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'snote: 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. CourtesyPhoto

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 investors back new platform for retail traders looking to follow financial influencers

making a splash

As anyone who witnessed the impact Gamestop's meme stock had on the country already realizes, influential investors can drive momentum within the financial sector. And one company with fresh funding from a Houston firm is betting on that exactly.

CashPool is a new mobile platform that gives everyday investors the opportunity to derive influence from the investment strategies and trades made by trusted and influential stock traders who have built substantial followings on social media platforms. By allowing retail traders the chance to join social media influencers’ various “pools” on its platform, CashPool is primed to change the way the masses acquire wealth.

This is the kind of algorithmic trading aimed at a new generation of investors that gets the attention of early-stage venture capital funds like Houston-based Ten X Labs, a pre-seed angel fund that recently invested in CashPool to help the trading platform continue its mission of transforming the investment landscape.

"We are thrilled to receive funding from Ten X Labs, as it validates our innovative approach to trading and investing," CashPool Founder and CEO Averett Barksdale says in a news release. "This investment will enable us to further enhance our platform, expand our user base and continue to revolutionize the industry. We believe that everyone should have transparent, governed access to profitable trading and investment opportunities, and through CashPool we are making that vision a reality."

Connecting the dots

CashPool is broker agnostic connector, allowing its users to keep their current brokers like Robinhood, Coinbase, Charles Schwab, Acorns, Fidelity, ETRADE, Stash, Sofi and Betterment and creates a seamless investment experience.

“We are that middle piece,” says Barksdale. “So your money stays on whatever brokerage you’ve connected to the platform, and we just execute the trades on your brokerage for you.”

Considering that users’ money remains with their original brokerage, how does CashPool monetize its platform?

“We don’t charge users to execute trades,” says Barksdale. “We charge per pool you join. So, on our platform, strategies are called pools and a user can join as many strategies as they want.”

Financial influencers set the strategies. These are profitable traders who have become influencers on various social media platforms and built-up followings comprised of people who are or are desiring to be retail traders themselves.

“There are a ton of people out there who actually are profitable traders,” says Barksdale. “Same as what we saw happen with GameStop and the whole Reddit situation. That was a financial influencer, right? It just so happens that he had a strategy that he thought would work and it turned out for a while it did work, right?

“We want to not only empower the retail trader, but empower these financial influencers who are profitable as well. Just because it's a whole marketplace out there for it. But a lot of times the retail trader doesn't quite understand who to go with. On our platform, you could see the results of these financial influencers right before your eyes on our platform. So you can see if they're profitable or not, or if someone's just on Instagram or whatever, social media platform posting screenshots but aren’t actually executing those trades.”

Increasing transparency

With trading, past success can be an arbiter for future performance, so with CashPool, users can choose to join the pools of influencers who have documented success as a trader on the platform.

“On our platform you can't hide,” says Barksdale. “We're connected to their brokerage account, so we see what trades they're making in real time. We also see their performance in real time, and we display that on the platform. That's something that you really can't get around. So if someone on Instagram says they traded this stock, then I made X amount of dollars and had this percentage of return, then you go to the platform and look at your pool and see they didn't do that and were lying the whole time, it’s literally just putting everything out there in the open. We have the kind of transparency that doesn't exist currently right now in the space.”

Broadcasting one’s successes is easy, but what about the losses?

“I thought it was going to be a lot more difficult just thinking, do people really want to show what they're doing?” says Barksdale. “But the thing that I've seen is a lot of these traders are a whole lot more competitive. And the traders who are doing it, they're constantly talking out against people who aren't actually doing it in real life.

“A lot of the traders who are actually profitable, they do live trades every day. But how do users if they should pay to get into a specific trader’s live trading session? Like, how do they know they're profitable already?

“On CashPool, users can see an actual influencer's win rate and say, 'Okay, 86 percent of the time they are profitable, and I could see how many trades they've made in total.' From that standpoint, users can make an educated decision on what pools to join and pay for.”

CashPool users can join as many pools as they see fit, but the cost of each pool’s membership may vary due to the popularity or success percentage rate of the financial influencer.

“You can join as many pools as you want, but what we suggest is you start by joining the pools of influencers that you already follow and trust, that you're already following like on Twitter or YouTube or Instagram or whatever it may be,” says Barksdale. “We are suggesting that you follow them first and you join their pools first. What we do is on the monetization side is we allow the creators on our platform who are the influencers to set their own price for their pool.”

Building a secure network

Outside of who or what to follow, information security is likely a concern for potential users. Financial influencers’ trade information is readily available (win percentages and number of trades, not dollar amounts), but users’ won’t be able to see other users’ information on the platform.

“Currently, we have a list of 10 brokerages who are on board, and then we're working to onboard more as we keep going on,” says Barksdale. “So, we have like your Interactive brokerages, and we also have a few other ones that are UK specific and Canada specific. We would love to have every single brokerage on the platform, but unfortunately, there are a couple that are still kind of playing hard to get, so to speak.”

The first rollout of CashPool is set, but version two will likely include content creation from the financial influencers.

Barksdale, who has a background in product development and experience working at companies like Charles Schwab and Fidelity, is mostly excited about the prospect of CashPool unlocking expert financial strategies for everyone, not just the financial advisors behind the closed doors of Wall Street.

“Yes, my philosophy is that financial health and financial growth should be accessible for all,” says Barksdale. “The thing that gets me is it needs to be responsible. So, for example, RobinHood is a platform that doesn't necessarily care if you are making responsible decisions, they just care that you're trading on that platform.

“Our platform is strictly focused on actually being the place where these retail traders can make responsible decisions centered around investing and trading.”

Tech companies contribute to recovery fund for those affected by Houston storm

helping hands

The past month in Houston has been marked by severe flooding and a sudden storm that left nearly a million residents without power. The Houston Disaster Alliance has established the Severe Weather and Derecho Recovery Fund to help those impacted by the weather.

“The Greater Houston Disaster Alliance was formed so that in times of crisis, there is a swift and efficient response to help those severely impacted begin the process of recovery,” said Stephen Maislin, president and CEO, Greater Houston Community Foundation. “When disaster strikes, it requires a collaborative and coordinated response from the nonprofit, for-profit, public sector, and philanthropic community to ensure the most vulnerable in our region get the help they need to start the recovery and rebuilding process.”

At least a million dollars has been donated to the fund, courtesy of $500,000 from the CenterPoint Energy Foundation and another $500,000 from Comcast. With Houston now a federally declared disaster area by President Joe Biden, impacted residents are able to apply for various grants and aid.

Those still struggling from the weather events should call the 211 Texas/United Way HELPLINE. Assistance is available for housing, utilities, food, elder assistance, and other areas. Crisis counseling is also available.

“Outside of times of disaster, we know that 14 percent of households in our region are struggling on income below the federal poverty line and 31 percent of households in our region are working hard but struggling to make ends meet. It’s these neighbors who are disproportionately impacted when disaster strikes,” said Amanda McMillian, president and CEO, United Way of Greater Houston. “This fund allows us to lift up the most vulnerable who have been impacted by recent weather events to ensure they can not only recover from the immediate crisis, but also prepare themselves for future disasters.”

The derecho storm that hit Houston on Thursday, May 16 had wind gusts up to 100mph. Nearly a million people in the Houston area were left without power, and as of Wednesday CenterPoint was still working to restore electricity to more than 60,000 people. Photos showed that the storm toppled massive power pylons, took down trees, and even ripped the sides off buildings. Miniature tornadoes touched down in parts of the city, adding to the devastation.

The Houston Disaster Alliance was launched in 2023 as a joint effort between the Greater Houston Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Houston to help mitigate the damage of weather crises year-round. This has become increasingly necessary as Houston's weather has become more unpredictable than ever.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.