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."

WizeHire's client base includes more than 7,000 businesses, and the company recorded $4.7 million in run rate in 2020, according to the press release, and it was the company's highest year-over-year growth.

"WizeHire is focused on a future where small business owners have easy access to the elevated hiring experience large corporations already have," says Amplo's Sam Garcia, who will join WizeHire's board, in the release. "They're not just creating a better alternative to current recruiting solutions; they're giving employers more peace of mind about the hiring process so they can get back to building their business."

Last year, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company launched a free version of its product and partnered with lenders to help increase accessibility for the Paycheck Protection Program. Now, in a new year, unemployment continues to soar and more than 10 million people remained out of work. As small businesses continue to recover and plan to rehire, WizeHire provides a service that is hyper-personalized for different industries.

"We are thrilled to support WizeHire's opportunity to define talent acquisition for small businesses," says Heath Butler, managing director at Mercury, who will also join WizeHire's board. "By systematically helping hiring managers align company values, behavioral competencies, technical skills and industry requirements to identify the best candidate, WizeHire is enabling their clients to maximize productivity, reduce turnover cost and increase customer loyalty."

A Houston founder and small-space expert founded TAXA Outdoors to create better campers than what was in the market. Now, amid the pandemic, he's seen sales skyrocket. Photo courtesy of TAXA Outdoors

Houston startup founded by former NASA architect moves into new space amid booming business

go outside

In 2014 Garrett Finney, a former senior architect at the Habitability Design Center at NASA, brought his expertise in what he describes as "advocating for human presence living in a machine" to the outdoors market.

After being less-than enchanted by the current RV and camper offerings, the Houstonian developed a new series of adventure vehicles that could safely and effectively get its users off-grid — even if still Earth-bound — under the company he dubbed TAXA Outdoors.

The vehicles would follow much of the same standards that Finney worked under at NASA, in which every scenario and square inch would be closely considered in the smartly designed spaces. And rather that designing the habitats for style alone, function and storage space for essential gear took precedence. According to Finney, the habitat was to be considered a form of useful adventure equipment in its own right.

"Ceilings should be useful. They're not just for putting lights on," he says. "Even when there's gravity that's true."

Today TAXA offers four models of what they call "mobile human habitats" that can be towed behind a vehicle and sleep three to four adults, ranging from about $11,000 to $50,000 in price.

TAXA's mobile human habitats range in size and price. Photo courtesy of TAXA Outdoors

And amid the pandemic — where people were looking for a safe way to escape their homes and get outside — the TAXA habitats were flying off the shelves, attracting buyers in Texas, but mainly those in Colorado, California, and other nature-filled areas.

"January, was looking really good — like the break out year. And then the pandemic was a huge red flag all around the world," Finney says. "[But] we and all our potential customers realized that going camping was the bet. They were with their family, they were getting outside, they were achieving sanity having fun and creating memories."

According to TAXA President Divya Brown, the company produced a record 430 habitats in 2020. But it still wasn't enough to match the number of orders coming in.

"We had we had almost a year and a half worth of backlog at the old facility, which we've never experienced before," Brown says.

To keep up with demand, the company moved into a 70,000-square-foot space off of U.S. 290 that now allows multiple operations lines, as well as a showroom for their vehicles and enough room for their staff, which tripled in size from 25 to 75 employees since the onset of the pandemic.

The first priority at the new facility is to make up the backlog they took on in 2020. Next they hope to produce more than 1,000 habitats by the end of 2021 and 3,000 in the coming years.

"It's a pretty significant jump for us," Brown says. "We really believe there's a huge market for this."

With the new facility, the TAXA team hopes to catch up with the explosive sales growth. Photo courtesy of TAXA Outdoors

This Houston venture capital leader is looking at how 2020 — for all its disappointments — might be a great year for B2B software-as-a-service companies. Getty Images

Houston investor: Is this the golden age for B2B software?

Guest column

B2B software as a service, or SaaS, founders entered 2020 riding a wave of the longest economic expansion in United States history. Valuations increased to new highs, funding rounds continued getting larger at each stage, and forecasts went up and to the right fast. But then, March hit.

Quickly and seemingly out of nowhere, headlines became dominated by apocalyptic predictions of death, record levels of unemployment, shocking economic forecasts of GDP contraction, historic mass layoffs and furloughs, and unprecedented multi-trillion dollar economic stimulus packages. For founders every instinct began screaming to cut costs and hunker down.

But should B2B SaaS founders cut their organizations right now? Through analyzing a few key events and looking to the evidence in the market today, founders can develop a strategy for growing during this crisis. Not only is growth cheaper for most B2B SaaS against the backdrop of economic meltdown, but with the majority following a hunker-down instinct, a growing B2B SaaS firm will compare very favorably against a landscape of stale and stagnant competitors.

Reviewing the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic and the 2008 downturn

While the health implications vary widely between the current pandemic and the 1918 flu epidemic, the economic reactions share many similarities. The US response to 1918 was just as fractured as the states' reactions to COVID have been this year. As cities and states in 1918 shut down commerce to stem the spread of the flu, economic contraction quickly gave way to rebound, the so called "V-shaped recovery," despite the Spanish Flu having much higher death rates among working individuals than COVID-19.

There are major differences between 1918 and 2020, however. First, there is untapped potential in technology to replace workers. As businesses look for ways to cut costs, expect them to aggressively turn to automation, ultimately depressing real wages. Second, the 1918 response did not include shutdown measures as draconian as those we are experiencing in 2020. This could lead to permanent output loss across a wide range of industries, increasing real prices just as real wages decline. And third, the trillions of dollars in federal economic relief are unlike anything attempted in 1918.

The 2008 downturn that nearly brought the financial sector to a halt rippled through the economy as businesses in a wide range of industries made steep cuts to operations and capital expenditures. Despite this dangerous environment, SaaS firms increased profitability and continued to grow revenues each quarter. Growth slowed but remained positive while most other companies experienced absolute declines in revenue.

Customer acquisition for SaaS businesses usually gets more efficient during downturns, driving the potential for faster growth. The performance of all publicly traded B2B SaaS firms during 2008 illustrated in Figure 1 above proves the resilience of this category during a recession. While revenue continued to grow, profitability rose from a 10 percent loss on average to a 5 percent gain on average by 2010. This is likely due to firms freezing salaries and hiring and perhaps cutting down the sales and marketing budgets.

Downturn case study: Salesforce

Salesforce entered the downturn as a category leader in B2B SaaS with nearly $500M in revenue in 2007 and $3.5 million in operating losses. Throughout 2008, the company grew revenues by 51 percent to $748 million and operating profit surged to $20.3 million. And in 2009, the company repeated this stellar performance by growing revenues 44 percent to $1,077M and operating profit to $63 million. These results occurred against the backdrop of a global financial downturn and with a product focused on helping people sell more effectively (not something one would expect would sell well during a free-fall recession).

The revenue growth throughout those years followed the growth in sales and marketing spend. In 2008, the company grew sales and marketing by 49 percent, driving 51 percent revenue growth at about $1.50 of sales expense per $1 of recognized revenue added. In 2009, the company grew sales and marketing 42 percent resulting in 44 percent revenue growth at $1.63 of sales expense per $1 of recognized revenue. By 2010, the sales growth advantage was gone and Salesforce not only dropped its expense growth rate but also reverted to spending $2.64 per $1 of new revenue added.


Looking at these results Salesforce executed on the growth opportunities in 2008 and 2009 by ramping up sales expenses. The relative cost to acquire customers in 2008 and 2009 compared to 2010 proved significantly cheaper (approximately 40 percent less expensive). When faced with an advantage like that, every founder should charge ahead.

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Dougal Cameron is director of Houston-based Golden Section Venture Capital.

Brittany Barreto wants to expand her DNA dating technology to a B-to-B model and compatibility test — all under a new company called X&Y Technologies. Karla Martin/Pheramor

Houston DNA-based dating app expands brand and plans new ways to use its technology

Love as a science

For over two years, Brittany Barreto has been playing matchmaker with her DNA-based dating app, Pheramor, but now she's ready to take it to the next level.

Pheramor, which sequences users' DNA and datamines their social media activity to determine compatibility, is transforming into becoming a product of a newly formed company called X&Y Technologies. The company, Barreto says, will have multiple products, all relating to using that same DNA technology Pheramor has perfected.

Among the first three products X&Y is working to create is a B-to-B software-as-a-service company, where established dating companies can employ Pheramor's technology for its existing app and customers. Barreto says she has two letters of intent for the B-to-B model, one of which is a dating app with 160,000 users.

Barreto unveiled the new company at The Cannon's female entrepreneur pitch night on January 24, but expanding her technology's reach has been on her mind for a while. She cited major dating companies that have their eyes on DNA dating, but haven't yet figured out the infrastructure. That, she says, is where X&Y's SaaS model comes in.

"Our traction with the dating app was a fantastic way to prove that we are the thought leaders, we have the infrastructure, and we have the algorithm and we've proven that the market is ready to buy a DNA kit to find love," she says in her pitch.

In addition, X&Y will have a compatibility test for couples wishing to learn of their own DNA-based compatibility. The tool, called We Have Chemistry, is getting ready to launch and already has preorders coming in.

"Pheramor's test is really the gold standard and industry leader in this test," she says, explaining how Pheramor's technology can be used by these existing dating apps.

She talked about how this is the time for DNA tests — from 23andme to Pheramor — and how it's not weird to send your spit in the mail. As Barreto says in her pitch, there's so much more potential for uses of the technology in what's called contextualized genetics.

"I know that my technology is way bigger than just this one market," Barreto says. "I believe the future of product is about combining the big data of genomics and DNA with the big data of your digital footprint. Nobody has ever combined your Facebook data with your DNA to figure out what's the best diet, exercise or work environment for you."

B2B travel company grows its Houston presence

travel tech

Real-time inventory software enables travelers to book a last minute flight and have their boarding passes in hand at security a few minutes later. But that technology isn't utilized in other aspects of a vacation — tour companies, for example. That's where San Francisco-based Xola comes in.

Scott Zimmerman and his co-founder Anush Ramani realized real-time technology was a glaring hole in a multi-billion-dollar business. It's why they founded Xola, a booking and marketing software system designed for tour and activity companies.

"So many smaller tour companies operate with pen and paper," Zimmerman explained. "And for many cities and countries, tourism is the number-two or number-three industry — it's a huge driver of economic growth. It's a $120 billion global market."

They created Xola as a B2B solution that created a platform for operators to promote their offerings, and allow customers to purchase tours and activities. Meanwhile, Xola's custom-design software platform managed the tour inventory and payments, providing real-time inventory management.

Since its inception in 2011, Xola has emerged as a leading B2B solution for travel industry operators. The company started in San Francisco, but opened an office in Houston in 2016 in the Heights Clock Tower. Xola's Houston operation began with six people; today, it employs 17. Zimmerman says he sees potential to grow the team with additional marketing, sales, and support staff.

"We serve customers around the world, and Houston has everything we need to continue our growth."

Zimmerman acknowledged the cost of doing business in the Bay Area is expensive, but when he went looking for cities in which to expand, price wasn't his only concern.

"We wanted a large metropolitan area, with a diverse ecosystem, good universities, a great talent pool, a high quality of life and an affordable cost of living. Houston has all these things. And the more I get to know the city, I realize just how much it has going on."

Zimmerman said that the city has "totally exceeded" his expectations in terms of Xola's growth. He said every one of the Houston employees is wonderful to work with, and loves that they come from diverse cultural and educational backgrounds.

"I can't quite describe what the office is like, but there's a great energy and enthusiasm. [The team] easy to work with. It's been fun in that regard."

Zimmerman said that Houston's talent pool is so extensive, he can't imagine "ever exhausting" the city's resources. He also sees Houston as an asset for Xola's continued growth. The company currently has offices in San Francisco, Houston, Bangalore, and Belgrade and anticipates more expansion in the coming years. Xola's ticketing and software system has received multiple five-star reviews from its customers, who praise not only its ease of operation, but also the company's stellar customer service. In fact, Xola just won a 2018 Ease of Use Award from Capterra.

"In addition to Xola's core booking system, we're building next-generation automated marketing features that help our customers maintain a competitive edge. And our Houston team will continue to grow as we do, so we can continue to serve markets around the world."

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Rice University develops 2 new innovative tools to detect COVID-19

pandemic tech

Rice University is once again spearheading research and solutions in the ongoing battle with COVID-19. The university announced two developing innovations: a "real-time sensor" to detect the virus and a cellphone tool that can detect the disease in less than an hour.

Sensing COVID
Researchers at Rice received funding for up to $1 million to develop the real-time sensor that promises to detect minute amounts of the airborne virus.

Teams at Rice and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston are working to develop a thin film electronic device that senses as few as eight SARS-CoV-2 viruses in 10 minutes of sampling air flowing at 8 liters per minute, per a press release.

Dubbed the Real-Time Amperometric Platform Using Molecular Imprinting for Selective Detection of SARS-CoV-2 (or, RAPID), the project has been funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Rice notes. Further funding will be contingent upon a successful demonstration of the technology.

Attacking with an app
Meanwhile, the university announced that its engineers have developed a plug-in tool that can diagnose COVID-19 in around 55 minutes. The tool utilizes programmed magnetic nanobeads and a tool that plugs into a basic cellphone.

First, a stamp-sized microfluidic chip measures the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein in blood serum from a standard finger prick.

Then, nanobeads bind to SARS-CoV-2 N protein, a biomarker for COVID-19, in the chip and transport it to an electrochemical sensor that detects minute amounts of the biomarker. Paired with a Google Pixel 2 phone and a plug-in tool, researchers quickly secured a positive diagnosis.

This, researchers argue, simplifies sample handling compared to swab-based PCR tests that must be analyzed in a laboratory.

"What's great about this device is that it doesn't require a laboratory," said Rice engineer Peter Lillehoj in a statement. "You can perform the entire test and generate the results at the collection site, health clinic or even a pharmacy. The entire system is easily transportable and easy to use."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Chevron's Houston-based venture arm launches $300M fund focusing on low-carbon tech

show me the money

Chevron Corp.'s investment arm has launched a $300 million fund that will focus on low-carbon technology.

Chevron Technology Ventures LLC's Future Energy Fund II builds on the success of the first Future Energy Fund, which kicked off in 2018 and invested in more than 10 companies specializing in niches like carbon capture, emerging mobility, and energy storage. The initial fund contained $100 million.

"The new fund will focus on innovation likely to play a critical role in the future energy system in industrial decarbonization, emerging mobility, energy decentralization, and the growing circular carbon economy," Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures says in a February 25 release.

Future Energy Fund II is the eighth venture fund created by Chevron Technology Ventures since its establishment in 1999. In 2019, the investment arm started a $90 million fund to invest in startups that can help accelerate the oil and gas business of San Ramon, California-based Chevron.

Chevron Technology Ventures' portfolio for low-carbon technology comprises a dozen companies: Blue Planet, Carbon Clean, Carbon Engineering, ChargePoint, Eavor, Infinitum Electric, Natron Energy, Spear Power Systems, Svante, Voyage, Vutility, and Zap Energy.

Only one of the companies in the low-carbon portfolio is based in Texas — Infinitum Electric, located in Round Rock. However, Chevron Technology Ventures is active in the Houston entrepreneurial ecosystem as a participant in the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, Greentown Labs, The Cannon, and The Ion. Chevron's investment arm was the first tenant at The Ion.

In an August 2020 interview with InnovationMap, Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, said the investment arm places a priority on helping advance entrepreneurship in Houston. "It is our home court," she said.

Burger said that for Houston to succeed in energy innovation, companies, government agencies, investment firms, and universities must rally around the city.

"We're doing a lot of things right — almost in spite of the world being crazy. … I think constancy of purpose is important," she said. "Despite the headwinds from COVID and despite the headwinds that industries are facing, we need to stay committed to that."

Burger noted that innovation "is not a straight path."

"We've got to plant a bunch of these seeds and see how they grow — we need to water them every day, and then I think we'll have a beautiful garden," she said.