HX has been acquired by InnovationMap's parent company. Photo via Getty Images

The nonprofit organization established in 2017 to advance awareness and opportunities for the Houston Innovation Ecosystem has been acquired by a local business.

Gow Companies has acquired of the assets of Houston Exponential. The terms of the deal were not disclosed. (Gow Companies' portfolio includes InnovationMap, as well as CultureMap, SportsMap, sports festival provider Pokatok, sports tech accelerator Pokatok Labs, ESPN radio, a sports tech-focused SPAC, and other strategic entities.)

The company plans to build upon the organization's mission and increase programming and access while leveraging new revenue streams, according to a news release.

“To say that HX was the ‘shot-in-the-arm’ Houston needed to accelerate our tech and innovation growth would be an understatement,” says Blair Garrou, HX board chair and managing director of early-stage venture capital firm Mercury. “HX has helped unlock the collaborative potential of founders and investors in the startup scene, local government, academic institutions, and the corporate sector to connect, promote and to attract talent, companies, and capital to Houston. This transaction celebrates that success and acknowledges the next stage of Houston’s evolution.”

Some of the accomplishments HX has observed in its tenure includes growing local VC activity from $284 million in 2016 to $2.34 billion in 2021, five Houston startups reaching valuations of more than $1 billion, increased local presence for several large tech companies, and attracting and standing up startup development organizations such as The Ion, Greentown Labs, The Cannon, and more.

The acquisition includes HX's brand and events — including the Houston Tech Rodeo and Houston’s tech gala, The Listies — and will recognize the sponsorships that have already been contracted with respect to upcoming events. The two events are in line with Gow Companies' mission, according to the release.

“HX plays a critical and unique role in the ecosystem and truly serves as Houston’s front door to our entrepreneurial community,” says Lawson Gow, partner of Gow Companies and founder of the Cannon. “Gow Companies is a collection of businesses that can be leveraged to advance the impactful work that HX has been doing in our city over the past five years.”

Houston Exponential released a new report on venture capital activity in the Bayou City. Sky Noir Photography by Bill Dickinson/Getty Images

Report finds Houston is 3rd fastest growing tech ecosystem

show me the money

In the startup world, small funding deals are a big deal in Houston.

A new Houston Exponential analysis based on data from PitchBook shows early-stage and angel rounds accounted for 151 venture capital deals under $5 million last year. Nearly two-thirds of those VC deals were less than $1 million.

Thanks to that robust activity, Houston now ranks as the third-fastest-growing tech ecosystem for early-stage companies in the country, according to the analysis.

Meanwhile, last year’s overall VC deal count exceeded 200 for the first time, “a harbinger of future growth potential as new company creation continues to explode,” the analysis says.

Texas Medical Center is contributing to that explosion. It recently raised the size of its TMC Venture Fund to $50 million. TMC says the fund now will be able to back a wider range of early-stage startups.

“When we launched the TMC Venture Fund, our goal was to drive collaboration and entrepreneurship, and establish Texas as a life science hub,” William McKeon, president and CEO of TMC, says in a news release. “Our initial investment was extremely successful, and this influx of capital creates a unique opportunity for TMC to invest in companies in the earliest stages of commercialization, further bolstering Houston’s thriving life science community.”

Although Houston’s average early-stage deal size of $18 million remains shy of the national average of $21 million, that still represents a 68 percent growth rate since 2019, according to the analysis from Houston Exponential, an entrepreneurship hub. Compared with the national growth rate of 23 percent, “this demonstrates the broader expansion and maturities within the Houston ecosystem,” the analysis says.

The size of deals at the Series A and Series B levels also is on the rise. According to the analysis, the median Series A round in Houston grew from less than $3.2 million in 2020 to more than $10 million in 2021. The size of Series B rounds rose 35 percent, from a median of $13.6 million in 2020 to $21 million in 2021.

While those numbers are impressive, mega-deals stole the spotlight in 2021. Six Houston companies raised at least $100 million last year, with three of those deals surpassing $300 million. Collectively, Axiom Space, Cart.com (now based in Austin), HighRadius, Lancium, Solugen, and Vyripharm Biopharmaceuticals raised $1.3 billion last year.

Last year’s mega-deals brought the number of Houston unicorns, including Cart.com, to five. Unicorns are startups valued at $1 billion or more. In Houston, the newest members of that club are Solugen, with a $357 million Series C round in 2021, and Cart.com, with a $240 million Series B1 round last year.

“That VC-backed companies were able to generate such enormous value in 2021 during a time characterized by great uncertainty and extraordinary circumstances highlights the continued importance of VC-backed companies to the resilience of Houston’s economy,” says Serafina Lalany, executive director of Houston Exponential.

HX's Serafina Lalany shares what to expect at Houston Tech Rodeo this year. Photo courtesy of HX

Houston Exponential's tech rodeo returns revamped and re-energized

Q&A

It's that time of year, Houston innovators. The third annual Houston Tech Rodeo starts next week, and the format is going to look different from its initial pre-COVID version as well as the last two years of virtual programming.

HTR, hosted by Houston Exponential, kicks off Sunday, February 27, with the bulk of the programming taking place during the work week, before it concluding Saturday, March 5. The full schedule is available online upon registration, which is free.

Serafina Lalany, executive director of HX, shares what attendees can expect from this year's events.

InnovationMap: HTR has a whole new format this year. What led to the evolution of the event and what are the most significant changes?

Serafina Lalany: This year's event series is concentrated along the METRO Red Line and we have two to three "Saloons" each day around thematic focus areas such as HealthTech, ClimaTech, CPG, and moree. This year, we were seeking to drive more density — with 20 events (versus 170 in previous years) all centralized downtown. It will look and feel a lot like SXSW. Our goal was to optimize for more engineered serendipity.

IM: Who should attend HTR?

SL: Tech Rodeo Roadshow is our annual event for all Houstonians who are seeking to get plugged into the startup community — whether you are an entrepreneur, investor, talent — or have ambitions to launch and scale a startup this event seeks to lower the barrier of entry.

IM: What are the central topics/industries that HTR is organized around and how did y’all decide on what these topics/industries would be?

SL: The thematic focus areas are related to Houston's core strengths and emerging startup areas: HealthTech, ClimaTech, AeroSpace, CPG, Industry 4.0, Esports, and B2B Saas.

IM: HTR returns in the fall for a summit. What can you tell us about that event and how is it different from its spring counterpart?

SL: The Summit was born out of our findings from last year's event series. When we pivoted to the hybrid event model, we captured a global audience for the first time — 47 countries, to be exact.

The Summit will bring the global tech community to Houston. Leading entrepreneurs, executives, and investors will address and debate issues facing core industries in this current moment — all in the heart of America’s most diverse city. It's four tracks (HealthTech, ClimaTech, Aerospace, and DEI) across two days at the POST.

The Houston Exponential team has a new look to their branding and website. Photo via houstonexponential.org

Houston Exponential enters a new era with rebrand

makeover

The future of Houston Exponential is here. The organization rolled out its new branding today that was designed and created in partnership with a Houston agency.

HX tapped Houston-based NUU Group to ideate and design a new brand that fits the evolving organization's ambitious plans. HX is like a startup itself, the company explains in a statement, and is shifting to accomodate the needs of the ecosystem and community it's served since 2017.

"The challenge lies in evolving the HX brand to be more than a two-letter acronym, bringing it off the page and into culture," HX Executive Director Serafina Lalany tells InnovationMap. "We need to create a framework and strategy that allows HX to communicate effectively across audiences, platforms, and geographies."

The goal of the new branding is to clearly communicate HX's vision and value to both local entrepreneurs and the global innovation community.

"After a national search for a brand development partner that understood the impact we were seeking to drive not only for our startup community, but for the city of Houston we identified NUU Group," Lalany says. "NUU has been helping companies ideate, design and launch innovative solutions for almost a decade and is a champion for our city with groups across the country and around the globe."

NUU Group, founded by CEO Jez Babarczy in 2013, works with emerging and established companies to design branding that moves both business and culture forward.

"The theme for HX’s new identity is anchored in the idea that the path of entrepreneurship is tough, but with the right support founders can succeed," says Garrett Herzik, head of projects at NUU. "HX exists to help make that path less opaque and easier to navigate, to build a robust community of support that backs up Houston’s uncompromising founders."

HX's new website features interactive graphics and video, as well as highlighting Houston founders on the homepage. The new tagline for the organization is "building the future backed by community," which resonates with HX's mission to represent the diversity of the city.
"We're helping to make the world of entrepreneurship more accessible, less opaque, and easier to navigate for founders," the website reads.
In a recent interview with InnovationMap, Lalany says a key focus of that accessibility is to venture capital opportunities, which is why HX will be scaling its VC Immersion days in partnership with Republic, an investment tech company.
The branding changes come just ahead of HX's Houston Tech Rodeo Roadshow, which begins later this month. The new design will be worked into a part of the week-long event and meetup programming, which is aimed at showcasing Houston innovation.
"We hope to see the new branding give current and future founders confidence in their entrepreneurial journey," Herzik says. "We hope to see HX’s commitment to providing a robust community of support owned and adopted by the entirety of Houston. Transformation will move as fast as our community allows, which requires that we all adopt one vision of an innovative future. One that is possible for anyone."

Houston Exponential's website has a whole new look to it. Graphic courtesy of HX

Here's your one-stop shop for innovation events in Houston this month. Photo via Getty Images

10+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events for February

where to be

It's a new month, which calls for a new round up of must-attend events. In this batch of in-person and online innovation events, you can check out details on a women-focused conference at Rice University, a pitch competition, educational workshops, and more.

This article will be updated as more business and tech events are announced.

Feb. 3 — The Realities of Raising Capital

WeWork and Republic will host an interactive panel discussion that's event is open to the public and features a discussion with local entrepreneurs and Mikaela Giani, senior investment associate at Republic on their experiences raising capital. This event is part of the newly launched “Let’s Talk Deals” event series from WeWork and Republic focusing on a 2-way conversation between start-up Founders and Venture Capital Investors to understand founders' funding experience, investors' expectations, and what areas need to be improved for both sides to capture foregone opportunities.

The event is on Thursday, February 3, at 4:30 pm. It's free and happening at WeWork (708 Main St, 10th Floor). Click here to register.

Feb. 8 — TEDxBaylorCollegeofMedicine: Reboot, Reframe, ReImagine

The Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy will host Baylor College of Medicine’s first ever TEDx event. TEDxBaylorCollegeofMedicine is dedicated to bringing together leading thinkers and doers to share ideas across many disciplines – technology, entertainment, design, science, humanities, business and development. Our aim is to build a meaningful connection between the work at Baylor and the people we serve in the community and share inspirational stories of how our community is improving health through science, scholarship and innovation.

The event is on Tuesday, February 8, at 7 pm. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

Feb. 9 — Code for Houston's Open Project Night: Reduced Inequalities Edition

Impact Hub Houston invites you to connect and collaborate with passionate people who are working on projects, ventures, and collaborations to improve the City of Houston. Open Project Night has been hosted across the Impact Hub global network for a few years, and we are carrying the torch locally to support problem solvers, connectors, and leaders in their efforts to create the change they wish to see in the world.

The event is on Thursday, February 9, at 5:30 pm. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

Feb. 10 — Digitization of Industrial Diagrams through AI & Computer Vision

DataSeer will introduce the problem of extracting data trapped in legacy technical diagrams and explain how recent technologies in computer vision and machine learning can help automate and accelerate manual effort that’s currently done today.

The event is on Thursday, February 10, at 9 am. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

Feb. 10 — IDDD Round Table Workshop: Developing Therapeutics for Neurodegenerative Diseases

This workshop will feature presentations from Jim Ray, PhD, MD Anderson Cancer Center and Zachary Sweeney, PhD, CEO, Interline Therapeutics. You will have the opportunity on the registration site to submit questions in advance that may be addressed in the 30-minute round table discussion portion of the workshop. There is a virtual registration option if you prefer to join by zoom.

The event is on Thursday, February 10, at 3:30 pm. It's free and happening at Rice (6500 Main St, Room 1003). Click here to register.

Feb. 11 — Women in Leadership Conference

The 22nd annual conference has been a beacon of inspiration in the Houston community, empowering women to accomplish their career goals. In panel discussions and interactive workshops, attendees hear from leaders across different industries, explore various approaches to leadership, and discuss future opportunities for success.

The event is on Friday, February 11, from 8:15 am to 5 pm. Registration is $120 (code HOU22 for 10 percent off). It's happening at McNair Hall at Rice University. Click here to register.

Feb. 16 — Engage VC: Greycroft

Managing nearly $2B across 400 portfolio companies, including 25 unicorns, Greycroft is viewed as a top VC in the nation. And they are coming to Houston. Join HX Venture Fund at the Ion to hear Brentt Baltimore, principal at Greycroft, and Andrea Course, venture principal at Shell Ventures, discuss Greycroft's perspective on ESG, circular economy, sustainability, and how Houston fits in.

The event is on Wednesday, February 16, from 8:30 to 11 am. It's free and happening at The Ion (4501 Main St.). Click here to register.

Feb. 17 — Microsoft Excel Training with Docmo

Lee Gilley, founder of Docmo and member of The Cannon, is hosting an excel training in the classroom at The Cannon West Houston. Anyone can drop in at any time. In the first half of the event, Lee will cover a few Excel topics, and in the second half there will be a Q&A format so please bring a problem you’re currently working on.

The event is on Thursday, February 17, at 3:30 pm. It's free and happening at The Cannon West Houston Event Space (1334 Brittmoore Rd). Click here to register.

Feb. 17 — Transition on Tap: Reflections and Lessons From the Texas Freeze

In this year’s first Transition On Tap, Greentown Labs will sit down with Houston energy industry experts as they talk about their firsthand experience with the freeze, what steps have been taken in the last year to strengthen the grid, and the role climatetech innovation can play to create more resilient energy infrastructure.

The event is on Thursday, February 17, at 5 pm. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

Feb. 23 — Houston Startup Showcase

The Houston Startup Showcase is a year-long series of monthly pitch competitions. Founders will pitch and compete for the grand prize package. Watch the startups pitch their company and see who the judges will name the champion of Houston Startup Showcase 2022.

The event is on Wednesday, February 23, at 6 pm. It's free and happening at Ion Houston (4201 Main St). Click here to register.

Feb. 24 — Texas Life Science Forum

Join Rice Alliance and BioHouston for the 10th Annual Texas Life Science Forum on to hear from luminaries in the life science innovation, commercialization, and entrepreneurship community. The day-long conference is an opportunity to see promising life science companies, meet investors and venture capitalists, learn about the latest developments in the Texas life science entrepreneurial ecosystem and research institutions, attend the educational symposium, and network with the community.

The event is on Thursday, February 24, from 8:30 am to 5 pm. Registration is $225, and the event happening at Rice University (6100 Main St). Click here to register.

Feb. 24 — EnergyTech University Prize Collegiate Competition

Sponsored by the Office of Technology Transitions at the U.S. Department of Energy, the EnergyTech University Prize is a collegiate competition challenging multidisciplinary student teams to develop and present a business plan that leverages lab-developed and other high-potential energy technologies. Student teams compete for a total of $250,000 in cash prizes as they explore business opportunities for lab-developed or other high-potential energy technologies, assess commercialization opportunities through market analysis, and present a viable business plan to industry judges. Throughout the competition, they receive mentorship and materials to help them succeed.

The event is on Thursday, February 24, at 3 pm. It's free and happening at Greentown Labs (4200 San Jacinto St). Click here to register.

Feb. 27 to March 5 — Houston Tech Rodeo Roadshow

Houston Tech Rodeo is back — and this time it's a roadshow. The week of events will set up saloons down Main Street and each day will host two 3-4 hour sessions on various innovation topics, as well as coffee networking in the mornings and evening happy hours for further connecting opportunities.

The week of events begins Sunday, February 27, and goes through Saturday, March 5. It's free and happening in downtown Houston. Click here to register.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Winston Wright of Alto, Serafina Lalany of Houston Exponential, and Zeev Braude of SiteAware. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from startup development to construction technology — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Winston Wright, Houston general manager at Alto

Winston Wright leads Houston operations for Dallas-based Alto, which is taking on the likes of Uber and Lyft. Photo courtesy of Alto

As any Houstonian knows, the city is quite large. While Dallas-based Alto, a luxury rideshare service, rolled out in Houston a while ago, Winston Wright has plans to make sure the company is covering the entire greater Houston area.

Wright, who's the Houston general manager for Alto, joined last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. He shares more on Alto's future in Texas and beyond, as well as what's challenging him most as he grows the team locally.

"The vision I have for this market is that, as we move forward and continue to expand, that we're covering all of Houston," he says. Click here to read more and to listen to the episode.

Serafina Lalany, executive director of Houston Exponential

Houston Exponential appoints new executive director and restructures its board HX has its new permanent leader. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

It's a new era for Houston Exponential, and Serafina Lalany, named the organization's executive director last September, is leading HX into its new phase.

"The interesting thing of being an organization of ex-startup operators is that we operate as a startup ourselves," she tells InnovationMap. "Along the journey of supporting and building infrastructure for a startup community, we have also been seeking our own product market fit. I think we're at the place now where we have a profound realization of what that is and who we serve. We have crystal clear vision around that."

Lalany discusses more of her plans for HX for 2022 and shares how the organization is evolving to be what Houston's innovation ecosystem needs in an interview. Click here to read more.

Zeev Braude, CEO of SiteAware

Houston-based SiteAware has raised $15 million in its latest round of funding. Photo courtesy of SiteAware

SiteAware, a Houston construction software startup, raised $15 million in its series B round, which was led by Singapore-based Vertex Ventures Israel. Existing investors Robert Bosch Venture Capital GmbH, Axon Ventures, Oryzn Capital, The Flying Object, and lool Ventures also contributed to the round.

The company's digital construction verification, or DCV, platform uses AI and digital twin technology to provide real-time verification of construction fieldwork. According to a press release from SiteAware, the construction industry represents a $1.3 trillion market share of the United States economy.

"SiteAware's DCV error prevention technology is disrupting the construction industry by dramatically accelerating schedules and streamlining work processes for all parties. In the next few years, everyone from contractors to developers will be using DCV to build without rework," says Zeev Braude, CEO of SiteAware, in a news release. "DCV gives the construction ecosystem access to data they've never had before, data that holds the key to the next jump in productivity for the industry." Click here to read more.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston innovator joins VC world to increase her social impact

Q&A

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Houston college system plans to open $30M resiliency-focused center

to the rescue

Houston’s initiative to protect the city from catastrophes is getting a big boost from Houston Community College.

The college is developing the Resilience Center of Excellence to aid the city’s resilience campaign. At the heart of this project is the 65,000-square-foot, $30 million Resiliency Operations Center, which will be built on a five-acre site HCC’s Northeast campus. The complex is scheduled to open in 2024.

HCC estimates the operations center will train about 3,000 to 4,000 local first responders, including police officers and firefighters, during the first three years of operation. They’ll be instructed to prepare for, manage, and respond to weather, health and manmade hazards such as hurricanes, floods, fires, chemical spills, and winter freezes.

According to The Texas Tribune, the operations center will include flood-simulation features like a 39-foot-wide swift water rescue channel, a 15-foot-deep dive area, and a 100-foot-long “rocky gorge” of boulders.

The college says the first-in-the-nation Resilience Center of Excellence will enable residents, employers, civic organizations, neighborhoods, and small businesses to obtain education and certification aimed at improving resilience efforts.

“Our objective is to protect the well-being of our citizens and our communities and increase economic stability,” Cesar Maldonado, chancellor of HCC, said when the project was announced.

Among the programs under the Resiliency Center of Excellence umbrella will be non-credit courses focusing on public safety and rescue, disaster management, medical triage, and debris removal.

Meanwhile, the basic Resilience 101 program will be available to businesses and community organizations, and the emergency response program is geared toward individuals, families, and neighborhoods.

HCC’s initiative meshes with the City of Houston’s Resilient Houston, a strategy launched in 2020 that’s designed to protect Houston against disasters. As part of this strategy, the city has hired a chief resilience and sustainability officer, Priya Zachariah.

“Every action we take and investment we make should continue to improve our collective ability to withstand the unexpected shocks and disruptions when they arrive — from hurricanes to global pandemics, to extreme heat or extreme cold,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said last year. “The time is now to stop doing things the way we’ve always done them because the threats are too unpredictable.”

In an InnovationMap guest column published in February 2021, Richard Seline, co-founder of the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub, wrote that the focus of resilience initiatives should be pre-disaster risk mitigation.

“There is still work to be done from a legislative and governmental perspective, but more and more innovators — especially in Houston — are proving to be essential in creating a better future for the next historic disaster we will face,” Seline wrote.