Two Houston venture capitalists weigh in on the state of startup investing in an economic climate recovering from the COVID-19 crisis. Getty Images

It's no secret that — in light of coronavirus-caused closures, market disruption, and historic unemployment — venture capitalist might be a little more hesitant to join in on a startup's investment round. Yet one Houston VC group has managed amidst the crisis — and even succeeded in closing its most recent fund.

Fitz Gate Ventures, which operates out of Houston but with the support of Princeton University, announced the closing of its Fund II on May 5. Focusing on seed and pre-seed rounds, co-founders and managing directors Mark Poag and Jim Cohen will be looking for startups across industries — usually with some revenue and customer base — to write around $500,000 checks to.

At a virtual panel event hosted by Houston Exponential, the investors say they have appreciated focusing on smaller deals in times like these — it's allowed them to work closely with their portfolio of 15 startups, two of which (Cheers and Spruce) have roots in Houston.

"We are definitely more hands-on with our founders," Cohen says on the panel, noting that it feels like they are having board meetings daily — virtually, of course.

Most of these meetings, Poag explains, are focusing on making sure the portfolio startups have enough runway with their cash reserves to make it at least through the end of the year without any new sales. Of course, that's meant cutting salaries and employees and finding other options to operate in a lean way.

Fitz Gate also has stayed in touch virtually with its Friends of Fitz group — a unique network of Princeton-related professionals (such as faculty, fellow VCs, domain experts, etc.) that give the investors and their portfolio companies a strategic advantage.

While the video conferences are useful to stay in touch with existing portfolio companies, Poag says he — as well as other VCs — might be wary of making new investments in this capacity.

"We haven't invested in any new companies since the COVID situation, but it will be interesting to see if we and other venture capital firms get comfortable with making investments without an in-person meeting," says Poag on the panel.

Generally, Cohen says he has observed a different investment environment since the beginning of March, and there's no clear indication when things will change.

"I think in the short-term, investing will be slower. Basically, people are still trying to figure out what's going on," Cohen says, noting how, in March, the tides seemed to change every 24 hours. "Now, things have started to slow down, but the ground is still shifting beneath our feet. I think most venture investors are proceeding cautiously."

Something else to keep an eye on, as the Fitz Gate founders have experienced, is that startups are making changes to their products in order to provide a more relevant offer to customers. One of the fund's portfolio companies is Houston-founded Spruce, which recently started offering disinfecting deals along with its concierge services to apartment dwellers.

"None of our companies have pivoted to change anything they are doing fundamentally to take advantage of the situation," says Cohen, citing some supply chain software startups and a charity-based startup that have also seen business success during the COVID-19 crisis.

However, approaching VCs for the first time is now a different story, amidst the crisis. While the Fitz Gate founders explain that they open and respond to every email inquiry from startups, that's not the case for most VCs who prefer a warm introduction — but maybe not even that considering the current economic climate.

"If you're approaching a venture investor today, you might get a bit of a weird look," Cohen says of startups looking to fundraise.

On the virtual panel, the duo shared some insight on their passion for venture funding, as well as some general advice for startups. One key takeaway from the investors was a reminder that most VCs are funding between 1 and 2 percent of deals that come across their table.

"Don't get discouraged," Cohen says. "Any venture fund you talk to, they're not geniuses. They are operating on very limited information about whatever it is you pitched them in a really short fashion."

While it is disheartening to hear a "no" from an investor, it doesn't mean the startup's idea or product isn't valid.

In wrapping up the call, Cohen remarks on the environment for Houston innovation. While he admits the ecosystem lacks access to funding, he observes that this will change in a matter of time.

"It's amazing how many startups in Houston — and the support infrastructure," Cohen says, noting startup development organizations like The Ion, The Cannon, and more. "So much going on in this ecosystem, so I think, in that sense, it's an incredibly vibrant place to be as a founder."

From restaurant finding apps to a healthy food startup — these are the lifestyle startups to watch in Houston. Getty Images

5 Houston lifestyle startups changing the way you live, work, and play

Companies to watch

While sometimes it seems like a lot of the Houston innovation landscape is energy and medical tech companies, there are several lifestyle-focused startups that fly under the radar. Whether it's a fizzle cocktail creator — or a cure for a hangover from said fizzy cocktail — these five Houston startups are ones to watch.

Cheers

Cheers, which has its office out of The Cannon, serves up pre-drinking pills to prevent any day after regrets. Courtesy of Cheers

While the sharks on Shark Tank didn't bite, Brooks Powell's Houston-based startup, Cheers, went on to close a $2.1 million seed round lead by NextView Ventures, which has the likes of TaskRabbit, thredUP, and Letgo among its portfolio. The new investment, Brooks says, has been helping the company rebrand from Thrive, its original moniker, to Cheers.

Powell thought up the company when he was a sophomore at Princeton University. He came across the science surrounding his product's key ingredient, Dihydromyricetin, a natural extract — like caffeine to coffee — that had been identified as an anti-alcohol treatment in 2012 following experiments on the effects on rats.

"I started working with some of my professors and asking them if it was safe and would it be effective," Powell says. Read more about Cheers' growth and origin story here.

Work & Mother

Work & Mother gives new moms a save, stylish place to pump during the workday. Courtesy of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell has been advocating for new mothers long before she had any babies of her own. Though, as of a few weeks ago, the founder of Work & Mother claims a new title of mom to her newborn son.

While laws regulate employers to have private nursing rooms available for new moms, most either offer sub-par conditions or worse — none at all.

"There were constant stories about [women] being told the use the IT closet, or the conference room, or the bathroom or their cars," Donnell tells InnovationMap. "Some of them were pretty big oil and gas firms companies that should've had the resources and space to do better than that."

Work & Mother offers a solution that solves the problem on both sides: A suite of nursing rooms in a downtown office building where business can purchase memberships for employees — and new moms can have a stylish, relaxing place to pump. Read more about Work & Mother here.

Crityk

Crityk's main goal is to be a marketing asset to restaurants. Getty Images

What started as Sumit Sikka's mission to find the best Moscow Mule in Santa Monica has turned into a restaurant locating tool that doubles as a marketing platform for eateries. Houston-based Crityk launched last fall and now serves Houston and Austin restaurants.

"That was kind of the first big pivot," Sikka says. "First, we had an app based on user content. Then we pivoted to have content curated by the restaurant. For the first time ever, the restaurant gets to create their own profile."

There are hundreds of restaurants from Houston on the app now. Read more about Crityk here.

My Drink Bomb

What started as an idea to get her kids to drink more water has turned into a profitable party favor company. Courtesy of My Drink Bomb

Chloé Di Leo was just trying to encourage her kids to drink more water is now by creating fizzing, flavored drink mixes. She sent some extras to school with her kids, who then came home that day with $40.

"Our kids took some to school and came home with some pocket change," Di Leo tells InnovationMap. "They weren't supposed to sell it, but the kids liked it."

Di Leo realized there was a market for these mixes — specifically for adult beverages. She launched My Drink Bomb LLC in Houston at the beginning of summer 2018 and tells InnovationMap that the product was inspired by bath bombs, fizzing once added to a beverage. She created the company with her husband, William Roberts. Together, they own a few local businesses, and Di Leo also is also a jewelry designer at her own store, Chloé Di Leo & Co. Read more about My Drink Bomb here.

The Blonde Pantry

The Bayou City has its own Blue Apron-style startup with locally sourced produce. Courtesy of The Blonde Pantry

While Marla Murphy, a local entrepreneur and nutritionist, has helped Houstonians make healthy decisions with her food blog and consulting company for years, she wasn't sure she was doing enough. Now, the Houstonian has expanded from her meal delivery service to her own store front for locally sourced meals and meal kids.

Murphy relaunched her company, The Blonde Pantry, in March of last year she says to create the only local meal delivery service for the greater Houston area. She opened her store at 2800 Kirby Dr. in February. Read more about The Blonde Pantry here.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.