Chris Buckner has secured a $6.8 million series A round for his Houston-based esports company thanks to support from a local investment firm. Courtesy of Mainline

A Houston software company is cashing in on the growing esports industry with a multimillion-dollar fundraising round led by a local investor.

Mainline, which specializes in esports tournament software and management, closed its series A at $6.8 million. Houston-based Work America Capital led the round, and Mainline will use the funds to grow its platform, event management customer base, and marketing efforts, as well as to hire developers, marketing, and sales talent.

"The world of esports and gaming is exploding; however, continuity in tournament organization is lacking, keeping the sport from really taking off in other viable and exciting markets," says Chris Buckner, Mainline CEO, in a news release. "Mainline gives brands the tools they need to run powerful esports programs that will evolve the quickly maturing industry to the benefit of players, students, and the greater esports ecosystem."

Mainline, which spun off its sports engagement business earlier this year into a company now called Truss, created a white-labeled tournament platform for esports that's used by various clients across the industry and was instrumental to ESPN's inaugural Collegiate Esports Championship that was hosted in Houston earlier this year.

Work America Capital has supported sports technology in town before — including Houston-based Integrated Bionics, which has developed a GPS- and video-optimized sensor used by athletes around the world.

"As with any industry that takes off like a rocket, problems arise that must be solved through innovation," says Mark Toon, managing partner of Work America Capital, in the release. "Mainline is standardizing, organizing and optimizing the esports industry, paving the way for more players, more teams, more money and bigger, better tournaments."

Mainline is focused on expanding its services as esports continues to grow. According to the release, the total industry revenue for this year is expected to reach $1.1 billion worldwide, and viewership numbers have jumped from 335 million to 454 million in just two years.

"The strategic vision of Mainline puts them in the driver's seat with a consistent platform across amateur, collegiate and professional competitions," says Toon. "Given Mainline's partnerships and customers, they have paved a way to grow quickly across all sports and into other markets. We are excited to dedicate our time, resources and capital to the company."


Mainline has created a white-labeled software for esports gaming and tournaments. Courtesy of Mainline

Houston's esports team has been sold to a local investor. Jamie McInall/Pexels

Houston Outlaws esports team sold to local real estate investor for $40 million

Game on

Houston real estate investor Lee Zieben has agreed to terms with Immortals Gaming Club to purchase the Houston Outlaws for a total deal value of $40 million, sources familiar with the deal told ESPN.

According to an original ESPN report, the deal has not been executed but is expected to close in late August, with Zieben currently having a binding letter of intent with Immortals for the purchase, according to sources. Paperwork submission to and approval of the Overwatch League is pending, league sources said.

If completed as expected, Zieben will pay $30 million in cash and securities and assume the $10 million debt in remaining payments to the Overwatch League for the Houston Outlaws franchise slot, sources said. Immortals declined to comment. Lee Zieben's office and the Overwatch League did not respond to a request for comment.

Immortals will sell the team after they acquired Infinite Esports & Entertainment, the parent of OpTic Gaming and the Outlaws, in June.

Immortals will retain their ownership of OpTic, splitting that team and the Outlaws for the first time. In June, Immortals completed a deal with Activision Blizzard to enter the franchised Call of Duty League that is set to launch in 2020.

The deal for Infinite saw Immortals guarantee payments of $35 million to $45 million worth of cash and equity share to Texas Esports — backed by Texas Rangers owners Neil Leibman and Ray Davis and Houston Astros minority owner John Havens — and Aurelius Esports, led by former Infinite president Chris Chaney. Immortals also assumed debts Infinite owed, including the Outlaws' Overwatch League payments and OpTic's remaining franchise fees to the League of Legends Championship Series, totaling the deal to an enterprise value of over $100 million.

With the acquisition of Infinite, the Overwatch League required Immortals to sell the Outlaws to a third party as quickly as possible, due to Immortals' ownership of the fellow league team, the Los Angeles Valiant. No team is allowed to own equity in two different teams in the Overwatch League.

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ESPN's inaugural esports competition for college students is premiering at Comicpalooza. Jamie McInall/Pexels

Houston to host inaugural ESPN collegiate esports competition

Game on

For the first time ever, ESPN is hosting the Collegiate Esports Championship, and it's chosen Houston's 11th annual Comicpalooza to host it on May 10 to May 12 at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

"We are honored ESPN has chosen Houston and Comicpalooza for their inaugural Collegiate Esports Championship," says Michael Heckman, Comicpalooza president and senior vice president at Houston First, in a release. "Each year we strive to provide unique experiences for our different pop culture fandoms. Esports is undoubtedly popular and expanding. Teaming up with ESPN to bring the CEC here allows us to engage our audiences in a completely new, exciting way."

Students from hundreds of schools have competed to make it to the semifinals and championship in Houston, and scholarships are on the line. The weekend will have 22 teams across five video games — Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, Overwatch, StarCraft II, and Street Fighter V — according to ESPN.

"As universities continue to grow their esports programs at the varsity, non-varsity and club levels, we're proud to be providing a platform for national exposure and recognition of some of the most talented players in the collegiate space," says John Lasker, vice president of Digital Media Programming for ESPN, in a release. "Through our collaboration with top publishers in the industry, players will be able to showcase their talent in high-level competition on some of the most prominent esports titles."

Attendees and fans have access to the events with a Comicpalooza pass, but can also opt for the conference's Gaming Speed Pass for extra perks like reserved seating, a private lounge, and opportunities to meet the talent. Conference goers can also compete themselves in several different video games, according to the website.

Houston is a growing hub for esports. Mainline, a spin off company of Houston-based sports marketing company FanReact, launched this year to account for the growing presence of esports. Mainline's CEO, Chris Buckner, tells InnovationMap in an interview earlier this year that, especially because of this ESPN competition, other cities have their eyes on Houston for esports.

"I have been personally in contact with every major university in the city and they all are taking esports seriously," Buckner says in an interview. "It's actually a really exciting time for esports in Houston."

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Over $1.4M in prizes awarded at Rice University's student startup competition

RBPC 2021

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

Houston health center working with new study that uses app to track long-term COVID-19 effects

pandemic innovation

Aided by technology, medical sleuths at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston are tracking the long-term effects of COVID-19 as part of a national study.

At the heart of the study is an app that allows patients who have shown COVID-19 symptoms and have been tested for COVID-19 to voluntarily share their electronic health records with researchers. The researchers then can monitor long-term symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, depression, and cardiovascular problems.

UTHealth is one of eight U.S. sites for the INSPIRE trial (Innovative Support for Patients with SARS COV-2 Infections Registry). Researchers are recruiting study participants from Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. They want to expand recruitment to urgent care clinics in the Houston area.

Aside from accessing patients' data through the Hugo Health platform, UTHealth researchers will ask participants to fill out brief follow-up surveys every three months over the course of 18 months. The study complies with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the federal law that protects patients' information from being disclosed without their knowledge.

"This is a very novel and important study," Dr. Ryan Huebinger, assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at UTHealth's McGovern Medical School and co-principal investigator of the study, says in a news release.

In a study like this, researchers typically must see a patient in person or at least reach out to them.

"Using this platform is novel because we don't have to schedule additional appointments or ask questions like 'How long were you hospitalized?' – we can automatically see that in their records and survey submissions," Huebinger says.

Mandy Hill, associate professor in the McGovern Medical School's Department of Emergency Medicine and the study's co-principal investigator, says about one-fourth of the people in the study will be local residents who didn't test positive for COVID-19.

"That group will be our control group to be able to compare things like prevalence and risk factors," Huebinger says.

Eligible participants must be at least 18 years old, must have experienced COVID-19 symptoms, and must have been tested for COVID-19 in the past four weeks.

"This is not going to be the last pandemic. The more information we can gather across communities now will give us a leg up when the next pandemic happens," Hill says, "so that we can be more prepared to take steps toward prevention."

Researchers hope to sign up at least 300 study participants in Houston. The entire INSPIRE trial seeks to enroll 4,800 participants nationwide. The study is supposed to end in November 2022.

"There's such great potential for numerous research findings to come out of this study. We could find out if people in Houston are suffering from post-COVID-19 symptoms differently than other parts of the country, whether minorities are more affected by long-hauler symptoms, and if certain interventions work better than others," Hill says.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is financing the study. Aside from UTHealth, academic institutions involved in the research are:

  • University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas
  • Rush University Medical Center in Chicago
  • Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut
  • University of Washington in Seattle
  • Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of California, San Francisco