the Houston Spaceport. The HQ is expected to bring more than 1,000 high-paying jobs, from engineers to scientists, mathematicians, and machinists.

The recently raised funding will help support these ongoing Axiom projects.

"We are proud to partner with Axiom's exceptional management team, who built, led, and visited the International Space Station on behalf of NASA and its partners," Brian Stern, a partner at Declaration Partners, says. "The next-generation space station we are building today will be a key means of conducting space-based research, manufacturing, communication, and travel for decades to come."

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Joy M. Hutton of Joy of Consulting, Michael T. Suffredini of Axiom Space, and Kim Raath of Topl. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In the last weekly roundup of Houston innovators of 2020, I'm introducing you to three innovators across the city — the new local leader of a new Google program, the CEO of a space tech company, and a startup founder with fresh funds.

Joy M. Hutton, local leader of Grow with Google's Digital Coach program

Joy M. Hutton leads the Grow with Google in Houston. Photo courtesy of Google

Joy M. Hutton is a serial entrepreneur and has just signed on to help guide other startup founders as the local leader of the Grow with Google Digital Coach program in Houston. Just like any other entrepreneur this year, Hutton, who was planning to launch her company On the Go Glam in March, was challenged to pivot her own startup amid COVID-19 and its accompanying obstacles.

On this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Hutton shares how the pandemic caused her to rethink the timeline on some of the features she had in mind for the company.

"The pandemic was kind of a good thing, because it allowed me to take a step back and add additional services for men," Hutton says, adding that expanding into offering barbershop services was always a plan, but the new need pushed her to quickly pivot. Read more and stream the episode.

Michael T. Suffredini, president and CEO of Axiom Space

Michael T. Suffredini co-founded Houston-based Axiom Space. Photo via AxiomSpace.com

A veteran of the space business, Michael T. Suffredini now leads Axiom Space, which just announced a partnership with the Houston Spaceport. Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that Axiom Space will construct a 14-acre headquarters.

The headquarters "will be the world's first free-flying internationally available private space station that will serve as humanity's central hub for research, manufacturing, and commerce," Turner said.

The partnership is expected to bring more than 1,000 high-paying jobs, from engineers to scientists, mathematicians, and machinists. Read more.

Kim Raath, CEO of Topl

Kim Raath is ending her year with news of a VC deal. Courtesy of Topl

Unfortunately, the pandemic has had its detrimental effect on venture capital — especially when it comes to female-founded companies. Crunchbase reported a 27 percent decrease in funding for female-founded companies.

In light of this statistic, Kim Raath, CEO and co-founder of Houston-based Topl, is feeling pretty proud of leading her company to closing a $3 million round with support from investors both locally and across the country.

"We're grateful to have closed an oversubscribed venture round during a pandemic, especially given the unfortunate truth that many women-led startups are getting much less investment during this time," says Kim Raath, CEO of Topl, in a press release. "Bringing transparency to causes dedicated to environmental and social good has never been more important. We are building a modern blockchain for a world where purpose and profit go hand in hand." Read more.

The world's first commercial space station will be built in Space City. Image via axiomspace.com

First commercial space station on the planet to be built in Houston

space city news

Houston's Spaceport will be the place where the world's first commercial space station will be built, according to Mayor Sylvester Turner.

The announcement was made during a December 22 briefing, where Turner announced the partnership between the Houston Spaceport and Axiom Space.

"Our great city is known for taking on humankind's boldest challenges," Turner said. "In 2021, the Houston Spaceport will be the first headquarters for Axiom Space, a privately funded space enterprise."

According to Turner, Axiom Space will construct a 14-acre headquarters. The headquarters "will be the world's first free-flying internationally available private space station that will serve as humanity's central hub for research, manufacturing, and commerce," Turner said.

The partnership is expected to bring more than 1,000 high-paying jobs, from engineers to scientists, mathematicians, and machinists.

"This opportunity will energize our workforce, engage our communities, and dare our young students to look up, wonder, and dream," Turner said.

Houston Spaceport is the country's 10th commercially licensed Spaceport and located at Ellington Airport.

The Houston area has played a key role for decades in the future of aerospace aviation. The Federal Aviation Administration granted formal approval for the city of Houston to making Ellington a launch site for reusable launch vehicles in 2015.

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For more on this story, visit our news partner ABC13.

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Cancer-fighting company based in Houston emerges from stealth and snags $74M in its latest round

fresh funds

A Houston-based clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company has raised millions in its latest round.

Tvardi Therapeutics Inc. closed its $74 million series B funding round led by new investors New York-based Slate Path Capital, Florida-based Palkon Capital, Denver-based ArrowMark Partners, and New York-based 683 Capital, with continued support and participation by existing investors, including Houston-based Sporos Bioventures.

"We are thrilled to move out of stealth mode and partner with this lineup of long-term institutional investors," says Imran Alibhai, CEO at Tvardi. "With this financing we are positioned to advance the clinical development of our small molecule inhibitors of STAT3 into mid-stage trials as well as grow our team."

Through Slate Path Capital's investment, Jamie McNab, partner at the firm, will join Tvardi's board of directors.

"Tvardi is the leader in the field of STAT3 biology and has compelling proof of concept clinical data," McNab says in the release. "I look forward to partnering with the management team to advance Tvardi's mission to develop a new class of breakthrough medicines for cancer, chronic inflammation, and fibrosis."

Tvardi's latest fundraise will go toward supporting the company's products in their mid-stage trials for cancer and fibrosis. According to the release, Tvardi's lead product, TTI-101, is being studied in a Phase 1 trial of patients with advanced solid tumors who have failed all lines of therapy. So far, the drug has been well-received and shown multiple durable radiographic objective responses in the cancer patients treated.

Dr. Keith Flaherty, who is a member of Tvardi's scientific advisory board and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, offered his support of the company.

"STAT3 is a compelling and validated target. Beyond its clinical activity, Tvardi's lead molecule, TTI-101, has demonstrated direct downregulation of STAT3 in patients," he says in the release. "As a physician, I am eager to see the potential of Tvardi's molecules in diseases of high unmet medical need where STAT3 is a key driver."

Networking with high-status colleagues isn't successful across industries, per Rice University research

houston voices

In a timeless scene from the mockumentary "This Is Spinal Tap," an 80s metal band swaggers in for a performance only to find they're billed second to a puppet show. Though the film is farce, real musicians often come to question the value of playing second fiddle to anyone – even an A-lister.

Now research by Rice Business professor Alessandro Piazza and colleagues Damon J. Phillips and Fabrizio Castellucci confirms those musicians are right to wonder. In fact, they discovered, the only thing worse than performing after a puppet may be opening up for an idol. Bands that consistently open up for groups with higher status, the researchers found, earn less money – and are more likely to break up than those that don't.

"Three cheers," The Economist wrote about the researchers, for confirming "what many people in the music industry have long suspected – that being the opening band for a big star is not a first class ticket to success."

While the findings may be intuitive for seasoned musicians, they fly in the face of existing business research. Most research about affiliations concludes that hobnobbing with high-status colleagues gives lowly newcomers a boost. Because affiliations give access to resources and information, the reasoning goes, it's linked with individual- and firm-level successes such as landing jobs and starting new ventures.

Both individuals and organizations, one influential study notes, benefit from the "sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships."

That's largely because in many fields up and comers must fight to be taken seriously – or noticed at all. This problem is often called "the liability of newness:" In order to succeed, industry newcomers first need to be considered legitimate by the audience they're trying to woo.

Showing off shiny friends is a classic solution. In many fields, after all, linking oneself with a high-status partner is simply good branding: a shorthand signal to audiences or consumers that if a top dog has given their approval, the newcomer must surely have some of the same excellent qualities.

Unfortunately, this doesn't always hold true – especially in the creative world, Piazza's team found. In the frantic world of haute cuisine, for example, a faithful apprentice to a celebrity chef may actually suffer for all those burns and cuts in the star's hectic kitchen. Unless they can create meals that are not just spectacular, but show off a distinct style, consumers may sneer at the newcomer as a knockoff of the true master.

So what determines if reflected glory makes newcomers shine or merely eclipses them? It has to do with how much attention there is to go around, Piazza said. While partnering with a star helps in some fields, it can be a liability when success depends on interaction between audience and performer. That's because our attention – that is, ability to mentally focus on a specific subject – is finite. Consumers can only take in so much at a time.

Marketers are acutely aware of this scarcity. Much of their time, after all, is spent battling for consumer attention in an environment swamped by competitors. The more rivals for advertising attention, research shows, the less a consumer will recall of any one ad. In the world of finance, publicly traded companies also live and die on attention, in the form of analyst coverage of their stocks and angel investors' largesse.

Musicians who perform live, Piazza said, are battling for attention in a field that's gotten progressively more fierce, due to lower album sales and shorter career spans. Performing in the orbit of a major distraction such as Taylor Swift or Beyoncé, however, only reduces the attention the opening act gets, the researchers found. Though performances are just a few hours, the attention drain can do lasting harm both to revenue and career longevity.

To reach these conclusions, the researchers analyzed data about the live performances and careers of 1,385 new bands between 2000 and 2005. Supplementing this with biographical and genre information about each band along with musician interviews, the team then analyzed the concert revenue and artistic survival of each band.

They discovered that in live music, high status affiliation onstage clearly diluted audience attention to newcomers – translating into less revenue and lower chance of survival.

In part, the revenue loss also stems from the fact that even in big stadium performances, performing with superstars rarely enriches the underdogs. According to a 2014 Billboard magazine report, headliners in the U.S. typically absorb 30 to 40 percent of gross event revenues; intermediate acts garner 20 to 30 percent and opening acts for established artists bring as little as $15,000.

The findings were surprising, and perhaps dispiriting, enough for the researchers to carefully spell out their scope. Affiliation's positive effects, they said, are most often found in environments of collaboration and learning – for example academia. In these settings, a superstar not only can bestow a halo effect, but can share actual resources or information. In the music world, however, the fleeting nature of a shared performance makes it hard for a superstar band to share much with a lower-ranked band except, perhaps, some euphoric memories.

Interestingly, in many businesses it's easy for observers to quickly assume affiliations between disparate groups. In the investment banking industry, for instance, research shows that audiences infer status hierarchies among banks merely by reading "tombstone advertisements," the announcements of security offerings in major business publications. Readers assume underwriting banks to be affiliated with each other when they're listed as being part of the same syndicate – even if the banks actually have little to do with each other beyond pooling capital in the same deal.

In the music business, star affiliations mainly help an opening act a) if the audience understands there's an affiliation and b) if they believe the link is intentional. But that's not always the case because promoters and others in Big Music often line up opening bands. When possible, though, A-listers can do their opening acts a solid by making it clear that they've chosen them to perform there.

Otherwise, Piazza and his colleagues concluded, the light shed by musical supernovas typically gets lost in the darkened stadium. For the long term, business-minded bands may do best by working with peers in more modest venues – places where the attention they do get, like in Spinal Tap's classic metric, goes all the way up to 11.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Alessandro Piazza, an assistant professor of strategic management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.