Three health and tech research projects coming out of the Houston area have received grants to continue their work. Getty Images

Money makes the world go 'round, and that's certainly the case with research projects. Grants are what drives research at academic institutions across the country and fuel the next great innovations.

These three projects coming out of Houston-area universities were all granted multimillion-dollar sums in order to continue their health tech, cancer-prevention, and even electric vehicle battery research projects,

University of Houston's $3.2 million grant for its next-generation micro CT scan

Associate professor of physics Mini Das developed a better way to approach CT scans. Photo via uh.edu

In an effort to improve imaging and lower radiation, Mini Das, associate professor of physics at the University of Houston, is moving the needle on introducing the next generation of micro computed tomography (CT) imaging. Das recently received a five-year, $3.2 million grant from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering to help move along her work in this field.

"This has the potential to transform the landscape of micro-CT imaging," says Das in a news release.

Das is responsible for developing the theory, instrumentation and algorithms for spectral phase-contrast imaging (PCI) that allows for lower radiation with higher image details, according to the release.

"Current X-ray and CT systems have inherent contrast limitations and dense tissue and cancer can often look similar. Even if you increase the radiation dose, there is a limit to what you can see. In addition, image noise becomes significant when increasing resolution to see fine details, often desirable when scanning small objects," says Das.

Rice University researcher's $2.4 million grant to advance on car batteries

This company’s machine learning programs are making driving in Houston safer — and cheaper

A Rice University scientist is looking to optimize car batteries. Pexels

A Rice University scientist is working toward improving batteries for electric vehicles. Materials scientist Ming Tang and his colleagues — backed by a $2.4 million grant from the United States Advanced Battery Consortium — are working on a project led by Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts, which will run for 36 months and will focus on low-cost and fast-charging batteries.

"Traditional battery electrodes are prepared by the slurry casting method and usually have uniform porosity throughout the electrode thickness," says Tang, an assistant professor of materials science and nanoengineering, in a news release. "However, our earlier modeling study shows that an electrode could have better rate performance by having two or more layers with different porosities.

"Now with the Missouri University of Science and Technology and WPI developing a new dry printing method for battery electrode fabrication, such layered electrodes can be manufactured relatively easily," he said. Tang's group will use modeling to optimize the structural parameters of multilayer electrodes to guide their fabrication.

The academics will also work with a manufacturer, Microvast, that will assemble large-format pouch cells using layered electrodes and evaluate the electrochemical performance against the program goals, according to the release.

"The public/private partnership is critical to steer the research performed at universities," Tang says. "It helps us understand what matters most to commercial applications and what gaps remain between what we have and what is needed by the market. It also provides valuable feedback and gives the project access to the state-of-the-art commercial battery fabrication and testing capabilities."


Texas A&M faculty member's $5 million grant for cancer research

Tanmay Lele of Texas A&M University is looking at how cells react to mechanical forces in cancer. Photo via tamu.edu

Tanmay Lele, a new faculty member in Texas A&M University's Department of Biomedical Engineering, received a $5 million Recruitment of Established Investigators grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) in May to research how cancer progresses.

More specifically, Lele's research focuses on mechanobiology and how cells sense external mechanical forces as well as how they generate mechanical forces, and how these mechanical forces impact cell function, according to a news release from A&M.

"The nuclei in normal tissue have smooth surfaces, but over time the surfaces of cancer nuclei become irregular in shape," Lele says in the release. "Now, why? Nobody really knows. We're still at the tip of the iceberg at trying to figure this problem out. But nuclear abnormalities are ubiquitous and occur in all kinds of cancers — breast, prostate and lung cancers."

Lele will work from two laboratories — one in College Station and one in the Texas A&M Health Science Center's Institute of Biosciences & Technology in Houston. THe will collaborate with Dr. Michael Mancini and Dr. Fabio Stossi from Baylor College of Medicine.

"Like any other basic field, we are trying to make discoveries with the hope that they will have long-term impacts on human health," Lele says.

Firms with real options thrive in uncertain situations because they have the flexibility to change their operations in a way that can amplify the effects of good news and dampen the effects of bad news. Photo via Getty Images

Houston researcher looks into why some companies thrive in volatile markets

houston voices

Volatile markets look a lot like high-stakes poker games. Wild swings make it hard to chart a course to profitability, inevitably forcing some firms to fold. At the same time, there are always investors and firms that come out as big winners. So is there is a secret to drawing a winning hand in bad times?

Working with colleagues Evgeny Lyandres of Boston University and Alexei Zhdanov of Pennsylvania State University, Rice Business professor Gustavo Grullon hypothesized that the secret to surviving market volatility has to do with managers' ability to adjust operations. The more flexibility managers have to change the course of their firms, the reasoning went, the greater the likelihood of surviving market volatility, and in some cases taking advantage of it.

Consider Amazon, founded in 1994 with the goal of becoming "the world's most consumer-centric company, where customers can come to find anything they want to buy online." From its start as a bookstore, the company turned into an ultra-diversified behemoth that can shrug off vast swings in the market. Despite high volatility in recent years, Amazon's stock price increased roughly 39 percent, from $1,901 to $2,641, over the past year.

Grullon and his colleagues theorized that having more real options ⁠— managerial choices about tangible assets such as inventory, machinery or buildings ⁠— boosts firm value in a whole range of volatile circumstances, whether demand-based, cost-based or profit-based. Firms that have these options ⁠— Amazon, for example ⁠— can act fast to mitigate bad news by changing operating and investment strategies. They might cut production, shutter operations or delay investments. Companies without these tools basically have to ride fate's rollercoaster.

To test their theory, the researchers compared firms with a plethora of investment opportunities to those with more modest real options. They analyzed returns data from 1963 to 2018 from The Center for Research in Security Prices and from Compustat ⁠— a database of financial, statistical and market information about active and inactive U.S. companies.

Grullon and his team found there was measurable value in having more real options. A bigger spread of real options allowed managers to change strategy as soon as new information arrived. The greater the number of real options, the greater the flexibility managers had at their disposal when the market got volatile.

Developing Amazon-type options and diversified assets, naturally, takes years of sweat, trial and a measure of luck. Companies that do best at creating such opportunities, the researchers note, tend to be highly sensitive to changes in volatility to begin with, leading to more opportunities to adapt. Overall, the team found, volatility-return relation was much stronger in industries already characterized by plenty of growth and strategic options. High-tech firms, pharmaceutical companies and biotech companies, for example, show especially strong resistance to idiosyncratic volatility.

In other words, while volatile markets can resemble high-stakes poker, there are a few predictable rules. When the chips are down, companies that are lucky enough to hold diversified assets, have varied investment options and can shuffle resources quickly will be the strongest players at the table.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. It's based on research by Gustavo Grullon, a professor of finance at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

UH has found a way to instantly zap COVID-10. Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

University of Houston designs device that instantly kills COVID-19

ZAPPING COVID-19

While the world rushes to find a COVID-19 vaccine, scientists from the University of Houston have found a way to trap and kill the virus — instantly.

The team has designed a "catch and kill" air filter that can nullify the virus responsible for COVID-19. Researchers reported that tests at the Galveston National Laboratory found 99.8 percent of the novel SARS-CoV-2 — which causes COVID-19 — was killed in a single pass through the filter.

Zhifeng Ren, director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, collaborated with Monzer Hourani, CEO of Medistar, a Houston-based medical real estate development firm, plus other researchers to design the filter, which is described in a paper published in Materials Today Physics.

Researchers were aware the virus can remain in the air for about three hours, which required a filter that could quickly remove it. The added pressure of businesses reopening created an urgency in controlling the spread of the virus in air conditioned spaces, according to UH.

Meanwhile, to scorch the virus — which can't survive above around 158 degrees Fahrenheit — researchers instilled a heated filter. By blasting the temperature to around 392 F, they were able to kill the virus almost instantly.

The filter also killed 99.9 percent of the anthrax spores, according to researchers.

A prototype was built by a local workshop and first tested at Ren's lab for the relationship between voltage/current and temperature; it then went to the Galveston lab to be tested for its ability to kill the virus. Ren says it satisfies the requirements for conventional heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

"This filter could be useful in airports and in airplanes, in office buildings, schools and cruise ships to stop the spread of COVID-19," said Ren, MD Anderson Chair Professor of Physics at UH and co-corresponding author for the paper, in a statement. "Its ability to help control the spread of the virus could be very useful for society."

Medistar executives are also proposing a desk-top model, capable of purifying the air in an office worker's immediate surroundings, Ren added.

Developers have called for a phased roll-out of the device, with a priority on "high-priority venues, where essential workers are at elevated risk of exposure — particularly schools, hospitals and health care facilities, as well as public transit environs such as airplanes."

The hope, developers add, is that the filter will protect frontline workers in essential industries and allow nonessential workers to return to public work spaces.

Houston-based imaware, which has an at-home COVID-19 testing process, is working with Texas A&M University on researching how the virus affects the human body. Getty Images

Houston health tech startup with at-home COVID-19 test teams up with Texas university for research

be aware

An ongoing medical phenomenon is determining how COVID-19 affects people differently — especially in terms of severity. A new partnership between a Houston-based digital health platform and Texas A&M University is looking into differences in individual risk factors for the virus.

Imaware, which launched its at-home coronavirus testing kit in April, is using its data and information collected from the testing process for this new study on how the virus affects patients differently.

"As patient advocates, we want to aid in the search to understand more about why some patients are more vulnerable than others to the deadly complications of COVID-19," says Jani Tuomi, co-founder of imaware, in a press release. "Our current sample collection process is an efficient way to provide longitudinal prospectively driven data for research and to our knowledge, is the only such approach that is collecting, assessing, and biobanking specimens in real time."

Imaware uses a third-party lab to conduct the tests at patients' homes following the Center for Disease Control's guidelines and protocol. During the test, the medical professional takes additional swabs for the study. The test is then conducted by Austin-based Wheel, a telemedicine group.

Should the patient receive positive COVID-19 results, they are contacted by a representative of Wheel with further instructions. They are also called by a member of a team led by Dr. Rebecca Fischer, an infectious disease expert and epidemiologist and laboratory scientist at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, to grant permission to be a part of the study.

Once a part of the study, the patient remains in contact with Fischer's team, which tracks the spread and conditions of the virus in the patient. One thing the researchers are looking for is the patients' responses to virus complications caused by an overabundance of cytokines, according to the press release. Cytokines are proteins in the body that fight viruses and infections, and, if not working properly, they can "trigger an over-exuberant inflammatory response" that can cause potentially deadly issues with lung and organ failure or worse, per the release.

"We believe strongly in supporting this research, as findings from the field can be implemented to improve clinical processes-- helping even more patients," says Wheel's executive medical director, Dr. Rafid Fadul.

The University of Houston, a Tier One research institution, has a few ongoing projects focusing on treating or preventing COVID-19. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

University of Houston researchers studying COVID-19 prevention and treatment

research roundup

Researchers across the country are focusing on all things COVID-19 — from biotherapies and treatment to vaccines and prevention. A handful of researchers based out of the University of Houston are doing their best to move the needle on a cure or reliable vaccine.

Here are three research projects currently ongoing at UH.

UH pharmacy professors take it back to basics

UH College of Pharmacy professors Gomika Udugamasooriya (left) and Bin Guo are studying how the virus enters the human body. Photo via uh.edu

When thinking about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19, two UH pharmacy professors are looking at how the virus enters the body. Then, this information can help develop protection of that entry point.

"The human entry of coronaviruses depends on first binding of the viral spike proteins to human cellular receptors that basically offer a cellular doorknob," says Gomika Udugamasooriya, associate professor of pharmacological and pharmaceutical sciences, in a press release. "The virus latches onto the specific human cellular receptor, ACE2, and sneaks inside to replicate itself within the cell to spread throughout the body."

Now, the goal of new drugs and vaccines is to protect that ACE2. Udugamasooriya is working with Bin Guo, associate professor of pharmaceutics, on this research, which is in the initial screening levels and identified drug-lead validations. They are working to apply their unique cell-screening technology to identify specific synthetic chemical drug leads called peptoids that can bind to ACE2 receptor, according to the release.

"Peptoids are easier to make, compatible with biological systems and economical to produce," says Udugamasooriya.

Duo aims to create inhalation vaccine for COVID-19

Navin Varadarajan, UH engineering professor (left), and pharmaceutics professor Xinli Liu, pharmaceutics professor, are collaborating on development and testing of a COVID-19 inhalation vaccine. Photo via uh.edu

If the disease itself is airborne, can't the vaccine be too? That's what M.D. Anderson Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Navin Varadarajan looking into.

"For airborne pathogens, the nasal mucosa is the first point of defense that needs to be breached," says Varadarajan in a news release. "Mucosal immunity and vaccines are fundamentally important for a wide range of pathogens including influenza, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) and the current SARS-CoV-2."

Varadarajan is focusing on the spike protein to protect at virus entry. These proteins are known for building strong immune responses, flexibility and scalability, and absence of infectious particles. He is working with Xinli Liu, associate professor of pharmaceutics.

"As with any vaccine, a variety of factors determine their efficacy including the antigen used for electing a response, the adjuvants and immunomodulators, the efficient delivery of the antigen to appropriate target cells, and the route of vaccination," Varadarajan says.

The man with three different vaccine options

UH Professor Shaun Zhang is in the process of developing three COVID-19 vaccine candidates for injection. Photo via uh.edu

Shaun Zhang, director for the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling, usually works on developing treatment or vaccines for cancer and viral infection. Now, he's switched gears to work on three different vaccine candidates for COVID-19.

"The data collected from our studies show that our vaccine candidates can generate neutralizing antibodies, which can protect cells from infection by SARS-CoV-2 when tested in vitro," says Zhang in a press release. "We are now working on further improvement for the vaccine design."

Zhang's approach is neutralizing antibody production, and he's tapped into using "subunit vaccine containing either the entire spike protein or the receptor binding portion, which helps the virus enter the target cell, and delivered either by DNA formulation or by a herpes simplex virus-based vector," according to the release. Low cost and simplicity are two priorities for Zhang's work.

From a lab in Rice University to a potential shelf life in stores, the innovation of food coating is just beginning. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Houston researchers find new eco-friendly way to preserve produce

preventing waste

Hunger impacts over 800 million people worldwide, leaving nearly 10 percent of the population suffering from chronic undernourishment. The distressing reality of food shortages co-exists in a world where 1.3 billion tons of food — nearly a third of what's produced — is wasted each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rice University's scientific research team's latest discovery takes a crack at ending food shortages and improving sustainability with a common kitchen necessity: eggs.

The discovery of egg-based coating is promising to researchers, as it manages to both prolong produce shelf-life by double while impacting the environment.

"We are reducing the cost, and at the same time we are reducing the waste," says Muhammad M. Rahman, a research scientist at Rice University. "One in every eight people are hungry...on the other side, 33 percent of food is wasted."

It's no secret that overflowing landfills contribute to the climate crisis, piling high with food waste each year. While the United States produces more than seven billion eggs a year, manufacturers reject 3 percent of them. The Rice University researchers estimate that more than 200 million eggs end up in U.S. landfills annually.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, half of all landfill gas is methane, a hazardous greenhouse gas that contributes to detrimental climate change. Landfills are the third-largest contributor to methane emissions in the country, riding the coattails of agriculture and the energy industry.

COVID-19 has upended supply chains across the nation, and in recent months food waste has become an even more pressing issue. The disruptions of consumer purchasing habits and the indefinite closures of theme parks and select restaurants put a burden on farmers who planned for larger harvests and restaurants unsure of how to adjust. With more Americans cooking at home, panic-buying from grocery stores is also playing a role in accumulating waste.

To understand the challenges of the food industry, it's important to acknowledge the biggest menace to the supply chain: perishability. Fruits and vegetables only last a few days once arriving in grocery stores due to culprits like dehydration, texture deterioration, respiration and microbial growth. Rice University researchers sought to create a coating that addresses each of these issues in a natural, cost-effective way.

Brown School of Engineering materials scientist, Pulickei Ajayan, and his colleagues, were looking for a protein to fight issues like food waste. Rahman, a researcher in Ajayan's lab, received his Ph.D. from Cornell University studying the structure-property relationship in green nanocomposites. He and his fellow researchers found that egg whites were a suitable protein that wouldn't alter the biological and physiological properties of fruit. The study published in Advanced Materials took one year and three months to complete.

According to Rahman, the egg-based coating is non-toxic, biodegradable and healthier than other alternatives on the market. Wax is one common method of fruit preservation that can result in adverse effects on gut cells and the body over time.

"Long-term consumption of wax is not actually good and is very bad for your health," says Dr. Rahman. After wax is consumed, gut cells fragment the preservatives in wax to ions. This process can have a negative impact on "membrane disruption, essential metabolite inhibition, energy drainage to restore homeostasis, and reductions in body-weight gain," according to the research abstract.

Preservation efforts like wax, modified atmospheric packaging and paraffin-based active coatings are not only more expensive and less healthy, but they also alter the taste and look of fruits.

"Reducing food shortages in ways that don't involve genetic modification, inedible coatings or chemical additives is important for sustainable living," Ajayan states in a press release.

The magic of preservation is all in the ingredients. Rice University's edible coating is mostly made from household items. Seventy percent of the egg coating is made from egg whites and yolk. Cellulose nanocrystals, a biopolymer from wood, are mixed with the egg to create a gas barrier and keep the produce from shriveling. To add elasticity to the brittle poly-albumen (egg), glycerol helps make the coating flexible. Finally, curcumin—an extract found in turmeric—works as an antibacterial to reduce the microbial growth and preserve the fruit's freshness.

The experiment was done by dipping strawberries, avocados, papayas and bananas in the multifunctional coating and comparing them with uncoated fruits. Observation during the decaying process showed that the coated fruits had about double the shelf-life of their non-coated counterparts.

For people with egg allergies, the coating can be removed simply by rinsing the produce in water. Rice University researchers are also beginning to test plant-based proteins for vegan consumers.

For its first iteration, Rahman finds that the coating shows "optimistic results" and "potential" for the future of food preservation.

"These are already very green materials. In the next phase, we are trying to optimize this coating and extend the samples from fruits to vegetables and eggs," says Rahman.

Researchers will also work to test a spray protein, making it easier for both commercial providers as well as consumers looking for an at-home coating option. From a lab in Rice University to a potential shelf life in stores, the innovation of food coating is just beginning.

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New Houston hub calls for collaboration for flood and hurricane prevention innovation

Houston innovators podcast episode 43

When it comes to insurance, most people's interaction is pretty limited buying a plan, filing claims when need be, and paying the monthly bill. However, unbeknownst to most of their insured clients, insurance companies are investing in insuratech and new innovations within the natural disaster space.

Richard Seline, managing director of ResilientH20, along with the Insurance Information Institute and The Cannon, to launch the Gulf Coast & Southwest Resilience Innovation Hub to foster this type of technology and bring insuratech startups and the big insurance players to the table — something that's not often done.

"It's two different languages," Seline says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There's a whole language and a whole mindset within the insurance industry that is not real well known."

The hub, which is based in downtown Houston's Cannon Tower, has been hard at work hosting virtual pitch events and networking opportunities since it launched in June just as the 2020 hurricane season commenced. Seline explains the mission is threefold: allow for reverse pitching where insurance companies tell innovators what their challenges are in hopes of inspiring new technology, introducing insuratech companies to potential investors or clients, and fostering innovation for new natural disaster prevention innovations.

On the podcast, Seline discusses new endeavors he's working on within his organization and explains the role his feels the new hub has in Houston's innovation ecosystem. To him, the city must work collaboratively to move the needle on growth of its innovation ecosystem.

"The good news is there is a lot of great activity underway in Houston right now — no questions asked," Seline says. "What we are doing can be seen as complimentary and not competitive with anyone else."

From game-changing startups to watch out for to upcoming events and partnerships for the Gulf Coast & Southwest Resilience Innovation Hub, check out the podcast. You can listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.



Houston tech companies have raised over $466M so far this year, new report finds

money moves

This year might be a wash for a lot of things, but according to a new fundraising report from Houston Exponential, the Bayou City has seen an increase in funding this year compared to 2019.

The HTX Funding Review found that Houston startups raised $466.33 million across 46 deals between January and July — compared to $437 in the same time frame last year. While the increase seems marginal, it's important to consider the effect of the pandemic and the few months of troubles for the oil and gas industry.

The 7 percent increase in funding is impressive compared to the national average of 2.5 percent, according to the report, which was organized by Serafina Lalany, HX chief of staff. Eighteen later stage deals made up for 76 percent of the total money raised, indicating key growth for the ecosystem.

"This expansion in Houston's relatively new and booming tech innovation ecosystem shows a strength and resilience that is really exciting," says Harvin Moore, president of HX, in the report. "We are seeing a maturation of our very young ecosystem, as rapidly growing tech companies increasingly access later stage venture capital, which often comes from outside the local area."

The report calls out 11 deals — ranging from angel to late stage — that have occured in Houston to date in 2020:

  • Preventice Solutions, a medical device company, raised a $137 million series B led by Palo Alto-based Vivo Capital along with support from existing investors, including Merck Global Health Innovation Fund, Boston Scientific, and the Samsung Catalyst Fund.
  • Fintech and software-as-a-service company HighRadius raised a $125 million series B led by ICONIQ Capital, with participation from existing investors Susquehanna Growth Equity and Citi Ventures.
  • Liongard, a SaaS company, raised a $17 million series B led by TDF Ventures, Integr8d Capital, and private investors.
  • Base Hologram, a provider of hologram concert experience, raised $15.4 million in an outsized angel round this past May.
  • ThoughtTrace, another SaaS company, raised $10 million in a series B led by McRock Capital and existing investors, as well as Chevron Technology Ventures.
  • Renewable energy company Quidnet also raised a $10 million series B. Bill Gates-backed Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Canada-based Evok Innovations, which both previously invested in the company, contributed to the round.
  • SmartAC.com emerged from stealth mode with a $10 million series A fundraising announcement.
  • Retina AI, an AI company focused on diagnostics for diseases such as diabetic retinopathy from pictures of the retina, raised $4.1 million in an angel round which closed mid-July.
  • E-commerce platform Goodfair raised $3.67 million from but the round was led by Imaginary, with support from MaC Venture Capital, Global Founders Capital, Willow Ventures, Watertower, Amplify.LA, Capital Factory, and Texas Ventures.
  • SecurityGate, a cybersecurity platform, raised funds from Houston Ventures in June, but wouldn't disclose how much.
  • Oil and gas software company, M1neral, raised $1.6 million pre-seed co-led by Amnis Ventures and Pheasant Energy, among a few other select investors and strategic partners.

While the pandemic has made funding and vetting new portfolio companies, Blair Garrou, managing director of Houston-based Mercury Fund, says venture capital firms are committed to backing the strongest startups already in their portfolio.

"We've seen many VCs focus on a 'flight to quality,'" Garrou says. "Specifically, VCs are focused more on making sure their best performing portfolio companies have cash, especially at the later stages, as well as investing in the later rounds of new deals that are clear over-performers during COVID."

Looking forward, the HX report predicts that fundraising growth will continue throughout the rest of the year.

"There are several very large local deals in final term sheet stage, and we expect full year 2020 to be the highest ever for venture capital in Houston; our ecosystem is really thriving," says Moore in the report.

Houston investor: Is this the golden age for B2B software?

Guest column

B2B software as a service, or SaaS, founders entered 2020 riding a wave of the longest economic expansion in United States history. Valuations increased to new highs, funding rounds continued getting larger at each stage, and forecasts went up and to the right fast. But then, March hit.

Quickly and seemingly out of nowhere, headlines became dominated by apocalyptic predictions of death, record levels of unemployment, shocking economic forecasts of GDP contraction, historic mass layoffs and furloughs, and unprecedented multi-trillion dollar economic stimulus packages. For founders every instinct began screaming to cut costs and hunker down.

But should B2B SaaS founders cut their organizations right now? Through analyzing a few key events and looking to the evidence in the market today, founders can develop a strategy for growing during this crisis. Not only is growth cheaper for most B2B SaaS against the backdrop of economic meltdown, but with the majority following a hunker-down instinct, a growing B2B SaaS firm will compare very favorably against a landscape of stale and stagnant competitors.

Reviewing the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic and the 2008 downturn

While the health implications vary widely between the current pandemic and the 1918 flu epidemic, the economic reactions share many similarities. The US response to 1918 was just as fractured as the states' reactions to COVID have been this year. As cities and states in 1918 shut down commerce to stem the spread of the flu, economic contraction quickly gave way to rebound, the so called "V-shaped recovery," despite the Spanish Flu having much higher death rates among working individuals than COVID-19.

There are major differences between 1918 and 2020, however. First, there is untapped potential in technology to replace workers. As businesses look for ways to cut costs, expect them to aggressively turn to automation, ultimately depressing real wages. Second, the 1918 response did not include shutdown measures as draconian as those we are experiencing in 2020. This could lead to permanent output loss across a wide range of industries, increasing real prices just as real wages decline. And third, the trillions of dollars in federal economic relief are unlike anything attempted in 1918.

The 2008 downturn that nearly brought the financial sector to a halt rippled through the economy as businesses in a wide range of industries made steep cuts to operations and capital expenditures. Despite this dangerous environment, SaaS firms increased profitability and continued to grow revenues each quarter. Growth slowed but remained positive while most other companies experienced absolute declines in revenue.

Customer acquisition for SaaS businesses usually gets more efficient during downturns, driving the potential for faster growth. The performance of all publicly traded B2B SaaS firms during 2008 illustrated in Figure 1 above proves the resilience of this category during a recession. While revenue continued to grow, profitability rose from a 10 percent loss on average to a 5 percent gain on average by 2010. This is likely due to firms freezing salaries and hiring and perhaps cutting down the sales and marketing budgets.

Downturn case study: Salesforce

Salesforce entered the downturn as a category leader in B2B SaaS with nearly $500M in revenue in 2007 and $3.5 million in operating losses. Throughout 2008, the company grew revenues by 51 percent to $748 million and operating profit surged to $20.3 million. And in 2009, the company repeated this stellar performance by growing revenues 44 percent to $1,077M and operating profit to $63 million. These results occurred against the backdrop of a global financial downturn and with a product focused on helping people sell more effectively (not something one would expect would sell well during a free-fall recession).

The revenue growth throughout those years followed the growth in sales and marketing spend. In 2008, the company grew sales and marketing by 49 percent, driving 51 percent revenue growth at about $1.50 of sales expense per $1 of recognized revenue added. In 2009, the company grew sales and marketing 42 percent resulting in 44 percent revenue growth at $1.63 of sales expense per $1 of recognized revenue. By 2010, the sales growth advantage was gone and Salesforce not only dropped its expense growth rate but also reverted to spending $2.64 per $1 of new revenue added.


Looking at these results Salesforce executed on the growth opportunities in 2008 and 2009 by ramping up sales expenses. The relative cost to acquire customers in 2008 and 2009 compared to 2010 proved significantly cheaper (approximately 40 percent less expensive). When faced with an advantage like that, every founder should charge ahead.

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Andrew Smith is vice president of Houston-based Golden Section Venture Capital.