Urban Capital Network have launched a fund-of-funds to allow investors to tap into later-stage startups at a much lower barrier of entry. Images via urbancapitalnetwork.com

Early stage investing has always been a tried and true way for investors to get in on the ground floor of a tech company for a smaller financial commitment — but it's risky. Urban Capital Network has created an alternative.

UCN was founded to democratize investment opportunities and help investors of color find investment opportunities all while cutting their teeth as novice investors. Lenny Saizan, co-founder of UCN, says that its Horizon Fund II allows for UCN investors to get involved in venture-backed companies at a much lower price tag.

Saizan explains that UCN members are in that lower tier of accredited investors who don't necessarily have $250,000 or $1 million to invest in a fund — but they have $15,000 to $25,000 to invest.

"We allow more people to participate in venture funds or venture-backed opportunities," Saizan tells InnovationMap. "Instead of going into one deal at a very early stage, you’re getting in a later stage where the deal is more de-risked and you have a better chance of returns."

As members start to see returns on these premium investment opportunities, Saizan says, UCN encourages their investors to look at earlier stage within their own communities.

“We recognized that there was still an issue with minority founders getting funded as well,” Saizan says of UCN's mission as a whole. “We thought the best approach would be to create wealth and income within the communities that those founders would be reaching out to.”

Horizon Fund II will deploy capital in up to five funds — each with 15 to 30 portfolio companies. The first two investment opportunities have already been secured: Pegasus Tech Ventures's Pre-IPO Fund and Mercury Fund V, a Houston VC firm. In two years, UCN has seen five exits across its six funds. It's the group's second fund of funds — the first was an investment in Mercury Fund IV.

Eric Tait, co-founder at UCN, says they are looking for variety in the funds they invest in and are targeting top-tier, and highly rated VC firms all over the country that UCN's leadership has connections with.

“We’re relatively agnostic in terms of industry,” Tait says. “We do try to have a portfolio allocation that will create a return threshold that is varied.”

Typically, Tait explains, investing in a VC fund won't garner returns for seven to 10 years. However, UCN specifically targeted Pegasus's Pre-IPO Fund because ROI is expected between years two and four.

Tait says one of the things of focus for UCN this year is to grow the network's reach.

“A big goal for us is to tap into more institutional investors — like family offices, and things of that nature,” Tait says. “What we’ve realized is what we’ve been able to do for individual investors has been locked down, and we can do the same thing on a smaller scale for institutional dollars who are interested in these opportunities but don’t want to put in $1 million.”

Saizan says his team is also looking to give members a tech upgrade when it comes to accessing information and deals on UCN's platform. Additionally, he wants to focus on strengthening the group's network of VCs and how UCN interacts with them. He says firms reach out with interest all the time, and he wants to streamline that process using technology.

“We really want to formalize our network,” Saizan says. “We’re bringing diverse deal flow, diverse investors, diverse talent, and a diverse perspective. So, a lot of times VCs tap us when they are looking for an opportunity — or maybe they have an opportunity and want to know what we think.”

This week's Houston innovators to know includes Lenny Saizan of Urban Capital Network, Katie Eick of Rollin' Vets, and Tony Loyd of AECOM. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Editor's note: This year has made for some pivotal moments for various Houston companies across industries. For some, the pandemic has meant reevaluating their business plans or increased a need for their product or service. For others, social unrest has called for systemic change. Technology emerges for these needs. This week's Houston innovators are addressing these needs with their innovative efforts.

Lenny Saizan, co-founder and managing partner

Lenny Saizan — along with three other Houston innovation leaders — founded Urban Capital Network to increase diversity and inclusion within the venture capital space. Photo via urbancapitalnetwork.com

While venture capital firms usually operate in a similar structure, Lenny Saizan and his co-founders wanted to set up Urban Capital Network differently in order to "democratize access to premium VC-backed investments," Saizan says. UCN invests into VCs that meet their diversity and inclusion requirements as a limited partner, but then also invests directly into startups as a sort of hybrid investor.

"We take a portion of our proceeds and invest in entrepreneurs of color, and we also donate to nonprofits that provide support resources for those entrepreneurs," Saizan says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We're completing the cycle. We find that it's easier to go to a VC and offer to give them money and also help them diversify their investor portfolio."

Saizan shares more about the group in the podcast episode and discusses what they've already accomplished in just a few months. Read more.

Katie Eick, founder of Rollin' Vets

Katie Eick always wanted to be able to offer mobile services. Photo courtesy of Rollin' Vets

Katie Eick founded her mobile vet company in 2016 after years of wanting to be able to provide the type and level of service she has now at Rollin' Vets. While convenience technologies like delivery apps buoyed her company's steady growth, the pandemic really established market need for her business model.

"We were continuously growing slowly — then COVID hit. It really cemented that … all the convenience services are in the forefront of people's minds." Eick tells InnovationMap. "COVID made it clear that this was a necessary service."

Now, she plans to adopt a franchising model and is planning an expansion into San Antonio and Dallas before going national. Read more.

Tony Loyd, vice president at AECOM

Just like Hurricane Harvey, COVID-19 is causing Houstonians to rethink how they operate — and that tech and innovation inversion is opening the door to new opportunities. Courtesy Photo

COVID-19 is affecting the evolution of technology — it's as simple as that, according to Tony Loyd. And it's not the first time — nor the last — that consumer needs affect tech innovation.

"Could COVID-19 be triggering an inversion paradigm? An inversion paradigm puts needs first rather than product first," writes Loyd in a guest column for InnovationMap. "We have experienced many historic technology inversions. Remember when our televisions were air-wave dependent and telephones were tethered to the wall? Because the need evolved for a phone that was mobile, today our TV's are wired, and our telephones are untethered." Read more.

Lenny Saizan — along with three other Houston innovation leaders — founded Urban Capital Network to increase diversity and inclusion within the venture capital space. Photo via urbancapitalnetwork.com

This investor is democratizing access to venture capital deals in Houston while promoting inclusion

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 47

The Urban Capital Network, which launched in Houston earlier this year, gets the best of both worlds. Not only is the group working with venture capital firms as a limited partner, but, operating as a hybrid investor, UCN also is funding startups directly — using both avenues to promote diversity and inclusion.

"We can be described as a hybrid between an angel investment group and a small VC firm," says Lenny Saizan, co-founder and managing partner of Urban Capital Network. "Our mission is to democratize access to premium VC-backed investments."

By forming relationships with VC funds — specifically ones that value UCN's diversity and inclusion platform — the group's network of investors can form syndicates, or group investments, to work with these funds on deals they otherwise couldn't afford to invest into. The VCs benefit in that they have access to new limited partners.

Saizan says UCN has raised $3 million in six months, and all that's been invested.

"We take a portion of our proceeds and invest in entrepreneurs of color, and we also donate to nonprofits that provide support resources for those entrepreneurs," Saizan says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We're completing the cycle. We find that it's easier to go to a VC and offer to give them money and also help them diversify their investor portfolio."

Saizan has three business partners, who each provides their own expertise to UCN: Heath Butler, network partner at Houston-based Mercury Fund; Felix Chevalier, founder of The Chevalier Law Firm; and Dr. Eric S. Tait president of Vernonville Asset Management.

Saizan discusses some of the challenges and opportunities the pandemic has provided UCN and where he and his co-founders are planning to take the investment group in the episode of the podcast. You can listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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Houston SPAC announces merger with Beaumont-based tech company in deal valued at $100M

speaking of spacs

A Houston SPAC, or special purpose acquisition company, has announced the company it plans to merge with in the new year.

Beaumont-based Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc., a provider of thermal imaging platforms, and Houston-based SportsMap Tech Acquisition Corp. (NASDAQ: SMAP), a publicly-traded SPAC with $117 million held in trust, announced their agreement for ICI to IPO via SPAC.

Originally announced in the fall of last year, the blank-check company is led by David Gow, CEO and chairman. Gow is also chairman and CEO of Gow Media, which owns digital media outlets SportsMap, CultureMap, and InnovationMap, as well as the SportsMap Radio Network, ESPN 97.5 and 92.5.

The deal will close in the first half of 2023, according to a news release, and the combined company will be renamed Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc. and will be listed on NASDAQ under a new ticker symbol.

“ICI is extremely excited to partner with David Gow and SportsMap as we continue to deliver our innovative software and hardware solutions," says Gary Strahan, founder and CEO of ICI, in the release. "We believe our software and sensor technology can change the way companies across industries perform predictive maintenance to ensure reliability, environmental integrity, and safety through AI and machine learning.”

Strahan will continue to serve as CEO of the combined company, and Gow will become chairman of the board. The transaction values the combined company at a pre-money equity valuation of $100 million, according to the release, and existing ICI shareholders will roll 100 percent of their equity into the combined company as part of the transaction.

“We believe ICI is poised for strong growth," Gow says in the release. "The company has a strong value proposition, detecting the overheating of equipment in industrial settings. ICI also has assembled a strong management team to execute on the opportunity. We are delighted to combine our SPAC with ICI.”

Founded in 1995, ICI provides infrared and imaging technology — as well as service, training, and equipment repairs — to various businesses and individuals across industries.

Report: Federal funding, increased life science space drive industry growth in Houston

by the numbers

Federal funding, not venture capital, continues to be the main driver of growth in Houston’s life sciences sector, a new report suggests.

The new Houston Life Science Insight report from commercial real estate services company JLL shows Houston accounted for more than half (52.7 percent) of total funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) across major Texas markets through the third quarter of this year. NIH funding in the Houston area totaled $769.6 million for the first nine months of 2022, exceeding the five-year average by 19.3 percent.

VC funding for Houston’s life sciences sector pales in comparison.

For the first nine months of this year, companies in life sciences raised $147.3 million in VC, according to the report. Based on that figure, Houston is on pace in 2022 to meet or surpass recent life sciences VC totals for most other years except 2021. JLL describes 2021 as an “outlier” when it comes to annual VC hauls for the region’s life sciences companies.

JLL notes that “limited venture capital interest in private industry has remained a challenge for the city’s life sciences sector. Furthermore, it may persist as venture capital strategies are reevaluated and investment strategies shift toward near-term profits.”

While life sciences VC funding has a lot of ground to cover to catch up with NIH funding, there are other bright spots for the sector.

One of those bright spots is the region’s rising amount of life sciences space.

The Houston area boasts more than 2.4 million square feet of space for life sciences operations, with another 1.1 million under construction and an additional 1.5 million square feet on the drawing board, the report says. This includes a soon-to-open lab spanning 25,000 square feet in the first phase of Levit Green.

A second bright spot is the migration of life sciences companies to the region. Two Southern California-based life sciences companies, Cellipoint Bioservices and Obagi Cosmeceuticals, plan to move their headquarters and relocate more than half of their employees to The Woodlands by the first half of 2023, according to the report.

“Houston’s low tax rate and cost of living were primary drivers for the decisions, supported by a strong labor pool that creates advantages for companies’ expansion and relocation considerations,” JLL says.

Here's what Houston startups need to know about internal communications

guest column

Startup founders often focus on outward victories. However, if they look inward and get internal communications right, this can prioritize, inspire, and retain talent, which is the heart of the company.

Consistent internal communication helps employees to understand the company's core values and mission and the evolving internal policies and procedures — health care benefits, reorganizations, remote work — that accompany a young business. Investing in internal communications also supports external public relations efforts because the best company storytellers are well-informed employees.

Consider these tactics for effective internal communications.

Prioritize messaging

In any startup, internal procedures evolve as the company grows. Take control of the narrative while easing employees' minds by prioritizing internal messaging.

Whether transitioning to a more flexible work schedule, updating healthcare benefits, or rolling out a performance review process, planning messages in advance can help team members understand the change, the impact, and how they can contribute positively to the development.

Well-informed employees help mitigate uneasiness and tend to achieve business goals more quickly. Make sure to allow the employees time to reflect and react.

Support managers

Leaders and mid-level managers play an integral role in internal communications by cascading information throughout the organization. They regularly engage with their employees, so it is important that managers feel confident and supported in their communication skills.

Managers can benefit from a common company language, talking points, or communications training for more effective and productive conversations. By identifying, clarifying, and reinforcing common goals and key objectives for managers, companies can strengthen productivity and eliminate confusion, especially if the company changes teams' roles and responsibilities.

Be consistent

Make sure that the drumbeat remains steady, whether this includes a monthly town hall meeting or weekly CEO emails. Since communication is not necessarily one-size-fits-all, use a communication approach tailored to the workforce.

For example, there might be more effective communication methods than email for employees not behind a desk. As a smaller company, take that time to connect with the team directly because as the company swells, that one-on-one experience will become increasingly difficult to manage.

Listen to employees

Delivering top-down messaging that resonates with the workforce remains critical. However, internal communication is a two-way street.

Allow team members to give valuable feedback. Encourage team members to share their thoughts about the company, concerns, and how to improve communications. Issue internal surveys or hold face-to-face meetings to gain useful insight.

Understanding these critical proof points will enable more effective communication and quick action on any issues.

Be a human

Keep humanity at the heart of internal communications. Amid the company's transition, maintain transparency and recognize the emotional toll some changes can have on teammates. The best talent will remain when they feel connected, informed and listened to.

Greater employee engagement can help build a strong company culture of accountability, authenticity and communication, setting up the business for bigger success.

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Melanie Taplett is a communications and public relations consultant for the technology, energy, and manufacturing industries.