This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Kelly Pracht of nVenue, Aimee Gardner of SurgWise, and Kelly Avant of Mercury. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from sports tech to venture capital — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Kelly Pracht, CEO and co-founder of nVenue

nVenue's proprietary predictive analytics appear at the bottom right corner of the screen on Apple TV broadcasts. Photo via nvenue.com

Next time you're watching an Astros game on Apple TV, check the bottom right-hand side of the screen. That prediction data comes by way of a Texas startup with deep Houston roots. nVenue, co-founded by Houstonian Kelly Pracht, struck a deal earlier this year that allowed her data-driven sports analytics platform on the screens of baseball viewers this season.

"In under two weeks we structured the deal, convinced them it worked, pulled together every bit of testing we could — by then we only had one week of pre-season games to test — and we pulled it off," Pracht says.

The technology has a lot of potential when it comes to microbetting — a part of sports fandom that's growing by the second. Click here to read more.

Aimee Gardner, CEO and president of SurgWise

SurgeWise is giving surgical teams the right support for hiring. Photo via SurgWise.com

Hiring surgeons is a whole thing — tons of paperwork, inequitable and archaic processes, and lots of medical practitioners' time wasted. Five years ago, Aimee Gardner came up with a solution and founded SurgWise Consulting, where she serves as president and CEO.

"We help provide assessments to help screen competencies and attributes that people care about," Gardner says. "(Those) are really hard to assess, but really differentiate people who really thrive in training in their careers and people who don't."

Now, Gardner is tapping into the last five years of data she's accumulated and has big plans for developing a tech platform for her solution. Click here to read more.

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Mercury Fund

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant's resume might not make sense to you at first. She went from a gender studies major in undergrad, followed by a stint in the Peace Corps, before heading to law school. After moving on to get her MBA over her JD, Avant realized a way she could really make the biggest impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A. Click here to read more.


nVenue's proprietary predictive analytics appear at the bottom right corner of the screen on Apple TV broadcasts. Photo via nvenue.com

This Houston-born sports tech is changing the game when it comes to fan-accessible data

by the numbers

Using technology to solve big problems has always been Kelly Pracht's career, but she never thought she'd be able use her skills for the sports world she's a lifelong fan of.

After spending nearly 20 years at HP Inc. in various leadership roles and across technology, Pract was watching a baseball game when something clicked for her. Baseball — and its endless data points and metrics — wasn't serving up analytics that the fans cared about. Teams and leagues had their own metic priorities, but fans just want to engage with the game, their team, and the players.

"I saw a gap in how we handle the data coming from the field and how that can impact the fan — and nobody was getting it right," Pracht, co-founder and CEO of nVenue, tells InnovationMap. "I saw technologists coming up with the most nonsensical solutions. For fans like me, coming from my crazy sports family from West Texas where my dad was a coach, I knew that these solutions were a huge miss."

She gives the example of a wearable technology for the viewer at home that can feel what it feels like for the players on the field who get hit. Pracht says it seems like companies were trying to fit technology into the sport, rather than thinking of what the fans really wanted.

She had the idea for a data-driven fan tool in 2017 and nVenue was born. She started building out the code and the team started testing it out at Astros games at Minute Maid.

"What great years to develop this platform. It was fun — these were not boring baseball games," Pracht says. The Astros have won their division four out of the past five years, including winning the World Series in 2017.

Kelly Pracht is the CEO and co-founder of nVenue. Photo courtesy of nVenue

At first, nVenue was using historical data, and that in itself was impressive. But then, Pracht and her team decided to take it live. After building its proprietary analytics platform, nVenue could use data to make predictions in real time.

"We spent over a year — all of 2019 — mastering timing and putting it into a platform," Pracht says, explaining how they built out the artificial intelligence and designed an app for fans to interface with. "We wanted to be able to predict and play. We had over 180 people during the 2019 World Series and playoffs."

The app and algorithm were good — and nVenue expanded into football. Then, the pandemic hit and sports halted completely. Pracht says they pivoted to a B2B model but wasn't seeing any real opportunities for the platform — until the 2021 Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech Accelerator.

"In kind of a last-ditch effort, we applied to the NBC Comcast accelerator somewhere around August or September of 2020," Pracht says, explaining that she wasn't seeing a sustainable business so it was get into the program or close up shop. "And we got in. They just resonated with everything we said — we found our people."

The accelerator gave nVenue the jumpstart it needed, and as sports returned, the company found its momentum again. Now, the company is headquartered in Dallas with 14 employees all over and three — including Pracht — in Houston. The company has raised its $3.5 million seed round co-led by KB Partners and Corazon Capital and plans to raise a Series A next year.

After a few broadcasts last season, opportunity came knocking by way of Apple TV and Houston-based TV Graphics. The companies collaborated on a deal and, two weeks before the 2022 season started, nVenue got the greenlight to have onscreen analytics on Apple TV broadcasts.

"In under two weeks we structured the deal, convinced them it worked, pulled together every bit of testing we could — by then we only had one week of pre-season games to test — and we pulled it off," Pracht says.

The technology has tons of potential when it comes to sports betting, which is a growing business across the country. Pracht says nVenue isn't looking to compete with the providers on the scene, but instead work with them as an analytics tool.

"We broke down the market down to microbets or in-the-moment bets that are going to happen annually by 2025 — it's 156 billion microbets a year, which turns out to be 3 billion a week," Pracht says.

She adds that new technologies in the streaming world – like no-delay, latency streaming — is only going to make the sports betting world more lucrative, and nVenue will be right there to ride that wave.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Rice research on bond and stock market differences, earnings variations

houston voices

At the end of every quarter, publicly traded companies announce their profits and losses in an earnings report. These updates provide insight into a company’s performance and, in theory, give investors and shareholders clarity on whether to buy, sell or hold. If earnings are good, the stock price may soar. If they’re down, the price might plunge.

However, the implications for the stock price may not be immediately clear to all investors. In the face of this uncertainty, sellers will ask for high prices, and buyers will offer low ones, creating a significant “bid-ask spread.” When this happens, it becomes more costly to trade, and the stock becomes less liquid.

This is a well-documented effect on equity stock markets. However, according to research by Stefan Huber (Rice Business), Chongho Kim (Seoul National University) and Edward M. Watts (Yale SOM), the corporate bond market responds differently to earnings news. This is because bond markets differ from stock markets in a significant way.

Stocks v. Bonds: What Happens When Earnings Are Announced?

Equities are usually traded on centralized exchanges (e.g., New York Stock Exchange). The exchange automatically queues up buyers and sellers according to the quote they’ve entered. Trades are executed electronically, and the parties involved are typically anonymous. A prospective buyer might purchase Microsoft shares from someone drawing down their 401(k) — or they could be buying from Bill Gates himself.

Corporate bond markets work differently. They are “over-the-counter” (OTC) markets, meaning a buyer or seller needs to find a counterparty to trade with. This involves getting quotes from and negotiating with potential counterparties. This is an inherent friction in bond trading that results in much higher costs of trading in the form of wider bid-ask spreads.

Here’s what Huber and his colleagues learned from the research: Earnings announcements prompt many investors to trade. And on OTC markets, potential buyers and sellers become easier to find and negotiate with.

A Stronger Bargaining Position for Bonds

According to Huber, “When earnings information comes out, a lot of people want to trade. In bond markets, that makes it much easier to find someone to trade with. The more options you have to trade, the stronger your bargaining position becomes, and the lower your trading costs go.”

He compares the process to shopping in a market with a flexible approach to pricing.

“Let's say you're at a farmers market and you want to buy an apple,” Huber says. “If there is only one seller, you buy the apple from that person. They can ask for whatever price they want. But if there are multiple sellers, you can ask around, and there is potential to get a better price. The price you get depends on the number of options you have in trading partners.”

What’s at Stake?

Although bonds receive less attention than equities, the stakes are high. There is about $10 trillion in outstanding corporate debt in the U.S., and more than $34 billion in average daily trading volume.

A detailed record of bond trades is available from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), which requires that trades be reported via their Trade Reporting and Compliance Engine (TRACE).

The study from Huber and co-authors uses an enhanced version of TRACE to examine trades executed between 2002 and 2020. The team analyzed the thirty-day periods before and after earnings announcements to gather data about volume, bid-ask spreads and other measures of liquidity.

They find that, like on the stock market, there are more investors and broker-dealers trading bonds around earnings announcements. However, unlike on the stock market, transaction costs for bonds decrease by 6 to 7 percent in the form of bid-ask spreads.

What Sets This Research Apart?

“Taking a purely information asymmetry-based view would predict that what happens to stock liquidity would also happen to bonds,” Huber says. “A piece of information drops, and some people are better able to work with it, so others price protect, and bid-ask spreads and the cost of trading go up.”

“But if you consider the search and bargaining frictions in bond markets, you get a more nuanced picture. While information asymmetry increases, like it does on stock markets, the information prompts more investors into bond trading, which makes it easier to find counterparties and get better transaction prices. Consequently, bid-ask spreads go down. This search and bargaining friction does not really exist on equities exchanges. But we cannot ignore it in OTC markets.”

As corporate debt markets continue to grow in importance, it will become crucial for investors and regulators to understand the nuanced factors influencing their liquidity. This study provides a solid foundation for future research.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. For more, see “Earnings News and Over-the-Counter Markets.” Journal of Accounting Research 62.2 (2024): 701-35.

Houston e-commerce unicorn secures $130M in financing

scaling up

Houston-based Cart.com, which operates a multichannel commerce platform, has secured $105 million in debt refinancing from investment manager BlackRock.

The debt refinancing follows a recent $25 million series C extension round, bringing Cart.com’s series C total to $85 million. The scaleup’s valuation now stands at $1.2 billion, making it one of the few $1 billion-plus “unicorns” in the Houston area.

“Scaleup” refers to a startup that has achieved tremendous growth and has maintained a stable workforce, among other positive milestones. Airbnb, Peloton, and Uber are prime examples of businesses that evolved from startup to scaleup.

Cart.com says the new term loan facility from BlackRock consolidates its venture debt into one package “at competitive terms.” Those terms weren’t disclosed.

The company says the refinancing will enable it to expand into new markets and improve its technology, including its Constellation OMS order management system.

“Cart.com is one of the fastest-growing providers of commerce and logistics solutions today, and I’m excited to partner with BlackRock as we continue to aggressively invest to help our customers operate more efficiently,” Omair Tariq, the company’s founder and CEO, says in a news release.

Through a network of 14 fulfillment centers, Cart.com supports over 6,000 customers and 75 million orders per year.

"BlackRock is pleased to support Cart.com as it advances its mission to unify digital and physical commerce infrastructure," says Keon Reed, a director at BlackRock. “This latest facility underscores our confidence in the company’s differentiated product offerings and financial strategy as it enters its next stage of growth.”

Elon Musk says he's moving SpaceX, X headquarters from California to Texas

cha-cha-changes

Billionaire Elon Musk says he's moving the headquarters of SpaceX and social media company X to Texas from California.

Musk posted on X Tuesday that he plans on moving SpaceX from Hawthorne, California, to the company's rocket launch site dubbed Starbase in Texas. X will move to Austin from San Francisco.

He called a new law signed Monday by California Gov. Gavin Newsom that bars school districts from requiring staff to notify parents of their child’s gender identification change the “final straw.”

“I did make it clear to Governor Newsom about a year ago that laws of this nature would force families and companies to leave California to protect their children,” Musk wrote.

Tesla, where Musk is CEO, moved its corporate headquarters to Austin from Palo Alto, California in 2021.

Musk has also said that he has moved his residence from California to Texas, where there is no state personal income tax.

SpaceX builds and launches its massive Starship rockets from the southern tip of Texas at Boca Chica Beach, near the Mexican border at a site called Starbase. The company’s smaller Falcon 9 rockets take off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Southern California.

It’s just below South Padre Island, and about 20 miles from Brownsville.