Houston was deemed a top startup city, but the Bayou City has a gap to other Texas cities that it can work on narrowing. Photo via Getty Images

A new ranking signals great promise for the growth of Houston’s startup network.

Houston ranks among the world’s top 50 startup cities on a new list from PitchBook, a provider of data and research about capital markets. In fact, Houston comes in at No. 50 in the ranking. But if you dig deeper into the data, Houston comes out on top in one key category.

The city earns a growth score of 63.8 out of 100 — the highest growth score of any U.S. city and the seventh highest growth score in the world. In the growth bucket, Houston sits between between Paris (64.4) and Washington, D.C. (61.7).

The PitchBook growth score reflects short-term, midterm, and long-term growth momentum for activity surrounding venture capital deals, exits, and fundraising for the past six years.

PitchBook’s highest growth score (86.5) goes to Hefei, a Chinese manufacturing hub for electric vehicles, solar panels, liquid crystal displays, home appliances, and Lenovo computers.

The overall ranking is based on a scoring system that relies on proprietary PitchBook data about private companies. The system’s growth and development scores are based on data related to deals, exits, fundraising and other factors.

Houston earns a development score of 34.1 out of 100, which puts it in 50th place globally in that regard. This score measures the size and maturity of a city’s startup network.

Topping the overall list is San Francisco, followed by New York City and Beijing. Elsewhere in Texas, Austin appears at No. 16 and Dallas at No. 36.

The ranking “helps founders, operators, and investors assess locations when deciding where to expand or invest,” says PitchBook.

“Network effects matter in venture capital: Investors get more than half of their deals through referrals, according to research led by Harvard professor Paul Gompers,” PitchBook goes on to say. “So it stands to reason that dealmakers should seek these networks out when deciding where to do business.”

Over the past few years, the Houston Angel Network has doubled its members and continues to grow despite COVID-19's economic effects. Photo via Getty Images

Houston Angel Network sees membership growth amid pandemic

investing in investors

While the COVID-19 pandemic caused some investors to hit pause on some deals, the Houston Angel Network, which has doubled its membership over the past couple years, has maintained its deal flow and investment, while taking every opportunity to connect members virtually.

"Nothing's really changed — in terms of our activity — other than the fact that we can't meet in person," says Stephanie Campbell, managing director of HAN. "We quickly pivoted to virtual."

Campbell — who also is also a founding partner at Houston-based, female-focused venture capital group, The Artemis Fund — says she still saw the interest and need on each side of venture deals.

"What I realized was, especially working at a venture fund, the deal flow isn't going away. Companies still need capital — and investors are still interested in looking at deals," Campbell tells InnovationMap.

HAN, which was founded as a nonprofit in 2001, continues to be touted as among the most active angel network in the country. The organization has five industry groups that it focuses its deals on — energy, life sciences, technology, consumer products, and aerospace.

At each monthly meeting, members hear three pitches. However, Campbell is vetting many more companies far more deals and passing them along the network as she goes. All in all, HAN investors do around 100 deals a year with an average investment of $100,000.

Since Campbell joined in 2018, membership has doubled from 60 members to 120. Campbell says it's her goal to get to 150 members by the end of the year.

Stephanie Campbell has led HAN as managing director since 2018.

"Despite COVID, we've continued to grow," Campbell says, adding that she's heard investors express that they have more time now to dive in. "People are very much still interested in learning about deploying their capital into early-stage venture. They're looking for a network of like-minded individuals."

Campbell explains that, with the switch to virtual pitches and events, HAN is congregating more than ever. In the spring, Campbell introduced a thought leadership series, called Venture Vs. The Virus, that brought investment leaders together to discuss how the pandemic was affecting venture capital.

HAN is also using this time to better tap into technology to connect members with startups. On the back end, Campbell says, she's looking to enhance digital engagement with members and also improve data reporting within the organization.

From increasing networking and educational events and growing membership, HAN is prioritizing growing its place in the Houston innovation ecosystem. Campbell says she sees the pandemic is causing investors and tech talent on the coasts to re-evaluate where their living, and that's going to benefit Texas. Houston is going to see an influx of tech talent coming to town, and that's going to translate to more startups being founded locally.

"We want to make sure that we are a big part of this transition toward a more diverse and resilient economy," Campbell says. "Now's the time to lean in on Houston."

The Rice Angel Network will now be powered by Cannon Ventures. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University's angel network to be powered by Cannon Ventures

Money moves

In an effort to better connect Houston entrepreneurs with angel funds, the Rice Angel Network and Cannon Ventures have formed a new partnership. RAN will now be powered by Cannon Ventures, the investment arm of The Cannon, a West Houston coworking space.

RAN is already located in The Cannon, according to its website, but the new arrangement will allow RAN to leverage The Cannon's programming, events, resources, and community as it continues to serve its alumni network.

In December, the two entities have partnered up in the past for the Houston Investor Network Alliance, a collaboration where participating investors can partner up to co-invest in startups, co-host investor events, and share opportunities. According to the release, this new partnership "takes this a step further" to team up to provide early-stage investment.

"The mission is simple," says Lawson Gow, CEO and founder of Cannon Ventures and The Cannon, in a release. "We want to bring Houston's startup ecosystem the access to capital that they need to thrive here in Houston."

Gow, who is the son of InnovationMap's parent company's CEO, started Cannon Ventures almost a year ago. He's a Rice alumnus, as is Kyle Fletcher, the managing partner of Rice Angel Network.

"Houston is one of the largest cities in the US, yet our efforts to bring capital to startups has been done only in pockets throughout the city," Fletcher says in the release. "We are better together than we are separate."

LetsLaunch, a new Houston-based fundraising platform, helps companies of all sizes get funding from any type of investor. Courtesy of LetsLaunch

Houston fundraising platform launches for the next generation of investors

Future funders

Millennials are expected to exceed the Baby Boomer generation for the United States' largest living adult generation this year, and this massive population of people have a completely different approach to investing.

Nick Carnrite saw that Millennials were to a point where they had extra income, but when he looked at the statistics, he noticed they aren't buying houses for the most part and were turned off of the stock market. There was a huge amount of stranded capital, and he wanted to figure out how to get that invested into businesses.

"The younger generation isn't interested in typical investing, but they are absolutely interested in supporting their community and the businesses in it, especially if the investment lets them experience the business and come along for the ride if it works," Carnrite, who is the co-founder and CEO of LetsLaunch, says.

Houston-based LetsLaunch is a new investment platform that launched December 28, though has been in the works since January 2018. The site works, in many ways, like a crowdfunding site, only investors receive equity. Due to regulations, investment campaigns max out at around a million dollars.

In the past, entrepreneurs have had to seek out major investors through venture capitalists or large funds, since taking smaller investments is tedious and almost more trouble than its worth. However, LetsLaunch provides a platform where smaller investments are streamlined and encouraged.

"Our goal in all of this is just to take a complicated process and make it simple, the same way Turbotax takes something awful like taxes and makes it simple, we are trying to do that with investing," Carnrite says.

Investors don't have to be accredited or invest a certain amount of money — something that for so long has hindered startups' ability to raise money.

"For whatever reason, we've decided to alienate about 95 percent of Americans as far as being able to invest in private businesses," Carnrite says. "Finally, we're at the point where all of that capital that was stranded and not allowed in private companies is being funneled into that cause."

According to Carnrite and his associate, Rhian Davies, who is the company's director of business operations, the mission is to educate and simplify the investing process.

"For us, one of the things we're working on with other organizations is putting together a next-gen investor series, where we are teaching the next generation of investors how to invest and give them a platform to do it," Davies says.

Much like in a normal investment process, the companies provide a pitch deck for potential investors that outlines the business plan and scope of the company. The company simply creates an account and uses the website to develop those materials.

"We standardize that process, so from a user standpoint, everything looks fairly similar on our site and it's a pretty tried and true template," Carnrite says.

While LetsLaunch does its due diligence making sure the business is legitimate and makes sure the pitch deck is sufficient, the investors take it from there.

Since ease of access to funds is the top priority for LetsLaunch, the investment platform has a much lower fee for companies. While some crowdfunding platforms take 10 to 12 percent, LetsLaunch's fee is around 3 percent.

"We really want it to be simple and affordable to businesses and for investors as well," Davies says. "We maintain a much lower fee than other crowdfunding sites."

LetsLaunch will continue to fine tune its existing features on the site, while also adding more tools for businesses, including an iOS mobile app, which Carnirite says will be ready this year. In addition to fundraising tools, Carnrite wants to help their businesses after the campaigns with software that streamlines investor relations and reminds business owners of important deadlines.

"We want to evolve into a website that not only helps you raise capital for a company, but that also helps you run that company after your raise, Carnrite says."

While Houston is home base for the company, the team expects to expand to other markets where fundraising is hard, like Denver, Atlanta, Dallas, and more. Strategic partnerships are another opportunity for LetsLaunch, and the company expects to finalize some of those moving forward.

Pitch decks in San Francisco and New York tend to be simpler. Getty Images

When it comes to meeting with investors, a simpler pitch deck is better

On deck

There's something about California pitch decks that Houston companies can learn a thing or two from. Most of them are simpler and highlight those few key points that really show a company might be a success. Simpler, in this case, is good.

However, the investor pitch deck doesn't get you the investment, the deck gets you the meeting. And when an investor is considering a company to meet with, they don't want to comb through scientific detail before getting to know the entrepreneur. It's the entrepreneur who we want to talk to. We want to see and hear their ability to communicate the complex information.

The simple pitch deck is crucial for the entrepreneur to get that initial meeting. It forces the entrepreneur to showcase their best and most important key metrics. Then, it's the entrepreneurs live performance is the real key to attaining an investment.

In Houston — and in other more conservative towns — we tend to see pitch decks that have a lot more information density on each page. It ends up being a traditional business plan, but in landscape orientation instead of portrait orientation.

A lot of more traditional investors in cities like Houston must prefer this additional detail in the deck, right?

Perhaps, but the trend I see is that cities where more venture capital dollars are raised (seed-stage and otherwise) tend to have simpler pitch decks for that initial outreach. San Francisco's are simpler than New York's. New York's are simpler than Austin's. Austin's are simpler than Houston's. And so on.

Maybe I am wrong to recommend having the simpler pitch deck in an environment where there are fewer investors and fewer deals. However, when the simpler pitch deck can be made by cutting away parts of the longer more complex one, shouldn't entrepreneurs be able to create this pitch deck? The process is boiling down the core message, and who doesn't want to work on that?

Work on that elevator pitch and work on that short pitch deck. Of course you need to detail, but sometimes you need the simplicity.

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Mark Friday is an associate leading venture capital investments at Houston-based Cathexis Holdings LP.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.