This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Tim Neal of AmPd Labs, Sandy Guitar of HX Venture Fund, and Sahir Ali of Modi Ventures. Photos courtesy

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

Tim Neal, CEO of AmPd Labs

Tim Neal is the new CEO of AmPd Labs, a unique additive manufacturing startup in Houston. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston entrepreneur Tim Neal joined next-generation additive manufacturing company AmPd Labs as CEO of the company. He tells InnovationMap that he'd always been interested in the additive manufacturing sector, and sees a lot of potential for AmPd Labs in the industrial world in Houston — now more than ever.

“Within additive manufacturing, a lot of people focus on the medical and the aerospace sectors, but the industrial sector has been largely overlooked. Being in Houston, that really resonates,” Neal says. “The technology is now at a place that it can be at this production scale.” Read more.

Sandy Guitar, general partner of HX Venture Fund

Sandy Guitar shares some lessons learned from the fallout of Silicon Valley Bank. Photo via HXVF

In its third year, Venture Houston — taking place on Rice University's campus on September 7 — has a theme of "decarbonization in a digital world," but that's not the only thing different this year. The one-day conference has added on a unique event on September 6 to help engage around 50 investors with over 100 Houston startups.

The new activation is called Capital Connect, and HX Venture Fund will matchmake investors and startups for one-on-one meetings meant to spur collisions and collaboration.

"It's not a pitch competition — it doesn't have the stress of that," Sandy Guitar, general partner of HX Venture Fund, tells InnovationMap. "It's really just a way of connecting with a longer term horizon. We didn't want to limit it just to those who are currently raising, but actually include people who maybe just raised six months ago or are not going to raise for 12 more months, but might still want to be in the room." Read more.

Sahir Ali, founder and general partner of Modi Ventures

Sahir Ali is the founder and general partner of Modi Ventures. Photo courtesy of Modi Ventures

It might be cool to arrive fashionably late to a party, but Houston investor Sahir Ali likes to be early when it comes to new technologies.

"What has been a part of my success and has driven a lot of my profesional, scientific, and financial growth has been being ahead of the curve a little bit in technologies. That is really the basis of the fund," Ali, founder and general partner of Modi Ventures, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"Hardware and software have come to a point where now artificial intelligence is ready to go, and I think the biggest benefactor of that is going to be health care and the health and medicine space — and that space is not easy for investors to just jump in right away," he continues. Read more.

Sahir Ali is the founder and general partner of Modi Ventures. Photo courtesy of Modi Ventures

How this Houston investor closed a $32M oversubscribed fund in less than a month

Houston innovators podcast episode 201

It might be cool to arrive fashionably late to a party, but Houston investor Sahir Ali likes to be early when it comes to new technologies.

"What has been a part of my success and has driven a lot of my profesional, scientific, and financial growth has been being ahead of the curve a little bit in technologies. That is really the basis of the fund," Ali, founder and general partner of Modi Ventures, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"Hardware and software have come to a point where now artificial intelligence is ready to go, and I think the biggest benefactor of that is going to be health care and the health and medicine space — and that space is not easy for investors to just jump in right away," he continues.

That's why Ali decided to start his own firm, Modi Ventures, with his brother, Amir. The two have invested in a family office capacity before, but raising the initial fund for Modi Ventures was a whole different story. With his background in research, cloud computing, AI, finance, and more across the country, Ali set up the fund in the Houston area where he's from.

"When I see Houston market — and Texas in general — you won't see a lot of funds raising in Houston. ... It's not New York or California where folks do go after a lot of LPs," Ali says. "There are folks who have the appetite, but they are hard to reach."

"The structure that made sense for Houston had to be access that just wasn't available."

From ideation to launch, Ali proceeded to raise the initial fund in one month, accumulating an oversubscribed amount of $32 million. He credits to this in part to the fact that he's the fund's first investor, indicating to other limited partners that he's got skin in the game. He says he also wanted have a very open door with LPs.

"The thing I noticed when a lot of funds pitched to me as a potential LP is that there's a lot of vagaries and a black box effect in VC," he says. "My process was to incorporate transparency and education."

Now with its Tech+Bio Fund I closed, Modi Ventures has already deployed capital to three startups: Amsterdam-based Lapsi Health, Houston-based Starling Medical, and Boston-based Cyberdontics.

But Modi doesn't just invest in startups. The fund is a bit of a hybrid in that it also invests as an LP into other funds. The throughline is that the funds Modi Ventures invests in — as well as the startups — sit at the intersection of AI and health care. The first fund relationships Ali has entered into include Khosla Ventures, Draper Associates, Artis Ventures, and Antler Group — funds that have proven their success in this emerging field.

Ali shares more about why he's focused on this unique tech bio space on the podcast. Listen to the interview here — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

A new Houston firm has closed its inaugural fund to invest in health tech. Photo via Getty Images

New Houston investment firm closes $32M fund, announces 3 portfolio companies

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A new firm has emerged to invest in early-stage tech bio, artificial intelligence, and life sciences.

Modi Ventures announced its inaugural fund, Tech+Bio Fund I, closed at $32 million, an oversubscribed amount. The fund targets companies "shaping the future of humanity," reads a press release from Modi.

“Investing in next generation technologies has always been very lucrative,” says Sahir Ali, general partner of Modi Ventures, in the release. “We are entering an era of software writing software (artificial intelligence), technology that can unravel our individual genetic makeup (gene sequencing), biotech that can reprogram our genes (gene editing), and a fundamental change in how medicine is practiced by leveraging all of the above (precision medicine).

"Tech Bio companies will revolutionize multiple trillion dollar industries, providing early investors with potential for great returns,” he continues.

Ali, who's career has been focused on and the intersection of oncology and AI, has a Ph.D. and has worked with Fortune 500 companies across industries. He's joined by Andrew Yang, former presidential candidate and founder of Venture for America, as an adviser.

“Modi Ventures’ goal is to find solutions for some of the world’s most vexing problems that keep people unhealthy or struggling with illnesses that we can address collectively,” Yang says in the release. “The leadership and results that Sahir and his team have already demonstrated are one reason I’m looking forward to being a part of this team as we bring life saving solutions to market and take advantage of AI and new tools to advance the human condition.”

The first three portfolio companies Modi has announced include:

  • Amsterdam-based Lapsi Health, a medical technology company that is screening, diagnosing, treating and monitoring in medicine through sound and auscultation (acquired from stethoscopes).
  • Starling Medical, a Houston-based predictive technology platform for the early detection of bladder health issues.
  • Cyberdontics, an automated dental surgery using advanced imaging, AI, and robotics, that's based in Boston.

The firm announced that it has created partnerships with other investors, including Modi Ventures Khosla Ventures, Section 32, Artis Ventures, Draper Associates, and Antler Group.

“Modi Ventures is investing in healthcare tech companies with immense potential to improve lives and I'm thrilled to be partnering with Sahir and Modi Ventures,” says Tim Draper, founder of Draper Associates, in the release. “Working together we will be able to discover unique and innovative investments to collaborate on.”

Sahir Ali is the general partner of Modi Ventures. Photo courtesy of Modi Ventures

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Power grid tech co. with Houston HQ raises $25M series B

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A Norway-based provider of technology for power grids whose U.S. headquarters is in Houston has raised a $25 million series B round of funding.

The venture capital arm of Polish energy giant Orlen, Norwegian cleantech fund NRP Zero, and the Norway-based Steinsvik Family Office co-led Heimdall Energy's round. Existing investors, including Investinor, Ebony, Hafslund, Lyse, and Sarsia Seed, chipped in $8.5 million of the $25 million round.

“This funding gives us fuel to grow internationally, as we continue to build our organization with the best people and industry experts in the world,” Jørgen Festervoll, CEO of Heimdall, says in a news release.

Founded in 2016, Heimdall supplies software and sensors for monitoring overhead power lines. The company says its technology can generate up to 40 percent in additional transmission capacity from existing power lines.

Heimdall entered the U.S. market in 2023 with the opening of its Houston office after operating for several years in the European market.

“Heimdall Power has built itself a unique position as an enabler for the ongoing energy transition, with fast-increasing electricity demand and queues of renewables waiting to get connected,” says Marek Garniewski, president of Orlen’s VC fund.

Heimdall says it will put the fresh funding toward scaling up production and installation of its “magic ball” sphere-shaped sensors. In the U.S., these sensors help operators of power grids maximize the capacity of the aging power infrastructure.

“In the United States alone, there are over 500,000 miles of power lines — most of which have a far higher transmission capacity than grid operators have historically been able to realize. To increase capacity, many have launched large-scale and expensive infrastructure projects,” Heimdall says.

Now, the U.S. government has stepped in to ensure that utilities are gaining more capacity from the existing infrastructure, aiming to upgrade 100,000 miles of transmission lines over the next five years.

Heimdall's technology enables grid operators and utilities to boost transmission capacity without undertaking lengthy, costly infrastructure projects. Earlier this year, the company kicked off the largest grid optimization project in the U.S. with Minnesota-based Great River Energy.

Houston energy data SaaS co. partners with trading platform

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In an effort to consolidate and improve energy data and forecasting, a Houston software company has expanded to a new platform.

Amperon announced that it has expanded its AI-powered energy forecaststoSnowflake Marketplace, an AI data cloud company. With the collaboration, joint customers can seamlessly integrate accurate energy forecasts into power market trading. The technology that Amperon provides its customers — a comprehensive, AI-backed data analytics platform — is key to the energy industry and the transition of the sector.

“As Amperon continues to modernize energy data and AI infrastructure, we’re excited to partner with Snowflake to bring the most accurate energy forecasts into a single data experience that spans multiple clouds and geographies," Alex Robart, chief revenue officer at Amperon, says in a news release. "By doing so, we’re bringing energy forecasts to where they will be accessible to more energy companies looking to increase performance and reliability."

Together, the combined technology can move the needle on enhanced accuracy in forecasting that strengthens grid reliability, manages monetary risk, and advances decarbonization.

“This partnership signifies Amperon’s commitment to deliver world-class data-driven energy management solutions," Titiaan Palazzi, head of power and Utilities at Snowflake, adds. "Together, we are helping organizations to easily and securely access the necessary insights to manage risk and maximize profitability in the energy transition."

With Amperon's integrated short-term demand and renewables forecasts, Snowflake users can optimize power markets trading activity and manage load risk.

"Amperon on Snowflake enables us to easily integrate our different data streams into a single unified view," Jack Wang, senior power trader and head of US Power Analysis at Axpo, says. "We value having complete access and control over our analytics and visualization tools. Snowflake allows us to quickly track and analyze the evolution of every forecast Amperon generates, which ultimately leads to better insights into our trading strategy."

Amperon, which recently expanded operations to Europe, closed a $20 million series B round last fall led by Energize Capital and tripled its team in the past year and a half.

In March, Amperon announced that it replatformed its AI-powered energy analytics technology onto Microsoft Azure.

Learn more about the company on the Houston Innovators Podcast episode with Sean Kelly, co-founder and CEO of Amperon.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Rice research on bond and stock market differences, earnings variations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Stronger Bargaining Position for Bonds

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

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

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

What’s at Stake?

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

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

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

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

What Sets This Research Apart?

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

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

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

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