Here's your latest roundup of innovation news you may have missed. Photo via Getty Images

It's been a busy month so far with plenty of Houston startup news, major ecosystem events, and more — and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, Solugen raises another mega round of funding, CorInnova snags a prestigious award, applications are open for two programs, and more.

Houston unicorn chemicals company raises $200M series D

Solugen closed its Series d funding round at $200 million. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based Solugen has announced its latest round of investment to the tune of $200 million. The company, which reached unicorn status after its $357 million series C round last year, uses its patented Bioforge processes to produce "green" chemicals from bio-based feedstocks.

"Solugen is reimagining the chemistry of everyday life with enzymes found in nature. We make chemicals better, faster, cheaper, and without fossil fuels from right here in Houston, Texas. Whether you care about the climate, local competitiveness, or just plain old profits, we have good news: it's working," the company states in its news release.

"Our first Bioforge has been operating for a year and Solugen is running a nearly nine figure business with high margins selling commodity and specialty chemicals," the statement continues. "We have established ourselves with top tier customers for our existing solutions and fortune 100 technology partners to build a robust pipeline of future molecules that will help us achieve our goal of 10 mil tons of CO2 removed from the atmosphere."

According to the company, this latest raise has increased Solugen's valuation to over $2 billion. The round was led by investors Kennivik, Lowercarbon Capital, and Refactor Capital.

Houston health tech company wins funding from national organization

CorInnova has won a prestigious award. Photo via corinnova.com

Houston-based CorInnova was named one of five awardees from the National Capital Consortium for Pediatric Device Innovation's “Make Your Medical Device Pitch for Kids!” competition. Each honoree received a share of $150,000 in grant funding from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The awards ranged from $20,000 to $50,000 to support the advancement of pediatric medical devices.

CorInnova has designed a minimally invasive biventricular non-blood contacting cardiac assist device to treat heart failure.

The 2022 competition was moderated by California-based MedTech Innovator. The other four pediatric device innovation awardees included:

  • Innovation Lab, from La Palma, California, created a mechanical elbow brace stabilizes tremors for pediatric ataxic cerebral palsy to improve the performance of Activities of Daily Living.
  • Prapela, based in Biddeford, Maine, created the first innovation to improve the treatment of apnea of prematurity in over twenty years.
  • Tympanogen, from Richmond, Virginia, replaces surgical eardrum repair with a nonsurgical clinic procedure
  • Xpan, based in Concord, Ontario, has created a universal trocar enables safest and most dynamic access and effortless upsizing in conventional/mini/robotic procedures.

"We are delighted to recognize these five innovations with critical NCC-PDI funding that will support their journey to commercialization. Improving pediatric healthcare is not possible without forward-thinking companies that seek to address the most dire unmet needs in children’s health,” says Kolaleh Eskandanian, vice president and chief innovation officer at Children’s National Hospital and principal investigator of NCC-PDI, in a news release. "We know all too well how challenging it is to bring pediatric medical devices to market, which is why we have created this rich ecosystem to identify promising medical device technologies and incentivize investment. We congratulate this year’s winning innovators and applaud their efforts to help bridge these important care gaps that are impacting children.”

Houston real estate tech scores funding from Amazon entity

DOSS is a real estate tech company. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based DOSS, which was chosen this summer for the inaugural Black Founders Build with Alexa cohort, has received funding from the Amazon Alexa Fund. The startups in the program were selected based on their ability to innovate with Alexa and build the next generation of voice, artificial intelligence, and ambient experiences technology.

DOSS is a digital brokerage that uses tech to make homeownership more affordable, and the company has developed a technology where customers are able to ask for real-estate advice and tips, search for home listings, get neighborhood information, and recent sales data, according to a news release from the company. They will also eventually be able to request to be connected with home service providers that serve their respective area.

CEO Bobby Bryant and COO Chris Norton founded DOSS in 2016. Last year, the company participated in the Google for Startups Black Founders program, receiving $100,000 from the fund.

TMC Innovation's Biodesign program applications open

Applications are open through the end of the year. Photo via tmc.edu

Applications are now open for the 2023 TMCi Biodesign program at the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Factory. TMC is looking for candidates with relevant backgrounds for starting a digital health or medical device company, such as: engineering, medicine, hospital administration, R&D (prototyping), software development, finance, legal, regulatory, reimbursement, or technical. Candidates must have at least 1 to 2 years of industry work experience or have prior startup history. It is preferred that applicants have earned an advanced degree.

The position is an in-person, full-time requirement that will begin August 2023 and will span nine months with an opportunity to extend for up to two months.

Applications close on December 31. Candidates will undergo a series of interviews in January and then will be extended offers in the spring.

HX Venture Fund calls for startups to meet visiting VC

Calling all Houston tech startups. Image via Screenshot

HX Venture Fund, a fund-of-funds that encourages and enables non Houston-based VCs to tap into the local innovation ecosystem, is hosting Creighton Hicks, partner at Austin-based LiveOak Venture Partners, later this month.

The organization is looking for Houston startups that are building a tech or tech-enabled services company raising a seed to series B round now or in the next six months. Startups have until November 18 to submit their interest via an online form.

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

Austin VC has its eyes on Houston with new $210M fund

money moves

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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Greentown Houston announces plans for wet lab, calls for feedback from members

seeing green

Greentown Houston has announced it's building a new wet lab facility — but first, they need some help from the community.

Greentown Labs, which is dual located at their headquarters in Somerville, Massachusetts, and in the Ion District in Houston, has announced that they are building out a wet lab in their Midtown space.

"We have heard from several startups as well as corporate partners in the ecosystem that are looking for wet lab space," says Lara Cottingham, vice president of strategy, policy, and climate impact at Greentown Labs. "Greentown has experience running wet labs from our location in Somerville. We're excited to be able to offer wet lab space to climatetech startups as an additional amenity to the Ion District.

Although Greentown's Boston-area location has wet lab space, Cottingham says the organization is not interested in copying and pasting that same facility. Greentown wants to provide the tools that the Houston ecosystem needs, and that requires getting feedback from its current and potential members.

"We want to announce to the community that this is something we're going to build — but we still need a lot of feedback and input from startups so we can learn what exactly they need or want to see from the wet lab," Cottingham tells InnovationMap. "No two wet labs are the same."

Right now, there aren't any details available about timeline or specifics of the new facility. Greentown is prioritizing getting feedback from its members and having conversations with potential sponsors and corporate partners.

"Corporate partners are a big part of the ecosystem and the community at Greentown. They can be so many things to our startups — mentors, customers, investors," Cottingham says. "And in this space, they can help us sponsor and financially support the wet lab. We're still fundraising — we have some partners that have committed to funding, but we're still looking for more funding."

In addition to monetary contribution, Cottingham says they are looking for other options as well, from partnerships with equipment providers, hazardous materials management, and more.

Startups that need wet lab space are encouraged to fill out the online form, which will be open through the summer, and potential corporate partners can express their interest online as well.

Greentown Houston opened its doors in 2021 and has since grown to house more than 75 energy and climatetech startups, as well as several accelerators, thanks to support from dozens of corporate partners.

Recently acquired Houston hospitality tech company continues to expand following fresh funding

tech growth

Houston-based HungerRush, which is a point-of-sale system that includes payment-processing, digital ordering, customer engagement, and delivery management, continues to spread its impact to businesses big and small.

A New York private equity firm, Corsair Capital, saw the potential for the cloud-based POS software and purchased a majority stake in HungerRush last summer. In 2022, HungerRush was on target to reach $100 million in recurring revenue according to The Deal.

HungerRush aims to serve an industry that according to the tech company, 80 percent think technology is the way to go to assist restaurants with labor shortages and other barriers. HungerRush acquired artificial intelligence text ordering app OrderAI, ordering and marketing company 9Fold LLC and Menufy.com over the past two years to grow its reach.

In the first quarter, the company introduced a comprehensive all-in-one POS system bundle designed to meet the needs of independent operators (IOs), with the overall goal of providing a tech stack to transform the experiences of both restaurant staff and customers. Their partnership with Menufy, which helps IOs drive both growth and profitability through an online website and mobile app ordering experience and currently serves over 15,000 restaurants across the US market, has helped to deliver the transformed IO experience to pizza restaurants and our offerings have quickly expanded to serve Vietnamese and Mexican restaurants as well.

One of the businesses seeing the benefits of platforms like HungerRush is Little Pop’s Pizzeria, which is a Naperville, Illinois-based pizza spot that uses the HungerRush to communicate to help the small business keep up with the large demands of the Chicagoland suburbs.The app’s help has led to substantial business growth.

“Thanks to having 5,000 loyalty program customers stored in HungerRush, we were able to quickly communicate the new curbside pickup and no contact delivery options,” says HungerRush user Mike Nelson of Little Pop’s Pizzeria. “Getting the word out through email and Facebook has increased our business by 75 percent.”

HungerRush continues to flourish in a crowded marketspace, which Chief Revenue Officer Olivier Thierry attributes to the platform’s accessibility to the audience and variety of features.

“While speaking to small business restaurant owners, we continued to hear the unique challenges they faced around having to navigate multiple delivery app interfaces, labor scheduling solutions, and other tools – resulting in many ending the month under their goal quotas, “ Thierry says. “Our tech tools arm our IOs to be able to manage omnichannel ordering, inventory, loyalty programs, and labor scheduling - but most importantly, support them where they need it the most to be successful in today’s digital world.”

Expert: Houston has potential to be a major hub for life sciences — if it addresses these concerns

guest column

Once upon a time in Houston, a promising startup, let’s call it BioMatrix, set out to revolutionize the world of biomaterials. Their groundbreaking product held immense potential, but the company faced the harsh reality of a lack of funding, resources, and talent in their local life sciences sector.

As they watched well-funded competitors in established hubs like Boston and Silicon Valley flourish, the passionate team at BioMatrix persevered, determined to overcome these challenges, and make their mark in the rapidly evolving world of MedTech and life sciences. But would they ultimately move to a richer life science hub?

Over the years, Houston has emerged as a life sciences hub, fueled by the world's largest medical center, Texas Medical Center, and an expanding network of research institutions, startups, and investors. However, despite all its potential, the city still lags other innovation hubs and isn’t included in many of the lists for top life science ecosystems. The challenges are many-fold, but some primary challenges are associated with lack of capital, trouble with talent acquisition, and weak collaboration.

Despite an uptick in venture capital funding, Houston's life sciences sector still trails the likes of Silicon Valley and Boston. Programs like CPRIT help keep companies within Texas, while Houston's unique advantages, such as lower living costs and the TMC's presence, can attract investments, but ultimately, to secure necessary capital, stakeholders must cultivate relationships with investors, government agencies, and other funding sources to infuse more money into the Houston ecosystem. And, when individuals try to do this, the rest of the ecosystem must be supportive.

Talent retention and attraction pose another challenge, as Houston competes with well-funded life science hubs offering abundant research institutions and funding opportunities. While Houston boasts numerous educational institutions producing skilled life sciences graduates, many curricula primarily prepare students for academic rather than industry careers, creating a skills and knowledge gap.

Having a lot of experience in academia doesn’t often translate well into the industry, as is demonstrated by many startup founders who struggle to understand the various stakeholder requirements in bringing a life science product to market.

To bridge this, educational institutions should incorporate more industry-oriented courses and training programs, like Rice University’s GMI Program, that emphasize practical skills and real-world applications. Collaborating with local companies for internships, co-op placements, and hands-on experiences can expose students to industry practices and foster valuable connections.

For any life science company, navigating the intricate regulatory landscape is also a challenge, as missteps can be disastrous. However, it’s even more of a challenge when you lack the fundamentals knowledge of what is required and the skills to effectively engage with industry experts in the space.

To address this, Houston must provide more opportunities for companies to learn about regulatory complexities from experts. Workshops, accelerators, or dedicated graduate and undergraduate courses focusing on regulatory compliance and best practices can facilitate knowledge and experience exchange between regulatory experts and innovators.

The initial inception of M1 MedTech was the result of a personal experience with a company who didn’t understand the fundamentals for regulatory interactions and didn’t know how to appropriately engage with consultants, resulting in time and money wasted.

Enhancing collaboration among Houston's life science stakeholders — including academia, research institutions, healthcare providers, subject matter experts, innovators, and investors — is fundamental for growth. A robust and lively professional network can stimulate innovation and help emerging companies access essential resources.

To this end, Houston should organize more industry-specific events, workshops, and conferences, connecting key life science players and showcasing the city's commitment to innovation. These events can also offer networking opportunities with industry leaders, attracting and retaining top talent. We’ve seen some of this with the Texas Life Science Forum and now with the Ion's events, but we could afford to host a lot more.

Houston's life sciences sector holds immense growth potential, but addressing funding, talent recruitment, regulatory navigation, and collaboration challenges is needed for continued success. By tackling these issues and leveraging its unique strengths, Houston can establish itself as a significant player in the global life sciences arenas. If we wait too long, we won’t be able to truly establish the Third Coast because another player will come into the mix, and we’ll lose companies like BioMatrix to their golden shores.

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Isabella Schmitt is the director of regulatory affairs at Proxima Clinical Research and principal at M1 MedTech.