Riversand and Gecko Robotics are starting of 2020 with fresh funds for scaling business. Pexels

Two Houston tech companies are starting off 2020 with fresh funds in their pockets — to the tune of millions and millions of dollars.

Houston-based Riversand raised an additional $10 million last month, and Gecko Robotics, which has an office in Houston, closed a $40 million series B round.

In early December, Crestline Investors invested $10 million into Riversand, which specializes in Master Data Management and Product Information Management software solutions. In 2017, Crestline put $35 million into Riversand's series A round. According to a press release, the additional funds will be used to continue the software-as-a-service company's growth.

"Crestline Investors is a valued partner and has enabled us to deliver a best-in-class product that is seeing incredible adoption and high levels of customer satisfaction," says Upen Varanasi, CEO and founder of Riversand, in a news release. "We will use this additional capital to continuously strengthen our product through innovation, amplify our sales and marketing efforts, and accelerate growth in new geographies and market verticals."

Meanwhile, Gecko raised $40 million in its series B round in December to scale its business plans. The company has grown from 45 to 115 employees in the past year, per a news release. The company will continue to hire.

The round was led by Drive Capital, and had contributions from Founders Fund, Next47, and Y-Combinator.

"We are growing fast solving a critical infrastructure problems that affect our lives, and can even save lives," says Jake Loosararian, Gecko Robotics' co-founder and CEO, in a news release. "At our core, we are a robot-enabled software company that helps stop life threatening catastrophes. We've developed a revolutionary way to use robots as an enabler to capture data for predictability of infrastructure; reducing failure, explosions, emissions and billions of dollars of loss each year."

Gecko Robotics - industrial inspection Gecko Robotics focuses on industrial solutions. Photo via the release

Texas venture capital deals had a slow quarter, according to Crunchbase data. Getty Images

Houston sees underwhelming venture capital funds in Q3 2019, following larger Texas trend

funding fumble

The entire state of Texas saw an unimpressive third quarter of venture deals — especially compared to the second quarter's reports — and Houston was not immune.

The state reported $372.4 million fundraised by tech startups in Q3 of 2019, according to Crunchbase data, which is less than half of what was reported in Q3 of 2018 ($776.8 million) and what the state raked in the second quarter of this year ($830.6 million).

Houston brought in a measly $38.4 million last quarter, per Crunchbase, and compared to the $251 million raised by Houston companies in Q2, that drop stings. It's the lowest quarterly venture amount Houston's seen in over a year, and lower than Houston's $44.7 million reported for Q1. Zooming out a little, the city's venture reports remain a rollercoaster of sorts with strong quarters bookended by lousy ones.

Chart via InnovationMap using Crunchbase data.

Austin maintained its top spot on the Texas venture leader board with $236.4 million of Texas' total $372.4 million raised in Q3 2019, according to Crunchbase, but that's about $200 million less than the city raised in Q2. Meanwhile, Dallas — a city Houston usually competes with for the No. 2 spot — raised $70.3 million compared to its $126.7 million raised in Q2. The only region up in raises is categorized as "other Texas metros," which went from $7.3 million to $27.4 million between Q2 and Q3.

According to Crunchbase, the city's $38.4 million was raised in six deals between June and September 2019. The top deal of those six companies was raised by Axiom Space, which closed a $16 million in a seed round.

Crunchbase's Texas reporter, Mary Ann Azevedo, reminds readers that their proprietary data is subject to reporting delays.

"Actual deal counts and dollar volume totals are higher than what Crunchbase currently has on record, and the numbers we're reporting today are likely to change as more data gets added to Crunchbase over time," she writes.

Just like Crunchbase, InnovationMap doesn't get to report on every single venture deal. However, here are some of the raises we covered in the third quarter of this year.

  • Spruce, a service provider for apartment residents, raised a $3 million round in July. The company moved its headquarters to Austin around the same time. Read more.
  • Grab, a mobile software company that's designed an airport mobile ordering app, closed a multimillion-dollar series A this summer. Read more.
  • Fannin Partners LLC, an early-stage life science commercialization company, closed a $5.25 million round this summer. Read more.
  • Voyager, a bulk shipping software company, raised $1.5 million in seed funding in August. Read more.
  • Cemvita Factory, which created a way to mimic photosynthesis, raised an undisclosed amount from corporate partners in August and September. Read more.
  • Galen Data, which uses its cloud-based software to connect medical devices, closed a $1 million seed round in September. Read more.
  • Syzygy Plasmonics, a hydrogen fuel cell creator, closed a $5.8 million Series A round in September. Read more.
  • sEATz, an app that allows in-seat ordering, closed a $1.3 million seed round in September. Read more.
  • Sourcewater Inc., which specializes in oilfield water intelligence, closed its series A round at $7.2 million in September. Read more.
  • Topl, a blockchain developer, raised over $700,000 in its seed round in September. Read more.
The most exciting part of this Texas startup funding roundup is that Houston brought in more dollars than Dallas. Getty Images

Houston sees massive growth in startup venture capital investments

Money moves

When it comes to startup funding, Texas saw only a small jump in startup investments made, according to Crunchbase. However, when you look at funds coming into Houston companies, the Bayou City's numbers soared.

Houston raked in $251 million of the state's total $817.9 million for the second quarter. Last quarter, the city posted a mere $44.7 million of investment into local startups, which was previously a huge drop from the $121.4 million reported in Q4 2018, according to Crunchbase.

The state's VC activity only increased by less than $10 million, with both Austin and Dallas taking huge hits following their strong starts in Q1. VCs invested $411.11 million into Austin startups in Q2, which is a 19 percent drop from Q1's $493.18 million, Crunchbase's Mary Ann Azevedo reports. Dallas also saw a drop of around $100 million in investments between quarters. Dallas startups only brought in $148.5 million in Q2 compared to $245.4 million in Q1.

Chart via news.crunchbase.com

Houston's biggest deal for the quarter was AlloVir's $120 million Series B, which closed in May. The biotech company founded at Baylor's Center for Cell and Gene Therapy is currently in clinical trials for its immunotherapy technology and also announced with the round closing that it joined the ElevateBio — a Boston-based organization that combines a group of cell and gene therapy companies — portfolio.

Here are some other Houston startup deals that closed in Q2. (Note: Not all of these deals are necessarily included in Crunchbase's report.)

Houston VC deals in April:

  • Innovapptive, a software-as-a-service company with clients in industrial industries, closed on a $16.3 million Series A investment. Read more.
  • OAG Analytics, which uses artificial intelligence in the oil and gas industry, has closed its second round of strategic funding. The exact amount of the raise was not disclosed by OAG, but according to a Form D filing, the company expressed that it was raising $8.72 million in this round. Read more.

Houston VC deals in May:

  • Data Gumbo Corp., a blockchain-as-a-service company, closed on a $6 million Series A round. Read more.
  • Information technology automation and management company, Liongard, closed its Series A round at $4.5 million. Read more.
  • Tachyus, the data-driven software company has closed its Series B fundraising round at $15 million. Read more.
  • Fast-growing chemicals manufacturer, Solugen Inc., the only producer of bio-based peroxide solutions, announced that its $32 million Series B funding round has closed. Read more.

Houston VC deals in June: 

  • Following a $20 million commitment from Sanford Health, regenerative medicine and cell therapy company, InGeneron Inc., has extended its Series D round to $43 million. Read more.
  • Iownit Capital and Markets Inc. announced that it closed a $4.5 Seed round of funding. Read more.


The Artemis Fund, which focuses on providing access to capital to women-led companies, made its first investment. Getty Images

New Houston venture capital firm makes first investment

Follow the money

The new female-founded venture capital fund that launched in Houston in April has made its first investment. The Artemis Fund led Burbank, California-based U-Nest's $2 million Seed round.

U-Nest is a user-friendly app that allows for users to create a 529 college savings plan in less than five minutes and $25. This tool provides access to financial tools that previously were only available to wealthy families who could afford financial advisers.

Syndicate partners, including The Draper Dragon Fund, Band of Angels, and Pasadena Angels, also contributed to the round.

"I'm very excited that The Artemis Fund has led my seed round because they've proven to be an amazing partner that brings a lot of value to the company beyond the money," says U-Nest founder, Ksenia Yudena, in a news release. "During the fundraising process, they made a lot of strategic introductions to the partners and advisers that helped us grow the business. They also coordinated the due diligence with other co-investors that made the process very smooth."

Prior to launching her startup, Yudena managed $1.2 bullion in business as vice president at Capital Group America Funds, and she has over 10 years of experience in financial services.

"I believe that we need more female led funds, because they understand the needs and struggles of the female founders," Yudena continues in the release. "We're on the same page in all matters related to the fundraising and building the successful company."

The Artemis Fund was founded by Stephanie Campbell, Leslie Goldman, and Diana Murakhovskaya, all of whom have years in investment experience from various institutions across the country and here in Houston. The three women wanted to provide a platform to funnel funds to female-founded startups that are constantly overlooked by other VC funds. Only 2 percent of funding from VC firms goes to women-led institutions, the release cites.

Goldman was introduced to the U-Nest team through one of the startup's advisers.

"We are thrilled to announce this as our first investment," Goldman says in the release. "We just need 14 more founders like Ksenia. With her drive, determination, deep expertise in this area, and her ability to attract top, seasoned talent, she sets the bar high for us as we look for additional portfolio companies."

U-Nest's mission of making financial information more accessible to families who need it most was especially attractive for the fund.

"Through her experience, [Yudena] saw a real world need for access to education planning and developed an incredibly impressive product to meet that need," Goldman continues in the release. "U-Nest squarely aligns with the Artemis thesis: stellar management team, traction with a product that will have tremendous impact on people's lives, scalable with a large addressable market opportunity, and a realistic exit strategy that can produce outsized returns."

Peter Mansfield serves as U-Nest's chief marketing officer and previously served as a consultant to Marqeta, which has a slew of successful clients — to the tune of Square, Affirm, DoorDash, Kabbage and Instacart — and recently closed a Series E valuation of $2 billion.

"We couldn't be more excited to have Artemis lead our round. From our first meeting it was clear that The Artemis Fund team understood our mission to eradicate the college loan crisis and shared our desire to champion women entrepreneurs," Mansfield says in the release. "The Artemis Fund is a perfect fit for U-Nest."

The Artemis Fund was founded by Diana Murakhovskaya (left), Leslie Goldman (center), and Stephanie Campbell.Courtesy of The Artemis Fund

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 company premieres new platform for gig economy workforce

tech support

As the independent workforce continues to grow, a Houston-based company is aiming to connect these workers with companies that match their specific needs with a new digital platform.

FlexTek, a 14-year old recruiting and staffing company, launched a first gig site tailored to the needs of the individual worker. The platform, Workz360, is built to be able to manage projects, maintain quality control, and manage billing and year-end financial reporting.The company is also working to expanding the platform to provide infrastructure to assist independent workers with education, access to savings programs, tax compliance through vetted third-party CPA firms, and hopes in the future to assist with access to liability and medical insurance.

With a younger workforce and a shifting economy, the “gig economy,” which is another way to describe how people can earn a living as a 1099 worker, offers an alternative option to the corporate grind in a post-pandemic workscape. Chief Marketing Officer Bill Penczak of Workz360 calls this era “Gig 2.0,” and attributes the success of this type of workforce to how during the COVID-19 pandemic people learned how to work, and thrive in non-traditional work environments. The site also boasts the fact it won’t take a bite out of the worker’s pay, which could be an attractive sell for many since other sites can take up to 65 percent of profit.

“In the past few years, with the advent of gig job platforms, the Independent workers have been squeezed by gig work platforms taking a disproportionate amount of the workers’ income,” said FlexTek CEO and founder Stephen Morel in a news release. “As a result, there has been what we refer to as ‘pay padding,’ a phenomenon in which workers are raising their hourly or project rates to compensate for the bite taken by other platforms.

"Workz360 is designed to promote greater transparency, and we believe the net result will be for workers to thrive and companies to save money by using the platform,” he continues.

As the workforce has continued to change over the years, a third of the current U.S. workforce are independent workers according to FlexTek, workers have gained the ability to have more freedom where and how they work. Workz360 aims to cater to this workforce by believing in a simple mantra of treating your workers well.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about this, but we like the Southwest Airlines model,” Penczak tells InnovationMap. “Southwest Airlines treats their people very well, and as a result those employees treat the passengers really well. We believe the same thing holds true. If we can provide resources, and transparency, and not take a bite out of what the gig worker is charging, then we will get the best and the brightest people since they feel like they won’t be taken advantage of. We think there is an opportunity to be a little different and put the people first.”

NASA launches new research projects toward astronauts on ISS

ready to research

For the 26th time, SpaceX has sent up supplies to the International Space Station, facilitating several new research projects that will bring valuable information to the future of space.

On Saturday at 1:20 pm, the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft launched on the Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida — bringing with it more than 7,700 pounds of science experiments, crew supplies, and other cargo. The anticipated docking time is Sunday morning, and the cargo spacecraft will remain aboard the ISS for 45 days, according to a news release from NASA.

Among the supplies delivered to the seven international astronauts residing on the ISS are six research experiments — from health tech to vegetation. Here's a glimpse of the new projects sent up to the scientists in orbit:

Moon Microscope

Image via NASA.gov

Seeing as astronauts are 254 miles away from a hospital on Earth — and astronauts on the moon would be almost 1,000 times further — the need for health technology in space is top of mind for researchers. One new device, the Moon Microscope, has just been sent up to provide in-flight medical diagnosis. The device includes a portable hand-held microscope and a small self-contained blood sample staining tool, which can communicate information to Earth for diagnosis.

"The kit could provide diagnostic capabilities for crew members in space or on the surface of the Moon or Mars," reads a news release. "The hardware also may provide a variety of other capabilities, such as testing water, food, and surfaces for contamination and imaging lunar surface samples."

Fresh produce production

Salads simply aren't on the ISS menu, but fresh technology might be changing that. Researchers have been testing a plant growth unit on station known as Veggie, which has successfully grown a variety of leafy greens, and the latest addition is Veg-05 — focused on growing dwarf tomatoes.

Expanded solar panels

Thanks to SpaceX's 22nd commercial resupply mission in 2021, the ISS installed Roll-Out Solar Arrays. Headed to the ISS is the second of three packages to complete the panels that will increase power for the station by 20 to 30 percent. This technology was first tested in space in 2017 and is a key ingredient in future ISS and lunar development.

Construction innovation

Image via NASA.gov

Due to the difference of gravity — and lack thereof — astronauts have had to rethink constructing structures in space. Through a process called extrusion, liquid resin is used to create shapes and forms that cannot be created on Earth. Photocurable resin, which uses light to harden the material into its final form, is injected into pre-made flexible forms and a camera captures footage of the process, per the news release.

"The capability for using these forms could enable in-space construction of structures such as space stations, solar arrays, and equipment," reads the release. "The experiment is packed inside a Nanoracks Black Box with several other experiments from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and is sponsored by the ISS National Lab."

Transition goggles

It's a bizarre transition to go from one gravity field to another — and one that can affect spatial orientation, head-eye and hand-eye coordination, balance, and locomotion, and cause some crew members to experience space motion sickness, according to the release.

"The Falcon Goggles hardware captures high-speed video of a subject’s eyes, providing precise data on ocular alignment and balance," reads the release.

On-demand nutrients

Image via NASA.gov

NASA is already thinking about long-term space missions, and vitamins, nutrients, and pharmaceuticals have limited shelf-life. The latest installment in the five-year BioNutrients program is BioNutrients-2 , which tests a system for producing key nutrients from yogurt, a fermented milk product known as kefir, and a yeast-based beverage, per the release.

"The researchers also are working to find efficient ways to use local resources to make bulk products such as plastics, construction binders, and feedstock chemicals. Such technologies are designed to reduce launch costs and increase self-sufficiency, extending the horizons of human exploration," reads the release.

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 esports to biomaterials — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Zimri Hinshaw, CEO of BUCHA BIO

Zimri T. Hinshaw, CEO of BUCHA BIO, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how he's planning to scale his biomaterials startup to reduce plastic waste. Photo courtesy of BUCHA BIO

After raising a seed round of funding, BUCHA BIO is gearing up to move into its new facility. The biomaterials company was founded in New York City in 2020, but CEO Zimri T. Hinshaw shares how he started looking for a new headquarters for the company — one that was more affordable, had a solid talent pool, and offered a better quality of life for employees. He narrowed it down from over 20 cities to two — San Diego and Houston — before ultimately deciding on the Bayou City.

Since officially relocating, Hinshaw says he's fully committed to the city's innovation ecosystem. BUCHA BIO has a presence at the University of Houston, Greentown Labs, and the East End Maker Hub — where the startup is building out a new space to fit the growing team.

"By the end of this month, our laboratories will be up and running, we'll have office space adjacent, as well as chemical storage," Hinshaw says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Listen to the episode and read more.

Kelly Klein, development director of Easter Seals Greater Houston

A nonprofit organization has rolled out an esports platform and event to raise awareness and funding for those with disabilities. Photo via Easter Seals

For many video games is getaway from reality, but for those with disabilities — thanks to a nonprofit organization —gaming can mean a lot more. On Saturday Dec. 3 — International Day of Persons with Disabilities — from 1 to 9 pm, Easter Seals Greater Houston will be joining forces with ES Gaming for the inaugural Game4Access Streamathon.

Gaming helps enhance cognitive skills, motor skills, improve mental well-being, and can help reduce feelings of social isolation due to the interactive nature of playing with others.

“This is really a unique way for (people) to form a community without having to leave their house, and being part of an inclusive environment,” says Kelly Klein, development director of Easter Seals Greater Houston. ”The adaptive equipment and specialized technology just does so many miraculous things for people with disabilities on so many levels — not just gaming. With gaming, it is an entrance into a whole new world.” Read more.

John Mooz, senior managing director at Hines

Levit Green has announced its latest to-be tenant. Photo courtesy

Levit Green, a 53-acre mixed-use life science district next to the Texas Medical Center and expected to deliver this year, has leased approximately 10,000 square feet of commercial lab and office space to Sino Biological Inc. The Bejing-based company is an international reagent supplier and service provider. Houston-based real estate investor, development, and property manager Hines announced the new lease in partnership with 2ML Real Estate Interests and Harrison Street.

“Levit Green was meticulously designed to provide best-in-class life science space that can accommodate a multitude of uses. Welcoming Sino Biological is a testament to the market need for sophisticated, flexible space that allows diversified firms to perform a variety of research,” says John Mooz, senior managing director at Hines, in a press release. “Sino is an excellent addition to the district’s growing life science ecosystem, and we look forward to supporting their continued growth and success.” Read more.Read more.