The Cannon has announced plans to acquire Houston-based crowdfunding startup LetsLaunch. Courtesy of Quy Tran/The Cannon

The Cannon, a Houston startup development organization with a network of coworking hubs, has announced its plans to acquire a Houston fintech startup.

LetsLaunch, an online investment platform that allows for smaller investments from non-accredited investors, has been connected with The Cannon in the past, and the two entities have even had a partnership arrangement. Now, The Cannon has plans to acquire LetsLaunch in order to provide Cannon member companies with the fundraising option.

"The Cannon and LetsLaunch have a shared vision for enabling and optimizing the innovation ecosystem," says Jon Lambert, CEO of The Cannon, in a news release. "LetsLaunch has passionately developed a technology platform that will deliver significant value to the entrepreneurial community by bringing together start-ups and investors of all kinds. By integrating the LetsLaunch platform into The Cannon's digital offerings, we will enhance the fundraising and strategic connection value we offer to our innovation community."

Lambert says the opportunity to provide The Cannon's members this opportunity to fundraise comes at an important time.

"Fundraising in the COVID-19/Post COVID-19 era is, and is likely to remain, a bit of an unknown," he continues in the release. "Adding another viable funding channel for the startups in our community who are ready for investment will be a valued benefit for our members and will provide us exposure to a whole new group of entrepreneurial investors."

The terms of the deal haven't been disclosed, but it is expected to close in June 2020. The transaction remains subject to customary closing conditions and approvals.

"We built LetsLaunch to provide broad segments of the population with a mechanism to invest in startups, while giving startups another source of capital," says Nick Carnrite, who co-founded LetsLaunch in 2018, in the release. "Crowdfunding will always remain at LetsLaunch's core, but it also became clear we had a role to play in connecting the innovation community, including startups, investors, advisors, mentors and service providers, based on their location, interests and preferences."

According to the release, the acquisition falls in line with both companies' missions to help develop an ecosystem of resources for startups.

"[LetsLaunch's] vision is completely complementary to The Cannon's goal to develop a tightly integrated innovation ecosystem," adds Brian Coyle, co-founder of LetsLaunch. "There is no better time to work together to help support private businesses."

Houston-based Sensorfield was selected to participate in a Chevron Technology Ventures program. Courtesy of Sensorfield

Houston biotech company closes $120M Series B, Chevron taps local startup for program, and more innovation news

Short stories

Big things are happening in Houston — from a $120 million close to the U.S. Department of Energy picking a Houston-area company for nuclear energy research. Here are the highlights of Houston innovation news you might have missed.

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Houston immunotherapy company raises $120 million in funding

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AlloVir, a Houston biotech company founded at Baylor's Center for Cell and Gene Therapy, has closed a $120 million Series B round that was led by Fidelity Management and Research Company. Other contributors included Gilead Sciences, F2 Ventures, Redmile Group, Invus, EcoR1 Capital, Samsara BioCapital, and Leerink Partners Co-investment Fund, LLC.

The company is currently in clinical trials for its immunotherapy technology and also announced it is joining the ElevateBio — a Boston-based organization that combines a group of cell and gene therapy companies — portfolio.

"We are excited to now be building AlloVir as an ElevateBio portfolio company," says Ann Leen, AlloVir co-founder, CSO, and Professor of Pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, in a release. "This partnership provides AlloVir with fully integrated bench-to-bedside capabilities to accelerate the development and commercialization of our allogeneic, off-the-shelf, multi-virus specific T- cell immunotherapies."

Allovir, which until recently was known as ViraCyte, was founded in 2013.

Chevron taps Houston startup for pilot program

Photo courtesy of Sensorfield

Houston-based Sensorfield LLC, which has developed a suite of wireless sensors for industrial monitoring, has announced that it has been selected for Chevron Technology Ventures' Catalyst Program.

"Technology has finally reached the point where embedded solar-powered, plug-and-play industrial wireless sensors are possible at a low cost,'' says Sensorfield founder and CEO, Strode Pennebaker, in a release. "Our exciting new association with Chevron is a major step in our goal to bring cost-effective, high-quality intelligent remote monitoring to asset owners at any scale."

Department of Energy selects a Houston-area company for funding

Courtesy of the DOE

U.S. Department of Energy is awarding $10.6 million for nuclear technology development across three projects in three states — one is in Wadsworth, Texas, about 80 miles outside of Houston.

The company, STP Nuclear Operating Company, will receive $1.18 million in DOE funding, according to a release, to develop and implement advanced fire probabilistic risk assessment — or PRA — modeling techniques.

"These projects are important because they will help the U.S. continue to develop advanced reactors and technologies to support nuclear energy as a safe, zero-emissions baseload energy source," says Carrie Edwards, senior adviser for the Office of Nuclear Energy at the DOE, in an email.

Rice University launches executive education program in The Woodlands

Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business — in partnership with The Woodlands Area Economic Development Partnership — has created The Leadership Accelerator. It's the first time Rice has brought an open enrollment program to the area.

The program will take place from October 7 to 10 program at the former Chicago Bridge & Iron Co. office buildings in Hughes Landing (2103 Research Forest Drive). Professor Brent Smith will lead the course .

The four-day course will build upon established managers' careers and give them an opportunity to study best practices for creating a more productive organization.

Carnrite Ventures expands to Austin

Courtesy of Nick Carnrite

Houston-based The Carnrite Group's investment arm, Carnrite Ventures, has agreed to invest with Seraph Group. The partnership allows for the Houston VC group to expand its portfolio to Austin, as that's where Seraph's last fund focused on.

"Austin's venture capital funds have moved up-market to series B and C funding rounds, which has created a need for more capital in earlier stages and provides us with an opportunity," says Nick Carnrite, Managing Director of The Carnrite Group and Carnrite Ventures, in a release.

Houston scientifically-designed athleticwear startup launches men's line

Courtesy of Accel Lifestyle

Accel Lifestyle, a Houston-based athletic clothing line made with its patented anti-stink material, has launched its menswear line.

"After three years in the making, I'm beyond thrilled to announce that Accel Lifestyle Men's Collection has launched," says Megan Eddings, founder of Accel. "We are focusing on shirts (t-shirts and tanks), and we are planning to launch the women's collection late next month."

The products are made in America and all ethically sourced — even the product's shipping material, as it has zero plastic involved.

From debt and equity funds to crowdfunding and angel investment, here's what you need to know about the fundraising world from an expert who's in it. Getty Images

Houston entrepreneur gives his advice on navigating the evolving fundraising process

know before you grow

New businesses face many challenges when getting started, but perhaps none are as challenging and intimidating as how to secure the funding needed to start and grow your business.

Funding options have evolved considerably over the past several years, providing business owners with more choices than ever to fund their business. Founders should not just think about selecting one option but how to combine multiple options into a funding strategy that best suits their business needs.

Over 600,000 new businesses are started in the United States each year, and even with more fundraising options, we are increasingly seeing businesses struggle to get funded, so businesses need to be smart about putting together a funding strategy.

The traditional way to fund a business
With that piece of advice out of the way, there are two primary categories of capital: debt and equity. For your business, debt options may include personal loans, business loans, asset-based loans, revenue participation notes and factoring (where you sell your receivables at a discount in order to collect cash now).

Debt is great as it means you're not giving away equity, but, at the same time, the loan must eventually be paid back (with interest) and some businesses such as technology start-ups may not generate the cash flow needed to make this happen from day one. Loans can also be difficult to access or may require the business owner to put up a personal guarantee, although there are organizations that facilitate this such as Small Business Association. If this is the best route for your business, take the time to find the right lending organization.

Equity options include common stock and preferred stock, as well as convertible note instruments that are initially treated as debt but "convert" to equity at a future financing event. Unlike traditional equity, convertible note instruments allow you to delay establishing a valuation for your business, which can be challenging for startups. SAFE (Simple Agreement for Future Equity) and KISS (Keep It Simple Securities) Notes are emerging securities which are less frequent but are seen as more Founder friendly and are similar in some ways to convertible notes.

There are a lot of business owners that are cautious of giving away equity (and rightly so) but with the right advice on structuring securities and valuation, this can be a great source of capital, as well as knowledge and support if you find the right investors and partners.

Sources of funding for both debt and equity include friends, family, banks, angel investors, venture capital, private equity, and organizations such as the Small Business Association. The accessibility of these various options will depend on the maturity of your business, your industry and the needs of your company. Often, early-stage companies may source "seed" funding from friends, family, and angel investors, while venture capital, private equity, and debt become increasingly accessible at later stages as revenues grow.

How is funding changing?
Options for funding a business and investing have evolved considerably in recent years. Crowdsourcing, which can be defined as the process of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community, has taken the world by storm. Companies such as Uber, AirBnb, and Grubhub all leverage "the crowd" to provide a service.

Crowdsourcing has made its way to finance as well, where companies such as GoFundMe and KickStarter have provided new tools to fund charitable causes and projects. The Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (JOBS Act) of 2012 set in motion a series of regulatory changes that allowed anybody (not just high wealth individuals) to invest in private businesses and provided crowdfunding as an option to raise capital for small businesses.

Online crowdfunding portals such as LetsLaunch, SeedInvest, and WeFunder offer both debt and equity options for investors to invest in your business. Not only can this be a great way to build up a loyal customer base, test your product and get some great marketing exposure but it can also be a great way to supplement the traditional funding strategies mentioned above.

However you choose to fund your business, take the time to work through the options (both traditional and emerging) and find the right option or combination of options to meet your business needs.

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Nick Carnrite is managing director of Carnrite Group and co-founder and CEO of LetsLaunch.

LetsLaunch, a new Houston-based fundraising platform, helps companies of all sizes get funding from any type of investor. Courtesy of LetsLaunch

Houston fundraising platform launches for the next generation of investors

Future funders

Millennials are expected to exceed the Baby Boomer generation for the United States' largest living adult generation this year, and this massive population of people have a completely different approach to investing.

Nick Carnrite saw that Millennials were to a point where they had extra income, but when he looked at the statistics, he noticed they aren't buying houses for the most part and were turned off of the stock market. There was a huge amount of stranded capital, and he wanted to figure out how to get that invested into businesses.

"The younger generation isn't interested in typical investing, but they are absolutely interested in supporting their community and the businesses in it, especially if the investment lets them experience the business and come along for the ride if it works," Carnrite, who is the co-founder and CEO of LetsLaunch, says.

Houston-based LetsLaunch is a new investment platform that launched December 28, though has been in the works since January 2018. The site works, in many ways, like a crowdfunding site, only investors receive equity. Due to regulations, investment campaigns max out at around a million dollars.

In the past, entrepreneurs have had to seek out major investors through venture capitalists or large funds, since taking smaller investments is tedious and almost more trouble than its worth. However, LetsLaunch provides a platform where smaller investments are streamlined and encouraged.

"Our goal in all of this is just to take a complicated process and make it simple, the same way Turbotax takes something awful like taxes and makes it simple, we are trying to do that with investing," Carnrite says.

Investors don't have to be accredited or invest a certain amount of money — something that for so long has hindered startups' ability to raise money.

"For whatever reason, we've decided to alienate about 95 percent of Americans as far as being able to invest in private businesses," Carnrite says. "Finally, we're at the point where all of that capital that was stranded and not allowed in private companies is being funneled into that cause."

According to Carnrite and his associate, Rhian Davies, who is the company's director of business operations, the mission is to educate and simplify the investing process.

"For us, one of the things we're working on with other organizations is putting together a next-gen investor series, where we are teaching the next generation of investors how to invest and give them a platform to do it," Davies says.

Much like in a normal investment process, the companies provide a pitch deck for potential investors that outlines the business plan and scope of the company. The company simply creates an account and uses the website to develop those materials.

"We standardize that process, so from a user standpoint, everything looks fairly similar on our site and it's a pretty tried and true template," Carnrite says.

While LetsLaunch does its due diligence making sure the business is legitimate and makes sure the pitch deck is sufficient, the investors take it from there.

Since ease of access to funds is the top priority for LetsLaunch, the investment platform has a much lower fee for companies. While some crowdfunding platforms take 10 to 12 percent, LetsLaunch's fee is around 3 percent.

"We really want it to be simple and affordable to businesses and for investors as well," Davies says. "We maintain a much lower fee than other crowdfunding sites."

LetsLaunch will continue to fine tune its existing features on the site, while also adding more tools for businesses, including an iOS mobile app, which Carnirite says will be ready this year. In addition to fundraising tools, Carnrite wants to help their businesses after the campaigns with software that streamlines investor relations and reminds business owners of important deadlines.

"We want to evolve into a website that not only helps you raise capital for a company, but that also helps you run that company after your raise, Carnrite says."

While Houston is home base for the company, the team expects to expand to other markets where fundraising is hard, like Denver, Atlanta, Dallas, and more. Strategic partnerships are another opportunity for LetsLaunch, and the company expects to finalize some of those moving forward.

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Looking back: Top 5 most-read Houston research-focused stories of 2021

2022 in review

Editor's note: As 2022 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. In many cases, innovative startups originate from meticulous research deep within institutions. This past year, InnovationMap featured stories on these research institutions — from their breakthrough innovations to funding fueling it all. Here are five Houston research-focused articles that stood out to readers this year — be sure to click through to read the full story.


Texas nonprofit cancer research funder doles out millions to health professionals moving to Houston

These cancer research professionals just got fresh funding from a statewide organization. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Thanks in part to multimillion-dollar grants from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, two top-flight cancer researchers are taking key positions at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. Pavan Reddy and Dr. Michael Taylor each recently received a grant of $6 million from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Reddy is leaving his position as chief of hematology-oncology and deputy director at the University of Michigan’s Rogel Cancer Center to become director of the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L. Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. C. Kent Osborne stepped down as the center’s director in 2020; Dr. Helen Heslop has been the interim director. Continue reading.

Rice University deploys grant funding to 9 innovative Houston research projects

Nine research projects at Rice University have been granted $25,000 to advance their innovative solutions. Photo courtesy of Rice

Over a dozen Houston researchers wrapped up 2021 with the news of fresh funding thanks to an initiative and investment fund from Rice University.

The Technology Development Fund is a part of the university’s Creative Ventures initiative, which has awarded more than $4 million in grants since its inception in 2016. Rice's Office of Technology Transfer orchestrated the $25,000 grants across nine projects. Submissions were accepted through October and the winners were announced a few weeks ago. Continue reading.

Houston researchers create unprecedented solar energy technology that improves on efficiency

Two researchers out of the University of Houston have ideated a way to efficiently harvest carbon-free energy 24 hours a day. Photo via Getty Images

Two Houstonians have developed a new system of harvesting solar energy more efficiently.

Bo Zhao, the Kalsi Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston, along with his doctoral student Sina Jafari Ghalekohneh, have created a technology that theoretically allows solar energy to be harvested to the thermodynamic limit, which is the absolute maximum rate sunlight can be converted into electricity, as reported in a September article for Physical Review Applied.

Traditional solar thermophotovoltaics (STPVs), or the engines used to extract electrical power from thermal radiation, run at an efficiency limit of 85.4 percent, according to a statement from UH. Zhao and Ghalekohneh's system was able to reach a rate of 93.3 percent, also known as the Landsberg Limit. Continue reading.

Texas A&M receives $10M to create cybersecurity research program

Texas A&M University has announced a new cybersecurity-focused initiative. Photo via tamu.edu

Texas A&M University has launched an institute for research and education regarding cybersecurity.

The Texas A&M Global Cyber Research Institute is a collaboration between the university and a Texas A&M University System engineering research agency, the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station. The research agency and Texas A&M are also home to the Texas A&M Cybersecurity Center.

The institute is funded by $10 million in gifts from former Texas A&M student Ray Rothrock, a venture capitalist and cybersecurity expert, and other donors. Continue reading.

Houston research organization doles out $28M in grants to innovators across Texas

Houston-based Welch Foundation has awarded almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. Photo via Getty Images

Chemical researchers at seven institutions in the Houston area are receiving nearly $12.9 million grants from the Houston-based Welch Foundation.

In the Houston area, 43 grants are going to seven institutions:

  • Baylor College of Medicine
  • Rice University
  • Texas A&M University
  • Texas A&M University Health Science Center
  • University of Houston
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
  • University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston

The Welch Foundation is awarding almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. The money will be allocated over a three-year period. Continue reading.

University of Houston powers up first robot food server in a U.S. restaurant

order up

The University of Houston is taking a bold step — or, in this case, roll — in foodservice delivery. UH's Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership is now deploying a robot server in Eric’s Restaurant at its Hilton College.

Booting up this new service is major bragging rights for the Coogs, as UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery.

These rolling delivery bots come from the state-of-the-art food service robot called Servi. The bots, created by Bear Robotics, are armed with LiDar sensors, cameras, and trays, and automatically return to their posts when internal weight sensors detect a delivery has been completed.

Not surprisingly, these futuristic food staffers are booting up plenty of buzz at UH.

“People are excited about it,” says Dennis Reynolds, who is dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and oversees the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Launching robot waitstaff at UH as a test market makes sense, he notes, for practical use and larger implications.

The Servi robots deliver food from the kitchen to the table. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

“Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” he says in an announcement. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”

Bear Robotics, a tech company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs, hosted a Servi showcase at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year. After seeing the demo, Reynolds was hooked. UH's Servi robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October.

Before sending the bot to diners' tables, the bot was prepped by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. That meant weeks of mapping, programming, and — not surprisingly — “test driving” around the restaurant.

Tanner even created a digital map of the restaurant to teach the Servi its pathways and designated service points, such as table numbers. “Then, we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything," he adds.

But does having a robot deliver food create friction between human and automated staff? Not at Eric's. “The robot helps my workflow,” Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s says. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”

Once loaded, the kitchen staff can tell the Servi robots where to take the dishes. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Reynolds believes robots will complement their human counterparts and actually enhance the customer experience, even in unlikely settings.

“Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds says. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”

To that end, he plans to use Servi bots in other UH venues. “The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds notes. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”

Critics who denounce robot servers and suggest they will soon displace humans are missing the point, Reynolds adds. “This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds says. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”

Servi bots come at a time of dynamic growth for Hilton College. A recent rebrand to “Global Hospitality Leadership” comes as the college hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation, which includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower. The student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a larger space with plenty of updates. The neighboring Eric’s Club Center for Student Success helps with recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services, and career development.

“To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” Reynolds adds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston innovator on seeing a greener future on built environment

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 162

An architect by trade, Anas Al Kassas says he was used to solving problems in his line of work. Each project architects take on requires building designers to be innovative and creative. A few years ago, Kassas took his problem-solving background into the entrepreneurship world to scale a process that allows for retrofitting window facades for energy efficiency.

“If you look at buildings today, they are the largest energy-consuming sector — more than industrial and more than transportation,” Kassas, founder and CEO of INOVUES, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “They account for up to 40 percent of energy consumption and carbon emissions.”

To meet their climate goals, companies within the built environment are making moves to transition to electric systems. This has to be done with energy efficiency in mind, otherwise it will result in grid instability.

"Energy efficiency goes hand in hand with energy transition," he explains.

Kassas says that he first had the idea for his company when he was living in Boston. He chose to start the business in Houston, attracted to the city by its central location, affordable labor market, and manufacturing opportunities here.

Last year, INOVUES raised its first round of funding — a $2.75 million seed round — to scale up the team and identify the best markets to target customers. Kassas says he was looking for regions with rising energy rates and sizable incentives for companies making energy efficient changes.

"We were able to now implement our technology in over 4 million square feet of building space — from Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, and very soon in Canada," he says.

Notably missing from that list is any Texas cities. Kassas says that he believes Houston is a great city for startups and he has his operations and manufacturing is based here, but he's not yet seen the right opportunity and adaption

"Unfortunately most of our customers are not in Texas," "A lot of work can be done here to incentivize building owners. There are a lot of existing buildings and construction happening here, but there has to be more incentives."

Kassas shares more about his growth over the past year, as well as what he has planned for 2023 on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.