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

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.

Blair Garrou joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss venture capital investing in 2020. Photo via mercuryfund.com

Houston expert shares how COVID-19 has affected venture capital locally and beyond

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 64

Locally, Blair Garrou, managing director at Mercury Fund, was among the first in the Houston innovation ecosystem to recognize what COVID-19 could do to the world of venture capital, innovation, and more.

At a panel for Houston Exponential's Tech Rodeo on March 6, Garrou observed that the pandemic had the potential to affect the venture capital market regarding valuations and investing.

"I never expected what happened, I just expected the markets to correct," says Garrou on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

While the pandemic posed challenges for startups and investors alike, Garrou says he sees some silver linings to how COVID-19 affected tech adoption. Non-tech and innovation companies have lost a lot of value, according to the S&P 500 Index, but tech and innovation companies have doubled their values. Some experts say that the pandemic has pushed user adoption by a decade or more.

"Everyone finally understands that digital transformation and automation are here to stay," Garrou says. "Just look at our backyard and what the oil and gas industry has gone through. ... I don't think anyone could have through through all of this, but it's put tech ecosystems on notice because what's happened since the end of April to December is unprecedented in the tech space."

With so much uncertainty, it's safe to say the volume of venture capital investing is down, but over the past several months, VC activity has returned, Garrou says. Now, Garrou says he sees later stage deals — like series C rounds — are down, but early stage investing is up as individual investors want in on tech.

"People are realizing that money is in innovation and tech — especially in software," Garrou says. "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."

Garrou shares more about what all he's keeping a close eye on as we enter a new year, plus what's happening at Mercury Fund in the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


From new board members at Houston Exponential to startups receiving funding, here are the latest short stories of Houston innovation. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

Houston tech company receives corporate investment, HX names new board members, and more innovation news

short stories

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and it's likely some might have fallen through the cracks.

For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, a startup snags funding from a new corporate venture group, a blockchain startup gets major kudos, CTV's latest investment, and more.

HX names newest board members

HX has five more members of its board. Photo courtesy

Houston Exponential has announced five new members to its governing board. Joining the group is:

  • Stephanie Campbell, managing director of the Houston Angel Network and general partner at The Artemis Fund
  • Martha Castex-Tatum, Houston City Council member
  • Gordon Daugherty, co-founder and president of Capital Factory
  • Emily Keeton, CFO of Mercato and co-founder of Station Houston
  • Roberto Moctezuma, founder and CEO of Fractal River
The board is chaired by Barbara Burger of Chevron and Chevron Technology Ventures. She will continue on as chair until the end of next year, when Blair Garrou of Mercury Fund will take over.

New corporate venture fund makes first investment

Houston-based SmartAC emerged from stealth mode this summer. Photo courtesy of smartac.com

Pinnacle Ventures, a corporate venture fund created by Pinnacle based just outside of Houston in Pasadena, announced the company has invested in Houston-based SmartAC.com, a member-based technology platform that monitors the health of air conditioning systems.

The deal is Pinnacle Ventures' first investment and will help SmartAC.com expand their service offerings to homeowners and top-level HVAC service providers.

"We are excited to have Pinnacle Ventures invest in our company and to have Ryan Sitton, founder and CEO of Pinnacle, join our board," says Josh Teekell, founder and CEO of SmartAC.com, in a news release. "The capital provided by Pinnacle Ventures will help us accelerate the growth required to meet our customer demand, which has scaled quickly since our launch in June.

"Additionally, this capital will help us power a new residential connected service economy for a $30 billion industry while offering our service partners a way to increase loyalty through improved transparency and customer experience," Teekell continues. "We're very much aligned with Pinnacle Ventures' focus on improving reliability through innovation and are confident that this investment will help us support our end users."

Data Gumbo recognized as an innovative blockchain company

CB Insights ranked 50 blockchain companies and one Houston startup made the cut. Photo via CB Insights

CB Insights released its inaugural Blockchain 50 ranking and named Houston-based Data Gumbo among the top blockchain companies in the world.

"The Blockchain 50, which we've created in conjunction with Blockdata, was born out of a desire to reduce that uncertainty and recognize the pioneering companies using the blockchain," says CB Insights CEO Anand Sanwal in the study. "This inaugural class of the Blockchain 50 is tackling a range of use cases across trade finance, capital markets, exchanges and more and are being used by banks, governments and major retailers."

Combined, the 50 companies included in the ranking have raised over $3 billion across 113 deals since 2017.

"Being named to this CB Insights' list is an honor and testament to the power of Data Gumbo's blockchain network GumboNet," says Andrew Bruce, CEO and Founder, of Data Gumbo in a news release. "Our smart contracts enable companies to leverage blockchain technology across the global business infrastructure to capture critical cost savings and value, forging a new foundation for commercial transactions: one based on trust, transparency, speed and visibility."

Currux Vision is deploying its technology in California

The Houston company's technology has been tested in California. Photo via currux.vision

Houston-based Currux Vision, which uses infra-tech artificial intelligence and machine learning solutions for smart city infrastructure, has conducted testing with the city of San Jose, California, and its department of transportation.

According to the tests, Currux Vision's SmartCity ITS can operate at 99 percent accuracy in the city. Moreover, Currux Vision can achieve high resolution results with older legacy digital and analog camera systems that offer lower resolution. Testing included but was not limited to vehicle detection and classification, turning movement counts, pedestrian counts, bicycle discrimination, stopped vehicles, and speeding, according to a press release.

"Increasing urbanization, traffic, mode shift, and increasing focus on safety drive the urgent need for a next-generation traffic management solution like our SmartCity ITS," says Alex Colosivschi, founder and CEO of Currux Vision, in the release. "We believe that efficient mobility and being able to do more with less creates economic opportunities, enables trade, improves quality of life, and facilitates access to markets and services effectively leveraging resources. ... We are happy to have worked with a great partner like San José's Department of Transportation to prove these transportation solutions."

Chevron Technology Ventures invests in software company

Chevron Technology Ventures, led by Barbara Burger, has announced its latest investment. Courtesy of CTV

Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures has invested in a Denver-based container platform company's latest round. Nubix today announced it has closed $2.7 million in seed financing led by Tuscan Management with strategic investment from Chevron Technology Ventures, in addition to participation from other new investors.

"Businesses worldwide are investing in digital transformation initiatives with IoT-based solutions," says Rachel Taylor, Nubix co-founder and CEO, in a news release. "Our unique innovation in container and services technology enables unprecedented agility and safety when building, deploying and managing applications at the edge.

"We're delivering on digital transformation's requirements for agile compute at the edge, empowering organizations to analyze data in real-time where the data is actually created. This is a massive market opportunity for Nubix and we look forward to working hand-in-hand with our new investors as we drive agility and intelligence to the edge."

Golden Section Ventures invests in Austin startup

GSV has invested in Accelerist's impact-driven software. Image via accelerist.com

Austin-based Accelerist Inc. raised a $1 million investment round led by Houston-based Golden Section Ventures to catalyze the company's growth plans. Accelerist specializes in social impact partnership technology that nonprofits use to prospect, screen, access and measure the efficacy of their relationships with each other.

"We are very impressed with what Brittany (Hill, CEO and founder) and her team have built and are excited to join the journey," says Dougal Cameron, General Partner at GSV. "We are confident that Accelerist can be the standard of excellence for social impact partnership technology. This solution is more needed than ever."

Mercury Fund led Topl's $3 million seed round. Photo via Getty Images

Houston blockchain startup closes $3 million seed led by local VC

money moves

A Houston-based blockchain company that focuses on providing companies with ethical and sustainable practices within the supply chain has closed a $3 million round with support from investors both locally and across the country.

Today, Topl announced the closing of its seed round, which was led by Houston-based Mercury Fund with support from Houston-based GOOSE Capital, Chicago-based Chingona Ventures, Dallas-based RevTech Ventures, and New York-based firms Beni Venture Capital, Blue Collective, and Social Impact Capital.

"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."

According to the release, Topl will use the fresh funds to speed up the launch of the company's blockchain-as-a-service solution for early next year.

Earlier this month, Topl announced a partnership with Denver-based TrackX, a software-as-a-service asset management and supply chain solution provider, aimed at combining technology to create a verifiable tracking and tracing solution to equip company supply chains with sustainability, transparency, and efficiency. Ultimately, it's Topl's goal to allow its users the ability to stand out to customers as sustainable and responsible brands — something that's become increasingly more important to consumers.

"A company's social and environmental impact has become a necessary point of differentiation for brands, and Topl has the potential to be the leading player for brands who are serious about [Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance]," says Blair Garrou, managing director of Mercury Fund.

To date, Topl has raised $4.4 million in funding. It's first seed round closed September 2019. For that round, Samantha Lewis, formerly director of GOOSE Capital, was instrumental, according to the release.

"Kim and the Topl team have created a custom-designed method to measure and verify your company's sustainability efforts. We're excited to be part of this intersection of cutting-edge technology and positive impact," Lewis, who's now on the board of the startup, says in the release.

Topl's technology has the ability to affect any industry, and the company has worked with tracing products from diamonds and chocolate to natural resources and even COVID-19 testing.

"Topl's track-and-trace solution appeals to so many core industries: from healthcare to agriculture to energy," says Manolo Sánchez, former chairman and CEO of BBVA Compass and also a member of Topl's board, in the release. "Anyone who needs to ensure transparency, efficiency and sustainability would benefit from their technology."

Heath Butler has been promoted to managing director of Mercury Fund, and Samantha Lewis joins the firm as principal. Photos courtesy

Houston venture capital firm makes strategic hire and promotion

fund news

A Houston-based venture capital firm has made some moves in its personnel. Mercury Fund has made one new hire and one promotion.

Mercury Fund, which focuses on early-stage startups located in central United States, announced the promotion of Heath Butler to managing director from network partner. Additionally, Samantha Lewis — formerly investment director at Houston-based Goose Capital — is joining the fund as principal.

"Over the past few years, we've continued to build our investment team with top talent from our ecosystem," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release.

"The promotion of Heath and the addition of Samantha will further Mercury's early-stage venture leadership in Middle America, and is illustrative of Mercury's deep commitment to diversity as a core value driver," continues Garrou.

Butler joined Mercury over a year ago and has over 20 years of experience in the Houston startup ecosystem. A serial entrepreneur, he recently co-founded Houston-based Urban Capital Network, an angel investment group dedicated to democratizing capital and wealth generation for underrepresented investors. In his new role, he will continue this work to engage underrepresented founders in the community for Mercury Fund.

Meanwhile, Lewis — a Rice University MBA graduate — joins Mercury from a few years serving Goose Capital, a group of high-networth investors and serial entrepreneurs. At Goose, Lewis was responsible for leading deal sourcing, structuring, and portfolio management. Formerly a startup founder herself, Lewis will be responsible for assisting in in the review and diligence of new early-stage investment opportunities and continues to improve and diversify Mercury's deal sourcing processes.

Mercury Fund was founded in 2005 in Houston by Garrou and Dan Watkins. The firm has an office in Ann Harbor, Michigan, and has funded several Houston-founded startups, including Spruce, Ambyint, and more.

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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 is how much credit card debt the average Houstonian carries, says report

MONETARY MISFORTUNE

Residents of Houston are nursing New Year's hangovers of another kind — credit card debt.

According to a LendingTree study of the 50 largest U.S. metro areas, Houston consumers rank fourth for the highest median amount of credit card debt to ring in the new year: $3,720. In second place is Austin ($3,911), with Dallas at No. 7 ($3,560). San Antonio holds down the No. 14 spot ($3,414).

Hartford, Connecticut, claims the dubious distinction of ranking first in this category, with median credit card debt of $3,994.

Matt Schulz, LendingTree's chief credit analyst, says people with good credit and high income typically are more inclined to carry bigger credit card balances, since they usually have access to higher credit limits. But he notes that a significant number of younger consumers carry a high amount of credit card debt.

"When you're young and don't have a lot of financial experience, that scary combination can lead to more debt, especially for those living in big, expensive cities," according to LendingTree.

By another yardstick, Texas' four major metros fare much better in the LendingTree study.

Houston ranks 38th for the share of credit card users with debt (81.1 percent). Austin ranks No. 21 (84.7 percent), followed by Dallas at No. 37 (81.2 percent), and San Antonio at No. 48 (75.7 percent).

LendingTree researchers used an anonymized sample of more than 40,000 My LendingTree users from the first 15 days of December 2020 to estimate the percentage of credit card users carrying debt into 2021. They also relied on that data to compile median credit card debts.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three innovators who have tons to share — from recent venture capital data and observations to public relations and marketing tips for startups.

Kathryn Worsham Humphries, co-founder of All You Need

What does your company plan on bringing into the new year — and how do you plan to communicate your efforts? Photo courtesy of All You Need Method

It's a new year — and it's time for a new marketing and public relations plan for your startup. Thankfully, that's exactly what Houstonian Kathryn Worsham Humphries and her New York-based business partner Carla M. Nikitaidis specialize in with their new company, All You Need. The duo penned a guest column for InnovationMap last week with tips for refocusing on your target audience and prioritizing authenticity.

"Remember, these challenging times will pass," they write. "There is massive opportunity for the businesses and brands who are willing to reflect, pivot, and plan for a brighter future." Read more.

Heath Butler, network partner at Mercury Fund

Mercury Fund's Heath Butler joins the Houston Innovators Podcast this week to discuss Houston, venture capital, and more. Photo via mercuryfund.com

After 14 years at human resources company Insperity, Heath Butler has a specialty when it comes to thinking about the future of work. Butler was recently promoted within Mercury and the the move represents another aspect the firm is focusing on — something Butler discusses on last week's Houston Innovators Podcast episode.

"The world continues to be shaped by how the workforce and the workplace — and the actual work gets — done, and that couldn't have been put to the forefront more than during COVID," Butler says. "The promotion really reflects my focus on building out a very broad and deep theme for the firm around the future of work." Read more and stream the episode.

Serafina Lalany, chief of staff at Houston Exponential

HX has released a report on Houston venture capital. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Serafina Lalany and her team at Houston Exponential have crunched the numbers again to look at what sort of venture capital deals Houston startups brought in last year.

According to her report based on Pitch Book data, the Bayou City dredged up $715 million across 117 VC deals in 2020 — a year marked by challenges and opportunities from the pandemic and the oil price drop.

In the report, Lalany found that 2020 VC trends in Houston included fewer, larger deals and a rise in angel investment. Read more.