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

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."

Joe Alapat is the CEO of Houston-based Liongard, which just raised a $17 million series B round. Courtesy of Liongard

Startup founder sees 'the waves are hitting the shore' for Houston innovation ecosystem

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 32

Last week, Houston-based software-as-a-service startup, Liongard, announced the closing of its $17 million series B fundraising round, ending what was a bit of a dry spell for Houston venture capital investment caused by COVID-19's effect on the economy.

But for Liongard's CEO Joe Alapat, who co-founded the company with COO Vincent Tran in 2015, the round was the result of ongoing relationships with advisers and investors that meant a successful round — even in light of a pandemic.

"The process for us with the series B was much like our seed or series A round. We chose to communicate early and keep in touch with the investment community," Alapat says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, and he shares his experience as an example to other startups looking to raise venture capital investment.

"Communicate early and share progress, so that when you get to the point when you are looking for an investment, it's not a fresh start. It's a continuation of that conversation."

With the money, Liongard will gear up for growth, expanding its teams and getting the word out on the value the company is providing.

"The purpose for raising this money is really to advance our growth, accelerate what we've done with our platform to continue to execute on our mission, and really serve our customers on a higher degree," Alapat says.

In the episode, Alapat also shares his advice for Houston startups looking to tap into the Houston innovation ecosystem — something he's watched grow over the past five years. Now, he says, when it comes to new startups in Houston, "the waves are hitting the shore."

"Houston has always been an entrepreneurial city, and this is just that next stage," Alapat says on the episode. "For me, it's the technology side that excites me even more to see technology companies really succeeding."

Listen to the full interview with Alapat below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Despite the effect COVID-19 has had on Houston venture capital, this Kansas City, Missouri-based VC is looking to continue to connect with the local tech scene remotely. Getty Images

Out-of-state VC firm with eyes on Houston actively — but cautiously — continues to invest amid COVID-19

money moves

A Kansas City, Missouri-based venture capital firm has had its eyes on Houston since fall of last year, and it's not letting the pandemic slow down its immersion into the local startup ecosystem.

Flyover Capital focuses on tech startups based in the middle of the country — from Denver to Atlanta, and the Twin Cities down to Houston. Usually funding seed to series A rounds, Flyover's thesis is geared at "creating the next generation of tech success stories outside traditional tech hubs," says Dan Kerr, principal at the firm.

This region, which Crunchbase dubbed "The Mighty Middle" in a recent report, has seen a growth in venture capital invested over the past decade. Annual investment grew from $5.8 billion invested in 2010 to $20.2 billion in 2019 alone, according to the report, and Texas is leading the pack. The Lone Star State accounted for $24 billion of the region's $92.6 billion venture capital invested in the past decade, per the report.

Flyover Capital, which was founded in 2014, has connected a couple dozen Houston startups in the past six months, Kerr says, and the firm is keeping up with several of those to this day. He predicts the firm will "dive in deeper" into some of those companies in the next six months.

Houston is "one of the cities among those that fall in our region where we plan to spend a significant amount of time," Kerr tells InnovationMap. "We cover a lot of ground, but there are certain cities were we try to get there quarterly. Houston is definitely one of those places."

Kerr says his first impression of Houston was its strength as a B2B — especially as that pertains to its entrepreneurs.

"There are a lot of people who are experienced in their career, maybe with a technical background, and are looking to build a business going after some problem that they see," Kerr says.

In a similar vein, Houston's corporate involvement with its startup ecosystem has been a big indicator of opportunity.

"One of the things we've identified as a strength in a lot of the middle America ecosystems is if they get the corporations involved, then that is a good marker for success, especially if you have some of the other ingredients involved," Kerr says.

Houston Exponential, which Kerr says has been helpful in allowing Flyover to tap into the ecosystem — especially in times like these — has also demonstrated Houston's strength as a B2B community with deep corporate connections.

And Flyover isn't the only VC firm that HX has seen interest from recently. This month, HX has planned more immersion days — where it connects VCs to startup development organizations and startups across town — than it's ever had in a single month, says Harvin Moore, president of HX. The immersion days will be happening completely online.

"It's clear from the indication that we get from VCs and angel networks that people are saying, 'Okay, we need to be looking for new deals,'" Moore says.

For Flyover Capital, Kerr describes the VC as "active, but of course cautious" when it comes to investing in new deals in the current economic environment.

"We're not alone in saying we're actively investing," Kerr says. "I think I've seen some surveys that 60 or so percent of investors are saying they're staying the course."

In fact, finding a positive spin, Kerr says the pandemic has had a "moderating effect" to the investment environment. "Rounds were happening in some cases in a crazy manner," he says of pre-COVID conditions.

Plus, while he hasn't seen a huge change to valuations, the economic conditions caused by COVID-19 could correct some of the over-valuations on the coasts.

"As unfortunate as these times are for lots of people, this is where many companies ultimately find their footing and success," Kerr says.

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."

Pat Matthews of Active Capital visited Houston with a collaboration with the HX Venture Fund. Photo courtesy of Active Capital

Here's how a visiting venture capitalist explores Houston's startup ecosystem for the first time

a day in the life

When Houston Exponential established the HX Venture Fund, the goal was to bring out-of-town capital and investors into the city of Houston. The fund of funds invests in a portfolio of venture capital funds with the hope that those funds find a way back into the Houston startup ecosystem.

After a little over a year, HXVF has invested in five funds: Boston-based .406 Ventures, Austin-based Next Coast Ventures, Boston-based OpenView Venture Partners, Washington D.C.-based Updata Partners, and Austin-based LiveOak Venture Partners.

The fund of funds is also regularly hosting those five funds — as well as a mix of potential portfolio fund members — in Houston for what the HXVF calls "immersion days" where the venture capitalists can meet local startups, innovation leaders, and even fellow investors that they could eventually co-invest with.

"The goals of these days are to have venture capitalists travel to Houston, meet with our entrepreneurs (and the startup development organizations like Station, Cannon and WeWork that support them), and provide both capital and expertise in company building to the tech companies," says Sandy Guitar Wallis, managing partner at HXVF. "The venture capitalists also meet with HX Venture Fund corporate LPs, who can be customers or acquirers of their portfolio companies."

Just this month alone, HXVF is hosting four funds — two from their portfolio and two that they haven't yet invested in. San Antonio-based Active Capital, which has raised a $21 million fund, is among the visiting VCs this month. The fund's founder, Pat Matthews, an entrepreneur turned venture capitalist, has shared his busiest day — February 5 — as well as his perspective on Houston innovation with InnovationMap.

A morning too busy for breakfast

After waking up at the Hotel Derek, Matthews starts his second day in Houston by taking a Lyft to the Greater Houston Partnership for what he believes to be a breakfast meeting with Wallis and Guillermo Borda of HXVF, but the group has too much to discuss that a meal falls by the wayside.

Before this trip, Matthews hasn't visited Houston in a professional capacity. While Active Capital is based just down I10 in San Antonio, the firm's investments are split almost in half by deals done in Texas versus the rest of the world. Active Capital focuses on B2B SaaS investments — usually leading — in seed or series A rounds.

Matthews has called Texas home for around a decade. He founded an email marketing startup in Virginia, which was acquired by San Antonio-based Rackspace. He relocated to join Rackspace and worked on growing the organization for six years before creating Active Capital.

Following the meeting — still unfed, Matthews meets up with Serafina Lalany from Houston Exponential to carpool to The Cannon on the west side of town.

Loading up on carbs and fireside chats

Matthews forgoes his usual carb aversion to eat slices of Domino's pizza at The Cannon before beginning his first of three fireside chats with Houston innovators. Patrick Schneidau, CEO of Truss, leads the conversation at The Cannon. (Schneidau is a board member of InnovationMap's.) After the chat, Matthews has a meeting with a startup before heading back into town.

With one fireside chat down, Matthews heads into his second one of the day at Station Houston with Joe Alapat, founder of Liongard. Matthews observes that each of the entrepreneurs who interviewed him had great questions, and seemed to be far along with their companies. Meanwhile, any of the people he met before or after the chat seemed to be at a much earlier stage in their startup journey.

The last fireside chat was hosted by Rakesh Agrawal of Snapstream at WeWork's Jones Building location. Matthews and Agrawal attempted to set up a Facebook livestream for the conversation, but an issue with the technology wouldn't allow for the stream.

An evening of good food and great mentorship

With meetings and fireside chats done, Matthews heads straight to a dinner with Blair Garrou, founder and managing director of Mercury Fund. The two venture capitalists dine at Eunice and split several appetizers and a bottle of wine while discussing their own recent investments and interests. Matthews, who met Garrou in 2014, thinks of him as a great mentor in venture capital.

Matthews headed back to the hotel after dinner and crashes hard after the long day. He would head back to San Antonio on a Vonlane bus — he gets a lot of work done on his trips — the next day.

What's next for Active Capital and Houston?

Matthews says he left Houston with an overall positive opinion of the city, and says it's similar to other Texas cities, aside from Austin, in its startup presence and capacity. While he assumed he'd meet energy and space startups, he realized Houston had a lot more going on than that.

"It definitely seemed like there was a lot of passion and a lot of hustle," Matthews says. "And it seems like the city is really working to support and cultivate that and keep it in Houston. I was inspired."

Throughout the visit, Matthews handed out his business card and some conversations have developed from those connections, he says. Another representative from Active Capital who is focused on sourcing deals with startups will visit next, and Matthews says he also thinks that he'll return to Houston to continue conversations he's been having, including some with other investors.

"I could definitely see doing deals in Houston," Matthews tells InnovationMap.

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Houston health tech startup with at-home COVID-19 test teams up with Texas university for research

be aware

An ongoing medical phenomenon is determining how COVID-19 affects people differently — especially in terms of severity. A new partnership between a Houston-based digital health platform and Texas A&M University is looking into differences in individual risk factors for the virus.

Imaware, which launched its at-home coronavirus testing kit in April, is using its data and information collected from the testing process for this new study on how the virus affects patients differently.

"As patient advocates, we want to aid in the search to understand more about why some patients are more vulnerable than others to the deadly complications of COVID-19," says Jani Tuomi, co-founder of imaware, in a press release. "Our current sample collection process is an efficient way to provide longitudinal prospectively driven data for research and to our knowledge, is the only such approach that is collecting, assessing, and biobanking specimens in real time."

Imaware uses a third-party lab to conduct the tests at patients' homes following the Center for Disease Control's guidelines and protocol. During the test, the medical professional takes additional swabs for the study. The test is then conducted by Austin-based Wheel, a telemedicine group.

Should the patient receive positive COVID-19 results, they are contacted by a representative of Wheel with further instructions. They are also called by a member of a team led by Dr. Rebecca Fischer, an infectious disease expert and epidemiologist and laboratory scientist at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, to grant permission to be a part of the study.

Once a part of the study, the patient remains in contact with Fischer's team, which tracks the spread and conditions of the virus in the patient. One thing the researchers are looking for is the patients' responses to virus complications caused by an overabundance of cytokines, according to the press release. Cytokines are proteins in the body that fight viruses and infections, and, if not working properly, they can "trigger an over-exuberant inflammatory response" that can cause potentially deadly issues with lung and organ failure or worse, per the release.

"We believe strongly in supporting this research, as findings from the field can be implemented to improve clinical processes-- helping even more patients," says Wheel's executive medical director, Dr. Rafid Fadul.

New Deloitte survey reveals why leaders are adopting 5G and Wi-Fi 6

Get Connected

Networking executives view advanced wireless technologies such as 5G and Wi-Fi 6 as a force multiplier for other innovative technologies — including AI, IoT, cloud, and edge computing — and as being foundational to transforming their enterprises and industries.

This is one of the key findings of a recent study conducted by Deloitte on advanced wireless connectivity. To better understand how enterprises are approaching adoption of these technologies, they surveyed 415 U.S.-based networking executives who have plans to adopt 5G and/or Wi-Fi 6. This report presents the perspectives of these networking leaders and provides insight into how and why organizations plan to adopt advanced wireless.

Advanced wireless technologies will likely become an essential part of the fabric that links billions of devices, machines, and people in the hyperconnected era. They promise dramatic performance improvements — such as faster speeds, increased data capacity, lower latency, greater device density, and precise location sensing — that make wireless an attractive alternative to wireline networks for heavy-bandwidth, time-sensitive needs.

Many organizations are shifting to advanced wireless to enable innovation and gain competitive advantage. Indeed, many networking executives view these technologies as increasingly critical to their enterprise success, and business leaders are joining IT leaders to drive adoption.

It is telling that networking executives don't view 5G and Wi-Fi 6 as incremental improvements to previous generations of wireless, but as a significant opportunity to transform how their enterprises operate, as well as the products and services they offer. Remarkably, 86 percent of networking executives surveyed believe that advanced wireless will transform their organization within three years, and 79 percent say the same about their industry.

As the next-gen wireless future rapidly becomes a reality, with pilots and active experimentation underway, carriers and enterprises alike should decide how to participate in the evolving ecosystem.

Continue reading this article on Deloitte's website to learn how the strategic decisions wireless adopters and suppliers make today may impact their future positions.

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Deloitte refers to one or more of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, a UK private company limited by guarantee ("DTTL"), its network of member firms, and their related entities. DTTL and each of its member firms are legally separate and independent entities. DTTL (also referred to as "Deloitte Global") does not provide services to clients. In the United States, Deloitte refers to one or more of the US member firms of DTTL, their related entities that operate using the "Deloitte" name in the United States and their respective affiliates. Certain services may not be available to attest clients under the rules and regulations of public accounting. Please see www.deloitte.com/about to learn more about our global network of member firms. Copyright ©2020 Deloitte Development LLC. All rights reserved.

City of Houston calls local and Texas artists for $3 million public project

call for artists

Houstonians love their public art, and the City of Houston is banking on that love and civic pride with a hefty new call to local artists. The Mayor's Office of Cultural Affairs (MOCA) has announced new opportunities for artists and artist groups to have their artwork pegged for the City's Art Collection.

MOCA's call boasts more than $3 million in artist opportunities, in effort to help those affected by the economic downturn of COVID-19. The new series of projects will adorn Houston's airports and the new Sunnyside Multi-Service and Health Center. Some 100 opportunities open to Houston and Texas artists in the calls for qualifications, according to a press release.

These new works promise to have a large audience; nearly 60 million passengers passed through the Houston Airport System in 2019. The Houston Arts Alliance is managing the selection process. Selected artists must sign a contract with Houston Arts Alliance for the commission, according to MOCA. Funding for the project comes courtesy of the City of Houston Civic Art Program.

"This is a difficult time for all people, including artists – many of which are either self-employed or small business owners," Houston Airports curator of public art, Alton DuLaney, said in a statement. "It's unfortunate that many galleries are closed, and many artists are out of work. We hope this will be a lifeline for some of them. We are honored to be in a position to lift-up our Texas artists in this way while enriching Houston Airports' public art collection."

The pre-application workshops and submission deadlines for each opportunity are as follows:

Sunnyside Multi-Service and Health Center
RFQ submission deadline: Monday, July 27
Artist Info Session: Thursday, July 16

Houston Airports Portable Works
RF deadline: Monday, August 3
Artist Info Session #1: Saturday, July 11
Artist Info Session #2: Thursday, July 16

Houston Airports New Commissions
RFQ deadline: Monday, August 10
Artist Info Session #1: Saturday, July 11
Artist Info Session #2: Thursday, July 16