Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

An energy transition venture team has moved into the Ion. Photo courtesy of The Ion

Houston-based clean energy venture firm opens new office, adds partner

making moves

A Houston-based venture capital firm has been busy — with deploying capital, growing its team, and moving into new space.

Energy Transition Ventures has opened an office in the Ion Houston. The fund, which was announced last year, was founded by Craig Lawrence and Neal Dikeman — two former Silicon Valley venture capitalists with Texas ties. The team has a presence in Austin, as well as a satellite office in San Mateo.

"We’re excited after working remotely since we 'opened our doors' during the pandemic, to place our first office in the Ion," says Dikeman, adding that he's excited to work with the community's leadership. "I know several other investors have been looking or are in process to relocate to the Ion, but I believe we are the first venture capital fund to move in. Looking forward to the time when we are just one of long list of funds competing for startup founders’ attentions at Ion."

In addition to the new office space, ETV has also added a third investing partner. Q Song — vice president of GS Group, which was an early investor in the fund — relocated from Seoul, Korea, to Houston last summer to join the organization full time.

“Houston is a natural fit both professionally and personally," Song says. "GS Group has been partnered with Chevron in the GS Caltex refinery, one of five largest refineries in the world, for decades, and there is a huge Korean expat community here as well. For ETV, we needed a place like the Ion both suitable for hosting investors and executives when they come to town, and where startup founders feel comfortable and at home.”

The firm has made investments in four startups, and three have been announced publicly, Dikeman says. The most recent investment was in green hydrogen company Ohmium, which was founded by former SunEdison, Bloom Energy, and Plug Power executives and closed a $45 million round last month.

ETV has also invested in Dronebase, an aerial inspection company for renewables, and Resilient Power, a power electronics startup launching a next generation EV Fastcharging product.

Tige Savage of Revolution Ventures and Sandy Guitar of HX Venture Fund explain how they're working together to fund Houston companies in a recent Q&A. Photos courtesy

This VC visiting Houston has eyes on investing locally in disruptive tech startups

Q&A

The HX Venture Fund is a fund of funds that makes investments as a limited partner in venture capital funds across the country — VC funds that want to add Houston companies to their portfolios. HXVF is is paving the way for those investments by setting up immersive days for venture capitals visiting Houston.

One of these HXVF Engage VC days is taking place this week on Wednesday, April 27. Houston entrepreneurs can hear from partners at Revolution — a Washington, D.C.-based firm with three investment funds and strategies — at a fireside chat kicking off the visit at 8:30 am at The Ion.

Tige Savage, co-founder and managing partner of Revolution Ventures, and Sandy Guitar, managing partner of HX Venture Fund, join InnovationMap for a Q&A about how the two organizations are working together to put funding in the hands of Houston tech entrepreneurs.

InnovationMap: Tige, tell me briefly about Revolution and its family of funds. What types of companies are you looking for?

Tige Savage: We started Revolution about 17 years ago. I co-founded it with Steve Case, the founder of AOL and later the chairman of AOL Time Warner. I ran the venture capital group for that media company — that's how he and I got to know each other. AOL was based in Washington DC, so when Steve and I partnered up to launch our firm, we based it in Washington. We knew that to do the investing of the importance and scale that we had in mind, that it was an idea that was bigger than just Washington DC. So, we hopped on airplanes, and we went to where we thought the most interesting best ideas were. And as we spent our time in the market, we realized that there were a lot of opportunities in a lot of places other than New York City and Silicon Valley — we obviously have nothing against New York City or Silicon Valley, and we make investments in those places. But we realized that there was a lot going on in the country. It really gave us an opportunity to start building ecosystems and investing across the country. We looked back and realized we were generating returns in places like Florida, Washington, DC, and Portland, Oregon, et cetera — and there were great opportunities and great entrepreneurs in those places. And the barriers to building companies in those kinds of places had gotten much smaller than they'd been historically — the internet enabled talent to be in more places we've seen that amplified in a major way through the pandemic.

We started investing, and we raised capital from the outside world — and we did that in three efforts. One is something called the Rise of the Rest seed fund that is a very ecosystem focused investment vehicle. They make hundreds of investments out of their $150 million fund — small investments really to be involved in those communities. Imagine that's a very large top of funnel approach for our organization that allows us to project ourselves in a major way. David Hall is managing director of the fund and will be at this event tomorrow. He's been involved in revolution from the very early days. In fact, he was the very first person I hired.

Revolution Ventures is the fund I'm involved in. We are mostly series A investment effort with a much more concentrated portfolio. We're very focused on this same strategy of investing across the entire country. Then we have a growth fund called Revolution Growth that's sort of a later stage fund — call it series C plus, maybe series D, investor. They take larger stakes, but it's also a concentrated portfolio.

We have a few things that we think are unique about Revolution. One is what we call "place" — it's this geographic approach that we've taken from the start we're real believers that there's opportunity everywhere. We've spent a lot of time, money, capital, et cetera, working on those ecosystems and being in them. That's why places lake Houston are so exciting for us. Secondly, is policy. We're in Washington, it's in the DNA of what we do. It used to be very out of favor for tech companies to say they cared about policy, where we've always known that that's very important. If you go to some of the biggest tech companies today they'll tell you that the most important thing to them and the biggest risk they have is policy and regulatory.

We have a history of investing in billion dollar categories where technology is ripe to make the the business model, the consumer value proposition, the supply chain, the margin structure — something like that — better. That's why we called the firm Revolution, targeting places where technology can revolutionize existing categories, largely for the benefit of consumers.

IM: Sandy, what is it about Revolution that makes it a good fund for Houston companies?

Sandy Guitar: We've met with and built relationships with over 400 venture funds, but have to date have only invested in 14. So ours is a super selective process and we are just honored to be limited partners of Revolution. The reasons that make Revolution such a fit are manyfold. One is we seek investment strategies that we think will find deals in Houston. Revolution's strategy of using both the Rise of the Rest at the seed level, but a concentrated portfolio at the series A level is exactly the kind of strategy that we think works. Their generalist approach, but with specific expertise within various technologies means that they can be nimble from a technology point of view, as they look for deal flow in Houston, and they can allow for a force rank that doesn't force them in one tech bucket. We think that's a great advantage to seasoned venture capitalists.

Second of all, we're looking for investment strategies that create high growth companies, which can be innovative to our investors, such as the HEB, Shell, Chevron, Insperity, Lyondellbasell, et cetera. Those investors at HX Venture Fund rely on us to introduce them to opportunities for co-investment at the company or fund level and for opportunities to be customers to the portfolio companies of our VCs. We believe Revolution is producing the kinds companies that are going to be and are of interest to our limited partners as they try to innovate from within. And then third of all, we're looking for really strong track records that show expertise in selecting, growing and exiting companies. We want Houston entrepreneurs to benefit from that kind of acumen. That takes a lot of track record and lot of time in VC to show proof points of all three of those parts of the company formation process, and Revolution has that in spades.

IM: Tige, do you have Houston startups already in your portfolio and how is HXVF helping you grow your presence in Houston?

TS: Across our funds, between the Rise of the Rest fund and Revolution Ventures, I think there are 19 Texas investments, one in Houston. We also have a company called Big Commerce, which is in the growth fund that's a Texas and Australia-based company. Goodfair is an investment of the Rise of the Rest fund. They made an early investment — love the strategy of really trying to make fashion more affordable and more environmentally conscious and more economically achievable.

We are equally fortunate to have HX involved. Not only are they a great investor, but they're also a great facilitator of intersections for firms like ours that are actively interested in deploying capital in interesting places. We're only a handful of folks, so it takes a lot of leverage. Our Rise of the Rest strategy is an institutional effort, but having partners in the market really matters. This is why we're so excited to be partnered with Sandy and the gang there, because we really view that strategy as a unique and interesting one.

IM: Sandy, tell me about these events you’ve been putting on for your portfolio funds at HXVF.

SG: This is our second event this year already, and we've done about half a dozen of these so far of what we call VC engage days. The idea of the VC engage day is to really connect all of our communities together. In the mornings, we like to make sure that the venture capitalist coming in has an opportunity to speak with our ecosystem and that anybody for free can come and listen to these very experienced and successful venture capitalists. From there, we curate one-on-one meetings between select entrepreneurs and venture capitalists that are part of the day. We also do one-on-ones with our limited partners and the venture capitalists. And then, at the end of the day, we have a private dinner to provide more bespoke conversations either with our limited partners or with the Founder's Circle — 20-plus serial entrepreneurs here in Houston that provide a voice to us at HXVF.

TS: What was just described — that's is not a typical thing. LPs don't do that. We're obviously excited about it. It's a thing unique to Houston. HXVF is doing a lot of work to make these things happen.

IM: Tige, as someone looking in from DC into the Houston market, what do you see happening in the Houston market? What are you most excited about getting to tap into on your visit?

TS: Houston is known for a number of industries and is smart to leverage its engineering talent and try to focus that on ways to amplify it in technology. We think that the opportunities around sort of innovative manufacturing or around logistics around climate are particularly interesting to our funds, because when we talk about revolutionizing large categories in ways that make things better for consumers, those are all major elements that can have that kind of impact.

Houston's an extremely multicultural place. The engineering talent is extremely robust. The ability for large corporations to invest in and take advantage of what's going on in tech is extremely exciting. Finding a way for catalytic activity to happen within within these large businesses is sometimes a challenge. What we're most interested in is seeing where that's happening.

The ecosystem is really blooming. This is sort of the bread and butter of what we do. Collaboration, capital, and network density are what we've always thought are the three key things that are differentiators for a market. And those things are all coming together.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Here are 11 Houston startups that together have raised over $140 million in venture capital investment so far this year. Photo via Getty Images

These 11 Houston startups closed funding rounds so far this year

following the money

Venture capital investment is moving and grooving in Houston this year so far, which really is a continuation of the leap in VC investment from 2021.

According to a recent report from Houston Exponential, Houston’s average early-stage deal size of $18 million represents a 68 percent growth rate since 2019. Compared with the national growth rate of 23 percent, “this demonstrates the broader expansion and maturities within the Houston ecosystem,” the analysis says.

Last year, local startups collected $2.02 billion in VC funding, according to PitchBook data. That’s up 175 percent from the $734.2 million raised in 2020.

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

In continuance with last year, 2022 has started with a flurry of VC activity. In case you missed some of these first quarter deals, InnovationMap has rounded up all its coverage of funding rounds closed between January and March based on previous reporting. Scroll through to see which Houston startups are catching the eyes — and cashing the checks — of investors.

P97 Networks has raised $40M of venture debt financing

P97 Networks, a Houston-based mobile payments company, has fresh funds to scale its operations. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston company that has created a mobile commerce platform for the convenience retail, fuels marketing, and automotive industries has fresh funding to support its growth.

P97 Networks has raised $40 million of venture debt financing from an affiliate of Peak Rock Capital, a leading middle-market private investment firm, according to a news release from the company.

“We will use this new capital to fund P97’s high growth initiatives, which include accelerating user adoption across our Consumer Engagement platform, Energy Transition programs for our clients, and our Mobility Services platform,” said Donald Frieden, president and CEO of P97, in the release. Click here to continue reading.

Zeta Energy close $23M series A

Houston-based Zeta Energy has raised fresh funding to grow its Houston operations and further commercialize the company's innovative batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based Zeta Energy announced this month that it has closed a $23 million series A round led by New York VC firm Moore Strategic Ventures.

The funding will be used to expand Zeta's lab facility in the Houston area and further commercialize the company's innovative batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage.

"We are delighted to have Moore Strategic Ventures join Zeta Energy. Moore's focus on transportation, advanced materials, energy, and clean tech aligns perfectly with Zeta's strategic objectives," Charles Maslin, founder and CEO of Zeta Energy, said in a statement. "We are so excited to work together to help the world transition to clean energy and build a more sustainable future." Click here to continue reading.

DECISIO raises $18.5M, appoints new leadership

DECISIO has fresh funding and a new board member. Photo via decisiohealth.com

A Houston-based digital health startup has officially closed its latest funding round and has a new member to its leadership to support the company's next phase.

DECISIO has appointed Major General Elder Granger to the company's board of directors. Dr. Granger is currently president and CEO of The 5Ps LLC, a healthcare, education, and leadership consulting organization.

"Dr. Granger joining our board provides enormous value and validation for our company moving forward," says Dr. John Holcomb, co-CEO and co-founder of DECISIO, says in a news release. "His expertise and leadership in the healthcare industry is a welcome addition to our esteemed group of Board of Directors." Click here to continue reading.

Vivante Health raises $16M series A round

Vivante Health closed a fresh round of funding. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston-based digital health startup that's targeting solutions for digestive diseases has closed its latest round of funding.

Vivante Health closed a $16 million series A funding round led by Chicago-based 7wireVentures with contribution from new investors, including Human Capital, Intermountain Ventures, SemperVirens, Elements Health Ventures, and Leaps by Bayer. Additionally, the round saw participation from returning investors FCA Venture Partners, NFP Ventures, Lifeforce Capital, and Big Pi Ventures.

The fresh funding will support commercial scaling and growth of the company, which is based in Houston's JLABS @ TMC space.

"The Series A financing round represents another pivotal milestone in our mission to improve our member's digestive health and provide outcomes at scale for our enterprise partners," says Bill Snyder, Vivante Health CEO, in a news release. "We are thrilled to partner with premier investors in this latest round of funding that will enable us to continue our rapid growth trajectory and further establish ourselves as the leader in digestive health." Click here to continue reading.

SiteAware closes $15M in funding round

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

A Houston startup that provides artificial intelligence-enabled verification software to the construction industry has closed its series B round.

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

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

Codenotary raises $12.5M series B

Codenotary's software enables tools for notarization and verification of the software development life cycle. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based Codenotary, whose technology helps secure software supply chains, has raised $12.5 million in a series B round. Investors in the round include Swiss venture capital firm Bluwat and French venture capital firm Elaia.

The $12.5 million round follows a series A round that was announced in 2020, with total funding now at $18 million.

Codenotary, formerly known as vChain, says the fresh round of money will be used to accelerate product development, and expand marketing and sales worldwide. Today, the startup has 100-plus customers, including some of the world’s largest banks. Click here to continue reading.

Rugged Robotics raises $9.4M series A

The tech solution provides construction customers with an automated layout-as-a-service tool. Image via rugged-robotics.com

A Houston robotics startup working in the commercial construction field has closed its latest round of funding.

Rugged Robotics Inc. announced last week that it's raised $9.4 million in its series A round led by BOLD Capital Partners and Brick & Mortar Ventures. Riot Ventures, Morpheus, and Embark — all investors in the company's 2019 seed round — also contributed, as did Consigli Construction Company and Suffolk Technologies. To date, Rugged Robotics has raised $12 million.

“We are thrilled to be part of the Rugged team,” says Maxx Bricklin, partner at BOLD Capital, in a news release. “We looked at a number of companies in the space and became convinced that the Rugged team, technology and partner ecosystem would allow Rugged to dominate and capitalize on this significant and disruptive market opportunity.” Click here to continue reading.

Koda Health raises $3.5 million in seed funding to expand nationally

Tatiana Fofanova, co-founder and CEO of Koda, closed recent funding for the digital health startup. Image via LinkedIn

Houston-based Koda Health announced this month that it raised $3.5 million in its latest seed round.

The round was led by Austin-based Ecliptic Capital, which focuses on emergent and early-stage investments. Sigmas Capital, Headwater Ventures, CRCM, and a number of angel investors also participated in the round.

The funding will be used to help the digital advanced care planning company double the size of its team in the next six months.

"Koda Health helps vulnerable people navigate and communicate difficult decisions about their health care journey. So, when hiring, we look for empathetic people who are phenomenal communicators," Tatiana Fofanova, Koda co-founder and CEO, says in a statement. Click here to continue reading.

INOVUES raises $2.75M to make buildings more energy efficient

Window-retrofitting climatetech company has raised its first round of funding. Photo via inovues.com

A Houston startup that retrofits windows with smart glass innovations to reduce energy use has raised its first round of funding.

INOVUES closed its seed round at $2.75 million last month. The oversubscribed round was led by Dallas-based Paulos Holdings with participation from new and existing investors, including Houston-based VC Fuel, Saint-Gobain NOVA, Fund4SE, Momentum Glass, Lateral Capital, E8 Angels, and the Central Texas Angel Network.

"Our mission is to help cities achieve their energy efficiency and emissions-reduction targets by increasing the rate of window upgrades in existing buildings," says INOVUES founder and CEO, Anas Al Kassas, in a news release. "To achieve that, we have developed a low-carbon, high-ROI retrofit solution that makes upgrading building windows a financially attractive energy conservation measure instead of a massive capital upgrade associated with business disruptions and prohibitive payback periods." Click here to continue reading.

Roboze closed a multimillion-dollar round of funding

Roboze has closed its latest round of funding. Photo courtesy of Roboze

Roboze — an Italian high-performance 3D printing company with its U.S. headquarters in Houston — closed a multimillion-dollar round of funding this month with investments from an international group of leaders from diverse backgrounds.

Investors include Nova Capital, Lagfin, Andrea Guerra, Luigi De Vecchi, Roberto Ferraresi, Luca Giacometti, Denis Faccioli and others, according to a statement.

“We are honored to have a group of investors of this caliber, who strongly believe in the vision of Roboze and in the change of production paradigm that our technology is enabling by replacing metals and producing parts without wasting raw materials," Alessio Lorusso, founder and CEO of Roboze, said in a statement. Click here to continue reading.

Tekmetric closes recent fundraising round

A Houston software company has raised an undisclosed amount of funding. Photo via tekmetric.com

Tekmetric, a cloud-based shop management system for automotive repair shops, announced the close of its growth investment from California-based Susquehanna Growth Equity. The details of the round were not disclosed, but, according to a news release, the fresh funds will go toward growing Tekmetric's engineering and technical teams and expansion across the United States.

Launched three years ago by Prasanth Chilukuri and Sunil Patel, co-founders and co-CEOs, Tekmetric's SaaS solution provides shop owners with digital inspections, integrated payments, and more of their business needs. Click here to continue reading.

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

Report finds Houston is 3rd fastest growing tech ecosystem

show me the money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new report from the Greater Houston Partnership analyzes the city's startup ecosystem's banner year of VC activity. Photo via Getty Images

New analysis puts Houston's leap in venture capital investment in perspective

by the numbers

Houston-area startups raked in the cash last year, setting a record for the region’s annual tally of venture capital.

In 2021, Houston startups collected $2.02 billion in VC funding, according to a Greater Houston Partnership analysis of data from PitchBook. That’s up 175 percent from the $734.2 million raised in 2020.

Three startups (Solugen, HighRadius, and Lancium) accounted for more than $800 million of last year’s VC haul.

“This record year in venture capital funding for Houston companies is another important example of the positive momentum building around our innovation ecosystem,” says Susan Davenport, chief economic development officer for the Greater Houston Partnership.

“In just the last year alone, we saw the opening of The Ion, East End Maker Hub, Greentown Labs as well as the growth of other startup development organizations,” Davenport adds. “We also witnessed two of our startups — Solugen and Axiom Space — grow into unicorns, achieving a valuation of more than $1 billion. Add to this the expanded local presence of tech giants such as Microsoft, Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud, and it’s clear that Houston is rapidly building on its reputation as an innovation and technology hub.”

Here’s a breakdown of last year’s record-shattering year for VC in Houston.

Funding

  • $188.5 million in angel and seed funding, up 92.6 percent from $97.9 million in 2020.
  • $687.4 million in early-stage funding, up 361 percent from $149.1 million in 2020.
  • $1,144.3 billion in late-stage funding, up 134.9 percent from $487.3 million in 2020.

Deal volume

  • 219 deals, up 26.6 percent from up from 173 deals in 2020.
  • 122 angel and seed deals, up 9.9 percent from up from 111 deals in 2020.
  • 49 early-stage deals, up 58.1 percent from 31 deals in 2020.
  • 48 late-stage deals, up 54.8 percent from 31 deals in 2020.

Average deal size

$11.6 million average deal size, up 110.3 percent from $5.5 million in 2020.

Industries receiving the most VC in 2021

  • Information technology, $632.1 million.
  • Health care, $518.4 million.
  • Materials and resources, $426.5 million.

Serafina Lalany, executive director of Houston Exponential, told InnovationMap in January that tracking VC data offers her organization a metric for growth of the local innovation ecosystem.

“It gives us insights into the rate of capital that is deployed and how that’s growing over time and where it’s getting deployed. [It also] gives us the signal as to what our strengths are and the areas that we need to continue to build out infrastructure,” Lalany said.

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Houston college system plans to open $30M resiliency-focused center

to the rescue

Houston’s initiative to protect the city from catastrophes is getting a big boost from Houston Community College.

The college is developing the Resilience Center of Excellence to aid the city’s resilience campaign. At the heart of this project is the 65,000-square-foot, $30 million Resiliency Operations Center, which will be built on a five-acre site HCC’s Northeast campus. The complex is scheduled to open in 2024.

HCC estimates the operations center will train about 3,000 to 4,000 local first responders, including police officers and firefighters, during the first three years of operation. They’ll be instructed to prepare for, manage, and respond to weather, health and manmade hazards such as hurricanes, floods, fires, chemical spills, and winter freezes.

According to The Texas Tribune, the operations center will include flood-simulation features like a 39-foot-wide swift water rescue channel, a 15-foot-deep dive area, and a 100-foot-long “rocky gorge” of boulders.

The college says the first-in-the-nation Resilience Center of Excellence will enable residents, employers, civic organizations, neighborhoods, and small businesses to obtain education and certification aimed at improving resilience efforts.

“Our objective is to protect the well-being of our citizens and our communities and increase economic stability,” Cesar Maldonado, chancellor of HCC, said when the project was announced.

Among the programs under the Resiliency Center of Excellence umbrella will be non-credit courses focusing on public safety and rescue, disaster management, medical triage, and debris removal.

Meanwhile, the basic Resilience 101 program will be available to businesses and community organizations, and the emergency response program is geared toward individuals, families, and neighborhoods.

HCC’s initiative meshes with the City of Houston’s Resilient Houston, a strategy launched in 2020 that’s designed to protect Houston against disasters. As part of this strategy, the city has hired a chief resilience and sustainability officer, Priya Zachariah.

“Every action we take and investment we make should continue to improve our collective ability to withstand the unexpected shocks and disruptions when they arrive — from hurricanes to global pandemics, to extreme heat or extreme cold,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said last year. “The time is now to stop doing things the way we’ve always done them because the threats are too unpredictable.”

In an InnovationMap guest column published in February 2021, Richard Seline, co-founder of the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub, wrote that the focus of resilience initiatives should be pre-disaster risk mitigation.

“There is still work to be done from a legislative and governmental perspective, but more and more innovators — especially in Houston — are proving to be essential in creating a better future for the next historic disaster we will face,” Seline wrote.

Houston startup equips medical teams with data-driven hiring tool

staffing up

A surgeon spends over a decade in school and residency perfecting their medical skills, but that education doesn't usually include human resources training. Yet, when it comes to placing candidates into surgical programs, the hiring responsibilities fell on the shoulders of surgeons.

Aimee Gardner, who has her PhD in organized psychology, saw this inefficiency first hand.

"I worked in a large surgery department in Dallas right out of graduate school and quickly learned how folks are selected into residency and fellowship programs and all the time that goes into it — time spent by physicians reviewing piles and piles of like paper applications and spending lots and lots and of hours interviewing like hundreds of candidates," Gardner tells InnovationMap. "I was just really shocked by the inefficiencies from just a business and workforce perspective."

And things have only gotten worse. There are more applicants hitting the scene every year and they are applying to more hospitals and programs. Future surgeons used to apply for 20 or so programs — now it’s more like 65 on average. According to her research, Gardner says reviewing these applications cost lots of time and money, specifically $100,000 to fill five spots annually just up to the interviewing phase of the process.

Five years ago, Gardner came up with a solution to this “application fever,” as she describes, and all the inefficiencies, and founded SurgWise Consulting, where she serves as president and CEO.

"We help provide assessments to help screen competencies and attributes that people care about," Gardner says. "(Those) are really hard to assess, but really differentiate people who really thrive in training in their careers and people who don't."

Aimee Gardner is the CEO and president of Houston-based SurgWise. Photo via surgwise.com

These are the non-technical skills, like the professionalism, interpersonal skills, and communication. While SurgWise began as a service-oriented consulting company, the company is now ready to tap technology to expand upon its solution. The work started out of Houston Methodist, and SurgWise is still working with surgery teams there. She says they've accumulated tons of data that can be leveraged and streamlined.

"We're now pivoting from a very intimate client approach to a more scalable offering. Every year we assess essentially around 80 percent of all the people applying to be future surgeons — those in pediatric surgery, vascular surgery, and more,” Gardner says. “We’ve used kind of the last five years of data and experiences to create a more scalable, easy-to-integrate, and off-the-shelf solution.”

Gardner says her solution is critical for providing more equity in the hiring process.

“One of our goals was to create more equitable opportunities and platforms to assess folks because many of the traditional tools and processes that most people use in this space have lots of opportunity for bias and a high potential for disadvantaging individuals from underrepresented groups," she says. "For example, letters of recommendation are often a very insider status. If you went to some Ivy League or your parents were in health care and they know someone, you have that step up from a networking and socioeconomic status standpoint."

Personal statements and test scores are also inequitable, because they tend to be better submissions if people have money for coaching.

SurgWise hopes to lower the number of programs future surgeons apply to too to further streamline the process. She hopes to do this through an app and web tool that can matchmake people to the right program.

“Our ultimate goal is to create a platform for applicants to obtain a lot more information about the various places to which they apply to empower them to make more informed decisions, so that they don't have to apply to a hundred places," Gardner says. "We want to essentially create a match-style app that allows them to input some data and tell us 'here's what I'm looking for here are my career goals and any preferences I have.'”

While that tool is down the road, Gardner says SurgWise is full speed ahead toward launching the data-driven hiring platform. The bootstrapped company hopes to raise early venture funding this summer in order to hire and grow its team.

“As we continue to consider this app that I talked about and some of the other opportunities to scale to other specialties we're gonna start looking for a series A funding later this summer.”