COVID-19 might have thrown a wrench in this health tech startup's fundraising plans, but it found a way to close an oversubscribed round anyways. Photo via Getty Images

When I wrote about fundraising early this year, I knew that I would be raising a round shortly, but had no idea I would be doing it in a changed COVID-19 world. I have experienced two unexpected recessions as an entrepreneur — in 2001 and 2008 — and each time causing huge struggles for entrepreneurs to raise funds. That is when I developed the mindset of acting like a desert rat, surviving with little help, learning to tap into the resources around you to survive and even thrive. Little did I know what was coming in March when the COVID-19 shutdown started.

Solenic Medical Inc. is a medical device company developing an innovative non-invasive treatment for infected metallic implants in the body. Using technology invented at the University of Texas Southwestern, Solenic will leverage the unique properties of alternating magnetic fields generated from external coils to eradicate biofilm on the surface of medical implants.

This non-invasive treatment addresses a major complication of various surgeries, such as knee and hip replacements, as well as in trauma related implants such as plates and rods. There are certainly challenges to fundraising for medical device companies, but each technology arena has its own challenges that I won't go into here.

The Solenic Medical team knew we needed to raise a round early this year, building upon the progress achieved since our founding investment in early 2019. The question was what type and size a round to raise.

We knew we were close to taking some valuable steps, but needed a just a little more time and funding to get there, at which point we figured we would be able to step up our valuation greatly. We decided on a modest $500,000 convertible note round, to help us accomplish at least a portion of the following items:

  • Recruit a reputable outside board member
  • Complete a planned large animal study stepping up from previous mice studies
  • Complete submission of a Breakthrough Device application to the FDA
  • Close our $1.3 million NIH grant and/or other non-dilutive funding
  • Fine tune simulation approaches to optimize the transducer design
  • File new intellectual property

We knew that some combination of these would occur in the succeeding months and would make it easier for Solenic to raise further funds.

The first domino was the on-boarding of an experienced technology executive from Virginia to join our board. The large animal study was delayed when the COVID-19 shutdown started, but our Breakthrough application and the grant application review started as the team went into virtual work mode. Progress was made on the simulations and drafting our next patent. The dominos were starting to fall in spite of the shutdown.

My philosophy was to treat the round as five different type of efforts, in pretty much five equal portions.

  • The first 20 percent in a round is always the hardest, even in closely held friends and family round. The first check regardless of size is always hard as often investors very interested in the round will wait for others to move first.
  • The second 20 percent is not much easier, still requiring a leap of faith by the investor.
  • The magic starts happening at 40 percent, where momentum picks up as you approach halfway and beyond.
  • At 60 percent you reach real momentum, where those investors who may have been waiting to move for a while now start moving.
  • At 80 percent you pick up investors who move quickly worried about missing out before the round closes.
  • With luck, you get enough momentum to oversubscribe the round and have to make the call to go beyond your target funds. For a quick hint on where I standard at that point, there's a saying that you never turn down money.

It was strange picking up the fundraising activity via zoom meetings, and it got off to a slow start as the initial circumstances of the new COVID-19 world settled in. Following my own advice from the January article, I started strategizing my communications, who might be the first check and first movers in first 20 percent, then the next 20 percent and so forth. For a friends and family round you start with your board as champions for the round, founders and management. No one is likely to be more committed and likely to get things started generally, much less in unusual financial times like a pandemic shutdown.

With an institutional co-founder like VIC Technology Venture Development and a passionate board we were able to jumpstart the round the round with $110,000 in commitments. This was quickly followed $100,000 from friends and family of board or management team members. Note that "quickly" in a pandemic was three months that in normal times might have taken only a month or so. Now that we had crossed that magic 40 percent hurdle, things started picking up speed, where members of the VIC Investor Network added individual investments totaling $140,000 to pass the next hurdle of 60 percent within another six weeks of individual presentations and discussions.

Momentum accelerated with friends and family and management team members stepping up to get us to 80 percent within few weeks. At the time of this article we are over-subscribed with more decisions to come. That is a great problem to have as things really picked up speed recently.

Though the final tally is to be determined the mix for this friends and family round looks to be pretty typical to past experiences

  • Board & Management – 27 percent
  • Family – 27 percent
  • Friends – 22 percent
  • Others – 25 percent

Because of the shutdown, this pandemic round has been unusual and at times frustrating, with some highly vocal and interested prospects going strangely silent as soon as the shutdown started, while others moved more slowly than originally expected. Regardless of how things transpired, it turned out largely familiar. As usual, the people you know the best and that know and trust you the most are the ones that are mostly likely come through for you. Building your network to increase the size of that pool is what you do far before a round starts.

Later rounds will be quite different, but the same 20 percent momentum stages will apply. It's a matter of building and nurturing a network of prospects in advance. Larger rounds involve an "institutional" friends and family network that you have known for a while. That work begins long before you start developing them as prospect for an open investment round. By the time this article is published, we expect to have the final funds of this round in the bank but have already started building relationships for the next round. It never stops, but in some ways that is the fun part of it to meet new people to share your startup's story.

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James Y. Lancaster is the Texas branch manager for Arkansas-based VIC Technology Venture Development and interim CEO for Solenic Medical. Lancaster, who lives in College Station, oversees business there, in Dallas, and in Houston.

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Houston SPAC announces merger with Beaumont-based tech company in deal valued at $100M

speaking of spacs

A Houston SPAC, or special purpose acquisition company, has announced the company it plans to merge with in the new year.

Beaumont-based Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc., a provider of thermal imaging platforms, and Houston-based SportsMap Tech Acquisition Corp. (NASDAQ: SMAP), a publicly-traded SPAC with $117 million held in trust, announced their agreement for ICI to IPO via SPAC.

Originally announced in the fall of last year, the blank-check company is led by David Gow, CEO and chairman. Gow is also chairman and CEO of Gow Media, which owns digital media outlets SportsMap, CultureMap, and InnovationMap, as well as the SportsMap Radio Network, ESPN 97.5 and 92.5.

The deal will close in the first half of 2023, according to a news release, and the combined company will be renamed Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc. and will be listed on NASDAQ under a new ticker symbol.

“ICI is extremely excited to partner with David Gow and SportsMap as we continue to deliver our innovative software and hardware solutions," says Gary Strahan, founder and CEO of ICI, in the release. "We believe our software and sensor technology can change the way companies across industries perform predictive maintenance to ensure reliability, environmental integrity, and safety through AI and machine learning.”

Strahan will continue to serve as CEO of the combined company, and Gow will become chairman of the board. The transaction values the combined company at a pre-money equity valuation of $100 million, according to the release, and existing ICI shareholders will roll 100 percent of their equity into the combined company as part of the transaction.

“We believe ICI is poised for strong growth," Gow says in the release. "The company has a strong value proposition, detecting the overheating of equipment in industrial settings. ICI also has assembled a strong management team to execute on the opportunity. We are delighted to combine our SPAC with ICI.”

Founded in 1995, ICI provides infrared and imaging technology — as well as service, training, and equipment repairs — to various businesses and individuals across industries.

Report: Federal funding, increased life science space drive industry growth in Houston

by the numbers

Federal funding, not venture capital, continues to be the main driver of growth in Houston’s life sciences sector, a new report suggests.

The new Houston Life Science Insight report from commercial real estate services company JLL shows Houston accounted for more than half (52.7 percent) of total funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) across major Texas markets through the third quarter of this year. NIH funding in the Houston area totaled $769.6 million for the first nine months of 2022, exceeding the five-year average by 19.3 percent.

VC funding for Houston’s life sciences sector pales in comparison.

For the first nine months of this year, companies in life sciences raised $147.3 million in VC, according to the report. Based on that figure, Houston is on pace in 2022 to meet or surpass recent life sciences VC totals for most other years except 2021. JLL describes 2021 as an “outlier” when it comes to annual VC hauls for the region’s life sciences companies.

JLL notes that “limited venture capital interest in private industry has remained a challenge for the city’s life sciences sector. Furthermore, it may persist as venture capital strategies are reevaluated and investment strategies shift toward near-term profits.”

While life sciences VC funding has a lot of ground to cover to catch up with NIH funding, there are other bright spots for the sector.

One of those bright spots is the region’s rising amount of life sciences space.

The Houston area boasts more than 2.4 million square feet of space for life sciences operations, with another 1.1 million under construction and an additional 1.5 million square feet on the drawing board, the report says. This includes a soon-to-open lab spanning 25,000 square feet in the first phase of Levit Green.

A second bright spot is the migration of life sciences companies to the region. Two Southern California-based life sciences companies, Cellipoint Bioservices and Obagi Cosmeceuticals, plan to move their headquarters and relocate more than half of their employees to The Woodlands by the first half of 2023, according to the report.

“Houston’s low tax rate and cost of living were primary drivers for the decisions, supported by a strong labor pool that creates advantages for companies’ expansion and relocation considerations,” JLL says.

Here's what Houston startups need to know about internal communications

guest column

Startup founders often focus on outward victories. However, if they look inward and get internal communications right, this can prioritize, inspire, and retain talent, which is the heart of the company.

Consistent internal communication helps employees to understand the company's core values and mission and the evolving internal policies and procedures — health care benefits, reorganizations, remote work — that accompany a young business. Investing in internal communications also supports external public relations efforts because the best company storytellers are well-informed employees.

Consider these tactics for effective internal communications.

Prioritize messaging

In any startup, internal procedures evolve as the company grows. Take control of the narrative while easing employees' minds by prioritizing internal messaging.

Whether transitioning to a more flexible work schedule, updating healthcare benefits, or rolling out a performance review process, planning messages in advance can help team members understand the change, the impact, and how they can contribute positively to the development.

Well-informed employees help mitigate uneasiness and tend to achieve business goals more quickly. Make sure to allow the employees time to reflect and react.

Support managers

Leaders and mid-level managers play an integral role in internal communications by cascading information throughout the organization. They regularly engage with their employees, so it is important that managers feel confident and supported in their communication skills.

Managers can benefit from a common company language, talking points, or communications training for more effective and productive conversations. By identifying, clarifying, and reinforcing common goals and key objectives for managers, companies can strengthen productivity and eliminate confusion, especially if the company changes teams' roles and responsibilities.

Be consistent

Make sure that the drumbeat remains steady, whether this includes a monthly town hall meeting or weekly CEO emails. Since communication is not necessarily one-size-fits-all, use a communication approach tailored to the workforce.

For example, there might be more effective communication methods than email for employees not behind a desk. As a smaller company, take that time to connect with the team directly because as the company swells, that one-on-one experience will become increasingly difficult to manage.

Listen to employees

Delivering top-down messaging that resonates with the workforce remains critical. However, internal communication is a two-way street.

Allow team members to give valuable feedback. Encourage team members to share their thoughts about the company, concerns, and how to improve communications. Issue internal surveys or hold face-to-face meetings to gain useful insight.

Understanding these critical proof points will enable more effective communication and quick action on any issues.

Be a human

Keep humanity at the heart of internal communications. Amid the company's transition, maintain transparency and recognize the emotional toll some changes can have on teammates. The best talent will remain when they feel connected, informed and listened to.

Greater employee engagement can help build a strong company culture of accountability, authenticity and communication, setting up the business for bigger success.

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Melanie Taplett is a communications and public relations consultant for the technology, energy, and manufacturing industries.