Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently."


With his background that spans from the United States Military to academia and corporate venture, Ellis has had seats on nearly every side of the innovation table. But he says he was called to invest in founders of color after the murder of George Floyd. He says he also realized how much money was being left on the table by overlooking these innovators.

As one of the most diverse cities and the fourth largest city in the country, Houston is the place for Ellis's mission.

"The mission of South Loop is to become the preeminent source of venture capital dollars for underrepresented, diverse teams nationally to serve as a beacon for the best underrepresented talent and to enable them to be successful through leveraging the unique resources and talent of Houston," Ellis says. "A big part of our mission is also to help catalyze Houston as an ecosystem for tech entrepreneurship."

South Loop has six portfolio companies, including Houston-based Milkify, a breast milk freeze-drying service that went on to pitch and receive an investment on Shark Tank. Ellis says the firm expects to announce a handful of new investments over the next year or so. On the show, he explains more on what types of investment opportunities he's looking for and how founders can get in touch.

"The innovation is in the insight," he says. "We look to activate this community because we strongly believe in the power of founder insight."

Geothermal investment is up, but health tech is down — plus more data-backed VC trend from 2024 so far. Photo via Getty Images

Report: Houston's VC trends so far in 2024 and what to watch for the rest of the year

by the numbers

Houston-based geothermal company Fervo Energy accounted for more than half of the venture capital raised by Houston-area startups in the first quarter of 2024.

The region’s VC haul in the first quarter totaled $462.4 million, according to the PitchBook-NCVA Venture Monitor. That’s up from $290.4 million during the same period in 2023 and from $285.8 million in the fourth quarter of last year. Click here to see the Q1 rounds as reported by InnovationMap.

Fervo’s latest funding round, announced in February, represented $244 million (52 percent) of the region’s VC total for the first quarter of 2024.

A report released in March by PitchBook indicated that VC funding last year for geothermal power reached $431 million across 21 deals. As of late February 25 — four days ahead of the Fervo announcement — $165.5 million in VC funding had been pumped into the geothermal sector this year, according to PitchBook.

“The recent VC deal activity with the geothermal power sector underscores a vibrant and evolving market, but still one that garners far less VC than other renewables,” says the report.

In all, Houston-area startups made 38 VC deals in this year’s first quarter, the PitchBook-NVCA Venture Monitor says. That’s down from 42 in the fourth quarter of 2023 and 43 in the first quarter of 2023. Nationwide, the deal count fell sharply in the first quarter of 2024 vs. the first and fourth quarters of last year.

The PitchBook-NVCA Venture Monitor report shows that nationwide, the $36.6 billion in VC investments recorded during the first quarter of 2024 “remained relatively on pace with the past year.”

“However, it would be a mistake to hyperfocus on the results of a single quarter whose results were a bit farther left on the bell curve than usual. The venture capital … business cycle effectively reset in recent years, and as of early 2024, it still appears to be searching for its level,” says the report.

“It is too early to tell where 2024 is going, but the game is on, and America’s VCs are ready for it,” the report adds. “In 2022, our world changed; in 2023, we accepted it was not changing back; and in 2024, we are building what is next.”

In a bit of good news for the Houston area, the report cites cleantech/energy as one of two sectors that venture capitalists should not overlook. The other sector: cybersecurity.

But in a bit of not-so-good news for the region, the report notes a slowdown in VC deals in the healthcare sector over the past two years in the wake of “pandemic-fueled capital exuberance.”

“Yet the healthcare sector differentiates itself from the rest of the market by demonstrating many unmet needs that could have a profound impact on society, particularly around disease diagnosis and treatment,” the report goes on to say. “On top of the immense opportunity set for disruption within healthcare, investor enthusiasm around AI adoption in drug development further speaks to the demand for better solutions in biotech through groundbreaking innovations.”

Houston was deemed a top startup city, but the Bayou City has a gap to other Texas cities that it can work on narrowing. Photo via Getty Images

Report: Houston secures spot on list of top 50 startup cities

by the numbers

A new ranking signals great promise for the growth of Houston’s startup network.

Houston ranks among the world’s top 50 startup cities on a new list from PitchBook, a provider of data and research about capital markets. In fact, Houston comes in at No. 50 in the ranking. But if you dig deeper into the data, Houston comes out on top in one key category.

The city earns a growth score of 63.8 out of 100 — the highest growth score of any U.S. city and the seventh highest growth score in the world. In the growth bucket, Houston sits between between Paris (64.4) and Washington, D.C. (61.7).

The PitchBook growth score reflects short-term, midterm, and long-term growth momentum for activity surrounding venture capital deals, exits, and fundraising for the past six years.

PitchBook’s highest growth score (86.5) goes to Hefei, a Chinese manufacturing hub for electric vehicles, solar panels, liquid crystal displays, home appliances, and Lenovo computers.

The overall ranking is based on a scoring system that relies on proprietary PitchBook data about private companies. The system’s growth and development scores are based on data related to deals, exits, fundraising and other factors.

Houston earns a development score of 34.1 out of 100, which puts it in 50th place globally in that regard. This score measures the size and maturity of a city’s startup network.

Topping the overall list is San Francisco, followed by New York City and Beijing. Elsewhere in Texas, Austin appears at No. 16 and Dallas at No. 36.

The ranking “helps founders, operators, and investors assess locations when deciding where to expand or invest,” says PitchBook.

“Network effects matter in venture capital: Investors get more than half of their deals through referrals, according to research led by Harvard professor Paul Gompers,” PitchBook goes on to say. “So it stands to reason that dealmakers should seek these networks out when deciding where to do business.”

Houston startups raised a combined $380 million in venture funding last quarter. Photo via Getty Images

Here's what Houston startups have raised in funding so far in 2024

Q1 2024 VC ACTIVITY

Seven Houston startups have started the new year strong with over $380 million in venture funding — most of which from one mega deal for a geothermal company.

According to InnovationMap reporting, Houston's VC activity in the first quarter of 2024 spanned industry and stage — from pre-seed to series E. It's a large chunk of money raised in Houston for one quarter — but not in terms of deals closed, at least compared to the previous quarter, in which startups raised over $170 million but across nine deals.

On the national side, it's not too different of a story. According to a quarterly report from PitchBook, the United State's VC activity for the start of the year "showed to be one of the slowest areas of the venture market during the quarter." Only $9.3 billion in capital was raised in the U.S. last quarter, which is only 11.3 percent of the total raised in the already slowed market of 2023.

"While dry powder remains high, slowed fundraising portends to LP hesitancy toward VC, and should predict a more difficult dealmaking environment down the road," reads an email from PitchBook. "During the past few years, large mega-funds drove fundraising trends, but Q1 VC fundraising shows there may be no appetite for such vehicles in today’s market."

These are the seven startup VC deals closed in Houston so far this year, according to reporting on InnovationMap.

Fervo Energy raises $244M in latest funding round

Fervo Energy scored a $244 million round of funding thanks to existing and new investors. Photo via Fervo Energy

An Oklahoma-based shale oil and gas leader has backed Fervo Energy's latest round of funding, supporting the startup's geothermal technology yet again.

Fervo announced its latest round of funding this week to the tune of $244 million. The round was led by Devon Energy, a company that's previously backed the startup.

“Demand for around-the-clock clean energy has never been higher, and next-generation geothermal is uniquely positioned to meet this demand,” Tim Latimer, Fervo CEO and co-founder, says in a news release. “Our technology is fully derisked, our pricing is already competitive, and our resource pipeline is vast. This investment enables Fervo to continue to position geothermal at the heart of 24/7 carbon-free energy production.” Read more about the round.

Procyrion secures $57.7M series E

Procyrion has announced the closing of its series E round of funding. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-born and bred medical device company, Procyrion, has completed its series E with a raise of $57.7 million, including the conversion of $10 million of interim financing.

Procyrion is the company behind Aortix, a pump designed to be placed in the descending thoracic aorta of heart failure patients, which has been shown to improve cardiac performance in seriously ill subjects. The money raised will allow the company to proceed with a the DRAIN-HF Study, a pivotal trial that will be used for eventual FDA approval and commercialization.

The Aortix is the brainchild of Houston cardiologist Reynolds Delgado. According to Procyrion’s CSO, Jace Heuring, Delgado, gained some of his experience with devices for the heart working with legendary Texas Heart Institute surgeon O.H. “Bud” Frazier. He filed his first patents related to the Aortix in 2005. Read more about the round.

Welligence Energy Analytics raises $41M series B

Houston-based Welligence Energy Analytics specializes in data and intelligence for the oil and gas markets, greenhouse gas emissions sector, and CCUS projects. Photo via Getty Images

A group of investors has chipped in $41 million to purchase a minority stake in Houston-based Welligence Energy Analytics, a provider of energy data and intelligence.

Boston-based venture capital firm Elephant Partners led the series B round, with participation from Veriten, a Houston-based, energy-focused research, investing, and strategy firm, and EDG, a Metairie, Louisiana-based energy consulting firm. Several executives from the energy, information services, and software sectors also contributed to the round.

Founded in 2016, Welligence specializes in data and intelligence for the oil and gas markets, greenhouse gas emissions sector, and carbon capture, storage, and utilization (CCUS) projects. Clients include major oil and gas companies, as well as large investment banks. Read more about the round.

Motif Neurotech secures nearly $19M series A

Motif Neurotech, which develops minimally invasive bioelectronics for mental health treatment, closed its series A round with an oversubscribed $18.75 million. Photo via Rice.edu

A health tech startup based out of a newly formed accelerator program at Rice University has raised venture funding.

Motif Neurotech closed its series A round with an oversubscribed $18.75 million. The company, which develops minimally invasive bioelectronics for mental health treatment, was formed out of the Rice Biotech Launch Pad that launched last fall.

The round was led by Arboretum Ventures, with participation from new investors KdT Ventures, Satori Neuro, Dolby Family Ventures, re.Mind Capital and existing investors Divergent Capital, TMC Venture Fund, PsyMed Ventures, Empath Ventures and Capital Factory. Read more about the round.

Sage Geosystems closes $17M series A 

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. Photo via sagegeosystems.com

A Houston geothermal startup has announced the close of its series A round of funding.

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. The proceeds aim to fund its first commercial geopressured geothermal system facility, which will be built in Texas in Q4 of 2024. According to the company, the facility will be the first of its kind.

The venture is joined by technology investor Arch Meredith, Helium-3 Ventures and will include support from existing investors Virya, LLC, Nabors Industries Ltd., and Ignis Energy Inc.

“The first close of our Series A funding and our commercial facility are significant milestones in our mission to make geopressured geothermal system technologies a reality,” Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems, says in a news release. “The success of our GGS technologies is not only critical to Sage Geosystems becoming post-revenue, but it is an essential step in accelerating the development of this proprietary geothermal baseload approach. Read more about the round.

Ema raises $2M round of bridge funding

Ema, which operates as a health and wellness-focused, AI-based chat for women, has raised additional funding. Screenshot courtesy of Ema

A Houston-based startup that's improving health and wellness for women with its artificial intelligence-backed platform has raised a bridge round of funding.

Ema closed its latest bridge round, bringing its total funding to nearly $2 million. The company received investment from Kubera's Venture Capital and Victorum Capital, which joined existing investors Hearst Labs, Wormhole Capital, Acumen America, and Techstars.

Ema strives to deliver "personalized, empathetic, and evidence-based support" to its users through its generative AI technology. The platform has more than 100,000 users, and has expanded into the B2B sector with $100,000 in contracts within just 30 days after pivoting to this model, according to the company. Read more about the round.

TrueLeap Inc. raises oversubscribed $610,000 pre-seed round

The edtech company offers a comprehensive approach to shrinking the digital divide with a suite of technology including software, hardware, and more. Photo courtesy of TrueLeap

An edtech startup has just secured funding to further its mission of increasing accessibility to education.

TrueLeap Inc., global digital education startup addressing the digital divide in education, has raised $610,000, which is over its target of $500,000. The round was led by United Kingdom-based Maya Investments Limited.

"This oversubscribed funding round, led by Maya Investments Limited, is a testament to the urgent need for innovative educational technologies in emerging markets. Our commitment to providing affordable and integrated solutions is stronger than ever," says Sandip Bordoloi, CEO and Co-Founder of TrueLeap, in a news release. Read more about the round.

Aziz Gilani, managing director at Mercury, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston investor on SaaS investing and cracking product-market fit

Houston innovators podcast episode 230

Aziz Gilani's career in tech dates back to when he'd ride his bike from Clear Lake High School to a local tech organization that was digitizing manuals from mission control. After years working on every side of the equation of software technology, he's in the driver's seat at a local venture capital firm deploying funding into innovative software businesses.

As managing director at Mercury, the firm he's been at since 2008, Gilani looks for promising startups within the software-as-a-service space — everything from cloud computing and data science and beyond.

"Once a year at Mercury, we sit down with our partners and talk about the next investment cycle and the focuses we have for what makes companies stand out," Gilani says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The current software investment cycle is very focused on companies that have truly achieved product-market fit and are showing large customer adoption."



An example of this type of company is Houston-based RepeatMD, which raised a $50 million series A round last November. Mercury's Fund V, which closed at an oversubscribed $160 million, contributed to RepeatMD's round.

"While looking at that investment, it really made me re-calibrate a lot of my thoughts in terms what product-market fit meant," Gilani says. "At RepeatMD, we had customers that were so eager for the service that they were literally buying into products while we were still making them."

Gilani says he's focused on finding more of these high-growth companies to add to Mercury's portfolio amidst what, admittedly, has been a tough time for venture capital. But 2024 has been looking better for those fundraising.

"We've some potential for improvement," Gilani says. "But overall, the environment is constrained, interest rates haven't budged, and we've seen some potential for IPO activity."

Gilani shares more insight into his investment thesis, what areas of tech he's been focused on recently, and how Houston has developed as an ecosystem on the podcast.

Rice Business Plan Competition named its participants for 2024. Photo courtesy of Rice

Annual student startup competition in Houston names teams for 2024

ready to pitch

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship announced the 42 student-led teams worldwide that will compete in the highly competitive Rice Business Plan Competition this spring.

The annual competition, known as one of the world’s largest and richest intercollegiate student startup competitions, will take place April 4 to 6 in Houston. Teams in this year's competition represent 35 universities from four countries, including two teams from Houston and four others from Texas.

Teams, made up of graduate students from a college or university anywhere in the world, will present their plans before 350 angel, venture capital, and corporate investors to compete for more than $1 million in prizes. Last year, teams were awarded $3.4 million in investment and in-kind prizes, the largest total awarded thus far in the decades-old competition after some investors doubled — or even tripled — down on investment awards.

The 2024 RBPC will focus on five categories: Energy, Cleantech and Sustainability; Hard Tech; Life Sciences and Healthcare Solutions; Digital Enterprise; Consumer Products and Services.

Invitees include:

  • AIRS ML, Imperial College London (United Kingdom)
  • Blaze Power, UCLA
  • ChiChi Foods, Washington University in St. Louis
  • CureWave Sciences, Rutgers University
  • CurveAssure, Johns Hopkins University
  • D.Sole, Carnegie Mellon University
  • Dendritic Health AI, Northwestern University
  • Dialysis Innovations, University of Michigan
  • FlowCellutions, University of Pittsburgh
  • HEXAspec, Rice University
  • HydroPhos Solutions, University of New Hampshire
  • Icorium Engineering Company, University of Kansas
  • Informuta, Tulane University
  • Kiwi Charge, York University (Canada)
  • Korion Health, University of Maryland, College Park
  • Limitless Aeronautics, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University
  • LiQuidium, University of Houston
  • Malleous, University of Pittsburgh
  • MesaQuantum, Harvard University
  • MineMe, University of Pennsylvania
  • NaviAI, Cornell University
  • NutriAI, Tufts University
  • OSPHIM, RWTH Aachen University (Germany)
  • Overture Games, Northwestern University
  • OX SOX, University of Georgia
  • Oxylus Energy, Yale University
  • Palanquin Power, University of Texas at Austin
  • Paradigm Robotics, University of Texas at Austin
  • Particle-N, University of Connecticut
  • Poka Labs, Harvard University
  • Power2Polymer, RWTH Aachen University (Germany)
  • ProPika, University of Arkansas
  • Protein Pints, Michigan State University
  • Samtracs, Oklahoma State University
  • Sancorda Medical, University of Texas at Dallas
  • Side Coach Sports, Baylor University
  • Socian AI, Rochester Institute of Technology
  • Somnair, Johns Hopkins University
  • TouchStone, University of California, Berkeley
  • Vita Innovations, Stanford University
  • WattShift, University of Chicago
  • ZebraMD, UCLA

The companies join more than 700 RBPC alumns that have collectively raised more than $5.5 billion in funding. More than 269 RBPC companies are in business or have made successful exits, according to the Rice Alliance's website.

Last year, Texas A&M-based team FluxWorks took home $350,000 and won the competition based on judges scores. The company's technology includes magnetic gears that are four times quieter than standard with 99 percent efficiency.

Sygne Solutions and TierraClimate, two Rice-led teams, won second and fourth places, respectively. Zaymo, from Brigham Young University, took home the most in investment dollars. Click here to see the full list of 2023 teams.

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Innovative coastline project on Bolivar Peninsula receives federal funding

flood mitigation

The Galveston’s Coastal Barrier Project recently received federal funding to the tune of $500,000 to support construction on its flood mitigation plans for the area previously devastated by Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Known as Ike Dike, the proposed project includes implementing the Galveston Bay Storm Surge Barrier System, including eight Gulf and Bay defense projects. The Bolivar Roads Gate System, a two-mile-long closure structure situated between Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, is included in the plans and would protect against storm surge volumes entering the bay.

The funding support comes from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and will go toward the preconstruction engineering and design phase of Ecosystem Restoration feature G-28, the first segment of the Bolivar Peninsula and West Bay Gulf Intracoastal Waterway Shoreline and Island Protection.

Coastal Barrier Project - Galveston Projects

The project also includes protection of critical fish and wildlife habitat against coastal storms and erosion.

“The Coastal Texas Project is one of the largest projects in the history of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” says Col. Rhett A. Blackmon, USACE Galveston District commander, in a statement. “This project is important to the nation for many reasons. Not only will it reduce risk to the vulnerable populations along the Texas coast, but it will also protect vital ecosystems and economically critical infrastructure vital to the U.S. supply chain and the many global industries located here.”

Hurricane Ike resulted in over $30 billion in storm-related damages to the Texas coast, reports the Coastal Barrier Project, and created a debris line 15 feet tall and 40 miles long in Chambers County. The estimated economic disruption due to Hurricane Ike exceeded $150 billion, FEMA reported.

The Coastal Texas Project is estimated to take 20 years to complete after construction starts and will cost $34.4 billion, reports the USACE.

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Correction: This article previously reported the incorrect project valuation and timeline. It has been updated to reflect the corrrect information.

Houston organization selects research on future foods in space health to receive $1M in funding

research and development

What would we eat if we were forced to decamp to another planet? The most immediate challenges faced by the food industry and astronauts exploring outside Earth are being addressed by The Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) at Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Space Medicine’s newest project.

Earlier this month, TRISH announced the initial selection for its Space Health Ingress Program (SHIP) solicitation. Working with California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Baylor-based program chose “Future Foods for Space: Mobilizing the Future Foods Community to Accelerate Advances in Space Health,” led by Dr. Denneal Jamison-McClung at the University of California, Davis.

“TRISH is bringing in new ideas and investigators to propel space health research,” says Catherine Domingo, TRISH operations lead and research administration associate at Baylor College of Medicine, in the release. “We have long believed that new researchers with fresh perspectives drive innovation and advance human space exploration and SHIP builds on TRISH’s existing efforts to recruit and support new investigators in the space health research field, potentially yielding and high-impact ideas to protect space explorers.”

The goal of the project is to develop sustainable food products and ingredients that could fuel future space travelers on long-term voyages, or even habitation beyond our home planet.

Jamison-McClung and her team’s goal is to enact food-related space health research and inspire the community thereof by mobilizing academic and food-industry researchers who have not previously engaged with the realm of space exploration. Besides growing and developing food products, the project will also address production, storage, and delivery of the nutrition created by the team.

To that end, Jamison-McClung and her recruits will receive $1 million over the course of two years. The goal of the SHIP solicitation is to work with first-time NASA investigators, bringing new minds to the forefront of the space health research world.

“As we look to enable safer space exploration and habitation for humans, it is clear that food and nutrition are foundational,” says Dr. Asha S. Collins, chair of the SHIP advisory board, in a press release. “We’re excited to see how accelerating innovation in food science for space health could also result in food-related innovations for people on Earth in remote areas and food deserts.”