Two Houston venture capitalists weigh in on the state of startup investing in an economic climate recovering from the COVID-19 crisis. Getty Images

It's no secret that — in light of coronavirus-caused closures, market disruption, and historic unemployment — venture capitalist might be a little more hesitant to join in on a startup's investment round. Yet one Houston VC group has managed amidst the crisis — and even succeeded in closing its most recent fund.

Fitz Gate Ventures, which operates out of Houston but with the support of Princeton University, announced the closing of its Fund II on May 5. Focusing on seed and pre-seed rounds, co-founders and managing directors Mark Poag and Jim Cohen will be looking for startups across industries — usually with some revenue and customer base — to write around $500,000 checks to.

At a virtual panel event hosted by Houston Exponential, the investors say they have appreciated focusing on smaller deals in times like these — it's allowed them to work closely with their portfolio of 15 startups, two of which (Cheers and Spruce) have roots in Houston.

"We are definitely more hands-on with our founders," Cohen says on the panel, noting that it feels like they are having board meetings daily — virtually, of course.

Most of these meetings, Poag explains, are focusing on making sure the portfolio startups have enough runway with their cash reserves to make it at least through the end of the year without any new sales. Of course, that's meant cutting salaries and employees and finding other options to operate in a lean way.

Fitz Gate also has stayed in touch virtually with its Friends of Fitz group — a unique network of Princeton-related professionals (such as faculty, fellow VCs, domain experts, etc.) that give the investors and their portfolio companies a strategic advantage.

While the video conferences are useful to stay in touch with existing portfolio companies, Poag says he — as well as other VCs — might be wary of making new investments in this capacity.

"We haven't invested in any new companies since the COVID situation, but it will be interesting to see if we and other venture capital firms get comfortable with making investments without an in-person meeting," says Poag on the panel.

Generally, Cohen says he has observed a different investment environment since the beginning of March, and there's no clear indication when things will change.

"I think in the short-term, investing will be slower. Basically, people are still trying to figure out what's going on," Cohen says, noting how, in March, the tides seemed to change every 24 hours. "Now, things have started to slow down, but the ground is still shifting beneath our feet. I think most venture investors are proceeding cautiously."

Something else to keep an eye on, as the Fitz Gate founders have experienced, is that startups are making changes to their products in order to provide a more relevant offer to customers. One of the fund's portfolio companies is Houston-founded Spruce, which recently started offering disinfecting deals along with its concierge services to apartment dwellers.

"None of our companies have pivoted to change anything they are doing fundamentally to take advantage of the situation," says Cohen, citing some supply chain software startups and a charity-based startup that have also seen business success during the COVID-19 crisis.

However, approaching VCs for the first time is now a different story, amidst the crisis. While the Fitz Gate founders explain that they open and respond to every email inquiry from startups, that's not the case for most VCs who prefer a warm introduction — but maybe not even that considering the current economic climate.

"If you're approaching a venture investor today, you might get a bit of a weird look," Cohen says of startups looking to fundraise.

On the virtual panel, the duo shared some insight on their passion for venture funding, as well as some general advice for startups. One key takeaway from the investors was a reminder that most VCs are funding between 1 and 2 percent of deals that come across their table.

"Don't get discouraged," Cohen says. "Any venture fund you talk to, they're not geniuses. They are operating on very limited information about whatever it is you pitched them in a really short fashion."

While it is disheartening to hear a "no" from an investor, it doesn't mean the startup's idea or product isn't valid.

In wrapping up the call, Cohen remarks on the environment for Houston innovation. While he admits the ecosystem lacks access to funding, he observes that this will change in a matter of time.

"It's amazing how many startups in Houston — and the support infrastructure," Cohen says, noting startup development organizations like The Ion, The Cannon, and more. "So much going on in this ecosystem, so I think, in that sense, it's an incredibly vibrant place to be as a founder."

Liu Idea Lab's Carol Tyger shares her experience on product managing for a tech startup. Getty Images

Houston expert reflects on why product management and user experience are key for tech startups

Houston voices

Consider planning a wedding. An impossible task of delivering a grand, completely personal event for all sorts of guests at a minimal cost.

At first, my fiance and I were freaking out because we heard that wedding planning is full of hidden costs and impossible expectations. But then the light bulb went off: that sounds a lot like my job as a product manager (PM). I can be the PM of my own wedding! I knew I wanted to provide a kick-ass party (great experience) for every guest (users) with limited resources (efficiently maximizing value).

Relying on my product manager skills, my fiancé and I started off by considering our goals and removing assumptions. I even conducted some user interviews by asking my friends what they value in weddings. Then we defined the "Wedding Minimum Viable Product (MVP)" and organized ourselves like a software team with a backlog and kanban board.

In the end, the wedding was a huge success. It felt just like a major software product release…from the planning to the execution. Product management is all about making a great user experience, maximizing value and working efficiently. In other words, it is a foundation for getting things done that can be applied to almost any situation.

Ultimately, as a product manager, you build an entrepreneurial mindset that can be applied to any future role. At the bare minimum, the PM is responsible for providing detailed requests for the tech team to build. But to be a great PM, it takes a lot more.

You rely on empathy. Product managers are the voice of the user for both the business and the tech team. To understand the user, you conduct user interviews, gather market analysis and collaborate with internal groups – exploring all corners of the organization – to determine user needs. Skilled product managers don't directly ask users what they want, but instead, understand through observation. You will be using various types of user data before and after software releases to forecast and measure the impact of innovations made.

You strengthen soft skills. It doesn't matter how technical you are if you don't have good rapport within the organization. The basics begin with communicating effectively, remaining flexible, acknowledging bad decisions and being comfortable with the unknown. The best product managers have built enough trust throughout the organization to lead at a senior level despite not having direct authority.

You strategize. You must understand the users, software cycle, and business needs well enough to plan months – even years – ahead while listening to and setting expectations with everyone involved. You will be blazing trails and solving new problems. The company will rely on you to operate with integrity while continuously innovating. Your entrepreneurial mindset will make setting the strategy second nature.

The entrepreneurial mindset and product management responsibilities hone skills that are not only transferable to future roles, but to your life in general. Whether you are preparing for a major software release or planning a fantastic party, your entrepreneurial mindset and product management skills will help you succeed.

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Carol Tyger is Lilie's product management expert-in-residence and was head of product at Spruce, a Houston-founded managed marketplace for apartment residents to book services such as housekeeping.

This article originally appeared on Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship's blog.

Startups all over Houston and across industries are answering the call for tech solutions to COVID-19-caused issues from real estate and mental health to new software and services. Duy Do/Getty Images

9 Houston startups that are pivoting to provide COVID-19-related services

Startups to the rescue

From software to new services, several Houston startups are using this time of crisis to roll out new options for people living in the time of the COVID-19 crisis.

Last week, InnovationMap rounded up seven health tech startups providing health care solutions. This week, here are nine more startups that have reacted to the coronavirus with new tech solutions.

GotSpot

Reda Hicks, founder of GotSpot, has launched Rescue Spot to help out Houstonians dealing with the COVID crisis. Courtesy of GotSpot

Reda Hicks founded her company Gotspot — a digital tool that helps connect people with commercial space with people who need it — on the heels of Hurricane Harvey after seeing how hard it was for Houstonians to activate physical spaces in an emergency.

Now, in the face of another — albeit drastically different — situation, Hicks has created Rescue Spot to be that activation portal for specific COVID-19-related crisis needs.

"We are working with local community leaders to try to activate specific kind of space for emergency response," Hicks says in a Facebook interview with Bunker Labs, "so, restaurants turned into community kitchens, cold storage for perishables, storefronts that can be used as drive-by distribution centers, and places for people to house their pets while their owners are feeling overwhelmed and can't take care of their four-legged family members as well."

People with space or in need of a Rescue Spot can list their space or needs online.

SocialMama

Houston-based SocialMama uses its platform to connect mothers based on location, interests, and the things their children have in common. Courtesy of SocialMama

Houston-based SocialMama was founded in May of last year to connect mothers using machine learning that factors in vicinity, children's ages, shared motherly struggles, and more to create a support group digitally and socially. Now, the startup has sped up the release of a new feature so that users have more mental health resources during the pandemic.

Founder and CEO Amanda Ducach created SocialMama's expert program — an update to the app, which has been downloaded by over 15,000 users since launch — to connect moms to professionals specializing in everything from family medicine and mental health to career and personal safety. A portion of these experts join from Gravida, a post partum and return to work resource, according to a news release.

"Knowing someone is on the other side of the screen with a very similar story is truly comforting. The app considers all females, including those planning to become moms, those who are trying to conceive, those who have lost a child, etc. SocialMama is here for our community in a whole new way with the launch of our expert program," says Ducach in the release.

With mothers being tasked with educating and entertaining their children at home during the crisis on top of their regular jobs and duties, many are turning to SocialMama's online forum and app for support, ideas, and solidarity.

Accel Lifestyle

Accel's masks are made out of their specialty anti-bacteria fabric. Photo courtesy of Accel

While you might not usually think an activewear brand has anything to contribute to the fight against the coronavirus, you have to remember that Accel Lifestyle isn't a typical activewear brand. Founder Megan Eddings created the Prema® anti-bacterial fabric for an anti-stink feature in her clothing. That feature has another use: Preventing the spread of the disease.

Accel quickly pivoted her t-shirt-making supply chain to designing and sewing the masks. The reusable, washable masks are available online for individuals to purchase, but one Houston hospital system has made a huge purchase. Houston Methodist ordered 9,000 masks to be made for their hospital staff.

"The fact that a hospital system that is on the forefront of COVID-19 is choosing Accel Lifestyle to create PPE is profound and humbling," Eddings says in a press release. "I truly believe we're all in this together and we all have a role to play during this pandemic. If Accel Lifestyle can help flatten the curve in any way, then we're going to do it."

Predictive Solutions

A Houston startup has created a web tool for tracking the coronavirus. Pexels

Houston-based Predictive Solutions created a web application in March to give the residents of Harris County all the local information on COVID-19 in the palm of their hands — and now the tool has been expanded to the entire state.

The online map identifies nearby testing locations as well as indicates cases that have been self reported in the area. While not trying to be comprehensive, the website is trying to track trends with the disease.

"We developed the app to help streamline communication between the City of Houston, the healthcare community, aid organizations and Harris County residents, while mitigating the logistical nightmare of making sure presumed cases get tested," says Stewart Severino, co-founder and CEO of Predictive Solutions, in a news release. Read more.

Truss

Truss has modified its software to advance communications while hospitals are cracking down on visitors amid the coronavirus outbreak. Getty Images

Houston-based Truss usually focuses on digital community engagement, but Patrick Schneidau, CEO of the company, says he felt called to do something to help families separated due to strict emergency visitation rules at hospitals.

"You read all the stories of loved ones not being able to be together during this time," Schneidau, who is a member of InnovationMap's board, previously told InnovationMap. "That was the area we wanted to focus on."

Schneidau describes the software as a secure portal for small groups to interact via smart devices. Physicians can interface with family members via video chat or recorded messages, as well as answer any questions. Schneidau is looking for health care organizations to work with the technology so that patients and their doctors can have secure access to loved ones. Read more.

ChaiOne

Houston-based ChaiOne has launched a new tool that can help companies track supply chain delays resulting from COVID-19. Photo courtesy of ChaiOne

Houston-based ChaiOne recently announced the soft launch of its new software called Velostics — the "slack" for logistics that solves wait times and cash flow challenges in the supply chain and logistics industry. The digital logistics platform is set to aid the struggling supply chain as surging demands stretch suppliers, offering their platform free for 60 days.

"At ChaiOne we have a history of helping Houstonians whenever disaster strikes," says CEO and founder, Gaurav Khandelwal. "We created a disaster connect app during Hurricane Harvey for free that connected people with the resources they need. Velostics by pure happenstance happened to be ready for situations like [the coronavirus] when there's a lot of parties that need to collaborate."

Velostics results in an improved cash cycle for clients, cutting a 90-day settlement down to one day, along with an overhead reduction that reduces costs and improves output along with error reduction. The digital platform is specially engineered to reduce waste while keeping the supply chain running efficiently. Read more.

Umanity

Launched in Houston, Umanity's new tool aims to better connect nonprofits with supplies and volunteers amid the COVID-19 crisis. Photos via umanity.io

Umanity, which is a part of the Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator's first cohort, has created a philanthropic supply chain tool that's now available as an app or through desktop. The software can match and map local individual or nonprofit needs to organizations or volunteers, plus provide real-time analytics. During the coronavirus outbreak, they have mobilized its resources connecting supplies with nonprofits and volunteers with safe ways to help organizations that need it most during this crisis.

The company, which is working with several city of Houston officials to direct citizens the resources they need during the crisis, is creating a network of communities to efficiently provide them the resources they need. The centralized platform shows a complete picture of who needs help and who can help all on the same platform while measuring the real-time economic impact of donations and every volunteer hour.

"I started this company because I wanted to transition everyday acts of service into actual data-driven solutions," says Ryan-Alexander Thomas, CEO and founder of Umanity. "My goal is that during the next crisis, for example, hurricane season, if somebody needs something they have access to get it when they need it, not two years later or after the crisis." Read more.

Otso

Houston small businesses are struggling to pay their rent with doors closed and operations ceased — but where should the relief come from? Getty Images

When Josh Feinberg had the idea for his newest startup, Otso, he was hoping to remove the pointless burden of cash deposits required for new commercial and retail leases. But as the coronavirus pandemic began enacting stay-at-home mandates that forced small businesses to close their physical spaces, he had another idea.

Otso, with its financial partner Euler Hermes, provides landlords with an alternative to cash security deposits. While he first envisioned this tool for new leases, Feinberg created a system so that local businesses that are struggling to pay their rent can opt into this type of contract through an addendum to the lease. They can get back their cash deposits and use that capital now when times are tough.

"If we can get some liquidity back into the hands of the business, they have some a better chance of survival," Feinberg previously told InnovationMap.

Tenants or landlords can begin the process online. Feinberg recently joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the unprecedented state of commercial real estate and offer his advice for business owners. Click here to listen.

Spruce

Houston-founded Spruce has added some new services to help sanitize multifamily facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Getty Images

Houston-founded, Austin-based Spruce, which has an office locally, has launched a new suite of services for disinfecting common areas — like leasing offices, hallways, mail rooms, etc. — using EPA-compliant chemicals.

"Now, more than ever, it is critical for apartment communities to make sure their common areas are regularly decontaminated and disinfected to help slow the spread of the coronavirus and to prevent as many infections as possible," says Ben Johnson, founder and CEO of Spruce, in a statement.

The services include a weekly disinfectant of high-touch spots — like door handles and elevator buttons — as well as a weekly comprehensive cleaning that involves mopping, surface cleaning, and vacuuming. The startup also offers a bimonthly fogging service that can completely cover both indoor and outdoor areas with disinfectant. This solution can protect surfaces for months, according to the news release.

"This is an unprecedented public health crisis, and we worked closely with our clients to determine the biggest need and hope these services will give apartment communities one more weapon to use in the fight against COVID-19 and will help give both operators and their residents peace of mind," Johnson continues in the release. Read more.

Houston-founded Spruce has added some new services to help sanitize multifamily facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Getty Images

Houston-founded startup launches new COVID-19-focused sanitizing services

keeping clean

A startup that provides concierge services — like cleaning and dog walking — to apartment renters has expanded its services to outside the apartment units to help multifamily properties with sanitization and disinfection services to protect their communities from COVID-19.

Austin-based Spruce, which was founded in Houston in 2016 and still has an office locally, has a new suite of services for disinfecting common areas — like leasing offices, hallways, mail rooms, etc. — using EPA-compliant chemicals.

"Now, more than ever, it is critical for apartment communities to make sure their common areas are regularly decontaminated and disinfected to help slow the spread of the coronavirus and to prevent as many infections as possible," says Ben Johnson, founder and CEO of Spruce, in a statement.

The services include a weekly disinfectant of high-touch spots — like door handles and elevator buttons — as well as a weekly comprehensive cleaning that involves mopping, surface cleaning, and vacuuming. The startup also offers a bimonthly fogging service that can completely cover both indoor and outdoor areas with disinfectant. This solution can protect surfaces for months, according to the news release.

"This is an unprecedented public health crisis, and we worked closely with our clients to determine the biggest need and hope these services will give apartment communities one more weapon to use in the fight against COVID-19 and will help give both operators and their residents peace of mind," Johnson continues in the release.

Spruce still offers its usual suite of services for individual apartment units such as daily chores and housekeeping and pet care, but extra precautions have been added since the coronavirus outbreak. The service providers are required to go through temperature checks before entering the properties. They also wear gloves, changing them out between units, and are incorporating paper products when able.

Since its founding, Spruce, which used to be called Apartment Butler, has expanded throughout the state and into South Florida, Denver, and Salt Lake City. Spruce has raised over $6 million in venture capital, per Crunchbase data, and that includes funds from Houston institutions like Mercury Fund, the Houston Angel Network, and Fitz Gate Ventures, as well as Austin-based Capital Factory.

Apartment Butler has reemerged as Spruce with fresh funds to take the company to Denver and beyond. Photo via GetSpruce.com

Houston startup rebrands, closes $3 million investment round, and plans first out-of-state expansion

Spruced up

A Houston startup that coordinates hospitality services — such as cleaning, dog walking, etc. — has recently cleaned up itself, with a fresh rebranding and new funds to further develop the company.

Spruce (née Apartment Butler) has closed a venture capital round at $3 million. Princeton, New Jersey-based Fitz Gate Ventures led the round with three Texas investors: Houston-based Mercury Fund, the Houston Angel Network, and Austin-based Capital Factory, which recently announced its Houston outpost.

The fresh funds will allow for Spruce to expand its services out of Texas for the first time. Denver will be the first non-Texas market for the company, according to a news release. The funds will also go toward sales, marketing, and software development scaling.

"We could not be more appreciative of the support from these outstanding investors," says Ben Johnson, founder and CEO of Spruce, in the release. "Since our founding, we have grown aggressively as more and more apartment communities have seen the demand for hotel-inspired services increase dramatically. We look forward to continuing our strategic, rapid growth with this funding that will play a critical role in that expansion."

Last month, Apartment Butler rebranded into Spruce to better represent the company and its market disrupting features, according to a news release.

"Since our inception just a few short years ago, we have experienced an incredible rate of growth, demonstrating the demand residents have for hotel-inspired services in their apartment homes," says Johnson in the June 25 release. "We believe the new Spruce brand name better connects with consumers and reflects the full range of services we have to offer."

Spruce's services include daily chores, housekeeping, pet care (dog walking, pet sitting, etc.), and laundry and dry cleaning. Spruce has a B-to-B-to-C model in which it works with apartment communities to broker partnership deals to reach their residents.

Late last summer, Johnson closed a $2 million seed round for his company and expanded the company to Austin, hinting at the out-of-state growth being in the near future for the startup.



Apartment dwellers that live in a Spruce-partner community can access services through an app or desktop interface.Photo via GetSpruce.com

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Houston nonprofits can receive free tech help from big bank's batch of experts

Tech Support

Though it's been around since 2012, JPMorgan Chase's Force for Good program feels especially vital right now. The project connects Chase employee volunteers with hundreds of nonprofits around the world to build sustainable tech solutions that help advance their missions.

Even better, Houston and Dallas nonprofits have a leg up in the selection process. Organizations located in or near one of Chase's tech centers get priority, and that includes H-Town and Big D.

The government-registered nonprofits, foundations, and social enterprises (we're talking everything from food banks to theater companies) selected to participate will have access to a team of up to 10 highly skilled technologists, who will spend approximately four hours per week advising over an eight month period.

Each nonprofit is asked to propose the specific project that would benefit from technology guidance, and it needs to be something the organization can maintain when the project period is over.

"We have more than 50,000 technologists at JPMorgan Chase around the world and they're passionate about giving back," says Ed Boden, global lead of Technology for Social Good programs. "Force for Good gives our employees the opportunity to utilize their unique skills while also learning new ones, to build technology solutions for the organizations that need it most."

If you're the director, CEO, or other person in charge at a nonprofit and you still have questions about Force for Good, Chase has put together a free webinar to help explain further.

These webinars cover the overall program experience and application process, and it's highly recommended that nonprofits watch before applying. The live webinar dates (with Texas times) are June 2 from 1:30-2:30 pm and June 8 from 10:30-11:30 am.

A pre-recorded webinar will also be available for nonprofits to review after the live webinar dates.

Since 2012, Force for Good has worked with over 320 organizations in 22 cities, contributing over 190,500 hours of knowledge and skills.

"It is a great program that can provide strong impact for nonprofit organizations that need technology help," says Chris Rapp, a Dallas-based Chase executive. "As a father and husband of two Dallas artists, I am a huge believer in helping the arts grow and hopefully we can help do this through Force For Good."

The application process opened on May 28, with a deadline to submit by July 10.

2 corporations write checks to go toward Houston hospital's COVID-19 efforts

money moves

Two Houston companies have doled out cash to a Houston hospital's efforts in driving innovation during the pandemic as well as moving forward in a post-COVID-19 world.

Houston Methodist received $500,000 from Houston-based Aramco Americas and $130,000 from Houston-based Reliant. Aramco's gift will go toward funding ongoing research on convalescent plasma therapy as a treatment for COVID-19 and Reliant's donation will create the Reliant Innovation Fund.

"The challenges that we have and will continue to face with the COVID-19 pandemic amplifies the need for fresh ideas to combat this disease and treat those who have been affected," says Dr. Faisal Masud, medical director of the Center for Critical Care at Houston Methodist Hospital, in a news release from Reliant. "Innovating is at the core of what we do at Houston Methodist, and this generous gift from Reliant will make a difference for patients both now and for years to come."

According to the release, $100,000 will go toward supporting students in the Texas A&M University's Engineering Medicine program, which combines engineering and medical courses to allow for students to receive a master's in engineering and a medical degree in four years. Currently, A&M is renovating a building in the Texas Medical Center that will be the future home of the program.

"The EnMed program is educating a new type of physician — one with an engineering background and a forward-thinking, innovative medical mindset. Reliant's partnership and donation will allow our students to innovate for the dynamic needs on today's clinical front lines," says Dr. Timothy Boone, director of the Houston Methodist Education Institute and Associate Texas A&M Dean, in the release.

The other $30,000 of Reliant's gift will go towards expanding the hospital's patient-centric mobile app, CareSense, which Houston Methodist has used to connect with COVID-19 patients after they have left the hospital.

Aramco's donation will be used to support Houston Methodist's plasma research on COVID-19 treatment. The hospital was the first academic medical center in the United States to get FDA approval for this type of treatment on COVID-19 patients.

"Convalescent plasma therapy has been effective in other infectious diseases and our physician-scientists are working to develop it into a first-line treatment for COVID-19," says Dr. Dirk Sostman, president at the Houston Methodist Academic Institute, in a news release from Aramco.

The treatment collects blood from recovered COVID-19 patients and infuses the plasma into currently ill COVID-19 patients in hopes that the recovered patient's plasma can provide the antibodies for the ill patient to fight off the disease.

"Houston Methodist Hospital is a world-leader in healthcare as well as research and development," says Mohammad S. Alshammari, president and CEO of Aramco Americas in the release. "Our donation is an opportunity to support the innovative work occurring there in support of the Houston community and to contribute to long-term medical solutions for this global health crisis."