Geothermal investment is up, but health tech is down — plus more data-backed VC trend from 2024 so far. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based geothermal company Fervo Energy accounted for more than half of the venture capital raised by Houston-area startups in the first quarter of 2024.

The region’s VC haul in the first quarter totaled $462.4 million, according to the PitchBook-NCVA Venture Monitor. That’s up from $290.4 million during the same period in 2023 and from $285.8 million in the fourth quarter of last year. Click here to see the Q1 rounds as reported by InnovationMap.

Fervo’s latest funding round, announced in February, represented $244 million (52 percent) of the region’s VC total for the first quarter of 2024.

A report released in March by PitchBook indicated that VC funding last year for geothermal power reached $431 million across 21 deals. As of late February 25 — four days ahead of the Fervo announcement — $165.5 million in VC funding had been pumped into the geothermal sector this year, according to PitchBook.

“The recent VC deal activity with the geothermal power sector underscores a vibrant and evolving market, but still one that garners far less VC than other renewables,” says the report.

In all, Houston-area startups made 38 VC deals in this year’s first quarter, the PitchBook-NVCA Venture Monitor says. That’s down from 42 in the fourth quarter of 2023 and 43 in the first quarter of 2023. Nationwide, the deal count fell sharply in the first quarter of 2024 vs. the first and fourth quarters of last year.

The PitchBook-NVCA Venture Monitor report shows that nationwide, the $36.6 billion in VC investments recorded during the first quarter of 2024 “remained relatively on pace with the past year.”

“However, it would be a mistake to hyperfocus on the results of a single quarter whose results were a bit farther left on the bell curve than usual. The venture capital … business cycle effectively reset in recent years, and as of early 2024, it still appears to be searching for its level,” says the report.

“It is too early to tell where 2024 is going, but the game is on, and America’s VCs are ready for it,” the report adds. “In 2022, our world changed; in 2023, we accepted it was not changing back; and in 2024, we are building what is next.”

In a bit of good news for the Houston area, the report cites cleantech/energy as one of two sectors that venture capitalists should not overlook. The other sector: cybersecurity.

But in a bit of not-so-good news for the region, the report notes a slowdown in VC deals in the healthcare sector over the past two years in the wake of “pandemic-fueled capital exuberance.”

“Yet the healthcare sector differentiates itself from the rest of the market by demonstrating many unmet needs that could have a profound impact on society, particularly around disease diagnosis and treatment,” the report goes on to say. “On top of the immense opportunity set for disruption within healthcare, investor enthusiasm around AI adoption in drug development further speaks to the demand for better solutions in biotech through groundbreaking innovations.”

Houston was deemed a top startup city, but the Bayou City has a gap to other Texas cities that it can work on narrowing. Photo via Getty Images

Report: Houston secures spot on list of top 50 startup cities

by the numbers

A new ranking signals great promise for the growth of Houston’s startup network.

Houston ranks among the world’s top 50 startup cities on a new list from PitchBook, a provider of data and research about capital markets. In fact, Houston comes in at No. 50 in the ranking. But if you dig deeper into the data, Houston comes out on top in one key category.

The city earns a growth score of 63.8 out of 100 — the highest growth score of any U.S. city and the seventh highest growth score in the world. In the growth bucket, Houston sits between between Paris (64.4) and Washington, D.C. (61.7).

The PitchBook growth score reflects short-term, midterm, and long-term growth momentum for activity surrounding venture capital deals, exits, and fundraising for the past six years.

PitchBook’s highest growth score (86.5) goes to Hefei, a Chinese manufacturing hub for electric vehicles, solar panels, liquid crystal displays, home appliances, and Lenovo computers.

The overall ranking is based on a scoring system that relies on proprietary PitchBook data about private companies. The system’s growth and development scores are based on data related to deals, exits, fundraising and other factors.

Houston earns a development score of 34.1 out of 100, which puts it in 50th place globally in that regard. This score measures the size and maturity of a city’s startup network.

Topping the overall list is San Francisco, followed by New York City and Beijing. Elsewhere in Texas, Austin appears at No. 16 and Dallas at No. 36.

The ranking “helps founders, operators, and investors assess locations when deciding where to expand or invest,” says PitchBook.

“Network effects matter in venture capital: Investors get more than half of their deals through referrals, according to research led by Harvard professor Paul Gompers,” PitchBook goes on to say. “So it stands to reason that dealmakers should seek these networks out when deciding where to do business.”

Houston startups raised a combined $380 million in venture funding last quarter. Photo via Getty Images

Here's what Houston startups have raised in funding so far in 2024

Q1 2024 VC ACTIVITY

Seven Houston startups have started the new year strong with over $380 million in venture funding — most of which from one mega deal for a geothermal company.

According to InnovationMap reporting, Houston's VC activity in the first quarter of 2024 spanned industry and stage — from pre-seed to series E. It's a large chunk of money raised in Houston for one quarter — but not in terms of deals closed, at least compared to the previous quarter, in which startups raised over $170 million but across nine deals.

On the national side, it's not too different of a story. According to a quarterly report from PitchBook, the United State's VC activity for the start of the year "showed to be one of the slowest areas of the venture market during the quarter." Only $9.3 billion in capital was raised in the U.S. last quarter, which is only 11.3 percent of the total raised in the already slowed market of 2023.

"While dry powder remains high, slowed fundraising portends to LP hesitancy toward VC, and should predict a more difficult dealmaking environment down the road," reads an email from PitchBook. "During the past few years, large mega-funds drove fundraising trends, but Q1 VC fundraising shows there may be no appetite for such vehicles in today’s market."

These are the seven startup VC deals closed in Houston so far this year, according to reporting on InnovationMap.

Fervo Energy raises $244M in latest funding round

Fervo Energy scored a $244 million round of funding thanks to existing and new investors. Photo via Fervo Energy

An Oklahoma-based shale oil and gas leader has backed Fervo Energy's latest round of funding, supporting the startup's geothermal technology yet again.

Fervo announced its latest round of funding this week to the tune of $244 million. The round was led by Devon Energy, a company that's previously backed the startup.

“Demand for around-the-clock clean energy has never been higher, and next-generation geothermal is uniquely positioned to meet this demand,” Tim Latimer, Fervo CEO and co-founder, says in a news release. “Our technology is fully derisked, our pricing is already competitive, and our resource pipeline is vast. This investment enables Fervo to continue to position geothermal at the heart of 24/7 carbon-free energy production.” Read more about the round.

Procyrion secures $57.7M series E

Procyrion has announced the closing of its series E round of funding. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-born and bred medical device company, Procyrion, has completed its series E with a raise of $57.7 million, including the conversion of $10 million of interim financing.

Procyrion is the company behind Aortix, a pump designed to be placed in the descending thoracic aorta of heart failure patients, which has been shown to improve cardiac performance in seriously ill subjects. The money raised will allow the company to proceed with a the DRAIN-HF Study, a pivotal trial that will be used for eventual FDA approval and commercialization.

The Aortix is the brainchild of Houston cardiologist Reynolds Delgado. According to Procyrion’s CSO, Jace Heuring, Delgado, gained some of his experience with devices for the heart working with legendary Texas Heart Institute surgeon O.H. “Bud” Frazier. He filed his first patents related to the Aortix in 2005. Read more about the round.

Welligence Energy Analytics raises $41M series B

Houston-based Welligence Energy Analytics specializes in data and intelligence for the oil and gas markets, greenhouse gas emissions sector, and CCUS projects. Photo via Getty Images

A group of investors has chipped in $41 million to purchase a minority stake in Houston-based Welligence Energy Analytics, a provider of energy data and intelligence.

Boston-based venture capital firm Elephant Partners led the series B round, with participation from Veriten, a Houston-based, energy-focused research, investing, and strategy firm, and EDG, a Metairie, Louisiana-based energy consulting firm. Several executives from the energy, information services, and software sectors also contributed to the round.

Founded in 2016, Welligence specializes in data and intelligence for the oil and gas markets, greenhouse gas emissions sector, and carbon capture, storage, and utilization (CCUS) projects. Clients include major oil and gas companies, as well as large investment banks. Read more about the round.

Motif Neurotech secures nearly $19M series A

Motif Neurotech, which develops minimally invasive bioelectronics for mental health treatment, closed its series A round with an oversubscribed $18.75 million. Photo via Rice.edu

A health tech startup based out of a newly formed accelerator program at Rice University has raised venture funding.

Motif Neurotech closed its series A round with an oversubscribed $18.75 million. The company, which develops minimally invasive bioelectronics for mental health treatment, was formed out of the Rice Biotech Launch Pad that launched last fall.

The round was led by Arboretum Ventures, with participation from new investors KdT Ventures, Satori Neuro, Dolby Family Ventures, re.Mind Capital and existing investors Divergent Capital, TMC Venture Fund, PsyMed Ventures, Empath Ventures and Capital Factory. Read more about the round.

Sage Geosystems closes $17M series A 

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. Photo via sagegeosystems.com

A Houston geothermal startup has announced the close of its series A round of funding.

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. The proceeds aim to fund its first commercial geopressured geothermal system facility, which will be built in Texas in Q4 of 2024. According to the company, the facility will be the first of its kind.

The venture is joined by technology investor Arch Meredith, Helium-3 Ventures and will include support from existing investors Virya, LLC, Nabors Industries Ltd., and Ignis Energy Inc.

“The first close of our Series A funding and our commercial facility are significant milestones in our mission to make geopressured geothermal system technologies a reality,” Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems, says in a news release. “The success of our GGS technologies is not only critical to Sage Geosystems becoming post-revenue, but it is an essential step in accelerating the development of this proprietary geothermal baseload approach. Read more about the round.

Ema raises $2M round of bridge funding

Ema, which operates as a health and wellness-focused, AI-based chat for women, has raised additional funding. Screenshot courtesy of Ema

A Houston-based startup that's improving health and wellness for women with its artificial intelligence-backed platform has raised a bridge round of funding.

Ema closed its latest bridge round, bringing its total funding to nearly $2 million. The company received investment from Kubera's Venture Capital and Victorum Capital, which joined existing investors Hearst Labs, Wormhole Capital, Acumen America, and Techstars.

Ema strives to deliver "personalized, empathetic, and evidence-based support" to its users through its generative AI technology. The platform has more than 100,000 users, and has expanded into the B2B sector with $100,000 in contracts within just 30 days after pivoting to this model, according to the company. Read more about the round.

TrueLeap Inc. raises oversubscribed $610,000 pre-seed round

The edtech company offers a comprehensive approach to shrinking the digital divide with a suite of technology including software, hardware, and more. Photo courtesy of TrueLeap

An edtech startup has just secured funding to further its mission of increasing accessibility to education.

TrueLeap Inc., global digital education startup addressing the digital divide in education, has raised $610,000, which is over its target of $500,000. The round was led by United Kingdom-based Maya Investments Limited.

"This oversubscribed funding round, led by Maya Investments Limited, is a testament to the urgent need for innovative educational technologies in emerging markets. Our commitment to providing affordable and integrated solutions is stronger than ever," says Sandip Bordoloi, CEO and Co-Founder of TrueLeap, in a news release. Read more about the round.

Despite its VC growth over the past few years, Houston startups saw a setback in funding in 2023. Photo via Getty Images

Report: Houston sees significant dip in VC activity in 2023

by the numbers

The amount of venture capital pumped into Houston-area companies shriveled in 2023, dropping to its lowest level since the pandemic year of 2020.

The latest PitchBook-NVCA Venture Monitor shows Houston-area businesses collected nearly $1.5 billion in venture capital in 2023, down from more than $2.2 billion in 2022 and over $2.6 billion in 2021. The amount of venture capital fell below $1 billion in both 2019 and 2020.

Houston-based Axiom Space accounted for the biggest chunk of the region’s VC haul in 2023 — a series C round worth $350 million. According to InnovationMap reporting, other local startups leading the way last year in VC were:

Here are Houston area’s full VC numbers for the past five years, according to the PitchBook-NVCA report:

  • 2023 — $1.478 billion
  • 2022 — $2.207 billion
  • 2021 — $2.625 billion
  • 2020 — $718.94 million
  • 2019 — $950.76 million

Across the country last year, $170.6 billion was invested in private companies, says the report — down $71.6 billion from 2022 and roughly half the sum invested in 2021.

In the report, Bobby Franklin, president and CEO of NVCA, notes that while the continued drop in U.S. venture capital activity “does not lend itself to optimism, it would be a mistake to declare the market in crisis. Rather, the market has changed. From interest rates to foreign conflict, the world looks very different than it did two years ago, and a new set of problems needs to be solved for.”

Josh Pherigo at GHP used data to look into what tech specialties are thriving in Houston — and what niches have shown promising growth. Photo via LinkedIn

Greater Houston Partnership researcher identifies the city's top tech specialties

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 48

When you look at Houston's venture capital investment patterns, what do they tell you? To Josh Pherigo, research director of data analytics at the Greater Houston Partnership, it paints a picture of what tech and startup niches are thriving.

Based on PitchBook data, Pherigo put together an analysis of what industries within Houston are attracting the most investments. The study came out of the fact that Houston's hold on oil and gas is going to shift as the industry goes through the energy transition. Since O&G is such a crucial part of Houston's economy, the city will have to see a rise in new industries to remain competitive with its economy.

"The idea was to look at the innovation ecosystem and see what the technologies are that are doing well here at at attracting VC funding," Pherigo says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "And by seeing how well certain technologies are doing, we'll be able to see if these are some areas that have some natural competitive advantages in Houston's economy that we can then use to spur growth in the next few decades — and even just out of the recession we're in right now."

The report found that life science and oil and gas currently attract the most VC investments in Houston, but Pherigo found potential in a few other industries like B2B payments technology — Houston-based fintech startup, HighRadius recently raised $125 million.

The study, which also compared Houston to Austin and Dallas, found that there was a cleantech war emerging between Austin and Houston. While Houston's ecosystem has a greater presence of cleantech startups, Austin cleantech is still bringing in more VC investments. However, in Houston, between new corporate incubators and Greentown Labs entering Houston, the city is creating a lot of infrastructure for this industry.

"It's going to be interesting over the next few years to see how Houston can position itself as the leader in Texas for this, because they are going to have a lot of competition from Austin," Pherigo says.

Pherigo goes into more detail about what he found interesting in the report, and even dives into what the data shows for the future of Houston's tech specialties in the episode of the podcast. You can listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Texas venture capital deals had its first spike in volume last year since 2013. Getty Images

Report finds Houston venture capital firm has made the most Texas deals since 2010

At the top

When it comes to tracking venture capital deals coming out of Texas since 2010, a Houston fund tops the list — but just barely. Houston Angel Network edged out Austin-based Central Texas Angel Network by one deal.

The report by PitchBook counted deals from 2010 up to March 4 that were made with Texas companies. Ten VC funds were listed and, aside from HAN, Mercury Fund was the only other Houston VC. The other eight funds are located central Texas — with the exception of Right Side Capital Management, which has invested in 45 Texas companies since 2010.

"Texas is currently in a transition powered by high-tech investments that lie in contrast to the slow-paced cattle ranches spread throughout the rural areas of the country's 28th state," the report states. "Partly as a result of the relatively new tech scene, Texas was home to three of the 10 fastest-growing cities in the United States in 2018, according to Forbes."

According to the data, VC funding had been on a downward trend since 2013, when the state raked in $2.83 billion in 536 deals. However, 2018 marked a turn for the state with $3.11 billion in 461 deals — a smaller deal count compared to 2013.

Despite this VC deal growth, compared to the rest of the country, Texas ranks fourth when it comes to VC investment market share. California holds over 52 percent of the market, New York has over 10 percent, and Massachusetts has almost 10 percent itself, per PitchBook data. Meanwhile, Texas reportedly holds only 3.43 percent of the market.

PitchBook also identified the top 10 VC deals investing in Texas companies closed since the beginning of 2018 — none of which were into Houston companies. The list's top three had nine-figure investments — Austin-based Bungalo with a $250 million Series A, Dallas-based Peloton Therapeutics with a $150 million Series E, and Richardson, Texas-based Hedera Hashgraph with a $101 million Seed round.

Graph via PitchBook

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

How this Houston clean energy entrepreneur is navigating geothermal's hype to 100x business growth

houston innovators podcast Episode 237

Geothermal energy has been growing in recognition as a major player in the clean energy mix, and while many might think of it as a new climatetech solution, Tim Latimer, co-founder and CEO of Fervo Energy, knows better.

"Every overnight success is a decade in the making, and I think Fervo, fortunately — and geothermal as a whole — has become much more high profile recently as people realize that it can be a tremendous solution to the challenges that our energy sector and climate are facing," he says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

In fact, Latimer has been bullish on geothermal as a clean energy source since he quit his job as a drilling engineer in oil and gas to pursue a dual degree program — MBA and master's in earth sciences — at Stanford University. He had decided that, with the reluctance of incumbent energy companies to try new technologies, he was going to figure out how to start his own company. Through the Stanford program and Activate, a nonprofit hardtech program that funded two years of Fervo's research and development, Latimer did just that.

And the bet has more than paid off. Since officially launching in 2017, Fervo Energy has raised over $430 million — most recently collecting a $244 million series D round. Even more impressive to Latimer — his idea for drilling horizontal wells works. The company celebrated a successful pilot program last summer by achieving continuous carbon-free geothermal energy production with Project Red, a northern Nevada site made possible through a 2021 partnership with Google.

Next up for Fervo is growing and scaling at around a 100x pace. While Project Red included three wells, Project Cape, a Southwest Utah site, will include around 100 wells with significantly reduced drilling cost and an estimated 2026 delivery. Latimer says there are a dozen other projects like Project Cape that are in the works.

"It's a huge ramp up in our drilling, construction, and powerplant programs from our pilot project, but we've already had tremendous success there," Latimer says of Project Cape. "We think our technology has a really bright future."

While Latimer looks ahead to the rapid growth of Fervo Energy, he says it's all due to the foundation he put in place for the company, which has a culture built on the motto, "Build things that last."

“You’re not going to get somewhere that really changes the world by cutting corners and taking short steps. And, if you want to move the needle on something as complicated as the global energy system that has been built up over hundreds of years with trillions of dollars of capital invested in it – you’re not going to do it overnight," he says on the show. "We’re all in this for the long haul together."

Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”