The idea for Splay, a unique device perfect for a mobile workforce, was born on the Rice University campus. Images courtesy

A Houston company born out of Rice University has crowdfunded its way into the manufacturing phase of its startup journey.

Arovia, founded by Alex Wesley and George Zhu, has a product that solves some major obstacles people on the go face as they work — or entertain — from home, a hotel, coffee shop, etc. Splay is a unique collapsable, portable device that doubles as both a display and projector.

The founders first launched their product in 2016 and raised over $700,000 from backers on their crowdfunding campaign. After raising investment funding, including an investment from the Texas Halo Fund, Wesley and Zhu recently returned to their crowdfunding roots and ran a 30-day pre-order campaign on Kickstarter during which they sold over $300,000 worth of product.

“We couldn't have made Splay without the Houston Startup Community," Wesley says.

Wesley was an MBA student when he met Zhu, who was working towards a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, after posting a job description in search of a co-founder, a requirement of the Owlspark program.

“Owlspark accepted the business idea, with the stipulation that I needed to find a co-founder,” says Wesley. “I sent out a job description, and a big part of the application process was to provide ideas for making this crazy idea work. I sent the job description at around 9 pm and received an email from George at around 1 am with an extremely detailed proposal. That was the start; and since then, we’ve basically been like brothers — I’ve even lived with him and his parents in China.”

Wesley credits Owlspark as an important part of their formation, beyond the impetus for their partnership.

“It was a great experience for us. The focus on customer interviews is something that is very easy to avoid, but it’s extremely important. You don’t have a product if nobody wants to buy it — you don’t have a company without customers," Wesley says. "During our time at Owlspark, we did over 100 customer interviews, which gave a lot of insight into the viability of the idea and who it would be useful for. We still utilize many of those insights today.”

But Owlspark wasn’t the only accelerator program that Wesley and Zhu joined. They also participated in Hax, a top hardware-focused accelerator, and Luminate, a top optics-focused accelerator. They also competed in the Rice Business Plan Competition, which Wesley says helped them refine their pitch which ultimately secured their funding.

“We pitched at angel groups including the Houston Angel Network and their fund The Halo Fund, Keiretsu Forum and their fund Keiretsu Capital, Rochester Angel Network, and the GOOSE Society. We also won the Texas A&M New Venture Competition,” says Wesley.

With this financial backing, Arovia received the necessary support for the R&D phase for Splay, taking the product into its manufacturing process and pre-sale campaign.

“Yes, it went very well,” shares Wesley, adding that they are still looking for support on the Indiegogo campaign. “Now we are focusing on pre-selling in other markets, like Japan."

Splay can be used as a portable screen, or the projector can be removed to be used on its own. Photo via Splay

Sesh Coworking has outgrown its space in Montrose. Photo courtesy of Sesh

Houston coworking company launches crowdfund to move to bigger space

sesh we can

A Houston coworking community that's founded by women and for women has announced it's ready to move into a bigger space.

Sesh Coworking, which opened early 2020 by Meredith Wheeler and Maggie Segrich, has launched a crowdfunding campaign to fuel its move into a new space to support its growing membership. The campaign is as unique as the company is itself. Coworkers can commit to offices or desks at a 25 percent discount for six-month prepaid membership, but Sesh tapped fellow Houston companies to add in other perks for crowdfund contributors.

"We're very fortunate to have local businesses who believe in Sesh and our mission," Segrich tells InnovationMap, explaining that these businesses have contributed special products and experiences like a two-hour portrait session, chocolate boxes, jewelry and more. "Realistically, we know not everyone needs coworking, but we realize some may want to show their support and we have other opportunities."

Meredith Wheeler and Maggie Segrich founded Sesh Coworking after years of working from home and feeling the need for a community. Photo courtesy of Sesh

Investors can also snag like Sesh's Houston is Dope AF T-shirts ($35) and naming rights to their plants ($50), phone booths ($1,500) and conference rooms ($10,000). As of publication, Sesh has already raised $11,047 of their $40,000 goal.

The new coworking space is set to be in Midtown, but Sesh hasn't yet announced the specific location. The plan is to open to members at the beginning of 2022. The move will allow Sesh to offer private offices and dedicated desks, as well as other amenities members are looking for.

"These last 18 months have provided us plenty of opportunities to listen and learn from our community which means we have new amenities that we can provide them," Segrich says. "The new location will continue to provide Houstonians the spaces they need to feel inspired, energized, connected, and supported. Our goal is to make sure we provide our community with the space and tools they need to grow and succeed."

Opening right ahead of the pandemic, Sesh Coworking has cultivated an involved and collaborative community at a time when entrepreneurs and small business owners needed community more than ever. But, even outside of the pandemic, Segrich says this was always their plan.

"Sesh never set out to be like other coworking spaces," she says. "We are on a mission to create a work space that isn't just four walls and a door. We began in 2017 by building our community first through pop-ups and then with our current space in Montrose. This new space carries on that tradition and mission of putting community first."

Sesh's current space features a pinkie promise mural so unique and special to the members — but don't worry. Segrich says they are working again with Houston artist Amy Malkan to create a new and improved version of it for the new space.

Sylvia Kampshoff has launched Kanthaka's first crowdfunding campaign. Photo courtesy of Kanthaka

Houston fitness tech startup launches $1M crowdfunding campaign

money moves

Calling all cardio lovers, yogis, and strength trainers alike — a Houston fitness platform is opening up investment opportunities through a new crowdfunding campaign.

Kanthaka, a Houston-based app that connects clients to personal trainers and yoga instructors on-demand, announced it will be launching a $1 million campaign through Republic, a crowdfunding platform. Kanthaka's users and trainers — or anyone interested — now have the option to become part owners in the company.

"We are very happy at Kanthaka to have been selected by Republic for their crowdfunding campaign," says Sylvia Kampshoff, founder and CEO of Kanthaka, in a press release. "I want our users as our evangelists.

"Since we started the company I've had clients reaching out wanting to invest but it was complicated — you had to be an accredited investor or VC," Kampshoff continues. "Now through this crowdfunding campaign, clients and trainers can participate in our journey."

According to the release, Republic, which is strategically partnered with Houston-based NextSeed, only accepts less than 1 percent of applicants interested in being funded on the platform. Kanthaka has reportedly raised over $850,000 from two venture capitalists and angels investors to date.

The company provides both live in-person and virtual sessions. Between March 2020 and March 2021, Kanthaka grew over 700 percent in sessions sold, per the release, and now, with the COVID-19 vaccines, the company is seeing a new spike in sessions.

"Our vision is to become Amazon for health & fitness and the go-to provider to live a longer, happier and healthier life," Kampshoff says in the release. "We couldn't be more excited about this journey."

Frustrated with the lack of ease in booking training sessions, Kampshoff launched Kanthaka in 2017 and has grown the company and expanded into 15 markets. Kanthaka participated in Austin-based accelerator Sputnik ATX.

Image via mykanthaka.com

From credit to crowdfunding, startups have more cash flow options now than ever before. Getty Images

Houston small business finance panel lays out funding options for startups

Follow the money

When it comes to raising money for your startup, there's plenty of fish in the sea, however, navigating the rough waters can be difficult.

Houston Community College put on a Small Business Summit on June 13 and gathered a group of financial professionals to represent several types of funding options, from venture capital to microlending.

Crowdfunding

The crowdfunding game has changed, says Rhian Davies, business development manager for LetsLaunch, an equity-based crowdfunding tool.

While most people think that donation-based crowdfunding — like GoFundMe or Kickstarter that give you the product or thank-you gift when you give — are the only options, that's not the case. And, investing using these platforms doesn't mean anything to you if the company sees success.

"If it makes it big, you're not going to get anything back," says Davies of these types of platforms.

But the JOBS Act in 2012 changed everything. Now, companies fundraising on crowdfunding sites can trade in equity for funds.

"Previously, investments were reserved for wealthy individuals — accredited individuals — who had a certain amount of money could invest in businesses," says Davies. "Equity crowdfunding opened that up."

With crowdfunding, you can also run other types of fundraising efforts at the same time, spreading out your options.

"It allows (the community) to invest in your business and it allows you to pass the hat and have people come on board," Davies says.

The other benefit to using the LetsLaunch platform is the team assists the startups every step of the way, from uploading a digital pitch deck onto the LetsLaunch platform and preparing paperwork to filing with the SEC.

However, one of the major challenges for startups is deciding what their funding goal is. Davies says you do have to hit a certain funding goal to be able to take that cash home, and for LetsLaunch, they look for that figure to be $10,000 minimum. Anything less than that isn't worth it — from both the LetsLaunch and the startup's perspective. The maximum value for equity crowdfunding is capped at just over $1 million — per the SEC.

Venture capital

VC funding is where most people's minds go when it comes to startup funding. And this type of funding is in an evolution phase too, says Remington Tonar, managing director at The Cannon Houston. While traditional VCs want a three-times return in five to seven years, some firms have more on their minds then just the money.

"There's a new phenomenon in venture where a lot of early stage investors and angel investors are looking at social impact investing," Tonar says. "They want to invest in women- or minority-owned businesses or companies that have a sustainability or social impact component to them. For those investors, the return demands are much more flexible."

Not only are they more flexible on returns, but VCs want more hands-on roles at the companies they invest in. Tonar says venture capitalists don't want to give passive capital.

Another way VCs differ from other types of funding is they are looking for something different in the companies they invest in — they want the next big thing.

"What venture capitalists really look for is disruptive business that are creating value in news ways," Tonar says.

And investments can be industry agnostic — VCs aren't reserved to just tech and computing industries.

"Most people would not have thought the hotel industry was a great industry for venture capital until Airbnb came along," says Tonar. "Most people would not have thought that taxis were a great industry for venture capital until Uber came along."

Fundraising through VC firms is a very personal process — they are investing in you, the founder, just as much as they are investing in the company or idea, Tonar says. You can have a horrible credit history or have declared bankrupt in the past, and while they will find that out, it's not a dealbreaker like it would be for a bank or traditional loan process.

"But if the investor feels that the idea has value and can create value and meets their risk profile, they will look at your startup and go through their due diligence process."

Microlending

A new trend in funding options is microlending — a type of loan process that caps out at $50,000. Lisa Riley is Houston market president for LiftFund, one of the largest microlenders in the United States.

Since the amount is smaller, the risk is smaller too. The type of customer LiftFund looks for is the person or company that's been denied by other banks.

"It's not always because of something negative with the customer," Riley says. "There are certain industries where it's very difficult to get finance right now."

Just like the trend in VCs, these types of lenders want to be hands on too to help secure success and a return.

"The last thing we want to be is another monthly obligation or a debt — the noose around someone's neck suffocating their small business," Riley says. "We want to make sure and walk with you and hold your hand as long as you'll hold mine so that when we give you your loan it's the right amount for your business and the right time."

Traditional loans and factoring

Of course, conventional loans is still an option, as is factoring — the process in which a business sells its accounts receivables to a third-party entity, called a factor.

Peter Ellen, senior vice president at Amegy Bank, explains the process as being pretty traditional. His bank wants to see a secure and profitable business on trach for growth.

"Typically, we look for a business that's been established for two years, that has generated a profit, and can show a clear path of repayment," Ellen says.

Again, like other funding options, Ellen says a relationship with the company is important.

"That's really what we look to do, is to form a relationship at an early stage with a company, really understand what they do, and help assist in the growth and success of their company," he says.

SBA loans

SBA loans are another lending option for startups to consider, Aziz Rahim, senior vice president at Wallis Bank, explains.

Different from a traditional loan process, SBA loans are guaranteed by the Small Business Association up to 85 percent, which lowers the risk for then lending partner.

Other benefits to SBA loans are lower down payments, generous term lengths, and caps on interest rates.

"The good thing about SBA loans compared to conventional loans is SBA loans do not balloon," Rahim says.

Houston-based NextSeed has been approved as a broker-dealer platform, allowing for larger investments. Getty Images

Houston-based investment platform expands capabilities for local deals

Nextseed's next phase

NextSeed, which launched in Houston four years ago as a crowdfunding online investment platform, has expanded its services to become a broker-dealer. The platform also rolled out a new website.

Now that NextSeed Securities LLC is a SEC-registered broker-dealer, NextSeed campaigns aren't limited to the $1 million cap instated by crowdfunding rules, according to a news release. The new function also means that, rather than just debt securities (where investors are paid back based on revenue of the company), investors can also engage in equity investing (where money can be exchanged for ownership of the company).

"We previously focused only on debt securities, in part because we wanted to facilitate the right type of capital to the local small business community," says CFO Tae Mi Lee in the release. "With the launch of our broker-dealer practice, we are able to expand our services to offer both debt and equity offerings for different types of issuers and investors."

In the past, NextSeed deals have focused on local brick-and-mortar companies. However, this new capability opens doors to other types of deals.

"We have always wanted investors on the platform to have the ability to diversify their investment portfolios across multiple industries and asset classes, while providing the right investment structure for our business clients through a broader range of options," Tae Mi Lee continues. "We are excited about what this expansion means for our NextSeed community."

The broker-dealer model shifts more responsibility on NextSeed as the vehicle for trading securities, but also represents a growth in investing in Houston.

"The standards of review and compliance obligations for both issuers and investors become stricter and more comprehensive for offerings made via our broker-dealer, but we wanted to be able to offer a more extensive and flexible service to our community," says CEO and Co-Founder Youngro Lee in the release. "Since day one of our funding portal operations, we tried to adhere to certain standards above and beyond the minimal legal requirements. We're now just taking another leap forward into a new phase of NextSeed."

Since its launch in 2015, NextSeed has raised $11 million for companies on its platform. While not all in Houston, NextSeed focuses on funding its portfolio by locals who want to support nearby establishments. Here are some examples of deals made on the platform:

  • Buffalo Bayou Brewery in Houston raised $1,000,000.
  • Alkalign Studio in Menlo Park, California, raised $100,000.
  • The Native Hostel Bar & Kitchen in Austin raised $396,500.
  • Fair Isle Brewing in Seattle raised $327,800.

Earlier this year, NextSeed announced another new capability for its portfolio of companies. NextSeed Space launched to help provide local entities turnkey retail space with short-term leases. The space is located in Greenway Plaza, and the first tenant was announced as The Waffle Bus, however NextSeed moved in traditional Mexican restaurant, Tlahuac, which will reside in the food court until the end of June.

LetsLaunch, a Houston-based fundraising platform, has teamed up with The Cannon. Courtesy of LetsLaunch

Houston fintech startup partners with local coworking space to grow investment opportunities

Funding friends

A Houston fintech software company has joined forces with The Cannon to help connect its members to capital. LetsLaunch, a platform that allows for smaller investments from non-accredited investors, and The Cannon — along with its venture arm, Cannon Ventures — have officially entered a partnership as of this month.

"We're basically providing a transactional tool to allow Cannon Ventures to access more members who, legally, they couldn't access before," says Nick Carnrite, co-founder and CEO of LetsLaunch. "For us, it's a good thing because instead of having to go out and create a community of startups and investors, that gets brought to us."

The partnership will allow for The Cannon's members to have access to the platform, and LetsLaunch can piggyback off the Cannon's existing network and programming. For instance, if The Cannon hosts a pitch night, LetsLaunch could enable live investing so that anyone in the crowd could invest that night.

Additionally, companies backed by Cannon Ventures can easily do a dual raise — one side open to accredited investors writing big checks and the other on LetsLaunch open to anyone. For this setup, LetsLaunch investors get the perk of having the company vetted by the Cannon Ventures investors.

"[The partnership] allows us to further the vision of Cannon Ventures, which is to truly democratize angel investing," says Lawson Gow, founder and CEO of The Cannon and Cannon Ventures. "We want to activate and allow anyone who is interested in making investments of any size and in any way." (Gow is the son of the CEO of InnovationMap's parent company.)

LetsLaunch opened for business at the end of last year. The site works, in many ways, like a crowdfunding site, only investors receive equity for their money. Due to regulations, investment campaigns max out at around a million dollars, and how much one can invest depends on their annual income. For LetsLaunch's demographic, most users can invest up to $20,000 a year, Carnrite says. There is a minimum of a $250 investment per transaction, but Carnrite says he expects the average investment to be closer to $1,000 per transaction.

According to Carnrite, LetsLaunch is solving the exclusivity problem that traditional investing creates. Such a small pool of people can invest in companies for equity.

"There's something like 30 million people globally that have a $1 million net worth, which is the definition of being an accredited investor," Carnrite says. "Thirty million people out of 7.7 billion, so it's a little less than half a percentage."

And, according to Gow, this is a huge problem in Houston for companies who don't have access to funding.

"We had a company leave The Cannon last week and move to New York because they couldn't get funding in Houston," Gow says. "We're still losing battles every day — and one of the main reasons is getting early stage funding in companies."

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Houston doctors recognized among top creative leaders in business

winners

This week, Fast Company announced its 14th annual list of Most Creative People in Business — and two notable Houstonians made the cut.

Dr. Peter Hotez and his fellow dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, were named among the list for “open sourcing a COVID-19 Vaccine for the rest of the world.” The list, which recognizes individuals making a cultural impact via bold achievements in their field, is made up of influential leaders in business.

Hotez and Bottazzi are also co-directors for the Texas Children's Hospital's Center for Vaccine Development -one of the most cutting-edge vaccine development centers in the world. For the past two decades it has acquired an international reputation as a non-profit Product Development Partnership (PDP), advancing vaccines for poverty-related neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) and emerging infectious diseases of pandemic importance. One of their most notable achievements is the development of a vaccine technology leading to CORBEVAX, a traditional, recombinant protein-based COVID-19 vaccine.

"It's an honor to be recognized not only for our team's scientific efforts to develop and test low cost-effective vaccines for global health, but also for innovation in sustainable financing that goes beyond the traditional pharma business model," says Hotez in a statement.

The technology was created and engineered by Texas Children's Center for Vaccine Development specifically to combat the worldwide problem of vaccine access and availability. Biological E Limited (BE) developed, produced and tested CORBEVAX in India where over 60 million children have been vaccinated so far.

Earlier this year, the doctors were nominated for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize for their research and vaccine development of the vaccine. Its low cost, ease of production and distribution, safety, and acceptance make it well suited for addressing global vaccine inequity.

"We appreciate the recognition of our efforts to begin the long road to 'decolonize' the vaccine development ecosystem and make it more equitable. We hope that CORBEVAX becomes one of a pipeline of new vaccines developed against many neglected and emerging infections that adversely affect global public health," says Bottazzi in the news release from Texas Children's.

Fast Company editors and writers research candidates for the list throughout the year, scouting every business sector, including technology, medicine, engineering, marketing, entertainment, design, and social good. You can see the complete list here

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Samsung sets sights on nearly $200 billion expansion in Texas

chipping in

As it builds a $17 billion chipmaking factory in Taylor, tech giant Samsung is eyeing a long-term strategy in the Texas area that could lead to a potential investment of close to $200 billion.

Samsung’s plans, first reported by the Austin Business Journal, call for an additional $192.1 billion investment in the Austin area over several decades that would create at least 10,000 new jobs at 11 new chipmaking plants. These facilities would be at the new Taylor site and the company’s existing site in Northeast Austin.

The first of the 11 new plants wouldn’t be completed until 2034, according to the Business Journal.

“Samsung has a history already in the Austin market as an employer of choice, providing high wages, great benefits, and a great working environment. All of this will be on steroids in the not-too-distant future, creating a historic boost to the already booming Austin economy,” John Boyd Jr., a corporate site selection consultant, tells CultureMap.

Samsung’s preliminary plans were revealed in filings with the State of Texas seeking possible financial incentives for the more than $190 billion expansion. The South Korean conglomerate says the filings are part of the company’s long-range planning for U.S. chipmaking facilities.

Given that Samsung’s 11 new plants would be decades in the making, there’s no certainty at this point that any part of the potential $192.1 billion expansion will ever be built.

Last November, Samsung announced it would build a $17 billion chipmaking factory in Taylor to complete its semiconductor operations in Northeast Austin. Construction is underway, with completion set for 2024. Boyd proclaimed last year that the Taylor project will trigger an “economic tsunami” in the quiet Williamson County suburb.

The Taylor facility, which is expected to employ more than 2,000 people, ranks among the largest foreign economic development projects in U.S. history. The impact of a nearly $200 billion cluster of 11 new chipmaking plants would far eclipse the Taylor project.

The Taylor factory will produce advanced chips that power mobile and 5G capabilities, high-performance computing, and artificial intelligence.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.