Houstonian fosters collaboration and mentorship for women in venture capital

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 46

Sandy Guitar — along with other Houston female venture capitalists — are gathering virtually to promote networking and friendship amid the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Sandy Guitar

When Sandy Guitar saw that Austin had a group of women in venture capital group that promoted collaboration and networking, she knew Houston had to have one too.

Guitar, who is the managing director of the HX Venture Fund, connected with the Austin group, picked their brains and asked for advice on starting a local iteration, and recruited a few fellow female VC experts in town — and the rest is history.

"There's a part of us as women that understands necessarily that work and life combine," Guitar says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our lives as women don't allow us to segment our lives. The truth is those parts of our lives come together. The more we can do that, the more we can build networks that help us achieve everything we want both professionally and personally."

Now, over a year later, the Women Investing in VC in Houston group has grown to over 30 members — so much that their virtual visits are broken into smaller groups. The group boasts diversity and has representatives across types of funds. To join, women must simply live in Houston and be a venture capital investor. Other than that, the group is unstructured and casual, which fosters an environment where members are allowed to ask a stupid question or speak up on something personal, as Guitar says.

"When you have no dues and very little formality, no structure, no pressure to attend — it's in that setting that you actually build trust. Organically, the friendships come together," she says. "That's what it's really about."

While the group had pre-pandemic beginnings, the model of mentorship and networking is more relevant now than ever. Men and women alike, Guitar says, are not able to silo work and life as we work from home and practice social distancing.

"COVID has made us vulnerable in an entirely new set of ways," she says. "We use our support groups — whatever they are — to help us."

Guitar discusses the group and how what the venture capital industry needs to do to evolve into a more welcoming space for women 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.


The Women Investing in VC in Houston group has pivoted to virtual events since the start of COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Sandy Guitar

HX Venture Fund recently hosted a virtual panel on how the tide has turned in Houston when it comes to tech investment. Getty Images

Overheard: Experts discuss why Houston is the next hub for tech investing

eavesdropping in Houston

When Joe Alapat, co-founder and CEO of Liongard, was first getting started on his company, he says a few people recommended he go to Austin or one of the coasts to give his software company a better chance.

"For me, the thought process never really entered my mind that Houston was a place where I would be challenged in doing what I do well. My network is here," Alapat shared on a virtual panel hosted by the HX Venture Fund.

Turns out, it was a good decision. Liongard recently closed a $17 million series B round led by Updata Partners, a portfolio fund of HXVF. Moderated by Brian Richards of Accenture's Houston innovation hub, the panel asked Alapat, Sandy Guitar of HXVF, and Carter Griffin of Updata why Houston is the next hub for tech investing. Here are some key moments from the discussion.

“We’re cautious when we go into places — like Austin and Boston — where there’s a lot of activity both on the company side and the investor side. We’d rather find the opportunities where things aren’t as competitive and frothy, and you’re really dealing with people trying to build a real business, serve customers, and build value in the right way, and not just catch lightning in a bottle and build the next unicorn.”

—says Griffin about Updata's strategy of looking at cities like Houston in the middle of the country.

“A lot has changed in the past couple of years — the thought process, the awareness, as well as the willingness for folks to think about Houston as a place where you can build a startup.”

— says Alapat about how Houston's startup ecosystem has evolved since he started Liongard in 2015. He later notes that Houston's innovation leaders have done well to not copy other metros, but listen and learn from the successes and mistakes of other innovation cities.

“There was this feeling that we needed to be uniquely Houston — we couldn’t replicate Silicon Valley or Austin, we needed to be us. But we were going to have to do things differently. We couldn’t keep doing the same things and expecting this [change.]”

— Richard says, noting the corporate mindset, among other aspects of the ecosystem, shifted to be more focused on startups.

“The VCs are very interested in engaging in this model. So, we’re spoiled for choices is one way of saying it.”

— Guitar says on interest from venture funds in HXVF, noting that the VCs see an opportunity for their portfolio startups to connect with HXVF's corporate partners.

The HX Venture Fund reached a proof point of its model — one that arrived much earlier than expected. Getty Images

Houston's fund of funds expands its portfolio and team after reaching benchmark with local investment

money moves

When a Houston software startup closed a $17 million series B funding round, it was a big win for more than just the startup. Not only was the deal among the few Houston venture capital deals to happen amid the COVID-19 outbreak, but it represented a proof of concept for Houston's fund of funds.

The HX Venture Fund was founded in October of 2018 to encourage investment into local startups by raising corporate funds and investing into a portfolio of non-Houston venture capital funds that show an interest in Houston. HXVF hit a milestone last month when Liongard, a software-as-a-service company based in Houston, closed its fundraising round led by Updata Partners — one of HXVF's portfolio funds.

To date, the HXVF has reviewed over 150 venture capital funds and invested in eight: Austin-based LiveOak Venture Partners and Next Coast Ventures, Washington D.C.-based Updata Partners, Chicago-based Baird Capital, San Francisco-based VenBio, and Boston-based .406 Ventures, OpenView Venture Partners, and Material Impact Fund. Since each investment, those funds have invested in over 30 startups that are also included in the greater HXVF portfolio.

These HXVF portfolio funds represent various stages — from seed to growth stages, like Liongard — and across industries, from software and hardware to life sciences — "the whole gamut," says Sandy Guitar, managing director of HXVF.

"What that means now is there is over $2 billion of venture capital that actively has Houston on its radar right now," Guitar tells InnovationMap.

The Liongard investment represents a proof point for the fund of funds — one that comes earlier than expected. HXVF invested in Updata less than six months before Liongard closed its round with Updata's lead investment. Guitar says she expected to get to this milestone within 18 to 24 months of the fund of funds deploying capital — and it's happened in just nine months.

"You have this trickle down effect, where it can easily take two to three years to get your capital at work," Guitar says, explaining that HXVF first has to raise funds from its corporate partners, then vet and invest in the VCs, and, finally, wait to see how those funds invest.

Of course, the pandemic has not exactly helped the growth of Houston's startup and venture capital sectors. While COVID-19 has allowed growth in some sectors — telemedicine, for instance — it has limited the opportunities for startups to test the market.

"To build great startups, a startup has to do what I call 'run into walls.' They have to test the market, get it wrong, and pivot. The problem right now is there are no walls to run into," Guitar says. "You have to have an actively running economy and market for proof points of what's working and what's not working."

Meanwhile, Guitar observes, VC investors have limited their activity to their own networks due to the inability to meet face-to-face with unfamiliar startups. Comparing the VC-startup relationship to a marriage, you wouldn't meet and marry someone you've never met in person just like investors wouldn't fund an entrepreneur they have only ever met via Zoom.

"A lot of VCs are staying in their known networks in the short term," says Guitar, while, in the long term, VCs are going to rely on introductions to entrepreneurs from their network.

With this benchmark secured, HXVF is continuing to grow its portfolio — as well as its team. Recently, Guitar — who runs the fund with Guillermo Borda — brought on Houston native Aleece Hobson as venture partner.

"Aleece joining is a phenomenal step for us — a dedicated resource and venture partner on activation," says Guitar on the hire. "I think it speaks to the seriousness of purpose we have to make this not just an investment platform, but one that moves the needle on Houston."

Guitar says HXVF is also growing its limited partners with the addition of Rice University, which joins the likes of HEB, Shell, Chevron, and Houston Methodist — to name a few.

"We're going to be getting even closer to our limited partners' needs and introducing them to the 34 portfolio companies," Guitar says "and creating meaningful collisions between those two groups."

Aleece Hobson joined the HX Venture Fund as venture partner. Photo courtesy of HXVF

Sandy Wallis, managing director of the HX Venture Fund, has seen investing in Houston change over her 20-year career. Courtesy of Sandy Wallis

HX Venture Fund leader talks investment trends in Houston and plans for 2020

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 13

After 20 years in the venture capital world, Sandy Guitar Wallis has seen the evolution of investing — on both coasts and here in Houston as well.

Now, as managing director of the HX Venture Fund, Wallis is playing the long game. The fund of funds acts as a broker to other venture funds, raising money from limited partners and then strategically doling out investments to non-Houston venture funds, with the hope that those funds circle back into the Houston innovation ecosystem with a multiplier effect.

"We have raised a fund of funds with the HX Venture Fund, and we're deploying that capital across probably 10 venture capital funds over time," Wallis explains on the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Each one of those funds, will invest in 15 to 20 underlying private companies. So, at the end of the day, HX Venture Fund 1 will have exposure to 10 VC funds, as an example, and — by virtue of those investments — maybe 300 private companies."

The HX Venture Fund is aiming to raise between $50 million and $70 million for its first fund. Last year, HXVF made six investments, and Wallis says she expects another three to five investments in 2020. Ultimately, Wallis says, HXVF is looking to get a wide range of of firms involved — from early stage to later, growth stages — as well as a diversity in industries of focus.

Beyond the money, HXVF is opening up the discussion on a national scale, with visiting VCs and potential investors.

"We are getting a lot of interest in coastal VCs who want to invest here," Wallis says on the podcast.

Wallis, who is a co-founder of Weathergage Capital, got her MBA at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, but has been in Houston for most of her career — traveling to each coast for business. Wallis shares her expertise, discussing everything from why the IPO process has slowed to what startups need to know about venture capital.

Listen to the full episode below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Houston medtech accelerator announces inaugural cohort

future of health care

A Houston medical technology organization has announced the inaugural cohort of a new early-stage accelerator.

M1 MedTech, launched this year by Houston-based Proxima Clinical Research, announced its Fall 2022 cohort.

“This initial cohort launches M1 MedTech with an interactive 14-week agenda covering the basics every emerging MedTech business needs to progress from a startup to an established solution in their market,” says Sean Bittner, director of programs at M1 MedTech, in a news release.

The accelerator will equip early-stage startups with storytelling, business plan support, investor connections, FDA guidance, research, and more through one-on-one consultations, workships, and in-kind services.

The first cohort includes five startups, per the release from the company:

  1. Linovasc. Providing a long overdue major update to balloon angioplasty devices in over 50 years, the Linovasc solution offers a safer branch occlusion and aortic stent dilatation using a toroidal balloon that expands the aorta uniformly without the ischemia caused by current treatments. The company is founded by Bruce Addis.
  2. Grapheton. Founded by Sam Kassegne and Bao Nguyen, Grapheton's patented carbon materials work with electrically active devices to improve the longevity and outcome of bioelectric implants in the body. Terry Lingren serves as the CEO of the startup.
  3. Rhythio Medical. Founded by Kunal Shah and Savannah Esteve, Rhythio is the first preventative approach to heart arrhythmias.The chief medical officer is Dr. Mehdi Razavi.
  4. PONS Technology. An AI cognitive functioning ultrasound device attempting to change the way ultrasound is done, PONS is founded by CEO: Soner Haci and CTO: Ilker Hacihaliloglu.
  5. Vivifi Medical. Founded by CEO Tushar Sharma, Vivifi is the first suture-less laparoscopic technology that connects vessels to improve male infertility and benign prostatic hyperplasia. The company's senior R&D engineer is Frida Montoya.

The program includes support from sponsors and experts from: Proxima Clinical Research, Greenlight Guru, Medrio, Galen Data, Merge Medical Device Studio, Venn Negotiation, Engagement PR & Marketing, Aleberry Creative, and others.

“This is an amazing opportunity for emerging founders to learn the progression of pipelining their ideas through the FDA and absorb the critical strategies for success early in their business development,” says Isabella Schmitt, principal at M1 MedTech and director of regulatory affairs at Proxima CRO, in the release.

Houston-based 'AirBNB for churches' startup completes Amazon accelerator, gathers fresh funding

now accelerating

Houston startup, ChurchSpace, recently participated in the inaugural cohort of the AWS Impact Accelerator for Black Founders, which included a pre-seed fundraising campaign and a $125,000 equity injection from Amazon.

The startup, coined as the “AirBNB for churches” is a tech-enabled marketplace that has a mission to minimize low utilization rate of church real estate across the country. Per the website, ChurchSpace is accepting congregations on its waitlist and is expected to launch this fall.

The AWS Impact Accelerator strengthened ChurchSpace’s efforts of turning underutilized church real estate into on-demand event, worship, and kitchen space. The program provides high-potential, pre-seed startups the tools and knowledge to reach key milestones such as raising funding or being accepted to a seed-stage accelerator program.

"Being a part of the inaugural AWS Impact Accelerator has changed the trajectory and tech build of ChurchSpace," says Day Edwards, CEO and co-founder of the company. "From the grant time to having the ability to build a platform using the latest technologies to ensure churches can share their space safely has truly been a blessing. I urge any female founder to definitely take time to apply. This is a life changing opportunity for all startups."

As one of 25 startups selected for the program, ChurchSpace also received credits, extensive training, mentoring and technical guidance, as well as introductions to Amazon leaders and teams, networking opportunities with potential investors, and ongoing advisory support.

“For underrepresented founders, access is power. And as Black founders with an audacious mission to eradicate high church underutilization rates, the access to capital, mentorship and tech innovation support will create tidal waves of positive impact that reach far beyond our internal operations but spread to thousands of local communities across the nation,” says Emmanuel Brown, ChurchSpace co-founder and COO.

AWS recently announced its three-year, $30 million commitment to the program. Amazon is currently looking for female founders for the next cohort that is now open with the deadline date of August 26.

MassChallenge Texas alum, ChurchSpace was founded in 2020 by two Black millennial pastors’ kids who witnessed the crippling effects that large church financial overhead placed on church leaders. The marketplace allows churches to earn extra revenue while remaining compliant with IRS nonprofit regulations. ChurchSpace is expecting to launch in 10 states with over 6,000 waitlisted users.

“I want to congratulate a truly innovative and inspiring group of startups selected from thousands of applicants for this opportunity. On behalf of the entire team, we are honored to support them on their journey,” says Howard Wright, vice president of startups at AWS.

Day Edwards is the co-founder and CEO of Church Space, which was founded in 2020. Photo courtesy of Church Space

Houston innovator hunts down better tech for online outdoor equipment marketplace

houston innovators podcast episode 147

Get ready, sports and wilderness lovers. A Houston company that's built an online marketplace for apparel and equipment is gearing up for some big updates to its user experience.

Bill Voss — founder and CEO of Everest, an online marketplace working to be a one-stop shop for all outdoors and sporting equipment — joined the Houston Innovators Podcast this week to discuss some major upgrades to the platform that are coming soon.

"Our biggest challenge to date was technology. For the past two years, we have been developing our own technology," Voss says on the show. "Before the end of this year, there will be a brand new website with a better user experience and an amazing marketplace app. It's going to be really exciting."

Another new addition to Everest is a Amazon Prime-like level of membership called Caliber. This option will provide consumers the same level of discounts, overnight shipping, etc. that they've come to expect from entities like Amazon. Caliber will also include a video streaming component that Voss says will launch next year.

While Everest is in many ways striving to compete with the likes of Amazon, Voss says the company wants to differ in one big way — how it collaborates with sellers.

"We really are seller friendly," Voss says. "We work with our sellers and communicate with them. We think we have some of the best customer service as it relates to seller interaction in the business. If our sellers are happy, it will translate to a better customer experience at the end of the day."

Voss says he has mountainous goals for Everest — and the potential for impact on the entire sports and outdoors industry is there. As the new website, app, and streaming service all deliver over the next year, Voss says the company will take a huge step toward being able to disrupt the industry.

"A true marketplace allows us to come together as one group, and we can conquer the space. We can be a true disruptor, we can be a household name, and we can do something very special here," he explains. "But we don't believe we have to do it alone. The seller community is coming together in one ecosystem called Everest."

Voss shares more about the future of Everest on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.