A panel of Houston innovators explained how impact investment isn't charity. It provides both financial and societal returns. Photo courtesy of SWAN

Houston innovators called for existing and potential investors to focus on impact investing — for the improvement of both society and your bottom line.

SWAN Impact Network, which announced its expansion into Houston earlier last month, is an investment organization that prioritizes funding mission driven startups and educating angels on how to analyze impact investment companies. The organization hosted a launch event and panel at the Ion last week to discuss the process and goals of impact investing and highlighted their own success stories as angel investors. The panelists included Bob Bridge, Kerri Smith, and Emily Reiser, who were moderated by Grace Rodriguez, executive director of Impact Hub Houston.

Emily Reiser, associate director of the Texas Medical Center’s innovation team, said impact investing, though focused on improving people’s lives through innovations, should still rely on typical business models and return profiles.

“It’s not charity investment, it’s investing with an eye towards how that investment is going to also return to the greater society as well as back to your pockets,” Reiser says.

As there was a mix of prospective angel investors and entrepreneurs in attendance at the event, Reiser encouraged the founders to have formal business plans in place before meeting with investors, from setting up customer feedback systems to budgeting estimates.

“In the impact space you’ll get some great enthusiasm from people who want to join your mission to save lives, or change the world, or save the planet but make sure you do all the rest of the work behind that to build out the rest of your business model, figure out how you’re going to sell, get it optioned, and on the market,” Reiser says.

Bob Bridge, the founder and executive director of SWAN, stressed the importance of examining long term consequences of impact-driven startups. Bridge illustrated the importance of doing research into how these startups could unintentionally harm communities before investing in them by discussing the well known shoe manufacturer TOMS, whose business model revolved around matching each pair of purchased shoes by donating a pair to people in developing countries, putting local manufacturers out of business.

“These companies are often just now entering the market place so they can’t measure their actual impact results yet because they’re not delivering services or products yet,” Bridge says. “We look for them to have some sort of data to give us a clue if what they’re doing is going to work … convince us there is efficacy to what you are doing and that your impact solution is competitive.”

Bridge also adds there is no concrete definition of impact investing because every society has different needs to be met through creative solutions, from developing more robust technology to encouraging the hiring of underrepresented minority groups. When making decisions over which companies to invest in, Bridge says he also prioritizes startup teams that are collaborative and transparent.

“We don’t invest in Steve Jobs' kind of personalities … We want people who are always learning from their customers, competitors, and employees,” he explains.

Kerri Smith, executive director of the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator program, says her team readies their emerging startups to tackle meetings with investors by asking them to quantify the impact of their technology on users.

“We’re seeing a lot of investors as well as boards of directors requiring companies to be more responsive to those kinds of things,” Smith says. “We try to prepare the startups in ways that will make them more ready to answer questions about the impact that they’re having societally as well as financially.”

Austin-founded SWAN Impact Network has entered the Houston innovation ecosystem. Photo via Getty Images

Texas angel investor group expands to make impact in Houston

angels flying in

An angel investment network founded in Austin has announced its entrance into the Houston market.

SWAN Impact Network, which focuses on funding early-stage, impact-driven startups, announced that Houston will be its next market expansion. Founded in 2016, the organization expanded to Dallas two years ago. Now, SWAN is hitting the Bayou City and is actively looking for potential angel investors to join its network.

"Houston is the logical place for us to go because a lot of our deep expertise we developed is grounded around life science, health and wellness, and environmental," Bob Bridge, executive director of SWAN, tells InnovationMap. "There's a lot of people in Houston in the spaces where we've spent most of our time and money."

SWAN, originally founded as the Southwest Angel Network, has grown from several investors to over 80 across Texas. The investors, who meet virtually, range from former entrepreneurs, seasoned investors, and first time angels.

Valerie Tompson, who's serving as the Houston market lead, is an example of someone who was drawn to SWAN's mission, even though she had never invested in startups before.

"I was intrigued by the idea of being able to invest in companies that are making a difference in the world — and it's not a charitable donation," she says, explaining that joining a network allowed for her to learn the ropes and understand the process.

Bridge says they are looking to add 20 Houston investors over the next year. He says they are also interested in adding on volunteer analysts to help in the diligence work of the group. Whether you're a frequent investor or just interested in learning more, SWAN's door is open.

"We encourage new angels not to invest at first — go with us for a ride for six months, learn how we think about companies, see a bunch of companies pitch," Bridge says. "Once they start to get the comfort level up, then they can start making investors. We're very much about helping new angels get comfortable."

Currently, SWAN has two Houston startups — Scriptly Rx and Eisana — in its investment portfolio. In addition to the investor network, SWAN, a nonprofit organization, also has its SWAN Impact Philanthropic Fund that also invests in impact-driven businesses.

SWAN is hosting an event at the Ion on Wednesday, May 31, at 6 pm to celebrate its new Houston expansion, as well as to host a panel discussing impact investing. The event is free to attend, and registration is open.

Valerie Tompson, Houston chapter lead, and Bob Bridge, executive director, will be at the May 31 event. Photos courtesy of SWAN

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Houston organizations launch collaborative center to boost cancer outcomes

new to HOU

Rice University's new Synthesis X Center officially launched last month to bring together experts in cancer care and chemistry.

The center was born out of what started about seven years ago as informal meetings between Rice chemist Han Xiao's research group and others from the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Baylor College of Medicine. The level of collaboration between the two teams has grown significantly over the years, and monthly meetings now draw about 100 participants from across disciplines, fields and Houston-based organizations, according to a statement from Rice.

Researchers at the new SynthX Center will aim to turn fundamental research into clinical applications and make precision adjustments to drug properties and molecules. It will focus on improving cancer outcomes by looking at an array of factors, including prevention and detection, immunotherapies, the use of artificial intelligence to speed drug discovery and development, and several other topics.

"At Rice, we are strong on the fundamental side of research in organic chemistry, chemical biology, bioengineering and nanomaterials,” Xiao says in the statement. “Starting at the laboratory bench, we can synthesize therapeutic molecules and proteins with atom-level precision, offering immense potential for real-world applications at the bedside ... But the clinicians and fundamental researchers don’t have a lot of time to talk and to exchange ideas, so SynthX wants to serve as the bridge and help make these connections.”

SynthX plans to issue its first merit-based seed grants to teams with representatives from Baylor and Rice this month.

With this recognition from Rice, the teams from Xiao's lab and the TMC will also be able to expand and formalize their programs. They will build upon annual retreats, in which investigators can share unpublished findings, and also plan to host a national conference, the first slated for this fall titled "Synthetic Innovations Towards a Cure for Cancer.”

“I am confident that the SynthX Center will be a great resource for both students and faculty who seek to translate discoveries from fundamental chemical research into medical applications that improve people’s lives,” Thomas Killian, dean of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences, says in the release.

Rice announced that it had invested in four other research centers along with SynthX last month. The other centers include the Center for Coastal Futures and Adaptive Resilience, the Center for Environmental Studies, the Center for Latin American and Latinx Studies and the Rice Center for Nanoscale Imaging Sciences.

Earlier this year, Rice also announced its first-ever recipients of its One Small Step Grant program, funded by its Office of Innovation. The program will provide funding to faculty working on "promising projects with commercial potential," according to the website.

Houston physicist scores $15.5M grant for high-energy nuclear physics research

FUTURE OF PHYSICS

A team of Rice University physicists has been awarded a prestigious grant from the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Physics for their work in high-energy nuclear physics and research into a new state of matter.

The five-year $15.5 million grant will go towards Rice physics and astronomy professor Wei Li's discoveries focused on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), a large, general-purpose particle physics detector built on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, a European organization for nuclear research in France and Switzerland. The work is "poised to revolutionize our understanding of fundamental physics," according to a statement from Rice.

Li's team will work to develop an ultra-fast silicon timing detector, known as the endcap timing layer (ETL), that will provide upgrades to the CMS detector. The ETl is expected to have a time resolution of 30 picoseconds per particle, which will allow for more precise time-of-flight particle identification.

The Rice team is collaborating with others from MIT, Oak Ridge National Lab, the University of Illinois Chicago and University of Kansas. Photo via Rice.edu

This will also help boost the performance of the High-Luminosity Large Hadron Collider (HL-LHC), which is scheduled to launch at CERN in 2029, allowing it to operate at about 10 times the luminosity than originally planned. The ETL also has applications for other colliders apart from the LHC, including the DOE’s electron-ion collider at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York.

“The ETL will enable breakthrough science in the area of heavy ion collisions, allowing us to delve into the properties of a remarkable new state of matter called the quark-gluon plasma,” Li explained in a statement. “This, in turn, offers invaluable insights into the strong nuclear force that binds particles at the core of matter.”

The ETL is also expected to aid in other areas of physics, including the search for the Higgs particle and understanding the makeup of dark matter.

Li is joined on this work by co-principal investigator Frank Geurts and researchers Nicole Lewis and Mike Matveev from Rice. The team is collaborating with others from MIT, Oak Ridge National Lab, the University of Illinois Chicago and University of Kansas.

Last year, fellow Rice physicist Qimiao Si, a theoretical quantum physicist, earned the prestigious Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship grant. The five-year fellowship, with up to $3 million in funding, will go towards his work to establish an unconventional approach to create and control topological states of matter, which plays an important role in materials research and quantum computing.

Meanwhile, the DOE recently tapped three Houston universities to compete in its annual startup competition focused on "high-potential energy technologies,” including one team from Rice.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.