The HX Venture Fund reached a proof point of its model — one that arrived much earlier than expected. Getty Images

When a Houston software startup closed a $17 million series B funding round, it was a big win for more than just the startup. Not only was the deal among the few Houston venture capital deals to happen amid the COVID-19 outbreak, but it represented a proof of concept for Houston's fund of funds.

The HX Venture Fund was founded in October of 2018 to encourage investment into local startups by raising corporate funds and investing into a portfolio of non-Houston venture capital funds that show an interest in Houston. HXVF hit a milestone last month when Liongard, a software-as-a-service company based in Houston, closed its fundraising round led by Updata Partners — one of HXVF's portfolio funds.

To date, the HXVF has reviewed over 150 venture capital funds and invested in eight: Austin-based LiveOak Venture Partners and Next Coast Ventures, Washington D.C.-based Updata Partners, Chicago-based Baird Capital, San Francisco-based VenBio, and Boston-based .406 Ventures, OpenView Venture Partners, and Material Impact Fund. Since each investment, those funds have invested in over 30 startups that are also included in the greater HXVF portfolio.

These HXVF portfolio funds represent various stages — from seed to growth stages, like Liongard — and across industries, from software and hardware to life sciences — "the whole gamut," says Sandy Guitar, managing director of HXVF.

"What that means now is there is over $2 billion of venture capital that actively has Houston on its radar right now," Guitar tells InnovationMap.

The Liongard investment represents a proof point for the fund of funds — one that comes earlier than expected. HXVF invested in Updata less than six months before Liongard closed its round with Updata's lead investment. Guitar says she expected to get to this milestone within 18 to 24 months of the fund of funds deploying capital — and it's happened in just nine months.

"You have this trickle down effect, where it can easily take two to three years to get your capital at work," Guitar says, explaining that HXVF first has to raise funds from its corporate partners, then vet and invest in the VCs, and, finally, wait to see how those funds invest.

Of course, the pandemic has not exactly helped the growth of Houston's startup and venture capital sectors. While COVID-19 has allowed growth in some sectors — telemedicine, for instance — it has limited the opportunities for startups to test the market.

"To build great startups, a startup has to do what I call 'run into walls.' They have to test the market, get it wrong, and pivot. The problem right now is there are no walls to run into," Guitar says. "You have to have an actively running economy and market for proof points of what's working and what's not working."

Meanwhile, Guitar observes, VC investors have limited their activity to their own networks due to the inability to meet face-to-face with unfamiliar startups. Comparing the VC-startup relationship to a marriage, you wouldn't meet and marry someone you've never met in person just like investors wouldn't fund an entrepreneur they have only ever met via Zoom.

"A lot of VCs are staying in their known networks in the short term," says Guitar, while, in the long term, VCs are going to rely on introductions to entrepreneurs from their network.

With this benchmark secured, HXVF is continuing to grow its portfolio — as well as its team. Recently, Guitar — who runs the fund with Guillermo Borda — brought on Houston native Aleece Hobson as venture partner.

"Aleece joining is a phenomenal step for us — a dedicated resource and venture partner on activation," says Guitar on the hire. "I think it speaks to the seriousness of purpose we have to make this not just an investment platform, but one that moves the needle on Houston."

Guitar says HXVF is also growing its limited partners with the addition of Rice University, which joins the likes of HEB, Shell, Chevron, and Houston Methodist — to name a few.

"We're going to be getting even closer to our limited partners' needs and introducing them to the 34 portfolio companies," Guitar says "and creating meaningful collisions between those two groups."

Aleece Hobson joined the HX Venture Fund as venture partner. Photo courtesy of HXVF

Pat Matthews of Active Capital visited Houston with a collaboration with the HX Venture Fund. Photo courtesy of Active Capital

Here's how a visiting venture capitalist explores Houston's startup ecosystem for the first time

a day in the life

When Houston Exponential established the HX Venture Fund, the goal was to bring out-of-town capital and investors into the city of Houston. The fund of funds invests in a portfolio of venture capital funds with the hope that those funds find a way back into the Houston startup ecosystem.

After a little over a year, HXVF has invested in five funds: Boston-based .406 Ventures, Austin-based Next Coast Ventures, Boston-based OpenView Venture Partners, Washington D.C.-based Updata Partners, and Austin-based LiveOak Venture Partners.

The fund of funds is also regularly hosting those five funds — as well as a mix of potential portfolio fund members — in Houston for what the HXVF calls "immersion days" where the venture capitalists can meet local startups, innovation leaders, and even fellow investors that they could eventually co-invest with.

"The goals of these days are to have venture capitalists travel to Houston, meet with our entrepreneurs (and the startup development organizations like Station, Cannon and WeWork that support them), and provide both capital and expertise in company building to the tech companies," says Sandy Guitar Wallis, managing partner at HXVF. "The venture capitalists also meet with HX Venture Fund corporate LPs, who can be customers or acquirers of their portfolio companies."

Just this month alone, HXVF is hosting four funds — two from their portfolio and two that they haven't yet invested in. San Antonio-based Active Capital, which has raised a $21 million fund, is among the visiting VCs this month. The fund's founder, Pat Matthews, an entrepreneur turned venture capitalist, has shared his busiest day — February 5 — as well as his perspective on Houston innovation with InnovationMap.

A morning too busy for breakfast

After waking up at the Hotel Derek, Matthews starts his second day in Houston by taking a Lyft to the Greater Houston Partnership for what he believes to be a breakfast meeting with Wallis and Guillermo Borda of HXVF, but the group has too much to discuss that a meal falls by the wayside.

Before this trip, Matthews hasn't visited Houston in a professional capacity. While Active Capital is based just down I10 in San Antonio, the firm's investments are split almost in half by deals done in Texas versus the rest of the world. Active Capital focuses on B2B SaaS investments — usually leading — in seed or series A rounds.

Matthews has called Texas home for around a decade. He founded an email marketing startup in Virginia, which was acquired by San Antonio-based Rackspace. He relocated to join Rackspace and worked on growing the organization for six years before creating Active Capital.

Following the meeting — still unfed, Matthews meets up with Serafina Lalany from Houston Exponential to carpool to The Cannon on the west side of town.

Loading up on carbs and fireside chats

Matthews forgoes his usual carb aversion to eat slices of Domino's pizza at The Cannon before beginning his first of three fireside chats with Houston innovators. Patrick Schneidau, CEO of Truss, leads the conversation at The Cannon. (Schneidau is a board member of InnovationMap's.) After the chat, Matthews has a meeting with a startup before heading back into town.

With one fireside chat down, Matthews heads into his second one of the day at Station Houston with Joe Alapat, founder of Liongard. Matthews observes that each of the entrepreneurs who interviewed him had great questions, and seemed to be far along with their companies. Meanwhile, any of the people he met before or after the chat seemed to be at a much earlier stage in their startup journey.

The last fireside chat was hosted by Rakesh Agrawal of Snapstream at WeWork's Jones Building location. Matthews and Agrawal attempted to set up a Facebook livestream for the conversation, but an issue with the technology wouldn't allow for the stream.

An evening of good food and great mentorship

With meetings and fireside chats done, Matthews heads straight to a dinner with Blair Garrou, founder and managing director of Mercury Fund. The two venture capitalists dine at Eunice and split several appetizers and a bottle of wine while discussing their own recent investments and interests. Matthews, who met Garrou in 2014, thinks of him as a great mentor in venture capital.

Matthews headed back to the hotel after dinner and crashes hard after the long day. He would head back to San Antonio on a Vonlane bus — he gets a lot of work done on his trips — the next day.

What's next for Active Capital and Houston?

Matthews says he left Houston with an overall positive opinion of the city, and says it's similar to other Texas cities, aside from Austin, in its startup presence and capacity. While he assumed he'd meet energy and space startups, he realized Houston had a lot more going on than that.

"It definitely seemed like there was a lot of passion and a lot of hustle," Matthews says. "And it seems like the city is really working to support and cultivate that and keep it in Houston. I was inspired."

Throughout the visit, Matthews handed out his business card and some conversations have developed from those connections, he says. Another representative from Active Capital who is focused on sourcing deals with startups will visit next, and Matthews says he also thinks that he'll return to Houston to continue conversations he's been having, including some with other investors.

"I could definitely see doing deals in Houston," Matthews tells InnovationMap.

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Cleantech incubator announces location in Houston, names newest partners

Greentown's moving in

After announcing its plans to expand to Houston in June, Boston-based Greentown Labs has selected its site for its cleantech startup and tech incubator.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and the Greater Houston Partnership announced that Greentown Houston will be opening in the Innovation District, being developed by Rice Management Co. and home to The Ion. The site is located at 4200 San Jacinto St., which was Houston's last remaining Fiesta grocery story before it closed in July.

The facility is expected to open this coming spring and will feature 40,000 square feet of prototyping lab, office, and community space that can house about 50 startups, totaling 200 to 300 employees.

"We are thrilled to announce the selection of Greentown Labs' inaugural location in partnership with RMC, the City of Houston, the Partnership, and leading global energy and climate impact-focused companies," says Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, in a press release. "In order to meet the urgent challenge of climate change, we must engage the talent and assets of major ecosystems around the country. We look forward to catalyzing the Houston ecosystem's support for climatetech startups as we work together toward a sustainable future for all."

Emily Reichert is the CEO of Greentown Labs. Photo courtesy of Greentown Labs

Greentown Labs launched in 2011 as community of climatetech and cleantech innovators bringing together startups, corporates, investors, policymakers, and more to focus on scaling climate solutions. Greentown Labs' first location is 100,000 square feet and located just outside of Boston in Somerville, Massachusetts. Currently, it's home to more than 100 startups and has supported more than 280 startups since the incubator's founding. According to the release, these startups have created more than 6,500 jobs and raised over $850 million in funding

"We are so pleased that Greentown Houston will locate in the heart of the Innovation District, where they will seamlessly integrate into the region's robust energy innovation ecosystem of major corporate energy R&D centers, corporate venture arms, VC-backed energy startups, and other startup development organizations supporting energy technology," says Susan Davenport, chief economic development officer at the Greater Houston Partnership, in the release. "Houston truly is the hub of the global energy industry, and Greentown Houston will ensure we continue to attract the next generation of energy leaders who will create and scale innovations that will change the world."

Greentown Houston, which previously announced several founding partners in June, has just named new partners, including: RMC, Microsoft, Saint-Gobain, and Direct Energy. According to the release, Greentown Houston is also looking for Grand Opening Partners. Naturgy and and FCC Environmental Services (FCC) are the first to join on as a grand opening partners, and startups and prospective partners can reach out for more information via this form.

Reichert previously told InnovationMap that it was looking for an existing industrial-type building that could be retrofitted to meet the needs of industrial startups that need lab space. She also said that this approach is very similar to how they opened their first location.

Rice Management Company is developing the Innovation District in the center of Houston. Screenshot via ionhouston.com

The new location will be in the 16-acre Innovation District that's being developed by RMC, which will be anchored by The Ion, a 270,000-square-foot hub that is being renovated from the former Sears building.

"What we love about Greentown Labs as much as its commitment to helping Houston become a leader in energy transition and climate change action is its proven track record of job creation through the support of local visionaries and entrepreneurs," says Ryan LeVasseur, managing director of Direct Real Estate at RMC, in the release. "Greentown Houston, like The Ion, is a great catalyst for growing the Innovation District and expanding economic opportunities for all Houstonians. We're thrilled Greentown Labs selected Houston for its first expansion and are honored it will be such a big part of the Innovation District moving forward."

Acquiring the new Greentown location is a big win for the mayor, who released the city's Climate Action Plan earlier this year. The plan lays out a goal to make Houston carbon neutral by 2050.

"We are proud to welcome Greentown Labs to Houston, and we are excited about the new possibilities this expansion will bring to our City's growing innovation ecosystem," says Turner in the release. "Organizations and partners like Greentown Labs will play a vital role in helping our City meet the goals outlined in the Climate Action Plan and will put us on the right track for becoming a leader in the global energy transition. The City of Houston looks forward to witnessing the innovation, growth, and prosperity Greentown Labs will bring to the Energy Capital of the World."

Greentown Labs will host a celebratory networking event on September 24 at 4 p.m. Registration for the EnergyBar is open here.

Innovative Texas-based ride-share rolls into Houston with new cars and delivery service

Alto is a go

Houstonians who are interested in an alternative to Uber — and don't mind giving a Dallas-based company a shot — can now look for a new ride. Alto, the ride-share and delivery company based in Big D, has announced its expansion plans to Houston. The company is now offering pre-scheduled rides; Houston residents will be able to book on-demand rides starting October 1, according to a press release.

As CultureMap previously reported, Alto touts itself as a safer, more consistent approach to hailing a ride. Founded in 2018, Alto brands itself as "the first employee-based, on-demand ride-share company." Employees receive salaries and benefits, each company-owned car is branded with the Alto logo (so riders can be sure they're stepping into the right vehicle), and cloud-based cameras capture both interior and exterior videos of the ride.

The company offers ride memberships and also shops, purchases, and delivers from local brands directly to consumers with same-day delivery available.

For safety during the pandemic, all Alto drivers wear masks and gloves during every trip and each Alto vehicle is fitted with a HEPA cabin air filter which removes 99.9 percent of airborne particles, the company claims. Car interiors are also treated with PermaSafe, an EPA-registered hospital-grade sanitizing mist that is said to kill pathogens like COVID-19.

"Alto is thrilled to announce our expansion plans to Houston and offer the same clean, safe ride-share experience that's revolutionizing the industry to this new market," said Will Coleman, founder and CEO of Alto. "We're confident Houston residents will find Alto to be unlike any other ride-share experiences they've had to date, and find comfort in Alto's leading safety and health precautions, as well as elevated rider experience."

Locals who are interested in more information and getting on the Houston launch waitlist can the official site. The Alto app is available for download on the App Store and Google Play.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

3 crisis management tips for Houston business leaders

houston voices

The great pandemic of 2020 has brought to the surface the issue of crisis management. Especially with nationwide business shut downs in the last eight months, many companies are on a rocky road of uncertainty. Entrepreneurs are unsure of what the future holds after seeing revenues slow or halt in some cases. Layoffs, RIFs, budget cuts, departmental downsizing; all inevitable.

Way too many startup founders aren't equipped or experienced when it comes to crisis management. "In order to keep your startup going, you have to know how to identify a crisis before it spreads like a cancer and how to make big changes and big decisions fast and often," says Gael O'Brien, the ethics coach for Entrepreneur.com.

"Any time in which the world stops functioning in a way we're used to, a deviation from the norm, that might be the biggest early sign of a crisis about to rear its head," she continued.

Admitting you have a problem

O'Brien stresses that a leader should create an easy process whereby one can identify a crisis in its infancy. The key here, she says, is to make sure to recognize a crisis before it starts to consume your company. You'll have to learn how to contain the crisis by leading the charge in rapid decision making. Many entrepreneurs simply refuse to admit there's a problem at hand. Many times, admitting there's a crisis means admitting one was wrong. It also means they may have been wrong for years.

These entrepreneurs that refuse admitting there's a crisis often do so with common refrains like "I didn't want to scare anyone" or "if I admit I was wrong this whole time I'll lose respect."

"Great leaders aren't afraid to put their company first, even if it means a blow to the ego. These leaders are not afraid to inform everyone that might be affected know there is a crisis," O'Brien explained.

"They contain the problem and prevent it from becoming unmanageable. Good leaders don't opt for a temporary Band-Aid-like fix either. They aim for a permanent solution."

Casting for a crisis management team

There are two common mistakes startup leaders make when it comes to crisis management. The first is that they can miscast a crisis management team. Meaning, they put the wrong people in decision-making roles. You want people on your crisis management team who are not going to feel they will be blamed for a crisis or for controversial decisions.

When one is afraid of being blamed for something, they are more likely to obstruct and lie so that the team's focus is diverted. "These are people that will omit objective and relevant information if it means saving their own reputation or job. You want people that put the team first," said O'Brien.

Communication during a crisis

The second common mistake startup leaders make during a crisis is that they tend to under-communicate. It becomes habitual to keep things close to the chest. To become secretive during a crisis. Managers might feel that the less people know, the less chance there is of panic. However, doing this opens your company up to wild speculation among employees. Assumptions. And these assumptions are never good.

"You have to be forthright. It's not just that people have a right to know what's going on in their own company. It's also that if you leave yourself up to speculation, people will grow frustrated and worse, scared. Scared people make crises worse," said O'Brien.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.