2020 brought over $700 million in venture funding deals into Houston, and startups saw larger deals in the first half of the year with a growing interest in angel activity. Image via Getty Images

Houston startup's venture capital deals continue to grow in 2020, according to a new report from Houston Exponential. Last year, VC dollars were up, while deal count was down, representing more mature deals coming into the ecosystem — but the second half of the year was defined by a growth in angel investment interest.

The report by Serafina Lalany, chief of staff for HX, found that the Bayou City brought saw $715 million across 117 VC deals, according to Pitch Book data. It's the fourth year Houston has seen VC growth, and last year the city reported over $563 million across 168 deals.

"Houston has put concerted efforts into building its innovation ecosystem," says Harvin Moore, president of HX, in a release, "and 2020's record-breaking results show we are seeing not only resilience in the tech sector, but a significant increase in the rate of formation and success of growth-stage companies, which have an outsized effect on our local economy in terms of high paying job potential and Houston's increasing attractiveness as a great place to work."

Last August, HX published a report on the first half of the year and that study found that Houston — facing the challenges of both the pandemic and the oil price drop — managed to see a 7 percent increase in funding compared to the national average of 2.5 percent. With the second half of the year, the city's VC increase from last year was over 25 percent and up 252 percent since 2014.

The other difference between the first and second halves of the year for Houston VC was the stages of the deals made. Most of Houston's larger deals took place in the first and second quarters — and even the beginning of Q3 — of 2020:

But the second half of the year seemed like Houston's earlier stage VC activity returned, and Blair Garrou, managing partner at Houston-based Mercury Fund, confirmed this to InnovationMap on the Houston Innovator's Podcast in December.

"Seed rounds have definitely bounced back. We're seeing a lot of seed activity, because there's been a lot of seed funds raised," Garrou said on the podcast, adding that he's observed an increase in angel investment interest. "People are realizing that money is in innovation and tech — especially in software."

In her report, Lalany found that in Houston, angel investments are out-pacing seed, creating a "competitive environment."

"The addition of multi-stage and nontraditional investment firms into the arena has created upward pressure in deal valuations and sizes. The average seed round in 2015 was $1 million, whereas today it's double that," the report reads. "With these firms turning inward to focus on protecting their current investments at the start of the pandemic, the propensity for smaller, more riskier investments have declined."

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of the Houston Angel Network, said she's seen a rise in new membership for the organization. Last August, she was on track to get to 150 members — up from just 60 in 2018.

"Despite COVID, we've continued to grow," Campbell told InnovationMap, adding that she's heard investors express that they have more time now to dive in. "People are very much still interested in learning about deploying their capital into early-stage venture. They're looking for a network of like-minded individuals."

In contrast to this early stage activity, the VC activity that was still occurring was defined by larger deals. With VC essentially halting in March and April — especially in cities like Houston, Garrou adds — it makes sense that investors wanted more "sure things" and would invest more funds into companies they already know, versus being able to source new deals in person.

"When you go to later stages, there are a lot fewer deals going on," Garrou continues on the podcast. "Now, there may be larger investments being made, but I think they are into fewer companies, and I think that's just due to the the pandemic and the ability just to not be able to do face-to-face."

As Houston moves through 2021, the city is poised well for more growth and a continued diversification from just oil and gas, as Moore says in the release.

"Houston Exponential was created four years ago by civic and business leaders to deal with an existential problem: our dependence on the energy and medical sector without a thriving startup culture to lead us towards a future that will look very different from the past," he says. "COVID and the de-carbonization movement have made that need much more urgent — it's both a huge challenge and an enormous opportunity."

Finding funding might be harder during the pandemic. But there are some startups thinking outside the box to attain theirs. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

How Houston startups can find funding in the age of coronavirus

Houston voices

Almost eight months in to the pandemic and many startups are still fighting to survive. Finding funding has become harder in an era the New York Times calls "The Great Unwinding." But not every startup is succumbing to a bleak fate. Some have shown unique strategies for attaining funding. Here, we'll delve into a few examples of startup companies whose founders have managed to snag funding and stay afloat amid the crashing waters of coronavirus.

Government contracts

Payam Banazadeh, CEO of Capella Space, told Graham Winfrey, senior technology editor for Inc., that it would behoove tech startups to look into acquiring government contracts if possible. His Silicon Valley-based satellite communications startup snagged a lucrative government contract with the Department of Defense. "The government seeks startups that are doing unique things. If they find a product they like, they're going to pursue it. Government contracts help raise additional funding while also de-risking companies in the eyes of investors," Banazadeh said.

Funding conversations matter

Nesh is a company based in Houston that acts as a smart assistant for the energy industry. The startup spent the pandemic engaged in conversations with potential investors. "It's easier to talk to investors at this time. We've had more conversations in the past few months than all of 2019, but nobody is willing to write checks just yet," said Sidd Gupta, founder of Nesh, to Crunchbase News, a tech startup-centric outlet.

The Houston-based company also pivoted by expanding into other oil and gas areas like renewables. Nesh even decided to make its platform accessible free of charge during the shutdown.

Take matters into your own hands

Laally is a breastfeeding assistance device company. During their funding strategizing, they examined all the usual funding avenues: VC, angels, debt, non-profit and potential partnerships with bigger entities. Most of these sources asked for proof of concept and a proven history of solid sales before even thinking of putting money on the table.

Well, that wasn't possible for founders Max and Kate Spivak. They decided to go it alone. Self-funding. "As a family and rookie entrepreneurs, we made the decision to put our money in the balance and hire a partner for the tech part of the business," Max Spivak said told Crunchbase News.

"Even when things got rough as the pandemic worsened, and they did get very rough for us, we didn't have pressure from investors to liquidate assets or investors demanding their money back. That's because we were our own funders," said Kate Spivak.

Creativity can conquer COVID-19

Sometimes adversity is the mother of creativity. These three startup founders stepped outside the box of traditional funding strategies. They discovered ways to change their companies and attain funding during a pandemic that has its foot on the neck of the economy.

Thanks to people like Sidd Gupta, Payam Banazadeh, and the Spivaks, startup founders have a better idea of what they need to do for their startups to live another day. For their companies to see a light at the end of an 8-month long tunnel. The pandemic might have our faces covered, our friends at arm's length, and our jobs in limbo. But it cannot strip away the power of human ingenuity, innovation, and creativity. The founders named above are walking proof.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Trivie has closed a $5 million investment round led by Houston-based Cottonwood Venture Partners. Photo via Trivie.com

Houston investment firm leads Texas startup's $5M series A round

money moves

A Texas-based tech startup that has created an artificial intelligence-enabled tool that gamifies corporate training and education has closed its most recent funding round thanks to a Houston investor.

Trivie as announced its $5 million series A investment round led by Houston-based Cottonwood Venture Partners, an investment firm that has a portfolio of technology companies that are providing digital solutions within the energy industry. Trivie will use the new funds to scale its product and expand across industries, from energy and manufacturing to hospitality, healthcare, consumer goods, and more.

"The Trivie team's success to date has been remarkable and we are humbled to partner with them to expand Trivie's reach as organizations increasingly look to maximize knowledge retention, particularly as it relates to health and safety," says Jeremy Arendt, managing partner of CVP, in a news release.

Now, as more employees are working from home than ever before, relevant training is crucial and at the top of mind for business leaders. Trivie's clients include Subway, Phillips66, Anheuser-Busch, to name a few.

"At Trivie, our mission is to ensure that every employee at every organization can be at their very best because what they have been taught, they remember, and what they have said is understood," says Lawrence Schwartz, CEO, and co-founder at Trivie, in a news release. "We are extremely excited to partner with Cottonwood Venture Partners to help us expand our footprint in the Fortune 1000 and to continue to execute on that mission."

One of Trivie's founders, Leland Putterman, who is based in Houston, first had the idea for a consumer-facing trivia game 18 years ago. When the app rolled out in 2013, it garnered more than three million downloads. As COVID-19 has brought new compliance guidelines to the forefront of every industry, Trivie was quick to make the CDC's coronavirus guidelines available to all of its clients for no additional charge to be used across their entire employment bases.

Additionally, Trivie prioritizing its user's ability to connect in a time of social distancing and working from home.

"The only way to maintain that company culture and close communication with confidence is to use something like Trivie," Putterman previously tells InnovationMap. "There's no feedback loop right now. The only way to bridge that gap is to have something like Trivie that's the glue."

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

Houston-based venture firm closes recent fund and reflects on COVID-19's effect on investing

must be the money

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."

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Here's when Houston can expect the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine

coming soon

Texas can expect to receive the first 200,000 doses of the coveted Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine this week. The company announced that it has started the rollout process on March 1 — after the FDA approved its Emergency Use Authorization.

The Center for Disease Control gave the developer, Janssen Pharmaceutical, the final greenlight Sunday, February 28.

What does that mean for Houston? Mayor Sylvester Turner said the Houston Health Department is also anticipated to be on the list to receive Johnson & Johnson doses within the next seven days.

"That will be a game changer," Turner said at an event on February 28 afternoon. "There will be more vaccines available in a shorter period of time. We anticipate that we will probably get a shipment in sometime this week that will add to the Pfizer [doses] that we are using at NRG."

Turner said other clinics with the Houston Health Department have been administering the Moderna vaccine.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine does have noticeable differences from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, experts said.

The MRNA vaccines each require two shots which are usually delivered weeks apart and stored in freezers. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a single shot that can be stored in a refrigerator for up to three months at 35 to 46 degrees.

However, Johnson & Johnson does not have as much of the COVID-19 vaccine produced as originally anticipated. ABC13 confirmed 3.9 million doses will be shipped out across the country this week. Johnson & Johnson announced roughly an additional 16 million doses by the end of the month.

"In the next few weeks, it won't have much of any impact because they only have at least three or four million doses available, and that's disappointing news," says Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. "In the longer term, over the next few months, it's really important because we need a greater vaccine supply. We are not going to get there with the two MRNA vaccines. We need probably up to five different vaccines in order to vaccinate the American people."

Recently, there has been a decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations and COVID-19 cases reported statewide. As of Sunday, about 5,700 Texans are in the hospital due to COVID-19, which is half the number of hospitalization in the beginning of the month.

Infectious disease epidemiologist Dr. Catherine Troisi says it's important for people to not let their guard down and that people should get tested if they have been in a high-exposure situation, or if they have been in direct contact with someone who has tested positive.

"Get vaccinated, don't worry about what vaccine it is," Dr. Troisi notes. "It's true that unfortunately there are not as many doses right now of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as we have hoped, but the company is saying that by the end of June, they will have a 100 million doses, and that's into 100 million people because you don't need two doses.

"So, we expect to have 600 million doses of the other two vaccines, that's 300 million people," she continues. "That should be enough for everyone who wants the vaccine to be able to get it. With one caveat and that is as of right now we do not have a vaccine for children under age 16. Those trials are going on, hopefully as we go throughout the year there will be a vaccine licensed to 12 year-olds and then maybe going down to 8 years or older."

For more details on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine rollout, visit the FDA's website.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap. For more on this story, visit our news partner ABC13.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three innovators across industries recently making headlines — from resilience technology to energy innovation.

Richard Seline, co-founder at the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub Collaboratory

Richard Seline of Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how it's time for the world to see Houston as the resilient city it is. Photo courtesy of ResilientH20

Richard Seline says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, that people are exhausted and these feelings are festering into frustration and anger — and calling for change. The things that need to change, Seline says, includes growing investment and innovation in resilience solutions.

"As a fourth generation Houstonian, it's just so hard to see my hometown get hit persistently with a lot of these weather and other type of disasters," Seline says.

These unprecedented disasters — which are of course occurring beyond Houston and Texas — have also sparked a growing interest in change for insurance companies that have lost a trillion dollars on the United States Gulf Coast over the past seven years, Seline says. Something has got to change regarding preparation and damage mitigation. Read more and stream the podcast.

Deanna Zhang, director of energy technology at Houston-based Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co.

Deanna Zhang of Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. writes a response to the energy crisis that occured in Texas in February. Photo courtesy of TPH

Deanna Zhang specializes in energy tech, and what she witnessed from February's winter weather was basically an epic fail caused by a myriad of issues.

"But it's oversimplifying to say that the only solution to preventing another situation like this is continued or increased reliance on the oil and gas industry," she writes in a guest article for InnovationMap. "What last week ultimately demonstrated was the multitude of technology solutions that needs to scale up to provide us with the best energy reliability and availability." Read more.

Brad Hauser, CEO of Soliton

Houston-based Soliton can use its audio pulse technology to erase scars, cellulite, and tattoos. Photo courtesy of Soliton

A Houston company has created a technology that uses sound to make changes in human skin tissue. Soliton, led by Brad Hauser, is using audio pulses to make waves in the med-aesthetic industry. The company, which is licensed from the University of Texas on behalf of MD Anderson, announced that it had received FDA approval earlier this month for its novel and proprietary technology that can reduce the appearance of cellulite.

"The original indication was tattoo removal," Hauser says. "The sound wave can increase in speed whenever it hits a stiffer or denser material. And tattoo ink is denser, stiffer than the surrounding dermis. That allows a shearing effect of the sound wave to disrupt that tattoo ink and help clear tattoos."

According to Hauser, the team then turned to a second application for the technology in the short-term improvement in the appearance of cellulite. With the use of the technology, patients can undergo a relatively pain-free, 40- to 60-minute non-invasive session with no recovery time. Read more.

5 can't-miss innovation events at CERAWeek featuring Houston speakers

where to be online

While usually hundreds of energy experts, C-level executives, diplomats, members of royal families, and more descend upon Houston for the the annual CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference, this year will be a little different. Canceled last year due to COVID-19, CERAWeek is returning — completely virtually.

The Agora track is back and focused on innovation within the energy sector. The Agora track's events — thought-provoking panels, intimate pods, and corporate-hosted "houses" — can be accessed through a virtual atrium.

Undoubtedly, many of the panels will have Houston representatives considering Houston's dominance in the industry, but here are five innovation-focused events you can't miss during CERAWeek that feature Houstonians.

Monday — New Horizons for Energy & Climate Research

The COVID-19 pandemic has made vivid and real the risks of an uncontrolled virus. Risks posed by climate change are also becoming more palpable every day. At the forefront of understanding these risks, universities are developing solutions by connecting science, engineering, business, and public policy disciplines. Along with industry and governments, universities are critical to developing affordable and sustainable solutions to meet the world's energy needs and achieve net-zero emission goals. Can the dual challenge of more energy and lower emissions be met? What is some of the most promising energy and climate research at universities? Beyond research, what are the roles and responsibilities of universities in the energy transition?

Featuring: Kenneth B. Medlock, III, James A. Baker, III, and Susan G. Baker Fellow In Energy And Resource Economics, Baker Institute and Senior Director, Center For Energy Studies at Rice University

Catch the panel at 1 pm on Monday, March 1. Learn more.

Tuesday — Conversations in Cleantech: Powering the energy transition

With renewables investment outperforming oil and gas investment for the first time ever in the middle of a pandemic, 2020 was a tipping point in the Energy Transition. Low oil prices intensified energy majors' attention on diversification and expansion into mature and emerging clean technologies such as battery storage, low-carbon hydrogen, and carbon removal technologies. Yet, the magnitude of the Energy Transition challenge requires an acceleration of strategic decisions on the technologies needed to make it happen, policy frameworks to promote public-private partnerships, and innovative investment schemes.

Three Cleantech leaders share their challenges, successes, and lessons learned at the forefront of the Energy Transition. What is their vision and strategy to accelerate lowering emissions and confronting climate change? Can companies develop clear strategies for cleantech investments that balance sustainability goals and corporate returns? What is the value of increasing leadership diversity for energy corporations? Can the Energy Transition be truly transformational without an inclusive workforce and a diverse leadership?

Featuring: Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, which is opening a location in Houston this year.

The event takes place at 11:30 am on Tuesday, March 2. Learn more.

Wednesday — Rice Alliance Venture Day at CERAWeek

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship pitch event will showcase 20 technology companies with new solutions for the energy industry. Each presentation will be followed by questions from a panel of industry experts.

Presenting Companies: Acoustic Wells, ALLY ENERGY, Bluefield Technologies, Cemvita Factory, Connectus Global, Damorphe, Ovopod Ltd., DrillDocs, GreenFire Energy, inerG, Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, Nesh, Pythias Analytics, REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, Revterra, ROCSOLE, Senslytics, Subsea Micropiles, Syzygy Plasmonics, Transitional Energy, and Universal Subsea.

The event takes place at 9 am on Wednesday, March 3. Learn more.

Thursday — How Will the Energy Innovation Ecosystem Evolve?

Although the cleantech innovation ecosystem—research institutions, entrepreneurs, financiers, and support institutions—is diverse and productive, converting cleantech discoveries and research breakthroughs into commercially viable, transformative energy systems has proven difficult. With incumbent energy systems economically efficient and deeply entrenched, cleantech innovation faces a fundamental dilemma—the scale economies necessary to compete require a large customer base that does not yet exist. How is our clean energy innovation ecosystem equipped to be transformative? What needs to be strengthened? Is it profitable to focus on individual elements, or should we consider the system holistically, and reframe our expectations?

Featuring: Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president at Chevron Technology Ventures

The event takes place at 7:30 am on Thursday, March 4. Learn more.

Friday — Cities: Managing crises & the future of energy

Houston is the capital of global energy and for the past four decades the home of CERAWeek. Mayor Sylvester Turner will share lessons from the city's experience with the pandemic, discuss leadership strategies during times of crisis, and explore Houston's evolving role in the new map of energy.

The event takes place at 8 am on Friday, March 5. Learn more.