Krishna Srinivasan and Venu Shamapant have been investing in Texas startups for 20 years. Now, with the latest LiveOak Venture Partners fund, the duo has more money to focus on Houston. Photos via liveoakvp.com

A venture capital firm that's focused on funding startups across the Lone Star State has closed its latest fund and is set on doubling down on Houston.

LiveOak Venture Partners has been around for almost a decade, and its third fund closed last week at $210 million. It's the firm's largest fund yet — twice its last two funds, which each closed at $105 million. Krishna Srinivasan tells InnovationMap that the original plan was to raise a similarly sized fund but interested limited partners brought even more to the table.

"There was tremendous interest from LPs for this fund," Srinivasan says, adding that the firm could have raised even more based on interest. "People love the white-hot, broad Texas market. ... It's been an exciting journey to take the firm to the next stage."

Srinivasan and Venu Shamapant, founding partners at LiveOak Venture Partners, raised the fund in just over three months — completely on video conferences. The duo has been investing in Texas technology companies for over 20 years and has seen a lot of momentum and excitement for their strategy. While the fund is bigger and brought in new LPs — some based in the Houston area — Shamapant says to expect a continuation of the fund's strategy.

"We don't really see a strong reason to change anything," Shamapant tells InnovationMap. LiveOak targets early stage tech companies in Texas. "On the edges though, the larger fund allows us to tweak (our strategy) a little bit and adapt to the market environment. We've been doing this for 20 years and this is one of the strongest markets we've seen in Texas."

Shamapant says they now have the ability to back more companies with slightly larger checks and longer term support. He also says they might make an investment or two in growth-stage companies, expanding a bit from just funding early-stage startups.

While most of the startups LiveOak has supported reside in Austin where the firm is based, the new fund is particularly geared at investing in startups across Texas.

"We are fiercely committed to adding a lot more portfolio companies in Houston," says Srinivasan. "Houston's got all the raw DNA that would constitute a great fit for the kind of deals we love to do."

LiveOak is no stranger to Houston. The firm was supported by the HX Venture Fund, a fund of funds that invests as a limited partner to VC firms based outside of Houston but with an interest in investing in local startups.

Additionally, one of the firm's early investments was in Houston-founded CS DISCO, a legal software startup that has seen great growth and success over the years. The company later relocated to Austin, which became a bit of a trend for Houston companies that needed to relocate to find success. Srinivasan says he's not seeing this trend so much anymore thanks to a more developed workforce in Houston.

"We believe there is a real depth of talent in the Houston market," Srinivasan says. "We are not at all interested in migrating companies out of Houston. I think there is enough tech strength and success locally."

Shamapant adds that the effect of the pandemic had and a rise in a distributed workforce will only benefit Houston ability to attract and retain tech talent and startups.

"A lot of the trends we talk about in terms of talent, aren't triggered by the pandemic. These are long-term trends we have seen over 20 years," Shamapant says, adding that this means the momentum is here to stay. "The pandemic probably brought it to a tipping point that has accelerated these trends."

Three non-Houston investors discussed the strengths and weaknesses of Houston's innovation ecosystem. Getty Images

3 observations about Houston's innovation ecosystem from out-of-town venture capitalists

Zooming out

You'll go cross-eyed looking at the same puzzle for too long, and sometimes it's better to take a step back and introduce some fresh perspectives and ideas from someone not so connected to the matter at hand.

At the second annual HX Capital Summit hosted by Houston Exponential at Rice University, HX gathered three out-of-town venture capital experts to discuss Houston's innovation ecosystem with Sandy Wallis, managing director at the HX Venture Fund. The fund-of-funds focuses on connecting non-local investors to Houston in order to bring new venture opportunities to town. On the panel, the experts discussed their observations about the Bayou City, which can be summed up as follows.

Community engagement and corporate interest are good signs for Houston 

Right off the bat, the panelists agreed that its much more encouraging visiting Houston nowadays than it was in the recent past. Clint Korver, managing director at San Francisco-based Ulu Ventures, has only recently played witness to the city, thanks to his firm's work with HX and the fund of funds.

"I'm just getting to know the Houston community," Korver says. "I'm really intrigued by how much community support there is."

Korver says that, not unlike Houston startups, Bay Area companies find it a challenge getting a foot in the door at major corporations. However, he's observed that Houston-based corporates want a seat at the table of Houston innovation.

"All the corporate attention that's being integrated here is super intriguing," Korver says. "That's our startups' hardest problems."

The other panelists, who are much closer to Houston, echoed Kover's interest in the role corporations play. Venu Shamapant, founding partner at Austin-based LiveOak Venture Partners, and Thomas Ball, founder and managing director at Austin-based Next Coast Ventures, have witnessed Houston evolve into what it is today over the past decade or so.

"We've both been coming to Houston over the past 20 years and been investing in startups, and it's been a dramatically different scene even in just the past five years," Shamapant says.

Houston's ecosystem is going to take time

While the panelists remarked on the evolution the city has and the support that large corporations seem to be willing to provide, Houston has other assets that's setting it up for success. The panelists mention a solid pool for talent, impressive educational institutions, and more.

"When I look at Houston, I think it has every ingredient for success, which is why I want to spend time here," Ball says.

Sure, as Ball says, Houston has the ingredients, but what it now needs is the time to cook.

"To me, it's more of just time that it's going to take. We can't bake this Houston cake by turning the thermostat up to 900 degrees in an hour. It's going to take three hours at 300," Ball says, adding that he doesn't know very much about baking. "It will take time. This won't be an overnight success. We're here for the long haul."

Houston has some challenges yet to overcome 

Wrapping up the panel, an audience member asked about the changes Houston still needs to make to really get to the point it needs to be at.

For Korver, the answer was pretty simple. Houston needs a big exit.

"There's this incredible amount of momentum that comes along with a successful company that takes a hold of everyone — the rising tide floats all boats thing," Korver says.

For Ball, particularly comparing Houston to other major innovation-focused cities, the issue is that Houston is so spread out.

"To me the one thing I struggle with in Houston is what I would call a density problem," Ball says. "I think you need density here and you need to concentrate your resources in certain places in this city."

LiveOak Venture Partners, an Austin-based firm, is the first recipient of Houston Exponential's fund of funds. Courtesy of LiveOak

Houston venture fund of funds doles out $5 million in Austin firm in its first investment

money moves

After closing its initial round of funding last year, Houston Exponential's fund of funds, called the HX Venture Fund, has closed its first investment on March 29. Austin-based LiveOak Venture Partners received a $5 million investment from the fund.

The HX Venture Fund raised $30 million after launching in October of last year. The fund's goal is to invest in out-of-Houston venture funds in the hopes that they reinvest that money into Houston startups.

"We invested in LiveOak Venture II because of the firm's compelling investment track record, expertise and vigor of the general partners, their extensive network of relationships with proven entrepreneurs, and their focus on capital efficient early stage technology companies in Texas," says Guillermo Borda, managing partner at HX Venture Fund, in a release. "LiveOak's team is committed to making a significant impact in the Houston startup ecosystem."

The HX investment is a part of LiveOak's Fund II, which was oversubscribed and closed at $105 million, the company announced today. According to a release from LiveOak, Fund II is a continuation to the firm's dedication to Texas entrepreneurship. The fund will focus on funding within the state's four largest tech hubs — Austin, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio — and have initial investments ranging from $2 million to $4 million, the release states.

The firm's portfolio focuses on seed and series A funding, and most of its investments are Austin-based, with the exception of three Dallas companies. LiveOak invested in Houston-founded CS Disco, an AI-enabled tool for legal business, but the company has since moved to Austin, according to a public relations representative. LiveOak also invested in San Antonio-founded Infocyte, but the company also relocated to Austin.

Houston has been a strategic market for LiveOak, says managing partner, Krishna Srinivasan, in the release, citing the city's recent entrepreneurial activity.

"We are excited to partner with HX Venture Fund and its strategic investment partners, comprising multiple leading Houston based corporations, to catalyze and grow this activity," says Srinivasan, in the release. "Given LiveOak's investment strategy of being the leading source of capital for entrepreneurs across Texas, we view this investment as highly synergistic with our efforts to enable world-class, category dominating companies coming out of Houston."

HX modeled its fund after the Renaissance Venture Capital Fund in Michigan, from which 10 outside venture capital firms benefitted. Renaissance Fund reported positive results from the fund of funds and Chris Rizik, CEO and fund manager of Renaissance, serves as a member of the investment committee.

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Houston sustainability-focused company raises $50 million to plant new indoor farming facility

seeing green

Houston-based Dream Harvest Farming Co., which specializes in sustainably growing produce, has landed a $50 million investment from Orion Energy Partners to open a 100,000-square-foot indoor farming facility in Houston. The facility will enable the company to dramatically ramp up its operations.

The new facility, which will be built in Southwest Houston, is scheduled for completion in January 2023. Dream Harvest’s existing 7,500-square-foot facility in Southwest Houston supplies 45 Whole Foods stores in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas, as well as Sweetgreen restaurants in Texas.

The company currently employs 25 people. With the addition of the 100,000-square-foot facility, Dream Harvest’s headcount will rise to 65.

Dream Harvest relies on wind-powered, year-round indoor vertical farming to generate 400 times the yield of an outdoor farm while using 95 percent less water and no pesticides.

“Because the vast majority of America’s produce is grown in California and has to be shipped over long distances, most of the country receives produce that is old, has a poor flavor profile, and a short shelf life — a major contributing factor to the more than 30 percent of fresh vegetables being discarded in the U.S. each year,” Dream Harvest says in a December 7 news release.

Zain Shauk, co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest, says his company’s method for growing lettuce, baby greens, kale, mustards, herbs, collards, and cabbage helps cut down on food waste.

“Demand for our produce has far outpaced supply, an encouraging validation of our approach as well as positive news for our planet, which is facing the rising problem of food and resource waste,” Shauk says. “While we have the yields today to support our business, we are pleased to partner with Orion on this financing, which will enable us to greatly expand our production and increase access to our produce for many more consumers.”

Dream Harvest expects to expand distribution to more than 250 retail locations in 2022.

“Orion’s focus on sustainable infrastructure and deep experience in building large industrial facilities will be complementary to Dream Harvest’s impressive track record of being a reliable supplier to high-caliber customers by achieving consistent yields, food safety, and operational efficiencies … ,” says Nazar Massouh, co-managing partner and CEO of Orion Energy Partners, which has offices in Houston and New York City.

Other companies in the Orion Energy Partners portfolio include Houston-based Caliche Development Partners, Tomball-based Python Holdings, The Woodlands-based Evolution Well Services, Houston-based Produced Water Transfer, and Houston-based Tiger Rentals.

Zain Shauk is the co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest. Photo courtesy of Dream Harvest

Exclusive: Houston logistics SaaS startup raises $2.5M seed round

money moves

A Houston company that's providing software solutions for middle-mile logistics challenges has raised fresh funding.

Velostics Inc., which has an enterprise software-as-a-service model that specializes in automating inbound logistics at industrial facilities — like terminals and warehouses — announced it has raised $2.5 million. The seed round was led by Kansas-based Flyover Capital with participation from Small Ventures USA, Cultivation Capital, Starboard Star, Congress Avenue Ventures and BioUrja Ventures.

Founded by Gaurav Khandewal, Velostics targets the $37 billion inbound logistics management market, a so-called "log jam" for businesses that the company's software strives to make flow a lot more optimally.

“Flyover is incredibly excited to support the Velostics team in their mission to transform inbound logistics,” says Keith Molzer, managing partner at Flyover Capital. “This segment of the supply chain is ripe for better technology to address challenges of congestion, driver labor shortages, and the growing demands of ecommerce. Gaurav and team are an exceptional group of entrepreneurs ready to drive efficiency and a better customer experience at industrial facilities.”

The fresh funding will go toward recruiting top talent for Velostics's team, particularly in its account management, inside sales, and marketing departments, as well as continuing to develop the AI-driven product, which has an impact for both its users and the environment.

“Idling trucks waiting outside facilities emit over 42 million tons of CO2 annually — eight times the US national average. By orchestrating the movement of trucks in and out of facilities, not only do we provide tremendous supply chain benefits, we also help the environment," Khandewal says in the release. "We’re excited to partner with our customers and our investors to solve global congestion.”

Flyover Capital was founded in 2014 and has a keen interest in the Houston market, Dan Kerr, principal at the firm, previously told InnovationMap.

Houston is "one of the cities among those that fall in our region where we plan to spend a significant amount of time," Kerr said in May of last year. "We cover a lot of ground, but there are certain cities were we try to get there quarterly. Houston is definitely one of those places."

In September, Khandewal joined the Houston Innovators Podcast and discussed how he has been a champion of Houston innovation since he started ChaiOne in 2009. He shared how he thinks the city has a great opportunity to be a leader in logistics technology.

"I think that there are some trends in Houston that I'm seeing as a founder, and one of them is logistics," Khandewal says on the show.

Gaurav Khandelwal, CEO and founder of ChaiOne and Velostics Gaurav Khandelwal is the CEO and founder of Velostics. Photo courtesy

Houston VC-backed tech founder on reinventing a sales team and supporting financial independence

Houston innovators podcast episode 112

Four years ago, Samantha Ettus found herself as a keynote speaker in a room with thousands of ambitious and talented women. It was a conference for multi-level marketing sales associates and, as Ettus found out later, most of them — despite their talent and passion — were losing money on whatever product they were selling.

"I realized there was a problem. There obviously was a need — all of these people want to be doing something outside of their families that gives them fulfillment and meaning and has goals associated with it — but they also want to be earning money," Ettus says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "And the first part was being fulfilled — but the second part wasn't."

Ettus created an alternative to check both of those boxes. Park Place Payments is a fintech startup founded in 2018 in California. Houston was one of the initial six test market for the business model, and the company now has over 1,000 account executives across all 50 states. Sales team members are trained for free on how to sell Park Place's payment processor service to local businesses.

Ettus says the payment processor industry is competitive and most small business owners are very disappointed with the customer service they receive. The average business changes payment processors every three years, Ettus says, and Park Place wants to change that.

"Payments is an industry where something always goes wrong," Ettus says. "As a small business owner, if you can't reach someone — that's really important for the livelihood of your business. ... We really think of ourselves as an outsourced payment partner for small businesses."

This past year has been one for growth for Park Place, Ettus says, and earlier this year, she closed on the company's seed round, which was supported by Curate Capital, founded by Houstonian Carrie Colbert. Now the company is focused on its tech team, including hiring a CTO. Early next year, Ettus hopes to close a Series A round, again with support — financially and otherwise — from Colbert.

"I feel so lucky because a lot of people pointed us to traditional Silicon Valley VCs in the beginning, and I had a lot of conversations. I didn't feel some of those firms had the patience to grow with us," Ettus says.

The company has been tied to Houston from its early days, from testing the business in town to a Houston-based early hire, Nancy Decker Lent, who is a founding member of the team and head of product for Park Place.

Ettus shares more on her passion for supporting financial independence for women and how she plans to grow her company on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.