Several Houston startups claimed the top prizes at a recent competition — plus more Houston innovation news you may have missed. Photo courtesy of TNVC

Houston health cos. sweep at competition, startups announce new deals, and more innovation news

short stories

It's been a busy season for the Houston innovation ecosystem, and for this reason, local startup and tech news may have fallen through some of the cracks.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, a consumer packaged goods startup is now on shelves across Texas, a Texas energy company gets fresh funding from Houston VCs, Texas Medical Center Innovation companies sweep at a recent competition, and more.

Houston health care startups sweep recent competition

Houston-based Starling Medical took home the top prize at a recent competition. Photo courtesy of TNVC

At the 2021 Texas A&M New Ventures Competition, several Houston companies claimed top prizes — essentially sweeping the competition. The top three winners were all member companies of Texas Medical Center Innovation:

  • First Place Finalist: Houston-based Starling Medical – $50,000
  • Second Place Finalist: Houston-based Ictero Medical – $35,000
  • Third Place Finalist: Koda Health – $25,000
Other Houston-area award winners included:
  • Fourth Place Finalist: Microsilicon – $15,000
  • Sixth Place Finalist: CodeWalker – $5,000
  • Elevator Pitch First Place: EmGenysis – $5,000
  • Elevator Pitch Fourth Place: TYBR Health – $1,00
Click here to view more details on the 2021 award results.

Houston CPG company scores Central Market placement

Central Market now carries this Houston startup's baked goods. Photo courtesy of ChipMonk Baking

As of this month, Central Market shoppers in Texas can purchase Houston-based ChipMonk Baking products products. Additionally, the company announced it has added added 1,100 square feet to its existing 2,300 square-foot facility.

Founded by David Downing and Jose Hernandez, ChipMonk Baking, is a local, mail-order bakery that makes cookies, brownie bites, and other snacks using monk fruit and allulose, a low-calorie (0.4 calories per gram) rare sugar that's found naturally in foods such as raisins, dried figs, and kiwi.

The nine open Central Market locations throughout Texas will carry all nine flavors of ChipMonk's Keto Cookie Bites.

"Here in Houston, ChipMonk is the healthy option — there is nothing else like our products being made in a city that's known around the world for food," says Downing in a press release. "When you consider Houston's diversity and international culinary reputation, the lack of local health-food representation and production just doesn't make sense. We love this city and are working to change that."

Houston Methodist doles out $2.5 million in grants

Houston Methodist has contributed a couple million dollars to Houston nonprofits. Courtesy of Methodist Hospital/Facebook

Houston Methodist announced a couple weeks ago that it has awarded nearly $2.5 million in community grant investment to 37 Houston-area nonprofit organizations, according to a news release from the health care organization.

Over 177 Houston nonprofits applied for the Houston Methodist Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Grant Program, a program created last year to address the social determinants of health that lead to health inequities within racial, ethnic and social minorities.

"We continuously strive to build and maintain a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment both within our hospital walls and within our communities," says Arianne Dowdell, vice-president, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Houston Methodist, in the release. "The grant program and all the deserving organizations awarded funds are critical in shaping our community, which Houston Methodist has proudly supported for decades. We look forward to fostering the growth and development of meaningful programs that will benefit underserved and underrepresented groups in Houston."

The program, which includes both DEI Grants and Social Equity Grants, is funded by a $25 million fund established by Houston Methodist to be doled out over five years to support underserved communities.

Innovative energy company receives funding from Houston venture capital

Houston-based Cottonwood Venture Partners and Chevron Technology Ventures have again invested in this Austin-area energy company. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Two Houston venture capital groups recently went in on Round Rock, Texas-based Infinitum Electric's $40 million series C funding round. Houston-based Cottonwood Technology Fund and Chevron Technology Ventures — both existing investors for the company — doubled down on their support in the new round led by San Francisco-based Energy Innovation Capital.

The fresh funds will allow the company to scale production of its ultra-high-efficiency, lightweight motors and "expand production of the company's IEs Series motors for commercial and industrial applications and complete development of its IEm Series motors for the rapidly growing electric vehicle market," according to the company's news release.

"We're excited to ramp production of our motors after seeing significant demand in the commercial HVAC and industrial markets, as well as the growing interest from electric vehicle suppliers who see the potential a highly efficient, lightweight motor can deliver," says Ben Schuler, founder and CEO of Infinitum Electric, in the news release. "Partnering with Energy Innovation Capital, Rockwell Automation and our existing investors allows us to scale and power machines more efficiently and sustainably."

Houston nanotechnology startup scores distribution deal

Houston-based NanoTech, currently housed in Halliburton Labs, has a new distribution agreement. Photo via halliburtonlabs.com

NanoTech has announced a new distribution agreement with Warrior Ace Hardware, a supplier of specialty products for the commercial and residential building industries. NanoTech uses material science to create NanoShield, a fire-proofing and insulation product.

The new partnership offers a key opportunity for NanoTech, which recently closed a $5 million round of funding.

"Ace Hardware has close to 100 years of distribution and retail experience. We are excited to partner with such a respected brand to get us one step closer to saving a tremendous amount of lives, protecting infrastructure, and reducing energy consumption," says Mike Francis, CEO of NanoTech in a news release.

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Cancer-fighting company based in Houston emerges from stealth and snags $74M in its latest round

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A Houston-based clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company has raised millions in its latest round.

Tvardi Therapeutics Inc. closed its $74 million series B funding round led by new investors New York-based Slate Path Capital, Florida-based Palkon Capital, Denver-based ArrowMark Partners, and New York-based 683 Capital, with continued support and participation by existing investors, including Houston-based Sporos Bioventures.

"We are thrilled to move out of stealth mode and partner with this lineup of long-term institutional investors," says Imran Alibhai, CEO at Tvardi. "With this financing we are positioned to advance the clinical development of our small molecule inhibitors of STAT3 into mid-stage trials as well as grow our team."

Through Slate Path Capital's investment, Jamie McNab, partner at the firm, will join Tvardi's board of directors.

"Tvardi is the leader in the field of STAT3 biology and has compelling proof of concept clinical data," McNab says in the release. "I look forward to partnering with the management team to advance Tvardi's mission to develop a new class of breakthrough medicines for cancer, chronic inflammation, and fibrosis."

Tvardi's latest fundraise will go toward supporting the company's products in their mid-stage trials for cancer and fibrosis. According to the release, Tvardi's lead product, TTI-101, is being studied in a Phase 1 trial of patients with advanced solid tumors who have failed all lines of therapy. So far, the drug has been well-received and shown multiple durable radiographic objective responses in the cancer patients treated.

Dr. Keith Flaherty, who is a member of Tvardi's scientific advisory board and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, offered his support of the company.

"STAT3 is a compelling and validated target. Beyond its clinical activity, Tvardi's lead molecule, TTI-101, has demonstrated direct downregulation of STAT3 in patients," he says in the release. "As a physician, I am eager to see the potential of Tvardi's molecules in diseases of high unmet medical need where STAT3 is a key driver."

Networking with high-status colleagues isn't successful across industries, per Rice University research

houston voices

In a timeless scene from the mockumentary "This Is Spinal Tap," an 80s metal band swaggers in for a performance only to find they're billed second to a puppet show. Though the film is farce, real musicians often come to question the value of playing second fiddle to anyone – even an A-lister.

Now research by Rice Business professor Alessandro Piazza and colleagues Damon J. Phillips and Fabrizio Castellucci confirms those musicians are right to wonder. In fact, they discovered, the only thing worse than performing after a puppet may be opening up for an idol. Bands that consistently open up for groups with higher status, the researchers found, earn less money – and are more likely to break up than those that don't.

"Three cheers," The Economist wrote about the researchers, for confirming "what many people in the music industry have long suspected – that being the opening band for a big star is not a first class ticket to success."

While the findings may be intuitive for seasoned musicians, they fly in the face of existing business research. Most research about affiliations concludes that hobnobbing with high-status colleagues gives lowly newcomers a boost. Because affiliations give access to resources and information, the reasoning goes, it's linked with individual- and firm-level successes such as landing jobs and starting new ventures.

Both individuals and organizations, one influential study notes, benefit from the "sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships."

That's largely because in many fields up and comers must fight to be taken seriously – or noticed at all. This problem is often called "the liability of newness:" In order to succeed, industry newcomers first need to be considered legitimate by the audience they're trying to woo.

Showing off shiny friends is a classic solution. In many fields, after all, linking oneself with a high-status partner is simply good branding: a shorthand signal to audiences or consumers that if a top dog has given their approval, the newcomer must surely have some of the same excellent qualities.

Unfortunately, this doesn't always hold true – especially in the creative world, Piazza's team found. In the frantic world of haute cuisine, for example, a faithful apprentice to a celebrity chef may actually suffer for all those burns and cuts in the star's hectic kitchen. Unless they can create meals that are not just spectacular, but show off a distinct style, consumers may sneer at the newcomer as a knockoff of the true master.

So what determines if reflected glory makes newcomers shine or merely eclipses them? It has to do with how much attention there is to go around, Piazza said. While partnering with a star helps in some fields, it can be a liability when success depends on interaction between audience and performer. That's because our attention – that is, ability to mentally focus on a specific subject – is finite. Consumers can only take in so much at a time.

Marketers are acutely aware of this scarcity. Much of their time, after all, is spent battling for consumer attention in an environment swamped by competitors. The more rivals for advertising attention, research shows, the less a consumer will recall of any one ad. In the world of finance, publicly traded companies also live and die on attention, in the form of analyst coverage of their stocks and angel investors' largesse.

Musicians who perform live, Piazza said, are battling for attention in a field that's gotten progressively more fierce, due to lower album sales and shorter career spans. Performing in the orbit of a major distraction such as Taylor Swift or Beyoncé, however, only reduces the attention the opening act gets, the researchers found. Though performances are just a few hours, the attention drain can do lasting harm both to revenue and career longevity.

To reach these conclusions, the researchers analyzed data about the live performances and careers of 1,385 new bands between 2000 and 2005. Supplementing this with biographical and genre information about each band along with musician interviews, the team then analyzed the concert revenue and artistic survival of each band.

They discovered that in live music, high status affiliation onstage clearly diluted audience attention to newcomers – translating into less revenue and lower chance of survival.

In part, the revenue loss also stems from the fact that even in big stadium performances, performing with superstars rarely enriches the underdogs. According to a 2014 Billboard magazine report, headliners in the U.S. typically absorb 30 to 40 percent of gross event revenues; intermediate acts garner 20 to 30 percent and opening acts for established artists bring as little as $15,000.

The findings were surprising, and perhaps dispiriting, enough for the researchers to carefully spell out their scope. Affiliation's positive effects, they said, are most often found in environments of collaboration and learning – for example academia. In these settings, a superstar not only can bestow a halo effect, but can share actual resources or information. In the music world, however, the fleeting nature of a shared performance makes it hard for a superstar band to share much with a lower-ranked band except, perhaps, some euphoric memories.

Interestingly, in many businesses it's easy for observers to quickly assume affiliations between disparate groups. In the investment banking industry, for instance, research shows that audiences infer status hierarchies among banks merely by reading "tombstone advertisements," the announcements of security offerings in major business publications. Readers assume underwriting banks to be affiliated with each other when they're listed as being part of the same syndicate – even if the banks actually have little to do with each other beyond pooling capital in the same deal.

In the music business, star affiliations mainly help an opening act a) if the audience understands there's an affiliation and b) if they believe the link is intentional. But that's not always the case because promoters and others in Big Music often line up opening bands. When possible, though, A-listers can do their opening acts a solid by making it clear that they've chosen them to perform there.

Otherwise, Piazza and his colleagues concluded, the light shed by musical supernovas typically gets lost in the darkened stadium. For the long term, business-minded bands may do best by working with peers in more modest venues – places where the attention they do get, like in Spinal Tap's classic metric, goes all the way up to 11.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Alessandro Piazza, an assistant professor of strategic management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Houston data management company closes $18M in fresh funding

money moves

A Houston company that's created a centralized log management solution has closed a new round in funding.

Graylog closed its $18 million growth equity round led by Richmond, Virginia-based Harbert Growth Partners, a new investor, and Minneapolis, Minnesota-based Piper Sandler Merchant Banking, the company announced today. The round also received contribution from existing investors Houston-based Mercury Fund and Integr8d Capital, as well as Germany-based HTGF.

"This investment will enable us to accelerate our global go-to-market strategies and enhancements to the award-winning solutions we deliver for IT, DevOps, and Security teams," says Andy Grolnick, CEO of Graylog, in a press release. "We're excited to have the support of new and existing investor partners to help us realize our potential."

Andy Grolnick is CEO of Graylog. Photo courtesy

Per the release, the funds will go toward growing the company's platform that allows its users the ability to capture, store, and enable real-time analysis of terabytes of machine data.

"Graylog is well-positioned to be a long-term winner in the rapidly growing market for log management and analysis solutions," says Brian Carney, general partner of Harbert Growth Partners, in the release. "With its focus on delivering a superior analyst experience coupled with a vibrant Open Source community, the company provides customers a compelling alternative to other log management solutions plagued with high complexity and high total cost of ownership (TCO). We are thrilled to partner with the Graylog team to leverage the significant opportunity that lies ahead for the company."

Over the past year, despite the challenging business climate, the company saw growth in business and even expanded its European operations, according to the release.

"As a long-standing customer, Graylog is strategic to our success. We are excited to see new investment that will enable the company to accelerate innovation and continue to deliver excellent log management and SIEM solutions," says Rob Reiner, CTO of PROS, in the release.