Geothermal investment is up, but health tech is down — plus more data-backed VC trend from 2024 so far. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based geothermal company Fervo Energy accounted for more than half of the venture capital raised by Houston-area startups in the first quarter of 2024.

The region’s VC haul in the first quarter totaled $462.4 million, according to the PitchBook-NCVA Venture Monitor. That’s up from $290.4 million during the same period in 2023 and from $285.8 million in the fourth quarter of last year. Click here to see the Q1 rounds as reported by InnovationMap.

Fervo’s latest funding round, announced in February, represented $244 million (52 percent) of the region’s VC total for the first quarter of 2024.

A report released in March by PitchBook indicated that VC funding last year for geothermal power reached $431 million across 21 deals. As of late February 25 — four days ahead of the Fervo announcement — $165.5 million in VC funding had been pumped into the geothermal sector this year, according to PitchBook.

“The recent VC deal activity with the geothermal power sector underscores a vibrant and evolving market, but still one that garners far less VC than other renewables,” says the report.

In all, Houston-area startups made 38 VC deals in this year’s first quarter, the PitchBook-NVCA Venture Monitor says. That’s down from 42 in the fourth quarter of 2023 and 43 in the first quarter of 2023. Nationwide, the deal count fell sharply in the first quarter of 2024 vs. the first and fourth quarters of last year.

The PitchBook-NVCA Venture Monitor report shows that nationwide, the $36.6 billion in VC investments recorded during the first quarter of 2024 “remained relatively on pace with the past year.”

“However, it would be a mistake to hyperfocus on the results of a single quarter whose results were a bit farther left on the bell curve than usual. The venture capital … business cycle effectively reset in recent years, and as of early 2024, it still appears to be searching for its level,” says the report.

“It is too early to tell where 2024 is going, but the game is on, and America’s VCs are ready for it,” the report adds. “In 2022, our world changed; in 2023, we accepted it was not changing back; and in 2024, we are building what is next.”

In a bit of good news for the Houston area, the report cites cleantech/energy as one of two sectors that venture capitalists should not overlook. The other sector: cybersecurity.

But in a bit of not-so-good news for the region, the report notes a slowdown in VC deals in the healthcare sector over the past two years in the wake of “pandemic-fueled capital exuberance.”

“Yet the healthcare sector differentiates itself from the rest of the market by demonstrating many unmet needs that could have a profound impact on society, particularly around disease diagnosis and treatment,” the report goes on to say. “On top of the immense opportunity set for disruption within healthcare, investor enthusiasm around AI adoption in drug development further speaks to the demand for better solutions in biotech through groundbreaking innovations.”

Fervo Energy has raised additional funding to continue executing on its mission of more reliable geothermal energy production. Photo via FervoEnergy.com

Innovative Houston energy startup secures $10M investment

fresh funding

A next-generation geothermal tech company announced a new investment from an Oklahoma City-based oil and gas producer.

Fervo Energy secured the $10 million strategic investment from Devon Energy Corporation (NYSE: DVN) this week. The deal creates a partnership between the two entities.

“We are thrilled to have Devon as a partner,” says Tim Latimer, co-founder and CEO of Fervo, in a news release. “Devon is a technology leader with historic and unparalleled expertise in drilling and completing wells. We expect this partnership will help unlock further potential for geothermal as the primary 24/7 renewable energy source.”

Fervo's technology includes drilling horizontal wells for commercial geothermal production as well as distributed fiber optic sensing to geothermal reservoir development, per the release. The strategy allows for more accessible geothermal power.

“We are excited about this partnership with Fervo, an innovator and leader in the enhanced geothermal space,” says David Harris, chief corporate development officer and executive vice president at Devon. “This investment is a good match for Devon’s new energy ventures strategy.”

Last year, Fervo raised a $138 million series C round to support the completion of power plants in Nevada and Utah and evaluate new projects in California, Idaho, Oregon, Colorado, and New Mexico, as well as in other countries. This latest investment brings the company's total funds raised to $187 million since its inception in 2017.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.