Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures, recently announced new team members and her hopes for making Houston a leader in synthetic biology. Photo courtesy of First Bight Ventures

Since launching earlier this year, a Houston-based venture capital firm dedicated to investing in synthetic biology companies has made some big moves.

First Bight Ventures, founded by Veronica Wu, announced its growing team and plans to stand up a foundry and accelerator for its portfolio companies and other synthetic biology startups in Houston. The firm hopes to make Houston an international leader in synthetic biology.

“We have a moment in time where we can make Houston the global epicenter of synthetic biology and the bio economy," Wu says to a group of stakeholders last week at First Bight's Rocketing into the Bioeconomy event. "Whether its energy, semiconductor, space exploration, or winning the World Series — Houstonians lead. It’s in our DNA. While others look to the stars, we launch people into space.”

At First Bight's event, Wu introduced the company's new team members. Angela Wilkins, executive director of the Ken Kennedy Institute at Rice University, joined First Bight as partner, and Serafina Lalany, former executive director of Houston Exponential, was named entrepreneur in residence. Carlos Estrada, who has held leadership positions within WeWork in Houston, also joins the team as entrepreneur in residence and will oversee the company's foundry and accelerator that will be established to support synthetic biology startups, Wu says.

“First Bight is investing to bring the best and the brightest — and most promising — synthetic biology startups from around the country to Houston," Wu continues.

First Bighthas one seed-staged company announced in its portfolio. San Diego-based Persephone Biosciences was founded in 2017 by synthetic and metabolic engineering pioneers, Stephanie Culler and Steve Van Dien. The company is working on developing microbial products that impact patient and infant health.

Wu, who worked at Apple before the launch of the iPhone and Tesla before Elon Musk was a household name, says she saw what was happening in Houston after her brother moved to town. She first invested in Houston's synthetic biology ecosystem when she contributed to one of Solugen's fundraising rounds. The alternative plastics company is now a unicorn valued at over $1 billion.

“I founded First Bight because of what I see is the next great wave of technology innovation," she says at the event. "I founded it in Houston because the pieces are right here.”

Houston Exponential released a new report on venture capital activity in the Bayou City. Sky Noir Photography by Bill Dickinson/Getty Images

Report finds Houston is 3rd fastest growing tech ecosystem

show me the money

In the startup world, small funding deals are a big deal in Houston.

A new Houston Exponential analysis based on data from PitchBook shows early-stage and angel rounds accounted for 151 venture capital deals under $5 million last year. Nearly two-thirds of those VC deals were less than $1 million.

Thanks to that robust activity, Houston now ranks as the third-fastest-growing tech ecosystem for early-stage companies in the country, according to the analysis.

Meanwhile, last year’s overall VC deal count exceeded 200 for the first time, “a harbinger of future growth potential as new company creation continues to explode,” the analysis says.

Texas Medical Center is contributing to that explosion. It recently raised the size of its TMC Venture Fund to $50 million. TMC says the fund now will be able to back a wider range of early-stage startups.

“When we launched the TMC Venture Fund, our goal was to drive collaboration and entrepreneurship, and establish Texas as a life science hub,” William McKeon, president and CEO of TMC, says in a news release. “Our initial investment was extremely successful, and this influx of capital creates a unique opportunity for TMC to invest in companies in the earliest stages of commercialization, further bolstering Houston’s thriving life science community.”

Although Houston’s average early-stage deal size of $18 million remains shy of the national average of $21 million, that still represents a 68 percent growth rate since 2019, according to the analysis from Houston Exponential, an entrepreneurship hub. Compared with the national growth rate of 23 percent, “this demonstrates the broader expansion and maturities within the Houston ecosystem,” the analysis says.

The size of deals at the Series A and Series B levels also is on the rise. According to the analysis, the median Series A round in Houston grew from less than $3.2 million in 2020 to more than $10 million in 2021. The size of Series B rounds rose 35 percent, from a median of $13.6 million in 2020 to $21 million in 2021.

While those numbers are impressive, mega-deals stole the spotlight in 2021. Six Houston companies raised at least $100 million last year, with three of those deals surpassing $300 million. Collectively, Axiom Space, Cart.com (now based in Austin), HighRadius, Lancium, Solugen, and Vyripharm Biopharmaceuticals raised $1.3 billion last year.

Last year’s mega-deals brought the number of Houston unicorns, including Cart.com, to five. Unicorns are startups valued at $1 billion or more. In Houston, the newest members of that club are Solugen, with a $357 million Series C round in 2021, and Cart.com, with a $240 million Series B1 round last year.

“That VC-backed companies were able to generate such enormous value in 2021 during a time characterized by great uncertainty and extraordinary circumstances highlights the continued importance of VC-backed companies to the resilience of Houston’s economy,” says Serafina Lalany, executive director of Houston Exponential.

HX's Serafina Lalany shares what to expect at Houston Tech Rodeo this year. Photo courtesy of HX

Houston Exponential's tech rodeo returns revamped and re-energized

Q&A

It's that time of year, Houston innovators. The third annual Houston Tech Rodeo starts next week, and the format is going to look different from its initial pre-COVID version as well as the last two years of virtual programming.

HTR, hosted by Houston Exponential, kicks off Sunday, February 27, with the bulk of the programming taking place during the work week, before it concluding Saturday, March 5. The full schedule is available online upon registration, which is free.

Serafina Lalany, executive director of HX, shares what attendees can expect from this year's events.

InnovationMap: HTR has a whole new format this year. What led to the evolution of the event and what are the most significant changes?

Serafina Lalany: This year's event series is concentrated along the METRO Red Line and we have two to three "Saloons" each day around thematic focus areas such as HealthTech, ClimaTech, CPG, and moree. This year, we were seeking to drive more density — with 20 events (versus 170 in previous years) all centralized downtown. It will look and feel a lot like SXSW. Our goal was to optimize for more engineered serendipity.

IM: Who should attend HTR?

SL: Tech Rodeo Roadshow is our annual event for all Houstonians who are seeking to get plugged into the startup community — whether you are an entrepreneur, investor, talent — or have ambitions to launch and scale a startup this event seeks to lower the barrier of entry.

IM: What are the central topics/industries that HTR is organized around and how did y’all decide on what these topics/industries would be?

SL: The thematic focus areas are related to Houston's core strengths and emerging startup areas: HealthTech, ClimaTech, AeroSpace, CPG, Industry 4.0, Esports, and B2B Saas.

IM: HTR returns in the fall for a summit. What can you tell us about that event and how is it different from its spring counterpart?

SL: The Summit was born out of our findings from last year's event series. When we pivoted to the hybrid event model, we captured a global audience for the first time — 47 countries, to be exact.

The Summit will bring the global tech community to Houston. Leading entrepreneurs, executives, and investors will address and debate issues facing core industries in this current moment — all in the heart of America’s most diverse city. It's four tracks (HealthTech, ClimaTech, Aerospace, and DEI) across two days at the POST.

The Houston Exponential team has a new look to their branding and website. Photo via houstonexponential.org

Houston Exponential enters a new era with rebrand

makeover

The future of Houston Exponential is here. The organization rolled out its new branding today that was designed and created in partnership with a Houston agency.

HX tapped Houston-based NUU Group to ideate and design a new brand that fits the evolving organization's ambitious plans. HX is like a startup itself, the company explains in a statement, and is shifting to accomodate the needs of the ecosystem and community it's served since 2017.

"The challenge lies in evolving the HX brand to be more than a two-letter acronym, bringing it off the page and into culture," HX Executive Director Serafina Lalany tells InnovationMap. "We need to create a framework and strategy that allows HX to communicate effectively across audiences, platforms, and geographies."

The goal of the new branding is to clearly communicate HX's vision and value to both local entrepreneurs and the global innovation community.

"After a national search for a brand development partner that understood the impact we were seeking to drive not only for our startup community, but for the city of Houston we identified NUU Group," Lalany says. "NUU has been helping companies ideate, design and launch innovative solutions for almost a decade and is a champion for our city with groups across the country and around the globe."

NUU Group, founded by CEO Jez Babarczy in 2013, works with emerging and established companies to design branding that moves both business and culture forward.

"The theme for HX’s new identity is anchored in the idea that the path of entrepreneurship is tough, but with the right support founders can succeed," says Garrett Herzik, head of projects at NUU. "HX exists to help make that path less opaque and easier to navigate, to build a robust community of support that backs up Houston’s uncompromising founders."

HX's new website features interactive graphics and video, as well as highlighting Houston founders on the homepage. The new tagline for the organization is "building the future backed by community," which resonates with HX's mission to represent the diversity of the city.
"We're helping to make the world of entrepreneurship more accessible, less opaque, and easier to navigate for founders," the website reads.
In a recent interview with InnovationMap, Lalany says a key focus of that accessibility is to venture capital opportunities, which is why HX will be scaling its VC Immersion days in partnership with Republic, an investment tech company.
The branding changes come just ahead of HX's Houston Tech Rodeo Roadshow, which begins later this month. The new design will be worked into a part of the week-long event and meetup programming, which is aimed at showcasing Houston innovation.
"We hope to see the new branding give current and future founders confidence in their entrepreneurial journey," Herzik says. "We hope to see HX’s commitment to providing a robust community of support owned and adopted by the entirety of Houston. Transformation will move as fast as our community allows, which requires that we all adopt one vision of an innovative future. One that is possible for anyone."

Houston Exponential's website has a whole new look to it. Graphic courtesy of HX

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Winston Wright of Alto, Serafina Lalany of Houston Exponential, and Zeev Braude of SiteAware. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

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

Winston Wright, Houston general manager at Alto

Winston Wright leads Houston operations for Dallas-based Alto, which is taking on the likes of Uber and Lyft. Photo courtesy of Alto

As any Houstonian knows, the city is quite large. While Dallas-based Alto, a luxury rideshare service, rolled out in Houston a while ago, Winston Wright has plans to make sure the company is covering the entire greater Houston area.

Wright, who's the Houston general manager for Alto, joined last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. He shares more on Alto's future in Texas and beyond, as well as what's challenging him most as he grows the team locally.

"The vision I have for this market is that, as we move forward and continue to expand, that we're covering all of Houston," he says. Click here to read more and to listen to the episode.

Serafina Lalany, executive director of Houston Exponential

Houston Exponential appoints new executive director and restructures its boardHX has its new permanent leader. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

It's a new era for Houston Exponential, and Serafina Lalany, named the organization's executive director last September, is leading HX into its new phase.

"The interesting thing of being an organization of ex-startup operators is that we operate as a startup ourselves," she tells InnovationMap. "Along the journey of supporting and building infrastructure for a startup community, we have also been seeking our own product market fit. I think we're at the place now where we have a profound realization of what that is and who we serve. We have crystal clear vision around that."

Lalany discusses more of her plans for HX for 2022 and shares how the organization is evolving to be what Houston's innovation ecosystem needs in an interview. Click here to read more.

Zeev Braude, CEO of SiteAware

Houston-based SiteAware has raised $15 million in its latest round of funding. Photo courtesy of SiteAware

SiteAware, a Houston construction software startup, raised $15 million in its series B round, which was led by Singapore-based Vertex Ventures Israel. Existing investors Robert Bosch Venture Capital GmbH, Axon Ventures, Oryzn Capital, The Flying Object, and lool Ventures also contributed to the round.

The company's digital construction verification, or DCV, platform uses AI and digital twin technology to provide real-time verification of construction fieldwork. According to a press release from SiteAware, the construction industry represents a $1.3 trillion market share of the United States economy.

"SiteAware's DCV error prevention technology is disrupting the construction industry by dramatically accelerating schedules and streamlining work processes for all parties. In the next few years, everyone from contractors to developers will be using DCV to build without rework," says Zeev Braude, CEO of SiteAware, in a news release. "DCV gives the construction ecosystem access to data they've never had before, data that holds the key to the next jump in productivity for the industry." Click here to read more.

Serafina Lalany of Houston Exponential sits down to discuss he ambitious investment-focused plans for Houston innovation. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Houston Exponential leader looks to increase local startup investment through 2022

Q&A

Serafina Lalany is known to crunch the numbers. In her role as executive director of Houston Exponential, which she's held since September, she keeps a close eye on venture capital activity in Houston.

"Following VC data is the closest proxy to other data that is often hard to collect. It actually gives us a sense of the growth over time of the ecosystem," Lalany tells InnovationMap. "Also, it gives us the signal as to like what our strengths are and the areas that we need to continue to build out infrastructure."

This year, Lalany and her team at HX aren't just watching the numbers — they hope to make an impact on the VC activity in Houston with more of their VC immersion days. For those, HX and its partner Republic, a startup investing platform, find local startups and connect them with visiting venture capital firms in hopes to generate investment.

Lalany discusses more of her plans for HX for 2022 and shares how the organization is evolving to be what Houston's innovation ecosystem needs in an interview.

InnovationMap: You’re starting your first full year as executive director of HX — what are you most excited about for 2022?

Serafina Lalany: In my eyes, I think 2022 presents a really interesting opportunity. Just looking back the last year, we had a lot of successes as a collective community. For the first time we saw the rise of more than one unicorn. Outside of High Radius, we've seen Cart.com launch and expand and become a behemoth. We've seen Axiom Space make some cool, critical hires and attract talent from New York City and other high growth companies. We've seen the expansion of companies like Capsule, ClassPass, and GoPuff to the Houston region. We're starting to see some really positive signals here, but also what we're excited about at HX is that over the last two years, entrepreneurship as itself has become a lot more accessible.

We've seen the demographics of entrepreneurs rapidly change. The average founder is a lot younger now, and there are many reasons as to why that's happening. In the knowledge economy, there's a lot more resources available to you as the world switched to completely digital. Suddenly, we found a lot more time on our hands, and the proliferation of things like no code tools helped to launch companies. We've seen probably the highest concentration of early stage companies in Houston to date.

There's something interesting happening on the ground, and that plus the global attention Houston starting to get as a climatetech leader, as a health tech leader, aerospace commercialization — people are starting to recognize what a force Houston is to reckon with. Looking into 2022, I think we'll be elevating Houston on a more global scale.

IM: How has HX evolved since its inception and where is the organization at today?

SL: The interesting thing of being an organization of ex-startup operators is that we operate as a startup ourselves. Along the journey of supporting and building infrastructure for a startup community, we have also been seeking our own product market fit. I think we're at the place now where we have a profound realization of what that is and who we serve. We have crystal clear vision around that.

We exist to position Houston as one of the best places to launch and scale a company. We serve entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs in Houston. We do that in many ways. Of course, most of the community recognizes HX through efforts like the Houston Tech Rodeo, but we're also working on opportunities and initiatives to help lower the barrier of entry for entrepreneurs in Houston. So things like VC immersions, which which allow access to capital in ways that weren't previously accessible. And definitely ramping up our efforts around reporting marketing and media, helping to shine a brighter light on our city. There's more to come as we get into this new year.

IM: Tech rodeo is coming back in a couple of months. What’s should people know about this year’s experience?

SL: A lot has changed this year. We listened to feedback from the attendees last year, which was our highest attended event to date. About 8,600 people came out last year, which blew our expectations out of the water. Having it as a hybrid made lot more accessible to people even outside of the region. This year we learned that from previous years having 130 to 170 events across the week is awesome, but it also forces people to make hard decisions sometimes. So, we're centralizing all of our events downtown on Main Street. We've actually partnered with METRO, and there will be 20 official saloons for Houston Tech Rodeo all along the light rail. Monday through Sunday (Feb. 28 through March 6), We're activating all of downtown and it'll look and feel a lot like SXSW. People will be walking from venue to venue,and we have a few thematic focus areas — health tech, aerospace, climatetech, but also emerging sectors like CPG, which I think we need to give more credit to in Houston.

IM: Last year, you introduced a partnership with Republic. What instigated this collaboration and what's been the impact so far?

SL: Inspiration for partnering with the Republic actually came out of our internal discussions around the time of the transition where we assess that VC immersions program is one of the most vital programs for our ecosystem because it helps lower the barrier to entry for startups seeking capital, especially for their first round of institutional capital. We have seen lots of positive signals over the last like 18 months of having done this gram. We have seen about 1,500 applications come through, 150 or more meetings were facilitated, and $35 million of capital was deployed to those companies. Our number one challenge is scaling — it was really just time and resources. As you can imagine, looking through those applications and the communication with the companies, it takes a considerable amount of time.

So, what we really needed to help us scale was additional venture analysts to look through those applications. Almost serendipitously as we were discussing the program with one of our friends, Abe Chu of previously NextSeed now Republic, we found that there's actually a lot of synergy here. They certainly have the capacity to look through applications — they've got a whole venture team — and we have the reach in the community. We work across the entire region. It ended up being a really cool collaboration. Now with their help, we can actually serve more entrepreneurs and more investors.

With this new model, where we're bringing in five to 15 investors to the city each quarter. Instead of those investors meeting with one founder, as they often do when they're in town, they're meeting with five to 15 founders. It's reducing friction for outside investors — that trip to Houston is very impactful, very busy, but very impactful. For the startups, it's really a great way to get the face time with investors that they can potentially be working with.

IM: HX has made some recent hiring moves — what were your goals in those strategic hires and are still growing your team?

SL: We made two critical hires in the last 30 or so days. One is our new director of inclusive innovation — that's Ivery Boston III. He actually was in the Miami ecosystem on Mayor Suarez's task force, so he's seen it all. We're really grateful to have that institutional knowledge here in Houston, but, more importantly, I think Ivery brings a really interesting perspective to the team and helps to fill a gap in our ecosystem today. I think we all realize and value the diversity in Houston, and how that is a core strength of our community. But we also have to be mindful about creating on ramps for underrepresented communities as well as we build and accelerate our tech economy in Houston.

Part of his responsibilities will be working directly within these communities and alongside these communities to help ensure that all HX activities are of course are built with an inclusive mindset, and they're taking considerations from the community in mind as well as we develop them out. This is all for the goal of helping to create the most equitable startup community we've seen in the country. To our benefit of being a last mover, an advantage, of which there are few, is that we actually get to do things hopefully in a much better way than we've seen on the coasts.

As far as future hires, I think this is pretty much the core team we're looking at for the next 12 months.

IM: I know something super important to you has been tracking venture capital activity in Houston. Why has that been a metric your you've been closely watching throughout your time at HX and what does the data show?

SL: Following VC data is the closest proxy to other data that is often hard to collect. It actually gives us a sense of the growth over time of the ecosystem. It gives us insights into the rate of capital that is deployed and how that's growing over time and where it's getting deployed. Also gives us the signal as to like what our strengths are and the areas that we need to continue to build out infrastructure. Over the last few years we've noticed that there has been more attention around hard tech and in biotech. As ecosystem developers, we must ask ourselves, "do we have the entire life cycle of resources and infrastructure to support companies within those sectors along their journey to scale?" If the answer is no, then we run the risk of potentially losing that talent or losing those companies to other places where there are supportive resources. So, it helps inform a lot of what we do. But it's also one of the few indicators of ecosystem growth in a way that is typically really hard to collect.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Houston chemist lands $2M NIH grant for cancer treatment research

future of cellular health

A Rice University chemist has landed a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Health for his work that aims to reprogram the genetic code and explore the role certain cells play in causing diseases like cancer and neurological disorders.

The funds were awarded to Han Xiao, the Norman Hackerman-Welch Young Investigator, associate professor of chemistry, from the NIH's Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) program, which supports medically focused laboratories.

Xiao will use the five-year grant to develop noncanonical amino acids (ncAAs) with diverse properties to help build proteins, according to a statement from Rice. He and his team will then use the ncAAs to explore the vivo sensors for enzymes involved in posttranslational modifications (PTMs), which play a role in the development of cancers and neurological disorders. Additionally, the team will look to develop a way to detect these enzymes in living organisms in real-time rather than in a lab.

“This innovative approach could revolutionize how we understand and control cellular functions,” Xiao said in the statement.

According to Rice, these developments could have major implications for the way diseases are treated, specifically for epigenetic inhibitors that are used to treat cancer.

Xiao helped lead the charge to launch Rice's new Synthesis X Center this spring. The center, which was born out of informal meetings between Xio's lab and others from the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Baylor College of Medicine, aims to improve cancer outcomes by turning fundamental research into clinical applications.

They will build upon annual retreats, in which investigators can share unpublished findings, and also plan to host a national conference, the first slated for this fall titled "Synthetic Innovations Towards a Cure for Cancer.”

Houston neighbor ranks as one of America's most livable small cities

mo city

Some Houston suburbs stick out from the rest thanks to their affluent residents, and now Missouri City is getting time in the spotlight, thanks to its new ranking as the No. 77 most livable small city in the country.

The tiny but mighty Houston neighbor, located less than 20 miles southwest of Houston, was among six Texas cities that earned a top-100 ranking in SmartAsset's 2024 " Most Livable Small Cities" report. It compared 281 U.S. cities with populations between 65,000 and 100,000 residents across eight metrics, such as a resident's housing costs as a percentage of household income, the city's average commute times, and the proportions of entertainment, food service, and healthcare establishments.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Missouri City has an estimated population of over 76,000 residents, whose median household income comes out to $97,211. SmartAsset calculated that a Missouri City household's annual housing costs only take up 19.4 percent of that household's income. Additionally, the study found only six percent of the town's population live below the poverty level.

Here's how Missouri City performed in two other metrics in the study:

  • 1.4 percent – The proportion of arts, entertainment, and recreation businesses as a percentage of all businesses
  • 29.9 minutes – Worker's average commute time

But income and housing aren't the only things that make Missouri City one of the most livable small cities in Texas. Residents benefit from its proximity from central Houston, but the town mainly prides itself on its spacious park system, playgrounds, and other recreational activities.

Missouri City, Texas

Missouri City residents have plenty of parkland to enjoy. www.missouricitytx.gov

The Missouri City Parks and Recreation Departmen meticulously maintains 21 parks spanning just over 515 acres of land, an additional 500 acres of undeveloped parkland, and 14.4 miles of trails throughout the town, according to the city's website."Small cities may offer cost benefits for residents looking to stretch their income while enjoying a comfortable – and more spacious – lifestyle," the report's author wrote. "While livability is a subjective concept that may take on different definitions for different people, some elements of a community can come close to being universally beneficial."

Missouri City is also home to Fort Bend Town Square, a massive mixed-use development at the intersection of TX 6 and the Fort Bend Parkway. It offers apartments, shopping, and restaurants, including a rumored location of Trill Burgers.

Other Houston-area cities that earned a spot in the report include

Spring (No. 227) and Baytown (No. 254).The five remaining Texas cities that were among the top 100 most livable small cities in the U.S. include Flower Mound (No. 29), Leander (No. 60), Mansfield (No. 69), Pflugerville (No. 78), and Cedar Park (No. 85).

The top 10 most livable small cities in the U.S. are:

  • No. 1 – Troy, Michigan
  • No. 2 – Rochester Hills, Michigan
  • No. 3 – Eau Claire, Wisconsin
  • No. 4 – Franklin, Tennessee
  • No. 5 – Redmond, Washington
  • No. 6 – Appleton, Wisconsin
  • No. 7 – Apex, North Carolina
  • No. 8 – Plymouth, Minnesota
  • No. 9 – Livonia, Michigan
  • No. 10 – Oshkosh, Wisconsin

The report examined data from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2022 1-year American Community Survey and the 2021 County Business Patterns Survey to determine its rankings.The report and its methodology can be found on

smartasset.com

.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.