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.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston expert: How to thrive as an employer amid The Great Resignation

guest column

With Baby Boomers and older generations exiting the workforce in droves and COVID-19 variants still straining hospitals and doctors’ offices, the health-care industry is experiencing its own “Great Resignation” at a time when health-care occupations are projected to add more jobs than any other occupational group.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook reports that “Employment in health-care occupations is projected to grow 16 percent from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations, adding about 2.6 million new jobs … mainly due to an aging population, leading to greater demand for health-care services.”

This greater demand might run into a supply issue if employers don’t act swiftly to find creative ways to retain and recruit their staffs. Today’s workforce knows its value and is no longer so easily enticed or satisfied with basic benefits packages. It’s an employee market and employers across all industries are having to step up and bring their A-game when it comes to retention and recruitment.

What you can do to up your ‘A-game’ in 2022

COVID has taught employers that they must change to survive. Spend the time now to develop a strategic plan that will allow you to adapt and improve throughout the year. Be sure to give yourself a cushion in your budget that will allow you to meet new employee demands as they arise and to be generous with relocation and sign-on incentives when you compete for top talent. You can later list these incentives in your job advertisements and highlight any other benefits that might capture interest and bring talent into your organization.

Start your recruitment and retention efforts with a survey of your staff. Find out what they really need and want from you, then try to find ways to meet their demands. Some simple ways for you to take care of your employees right now include:

Bring employees meals to their floor.

Hospitals are becoming filled up once again with sick patients and most are understaffed as employees are contracting COVID from patients. Treat your staff to healthy food—not cookies and cakes—allow them to really stop and take 15 minutes to breathe and fuel their body. This can be done twice or three times a week for each shift. Talk to them about food options or restrictions so that everyone feels like they can participate.

Bring in a counselor on a monthly basis that employees may access during their shift.

Providing this accessible, valuable resource will give your staff the opportunity to address their mental health and wellness and can help you reduce burnout among your ranks.

Allow at least one meeting a week to be focused solely on your employees.

Often the shift start-up meetings are rushed due to the day’s demands. Spend at least one of these meetings a week asking your team things like, “Where do you feel you impacted someone this week?” or ask everyone to share a personal achievement that has helped them personally keep going. This will help you build unity with your team and develop a more positive, empathetic relationship.

Provide bonus incentives to take on extra shifts.

There’s a lot of work to be done and often too few people to do it, so make it worth their while by offering a bonus for taking on more work than normal. You can also provide an option for them to earn overtime on a rotation so they can plan accordingly and still have opportunities for rest and a life balance.

Help relieve the stress of being in a high-risk environment by offering additional paid sick leave for a COVID-related absence.

The paid leave should be for the employee to quarantine at home and convalesce or care for an immediate family member who has the disease, and it should not take away from their accrued unused time off. Consult your HR advisor or attorney to find out whether paid sick leave is legally required in your jurisdiction.

Say “thank you.”

It may sound overly simple but just having the executive leadership go in and say thank you, shake hands, or even show up to a shift meeting can show the staff that their leadership cares about their hard work and recognizes the excellent care they are providing to their clients and patients. People in health care or associated service industries just want to know that they are making a difference, so share positive feedback from patients when you can. It matters.

------

Denise Macik is the manager of strategic HR advisory services for G&A Partners, a leading professional employer organization that has been helping entrepreneurs grow their businesses for more than 25 years.

Houston 3D printing company closes latest round of funding, plans to hire

money moves

Roboze — an Italian high-performance 3D printing company with its U.S. headquarters in Houston — closed a multimillion-dollar round of funding this month with investments from an international group of leaders from diverse backgrounds.

Investors include Nova Capital, Lagfin, Andrea Guerra, Luigi De Vecchi, Roberto Ferraresi, Luca Giacometti, Denis Faccioli and others, according to a statement.

“We are honored to have a group of investors of this caliber, who strongly believe in the vision of Roboze and in the change of production paradigm that our technology is enabling by replacing metals and producing parts without wasting raw materials," Alessio Lorusso, founder and CEO of Roboze, said in a statement.

Roboze aims to put the funds towards the research and development of a new "super material" developed in the company's R&D facility in Italy, where the company is also building a new chemistry lab.

The company added that it will also be implementing an aggressive hiring plan in 2022, hiring 60 experts in the next 12 to 18 months in fields such as materials science, chemistry, business development, aerospace, medical devices, and field and applications engineering. Half of the new jobs will be based in the U.S. while the others are slated to be located in Italy and Germany.

Roboze specializes in manufacturing industrial 3D printing technology, such as its ARGO1000, which the company says is the largest printer of its kind. Through a process called Metal Replacement 3D Printing, the company uses super polymers and composites like PEEK and Carbon PEEK to create large-scale, end-use parts for an array of industries—from aeronautics equipment to medical manufacturing.

The company currently works with GE, Bosch, and Airbus, among others, and announced in the statement that manufacturing giant Siemens Energy acquired its first 3D printer from the company.

"We think additive manufacturing is playing a key role in digitalization and cost out in the energy sector. At Siemens Energy we evaluated many companies and found that Roboze technology for high temperature polymers has met our engineering qualification and expectations," Andrew Bridges, Service Frame Owner at Siemens Energy, said in a statement. "As a result, we acquired our first machine and look forward to expanding our relationship with Roboze."

Atlanta growth equity firm acquires Houston health care startup

M&A moves

A Houston-based startup specializing in minimally invasive vascular procedures has made an exit.

Fulcrum Equity Partners, based in Atlanta, has announced the acquisition of Texas Endovascular Associates, a specialty physician practice across five locations in the greater Houston area. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“We are excited to partner with the Texas Endovascular team to continue growing the impressive platform they have already built,” says Tom Greer of Fulcrum Equity Partners in a news release. “The company has created a differentiated service model and is well positioned to continue its growth in Texas. We look forward to building on this strong presence in the state as well as pursuing strategic acquisitions as we expand its geographical footprint.”

Fulcrum manages over $600 million in assets and provides expansion capital to rapidly growing companies within health care — including IT, B2B software, and more.

The new funding will spur Texas Endovascular's growth into its next phase of business.

“We knew that finding the right equity partner was critical to our long-term growth prospects,” said Sean Mullen, CEO of Texas Endovascular. “After an exhaustive search and after meeting with multiple prospective PE firms, we chose Fulcrum because of their healthcare experience, collaborative approach, and impressive track record. We are excited to enter this new chapter in our company’s life with Fulcrum as our partner."

The two entities collaborated with Founders Advisors LLC, a merger, acquisition, and strategic advisory firm serving middle-market companies.

“Working with the founders of the practice, Drs. Fox and Hardee, as well as the CEO, Sean Mullen, was a pleasure. The entire team at Texas Endovascular acted as a cohesive unit and persevered to find the right partner in Fulcrum," says Michael White, managing director at Founders Advisors. "We are grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this process and we are looking forward to the future of Texas Endovascular in partnership with Fulcrum”.