Spark Biomedical took home first place at the Texas A&M New Ventures Competition. Courtesy of Texas A&M

Earlier this month, 16 startups competed in the 2019 Texas A&M New Ventures Competition for more than $350,000 in cash and in-kind services — the largest pool of prizes in the contest's history.

Houston had a huge presence at TNVC this year. Several Houston startups competed in the technology- and science-focused pitch competition, and the top three prizes were claimed by Houstonians. Of the 13 health and life science companies that were named semifinalists, seven were related to the TMC Innovation Institute.

Here are the Houston companies that walked away from the TNVC with cash and/or prizes.

Spark Biomedical

Friendswood-based medical device company Spark Biomedical took home the top prize at TNVC, which came with a $50,000 check. Spark's technology uses a noninvasive neurostimulation treatment for opioid addiction recovery.

"I'm very humbled and grateful," says Daniel Powell, CEO of Spark, in a release. "This award means a lot because Texas A&M is my alma mater. Being back here is fantastic, and this win is a testament to the work we're doing and our dedication to making a difference with this product."

Spark also was recognized with the Southwest Pediatric Device Prize and the Aggie Angel Network Investment Prize. Recently, Spark announced a partnership with another Houston startup, Galen Data.

SurfEllent

Photo via surfellent.com

Coming in at No. 2 overall and receiving a $35,000 prize was Houston-based advanced coating company, SurfEllent. The company, which is based out of the University of Houston's Technology Park, has designed an anti-icing technology that can be used in any type of situation from de-icing cars to aeronautical applications.

SurfEllent was also recently recognized as one of the top three innovators at NASA's 2017 iTech forum, out of 130 entries across the US.

The company also walked away with the TEEX Product Development Center Prize.

Intelligent Implants

Photo by Cody Duty/TMC

Intelligent Implants called Houston home during the 2018 TMCx medical device cohort and still has a presence in town. The company, which created a, implantable wireless device that stimulates bone growth using electrical stimulation, claimed third prize and $25,000.

Last fall, following its success at TMCx, Intelligent Implants was named the "Most Promising Life Science Company" at the 2018 Texas Life Science Forum hosted by the Rice Alliance and BioHouston.

VenoStent

Photo via venostent.com

Another 2018 TMCx medical device cohort member competed at the TNVC and left with fresh funds. VenoStent took fifth place and a $10,000 prize. VenoStent has a device that allows a successful stent implementation on the first try, called the SelfWrap. The device is made from a shape-memory polymer that uses body heat to mold the stent into the vein-artery junction.

VenoStent, which has its headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, also won the Ramey & Schwaller IP Legal Services Prize.

PolyVascular

Courtesy of TMC Innovation

Houston-based PolyVascular walked away a big winner of multiple prizes. The company, a member of TMCx's 2017 medical device cohort, creates polymeric transcatheter valves for children with congenital heart disease.

PolyVascular won the TNVC pitch competition, which came with a $5,000 prize. The startup also walked away with the Biotex Investment Prize, the Amerra Visualization Services Prize, and the GOOSE Society Investment Prize.

Ictero Medical

Ictero Medical, which operates out of JLABs at TMC, took home several prizes, including the Thomas | Horstemeyer IP Legal Services Prize, the TMC Accelerator Admission Prize, and the Engineering Vice Chancellor Innovation Prize — a new award that came with a $15,000 prize.

Ictero created the CholeSafe System — a minimally invasive device that treats gallstone disease patients in a procedure with "only minimal local anesthesia to defunctionalize the gallbladder without having to remove it," according to the website.

Sun Co. Tracking

Sun Co. Tracking was the other of the two startups to receive the new Engineering Vice Chancellor's Innovation Prize and its own $15,000 prize. The Houston-based company is developing shape memory alloy actuators for solar panels.

"This unique prize is intended to help the awardees access the world-class engineering capabilities at Texas A&M to obtain technical assistance toward solving their most challenging technical problems in product design, manufacturing or testing," says Dr. Balakrishna Haridas, TEES director for technology commercialization and entrepreneurship, in a release.

"These collaborations between the prize winners and Texas A&M Engineering will generate technical data to support on Small Business Innovation Research/grant proposal funding or private capital investments to the company."

GaitIQ

Photo via LinkedIn

GaitIQ is based in San Antonio, but is automatically accepted into TMCx's tenth cohort if they'd like, since the company won the TMC Investment Prize. The company, which created a primary care app that uses artificial intelligence and cloud-based technology, also won sixth place overall and $5,000.

GaitIQ also won the Ark Pharmacies, Inc. Regional Prize, the Hollinden Marketing and Strategists Services Prize, and the Schwegman Lundberg and Woessner IP Legal Services Prize.

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Cancer-fighting company based in Houston emerges from stealth and snags $74M in its latest round

fresh funds

A Houston-based clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company has raised millions in its latest round.

Tvardi Therapeutics Inc. closed its $74 million series B funding round led by new investors New York-based Slate Path Capital, Florida-based Palkon Capital, Denver-based ArrowMark Partners, and New York-based 683 Capital, with continued support and participation by existing investors, including Houston-based Sporos Bioventures.

"We are thrilled to move out of stealth mode and partner with this lineup of long-term institutional investors," says Imran Alibhai, CEO at Tvardi. "With this financing we are positioned to advance the clinical development of our small molecule inhibitors of STAT3 into mid-stage trials as well as grow our team."

Through Slate Path Capital's investment, Jamie McNab, partner at the firm, will join Tvardi's board of directors.

"Tvardi is the leader in the field of STAT3 biology and has compelling proof of concept clinical data," McNab says in the release. "I look forward to partnering with the management team to advance Tvardi's mission to develop a new class of breakthrough medicines for cancer, chronic inflammation, and fibrosis."

Tvardi's latest fundraise will go toward supporting the company's products in their mid-stage trials for cancer and fibrosis. According to the release, Tvardi's lead product, TTI-101, is being studied in a Phase 1 trial of patients with advanced solid tumors who have failed all lines of therapy. So far, the drug has been well-received and shown multiple durable radiographic objective responses in the cancer patients treated.

Dr. Keith Flaherty, who is a member of Tvardi's scientific advisory board and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, offered his support of the company.

"STAT3 is a compelling and validated target. Beyond its clinical activity, Tvardi's lead molecule, TTI-101, has demonstrated direct downregulation of STAT3 in patients," he says in the release. "As a physician, I am eager to see the potential of Tvardi's molecules in diseases of high unmet medical need where STAT3 is a key driver."

Networking with high-status colleagues isn't successful across industries, per Rice University research

houston voices

In a timeless scene from the mockumentary "This Is Spinal Tap," an 80s metal band swaggers in for a performance only to find they're billed second to a puppet show. Though the film is farce, real musicians often come to question the value of playing second fiddle to anyone – even an A-lister.

Now research by Rice Business professor Alessandro Piazza and colleagues Damon J. Phillips and Fabrizio Castellucci confirms those musicians are right to wonder. In fact, they discovered, the only thing worse than performing after a puppet may be opening up for an idol. Bands that consistently open up for groups with higher status, the researchers found, earn less money – and are more likely to break up than those that don't.

"Three cheers," The Economist wrote about the researchers, for confirming "what many people in the music industry have long suspected – that being the opening band for a big star is not a first class ticket to success."

While the findings may be intuitive for seasoned musicians, they fly in the face of existing business research. Most research about affiliations concludes that hobnobbing with high-status colleagues gives lowly newcomers a boost. Because affiliations give access to resources and information, the reasoning goes, it's linked with individual- and firm-level successes such as landing jobs and starting new ventures.

Both individuals and organizations, one influential study notes, benefit from the "sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships."

That's largely because in many fields up and comers must fight to be taken seriously – or noticed at all. This problem is often called "the liability of newness:" In order to succeed, industry newcomers first need to be considered legitimate by the audience they're trying to woo.

Showing off shiny friends is a classic solution. In many fields, after all, linking oneself with a high-status partner is simply good branding: a shorthand signal to audiences or consumers that if a top dog has given their approval, the newcomer must surely have some of the same excellent qualities.

Unfortunately, this doesn't always hold true – especially in the creative world, Piazza's team found. In the frantic world of haute cuisine, for example, a faithful apprentice to a celebrity chef may actually suffer for all those burns and cuts in the star's hectic kitchen. Unless they can create meals that are not just spectacular, but show off a distinct style, consumers may sneer at the newcomer as a knockoff of the true master.

So what determines if reflected glory makes newcomers shine or merely eclipses them? It has to do with how much attention there is to go around, Piazza said. While partnering with a star helps in some fields, it can be a liability when success depends on interaction between audience and performer. That's because our attention – that is, ability to mentally focus on a specific subject – is finite. Consumers can only take in so much at a time.

Marketers are acutely aware of this scarcity. Much of their time, after all, is spent battling for consumer attention in an environment swamped by competitors. The more rivals for advertising attention, research shows, the less a consumer will recall of any one ad. In the world of finance, publicly traded companies also live and die on attention, in the form of analyst coverage of their stocks and angel investors' largesse.

Musicians who perform live, Piazza said, are battling for attention in a field that's gotten progressively more fierce, due to lower album sales and shorter career spans. Performing in the orbit of a major distraction such as Taylor Swift or Beyoncé, however, only reduces the attention the opening act gets, the researchers found. Though performances are just a few hours, the attention drain can do lasting harm both to revenue and career longevity.

To reach these conclusions, the researchers analyzed data about the live performances and careers of 1,385 new bands between 2000 and 2005. Supplementing this with biographical and genre information about each band along with musician interviews, the team then analyzed the concert revenue and artistic survival of each band.

They discovered that in live music, high status affiliation onstage clearly diluted audience attention to newcomers – translating into less revenue and lower chance of survival.

In part, the revenue loss also stems from the fact that even in big stadium performances, performing with superstars rarely enriches the underdogs. According to a 2014 Billboard magazine report, headliners in the U.S. typically absorb 30 to 40 percent of gross event revenues; intermediate acts garner 20 to 30 percent and opening acts for established artists bring as little as $15,000.

The findings were surprising, and perhaps dispiriting, enough for the researchers to carefully spell out their scope. Affiliation's positive effects, they said, are most often found in environments of collaboration and learning – for example academia. In these settings, a superstar not only can bestow a halo effect, but can share actual resources or information. In the music world, however, the fleeting nature of a shared performance makes it hard for a superstar band to share much with a lower-ranked band except, perhaps, some euphoric memories.

Interestingly, in many businesses it's easy for observers to quickly assume affiliations between disparate groups. In the investment banking industry, for instance, research shows that audiences infer status hierarchies among banks merely by reading "tombstone advertisements," the announcements of security offerings in major business publications. Readers assume underwriting banks to be affiliated with each other when they're listed as being part of the same syndicate – even if the banks actually have little to do with each other beyond pooling capital in the same deal.

In the music business, star affiliations mainly help an opening act a) if the audience understands there's an affiliation and b) if they believe the link is intentional. But that's not always the case because promoters and others in Big Music often line up opening bands. When possible, though, A-listers can do their opening acts a solid by making it clear that they've chosen them to perform there.

Otherwise, Piazza and his colleagues concluded, the light shed by musical supernovas typically gets lost in the darkened stadium. For the long term, business-minded bands may do best by working with peers in more modest venues – places where the attention they do get, like in Spinal Tap's classic metric, goes all the way up to 11.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Alessandro Piazza, an assistant professor of strategic management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Houston data management company closes $18M in fresh funding

money moves

A Houston company that's created a centralized log management solution has closed a new round in funding.

Graylog closed its $18 million growth equity round led by Richmond, Virginia-based Harbert Growth Partners, a new investor, and Minneapolis, Minnesota-based Piper Sandler Merchant Banking, the company announced today. The round also received contribution from existing investors Houston-based Mercury Fund and Integr8d Capital, as well as Germany-based HTGF.

"This investment will enable us to accelerate our global go-to-market strategies and enhancements to the award-winning solutions we deliver for IT, DevOps, and Security teams," says Andy Grolnick, CEO of Graylog, in a press release. "We're excited to have the support of new and existing investor partners to help us realize our potential."

Andy Grolnick is CEO of Graylog. Photo courtesy

Per the release, the funds will go toward growing the company's platform that allows its users the ability to capture, store, and enable real-time analysis of terabytes of machine data.

"Graylog is well-positioned to be a long-term winner in the rapidly growing market for log management and analysis solutions," says Brian Carney, general partner of Harbert Growth Partners, in the release. "With its focus on delivering a superior analyst experience coupled with a vibrant Open Source community, the company provides customers a compelling alternative to other log management solutions plagued with high complexity and high total cost of ownership (TCO). We are thrilled to partner with the Graylog team to leverage the significant opportunity that lies ahead for the company."

Over the past year, despite the challenging business climate, the company saw growth in business and even expanded its European operations, according to the release.

"As a long-standing customer, Graylog is strategic to our success. We are excited to see new investment that will enable the company to accelerate innovation and continue to deliver excellent log management and SIEM solutions," says Rob Reiner, CTO of PROS, in the release.