"There's something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it." Photo via Getty Images

Houston's seen a growth in startup and venture investment — even amid the pandemic — and a group of Houston innovators sat down for a virtual event to discuss what's lead to this evolution.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted an installment of its Houston Industry Series focused on Digital Tech on Thursday, September 24. The panel of experts, moderated by Krisha Tracy of Google Cloud, discussed how they've observed the paradigm shift that's occurred in Houston over the past few years — and why.

Missed the discussion? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual event.

“I think there really is an interest for venture capital here, both locally and also welcoming it from outside of Houston. … There’s something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it. I think that magical piece is a renewed interest in collaborating.”

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of Houston Angel Network and co-founder of The Artemis Fund. "I think a lot [of this progress] is due to the GHP, Houston Exponential, and the founding of the HX Venture Fund to bring those venture funds to Houston to say, 'what's happening here?'" Campbell adds, saying that this connectivity and collaboration that's happening in Houston VC is unique.

“I think there’s a misconception around all we do is oil and gas and life science in Houston, but when you think about what VC-backable companies look like, they’re tech, they’re B2B SaaS, they’re highly scalable, and they don’t tend to be capital-intensive types of things we see corporate venture backing.”

Campbell says, adding "the connectivity and the interest in VC is really taking off. It's an exciting time to be in Houston and Texas in general."

“Plug and Play’s ventures team is based in Silicon Valley and one thing they enjoy about meeting Houston-based founders is valuations tend to be more reasonable than in the Bay Area."

Payal Patel, director of Plug and Play Tech Center in Houston. "There are gems to be found," she adds.

“I don’t know what it is — if it’s something in the water or just Texans being very friendly, but the investors here share deal flow. It takes a village, and I think we all understand a rising tide lifts all boats."

Patel says on the collaborative nature of Houston. "It's really magical."

“What you’re witnessing is a city that has been waiting for industrial innovation to reach the point where it can be adopted at a really high scale, and that happened around 2017.”

Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge Texas in Houston. Nordby adds that MassChallenge in Houston hasn't been keen on consumer tech, or the "grilled cheese delivery apps," as he describes. "We like companies that are in love with problems, not so much in love with solutions. … We build really meaningful tech."

“Over the last year or two, we’ve seen that sleeping giant get awoken. Open and external innovation is newly adopted by more legacy industries where it wasn’t before — and that’s just created a mountain of opportunities for startups and investors alike.”

Nordby says on the shift toward this meaningful, problem-solving technology, which Houston is full of, as he observes.

Plug and Play, an international accelerator and investment group with a presence in Houston, joined a panel to discuss startup investment, networking, and more during the pandemic. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

Overheard: International startup accelerator shares advice for Houston companies navigating COVID-19 era

Eavesdropping online

It's no secret that the spread of COVID-19 has greatly affected startup ecosystems by shutting down coworking and accelerator spaces and providing economic uncertainty in the venture capital world. However, organizations focused on investment and acceleration are still working to virtually guide startups virtually.

Plug and Play Tech Center, an accelerator and investment group based in Silicon Valley that recently launched its Houston presence, is still offering support and even investments to startups as the pandemic continues on. One way they've recently done so is through Houston Exponential on a virtual panel to answer questions from Houston entrepreneurs.

On the panel, Neda Amidi, partner and global head of health at Plug and Play Tech Center, Milad Malek, associate at Plug and Play Ventures, and Payal Patel, director at Plug and Play Houston, discussed concerns and questions about the organization's dedication to Houston, advice amid the pandemic, and more. If you missed it or don't have time to stream the whole conversation, here are some impactful moments of the chat.

“Timing and opportunity set up the Plug and Play Houston office. The mayor and other business leaders in Houston had seen what happens in our Silicon Valley office and with all the things that are going on in the burgeoning startup community in Houston, we saw the opportunity.”

— Patel says on how Houston snagged its very own Plug and Play location. "Given the high concentration of large companies here — as well as the growing number of investment opportunities — we moved quite quickly to open the office here," she adds.

“There’s a number of great entrepreneurs here in this city. I think a missing ingredient has been the number of early stage investments — especially in that Seed or series A stage. So, we hope to make an impact in that. Our CEO has publicly stated that he’d like to make five investments in Houston a year.”

— Patel shares about Plug and Play's investment strategy in Houston. She adds that five investments in Houston a year is the bare minimum, and they actually are striving for more.

“[Investing virtually is] kind of the same process, but we definitely try to make sure we have cameras on and distractions are away, really giving that entrepreneur that same experience as we can in a face-to-face meeting."

— Amidi says on how Plug and Play's investment team approaches investment meetings and pitches during this time. She explains that during the beginning of the pandemic, most of their investments were with companies that had existing relationships with or follow on deals. Now they have made investments in companies they've never met in person. She says Plug and Play has relied on its network to give feedback on these potential deals.

“During COVID, we’ve recommended to a lot of our portfolio companies to raise more than what they needed at the time to be able to power through what’s happening now and what will happen on the economy side as well."

— Amidi says about investment advice they've given to Plug and Play startups.

“A lot of hardware companies get too intense in terms of thinking about one avenue of fundraising. Spend a lot more time thinking about fundraising strategy.”

Malek says on fundraising for hardware startups specifically. He adds that there are other options for generating cash flow, like grants. "Don't forget the business side of things" he adds. "I know early on, a lot of founders are focused on the technology and prototyping, but it's important as well to think about a compelling narrative for potential investors — even if you're pre-revenue."

"For SaaS, it’s important to have a unique differentiation. There are a lot of copy cats in this realm. It’s ok to be doing something that has competitors — every startup has competitors."

— Malek says about software-as-a-service startups pitching to investors. "It's a red flag when we're talking to a startup — especially one with a SaaS product — that says we don't have competitors," he adds, saying it's usually not true.

“A lot of investors out there prefer teams with multiple founders and not just one founder. It never hurts, at least in an investor’s eyes, to have two or three founders.”

— Malek explains, responding to a question about how to begin the process of bringing another co-founder on board. Investors, he says, value a team with diverse backgrounds and expertise.

“Take your time — it’s kind of like picking a spouse or partner. You want to make sure you’re compatible.”

Amidi adds, saying it's an exceptionally difficult process nowadays. She recommends reaching out to your network for leads on a potential co-founder or even looking into sites like AngelList or LinkedIn.

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Houstonian designs new experiences to encourage innovation in students

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 154

As director of social innovation at Teach For America Houston, it's Sarah Essama's job to come up with new ways for the organization to support both students and teachers. But, as she explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast this week, Essama realized a huge lesson modern students needed was to learn this innovation process themselves.

Part of being an educator is to prepare students for tomorrow, Essama explains, but with rapid technology development and adaption, no one knows what the future will hold for the job market or the world in general. The best way to prepare the future generation of the workforce is to teach them how to innovate, think differently, and adapt to new ways of doing things.

"That's what people are looking for right now — people who can provide out-of-the-box solutions to problems," Essama says on the show.

This line of thinking turned into Essama founding The Dream Lab, powered by Teach for America Houston.

"The Dream Lab is a set of immersive design spaces where young people leverage their imagination and creativity to innovate and solve problems within their community," she explains.

Last month, the new concept rolled out to high school students in partnership with DivInc Houston, a nonprofit focused on social and economic equity in entrepreneurship, and 21 ninth graders spent the day at the Ion for a mini-innovation accelerator and design showcase.

Strategically, Essama tapped into the Houston innovation ecosystem with the intent of showcasing the community.

"Innovation to me is being able to create something that has never been seen or done before — and that has a very important purpose," she says. "Exposing ourselves to innovation and people who think this way — and learning from them —is key to be able to be competitive tomorrow."

Essama says this program is still in the development phase. She's been testing out the concept with fourth graders and now ninth graders. She hopes the full program will be up and running by next fall.

She shares more details about the grant and the future of The Dream Lab on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Houston-based virtual reality startup raises $3.2M in first outside capital round

fresh funding

HTX Labs, a Houston-based company that designs extended reality training for military and business purposes, announced last week that it has raised its first outside capital.

The company has received a $3.2 million investment from Cypress Growth Capital. Founded in 2017, HTX Labs — developer of the EMPACT Immersive Learning Platform — has been granted funding from the Department of Defense as well as grown its client base of commercial Enterprises. The platform uses virtual and extended reality that "enables organizations to rapidly create, deploy, measure, and sustain cost-effective, secure, and centralized immersive training programs, all within engaging, fully interactive virtual environments," per a news release.

“We have been looking to secure outside capital to accelerate the growth of our EMPACT platform and customer base but we hadn’t found the right partner who provided an investment vehicle that matched our needs,“ says HTX Labs CEO Scott Schneider in the release. “We found everything we were looking for in Cypress Growth Capital. They have a non-dilutive funding model that aligns with our capital expectations and have the level of experience that really makes this smart money.

"Cypress has a decade-long track record of success in helping emerging software and services companies achieve scale," he continues. "It is clear that the team’s collective entrepreneurial and operating experience will be of tremendous benefit to us as we focus on expanding our customer base in a very intentional way.”

The fresh funding will go toward growing and scaling the company's operations — both within the current Department of Defense and expansion opportunities into key commercial markets, like heavy industry, manufacturing, and higher education. Additionally, the funding will support increased customer adoption.

“Scott and his team have built an exceptional business that is poised for dramatic growth,” says Cypress Partner Pat McCaffrey in the release. “HTX Labs’ modern, immersive training solution provides clients with a force multiplier for modernizing training and an unmatched ROI.”

Houston's biggest benefactors gift massive $50M to pivotal Rice University institute

big money

Houston’s most generous couple has once again gifted a massive sum to a local institution. Rich and Nancy Kinder’s Kinder Foundation has donated $50 million to Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, the organization announced.

The Kinder's generous grant will assist the institute’s focus on what it dubs “inclusive prosperity” — that is, “ensuring that everyone can contribute to Houston's success and share in its opportunities.”

This new grant follows the approximately $30 million he Kinder Foundation previously gifted Rice’s Kinder Institute and its affiliates to facilitate its headquarters.

“Over the past decade, the Kinder Institute has played an integral role in shaping Houston,” said Rich Kinder, chairman of the Kinder Foundation. “However, we can do more to inform and more directly address the challenges our communities face, particularly in the areas of housing, education, economic mobility, health and population research.”

To that end, the Kinders’ funds will ensure the institute can assist its partners regardless of their ability to pay for research. Funds will also help the institute respond to community research needs quickly during times of crisis — such as a catastrophic storm or pandemic — when funds aren’t readily available.

Kinder Institute director Ruth López Turley calls the grant “a gift to all of Houston,” speaking to the institute’s work to improve lives through data, research, engagement and action.

“Inclusive prosperity doesn’t just happen spontaneously,” she noted in a statement. “It requires an explicit effort informed by research. Lots of organizations are working hard to make things better, but most of them have very limited research capacity, and that’s what the Kinder Institute is primed to do.”

Founded in 2010, the institute has evolved into a leader in research, data, and policy analysis of critical issues such as housing, transportation, and education. The institute also releases the familiar Kinder Houston Area Survey, which charts significant changes in the way area residents perceive and understand Houston’s ongoing challenges and opportunities.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.