Serafina Lalany of Houston Exponential sits down to discuss he ambitious investment-focused plans for Houston innovation. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Serafina Lalany is known to crunch the numbers. In her role as executive director of Houston Exponential, which she's held since September, she keeps a close eye on venture capital activity in Houston.

"Following VC data is the closest proxy to other data that is often hard to collect. It actually gives us a sense of the growth over time of the ecosystem," Lalany tells InnovationMap. "Also, it gives us the signal as to like what our strengths are and the areas that we need to continue to build out infrastructure."

This year, Lalany and her team at HX aren't just watching the numbers — they hope to make an impact on the VC activity in Houston with more of their VC immersion days. For those, HX and its partner Republic, a startup investing platform, find local startups and connect them with visiting venture capital firms in hopes to generate investment.

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.

InnovationMap: You’re starting your first full year as executive director of HX — what are you most excited about for 2022?

Serafina Lalany: In my eyes, I think 2022 presents a really interesting opportunity. Just looking back the last year, we had a lot of successes as a collective community. For the first time we saw the rise of more than one unicorn. Outside of High Radius, we've seen Cart.com launch and expand and become a behemoth. We've seen Axiom Space make some cool, critical hires and attract talent from New York City and other high growth companies. We've seen the expansion of companies like Capsule, ClassPass, and GoPuff to the Houston region. We're starting to see some really positive signals here, but also what we're excited about at HX is that over the last two years, entrepreneurship as itself has become a lot more accessible.

We've seen the demographics of entrepreneurs rapidly change. The average founder is a lot younger now, and there are many reasons as to why that's happening. In the knowledge economy, there's a lot more resources available to you as the world switched to completely digital. Suddenly, we found a lot more time on our hands, and the proliferation of things like no code tools helped to launch companies. We've seen probably the highest concentration of early stage companies in Houston to date.

There's something interesting happening on the ground, and that plus the global attention Houston starting to get as a climatetech leader, as a health tech leader, aerospace commercialization — people are starting to recognize what a force Houston is to reckon with. Looking into 2022, I think we'll be elevating Houston on a more global scale.

IM: How has HX evolved since its inception and where is the organization at today?

SL: The interesting thing of being an organization of ex-startup operators is that we operate as a startup ourselves. 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.

We exist to position Houston as one of the best places to launch and scale a company. We serve entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs in Houston. We do that in many ways. Of course, most of the community recognizes HX through efforts like the Houston Tech Rodeo, but we're also working on opportunities and initiatives to help lower the barrier of entry for entrepreneurs in Houston. So things like VC immersions, which which allow access to capital in ways that weren't previously accessible. And definitely ramping up our efforts around reporting marketing and media, helping to shine a brighter light on our city. There's more to come as we get into this new year.

IM: Tech rodeo is coming back in a couple of months. What’s should people know about this year’s experience?

SL: A lot has changed this year. We listened to feedback from the attendees last year, which was our highest attended event to date. About 8,600 people came out last year, which blew our expectations out of the water. Having it as a hybrid made lot more accessible to people even outside of the region. This year we learned that from previous years having 130 to 170 events across the week is awesome, but it also forces people to make hard decisions sometimes. So, we're centralizing all of our events downtown on Main Street. We've actually partnered with METRO, and there will be 20 official saloons for Houston Tech Rodeo all along the light rail. Monday through Sunday (Feb. 28 through March 6), We're activating all of downtown and it'll look and feel a lot like SXSW. People will be walking from venue to venue,and we have a few thematic focus areas — health tech, aerospace, climatetech, but also emerging sectors like CPG, which I think we need to give more credit to in Houston.

IM: Last year, you introduced a partnership with Republic. What instigated this collaboration and what's been the impact so far?

SL: Inspiration for partnering with the Republic actually came out of our internal discussions around the time of the transition where we assess that VC immersions program is one of the most vital programs for our ecosystem because it helps lower the barrier to entry for startups seeking capital, especially for their first round of institutional capital. We have seen lots of positive signals over the last like 18 months of having done this gram. We have seen about 1,500 applications come through, 150 or more meetings were facilitated, and $35 million of capital was deployed to those companies. Our number one challenge is scaling — it was really just time and resources. As you can imagine, looking through those applications and the communication with the companies, it takes a considerable amount of time.

So, what we really needed to help us scale was additional venture analysts to look through those applications. Almost serendipitously as we were discussing the program with one of our friends, Abe Chu of previously NextSeed now Republic, we found that there's actually a lot of synergy here. They certainly have the capacity to look through applications — they've got a whole venture team — and we have the reach in the community. We work across the entire region. It ended up being a really cool collaboration. Now with their help, we can actually serve more entrepreneurs and more investors.

With this new model, where we're bringing in five to 15 investors to the city each quarter. Instead of those investors meeting with one founder, as they often do when they're in town, they're meeting with five to 15 founders. It's reducing friction for outside investors — that trip to Houston is very impactful, very busy, but very impactful. For the startups, it's really a great way to get the face time with investors that they can potentially be working with.

IM: HX has made some recent hiring moves — what were your goals in those strategic hires and are still growing your team?

SL: We made two critical hires in the last 30 or so days. One is our new director of inclusive innovation — that's Ivery Boston III. He actually was in the Miami ecosystem on Mayor Suarez's task force, so he's seen it all. We're really grateful to have that institutional knowledge here in Houston, but, more importantly, I think Ivery brings a really interesting perspective to the team and helps to fill a gap in our ecosystem today. I think we all realize and value the diversity in Houston, and how that is a core strength of our community. But we also have to be mindful about creating on ramps for underrepresented communities as well as we build and accelerate our tech economy in Houston.

Part of his responsibilities will be working directly within these communities and alongside these communities to help ensure that all HX activities are of course are built with an inclusive mindset, and they're taking considerations from the community in mind as well as we develop them out. This is all for the goal of helping to create the most equitable startup community we've seen in the country. To our benefit of being a last mover, an advantage, of which there are few, is that we actually get to do things hopefully in a much better way than we've seen on the coasts.

As far as future hires, I think this is pretty much the core team we're looking at for the next 12 months.

IM: I know something super important to you has been tracking venture capital activity in Houston. Why has that been a metric your you've been closely watching throughout your time at HX and what does the data show?

SL: Following VC data is the closest proxy to other data that is often hard to collect. It actually gives us a sense of the growth over time of the ecosystem. It gives us insights into the rate of capital that is deployed and how that's growing over time and where it's getting deployed. Also gives us the signal as to like what our strengths are and the areas that we need to continue to build out infrastructure. Over the last few years we've noticed that there has been more attention around hard tech and in biotech. As ecosystem developers, we must ask ourselves, "do we have the entire life cycle of resources and infrastructure to support companies within those sectors along their journey to scale?" If the answer is no, then we run the risk of potentially losing that talent or losing those companies to other places where there are supportive resources. So, it helps inform a lot of what we do. But it's also one of the few indicators of ecosystem growth in a way that is typically really hard to collect.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Despite the effect COVID-19 has had on Houston venture capital, this Kansas City, Missouri-based VC is looking to continue to connect with the local tech scene remotely. Getty Images

Out-of-state VC firm with eyes on Houston actively — but cautiously — continues to invest amid COVID-19

money moves

A Kansas City, Missouri-based venture capital firm has had its eyes on Houston since fall of last year, and it's not letting the pandemic slow down its immersion into the local startup ecosystem.

Flyover Capital focuses on tech startups based in the middle of the country — from Denver to Atlanta, and the Twin Cities down to Houston. Usually funding seed to series A rounds, Flyover's thesis is geared at "creating the next generation of tech success stories outside traditional tech hubs," says Dan Kerr, principal at the firm.

This region, which Crunchbase dubbed "The Mighty Middle" in a recent report, has seen a growth in venture capital invested over the past decade. Annual investment grew from $5.8 billion invested in 2010 to $20.2 billion in 2019 alone, according to the report, and Texas is leading the pack. The Lone Star State accounted for $24 billion of the region's $92.6 billion venture capital invested in the past decade, per the report.

Flyover Capital, which was founded in 2014, has connected a couple dozen Houston startups in the past six months, Kerr says, and the firm is keeping up with several of those to this day. He predicts the firm will "dive in deeper" into some of those companies in the next six months.

Houston is "one of the cities among those that fall in our region where we plan to spend a significant amount of time," Kerr tells InnovationMap. "We cover a lot of ground, but there are certain cities were we try to get there quarterly. Houston is definitely one of those places."

Kerr says his first impression of Houston was its strength as a B2B — especially as that pertains to its entrepreneurs.

"There are a lot of people who are experienced in their career, maybe with a technical background, and are looking to build a business going after some problem that they see," Kerr says.

In a similar vein, Houston's corporate involvement with its startup ecosystem has been a big indicator of opportunity.

"One of the things we've identified as a strength in a lot of the middle America ecosystems is if they get the corporations involved, then that is a good marker for success, especially if you have some of the other ingredients involved," Kerr says.

Houston Exponential, which Kerr says has been helpful in allowing Flyover to tap into the ecosystem — especially in times like these — has also demonstrated Houston's strength as a B2B community with deep corporate connections.

And Flyover isn't the only VC firm that HX has seen interest from recently. This month, HX has planned more immersion days — where it connects VCs to startup development organizations and startups across town — than it's ever had in a single month, says Harvin Moore, president of HX. The immersion days will be happening completely online.

"It's clear from the indication that we get from VCs and angel networks that people are saying, 'Okay, we need to be looking for new deals,'" Moore says.

For Flyover Capital, Kerr describes the VC as "active, but of course cautious" when it comes to investing in new deals in the current economic environment.

"We're not alone in saying we're actively investing," Kerr says. "I think I've seen some surveys that 60 or so percent of investors are saying they're staying the course."

In fact, finding a positive spin, Kerr says the pandemic has had a "moderating effect" to the investment environment. "Rounds were happening in some cases in a crazy manner," he says of pre-COVID conditions.

Plus, while he hasn't seen a huge change to valuations, the economic conditions caused by COVID-19 could correct some of the over-valuations on the coasts.

"As unfortunate as these times are for lots of people, this is where many companies ultimately find their footing and success," Kerr says.

Houston startups have raised millions so far this year. Getty Images

Here's what 6 Houston startups have raised millions of dollars this year so far

VENTURE ADVENTURES

This year is starting strong when it comes to Houston startups receiving funding. From a $125 million raise from Houston's first unicorn to a local fund gathering up $50 million to deploy in mobility startups, Houston funding news has been pretty exciting.

In case you missed some of these headlines, InnovationMap has rounded up these seven deals based on previous reporting. Scroll through to see which Houston startups are catching the eyes — and cashing the checks — of investors.

HighRadius Corp.

Houston-based HighRadius has reported reaching unicorn status following a $125 million raise. Photo via highradius.com

Let's start with the biggest one, shall we? Houston-based HighRadius, an artificial intelligence-powered fintech software company, closed a $125 million raise, which earned it a a new title: Unicorn.

The series B round, which achieved this status for HighRadius, was led by ICONIQ Capital, with participation from existing investors Susquehanna Growth Equity and Citi Ventures, according to a news release from the company.

The company, which offices in West Houston, was founded in 2006 founded in 2006 and employs more than 1,000 people in North America, Europe, and Asia. In November, HighRadius opened an office in Amsterdam. According to the news release, the company will use the funds to further expand its global footprint.

Read the full story here.

Proeza Ventures

Auto Driving Smart Car image

A new venture capital fund based in Houston and Monterrey, Mexico, has raised $50 million to back mobility startups. Hiroshi Watanabe/Getty Images

New fund Proeza Ventures, which is based in Houston and Monterrey, Mexico, reportedly closed its first fund Proeza Ventures I at $50 million. The fund is backed by Grupo Proeza, a Mexican portfolio management company with two global platforms operating in the mobility and agroindustry sectors, according to the fund's website.

With the fund's money, Proenza Ventures will invest in 12 to 15 early or growth-stage startups with solutions or new technology within industrial, smart components, new vehicles, MaaS, and digital data services.

Read the full story here.

Ambyint

oil and gas

Ambyint, which has offices in Calgary and Houston, has secured funding from Houston venture capital firms. Getty Images

Canada-based Ambyint, which has an office in Houston, has closed its $15 million series B funding. Houston-based Cottonwood Venture Partners led the round, and Houston-based Mercury Fund also contributed — as did Ambyint's management team, according to a news release.

The money will be used to grow both its Houston and Calgary, Alberta, offices and expand its suite of software solutions for wells and artificial lift systems. Ambyint's technology pairs artificial intelligence with advanced physics and subject matter expertise to automate processes on across all well types and artificial lift systems.

Read the full story here.

vChain Inc.

Houston-based vChain, creator of CodeNotary, has raised $7 million in a series A financing round. Pexels

Houston-based vChain, which created the CodeNotary Open Source code trust solution, has raised $7 million in a series A funding round. Paris-based Elaia Partners led the investment round, and other contributors include Zug, Switzerland-based Bluwat and Seattle-based Acequia Capital.

The software tool, which is used to ensure code is securely transmitted throughout the entire development to production process, has several platform integrations and works with languages such as JavaScript, Python, Go, Java, and more.

Read the full story here.

Vivante Health

good intestine health intestine Food for bowel Health

Vivante Health, which uses technology and at-home testing to help users treat chronic digestive health issues, has raised $5.8 million. Getty Images

Vivante Health raised $5.8 million in a series A1 round, according to a news release. The round was led by California-based Lifeforce Capital and Athens, Greece-based Big Pi Ventures. Additionally, NFP Ventures, FCA Venture Partners, and Longmont Capital contributed to the round.

With the fresh funds, Vivante will continue to develop its GI health platform, GIThrive. The digital tool has an at-home microbiome test kit for users, as well as a breath tester that monitors food sensitivities. GIThrive also connects users to on-demand support from nutritionists and experts on the GIThrive app.

Read the full story here.

Hitched Inc.

Houston-based Hitched has dug up new investment money from a local private equity firm. Pexels

Hitched Inc. raised $5.5 million in its series A funding led by Houston-based Cottonwood Venture Partners, a growth equity firm that focuses on digital tech solutions in the energy industry.

The company, which was founded in 2018, coordinates the rentals — from hosting and chartering to managing them — all on one centralized platform. Hitched has a catalogue of equipment from generators and cranes to light towers, pumps to forklifts, and the site lists out the cost per day of each piece of machinery.

Read the full story here.

LetsLaunch, a Houston-based fundraising platform, has teamed up with The Cannon. Courtesy of LetsLaunch

Houston fintech startup partners with local coworking space to grow investment opportunities

Funding friends

A Houston fintech software company has joined forces with The Cannon to help connect its members to capital. LetsLaunch, a platform that allows for smaller investments from non-accredited investors, and The Cannon — along with its venture arm, Cannon Ventures — have officially entered a partnership as of this month.

"We're basically providing a transactional tool to allow Cannon Ventures to access more members who, legally, they couldn't access before," says Nick Carnrite, co-founder and CEO of LetsLaunch. "For us, it's a good thing because instead of having to go out and create a community of startups and investors, that gets brought to us."

The partnership will allow for The Cannon's members to have access to the platform, and LetsLaunch can piggyback off the Cannon's existing network and programming. For instance, if The Cannon hosts a pitch night, LetsLaunch could enable live investing so that anyone in the crowd could invest that night.

Additionally, companies backed by Cannon Ventures can easily do a dual raise — one side open to accredited investors writing big checks and the other on LetsLaunch open to anyone. For this setup, LetsLaunch investors get the perk of having the company vetted by the Cannon Ventures investors.

"[The partnership] allows us to further the vision of Cannon Ventures, which is to truly democratize angel investing," says Lawson Gow, founder and CEO of The Cannon and Cannon Ventures. "We want to activate and allow anyone who is interested in making investments of any size and in any way." (Gow is the son of the CEO of InnovationMap's parent company.)

LetsLaunch opened for business at the end of last year. The site works, in many ways, like a crowdfunding site, only investors receive equity for their money. Due to regulations, investment campaigns max out at around a million dollars, and how much one can invest depends on their annual income. For LetsLaunch's demographic, most users can invest up to $20,000 a year, Carnrite says. There is a minimum of a $250 investment per transaction, but Carnrite says he expects the average investment to be closer to $1,000 per transaction.

According to Carnrite, LetsLaunch is solving the exclusivity problem that traditional investing creates. Such a small pool of people can invest in companies for equity.

"There's something like 30 million people globally that have a $1 million net worth, which is the definition of being an accredited investor," Carnrite says. "Thirty million people out of 7.7 billion, so it's a little less than half a percentage."

And, according to Gow, this is a huge problem in Houston for companies who don't have access to funding.

"We had a company leave The Cannon last week and move to New York because they couldn't get funding in Houston," Gow says. "We're still losing battles every day — and one of the main reasons is getting early stage funding in companies."

A new venture capital firm launched in Houston to focus on female-led startups. Courtesy of The Artemis Fund

Female-led venture capital firm launches in Houston to move the needle on investment in women-owned companies

Who runs the world?

Three powerhouse investment minds have teamed up to launch a female-focused seed and series A venture capital firm in Houston.

In its first $20 million fund, The Artemis Fund will invest in around 30 women-led companies, and will award a $100,000 investment prize at the Rice Business Plan Competition, which takes place April 4 through 6. According to the company's press release, The Artemis Fund is the first of its kind — being female-led and female-focused — in Houston.

"There is a wealth of female leadership in the Houston innovation ecosystem, and we would like to see the same representation in the investor the investor community to help female founders thrive," says Stephanie Campbell, co-founder and principal of The Artemis Fund.

Campbell, and her co-founders, Leslie Goldman and Diana Murakhovskaya, all have extensive experience in venture capital. Campbell has served as managing director for The Houston Angel Network since 2016, while Goldman currently sits on the board of the organization and Murakhovskaya has been a previous investor member. Murakhovskaya worked for a long time in New York City and co-founded the Monarq Incubator, which focuses on women-led startups.

Women make up only 9 percent of decision makers in VC firms in the United States, and women-led companies only receive of 2 percent of venture capital, the release cites. This imbalance is something Artemis exists to change, especially since two-thirds — $22 trillion — of the nation's personal wealth will be controlled by women by 2020, the release states, citing the BMO Wealth Institute, and women currently drive 85 percent of purchases, or $150 billion.

While fewer and farther in between, venture-backed, women-led startups are more profitable. Reportedly, they achieve higher revenues by 12 percent, according to the Kauffman Fellows Report, and higher returns by 63 percent, per First Round's 10-Year Report.

"I'm enthusiastic about launching The Artemis Fund in Texas and reaching a new class of funders to invest in the most diverse tech-enabled companies from across the country," says Murakhovskaya in the release. "Houston, in particular, is uniquely positioned to be the next big tech hub with one of the most active angel groups, a burgeoning innovation ecosystem, support from Houston Exponential, top universities, and historically sidelined capital ready to be activated."

The three principals and co-founders are arguably the fund's greatest asset — from their connections, experience, and reputation. Together, they have in backgrounds in business, law, and engineering.

"We want female entrepreneurs to feel that Houston is a welcoming place to start, grow, and support female-led businesses," says Goldman in the release. "The Artemis Fund will play an integral part in creating this environment."

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Houston robotics company secures multi-million-dollar government contract

more collaboration

Webster-based Nauticus Robotics Inc., a newly minted public company, continues to make waves with government contracts.

Nauticus says it has been awarded a second multimillion-dollar contract from the U.S. Defense Innovation Unit, part of the U.S. Defense Department, for development of a self-piloted amphibious robot system powered by the company’s ToolKITT command-and-control software.

In February, Nauticus said it had been given a ToolKITT contract by the Defense Innovation Unit. Under that contract, ToolKITT is being used aboard a remotely controlled undersea vehicle operated by the Navy.

Similar contracts with the Defense Innovation Unit could be on the horizon, Nauticus says.

Nauticus develops oceangoing robots under the brand names Aquanaut and Hydronaut, along with the ToolKITT autonomy software and related services. It’s forecasting 2023 revenue of $90 million.

Driven by machine learning, ToolKITT helps identify, categorize, and perform activities that can “remove, detect, identify, inspect, and neutralize hazards underwater,” according to a Nauticus news release.

ToolKITT is used for various self-piloted robotics products, including Nauticus’ Aquanaut.

“We are humbled and honored to be doing our part to advance the usage of robotics and autonomous systems to remove servicemembers from harm’s way,” says Ed Tovar, director of business development for defense systems at Nauticus.

Nauticus’ stock began trading September 13 on the Nasdaq market. The milestone came four days after Nauticus merged with publicly traded CleanTech Acquisition Corp., a “blank check” shell company formed to acquire or merge with a business. At one point, the merger was valued at $560 million.

The new combo, operating under the Nauticus name, is led by Nauticus founder and CEO Nicolaus Radford.

“The closing of this business combination represents a pivotal milestone in our company’s history as we take public our pursuit of transforming the ocean robotics industry with autonomous systems,” Radford says in a news release. “Not only is the ocean a tremendous economic engine, but it is also the epicenter for building a sustainable future.”

Houstonian designs new experiences to encourage innovation in students

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 154

As director of social innovation at Teach For America Houston, it's Sarah Essama's job to come up with new ways for the organization to support both students and teachers. But, as she explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast this week, Essama realized a huge lesson modern students needed was to learn this innovation process themselves.

Part of being an educator is to prepare students for tomorrow, Essama explains, but with rapid technology development and adaption, no one knows what the future will hold for the job market or the world in general. The best way to prepare the future generation of the workforce is to teach them how to innovate, think differently, and adapt to new ways of doing things.

"That's what people are looking for right now — people who can provide out-of-the-box solutions to problems," Essama says on the show.

This line of thinking turned into Essama founding The Dream Lab, powered by Teach for America Houston.

"The Dream Lab is a set of immersive design spaces where young people leverage their imagination and creativity to innovate and solve problems within their community," she explains.

Last month, the new concept rolled out to high school students in partnership with DivInc Houston, a nonprofit focused on social and economic equity in entrepreneurship, and 21 ninth graders spent the day at the Ion for a mini-innovation accelerator and design showcase.

Strategically, Essama tapped into the Houston innovation ecosystem with the intent of showcasing the community.

"Innovation to me is being able to create something that has never been seen or done before — and that has a very important purpose," she says. "Exposing ourselves to innovation and people who think this way — and learning from them —is key to be able to be competitive tomorrow."

Essama says this program is still in the development phase. She's been testing out the concept with fourth graders and now ninth graders. She hopes the full program will be up and running by next fall.

She shares more details about the grant and the future of The Dream Lab on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Houston-based virtual reality startup raises $3.2M in first outside capital round

fresh funding

HTX Labs, a Houston-based company that designs extended reality training for military and business purposes, announced last week that it has raised its first outside capital.

The company has received a $3.2 million investment from Cypress Growth Capital. Founded in 2017, HTX Labs — developer of the EMPACT Immersive Learning Platform — has been granted funding from the Department of Defense as well as grown its client base of commercial Enterprises. The platform uses virtual and extended reality that "enables organizations to rapidly create, deploy, measure, and sustain cost-effective, secure, and centralized immersive training programs, all within engaging, fully interactive virtual environments," per a news release.

“We have been looking to secure outside capital to accelerate the growth of our EMPACT platform and customer base but we hadn’t found the right partner who provided an investment vehicle that matched our needs,“ says HTX Labs CEO Scott Schneider in the release. “We found everything we were looking for in Cypress Growth Capital. They have a non-dilutive funding model that aligns with our capital expectations and have the level of experience that really makes this smart money.

"Cypress has a decade-long track record of success in helping emerging software and services companies achieve scale," he continues. "It is clear that the team’s collective entrepreneurial and operating experience will be of tremendous benefit to us as we focus on expanding our customer base in a very intentional way.”

The fresh funding will go toward growing and scaling the company's operations — both within the current Department of Defense and expansion opportunities into key commercial markets, like heavy industry, manufacturing, and higher education. Additionally, the funding will support increased customer adoption.

“Scott and his team have built an exceptional business that is poised for dramatic growth,” says Cypress Partner Pat McCaffrey in the release. “HTX Labs’ modern, immersive training solution provides clients with a force multiplier for modernizing training and an unmatched ROI.”