Anu Puvvada, KPMG Studio leader, shares how her team is advancing software solutions while navigating hype cycles and solving billion-dollar-problems. Photo courtesy of KPMG

In 2021, KPMG, a New York-based global audit, accounting, and advisory service provider, formed a new entity to play in the innovation space. The Houston-based team finds innovative software that benefit KPMG's clients across industries.

"We're really focused on transformative businesses that we can offer our clients in the next three to five years to solve fairly large problems," Anu Puvvada, KPMG Studio leader, tells InnovationMap.

Now, almost two years later, KPMG Studio has spun out its first company, AI-based security startup Cranium, which has raised $7 million in a seed round led by SYN Ventures with support from KPMG.

Established to advance internal innovation, KPMG Studio's technologies don't always get spun out into startups like Cranium, but with support of the team, the early-stage ideas receive guidance from the company's resources with the potential to be rolled into KPMG's suite of services for its clients.

In an interview with InnovationMap, Puvvada shares more about the program, the Cranium spin out, and why she's passionate about leading this initiative from Houston.

InnovationMap: Tell me about KPMG Studio's structure and your overall goal with the program.

Anu Puvvada: I like to think about it more around framing. We frame the studio around three pillars: incubate, accelerate and amplify. We take in a lot of ideas that come from the business and from our clients and we incubate and see which of them are really high growth solving like a very large problem across verticals and horizontals. When I say a big problem — it's got to be a $1 billion-plus problem. With Cranium, we saw some very early indicators, like a rise in AI adoption amongst our clients. We saw that AI was in this spot where it was going to hit an exponential growth marker. We also saw a rise in cyber attacks. All of that plus conversations with clients made us realize that there's there's something big brewing here.

We're looking at a ton of ideas, and then parsing out maybe 10 that we create into the next Cranium. And then in accelerate, we're finding early adopters and we're growing the idea, building it, raising venture capital for the idea if we decide to spin it out.

IM: Seems like a mutually beneficial relationship between KPMG and these innovators, right?

AP: I would say it's good for KPMG because it allows us to innovate differently and innovate with agility. My group actually operates as a startup within a large organization. And then we create this ecosystem around startups inside KPMG, so when it exits, it's got the basis to run on its own. That's important for us because it gives us agility, it lets us really capitalize on our brand. It's not just what it brings us, but also what it brings our clients.

There's a big competitive advantage to innovating inside KPMG. These innovators get to work inside our walls protected by the infrastructure of KPMG. They, they get a technology team to help them build the idea. And they get to use their brand of KPMG, use our marketing engine, our comms engine, like everything that's behind us. A startup outside, it doesn't get any of that. So, it almost like accelerates them into market when the spin out happens. We use the differentiators and the competitive advantage of KPMG in order to amplify the story of that startup and their value proposition in the market.

IM: So there are two paths for these technologies, right?

AP: We either have what we call spin ins, which means it's created and spins into the business or we have spin outs, which is what Cranium is. We classify spin outs into its own startup or a sale of an asset. And then for the spin in, we would license to our clients under the mothership of KPMG.

IM: Is the studio operating completely in Houston?

AP: We source our ideas from all over nationally. I'm in Houston and a lot of my support team is actually in Houston as well. And I work with a lot of the Houston ecosystem around innovation. I really see Houston as a big future market. We are at the center of climate and ESG, the space economy, and medicine. Those are three big like curves that are going to be hitting in the next five years. So, it is integral for studio to be integrated into that ecosystem to position KPMG for the future.

IM: What's your vision for the studio?

AP: I definitely see us taking in more ideas into studio to build internally for our pioneers, which is what we call our innovators — Jonathan Dambrot, who is the founder of Cranium, he's the pioneer. We'll definitely be doing more Craniums that spin out of the firm. And we have a number that are spinning into the firm already.

I also see us evolving to bring in external startups into the studio so we can also give them the entire ecosystem a way to be lifted up and to shepherd each other into the future.

It's really important that anything that we invest in and we work on is staying measured through these hype cycles that are happening. We need to make sure that these ideas are grounded in the problem that's being solved in an adaptable way and that there's a strong market need for it. That's something that the studio really spends a lot of time doing in the beginning, which kind of helps mitigate some of these hype cycles for us and our clients.

When you think about innovation as a whole, it's mired with risk and uncertainty. You never know if something's going to work or not. And part of what we have to do with any idea that we're building in the studio or anything that our clients are doing around innovation, we have to do as much as we can to mitigate that risk and uncertainty. And that's kind of what KPMG's wheelhouse is.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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$100M Houston VC fund launches to back technical founders

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A new venture capital fund has launched with an initial $100 million mission of supporting founders with innovative critical infrastructure solutions.

Fathom Fund, which is looking to build out a portfolio of advanced computing, material science, climate resilience, and aerospace startups, announced they've launched with an initial close of over $100 million. The fund is founded by longtime investors Managing Partners Paul Sheng and Eric Bielke.

"We believe recent technological advances have accelerated the pace of scientific discovery, increasing the pool of technology companies that can produce venture-scale returns," Sheng says in a news release.

According to the fund, it hopes to bridge the gap for early stage capital for physical innovations and "moonshot" projects.

“What’s lacking in venture is rigorous technical diligence at the early stages and a playbook to scale these innovations at the pace necessary to lead industries," Bielke adds. "With this launch, we are looking forward to supporting founders with some of the most disruptive and novel ideas.”

The founder duo will bring each of the career expertise to their future portfolio companies. Sheng spent decades at McKinsey & Co and was the firm's head of the Global Energy & Materials practice. Bielke is a former director at Temasek’s Emerging Technologies Fund.

Houston is the 4th best U.S. city for Black professionals, report finds

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In acknowledgement of Black History Month 2024, a new report compiled by Black employees at online rental marketplace Apartment List has ranked Houston the No. 4 best U.S. city for Black professionals.

Apartment List reviewed 76 cities across four major categories to determine the rankings: community and representation; economic opportunity; housing opportunity; and business environment.

Houston earned a score of 63.01 out of a total 100 points, making it the second-highest-ranked city in Texas for Black professionals, behind San Antonio (No. 3).

The city earned top-10 rankings in three out of the four main categories:

  • No. 3 – Business environment
  • No. 4 – Community and representation
  • No. 10 – Economic opportunity
  • No. 21 – Housing opportunity

Houston is commended for its strong Black business environment and economy, but there is some room for improvement when it comes to housing. Similarly to Apartment List's 2022 report – which also placed Houston at No. 4 – a little less than half (44 percent) of all Black Houston households are spending over 30 percent of their income on housing, which has increased two percent since 2019.

Houston has a larger Black population than San Antonio, at 19 percent, but its Black population share is overall lower than other cities in the top 10.

"Furthermore, the community is well-represented in some critical occupations: 20 percent of teachers are Black, as are 21 percent of doctors," the report said. "Houston is also home to the HBCU Texas Southern University, helping a job market when the median Black income is several thousand dollars above average."

Houston also has the highest rate of Black-owned businesses in the entire state, at 18 percent.

"From the Mitochondria Gallery to Ten Skyncare and Wisdom’s Vegan Bakery, Houston has it all!" the report said.

Here's how Houston stacked up in other metrics:

  • Black homeownership: 42 percent
  • Black lawyers: 14 percent
  • Black managers: 14 percent

Elsewhere in Texas
Texas cities dominated the overall top 10. San Antonio ranked just above Houston, with Dallas (No. 6) and Austin (No. 7) not too far behind.

San Antonio came in less than 2.5 points ahead of Houston with a total score of 65.44 points. The report praised San Antonio's scores across its economic opportunity (No. 2), housing opportunity (No. 7), and community and representation (No. 10). The city ranked No. 20 for its Black business environment.

But like Houston, San Antonio also fell behind in its Black homeownership rates, according to the study.

"While the Black homeownership rate is higher than average at 44 percent, the homeownership gap (Black homeownership rate - non-Black homeownership rate) quite low at -19 percent," the report's author wrote. "Perhaps this could be explained by San Antonio’s overall homeownership rate, which is also lower than the state’s average. Additionally, the lower homeownership gap could explain the cost burden rate also being lower than average at 41 percent."

The top 10 cities for Black professionals are:

  • No. 1 – Washington, D.C.
  • No. 2 – Atlanta, Georgia
  • No. 3 – San Antonio, Texas
  • No. 4 – Houston, Texas
  • No. 5 – Palm Bay, Florida
  • No. 6 – Dallas, Texas
  • No. 7 – Austin, Texas
  • No. 8 – Colorado Springs, Colorado
  • No. 9 – Lakeland, Florida
  • No. 10 – Charlotte, North Carolina
The full report and its methodology can be found on apartmentlist.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston expert: Can Houston replicate and surpass the success of Silicon Valley?

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Anyone who knows me knows, as a Houston Startup Founder, I often muse about the still developing potential for startups in Houston, especially considering the amount of industry here, subject matter expertise, capital, and size.

For example, Houston is No. 2 in the country for Fortune 500 Companies — with 26 Bayou City companies on the list — behind only NYC, which has 47 ranked corporations, according to Fortune.

Considering layoffs, fund closings, and down rounds, things aren’t all that peachy in San Francisco for the first time in a long time, and despite being a Berkeley native, I’m rooting for Houston now that I’m a transplant.

Let’s start by looking at some stats.

While we’re not No. 1 in all areas, I believe we have the building blocks to be a major player in startups, and in tech (and not just energy and space tech). How? If the best predictor of future success is history, why not use the template of the GOAT of all startup cities: San Francisco and YCombinator. Sorry fellow founders – you’ve heard me talk about this repeatedly.

YCombinator is considered the GOAT of Startup Accelerators/Incubators based on:

  1. The Startup success rate: I’ve heard it’s as high as 75 percent (vs. the national average of 5 to 10 percent) Arc Search says 50 percent of YC Co’s fail within 12 years – not shabby.
  2. Their startup-to-unicorn ratio: 5 to 7 percent of YC startups become unicorns depending on the source — according to an Arc Search search (if you haven’t tried Arc Search do – super cool).
  3. Their network.

YC also parlayed that success into a "YC Startup School" offering:

  1. Free weekly lessons by YC partners — sometimes featuring unicorn alumni
  2. A document and video Library (YC SAFE, etc)
  3. Startup perks for students (AWS cloud credits, etc.)
  4. YC co-founder matching to help founders meet co-founders

Finally, there’s the over $80 billion in returns, according to Arc search, they’ve generated since their 2005 inception with a total of 4,000 companies in their portfolio at over $600 billion in value. So GOAT? Well just for perspective there were a jaw-dropping 18,000 startups in startup school the year I participated – so GOAT indeed.

So how do they do it? Based on anecdotal evidence, their winning formula is said to be the following well-oiled process:

  1. Bring over 282 startups (the number in last cohort) to San Francisco for 90 days to prototype, refine the product, and land on the go-to-market strategy. This includes a pre-seed YC SAFE investment of a phased $500,000 commitment for a fixed min 7 percent of equity, plus more equity at the next round’s valuation, according to YC.
  2. Over 50 percent of the latest cohort were idea stage and heavily AI focused.
  3. Traction day: inter-portfolio traction the company. YC has over 4,000 portfolio companies who can and do sign up for each other’s companies products because “they’re told to."
  4. Get beta testers and test from YC portfolio companies and YC network.
  5. If they see the traction scales to a massively scalable business, they lead the seed round and get this: schedule and attend the VC meetings with the founders.
  6. They create a "fear of missing out" mentality on Sand Hill Road as they casually mention who they’re meeting with next.
  7. They block competitors in the sector by getting the top VC’s to co-invest with then in the seed so competitors are locked out of the A list VC funding market, who then are up against the most well-funded and buzzed about players in the space.

If what I've seen is true, within a six-month period a startup idea is prototyped, tested, pivoted, launched, tractioned, seeded, and juiced for scale with people who can ‘make’ the company all in their corner, if not already on their board.

So how on earth can Houston best this?

  1. We have a massive amount of businesses — around 200,000 — and people — an estimated 7.3 million and growing.
  2. We have capital in search of an identity beyond oil.
  3. Our Fortune 500 companies that are hiring consultants for things that startups here that can do for free, quicker, and for a fraction of the extended cost.
  4. We have a growing base of tech talent for potential machine learning and artificial intelligence talent
  5. A sudden shot at the increasingly laid off big tech engineers.
  6. We have more accelerators and incubators.

What do we need to pull it off?

  1. An organized well-oiled YC-like process
  2. An inter-Houston traction process
  3. An "Adopt a Startup" program where local companies are willing to beta test and iterate with emerging startup products
  4. We have more accelerators but the cohorts are small — average five to 10 per cohort.
  5. Strategic pre-seed funding, possibly with corporate partners (who can make the company by being a client) and who de-risk the investment.
  6. Companies here to use Houston startup’s products first when they’re launched.
  7. A forum to match companies’ projects or labs groups etc., to startups who can solve them.
  8. A process in place to pull all these pieces together in an organized, structured sequence.

There is one thing missing in the list: there has to be an entity or a person who wants to make this happen. Someone who sees all the pieces, and has the desire, energy and clout to make it happen; and we all know this is the hardest part. And so for now, our hopes of besting YC may be up in the air as well.

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Jo Clark is the founder of Circle.ooo, a Houston-based tech startup that's streamlining events management.