3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Angela Holmes of Mercury Data Science, Ashok Gowda of BioTex, and Rachel Moncton of ClassPass. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — data science, consumer tech, and medical device innovation — recently making headlines.

Angela Holmes, chief operating officer of Mercury Data Science

Mercury Data Science has taken a tool it originally developed for COVID-19 research and applied it into new areas of research and innovation. Photo courtesy of MDS

When the pandemic hit, the team at Mercury Data Science knew data was going to have a huge role to play. Last fall, MDS released an AI-driven app designed to help researchers unlock COVID-19-related information tucked into biomedical literature. The app simplified access to data about subjects like genes, proteins, drugs, and diseases.

Now, a year into the coronavirus pandemic, the company is applying this technology to areas like agricultural biotech, in which the platform enables researchers to sift through literature to dig up data about plant genetics, says Angela Holmes, chief operating officer at MDS. The lack of gene-naming standards in the world of plants complicates efforts to search data about plant genetics, she says.

The platform's ability to easily ferret out information about plant genetics "allows companies seeking gene-editing targets to make crops more nutritious and more sustainable as the climate changes to have a rapid way to de-risk their genomic analyses by quickly assessing what is already known versus what is unknown," Holmes says. Click here to read more.

Ashok Gowda, founder and CEO of BioTex

Houston-based BioTex works with medical device and health tech companies from all stages, from R&D to commercialization. Photo via biotexmedical.com

In the process of building a medical device company called Visualase and exiting it to Medtronic for over $100 million, Ashok Gowda learned a lot. And, over the past two decades, he's been sharing that knowledge and expertise of his and his team to medtech companies of all stages at Houston-based BioTex.

"Ultimately we built a nice infrastructure by supporting (the Visualase) spin out," Gowda tells InnovationMap. "And we learned a lot about not just product development, but about commercializing and creating a new market that may not exist. And we had some really good, experienced commercial folks we had hired on the Visualase side. I just think it's a good learning lesson that you can't really teach this stuff — you gotta experience it really to understand." Click here to read more.

Rachel Moncton, vice president of Global Marketing at ClassPass

Rachel Moncton shares why ClassPass tapped Houston as a prime place to expand. Photo courtesy of ClassPass

Rachel Moncton has lived all over the world in her career at fitness and wellness-focused consumer tech company, ClassPass — and her latest assignment has been standing up the company's fourth domestic office right here in Houston, Texas.

On last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Moncton shares how Houston as a hub offers the growing company a chance to be a big fish in a small consumer tech pond.

"I get a lot of people saying, 'Houston? That's an interesting choice and not what we'd expect,'" Moncton says. "But that's one of the things we like about it. There's a good startup scene here but not a million different consumer tech companies, so it's nice that we are able to make a bit of a splash." Click here to read more.

At Houston Exponential's second annual HX Capital Summit, four Houston entrepreneurs turned investors discussed their lessons learned. Getty Images

Here's what startups can learn from Houston exits

Success stories

One way to evaluate a city's innovation ecosystem is by the number of successful exits they've had. From startups being acquired by big companies to bringing in a private equity partner, exits can put a city on the map.

Houston has quite a few exits under its belt, and some of those entrepreneurs have stayed in town to fund future success stories. At Houston Exponential's second annual HX Capital Summit, four entrepreneurs discussed their exits, providing key lessons learned for entrepreneurs.

Houston has some perks. 

One thing moderator Samantha Lewis, director at the GOOSE Society of Texas, asked each panelist was what made each entrepreneur start their companies in Houston — and furthermore, what made them stay here after their successful exit.

Panelist Ashok Gowda co-founded and served as COO at Visualase Inc., a real-time tissue monitoring system that exited to Medtronic for over $100 million. He now leads Biotex, a Houston-based medical technology investment firm and accelerator, as president and CEO.

For Gowda, Houston was obviously a key market for med tech, but it provided something even more once he reached the commercialization phase of a product.

"From a commercial standpoint, once the technology became commercial, it was an ideal location," Gowda says. "We were traveling all across the US, and it was a nice hub. We're right in the center of the country, and you can get to either coast very quickly."

The panel also agreed that the quality of life in Houston played a major role in settling down.

You might need to rethink your executive team. 

The panel full of venture capitalists of course touched on the ability to fundraise in Houston, as each panelist had been on both sides of the table. For Gowda, it's pretty simple.

"If you're struggling to raise money, you either have a bad idea or the wrong team," he says, adding that if you really believe in your idea, take a good hard look at who's at the leadership level of your team.

Talent is still a challenge in Houston.

Of course, if you do identify a problem within your team, finding the right leader for your technology might be difficult in Houston.

Keith Kreuer, who was also on the panel, is principal at RedHouse Associates, a group of angel investors that invest like a find would, but without having a fund. Between Kreuer and his team, they were involved in 10 startups before forming the investment group.

"We could find developer and sales talent here, but to get to that higher executive talent, we had to go out to other places," Kreuer says.

However, not all of the panelists agreed that talent was a major challenge they faced. Some noted that they got lucky with the talent they found.

Don Kendall, CEO of Kenmont Capital Partners, came to Houston to run a power company and family office. He turned $100,000 into $1.6 billion and now is a member of GOOSE.

"We had no problem getting the engineering talent," Kendall says. "We really found Houston to be a good environment, and it's only just continued to improve."

Playing to Houston's strengths might be key to success.

For Gray Hall, managing director at Austin-based BuildGroup, which focuses on writing big checks to a small amount of software startups, he knew how to play to his company's and Houston's strengths.

Hall previously served as CEO of AlertLogic, which had a private equity exit in 2013, and Hall stayed on until 2018 as the company continued to grow. He also co-founded Veracenter, which had a strategic exit after growing to $80 million in annual revenue.

"The common theme across both companies and why we were able to grow is real simple: Customer and people," Hall says.

Houston might be one of the country's best kept secrets when it comes to midmarket activity, Hall notes — midmarket companies being defined as those with $50 million to $1 billion in revenue.

"What Houston doesn't get enough credit for is the midmarket in Houston, which I think is tremendous," Hall says. "It's as strong as anywhere else in the country."

AlertLogic was able to tap into this midmarket to quickly grow its client base.

Something else that differentiates Houston from other cities is its culture, which is less focused on the glitz and glam and more focused on hard work.

"Engage with people that have a credible story and a credible plan to solve a problem," he says.

Houston is growing. 

One thing each of the entrepreneurs agreed on is that the city is only growing its resources and quality of startups.

"I see Houston as sort of a startup in the startup world," Kreuer says. "And, what we're trying to do is grow and catch up to the West Coast and the East Coast, but I think Texas as a whole is going to be pretty powerful, and Houston is going to be a central part of that mainly because we have the markets here, and the people in the area and the talent to do that."

As Houston's success stories become more frequent, this provides an avenue for more entrepreneurs turned investors.

"When you've done it before, you've learned the lessons, and you feel like you can do it again and again," Gowda says. "That's what we're trying to do. You see all the possibilities here."

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Greentown Labs appoints Houston founder among 4 new board members

All a-board

Greentown Labs, a Massachusetts-based climatetech startup incubator with its secondary location in Houston, has appointed four new board members.

Of the new appointees, two community board members have been named in order to act as liaisons between startups and Greentown Labs. Greentown Houston's appointed representation is Nisha Desai, founder and CEO of Intention, and community member. The other new board members are Gilda A. Barabino, president of Olin College of Engineering and professor of biomedical and chemical engineering; Nidhi Thakar, senior director of resource and regulatory strategy and external engagement for Portland General Electric; and Leah Ellis, co-founder and CEO of Sublime Systems, who is the Sommerville location's community board member).

"It is important for a startup incubator to have leadership and insight from stakeholders including the public and private sector, academic and university communities," says Greentown Labs CEO Dr. Emily Reichert in a news release. "These leaders bring a wealth of knowledge relevant to not only climatetech but to our continued growth as an organization. Their voices will be important to have at the table as Greentown charts its course for the next decade of climate action."

Desai's current startup, Intention, is climate impact platform for retail investors, and she has previously worked at six energy-related startups including Ridge Energy Storage, Tessera Solar, and ActualSun, where she was co-founder and CEO. She's also worked in a leadership role at NRG Energy and spent several years as a management consultant with the energy practice of Booz Allen Hamilton — now Strategy&, a PWC company.

"I'm honored to join the board of Greentown Labs as a representative of the startup community," she says in the release. "This is a pivotal time for climate and energy transition. I look forward to working with the rest of the board to expand the collective impact of the Greentown Labs ecosystem."

The four new appointees join seven existing board members:

  • Alicia Barton, CEO of FirstLight Power (Board Chair)
  • Katherine Hamilton, Chair of 38 North Solutions
  • Dawn James, Director of US Sustainability Strategy and Environmental Science at Microsoft
  • Matthew Nordan, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Prime Impact Fund and General Partner at Azolla Ventures
  • Kathleen Theoharides, Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Commonwealth of Massachusetts
  • Mitch Tyson, Principal at Tyson Associates and Co-Founder of the Northeast Clean Energy Council
  • Dr. Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs

Houston fund makes first local investment in $8M deal

money moves

A Houston-based investment fund has announced its its latest deal that includes an investment into a local direct-to-consumer supplement company.

GP Capital Partners has invested in Qualitas Health, known as iwi, which produces plant-based omega-3 and protein products that's sold directly to consumers as well as retailers across the United States. Iwi's nutrition supplement is sustainably sourced from the company's cultivation pond systems, which are the size of football fields and located in New Mexico and Texas.

“We are excited about our investment in iwi. They have a proprietary and scalable process to create in-demand products in a sustainable manner," says Gina Luna, principal of the fund, in the news release. "We look forward to working with iwi’s management team as they pursue this transformative opportunity.”

The $8 million deal — $5.5 million in senior secured term debt and a $2.5 million direct equity investment — will help iwi accelerate sales of its existing products and ramp up development, marketing, and growth of new protein-based product, according to the release. Iwi will also enter new international markets.

“The iwi team looks forward to working with GP Capital Partners following their investment in our growing company. We have big plans for accelerating our growth, and are pleased to partner with this team that brings both expertise and relationships to support us in this new stage of the company," says Miguel Calatayud, CEO of iwi, in the release.

Outside of GP, the Houston company's other investors include Grupo Indukern, Gullspång Re:food VC, PeakBridge VC, , Arancia Group, Trucent, SASA, and Minrav. GP launched its $275 million fund last year. It's structured as a Small Business Investment Company and will deploy funding into 20 to 25 companies within the Gulf Coast region.

The supplement company is based in Houston. Photo via Instagram

How company behavior guides activists’ choices, according to this Houston researcher

houston voices

It’s been more than 100 years since Pavlov’s dog showed the world that behavior is often guided by forces we don’t comprehend.

The same is true of the interaction between companies and protestors, according to Rice Business professor Alessandro Piazza and Fabrizio Perretti of Bocconi University in Milan. In a recent study, the scholars show that when protestors fight to change a company’s policy, their future choices of where and how much to protest are shaped by the company’s response.

Moreover, the outcome may not be what either group has planned for. Companies that meet protestor demand often inadvertently spur the protestors to demonstrate further; conversely, companies that refuse to give in tend to propel protestors to redirect their energies toward related but different issues.

The researchers based their conclusions on a deep dive into the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and 1980s, and a close analysis of protests and company responses in specific locations.

During the time period studied, the researchers found, public sentiment toward nuclear energy changed from mild support to open hostility in the form of an organized protest movement. To quantify this movement’s impact on nuclear power plant construction, the researchers studied the aftermath of protestors’ local victories.

In Massachusetts, for example, the first nuclear power protest in 1974 persuaded Northeast Utilities to postpone, and then permanently cancel, its plant. This reaction, Piazza and Perretti found, catalyzed local protestors. In the years that followed, the region became one of the United States’ strongest bastions of anti-nuclear activism.

In order to quantify how company actions affected protests, the researchers first measured the number of U.S. protest events by geographic location from 1970 to 1995. They then compared this number to the number of nuclear facilities either completed or cancelled over a one-year time period within 100 miles of a given demonstration. They included controls to account for local economic and political differences upon local activism, and for any geographic bias of the newspaper sources used to identify protest events.

The patterns they found were intriguing. Proposing a new plant for construction boosted anti-nuclear protests by 18 percent in a 100-mile radius. Cancelling construction of a plant drove a 27 percent increase in anti-nuclear protests. And when a new nuclear plant was completed and connected to the grid, the researchers witnessed a 2.3 percent increase in the number of protests not directly aimed at nuclear power plants.

The reason for the increase in other protests when a company prevailed and built a power plant? The researchers hypothesize that each time a plant was completed, demoralized activists attached themselves to other movements.

These results raised a related question. Did company decisions on one type of controversy, such as a nuclear power plant, lead to greater support for related protest movements or for unrelated ones? The former, it turns out.

To measure this, the researchers again looked at protests within given regions and categorized them into anti-nuclear weapon protests, environmental protests, public policy protests, anti-war protests and protests against the proximity of a given plant to a specific property, that is, “not in my backyard” protests.

Nuclear power opponents, they found, were most likely to turn to adjacent issues such as protests against nuclear weapons. Protest activities, in other words, have a domino effect.

While most research tracks the effects of activism on companies, Piazza and Perretti’s study shows that the way companies act is also a critical event driver. Company choices can actually drive the evolution of activism, triggering activist mobilization in other causes.

The research represents a challenge to traditional explanations of activism, which usually assume that mobilization and protests are most effective early on then dwindle over time, regardless of the behavior of the organization.

Piazza and Perretti’s findings suggest a valuable lesson for companies, especially those operating in more than one location: Their decisions in one place may actually escalate activism elsewhere. Pacific Gas & Electric successfully acted on this insight in the 1980s. Working with the Sierra Club, the company swapped the cancellation of one site at Bodega Bay, California — the target of frequent protests — for support of a plant at a second site elsewhere in the state at Diablo Canyon.

The findings also offer important insight for activists choosing a company on which to focus. These activists should keep in mind that the companies most likely to capitulate are also the ones most likely to feed a movement going forward — providing, in effect, the possibility of a double win.

Meanwhile, even if they fail in one effort, activists can take heart that their energy isn’t necessarily wasted. Only a little further afield, a similar movement may gain momentum from demoralized protestors looking for a new cause.

------

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.