HX has been acquired by InnovationMap's parent company. Photo via Getty Images

The nonprofit organization established in 2017 to advance awareness and opportunities for the Houston Innovation Ecosystem has been acquired by a local business.

Gow Companies has acquired of the assets of Houston Exponential. The terms of the deal were not disclosed. (Gow Companies' portfolio includes InnovationMap, as well as CultureMap, SportsMap, sports festival provider Pokatok, sports tech accelerator Pokatok Labs, ESPN radio, a sports tech-focused SPAC, and other strategic entities.)

The company plans to build upon the organization's mission and increase programming and access while leveraging new revenue streams, according to a news release.

“To say that HX was the ‘shot-in-the-arm’ Houston needed to accelerate our tech and innovation growth would be an understatement,” says Blair Garrou, HX board chair and managing director of early-stage venture capital firm Mercury. “HX has helped unlock the collaborative potential of founders and investors in the startup scene, local government, academic institutions, and the corporate sector to connect, promote and to attract talent, companies, and capital to Houston. This transaction celebrates that success and acknowledges the next stage of Houston’s evolution.”

Some of the accomplishments HX has observed in its tenure includes growing local VC activity from $284 million in 2016 to $2.34 billion in 2021, five Houston startups reaching valuations of more than $1 billion, increased local presence for several large tech companies, and attracting and standing up startup development organizations such as The Ion, Greentown Labs, The Cannon, and more.

The acquisition includes HX's brand and events — including the Houston Tech Rodeo and Houston’s tech gala, The Listies — and will recognize the sponsorships that have already been contracted with respect to upcoming events. The two events are in line with Gow Companies' mission, according to the release.

“HX plays a critical and unique role in the ecosystem and truly serves as Houston’s front door to our entrepreneurial community,” says Lawson Gow, partner of Gow Companies and founder of the Cannon. “Gow Companies is a collection of businesses that can be leveraged to advance the impactful work that HX has been doing in our city over the past five years.”

Andrew White (left) and Blair Garrou are at the helm of the new black check company. Photos courtesy

Houston VC leaders announce SPAC with $175M IPO

blank check

A blank check company has hit the Nasdaq today with a $175 million initial public offering.

Mercury Ecommerce Acquisition Corp. announced its IPO of 17,500,000 units at a price of $10 per unit to be listed on The Nasdaq Capital Market with the ticker symbol "MEACU" beginning today,

The company is led by Chairman Blair Garrou, managing director of Mercury Fund, and President and CEO Andrew White, a limited partner of Mercury Fund and president of Sweat Equity Partners.

According to a press release from the SPAC, the company was "formed for the purpose of effecting a merger, share exchange, asset acquisition, share purchase, reorganization, or similar business combination with one or more businesses or entities."

"While the company may pursue an investment opportunity in any business or industry, it intends to focus its search for a target business or businesses in the e-commerce technology and tech-enabled services industry in North America," reads the release.

A close is expected by the company on July 30, subject to customary closing conditions. Needham & Company is managing the offering.

Molecule has closed new funding in order to focus on the energy transition. Photo via Getty Images

Houston SaaS startup closes $12M series A funding round with support from local VC

money moves

A Houston startup with a software-as-a-service platform for the energy transition has announced it closed a funding round with participation from a local venture capital.

Molecule closed its $12 million series A, and Houston-based Mercury Fund was among the company's investors. The company has a cloud-based energy trading and risk management solution for the energy industry and supports power, natural gas, crude/refined products, chemicals, agricultural commodities, softs, metals, cryptocurrencies, and more.

"We led the seed round of Molecule upon their formation and are excited to participate in their series A," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release. "Molecule's success in the ETRM/CTRM industry, especially in relation to electricity and renewables, positions them as the company to beat for the energy transition in the 2020s."

The company will use its new funds to further build out its product as well as introduce offerings to manage renewables credits, according to the release.

"In 2020, we realized that electricity — the growth commodity of the 2020s — represented over half of Molecule's customer base, and we decided to double down," says Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule, in the release. "We were also rated the No. 1 SaaS ETRM/CTRM vendor. With this fundraise, we have the fuel to become No. 1 SaaS platform for power and renewables, and then the market leader overall.

"Molecule is ready to power the energy transition," Soleja continues.

Molecule's last round of funding closed in November 2014. The $1.1 million seed round was supported by Mercury Fund and the Houston Angel Network.

Houston-based Cart.com, which equips e-commerce businesses with a suite of software services, has raised $45 million in venture capital investment since its founding in September. Photo via cart.com

Houston-based e-commerce software startup and Amazon competitor raises $25M in its series A

Money moves

An end-to-end e-commerce services provider based in Houston has closed its series A round of financing led by a Houston venture capital group.

Cart.com announced the closing of its $25 million led by Houston-based Mercury Fund and Florida-based Arsenal Growth with contribution from Austin-based Moonshots Capital and Ohio-based Scarlet Venture Fund. The new round follows its $20 million Seed round led by Amsterdam-based Bearing Ventures.

The company was founded last September by two former entrepreneurs — Omair Tariq, former executive at Home Depot and COO of Blinds.com, serves as CEO and Jim Jacobsen, co-founder and former CEO of RTIC Outdoors, serves as executive chairman.

"We know the pain points brands face in the e-commerce value chain because we have experienced them firsthand. We built Cart.com to solve those problems and deliver unequaled value for brands from a single platform," Jacobsen says in a news release.

The duo wanted to create a suite of software solutions that allows brands to "grow their e-commerce capabilities with less friction than the fragmented plug-in and vendor intensive approach available today," according to the release.

"The current e-commerce offerings favor the service providers, not the brands," Tariq says in the release. "We are on a mission to flip that dynamic and put the sellers back in charge of their e-commerce journey and their customer relationships. Our team will continue to obsess over our brands' success, so they can obsess over their customers. This is what will create tremendous long term shareholder value and be the true measure of our success."

The e-commerce-as-a-service, or ECaaS, company will use the funds to grow to meet increasing customer demand and hire new team members. Per the release, Cart.com has an "aggressive growth strategy" and has already made five acquisitions to date, including storefront software platform AmeriCommerce, a storage supplies business with fulfillment services across the country, and two digital marketing agencies.

"Competition in the e-commerce market is reaching a precipice, and only those companies with the pedigree, vision, technology and the been-there-done-that perspective will be able to truly shift the surge away from market monopolies and provide power back to the brands themselves to the benefit of the businesses and their customers," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director at Mercury. "Our financial commitment illustrates our confidence in the mission and strategy of Cart.com. The team assembled has incredible opportunity to be a true market leader and pioneer ECaaS in the e-commerce services space."

2020 brought over $700 million in venture funding deals into Houston, and startups saw larger deals in the first half of the year with a growing interest in angel activity. Image via Getty Images

Report: 2020 brought fewer, larger VC deals for Houston — but angel investment is on the rise

venture capital update

Houston startup's venture capital deals continue to grow in 2020, according to a new report from Houston Exponential. Last year, VC dollars were up, while deal count was down, representing more mature deals coming into the ecosystem — but the second half of the year was defined by a growth in angel investment interest.

The report by Serafina Lalany, chief of staff for HX, found that the Bayou City brought saw $715 million across 117 VC deals, according to Pitch Book data. It's the fourth year Houston has seen VC growth, and last year the city reported over $563 million across 168 deals.

"Houston has put concerted efforts into building its innovation ecosystem," says Harvin Moore, president of HX, in a release, "and 2020's record-breaking results show we are seeing not only resilience in the tech sector, but a significant increase in the rate of formation and success of growth-stage companies, which have an outsized effect on our local economy in terms of high paying job potential and Houston's increasing attractiveness as a great place to work."

Last August, HX published a report on the first half of the year and that study found that Houston — facing the challenges of both the pandemic and the oil price drop — managed to see a 7 percent increase in funding compared to the national average of 2.5 percent. With the second half of the year, the city's VC increase from last year was over 25 percent and up 252 percent since 2014.

The other difference between the first and second halves of the year for Houston VC was the stages of the deals made. Most of Houston's larger deals took place in the first and second quarters — and even the beginning of Q3 — of 2020:

But the second half of the year seemed like Houston's earlier stage VC activity returned, and Blair Garrou, managing partner at Houston-based Mercury Fund, confirmed this to InnovationMap on the Houston Innovator's Podcast in December.

"Seed rounds have definitely bounced back. We're seeing a lot of seed activity, because there's been a lot of seed funds raised," Garrou said on the podcast, adding that he's observed an increase in angel investment interest. "People are realizing that money is in innovation and tech — especially in software."

In her report, Lalany found that in Houston, angel investments are out-pacing seed, creating a "competitive environment."

"The addition of multi-stage and nontraditional investment firms into the arena has created upward pressure in deal valuations and sizes. The average seed round in 2015 was $1 million, whereas today it's double that," the report reads. "With these firms turning inward to focus on protecting their current investments at the start of the pandemic, the propensity for smaller, more riskier investments have declined."

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of the Houston Angel Network, said she's seen a rise in new membership for the organization. Last August, she was on track to get to 150 members — up from just 60 in 2018.

"Despite COVID, we've continued to grow," Campbell told InnovationMap, adding that she's heard investors express that they have more time now to dive in. "People are very much still interested in learning about deploying their capital into early-stage venture. They're looking for a network of like-minded individuals."

In contrast to this early stage activity, the VC activity that was still occurring was defined by larger deals. With VC essentially halting in March and April — especially in cities like Houston, Garrou adds — it makes sense that investors wanted more "sure things" and would invest more funds into companies they already know, versus being able to source new deals in person.

"When you go to later stages, there are a lot fewer deals going on," Garrou continues on the podcast. "Now, there may be larger investments being made, but I think they are into fewer companies, and I think that's just due to the the pandemic and the ability just to not be able to do face-to-face."

As Houston moves through 2021, the city is poised well for more growth and a continued diversification from just oil and gas, as Moore says in the release.

"Houston Exponential was created four years ago by civic and business leaders to deal with an existential problem: our dependence on the energy and medical sector without a thriving startup culture to lead us towards a future that will look very different from the past," he says. "COVID and the de-carbonization movement have made that need much more urgent — it's both a huge challenge and an enormous opportunity."

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Abbey Donnell of Work & Mother, Blair Garrou of Mercury Fund, and Randa Duncan Williams. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In the first weekly roundup of Houston innovators of 2021, I'm introducing you to three innovators across the city — one of the richest people in Houston, a venture capital expert, and a female founder with big plans for 2021.

Abbey Donnell, founder of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell is looking forward to growing Work & Mother in 2021. Courtesy of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell is making sure that when new moms go back to work in downtown Houston in 2021, they'll have a suite of professional, spa-like rooms to pump in. Work & Mother has recently opened its latest location in Three Allen Center and designed it with comfort and safety in mind.

"Pumping at work has always been incredibly hard for mothers. Now, with the pandemic, there are the added complications of germ spread, closed community spaces, and repurposed wellness rooms, which makes pumping at work nearly impossible. Yet, most employers still have a legal obligation to provide a proper space for nursing mothers," says Abbey Donnell, founder and CEO of Work & Mother, in a news release. Click here to read more.

Blair Garrou, managing director of Mercury Fund

Blair Garrou joined the Houston Innovators Podcast this week. Photo via MercuryFund.com

Despite the rollercoaster of a year 2020 has been for venture capital, Blair Garrou says he's never been busier. One thing he's seen increased is an interest in early stage investing — this, he says, is happening as the pandemic has shown a spotlight on the importance of tech and ramped up digitization in business.

"People are realizing that money is in innovation and tech — especially in software," Garrou says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I can't tell you how many individual investors who call interested in investing in Mercury as a fund or our companies. People are not getting the return they desire from the markets and they are seeing tech companies do great things." Click here to read more and stream the podcast episode.

Randa Duncan Williams, owner of Texas Monthly

One of the four richest people in Houston, Randa Duncan Williams owns Texas Monthly. Photo courtesy of Texas Monthly

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the richest of them all? Nevermind, mirror. Forbes just told us. Houston's Duncan family, with a net worth of $22 billion, who once again appear on the annual Forbes ranking of America's richest families. (The Duncans come in at No. 11 on the Forbes list.)

The four children of pipeline mogul Dan Duncan — Randa Duncan Williams, Milane Frantz, Dannine Duncan Avara, and Scott Duncan — inherited a $10 billion estate from their father when he died in 2010. The net worth of each heir exceeds $5 billion.

Randa enjoys the highest profile among the four Duncan siblings. She is chairwoman of Houston-based Enterprise Products Partners, the pipeline giant founded by her father, and owns Austin-based Texas Monthly magazine. Click here to read more.

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Houston hospital joins the metaverse with new platform

now online

Houston Methodist has launched a platform that is taking medical and scientific experts and students into the metaverse.

The MITIEverse, a new app focused on health care education and training, provides hands-on practice, remote assistance from experienced clinicians, and more. The app — named for the Houston Methodist Institute for Technology, Innovation and Education, aka MITIE — was created in partnership with FundamentalVR and takes users into virtual showcase rooms, surgical simulations, and lectures from Houston Methodist faculty, as well as collaborators from across the world.

“This new app brings the hands-on education and training MITIE is known for to a new virtual audience. It could be a first step toward building out a medical metaverse,” says Stuart Corr, inventor of the MITIEverse and director of innovation systems engineering at Houston Methodist, in a news release.

Image courtesy of Houston Methodist

The hospital system's DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center has created a virtual showcase room on the app, and users can view Houston Methodist faculty performing real surgeries and then interact with 3D human models.

"We view the MITIEverse as a paradigm-shifting platform that will offer new experiences in how we educate, train, and interact with the health community,” says Alan Lumsden, M.D., medical director of Houston Methodist DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center, in the release.

“It essentially democratizes access to health care educators and innovators by breaking down physical barriers. There’s no need to travel thousands of miles to attend a conference when you can patch into the MITIEverse," he continues.

Image courtesy of Houston Methodist

Houston doctors get approval for low-cost COVID vaccine abroad

green light

A Houston-born COVID-19 vaccine has gotten the go-ahead to be produced and distributed in Indonesia.

PT Bio Farma, which oversees government-owned pharmaceutical manufacturers in Indonesia, says it’s prepared to make 20 million doses of the IndoVac COVID-19 vaccine this year and 100 million doses a year by 2024. This comes after the vaccine received authorization from the Indonesian Food and Drug Authority for emergency use in adults.

With more than 275 million residents, Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country.

IndoVac was created by the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and Baylor College of Medicine. Drs. Peter Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi lead the vaccine project. Bio Farma is licensing IndoVac from BCM Ventures, the commercial group at the Baylor College of Medicine.

“Access to vaccines in the developing world is critical to the eradication of this virus,” Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, says in a news release.

Aside from distributing the vaccine in Indonesia, Bio Farma plans to introduce it to various international markets.

“The need for a safe, effective, low-cost vaccine for middle- to low-income countries is central to the world’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Bottazzi, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and associate dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor.

“Without widespread inoculation of populations in the developing world, which must include safe, effective booster doses, additional [COVID-19] variants will develop, hindering the progress achieved by currently available vaccines in the United States and other Western countries.”

Bio Farma says it has completed Phase 1 and Phase 2 clinical trials for IndoVac and is wrapping up a Phase 3 trial.

IndoVac is a version of the patent-free, low-cost Corbevax vaccine, developed in Houston and dubbed “The World’s COVID-19 Vaccine.” The vaccine formula can be licensed by a vaccine producer in any low- or middle-income country, which then can take ownership of it, produce it, name it, and work with government officials to distribute it, Hotez told The Texas Tribune in February.

Among donors that have pitched in money for development of the vaccine are the Houston-based MD Anderson and John S. Dunn foundations, the San Antonio-based Kleberg Foundation, and Austin-based Tito’s Vodka.

“During 2022, we hope to partner with the World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies to vaccinate the world. We believe that global vaccine equity is finally at hand and that it is the only thing that can bring the COVID pandemic to an end,” Hotez and Bottazzi wrote in a December 2021 article for Scientific American.

Houston research: How best to deliver unexpected news as a company

houston voices

According to Forbes, the volume of mergers and acquisitions in 2021 was the highest on record, and 2022 has already seen a number of major consolidation attempts. Microsoft’s acquisition of video game company Activision Blizzard was the biggest gaming industry deal in history, according to Reuters. JetBlue recently won the bid over Frontier Airlines to merge with Spirit Airlines. And, perhaps most notably, Elon Musk recently backed out of an attempt to acquire Twitter.

It can be hard to predict how markets will react to such high-profile deals (and, in Elon Musk and Twitter’s case, whether or not the deal will even pan out). But Rice Business Professor Haiyang Li and Professor Emeritus Robert Hoskisson, along with Jing Jin of the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, have found that companies can take advantage of these deals to buffer the effects of other news.

The researchers looked at 7,575 mergers and acquisitions from 2001 to 2015, with a roughly half-and-half split between positive and negative stock market reactions. They found that when there’s a negative reaction to a deal, companies have two strategies for dealing with it. If it’s a small negative reaction, companies will release positive news announcements in an attempt to soften the blow. But when the reaction is really bad, companies actually tend to announce more negative news afterward. Specifically, companies released 18% less positive news and 52% more negative news after a bad market reaction.

This may seem counterintuitive, but there’s a method to the madness, and it all has to do with managing expectations. If people are lukewarm on a company due to a merger or acquisition, it’s possible to sway public opinion with unrelated good news. When the backlash is severe, though, a little bit of good PR won’t be enough to change people’s minds. In this case, companies release more bad news because it’s one of their best chances to do so without making waves in the future. If people already think poorly of a company due to a recent deal, more bad news isn’t great, but it doesn’t come as a surprise, either. Therefore, it’s easier to ignore.

It might make more sense to just keep quiet if the market reaction to a deal is bad, and this study found that most companies do. However, this only applies when releasing more news would make a mildly bad situation worse. If things are already bad enough that the company can’t recover with good news, it can still make the best out of a bad situation by offloading more bad news when the damage will be minimal. Companies are legally obligated to disclose business-related news or information with shareholders and with the public. If it’s bad news, they like to share it when the public is already upset about a deal, instead of releasing the negative news when there are no other distractions. In this case the additional negative news is likely to get more play in the media when disclosed by itself.

But what happens when people get excited about a merger or acquisition? In these cases, it also depends on how strong the sentiment is. If the public’s reaction is only minimally positive, companies may opt to release more good news in hopes of making the reaction stronger. When the market is already enthusiastic about the deal, though, companies won’t release more positive news. The researchers found that after an especially positive market reaction to a deal, companies indeed released 12% less positive news but 56% more negative news. Also, one could argue that the contrasting negative news makes the good news on the acquisition look even better. This may be important especially if the acquisition is a significant strategic move.

There are several reasons why a company wouldn’t continue to release positive news after a good press day and strong market reaction. First of all, they want to make sure that a rise in market price is attributed to the deal alone, and not any irrelevant news. A positive reaction to a deal also gives companies another opportunity to disclose bad news at a time when it will get less attention. If the bad news does get attention, the chances are better that stakeholders will go easy on them — a little bit of bad press is forgivable when the good news outshines it.

Companies may choose to release no news after a positive reaction to a merger or acquisition, the same way they might opt to stay quiet after backlash. They’re less likely to release positive news when stakeholders are already happy, preferring to save that news for the next time they need it, either to offset a negative reaction or strengthen a weak positive reaction.

Mergers and acquisitions can produce unpredictable market reactions, so it’s important for companies to be prepared for a variety of outcomes. In fact, Jin, Li and Hoskisson found that the steps taken by companies before deals were announced didn’t have much effect on the public’s reaction. They found that it’s more important for companies to make the best out of that reaction, whatever it turns out to be.

The researchers also found that, regardless of whether the market reaction was positive or negative, as long as the reaction was strong, companies could use the opportunity to hide smaller pieces of bad news in the shadow of a headline-making deal. Overall, the magnitude of the reaction mattered more than the type of reaction. People tend to have stronger reactions to unexpected news, though, so companies prefer to release negative news when market expectations are already low.

These findings are relevant beyond merger announcements, of course; they also point to strategies that could be useful in everyday communications. A key takeaway is that negative information is less upsetting when people already expect bad things — or when it comes after much bigger, and much better, news. Bad news is always hard to deliver, but this research gives us a few ways to soften the blow.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Jing Jin, Haiyang Li and Robert Hoskisson.