Houston-based Topl has raised over $700,000 in its seed round. Getty Images

Kim Raath is pretty proud of her company right about now. Not only is she proud that her startup, Topl, a blockchain network with applications across industries, closed a 20 percent oversubscribed $700,000 seed round, but because she did it in a way that was directly in line with her company's values.

"Every investor that is invested now has focused on both the purpose and the profit, and I'm big on that," Raath, president and co-founder of Topl, says.

Houston-based Topl was created by a few Rice University graduates and doctoral students — Raath, Chief Technology Officer James Aman, and CEO Chris Georgen. The founders wanted to create a way to track impact in various industries, such as carbon footprints in oil and gas or fair wages for farmers in agriculture.

The team has built six blockchain platforms that operate on the Topl network — two are live now, and four will go live later this year. The platforms are focused on four different areas: agriculture (tracking food products from the farm to the shelves), mining (diamonds, for instance), sustainability and impact (tracking a program to see how it succeeds), and carbon credits and renewables within the energy industry.

"It's a validation time for us," Raath tells InnovationMap. "With two platforms already live and collecting transaction fees, we are now at a point where there are actual blockchain transactions happening on our network."

The fact that Topl's technology is already up and running is rare. For this reason, Raath says she has to focus a lot on educating investors, clients, and the rest of the community — something that's really important to her.

"In the blockchain space, there are not a lot of real applications live anywhere," Raath says. "A lot of people are selling ideas that can be built on blockchains, but have not executed yet."

Topl partnered with European NGO Fairfood to create an agricultural blockchain platform that currently is live. Shoppers in the Netherlands can buy a pack of nutmeg and track the product's progress from the farmer who grew and sold the spice. The other already launched platform is focused on sustainability. Topl worked with the Texas Coastal Exchange to create a carbon credit marketplace that can sell carbon offsets generated through the natural carbon sequestration activities of land the organization holds along the Texas coast.

"For us this round is taking these four spaces and validating ourselves, proving out volume, the blockchain's ability, and then, the big thing is, to build out our next version of our blockchain," Raath says.

Raath says the fundraising round was different from what she expected, but she's excited about her investors. Seventy percent of the round was raised by Houstonians, and 40 percent of the investors were women, she says. Topl also had investor interest across industries and backgrounds — from Rice University professors to former banking execs.

The round doesn't technically have a lead investor, but Samantha Lewis, director at the GOOSE Society of Texas, led a syndicate of investors that made up more than 40 percent of Topl's round. Lewis says the round was too early stage for something GOOSE investors would typically contribute to, but she believes in the company so much that she worked nights and weekends to accomplish some of the things a lead investor would do during a raise.

"Since this was their first big round that they raised, I stepped in to help advise them — thinking about the terms, strategic investors, how to pitch to different people, if they needed to oversubscribe, and little details like that," Lewis says. "Through working with them in this way, I was doing diligence with them, and I got really excited about it."

Lewis, who volunteers a lot within the Rice network, met Raath through Georgen and the two hit it off. Lewis was then able to bring in investors from her network to contribute under her syndicate.

This passionate group of value-add investors who are personally committed to the company is what makes this seed round different for Raath. Their commitment is encouraging to her.

"I 100 percent believe that the investors in this round will not allow Topl to fail," Raath says.

With the money, Topl will be able to grow its platforms, provide better product features, and increase marketing efforts. Topl's customers are drawn to the technology because of the business efficiency the blockchain adds to their supply chain, but they are also excited about how having this technology differentiates them from their competition. Raath says she's interested in growing Topl's ability to do joint marketing campaigns with their customers.

This type of promotion leads to a growing clientbase, and Raath says she sees an overwhelming interest from potential clients. Not only is Topl creating a series of platforms in various industries, but the company itself is connecting other companies through their clients.

"Topl is not just a technology," Raath says, "it's an ecosystem."

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston investor on SaaS investing and cracking product-market fit

Houston innovators podcast episode 230

Aziz Gilani's career in tech dates back to when he'd ride his bike from Clear Lake High School to a local tech organization that was digitizing manuals from mission control. After years working on every side of the equation of software technology, he's in the driver's seat at a local venture capital firm deploying funding into innovative software businesses.

As managing director at Mercury, the firm he's been at since 2008, Gilani looks for promising startups within the software-as-a-service space — everything from cloud computing and data science and beyond.

"Once a year at Mercury, we sit down with our partners and talk about the next investment cycle and the focuses we have for what makes companies stand out," Gilani says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The current software investment cycle is very focused on companies that have truly achieved product-market fit and are showing large customer adoption."

An example of this type of company is Houston-based RepeatMD, which raised a $50 million series A round last November. Mercury's Fund V, which closed at an oversubscribed $160 million, contributed to RepeatMD's round.

"While looking at that investment, it really made me re-calibrate a lot of my thoughts in terms what product-market fit meant," Gilani says. "At RepeatMD, we had customers that were so eager for the service that they were literally buying into products while we were still making them."

Gilani says he's focused on finding more of these high-growth companies to add to Mercury's portfolio amidst what, admittedly, has been a tough time for venture capital. But 2024 has been looking better for those fundraising.

"We've some potential for improvement," Gilani says. "But overall, the environment is constrained, interest rates haven't budged, and we've seen some potential for IPO activity."

Gilani shares more insight into his investment thesis, what areas of tech he's been focused on recently, and how Houston has developed as an ecosystem on the podcast.

Houston startup scores $12M grant to support clinical evaluation of cancer-fighting drug

fresh funding

Allterum Therapeutics, a Houston biopharmaceutical company, has been awarded a $12 million product development grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

The funds will support the clinical evaluation of a therapeutic antibody that targets acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), one of the most common childhood cancers.

However, CEO and President Atul Varadhachary, who's also the managing director of Fannin Innovation, tells InnovationMap, “Our mission has grown much beyond ALL.”

The antibody, called 4A10, was invented by Scott Durum PhD and his team at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Licensed exclusively by Allterum, a company launched by Fannin, 4A10 is a novel immunotherapy that utilizes a patient’s own immune system to locate and kill cancer cells.

Varadhachary explained that while about 80 percent of patients afflicted with ALL have the B-cell version, the other 20 percent suffer from T-cell ALL.

“Because the TLL population is so small, there are really no approved, effective drugs for it. The last drug that was approved was 18 or 19 years ago,” the CEO-scientist said. 4A10 addresses this unmet need, but also goes beyond it.

Because 4A10 targets CD127, also known as the interleukin-7 receptor, it could be useful in the treatment of myriad cancers. In fact, the receptor is expressed not just in hematological cancers like ALL, but also solid tumors like breast, lung, and colorectal cancers. There’s also “robust data,” according to Varadhachary for the antibody’s success against B-cell ALL, as well as many other cancers.

“Now what we're doing in parallel with doing the development for ALL is that we're continuing to do additional preclinical work in these other indications, and then at some point, we will raise a series A financing that will allow us to expand markets into things which are much more commercially attractive,” Varadhachary explains.

Why did they go for the less commercially viable application first? As Varadhachary put it, “The Fannin model is to allow us to go after areas which are major unmet medical needs, even if they are not necessarily as attractive on a commercial basis.”

But betting on a less common malady could have a bigger payoff than the Allterum team originally expected.

Before the new CPRIT grant, Allterum’s funding included a previous seed grant from CPRIT of $3 million. Other funds included an SBIR grant from NCI, as well as another NCI program called NExT, which deals specifically with experimental therapies.

“To get an antibody from research into clinical testing takes about $10 million,” Varadhachary says. “It's an expensive proposition.”

With this, and other nontraditional financing, the company was able to take what Varadhachary called “a huge unmet medical need but a really tiny commercial market” and potentially help combat a raft of other childhood cancers.

“That's our vision. It's not economically hugely attractive, but we think it's important,” says Varadhachary.

Atul Varadhachary is the managing director of Fannin Innovation. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston researcher scores prestigious NSF award for machine learning, power grid tech

grant funding

An associate professor at the University of Houston received the highly competitive National Science Foundation CAREER Award earlier this month for a proposal focused on integrating renewable resources to improve power grids.

The award grants more than $500,000 to Xingpeng Li, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and leader of the Renewable Power Grid Lab at UH, to continue his work on developing ways to use machine learning to ensure that power systems can continue to run efficiently when pulling their energy from wind and solar sources, according to a statement from UH. This work has applications in the events of large disturbances to the grid.

Li explains that currently, power grids run off of converted, stored kinetic energy during grid disturbances.

"For example, when the grid experiences sudden large generation losses or increased electrical loads, the stored kinetic energy immediately converted to electrical energy and addressed the temporary shortfall in generation,” Li said in a statement. “However, as the proportion of wind and solar power increases in the grid, we want to maximize their use since their marginal costs are zero and they provide clean energy. Since we reduce the use of those traditional generators, we also reduce the power system inertia (or stored kinetic energy) substantially.”

Li plans to use machine learning to create more streamlined models that can be implemented into day-ahead scheduling applications that grid operators currently use.

“With the proposed new modeling and computational approaches, we can better manage grids and ensure it can supply continuous quality power to all the consumers," he said.

In addition to supporting Li's research and model creations, the funds will also go toward Li and his team's creation of a free, open-source tool for students from kindergarten up through their graduate studies. They are also developing an “Applied Machine Learning in Power Systems” course. Li says the course will help meet workforce needs.

The CAREER Award recognizes early-career faculty members who “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the NSF. It's given to about 500 researchers each year.

Earlier this year, Rice assistant professor Amanda Marciel was also

granted an NSF CAREER Award to continue her research in designing branch elastomers that return to their original shape after being stretched. The research has applications in stretchable electronics and biomimetic tissues.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.