A Houston investor and leader at Houston Angel Network weighs in on the importance of angel investors in growing startup communities. Photo via Getty Images

In a flourishing startup ecosystem, the roles of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, startup development organizations, policymakers, research institutions, and universities are well documented and understood. Less obvious, however, is the role of early-stage investors, aka, “angel investors.”

These unique people are often the first non-family money to invest in a young company, often while it is still refining its business model, completing its minimum viable product (MVP), or finding product-market fit. Excellent angel investors, however, provide value to the ecosystem far beyond their ability to write a check.

Most angel investors bring deep expertise within their domain. These can be 20- or 30-year industry veterans with invaluable been-there-done-that experience in a particular technology, discipline, vertical, or regulatory environment. They can share insights learned from various industry trends that have succeeded and failed, which often save startups significant time and effort. Or they may bring complementary business expertise such as legal, accounting, technology, financing, or startup strategy. Many angels have launched or worked in multiple startups themselves, which gives them an ability to quickly understand and assist with the unique challenges of early-stage business.

Additionally, good investors are aggregators of knowledge. They constantly read about the sectors in which they invest, learn the latest trends, and watch for innovations that they believe will change industries. As forward thinkers, they know how to look past buzzwords to find what is truly unique or different. They often ask the “hard questions” that cut to the heart of the matter. Wise founders learn how to listen and use this feedback to improve their company and strategy.

Many angel investors serve as mentors to startups and share their hard-won knowledge. Most start with informal or unpaid relationships either through an SDO or personal referral. If they form a meaningful connection with a particular startup, this could turn into an official role as a compensated advisor. The best of these relationships are mutually beneficial and ultimately profitable if the company has a successful exit. Similarly, angels may become advisors to venture capital funds that want to bring their insights to their portfolio companies.

Investors are natural connectors in an ecosystem. As they search for, invest in, and mentor great startups, they foster connections across the innovation community. Relationship-building is key to all business success, and a wise angel knows how to respectfully leverage connections for mutual benefit. However, be careful not to ask an investor to share connections too soon. One of the fastest turn-offs is someone who asks me to open my rolodex before earning my trust and respect.

The most obvious benefit that investors bring to the innovation ecosystem is fundingfor early-stage businesses. This infusion of capital enables young businesses to identify, create, and grow value, which is the ultimate point of innovation. I mention it last, however, because savvy entrepreneurs know the difference between “smart money” and “dumb money.” Dumb money is not a pejorative but a label for money that has no voice or utility beyond its monetary value (which makes it silent or “dumb”).

Smart money, on the other hand, brings many or all of the other attributes discussed above: knowledge, expertise, mentoring, and connections. In terms of value, smart money is worth many times more than its cash value.

As the Houston innovation ecosystem grows, we need more accredited investors with a passion for innovation to learn about angel investing and determine if it is a fit for them. Given its very high-risk profile, it certainly isn’t appropriate for everyone. However, angel investing is a powerful way that investors can help solve society’s biggest challenges and contribute to a thriving innovation community.

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Mitra Miller is the vice president and board member of Houston Angel Network.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Mitra Miller of Houston Angel Network, Richard Baraniuk of OpenStax, and Carlos Estrada of BioWell. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to three Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with an angel investment evangelist, an academic-turned-startup-founder celebrating a big win, and a leader of a brand new accelerator.

Mitra Miller, vice president and board member of the Houston Angel Network

Mitra Miller, vice president and board member of the Houston Angel Network, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share her passion for growing angel investors in Houston. Photo via LinkedIn

One of the biggest components of a well-functioning startup ecosystem is inarguably access to capital, and Mitra Miller is dedicated to enhancing education around investment and growing Houston's investor base.

As vice president and board member of the Houston Angel Network, the oldest angel network in Texas and one of the most active angel networks in the country, Miller strives to provide guidance to new and emerging angel investors as well as founders seeking to raise money from them.

"Most founders have no idea or understanding of how investors think — we are not an ATM," Miller says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We are really partners you are getting married to for the next 5, 8, 10 years — sometimes longer. We need to bring your allies in every sense of the word." Continue reading.

Richard Baraniuk, Rice University professor and founder of OpenStax

At an event at the Ion, OpenStax and Rice University announced a $90 million NSF-backed initiative. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice

An educational technology company based out of Rice University has received $90 million to create and lead a research and development hub for inclusive learning and education research. It's the largest research award in the history of the university.

OpenStax received the grant funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation for a five-year project create the R&D hub called SafeInsights. Richard Baraniuk, who founded OpenStax and is a Rice professor, will lead SafeInsights. He says he hopes the initiative will allow progress to be made for students learning in various contexts.

“Learning is complex," Baraniuk says in the release. "Research can tackle this complexity and help get the right tools into the hands of educators and students, but to do so, we need reliable information on how students learn. Just as progress in health care research sparked stunning advances in personalized medicine, we need similar precision in education to support all students, particularly those from underrepresented and low-income backgrounds.” Continue reading.

Carlos Estrada, head of venture acceleration at BioWell

Calling all biotechnology startups. Photo via LinkedIn

A Houston organization — freshly funded by a $700,000 U.S. Economic Development Administration’s “Build to Scale” grant — is seeking its first accelerator cohort of industrial biology startups.

Founded by Houston-based First Bight Ventures, the BioWell has launched a virtual accelerator program that will provide programming, networking, mentorship, and financial resources to its inaugural cohort of 10 bioindustrial startups. The selected companies will also have access to specialized pilot bioproduction infrastructure throughout the nine-month program.

“BioWell equips startups with more than just capital. We provide a foundation for breakthrough innovations by combining access to cutting-edge bioproduction facilities with expertise that nurtures scalability. This comprehensive support is crucial for transforming pioneering ideas into market-ready solutions that can address pressing global challenges,” Carlos Estrada, head of venture acceleration at BioWell, says in a news release. Continue reading.

Houston House at SXSW 2024 featured conversations about startup scaling, tips from CEOs, and more. Photo via Allie Danziger/LinkedIn

Overheard: Innovators sound off on future of work, converging industries at Houston House at SXSW 2024

Eavesdropping in Austin

Houston innovators talked big topics at SXSW 2024 — from the startup scaling and converging industries to the future of work.

Houston House, which was put on by the Greater Houston Partnership on March 11, hosted four panels full of experts from Houston. If you missed the day-long activation, here are some highlights from the experts who each commented on the future of the Bayou City when it comes to startups, technology, innovation, and the next generation's workforce.

"When we think about Houston, we think about access to at-scale infrastructure, amenities, and workforce and talent pools."

— Remington Tonar, co-founder and chief growth officer at Cart.com, says about why the company chose to return its headquarters back to Houston last year. One of these amenities, Tonar explained, is Houston's global airports.

"If New York and Austin had a baby, it would be Houston, because you have friendly people with a big-city culture."

— Mitra Miller, vice president and board member of Houston Angel Network, says, adding that Houston has a cost efficiency to it, which should be at the forefront of founders' minds when considering where to locate.

"We are not only attracting global talents, we are also attracting global wealth and foreign investments because we are the rising city of the future. We are the global launch pad where you can scale internationally very quickly."

— Sunny Zhang, founder of TrueLeap, says adding how there's a redistribution of global workforce happening when you consider ongoing global affairs.

"We overwhelmingly as a company, and my co-founder would agree, knew we had to go the Houston path. And we started funneling a lot more resources here."

— Carolyn Rodz, co-founder and CEO of Hello Alice, says, explaining that the pandemic helped equalize the talent across the country, and this has been to the benefit of cities like Houston.

"Houston is here with arms open, welcoming people and actively recruiting."

— Sean Kelly, co-founder and CEO of Amperon, says, emphasizing how Texas has made moves to being business friendly. Amperon was founded in New York, before moving to Houston a couple years ago.

"There is a revolution starting to happen in Houston right now."

— Trevor Best, co-founder and CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics, says, first commenting on the momentum from Rice University, where his company's technology originates from. But, as he adds, when you compare the ecosystem when the startup was founded in 2019 to where it's at now, "there is so much more happening."

"Houston has a critical mass in terms of aerospace."

— Stephanie Munez Murphy of Aegus Aerospace says, saying specifically that NASA's Johnson Space Center holds some responsibility for that. "JSC is the home of opening up space commercialization."

"There's diversity in industries people are coming from, but also in terms of experience and expertise that (Houstonians) have."

— Robyn Cardwell of Omniscience says, adding that Houston's diversity goes further than just where people originate from. "Houston has all these pieces put together ... for growing and scaling organizations," she adds.

"I've worked with thousands of students in Houston who are actively looking to better themselves and grow their career post college or post high school and go into the workforce."

— Allie Danziger of Ascent Funding says, adding that Gen Z, which is already entering the workforce, is entrepreneurial and ready to change the world. "Seeing the energy of Houstonians is just thrilling," she adds.

"We're working together in the Houston community. ... There are so many opportunities to collaborate but we need conveners." 

— Stacy Putman of INEOS says, adding that within industry there has been a lack of discussion and collaboration because of competition. But, as she's observing, that's changing thanks to conveners at colleges or at the Greater Houston Partnership.

"The opportunity for Houston is that everybody has to step up to be in some way, shape, or form helping us with this."

— Raj Salhotra of Momentum Education says about supporting the future workforce of Houston, including low-income household students.

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Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.