Most venture capital rejection is because of one or more of these three reasons. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

One of the most common questions that pops up in startup circles is, "Why did they turn me down?" There are myriad reasons why a venture capitalist might turn down pitches and decline funding. Here, I'll present the three most common.

They don't understand your business

Einstein once said, "If you cannot explain it to a six-year old, you don't understand it yourself."

If you spend an entire presentation showing well-researched facts and figures, talking about how groundbreaking your idea is, and presenting detailed charts and graphs, but your audience still has no idea what you do, you're in trouble.

Moreover, avoid overusing jargon and esoteric terms in your pitch. Speak simply.

If you cannot explain in simple terms what your startup does and why it's marketable, potential investors have no reason to believe you will know what you're doing with their money. To sum up, they'll think you don't understand your own business.

They don't think you've done the legwork

Some venture capitalists invest in early stage startups, so it's totally normal for them to sit through pitches where a product has not even been built yet. Consequently, the problem comes when it becomes evident the startup founder has failed to do any legwork. As a result, investors are likely to feel insecure about giving their money to someone who couldn't even do simple research.

Sure, the product hasn't been built, but that is not an excuse to sit back on cruise control. In other words, don't take your foot off the gas. Move forward constantly and don't stop learning more about your industry.

What have you done for customer development? Customer discovery? How many potential customers have you talked to? How much would they pay for your product or service? Have you studied the competitive dynamics of the market for which you will enter? Who is your competition and what are their strengths and weaknesses? You get the picture.

Certainly, one big misstep among startup founders is that they tend to believe work should not be done until they attain funding. Wrong. During your struggle to attain money, you should be busy learning everything about your industry, market, and customers. That way, once you finally get that meeting with an investor, they will feel much more confident that you will use their money intelligently.

They don't see that you have a strategy

It's an unfortunate commonality that a startup founder will put together a great pitch, get deep into it in front of a venture capitalist, and then unravel the entire presentation by exposing themselves as not having a plan of attack for the market. To clarify, it is a huge waste of your time to undo all your hard work by showing you don't have a strategy. Remember, investors are looking for reasons to pass on you.

When asked about their strategy for reaching the market, a common refrain is, "we will provide this awesome service (or make this awesome product) and the customers will roll right in." Or even "we will partner with this corporate giant who will sell our product because it's that amazing."

Above all, you must show your potential investor that you have the wherewithal to create, polish, and scale a reliable process that reaches your customer base.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

From pitching to value proposition, here's what you should be thinking about to make your company stand out. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Here's what makes a startup stand out, according to University of Houston research

Houston voices

During your pitch, investors will be looking to see what your startup's value proposition is. What can you offer that your competitors cannot?

Imagine if you will, your startup develops a watch that can detect when you're about to have a heart attack, and automatically sends an alert with your location to 911.

You've perfected the design and engineering intricacies of the device. It's ready to go out and save lives, and make you tons of money in the process.

Now imagine you can't get this product off the ground because your pitches keep falling flat. Investors don't have confidence in you as an entrepreneur, even if your product is amazing. Remember, you can have an awesome product, but you won't reap any rewards if that awesomeness cannot be expressed to financial gatekeepers.

That's where the art of the pitch matters. Pitching to a venture capitalist might be the most vital part of your startup's success. This is where you express how important your product is or how in demand your services are. This is where you convince investors your product (and you) is worth investing in.

Next, you'll have to determine your company's value proposition, which is the heart of your competitive advantage. This tells venture capitalists why they should invest in your company and not others.

Investors are putting their money and reputation on the line for your company. Their leap of faith has to be as educated as possible. If you can educate them very thoroughly why your startup is different, why it stands out from the rest, investors will feel much more comfortable with their decision to reject other bids in favor of yours.

You don't only need to convince them to choose your company, you also need to convince them that rejecting the other companies won't come back to bite them in the rear. Nobody likes to live with regret, least of all people who put themselves in a position to lose millions of their dollars on a bad decision. The best way to reaffirm an investor's faith in your company is to provide a product or service that is fairly new to the market. New products mean less saturation and higher demand, especially if the product solves a problem or provides a unique function.

There are plenty of toasters on the market, but what about wireless toasters? Outdoors-people everywhere would surely line up to buy that. You're providing a product of real value to a certain sect of people. Your competitive advantage is that your toaster is wireless and portable. That would be your company's value proposition to your investor.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Words are hard. Here's how to pick the best ones to use to better communicate your science-based startup's mission. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

How to engage potential clients or investors for your science-based startup or technology

Houston voices

So you're a researcher. Communicating science to a non-scientific audience scares the chemistry out of you.

You've spent your entire career studying fungiform papillae density. The mere thought of fungiform papillae density gives you a rush that even love cannot provide. You know everything about fungiform papillae density. One day you have an interview with a reporter. You're preparing to present at a conference for shareholders. You're writing a grant application. Or you're just at the family cookout and your crazy Uncle Joe with the glass eye wants to know what you do for work.

It's time.

This is the moment where you have to reach deep within yourself to scrape every bit of communications skill in your body. It's time to do what has challenged even the most brilliant scientific minds for ages: explain your work simply.

Yes, there is difficulty in simplicity. The irony is as rich as it is tragic.

Thankfully, there is hope. There are plenty of things you can do to ensure your message is communicated effectively to your non-scientific audience.

Communicating science with better word choices

The old '80s band Missing Persons once sang, "What are words for, when no one listens anymore?"

If what you're saying is not engaging, direct, or simple to understand, your listener will stop listening. The same thing is true for writing.

The words you use matter. They determine whether or not your audience will lock on to what you're trying to convey. Use language that is clear and simple and registers your message.

Personal pronouns like I, you, we help connect readers with the writer and his or her message. Such pronouns present your writing as more of a conversation. People tend to invest more in a conversation than a research paper. Conversations are natural and everyone understands them because everyone is experienced with them. The same cannot be said for research papers about, say, the role of lactic acid production by probiotic Lactobacillus species.

Let's look at the pronouns in action. In the first sentence, you'll see an unnecessarily long, bombastic, impersonal message. In the second, you'll find a more personable, inviting message:

Investigators with supplemental queries or interest in funding opportunities should contact the program.

Contact us if you are interested in funding opportunities.

Words are choice

Your word choices are vital in helping your readers digest your material. Choosing the appropriate words in communicating science stories can not only capture your readers' attention, but keep it.

Use positive words over negative ones. Negative words like don't or not can confuse readers.

Consider this sentence: "The machine doesn't run if you don't follow these instructions exactly as they are written."

It's confusing, isn't it?

Let's rework it with positive words: "The machine will run better if you follow these instructions exactly."

Now there's a sentence that inspires hope.

Inclusive language also helps everyone feel engaged. Stay away from male only pronouns like he and his. Unless you're writing a research paper specifically about men, it's always better to use inclusive language so that non-male readers can follow along and become invested in what you're communicating.

Simple sentences

Using direct, efficiently constructed sentences well get your point across most effectively. According to the search engine optimization platform Yoast, you should keep your sentences under 20 words. Keeping it short with no more than two punctuation points in the body of the sentence will help the reader understand your message. It lets them breathe. It's not overwhelming when it's short.

Make sure to keep your sentences simple, too. Make sure you only cover one idea in every sentence. Keep each paragraph centered on one theme only. Introducing more than one idea or theme will dilute the focus a reader has, because he or she has to divide their attention to give to more things.

Cut the fat. You don't need intensifiers like very, really, actually, or carefully in communicating science stories. They don't really have a purpose. If something is hot and you want to emphasize that point, don't describe it as "really hot." Instead, say that it's "dangerously hot." Say that people have been hospitalized from touching this hot thing. Now you're really saying something.

Verbs with a vengence

Summon the absolute power of verbs.

"Frankie broke the guitar" is a much more vivid portrayal of what happened than "The guitar was broken by Frankie."

Passive voice is often used in a not-so-creative way to hide wrongdoing.

"The money was taken."

Who took the money? The reader might conclude that the writer is hiding something.

"The store manager took the money."

Now you're telling us something we can use. Arrest the store manager.

What you just witnessed is the difference between passive voice (the former) and the active voice (the latter).

It's undeniable that the choices you make with your words and sentences can either connect or kill your audience's interest. They can make the process of communicating science easier or put the brakes on.

Making your technical paper a casual conversation without compromising the integrity of your research helps the lay audience follow along. Using active voice over passive voice helps your readers maintain interest because you're showing a sense of action where someone is doing something. Using universal pronouns expands your reach because everyone can feel they can invest in your writing. Hope is not lost. You can communicate even the most arcane material to the least scientific audiences.

"It is easy for us to forget the power of words. We use them the way an engineer uses a slide rule or a surgeon uses a scalpel." – Jonathan Capehart, Pulitzer Prize winner, The Washington Post.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Keep an eye out for these warning signs when looking for funding. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

5 investor red flags to look out for, according to this University of Houston expert

Houston Voices

Venture capitalists give you plenty of reason to be on the look out for investor red flags.

In The Parable of the Scorpion and the Frog, the frog entrusts the scorpion not to sting it while it helps the scorpion cross a lake. The scorpion promises not to sting the frog, reasoning that both would drown. The scorpion stung the frog anyway. As a result, both drowned. The moral of the story is that a scorpion, like any animal, is true to its nature.

Think of venture capitalists as scorpions. They are constantly trying to undermine established terms in order to either avoid a financial downside, or collect on the financial upside, even at a startup's expense. As a result, they will not think twice about screwing you over.

Venture capitalists have a clear institutional objective: if your company is successful, they collect as much money as they can based on the agreed upon terms. On the other hand, if your company falls flat on its rear, venture capitalists will look to avoid losing money. At all costs. Even if it means bending the terms of your agreement and hurting your company further.

Here are the top five red flags to look out for from a venture capitalist.

Bad terms

Firstly, there are many times when a bad investor will strong-arm a company founder into a tough deal. If the investor even hints that there will be no room for negotiation, that's a definite red flag. You have a right to negotiate certain terms and request flexibility. The best investors will want to work with you because it's unlikely they'll want a sour relationship with their investment. If your investor seems to say "no" a lot to you, how much do they really care about your company's growth?

Unpredictable behavior

Any investor that exhibits unexpected behavior is sure to give you tons of headaches down the road. Imagine after agreeing to terms, your new investor decides he or she do not want to be on your company's board all of the sudden. Either because they don't have the time or just don't want the responsibility. Instead, they would hire an executive from another company to represent their interest on your company's board. Why didn't they tell you this beforehand? Now you'll have to adjust to this sudden change of heart. Consequently, your company will have to adjust, too.

Strict monogamy

Okay, so your relationship with your investor is not a romantic one. That's exactly why it should be okay to work with other investors. If your venture capitalist tries to discourage you from doing that, it shows a glaring insecurity. Multiple investors means more money for your company. Any investor that tries to keep you from working with other investors probably does not have your startup's best interest in mind.

Rotating door of CEOs

If an investor has a history of firing founders or CEOs too fast, it could show that they do not have the patience required to allow a startup to grow. Moreover, bad investors will overreact to a missed milestone (like under-performing for a quarter) and fire a CEO. So, seek an investor that has a reputation of working with founders, even through those bumps in the road.

Dominating discussions

Lastly, any potential investor that completely dominates a discussion does not leave room for other ideas and different perspectives to be brought to the table. Your company meetings should brainstorming sessions and strategic conversations where everyone has input.

Therefore, any one-sided discussion about company operations is sure to leave a bad taste in everyone else's mouths. In short, if your discussions with a potential investor are one-way streets where they are talking way more than they are listening, what do you think board meetings will be like with them at the helm?

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Tech startups are leaving Silicon Valley in droves — and some are finding benefits in heading back to school. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Siliconned: Leaving Silicon Valley for universities

Houston Voices

Silicon Valley has been a tech startup paradise for decades. It has been described as the modern day Florence in the Renaissance. Tech gods from Apple and Google to Facebook and Twitter were born here. We can credit Silicon Valley as the birthplace for such world-changing innovations like smartphones, microprocessor chips, Tesla automation, and WIFI-enabled teapots.

Okay, so maybe that last one isn't changing the world, but it was created in the Valley and it's changed my life, for whatever that's worth. If Silicon Valley were a country, it would have the 19th-biggest economy on the planet. There's no doubt it is an engineer's dream. A techie's haven. A capitalist's utopia. A beacon of the modern world.

Or at least, it used to be.

Now leaving the Bay Area

There is an exodus in Silicon Valley. It's been happening for about three years. For instance, according to a 2018 poll conducted by the Bay Area Council, 46 percent of survey takers admit they plan to leave the Bay Area in the next year. Couple that with the fact that Silicon Valley investors have allocated 66 percent of their funds into startups outside of Silicon Valley, compared with 50 percent just six years ago, and you have a recipe for a great exodus to other markets around the country.

Now, just for kicks, add to all of this that the Kauffman Foundation's research has pegged Miami-Fort Lauderdale as the number one city in America for startup activity. Where does Silicon Valley's Bay Area, formerly the world's preeminent hub for tech startups, rank? Fourteenth. How the mighty have fallen.

So, to what exactly can this mass egress be attributed?

Insufficient funds

The biggest reason is cost.

The cost of living in the Bay Area is one of the steepest on the planet. Startups in the Valley pay four times what they would in any other city in the country. In fact, just last year the California Association of Realtors reported that a typical family in San Francisco has to make over $300,000 a year in order to afford a median-priced house tagged at just over a million dollars. That includes a 20 percent down payment and an $8,000 monthly payment. Because most of the startups in Silicon Valley are in their infancies, the engineers, programmers, and non-technical employees don't get compensated enough to afford such a living. As a result, they are leaving the Bay Area in droves for places where the cost of living is manageable.

One location that tech startup entrepreneurs are flocking to is the university. Universities are also retaining tech wunderkinds on campus to blossom their startups, rather than seeing them leave for the microprocessor motherland known as Silicon Valley.

Now entering university life

One of the biggest reasons universities have become hotbeds for tech startups is that campuses provide a means for people with multidisciplinary backgrounds to intermingle within the same space. A chemical engineering student with a great idea might meet an MBA during a startup launch party. Together they can build and market the second iteration of "Secret Stuff" from Space Jam, or whatever that student has in mind.

The point is that universities position aspiring entrepreneurs to network with the right people for building their company from the ground up. Even the Innovation Leadership Forum attests that innovation is born when different ways of thinking clash. That is precisely what happens on campuses every day.

Furthermore, college students also have more room to take risks. Most aspiring entrepreneurs in college between 18 and 25 are not married, do not have kids, mortgages, or any other major financial responsibilities. This allows them to have the luxury of leeway when it comes to experimenting and trial and error.

The ecosystem of innovation

In essence, academic incubators are courting tech entrepreneurs because universities offer an ecosystem designed to support and grow startups from conception to commercialization. This ecosystem includes a space where researchers, faculty, and students of all disciplines interact and form working relationships. In many cases, it also includes university owned equipment and laboratories for use by startup researchers.

There is, of course, incentive for universities to concentrate so many resources to building incubators and luring startup entrepreneurs. There is an inherent sense of responsibility that universities have to create an academic climate that encourages students to explore new ideas. A sense of responsibility that encourages them to take more risks; to be fearless in their quest to use their intellect to enrich lives; to dream.

Moreover, university incubators also position schools as progressive institutions. Such positioning attracts elite researchers and enhances a university's reputation. Further, these incubators forge a bridge that links industry and academia in a way that Silicon Valley does not. That's because with academic incubators, startups are a stone's throw away from a place teeming with researchers, scientists, hungry students, and aspiring entrepreneurs: the university campus.

Consequently, it is no wonder that tech startups are leaving Silicon Valley for universities. It's also no surprise that students who have graduated are staying with their university's incubators to develop their companies. There, they have a place that cultivates innovation, encourages risk-taking, and is set up specifically to help them bring their tech to the world. In short, the university has become a hub set up to be conducive to thriving tech startups. And tech entrepreneurs have noticed.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

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Houston Methodist executive to lead the hospital into the future of health care

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 11

It may come as no surprise to anyone who's met Roberta Schwartz that she's a self starter. Schwartz, who is the executive vice president and chief innovation officer for Houston Methodist, was among the group that organized to create what is now the Center for Innovation within the hospital system.

But one of her earlier moments of innovation leadership came when she was diagnosed with cancer at a young age. She co-founded the Young Survival Coalition to help connect young breast cancer patients like herself.

"I was 27 when I was unexpectedly diagnosed with breast cancer — I have no family history, no cancer in the family. It certainly was a shock to my system," Schwartz says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Once I was diagnosed, and through some of the original surgery and care I had to do, I knew that I wanted to reach out and find a larger community of young women."

Now, in her role at Houston Methodist, Schwartz hopes to help cultivate new avenues of innovation within health care — from wearable technology and virtual reality to a human resources chatbot and a patient messaging platform.

Schwartz discusses these new technologies — as well as a new tech hub the hospital system is working on to demonstrate the future of health care — in the episode. Stream the episode below and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.


Houstonians have access to ordering liquor at their fingertips — thanks to a new Texas law

There's an app for that

It's about to be a lot easier to order your favorite handle of booze straight to your door, thanks to new legislation. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission just began accepting applications for permits enabling services like Favor and Instacart to bring alcohol to your home.

In June, Governor Greg Abbott signed legislation that widens the door for liquor delivery across the Lone Star State. Any third-party company seeking to launch the service can now obtain a so-called consumer delivery permit from TABC. Chris Porter, a TABC spokesman, tells CultureMap that the first permits should be issued during the third week of December — just in time for Christmas Day and New Year's Eve parties.

In a December 5 news release, TABC executive director Bentley Nettles says this law is "an important step forward for Texas consumers, as well as alcohol retailers. For years, Texans across the state have relied on third-party services to deliver everything from clothing to vehicles. Now, at long last, alcohol can be delivered as well."

Before enactment of the law, certain businesses like liquor stores could distribute beer, wine, and liquor in Texas to homes and businesses. But through this year's legislative update, third-party companies now will be permitted to pick up beer, wine, and liquor from a state-licensed retailer such as a bar, restaurant, or liquor store and then take it to customers — either as solo purchases or along with food orders.

"We primarily see this as appealing to third-party delivery services," Porter says. "There are laws on the books which became effective in September that allow restaurants with the proper permit to deliver alcohol along with food on their own. Of course, if these businesses opt instead to contract that delivery to a third party, then the third party would need the new consumer delivery permit."

The new law mandates that drivers and booze buyers be at least 21 years old, which is the legal age for alcohol consumption in Texas.

Among the businesses and organizations that backed the legislation are San Antonio grocery chain H-E-B, which owns the Austin-based Favor delivery app; Instacart; the Houston-based Landry's restaurant conglomerate; e-commerce giant Amazon; TechNet; the Texas Restaurant Association; Beer Alliance of Texas; Wholesale Beer Distributors of Texas; and the California-based Wine Institute.

"This law will allow more businesses to take advantage of on-demand delivery apps that enable them to reach more customers, while ensuring deliveries of alcohol are carried out safely and responsibly," David Edmonson, TechNet's executive director for Texas and the Southeast, said in a June news release.

The Texas Restaurant Association applauds the law as a way for restaurants to better compete in the on-demand economy.

"With customers increasingly craving convenience, and hotels, grocery stores, and package stores already permitted to allow alcohol to be taken or delivered off the premises, this legislation [levels] the playing field for restaurants," the association says in a statement.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Photos: Rice Alliance reveals new office space

new digs

Rice University's entrepreneurship-driving entity has a new, updated office on campus. The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship cut the ribbon on its 3,000-square-foot Bill and Stephanie Sick Suite just in time for the holidays.

The space was made possible by a $1 million donation from its namesake couple, Rice engineering alumnus William "Bill" Sick and his wife, Stephanie. Bill Sick was among the first supporters and mentors to the program when it was formed in 2000.

"[Bill is] passionate about building entrepreneurship at Rice University and passionate about the importance of entrepreneurship in driving innovation and economic development in this country," Brad Burke, managing director at the alliance, says. "Bill has watched Rice's program go from an unranked program to the No. 1 entrepreneurship program in the country and felt the Rice Alliance needed a larger, more appropriate space commensurate with the Rice Alliance's impact on Rice and on the Houston community."

Burke says the Rice Alliance's new home — located in McNair Hall, which houses the Jones Graduate School of Business — will be better accommodating for the number of industry professionals that come onto the Rice campus for events, programming, mentorship, and more.

"The Rice Alliance meets frequently with venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, students, mentors, and other members of the Houston entrepreneurial ecosystem," Burke says. "The new space is on the first floor of the Jones School and is much more accessible and visible to our guests and visitors."

The Bill and Stephanie Sick Suite has doubled the Alliance's space and has allowed the organization to co-locate with another innovation-focus entity on campus. The Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, or LILIE, will have an office in the space, better connecting the two organizations that have worked hand-in-hand for a number of years.

Some visual elements of the space include bright green walls, which sets the Rice Alliance apart from the school with an energetic feel. The space also features a number of Houston art, including:

  • A three-paneled piece by local Houston artist DUAL, which was commissioned by Rice Alliance for the 2019 Rice Business Plan Competition.
  • A neon sign, designed and created by Houston artist Tim Walker of The Neon Gallery adorns the entrance wall.
  • In a way to honor Houston's history, mosaic tile flooring from the Blue Tile Project is also featured in the space.

Gensler designed the space and b. bell builders was the general contractor. Quynhmai Nguyen, Rice Alliance's senior director of operations and event planning, worked with Gensler and made the final detailed design decisions.

Energetic new space

The new space, which premiered with a holiday party last week, features a neon sign, designed and created by Houston artist Tim Walker of The Neon Gallery.