3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Niloufar Molavi of Central Houston Inc., Dan Purvis of Velentium, and Chris Staffel of Goose Capital. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three innovators — each either new to their role or with a bit of acquistion news.

Niloufar Molavi, board chair at Central Houston Inc.

Niloufar Molavi will lead Central Houston Inc.'s board this year — and she's got fostering innovation on her to-do list. Photo courtesy of CHI

Last week, Nilofar Molavi assumed the role of board chair for Central Houston. She leads PwC's Global energy practice and has served on the CHI board since 2011 and chairs the organization's innovation committee. CHI was among the partners behind the Downtown Launchpad, a 17,000-square-foot innovation hub, which had its grand opening last fall.

"With the fall 2020 opening of Downtown Launchpad, we have deepened our investment in innovation, which we hope will garner long-term results and economic vitality for downtown as well as the Houston region at large," she continues. "We look forward to developing bridge programs with area universities and organizations and leveraging existing resources to bring more high-tech prospects to our central city." Read more.

Dan Purvis, CEO of Velentium

A Houston company has made a strategic acquisition. Photo courtesy of Velentium

Houston-based Velentium, which specializes in the design and manufacturing of medical devices announced that it has acquired Texas company Oasis Testing, a designer of automated test systems for the energy and manufacturing industries.

"Despite the immense challenges facing the business community in 2020, last year was a monumental year of growth for our firm, and we're pleased to start 2021 building upon our world-class team of technical experts," says Dan Purvis, CEO of Velentium, in a news release. "Oasis Testing has been a trusted partner for the last five years and shares in our commitment to solving clients' most complex challenges to change lives for a better world. We're incredibly excited to welcome them to the Velentium family and expand our business more deeply into energy and manufacturing."

Purvis will lead the new combined company as CEO. Read more.

Chris Staffel, managing director at Goose Capital

Goose Capital recently named its new managing director. Photo courtesy of Chris Staffel

Houston-based investment group Goose Capital Inc. named Chris Staffel as managing director — along with Jeff Smisek as the firm's president and Jay Collins as chair of the board of directors.

A serial entrepreneur and investor in over 30 startups, Staffel joins Goose to lead day-to-day operations and drive new investment opportunities.

"It is an honor to join the team at Goose Capital and work alongside experienced industry leaders," Staffel says in the release. "I look forward to leveraging my entrepreneurial experience to help the start-ups in which we invest, while strategically identifying early stage investment opportunities." Read more.

Goose Capital recently named its new managing director, president, and board chair. Photo courtesy

Houston investment group names new leadership

movers & shakers

A Houston-based investment group has announced three new leadership changes to its organization to start of the new year.

Goose Capital Inc. named Chris Staffel as managing director, along with Jeff Smisek as the firm's president and Jay Collins as chair of the board of directors. The three appointments are effective as of January 1.

Smisek, former chairman, CEO, and president of United Continental Holdings Inc., has been a member investor with Goose but now assumes this leadership role. He serves as president of private investment company Flight Partners Capital, as well as on the board of directors for Finch Therapeutics Group Inc., Lantha Inc., and Molecular Match Inc.

"I look forward to leading Goose Capital as we help early stage companies and their founders develop their products, grow their companies, and create value," says Smisek in a news release.

Collins formerly lead Oceaneering International as CEO and president. He currently serves on the board of directors of the company as well as on the boards of Murphy Oil Company and Pason Systems Inc. Prior to becoming chair of the board of Goose Capital, Collins was its president.

A serial entrepreneur and investor in over 30 startups, Staffel joins Goose to lead day-to-day operations and drive new investment opportunities. She has been a founding member of three startup energy companies with an aggregate exit valuation of $1.38 billion, according to the release, as well as formerly leading Houston-based digital health company, Patients We Share, as COO. Her appointment to the firm follows former director Samantha Lewis's move to Mercury Fund.

"It is an honor to join the team at Goose Capital and work alongside experienced industry leaders," Staffel says in the release. "I look forward to leveraging my entrepreneurial experience to help the start-ups in which we invest, while strategically identifying early stage investment opportunities."

Goose Capital — previously known as The GOOSE Society of Texas — was founded 15 years ago and invests about $10 million per year in early-stage companies. Last summer, the organization rebranded with a new website representing a new phase for the investment group.

Mercury Fund led Topl's $3 million seed round. Photo via Getty Images

Houston blockchain startup closes $3 million seed led by local VC

money moves

A Houston-based blockchain company that focuses on providing companies with ethical and sustainable practices within the supply chain has closed a $3 million round with support from investors both locally and across the country.

Today, Topl announced the closing of its seed round, which was led by Houston-based Mercury Fund with support from Houston-based GOOSE Capital, Chicago-based Chingona Ventures, Dallas-based RevTech Ventures, and New York-based firms Beni Venture Capital, Blue Collective, and Social Impact Capital.

"We're grateful to have closed an oversubscribed venture round during a pandemic, especially given the unfortunate truth that many women-led startups are getting much less investment during this time," says Kim Raath, CEO of Topl, in a press release. "Bringing transparency to causes dedicated to environmental and social good has never been more important. We are building a modern blockchain for a world where purpose and profit go hand in hand."

According to the release, Topl will use the fresh funds to speed up the launch of the company's blockchain-as-a-service solution for early next year.

Earlier this month, Topl announced a partnership with Denver-based TrackX, a software-as-a-service asset management and supply chain solution provider, aimed at combining technology to create a verifiable tracking and tracing solution to equip company supply chains with sustainability, transparency, and efficiency. Ultimately, it's Topl's goal to allow its users the ability to stand out to customers as sustainable and responsible brands — something that's become increasingly more important to consumers.

"A company's social and environmental impact has become a necessary point of differentiation for brands, and Topl has the potential to be the leading player for brands who are serious about [Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance]," says Blair Garrou, managing director of Mercury Fund.

To date, Topl has raised $4.4 million in funding. It's first seed round closed September 2019. For that round, Samantha Lewis, formerly director of GOOSE Capital, was instrumental, according to the release.

"Kim and the Topl team have created a custom-designed method to measure and verify your company's sustainability efforts. We're excited to be part of this intersection of cutting-edge technology and positive impact," Lewis, who's now on the board of the startup, says in the release.

Topl's technology has the ability to affect any industry, and the company has worked with tracing products from diamonds and chocolate to natural resources and even COVID-19 testing.

"Topl's track-and-trace solution appeals to so many core industries: from healthcare to agriculture to energy," says Manolo Sánchez, former chairman and CEO of BBVA Compass and also a member of Topl's board, in the release. "Anyone who needs to ensure transparency, efficiency and sustainability would benefit from their technology."

Register for some of these informative online events happening throughout the month of December. Getty Images

10+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events online in December ​

where to be

It's the last monthly events roundup for 2020 — and this month, understandably, is a bit slow due to the holidays, but we have a roundup of the must-attend events for December.

From workshops and panels to summits and pitch parties, here are over 10 Houston innovation events you can attend virtually via online meetings. Note: This post will be updated to add more events.

December 1 — National Resilience Town Hall: Year in Review, Year Ahead

The Insurance Information Institute and ResilientH2O Partners, in partnership with the Resilience Accelerator, will hold the final session for 2020 in an ongoing series of thought-leadership among insurance, non-insurance, public sector, and technology senior executives. December's National Townhall will bring five unique perspectives together to discuss lessons-learned from 2020 and predictions for 2021's resilience and risk mitigation "agenda" across residential, commercial, industrial, government operations, infrastructure, facilities, and communities.

The event is on Tuesday, December 1, at 10 am. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

December 1 — Angel Investing 101

Learn about how to make effective angel investment decisions and find out more about the newly launched Chicago Booth Angels Network of Texas. The event's keynote speaker is Ashok Rao, serial entrepreneur and board member of Houston-based GOOSE Capital.

The event is on Tuesday, December 1, from 5 to 6 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

December 1 — The Ion's Industry Day

The goal of the inaugural Industry Day is to introduce and connect minority and women owned businesses (MWBE) with The Ion's Transwestern team. The hour long event is designed to facilitate networking and connect interested businesses with Transwestern, who will run operations for The Ion and catalyze local economic growth. Following the event, interested businesses can set up a walk through of The Ion in mid-December to finalize their bid.

The event is on Tuesday, December 1, from 6 to 7 pm. It's free and can be accessed through Zoom. Click here to register.

December 2 — NASA and Your Small Business: Understanding the NASA Procurement Process

Join The Ion to learn about NASA's commitment to providing access for all categories of small businesses to participate in the procurement process.

The event is on Wednesday, December 2, at noon. It's free and can be accessed through Zoom. Click here to register.

December 3 — Capital Factory's Venture Summit

Capital Factory is calling all investors, accelerator leaders, limited partners, and more to its annual venture summit, which is taking place virtually this year.

The event is on Thursday, December 3, from 9:45 to 2 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

December 3 — Evening of Pediatric Device Innovation

JLABS @ TMC and Southwest National Pediatric Device Innovation Consortium are teaming up for the sixth Annual Evening of Pediatric Device Innovation. The evening of innovation will host top experts from Houston and across the country will discuss their views on the latest in pediatric medical device innovation and updates on bringing a pediatric medical device to market.

The event is on Thursday, December 3, from 3:40 to 5 pm. It's free and can be accessed through Zoom. Click here to register.

December 3 — An Evening With Women in Corporate Innovation

Join General Assembly Houston to hear from inspiring female leaders in corporate innovation who have blazed the path to stand up and stand out. From learnings to failings and their secrets of success, this event is an opportunity to learn from the best — serious wisdom, from seriously cool women, all designed to supercharge you and your organization's success.

The event is on Thursday, December 3, from 5 to 6:30 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

December 7 — Pumps and Pipes 20/20 Vision

The annual Pumps & Pipes event is focused on convergence innovation in the fields of aerospace, energy and medicine: a truly uniquely Houston approach. The day-long summit features an expo and various panels and speakers.

The event is on Monday, December 7, from 8 am to 3 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

December 8 — The Cannon Q4 Pitch Party: Presented by Dell Technologies

Join The Cannon and Dell Technologies in hearing from new companies working in Digital Transformation Tech.

The event is on Tuesday, December 8, at 5:30 pm. It's free and can be accessed via Zoom. Click here to register.

December 8 — How to Start a Startup with Heath Butler of Mercury Fund

The Ion is hosting a startup 101 workshop with Heath Butler from Mercury Fund. You have an idea...now what? Before you start looking for funding, it's important to make sure that your idea is both viable and valuable — if it doesn't have a sound model and a market willing to pay for it, investors won't be interested anyway.

    The event is on Tuesday, December 8, at 5:30 pm. It's free and can be accessed via Zoom. Click here to register.

    December 10 — Greentown Lab's Energy Bar: Wrapping Up an Unprecedented Year

    Join Greentown Labs virtually for the final edition of the EnergyBar networking event for 2020. Greentown Labs is ready to put a wrap on 2020, an unprecedent year for us all. Between the opening of the new community in Houston and a renewed national policy focus on climate action, the organization is looking ahead to 2021. Entrepreneurs, investors, students, and friends of climatetech are invited to attend, meet colleagues, and engage in a community that is focused on climate action at work.

    The event is on Thursday, December 10, from 3:30 to 6:30 pm. It's free and can be access through Remo. Click here to register.

    December 15 — The State of Space

    The Greater Houston Partnership is hosting its first State of Space event featuring NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine as the keynote speaker. Since his appointment as Administrator in April of 2018, Bridenstine has led NASA in advancing American aeronautic, science, and space exploration objectives.

    The event is on Tuesday, December 15, at noon. It's $35 for GHP members and $60 for nonmembers. Click here to register.

    This week's Houston innovators to know includes Rebecca Vaught of Van Heron Labs, Samantha Lewis of GOOSE Capital, and Camilo Mejia of Enovate Upstream. Courtesy photos

    3 Houston innovators to know this week

    who's who

    Editor's note: Houston entrepreneurs are like the city itself — resilient. And much like the wildcatters that preceded them, they are self-starters and hard working. This week's roundup of Houston innovators all reflect these attributes — whether they're founding their company amid a global pandemic or rebranding a 15-year-old investing institution.

    Rebecca Vaught, co-founder of Van Heron Labs

    Entrepreneur hopes to bring microbiology into the future with her Houston-based, pandemic-founded startup

    Rebecca Vaught started her biotech company just ahead of COVID-19, but she shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast that it's meant more opportunities than challenges. Photo courtesy of Van Heron Labs

    When Rebecca Vaught's accelerator program shutdown due to COVID-19, she didn't let that stop the progress for here fledgling biotech business. In fact, it was a turning point.

    "A lot of people probably would have seen that as the stopping point but that was actually the beginning of the company," Vaught says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "What it allowed us to do was actually establish the lab and do the hard work."

    As Vaught says, the biotech company, Van Heron Labs, is what it is thanks to the pandemic — not just in spite of it. Click here to read more and listen to the podcast episode.

    Samantha Lewis, director of GOOSE Capital

    Samantha Lewis, director of GOOSE Capital, shares how the investment firm has rebranded and is focused on the future. Photo courtesy of GOOSE

    A prominent investment group, GOOSE Capital — previously known as GOOSE Society of Texas — has opted for a rebranding to move itself into the future for Seed and Series A investment. Samantha Lewis, director of GOOSE, explains the decision means more than just a new name and upgraded website.

    "As for the future of GOOSE Capital, expect great things," she tells InnovationMap. "Our rebranding is one of the many steps we are taking to solidify our position in the Seed and Series A venture scene."

    Rather than operating as a fund, the GOOSE Capital model enables its corps of investors comprised of Fortune 500 execs and successful serial entrepreneurs direct access to a portfolio of startups and investment deals. At the same time, GOOSE's portfolio companies are able to receive support from these investors. Click here to read more.

    Camilo Mejia, CEO and founder of Enovate Upstream

    Houston entrepreneur plans to revolutionize and digitize the energy industry

    Camilo Mejia, CEO and founder of Houston-based Enovate Upstream, has big plans for increasing efficiency across the oil and gas sector. Photo courtesy of Enovate

    Enovate Upstream announced its new artificial intelligence platform that aims to digitize the oil and gas sector to provide the best efficiency and return on investment at every stage of the supply chain cycle — from drilling and production to completion.

    "We see a better future in the oil and gas industry," Mejia shares in an interview with InnovationMap. "Our team worked in various roles in O&G, and we don't think the industry will end up as some people may think. The future will be different and digitized, we are just here to facilitate that transition to give back to the industry that gave us a lot."

    The company's proprietary cloud-based ADA AI digital ecosystem is challenging the assumptions of the industry by using new technology powered artificial intelligence to provide historical data with AI to give real-time production forecasting. Thanks to the cloud, users can access the information anywhere in the world. Click here to read more.

    Samantha Lewis, director of GOOSE Capital, shares how the investment firm has rebranded and is focused on the future. Photo courtesy of GOOSE

    Houston venture capital group enters into new era with rebrand

    money moves

    A Houston-based venture group has flipped the switch on its rebranding in order to transition itself into a new era of innovation and startup investing.

    GOOSE Capital — previously known as GOOSE Society of Texas — is a private investment firm based in Houston that focuses on early-stage venture capital deals. Rather than operating as a fund, the GOOSE Capital model enables its corps of investors comprised of Fortune 500 execs and successful serial entrepreneurs direct access to a portfolio of startups and investment deals. At the same time, GOOSE's portfolio companies are able to receive support from these investors.

    GOOSE's rebrand includes a new name and website, but also represents a new phase for the investment firm. Samantha Lewis, director of GOOSE Capital, sat down with InnovationMap to discuss the rebranding and what it means for the firm.

    InnovationMap: How did the rebranding come about?

    Samantha Lewis: In the autumn of 2017 at Kenny and Ziggy's over a plate of greasy eggs and diner coffee, I sat across from Jack Gill, an immensely successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist and the founder of the GOOSE Society of Texas. I had just graduated from the Rice MBA program. I had decided not to go forward with a "tough-tech" startup I'd been working on for most of that year, and I was looking for my next gig, one that could leverage my entrepreneurship operator experience but also get my foot in the door to venture capital.

    Jack laid out for me what is an age-old story in the startup world — a high potential organization that has proven itself in its current form, with loads of raw materials but a need for a leader who could take it to the next level. Fortunately, I was the person for the job, and with my energy and their expertise, it was time to level up the GOOSE Society of Texas. One of my key objectives was to build out the strategy and oversee the transition from GOOSE Society of Texas, a loose collection of highly successful individuals investing in ventures, to GOOSE Capital — a diversified, innovation-focused venture firm that can go toe-to-toe with the rest.

    IM: Why now?

    SL: GOOSE has been investing in startups since 2005. That's a long time. Lately, though, we've co-invested with some major VCs in some hot deals. For example, GOOSE seeded Outrider, an autonomous zero emission trucking solution for logistics centers with follow-on capital provided by NEA, 8VC, and Koch Disruptive Technologies. We also co-led one of the hottest series A deals out of Houston (am I biased?), Syzygy Plasmonics, with The Engine, a fund associated with MIT, and joined the ranks of other major players in the cleantech investing space like Evonik and Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

    It was time to ensure our brand represented our successful transition that started in that old school Houston diner in late 2017.

    IM: What does the rebranding mean for GOOSE's future?

    SL: Working with Houston-based Spacecraft Brands, we really wanted to capture what we admire about Houston and what we love about GOOSE: legacy and tradition combined with new beginnings and innovation. Keeping with the original theme of a goose taking flight to represent the startups we invest in, we added the orange circle in the background to represent a sunrise to reflect new beginnings and a sunset to pay homage to a successful decade and a half of GOOSE deploying capital.

    As for the future of GOOSE Capital, expect great things. Our re-branding is one of the many steps we are taking to solidify our position in the Seed and Series A venture scene.

    IM: What does investing look like these days for GOOSE?

    SL: So far in 2020, all of our capital has gone to portfolio companies to strengthen their balance sheets as we wade through the uncertain waters of commercialization and fundraising in the midst of a pandemic. We are still actively diligencing deals, including three from the Rice Business Plan Competition, one in the TMCx cohort, a few Houston based deals, and a couple outside of Texas.

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    2 Houston startups win national technology award from SBA

    winner, winner

    A couple of Houston startups have something to celebrate. The United States Small Business Administration announced the winners of its Tibbetts Award, which honors small businesses that are at the forefront of technology, and two Houston startups have made the list.

    Re:3D, a sustainable 3D printer company, and Raptamer Discovery Group, a biotech company that's focused on therapeutic solutions, were Houston's two representatives in the Tibbetts Award, named after Roland Tibbetts, the founder of the SBIR Program.

    "I am incredibly proud that Houston's technology ecosystem cultivates innovative businesses such as re:3D and Raptamer. It is with great honor and privilege that we recognize their accomplishments, and continue to support their efforts," says Tim Jeffcoat, district director of the SBA Houston District Office, in a press release.

    Re:3D, which was founded in 2013 by NASA contractors Samantha Snabes and Matthew Fiedler to tackle to challenge of larger scale 3D printing, is no stranger to awards. The company's printer, the GigaBot 3D, recently was recognized as the Company of the Year for 2020 by the Consumer Technology Association. Re:3D also recently completed The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator this year, which has really set the 20-person team with offices in Clear Lake and Puerto Rico up for new opportunities in sustainability.

    "We're keen to start to explore strategic pilots and partnerships with groups thinking about close-loop economies and sustainable manufacturing," Snabes recently told InnovationMap on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

    Raptamer's unique technology is making moves in the biotech industry. The company has created a process that makes high-quality DNA Molecules, called Raptamers™, that can target small molecules, proteins, and whole cells to be used as therapeutic, diagnostic, or research agents. Raptamer is in the portfolio of Houston-based Fannin Innovation Studio, which also won a Tibbetts Award that Fannin Innovation Studio in 2016.

    "We are excited by the research and clinical utility of the Raptamer technology, and its broad application across therapeutics and diagnostics including biomarker discovery in several diseases, for which we currently have an SBIR grant," says Dr. Atul Varadhachary, managing partner at Fannin Innovation Studio.

    This year, 38 companies were honored online with Tibbetts Awards. Since its inception in 1982, the awards have recognized over 170,000 honorees, according to the release, with over $50 billion in funding to small businesses through the 11 participating federal agencies.

    Report: 2020 brought fewer, larger VC deals for Houston — but angel investment is on the rise

    venture capital update

    Houston startup's venture capital deals continue to grow in 2020, according to a new report from Houston Exponential. Last year, VC dollars were up, while deal count was down, representing more mature deals coming into the ecosystem — but the second half of the year was defined by a growth in angel investment interest.

    The report by Serafina Lalany, chief of staff for HX, found that the Bayou City brought saw $715 million across 117 VC deals, according to Pitch Book data. It's the fourth year Houston has seen VC growth, and last year the city reported over $563 million across 168 deals.

    "Houston has put concerted efforts into building its innovation ecosystem," says Harvin Moore, president of HX, in a release, "and 2020's record-breaking results show we are seeing not only resilience in the tech sector, but a significant increase in the rate of formation and success of growth-stage companies, which have an outsized effect on our local economy in terms of high paying job potential and Houston's increasing attractiveness as a great place to work."

    Last August, HX published a report on the first half of the year and that study found that Houston — facing the challenges of both the pandemic and the oil price drop — managed to see a 7 percent increase in funding compared to the national average of 2.5 percent. With the second half of the year, the city's VC increase from last year was over 25 percent and up 252 percent since 2014.

    The other difference between the first and second halves of the year for Houston VC was the stages of the deals made. Most of Houston's larger deals took place in the first and second quarters — and even the beginning of Q3 — of 2020:

    But the second half of the year seemed like Houston's earlier stage VC activity returned, and Blair Garrou, managing partner at Houston-based Mercury Fund, confirmed this to InnovationMap on the Houston Innovator's Podcast in December.

    "Seed rounds have definitely bounced back. We're seeing a lot of seed activity, because there's been a lot of seed funds raised," Garrou said on the podcast, adding that he's observed an increase in angel investment interest. "People are realizing that money is in innovation and tech — especially in software."

    In her report, Lalany found that in Houston, angel investments are out-pacing seed, creating a "competitive environment."

    "The addition of multi-stage and nontraditional investment firms into the arena has created upward pressure in deal valuations and sizes. The average seed round in 2015 was $1 million, whereas today it's double that," the report reads. "With these firms turning inward to focus on protecting their current investments at the start of the pandemic, the propensity for smaller, more riskier investments have declined."

    Stephanie Campbell, managing director of the Houston Angel Network, said she's seen a rise in new membership for the organization. Last August, she was on track to get to 150 members — up from just 60 in 2018.

    "Despite COVID, we've continued to grow," Campbell told InnovationMap, adding that she's heard investors express that they have more time now to dive in. "People are very much still interested in learning about deploying their capital into early-stage venture. They're looking for a network of like-minded individuals."

    In contrast to this early stage activity, the VC activity that was still occurring was defined by larger deals. With VC essentially halting in March and April — especially in cities like Houston, Garrou adds — it makes sense that investors wanted more "sure things" and would invest more funds into companies they already know, versus being able to source new deals in person.

    "When you go to later stages, there are a lot fewer deals going on," Garrou continues on the podcast. "Now, there may be larger investments being made, but I think they are into fewer companies, and I think that's just due to the the pandemic and the ability just to not be able to do face-to-face."

    As Houston moves through 2021, the city is poised well for more growth and a continued diversification from just oil and gas, as Moore says in the release.

    "Houston Exponential was created four years ago by civic and business leaders to deal with an existential problem: our dependence on the energy and medical sector without a thriving startup culture to lead us towards a future that will look very different from the past," he says. "COVID and the de-carbonization movement have made that need much more urgent — it's both a huge challenge and an enormous opportunity."