Three of Houston's mayoral candidates shared the stage at Tech Rodeo to talk about how they would lead the city toward greater success within the innovation space. Photo by Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

It's an election year in Houston, and one of the big topics on the minds of the candidates is how to continue the momentum of Houston's developing innovation ecosystem.

Houston Exponential put three of the declared candidates on the stage yesterday to ask them about their vision for Houston on the final day of Houston Tech Rodeo 2023. HX CEO Natara Branch moderated the discussion with Chris Hollins, Lee Kaplan, and Amanda K. Edwards. Each candidate addressed issues from diversity and equity, the energy transition, and more.

Missed the conversations? Here are a few overheard moments and highlights of the panel.

“It’s integral to our vision for the future of Houston that this is a place where small businesses, entrepreneurs, and creatives can thrive. We want to grow this economy to be one of the strongest economies in the United States — and we know that startups and small businesses are the powerhouse for that.”

— says Chris Hollins, who explains that he's a small business owner himself and also served as interim Harris County Clerk from June 2020 to November 2020, overseeing the 2020 United States presidential election in Harris County.

“Houston has an energy-centric community, and a lot of people who have money have gotten too comfortable investing in just oil and gas. … I understand how hard it is to run a business, and I understand (it) from representing entrepreneurs and investors.”

— says Lee Kaplan, a founding partner at law firm Smyser Kaplan & Veselka LLP.

“One of the things that’s important in a leader is making sure that they understand your issues, but most importantly that they can execute. That has been something that has been chief in concert in the way that I have served in public service, but of course the way that I’ve been a part of the startup economy.“

— says Amanda K. Edwards, who contributed to the establishment of the city’s tech and innovation task force as an at-large Houston City Council member. The task force resulted in the creation of HX Venture Fund and the Innovation District, she explains.

“When we think about cities that have done this really well — Silicon Valley, The Bay Area, Boston, Austin — what’s key in many of those cities is institutions around education. … We have to lean into Rice University and the University of Houston — making these centers for talent, excellence, and innovation so that we’re developing the thinkers, the engineers, the creators of the future, and then we’re giving your businesses a crop of new hires.”

— Hollins says responding to a question about Houston's challenges.

“The thing that I think is the most important for the city is to be rigorous with what we do. We’re not going to get around the fact that it’s hot and we have mosquitos. But we can sell the fact that we have a city that’s improving.”

— Kaplan says on Houston's progress.

“I don’t want to compete or lose to any city in America. When I think about Houston, I’m bullish. I know that we are the place that is home to innovation, and it’s about time that people know us as that."

— Edwards says, referencing how Houston is known nationally for its problems — she gives the example of Hurricane Harvey. “We have major challenges in our city, but we can innovate using our innovation economy to provide answers and solutions to them.”

“Energy has to be a part of our story. We are where we are today because we’re the energy capital of the world. And we know that the energy transition is happening, and if we don’t lean into that, our region stands to lose hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

— Hollins says on the types of emerging tech in Houston.

“You often hear it said that Houston is the most diverse city in the nation, but I pose this challenge: What good is it to be the most diverse if we’re not solving the challenges that diverse communities face? And that includes equity in tech. We have all of the raw ingredients here in the Houston community to make Houston the home of where tech and innovation is diverse and equitable.”

— Edwards says on Houston's diversity and the challenges the city faces.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Here's what Houston startups have raised in funding so far in 2024

Q1 2024 VC ACTIVITY

Five Houston startups have started the new year strong with over $320 million in venture funding — most of which from one mega deal for a geothermal company.

According to InnovationMap reporting, Houston's VC activity in the first quarter of 2024 spanned industry and stage — from pre-seed to series E. It's a large chunk of money raised in Houston for one quarter — but not in terms of deals closed, at least compared to the previous quarter, in which startups raised over $170 million but across nine deals.

On the national side, it's not too different of a story. According to a quarterly report from PitchBook, the United State's VC activity for the start of the year "showed to be one of the slowest areas of the venture market during the quarter." Only $9.3 billion in capital was raised in the U.S. last quarter, which is only 11.3 percent of the total raised in the already slowed market of 2023.

"While dry powder remains high, slowed fundraising portends to LP hesitancy toward VC, and should predict a more difficult dealmaking environment down the road," reads an email from PitchBook. "During the past few years, large mega-funds drove fundraising trends, but Q1 VC fundraising shows there may be no appetite for such vehicles in today’s market."

These are the five startup VC deals closed in Houston so far this year, according to reporting on InnovationMap.

Fervo Energy raises $244M in latest funding round

Fervo Energy scored a $244 million round of funding thanks to existing and new investors. Photo via Fervo Energy

An Oklahoma-based shale oil and gas leader has backed Fervo Energy's latest round of funding, supporting the startup's geothermal technology yet again.

Fervo announced its latest round of funding this week to the tune of $244 million. The round was led by Devon Energy, a company that's previously backed the startup.

“Demand for around-the-clock clean energy has never been higher, and next-generation geothermal is uniquely positioned to meet this demand,” Tim Latimer, Fervo CEO and co-founder, says in a news release. “Our technology is fully derisked, our pricing is already competitive, and our resource pipeline is vast. This investment enables Fervo to continue to position geothermal at the heart of 24/7 carbon-free energy production.” Read more about the round.

Procyrion secures $57.7M series E

Procyrion has announced the closing of its series E round of funding. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-born and bred medical device company, Procyrion, has completed its series E with a raise of $57.7 million, including the conversion of $10 million of interim financing.

Procyrion is the company behind Aortix, a pump designed to be placed in the descending thoracic aorta of heart failure patients, which has been shown to improve cardiac performance in seriously ill subjects. The money raised will allow the company to proceed with a the DRAIN-HF Study, a pivotal trial that will be used for eventual FDA approval and commercialization.

The Aortix is the brainchild of Houston cardiologist Reynolds Delgado. According to Procyrion’s CSO, Jace Heuring, Delgado, gained some of his experience with devices for the heart working with legendary Texas Heart Institute surgeon O.H. “Bud” Frazier. He filed his first patents related to the Aortix in 2005. Read more about the round.

Sage Geosystems closes $17M series A 

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. Photo via sagegeosystems.com

A Houston geothermal startup has announced the close of its series A round of funding.

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. The proceeds aim to fund its first commercial geopressured geothermal system facility, which will be built in Texas in Q4 of 2024. According to the company, the facility will be the first of its kind.

The venture is joined by technology investor Arch Meredith, Helium-3 Ventures and will include support from existing investors Virya, LLC, Nabors Industries Ltd., and Ignis Energy Inc.

“The first close of our Series A funding and our commercial facility are significant milestones in our mission to make geopressured geothermal system technologies a reality,” Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems, says in a news release. “The success of our GGS technologies is not only critical to Sage Geosystems becoming post-revenue, but it is an essential step in accelerating the development of this proprietary geothermal baseload approach. Read more about the round.

Ema raises $2M round of bridge funding

Ema, which operates as a health and wellness-focused, AI-based chat for women, has raised additional funding. Screenshot courtesy of Ema

A Houston-based startup that's improving health and wellness for women with its artificial intelligence-backed platform has raised a bridge round of funding.

Ema closed its latest bridge round, bringing its total funding to nearly $2 million. The company received investment from Kubera's Venture Capital and Victorum Capital, which joined existing investors Hearst Labs, Wormhole Capital, Acumen America, and Techstars.

Ema strives to deliver "personalized, empathetic, and evidence-based support" to its users through its generative AI technology. The platform has more than 100,000 users, and has expanded into the B2B sector with $100,000 in contracts within just 30 days after pivoting to this model, according to the company. Read more about the round.

TrueLeap Inc. raises oversubscribed $610,000 pre-seed round

The edtech company offers a comprehensive approach to shrinking the digital divide with a suite of technology including software, hardware, and more. Photo courtesy of TrueLeap

An edtech startup has just secured funding to further its mission of increasing accessibility to education.

TrueLeap Inc., global digital education startup addressing the digital divide in education, has raised $610,000, which is over its target of $500,000. The round was led by United Kingdom-based Maya Investments Limited.

"This oversubscribed funding round, led by Maya Investments Limited, is a testament to the urgent need for innovative educational technologies in emerging markets. Our commitment to providing affordable and integrated solutions is stronger than ever," says Sandip Bordoloi, CEO and Co-Founder of TrueLeap, in a news release. Read more about the round.

Greentown Labs reduces roles at Houston, Boston incubators

tough decisions

Greentown Labs has announced a reduction in its staff, which affects both of its locations.

In a letter addressed to the Greentown Labs community, the organization's CEO and President Kevin Knobloch reported that Greentown will be reducing its staff by 30 percent, eliminating 12 roles in Boston and six in Houston. Knobloch noted changes in leadership, growth of the team, and adjustments following the pandemic.

"Greentown Labs grew rapidly over the past four years in pursuit of advancing its mission to catalyze climate action through entrepreneurship, partnership, and collaboration," Knobloch writes in the letter. "This created a structural deficit where growth outpaced revenue."

The letter did not provide details of which positions were eliminated at either location.

With these resizing of the staff and reduced expenses, Knobloch writes that the organization is positioned well for its future.

"Despite this decision, I remain optimistic about the future for Greentown and the impact we will have on addressing the climate crisis," Knobloch tells the community. "Our mission is as urgent as ever and we remain committed to supporting all of you—our startups—by prioritizing core operations, member services, and strategic partner engagements."

Knobloch took the helm of Greentown last summer. He previously served as chief of staff of the United States Department of Energy in President Barack Obama’s second term.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.