Here are the 10 Houston startups that closed venture capital investment in the fourth quarter of last year. Photo via Getty Images

Houston startups saw a busy last quarter when it came to funding in 2022. From seed to series C, 10 Houston startups wrapped up the year with investment round closings.

In case you missed some of these headlines, InnovationMap has rounded up these 10 deals based on previous reporting. Scroll through to see which Houston startups are catching the eyes — and cashing the checks — of investors.

Houston-based virtual reality startup raises $3.2M in first outside capital round

VR training startup, HTX Labs, has raised funding from an outside investor for the first time. Courtesy of HTX Labs

HTX Labs, a Houston-based company that designs extended reality training for military and business purposes, announced last week that it has raised its first outside capital.

The company has received a $3.2 million investment from Cypress Growth Capital. Founded in 2017, HTX Labs — developer of the EMPACT Immersive Learning Platform — has been granted funding from the Department of Defense as well as grown its client base of commercial Enterprises. The platform uses virtual and extended reality that "enables organizations to rapidly create, deploy, measure, and sustain cost-effective, secure, and centralized immersive training programs, all within engaging, fully interactive virtual environments," per a news release.

“We have been looking to secure outside capital to accelerate the growth of our EMPACT platform and customer base but we hadn’t found the right partner who provided an investment vehicle that matched our needs,“ says HTX Labs CEO Scott Schneider in the release. “We found everything we were looking for in Cypress Growth Capital. They have a non-dilutive funding model that aligns with our capital expectations and have the level of experience that really makes this smart money." Read more.

Houston-based travel tech startup raises nearly $1M to continue expansion

A Houston company has raised additional funding as it grows its encrypted lodging booking platform. Photo via Gustavo Fring/Pexels

A travel booking technology company that's looking to alleviate some of the stresses of finding and making hotel reservations has raised additional seed funding.

Houston-based Pinktada has raised additional funding to the tune of $975,000. Ireland-based Selenean Capital contributed to the seed funding round, joining the company's previous investor True Global Ventures 4 Plus, which has invested $2 million to date. According to Crunchbase data, the latest investment brings the company's total to $3.9 million.

“Selenean Capital’s approach to partnership is identifying real world future needs and then working relentlessly to achieve those goals," says Davin Browne, Selenean’s CEO, in a news release. "Pinktada encapsulates this perfectly with a transformational approach to the hotel booking model built around a brilliant team. We look forward to the partnership and journey with them." Read more.

Houston microgrid tech company announces $150 investment

Houston-based VoltaGrid provides small-scale, self-contained microgrids that can operate independently of major power grids or in tandem with other microgrids. Photo via voltagrid.com

VoltaGrid, a Bellaire-based startup that specializes in distributed power generation via microgrids, has hauled in $150 million in equity funding.

Founded in 2020, VoltaGrid provides small-scale, self-contained microgrids that can operate independently of major power grids or in tandem with other microgrids. VoltaGrid’s product consists of natural gas engines, portable energy storage, natural gas processing and grid power connectivity.

Investors in the $150 million round include the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPP Investments), Longbow Capital, Walter Ventures, and Pilot Company (operator of more than 800 retail and fueling locations in the U.S. and Canada). The $150 million round comes less than a year after VoltaGrid announced a $100 million round featuring the same investors.Read more.

Houston SaaS company raises $15M series B, announces latest release

Houston-based GoCo.io has raised fresh funding and launched the latest version of its platform. Courtesy of GoCo

A Houston startup that is optimizing human resource operations for small businesses has raised fresh funding from an Austin-based venture capital investor.

GoCo.io raised $15 million in September in a funding round led by ATX Venture Partners. Founded in 2015, the company has raised $27.5 million to date, including its $7 million series A in 2019.

The fresh funding will be used to continue expanding on the company's software services operations and upgrades to its product, which is is modernizing HR, benefits, and payroll.

“We believe that GoCo is the company best positioned to provide HR departments at SMBs with the most flexible employee management software,” says Chris Shonk, general partner at ATX Venture Partners, in a news release. “In a crowded marketplace, GoCo clearly rises to the top with its ease-of-use, flexibility and unparalleled customization. Read more.

Houston tech startup raises $3.5M following industry expansion

Rivalry Tech's co-founders — Marshall Law and Aaron Knape — share news of the company's latest round of investment. Photo courtesy of Rivalry Tech

A Houston-based company that optimizes mobile ordering for large venues has closed its latest round of funding.

Rivalry Tech, originally founded as sEATz and tackling mobile ordering in sports venues, has raised $3.5 million following expanding with a new product, myEATz, that targets the health care, leisure, and business industries. The round was led by Houston-based Sightcast, with participation from Houston-based Softeq Venture Studio, Rice University’s Valhalla Investment Group, and more.

“Sightcast Capital Partners looks to invest in strong, founder-led companies that bring a forward-thinking solution to everyday problems," says Neal Simpson, managing partner of Sightcast Capital Partners, in a news release. "In Rivalry Tech, we saw a team that recognized an opportunity to streamline the way in which food and beverage transactions occur in the healthcare, leisure, sports, and entertainment markets. Their two-sided approach of using technology as a tool to increase vendor profitability and also positively influence consumer experience is what immediately attracted us to this opportunity." Read more.

Houston unicorn chemicals company raises $200M series D

Solugen closed its series D funding round at $200 million. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based Solugen has announced its latest round of investment to the tune of $200 million. The company, which reached unicorn status after its $357 million series C round last year, uses its patented Bioforge processes to produce "green" chemicals from bio-based feedstocks.

"Solugen is reimagining the chemistry of everyday life with enzymes found in nature. We make chemicals better, faster, cheaper, and without fossil fuels from right here in Houston, Texas. Whether you care about the climate, local competitiveness, or just plain old profits, we have good news: it's working," the company states in its news release. Read more.

Houston company closes $76M series C round to fuel its mission of reducing carbon emissions

Syzygy Plasmonics has raised a series C round of funding. Photo courtesy of Syzygy

A Houston-based company that is electrifying chemical manufacturing has closed its largest round of funding to date.

Syzygy Plasmonics closed a $76 million series C financing round led by New York-based Carbon Direct Capital. The round included participation from Aramco Ventures, Chevron Technology Ventures, LOTTE CHEMICAL, and Toyota Ventures. The company's existing investors joining the round included EVOK Innovations, The Engine, Equinor Ventures, Goose Capital, Horizons Ventures, Pan American Energy, and Sumitomo Corporation of Americas. According to a news release, Carbon Direct Capital will join Syzygy's board and serve as the series C director.

"We were very attracted to the multiple use cases for the Syzygy reactor and the lifetime-value of each Syzygy customer," says Jonathan Goldberg, Carbon Direct Capital's CEO, in the release. "Emissions from hydrogen production total more than 900 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Syzygy's photocatalysis technology is a key solution to decarbonize hydrogen production as well as other critical industries." Read more.

Houston SaaS startup raises $6M seed

Houston-based SynMax has closed its first round of funding. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston-based satellite data analytics company is celebrating an oversubscribed round of recent funding.

SynMax announced this week that it closed its seed round at $6 million with an oversubscription of $2 million. The startup is providing geospatial intelligence software as a service to customers within the energy and maritime industries. The technology combines earth observation imagery and key data sources for predictive analytics and artificial intelligence.

The company reports that all of the investment came from SynMax customers. The round was led by Houston-based Skylar Capital, an investment management firm focused on the natural gas market. Read more.

Houston health tech startup secures $27M in financing

A Houston startup that created a remote monitoring and care platform has raised millions in financing. Image via michealthcare.com

A virtual health care and analytics provider startup has closed its latest round of funding for a total of $27 million in financing.

Medical Informatics Corp. closed a $17 million series B co-led by Maryland-based Catalio Capital Management and California-based Intel Capital. The financing also includes an additional $10 million in debt led by Catalio through Catalio’s structured equity strategy, according to a news release.

“We are excited to have had this round co-led by Catalio and Intel Capital," says Emma Fauss, CEO and co-founder of MIC, in the release. "Catalio brings significant financial and technical resources, while Intel Capital possesses strong operational and industry experience, and we look forward to continuing to leverage both firms’ expertise as we continue to scale.” Read more.

Houston sportstech platform raises $1.3M seed round

This Houston startup has fresh funding to build out its data intelligence platform. Photo via aim7.com

How many times have you forced yourself to do an arduous workout when you just weren’t feeling it? Despite what some trainers will tell you, you probably didn’t feel any better after. Sports scientist Dr. Erik Korem could have told you that, but more importantly, so could his creation, AIM7.

Marketed as “the fastest, easiest way to change your habits and improve your health,” Korem just raised a $1.3 million seed round that will bring his ambitious app to consumers in its beta form early next month.

The data intelligence platform would know that on a day that you’re stressed, that Peloton tabata ride might not be in your best interest. How? “The data from your Apple Watch or your Fitbit is just data. ‘I walked 7000 steps or I slept 8 hours,’” explains Korem. “We are the recommendation engine that makes this usable for you.” Read more.

These five deals were the largest rounds raised by Houston startups, according to InnovationMap. Photo via Getty Images

Big deals: These were the top 5 investment rounds raised by Houston startups in 2022

year in review

Editor's note: As 2022 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. When it came to the money raised in Houston, these five startups raised the most, according to reporting done by InnovationMap.

Houston unicorn chemicals company raises $200M series D

Solugen closed its series D funding round at $200 million. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based Solugen has announced its latest round of investment to the tune of $200 million. The company, which reached unicorn status after its $357 million series C round last year, uses its patented Bioforge processes to produce "green" chemicals from bio-based feedstocks.

"Solugen is reimagining the chemistry of everyday life with enzymes found in nature. We make chemicals better, faster, cheaper, and without fossil fuels from right here in Houston, Texas. Whether you care about the climate, local competitiveness, or just plain old profits, we have good news: it's working," the company states in its news release. Read more.

Houston microgrid tech company announces $150 investment

Houston-based VoltaGrid provides small-scale, self-contained microgrids that can operate independently of major power grids or in tandem with other microgrids. Photo via voltagrid.com

VoltaGrid, a Bellaire-based startup that specializes in distributed power generation via microgrids, has hauled in $150 million in equity funding.

Founded in 2020, VoltaGrid provides small-scale, self-contained microgrids that can operate independently of major power grids or in tandem with other microgrids. VoltaGrid’s product consists of natural gas engines, portable energy storage, natural gas processing and grid power connectivity. Read more.

Houston company raises $138M for next-generation geothermal energy

The future of geothermal energy is here — and just got a big payday. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based startup Fervo Energy has picked up $138 million in funding to propel its creation and operation of carbon-free power plants fueled by geothermal energy.

Fervos says the series C round will help it complete power plants in Nevada and Utah and evaluate new projects in California, Idaho, Oregon, Colorado, and New Mexico, as well as in other countries.

California-based investment firm DCVC led the round, with participation from six new investors. Read more.

Houston company closes $76M series C round to fuel its mission of reducing carbon emissions

Syzygy Plasmonics has raised a series C round of funding. Photo courtesy of Syzygy

A Houston-based company that is electrifying chemical manufacturing has closed its largest round of funding to date.

Syzygy Plasmonics closed a $76 million series C financing round led by New York-based Carbon Direct Capital. The round included participation from Aramco Ventures, Chevron Technology Ventures, LOTTE CHEMICAL, and Toyota Ventures. The company's existing investors joining the round included EVOK Innovations, The Engine, Equinor Ventures, Goose Capital, Horizons Ventures, Pan American Energy, and Sumitomo Corporation of Americas. According to a news release, Carbon Direct Capital will join Syzygy's board and serve as the series C director.Read more.

Fast-growing energy fintech startup raises $50M series B

The series B capital will allow the company to enhance its core product, while also adding on other workflows that focus on emissions and renewable energy. Image via combocurve.com

Houston-based ComboCurve announced today that it has raised $50 million through a series B funding round led by Dragoneer Investment Group and Bessemer Venture Partners.

Founded in 2017, the company is a cloud-based energy analytics and operating platform that uses sophisticated software to forecast and report on a company's energy assets, including renewables.

The series B capital will allow the company to enhance its core product, while also adding on other workflows that focus on emissions and renewable energy. Read more.


This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Juliana Garaizar of Greentown Labs, Trevor Best of Syzygy Plasmonics, and Nathan Ough of VoltaGrid. Photos courtesy

3 Houston energy innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across the energy industry recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Juliana Garaizar, head of the Houston incubator and vice president of innovation at Greentown Labs

Juliana Garaizar joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the incubator's upcoming Climatetech Summit. Photo courtesy of Juliana Garaizar

This week, Greentown Labs is hosting a two-day summit focused on elevating the conversation around clean energy and the energy transition in Houston and beyond, as well as serving as a showcase for emerging technologies coming out of Greentown's member companies.

"The main theme for this Climatetech Summit is commercialization, and we're trying to explore it in different ways," Juliana Garaizar, head of the Houston incubator and vice president of innovation for Greentown, says on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast. "We're going to have some great panels on rapid commercialization and Houston and the energy transition."

Last year, Houston played a role in Greentown's annual Climatetech Summit. The two-day streamed event in 2021 attracted over 2,500 viewers from 38 different countries. This year's event will return to in-person but keep the streaming element to maintain this opportunity to reach people all over the world. The summit kicks off on November 2 in Houston and continues on November 3 in Boston. (InnovationMap is a partner for the Houston portion of the summit.) Click here to read more.

Trevor Best, co-founder and CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics

Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics, announced a new tool for clean energy. Photo courtesy of Syzygy

Houston-area energy tech startup Syzygy Plasmonics just released a free online tool at CarbonModel.com that enables users to calculate the greenhouse gas emissions and emission-reduction costs in as little as 60 seconds. It’s a more straightforward way of making those calculations than is offered by Argonne National Laboratory’s Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Technologies (GREET) model, the startup says.

Syzygy co-founder and CEO Trevor Best calls the Inflation Reduction Act “a major tailwind” for energy transition and hydrogen adoption.

“Existing hydrogen producers now have the fiscal support needed to sanction new projects. And companies that had been mulling hydrogen as a new business are incentivized to move more quickly,” Best says. “Both existing and new entrants in the hydrogen market want to know if their hydrogen is clean enough to qualify for [Inflation Reduction Act] tax credits.” Click here to read more.

Nathan Ough, president and CEO of VoltaGrid

Houston-based VoltaGrid provides small-scale, self-contained microgrids that can operate independently of major power grids or in tandem with other microgrids. Photo via LinkedIn

Bellaire-based VoltaGrid, which provides small-scale, self-contained microgrids that can operate independently of major power grids or in tandem with other microgrids, has hauled in $150 million in equity funding. VoltaGrid’s product consists of natural gas engines, portable energy storage, natural gas processing and grid power connectivity.

VoltaGrid says it will spend the fresh cash to grow its power generation portfolio, along with its low-carbon fuel program in partnership with Pilot. The low-carbon platform features hydrogen and compressed natural gas.

“VoltaGrid continues to set new milestones across multiple sectors and business lines as we execute on our proven strategy with key partners,” Nathan Ough, president and CEO of VoltaGrid, says. Click here to read more.

Houston-based VoltaGrid provides small-scale, self-contained microgrids that can operate independently of major power grids or in tandem with other microgrids. Photo via voltagrid.com

Houston microgrid tech company announces $150 investment

hauling in cash

VoltaGrid, a Bellaire-based startup that specializes in distributed power generation via microgrids, has hauled in $150 million in equity funding.

Founded in 2020, VoltaGrid provides small-scale, self-contained microgrids that can operate independently of major power grids or in tandem with other microgrids. VoltaGrid’s product consists of natural gas engines, portable energy storage, natural gas processing and grid power connectivity.

Investors in the $150 million round include the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPP Investments), Longbow Capital, Walter Ventures, and Pilot Company (operator of more than 800 retail and fueling locations in the U.S. and Canada). The $150 million round comes less than a year after VoltaGrid announced a $100 million round featuring the same investors.

VoltaGrid says it will spend the fresh cash to grow its power generation portfolio, along with its low-carbon fuel program in partnership with Pilot. The low-carbon platform features hydrogen and compressed natural gas.

“VoltaGrid continues to set new milestones across multiple sectors and business lines as we execute on our proven strategy with key partners,” Nathan Ough, president and CEO of VoltaGrid, says in a news release.

“Our strategy to establish one of the largest asset bases of portable generation, uniquely paired with our low-carbon fueling solutions, has significantly decreased the complexity for our partners to electrify their operations. I am thankful to our team members for the tremendous amount of work that has been contributed to create one of the largest portfolios of contracted low carbon fuels in the industry.”

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Houston startup scores $12M grant to support clinical evaluation of cancer-fighting drug

fresh funding

Allterum Therapeutics, a Houston biopharmaceutical company, has been awarded a $12 million product development grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

The funds will support the clinical evaluation of a therapeutic antibody that targets acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), one of the most common childhood cancers.

However, CEO and President Atul Varadhachary, who's also the managing director of Fannin Innovation, tells InnovationMap, “Our mission has grown much beyond ALL.”

The antibody, called 4A10, was invented by Scott Durum PhD and his team at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Licensed exclusively by Allterum, a company launched by Fannin, 4A10 is a novel immunotherapy that utilizes a patient’s own immune system to locate and kill cancer cells.

Varadhachary explained that while about 80 percent of patients afflicted with ALL have the B-cell version, the other 20 percent suffer from T-cell ALL.

“Because the TLL population is so small, there are really no approved, effective drugs for it. The last drug that was approved was 18 or 19 years ago,” the CEO-scientist said. 4A10 addresses this unmet need, but also goes beyond it.

Because 4A10 targets CD127, also known as the interleukin-7 receptor, it could be useful in the treatment of myriad cancers. In fact, the receptor is expressed not just in hematological cancers like ALL, but also solid tumors like breast, lung, and colorectal cancers. There’s also “robust data,” according to Varadhachary for the antibody’s success against B-cell ALL, as well as many other cancers.

“Now what we're doing in parallel with doing the development for ALL is that we're continuing to do additional preclinical work in these other indications, and then at some point, we will raise a series A financing that will allow us to expand markets into things which are much more commercially attractive,” Varadhachary explains.

Why did they go for the less commercially viable application first? As Varadhachary put it, “The Fannin model is to allow us to go after areas which are major unmet medical needs, even if they are not necessarily as attractive on a commercial basis.”

But betting on a less common malady could have a bigger payoff than the Allterum team originally expected.

Before the new CPRIT grant, Allterum’s funding included a previous seed grant from CPRIT of $3 million. Other funds included an SBIR grant from NCI, as well as another NCI program called NExT, which deals specifically with experimental therapies.

“To get an antibody from research into clinical testing takes about $10 million,” Varadhachary says. “It's an expensive proposition.”

With this, and other nontraditional financing, the company was able to take what Varadhachary called “a huge unmet medical need but a really tiny commercial market” and potentially help combat a raft of other childhood cancers.

“That's our vision. It's not economically hugely attractive, but we think it's important,” says Varadhachary.

Atul Varadhachary is the managing director of Fannin Innovation. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston researcher scores prestigious NSF award for machine learning, power grid tech

grant funding

An associate professor at the University of Houston received the highly competitive National Science Foundation CAREER Award earlier this month for a proposal focused on integrating renewable resources to improve power grids.

The award grants more than $500,000 to Xingpeng Li, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and leader of the Renewable Power Grid Lab at UH, to continue his work on developing ways to use machine learning to ensure that power systems can continue to run efficiently when pulling their energy from wind and solar sources, according to a statement from UH. This work has applications in the events of large disturbances to the grid.

Li explains that currently, power grids run off of converted, stored kinetic energy during grid disturbances.

"For example, when the grid experiences sudden large generation losses or increased electrical loads, the stored kinetic energy immediately converted to electrical energy and addressed the temporary shortfall in generation,” Li said in a statement. “However, as the proportion of wind and solar power increases in the grid, we want to maximize their use since their marginal costs are zero and they provide clean energy. Since we reduce the use of those traditional generators, we also reduce the power system inertia (or stored kinetic energy) substantially.”

Li plans to use machine learning to create more streamlined models that can be implemented into day-ahead scheduling applications that grid operators currently use.

“With the proposed new modeling and computational approaches, we can better manage grids and ensure it can supply continuous quality power to all the consumers," he said.

In addition to supporting Li's research and model creations, the funds will also go toward Li and his team's creation of a free, open-source tool for students from kindergarten up through their graduate studies. They are also developing an “Applied Machine Learning in Power Systems” course. Li says the course will help meet workforce needs.

The CAREER Award recognizes early-career faculty members who “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the NSF. It's given to about 500 researchers each year.

Earlier this year, Rice assistant professor Amanda Marciel was also

granted an NSF CAREER Award to continue her research in designing branch elastomers that return to their original shape after being stretched. The research has applications in stretchable electronics and biomimetic tissues.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston expert shares 3 leadership challenges inspired by jazz improvisation

houston voices

Crises, whether supply chain disruptions, natural disasters, or the arrival of an upstart rival, are a revealing moment for leaders. Such scenarios can push companies to the brink of meltdown or usher in dramatic organizational transformation. Whether an organization withers or thrives during a crisis is shaped by its resourcefulness—how it uses its existing resources.

The pandemic decimated many industries, but the performing arts industry faced especially grave challenges: rampant unemployment, limited prospects for revenue, and an existential crisis over the relevance of the arts in dire times. Initially, musicians could not congregate to practice, performance halls were shuttered, and classical music was the last thing on the public’s mind.

As tough as these circumstances appeared to be, what collaborator Kristen Nault and I learned during a multiyear study of two prominent orchestras surprised us: Not only was it possible to survive trying times, but it was also possible to emerge better because of them. The leadership key? Becoming nimbler by thinking more like jazz ensembles and less like classical orchestras.

Business leaders often call this agility, but for a musician, this is the realm of jazz improvisation. Our research found three critical changes in leadership practices that helped leaders facing disruptions act like talented jazz musicians. Leaders in any industry can apply these practices during their organization’s next crisis.

The Resource Paradox During a Crisis

An organization’s most significant challenge during a crisis is that it typically needs resources — including time, money, expertise, equipment, and connections — at a time when activating resources has become more difficult. When faced with high levels of uncertainty, a leader’s first instinct might be to pare down investments to lower the risk of worst case outcomes. Ironically, such defensive behaviors can contribute to the organization’s demise. Threat rigidity sets in, with the leader doubling down on old habits and control mechanisms that make it difficult to harness the full potential of resources.

Instead of fearing crises, leaders can learn to embrace their hidden benefits. And by following the adage “Necessity is the mother of invention,” organizations can unlock the full power of their existing resources to respond to a challenge. Research on resourcefulness finds that when leaders take this approach, they can foster collective creativity to help groups solve problems in adverse times.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses discovered ways to access more knowledge (to understand how to repurpose products and services), capital (to invest in IT infrastructure), and connections (to identify new markets for revised products and services). Resourcefulness helped businesses pivot: Bakeries pivoted to selling raw ingredients for home chefs, clothing companies to producing face masks, vacuum manufacturer Dyson to designing a ventilator in 10 days, and distilleries to manufacturing hand sanitizer.

A Tale of Two Symphonies — and Leadership Approaches

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we engaged in a multiyear research study with two of the world’s premier symphony organizations, the Houston Symphony and the Revenite Symphony (a pseudonym because the organization requested confidentiality).

When we began our research, it was an open question as to whether Revenite and the Houston Symphony would survive. Both organizations had struggled financially before the pandemic, with millions of dollars in losses and even more significant budget deficits. Both organizations were also steeped in customs and traditions, which, as any business leader knows, makes change difficult. Yet, crises often produce one valuable resource needed to instigate considerable change: urgency. Urgency makes it possible to rapidly implement changes that might otherwise have taken years (or not happened at all). A lack of urgency dooms many change management initiatives, making its abundance during a crisis an opportunity not to be overlooked. As we interviewed and observed symphony executives, staff members, and musicians, we discovered that the leaders of each organization took very different approaches to addressing the crisis and mobilizing their resources to respond.

Revenite announced a suspension of operations near the start of the pandemic. Its leadership could not envision how to pivot its labor and fixed assets, such as its performance hall, to capture new sources of revenue. As one Revenite executive told me, “I don’t think we had a sense of what the pathway toward restarting the business was going to be. … There were too many unknowns.”

After furloughing all of the musicians and most of its staff, Revenite focused on surviving. The organization radically slashed costs to 25 percent of the pre-pandemic budget and tried to get the remaining skeleton workforce to increase productivity to keep the symphony chugging along. Leaders sought to wait things out until the pandemic subsided. This defensive strategy led Revenite to constrict resources when the organization needed them most.

Afraid to go broke, the organization retreated — at a significant cost. Revenite lost any relevance to its community at this time of great need. Several difficult-to-replace musicians quit the industry. Trust between leadership and all employees, already strained from the furloughs, further deteriorated as Revenite’s leaders centralized control of the organization and focused on squeezing the remaining labor force to do more. Many employees felt burned out from working long hours with little purpose. No one, including executives, understood the “why” behind the work. As one executive said to me, “I’m working to sustain a thing that has no inherent meaning other than its survival. That’s a really weird place to be. … Our mission is to perform orchestral music.”

In contrast, the Houston Symphony made an early commitment during the pandemic to remain open. It abandoned the long-term planning that symphonies typically engage in (measured in years) and shifted to figuring out the next few weeks — for its concert program, staffing, safety practices, and marketing efforts.

At first, congregating in the performance hall was not allowed due to regulations and safety concerns. So instead, the Houston Symphony turned its musicians’ homes into performance venues. The musicians teamed up with musically talented (but not professional) family members, including partners and children. Instead of relying on a huge production team, the makeshift videos in its Living Room Series of performances were created by a minimal number of staff members. Other orchestras that livestreamed performances tried to re-create the symphony experience on Zoom, with 70-plus musicians appearing in tiny square boxes. The Houston Symphony realized that it would inevitably disappoint its customers by trying to transform a rich in-person experience into a mediocre online one. Instead, it reimagined the delivery of its content by inviting customers to learn about musicians and their families in an intimate setting while listening to enjoyable music.

When the Houston Symphony moved to livestreaming full concerts without an in-person audience, it could reach new geographic markets not possible with in-person-only events. It charged an admission fee for the virtual concerts (which was uncommon) and attracted donations from a wider variety of patrons. This brought in additional resources, such as revenue, new supporters, and media attention, as well as an enhanced reputation among industry peers.

Importantly, these decisions also created extra time for the organization to figure out how to safely and effectively return its patrons to the performance hall, which Houston did long before most other symphonies. However, the organization went further, using the pandemic to usher in a more profound transformation.

Instead of making deep cost cuts and unsustainable workforce reductions like Revenite did in the name of resourcefulness, the Houston Symphony took a strategic approach to resourcefulness. Leaders focused not on simply surviving but on strengthening the organization’s long-term outlook — financially, operationally, and in terms of its mission:

  • The need to be more mindful of costs during severe financial distress helped leaders balance the budget, a goal that had proved elusive in years past. The entire organization made a newfound commitment to follow a pathway of greater fiscal responsibility into the future.
  • The organization expanded its donor base beyond Houston and reached customers worldwide with the paid livestreaming product. Although at face value a livestreaming ticket yielded fewer proceeds than an in-person concert, many attendees were first-time patrons. Additionally, a large portion of these people donated money in addition to buying the livestream tickets.
  • The symphony maintained livestreaming performances after returning to a full, in-person concert schedule — earning incremental revenue with little added effort.
  • In a striking change, the organization introduced its patrons, who traditionally heard Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, to a more diverse set of composers. Prepandemic, the pressure to fill 3,000 seats deterred the Houston Symphony from experimenting with new composers: When programs featured unfamiliar works, filling the theater with ticket buyers was a challenge. But that pressure disappeared when the performance hall was restricted to less than 50 percent capacity. The organization brought in much-needed new voices, and its audiences responded positively — so much so that the symphony upped its efforts. In the year before the pandemic, fewer than 1 percent of the symphony’s classical concerts featured musical pieces composed by members of underrepresented populations or women. In the 2023 fiscal year, and with Houston’s hall at full capacity, that number expanded to 72 percent.

Learning to Get Jazzy: Three Strategies for Leaders

Many organizations, whether a symphony, manufacturing company, or professional services firm, are metaphorically structured like an orchestra. They have conductors (leaders) and rely on sheet music (routines and practices) to coordinate different parts (teams, divisions, or functional areas) of the enterprise. Organizational leaders aim for reliable and standardized performances, much like conductors aim to make the matinee performance of a symphony the same high quality as the evening one. Through many rehearsals (that is, the repetition of behaviors), it is possible to make incremental improvements, but leaders seek output that, by design, is predictable and relatively static. Operating like a symphony orchestra allows organizations to thrive in environments of stability and low uncertainty. But during a crisis, this type of model can be disastrous.

Our research found that the Houston Symphony significantly changed its operating model. It pulled ahead of peers in the industry when leaders changed the operating metaphor to that of a jazz ensemble. As one executive told me, the collective team saw the power of flexibility: “Leadership has come from the admin and staff side and the musician side. … We’ve combined different kinds of music and programs that [we] would never do before. I would say that as a large organization, we’re operating more like a small organization.”

That is the kind of result that many business leaders navigating disruptive crises only hope to nurture within their teams.

How did the Houston Symphony’s leaders inspire the organization to become so nimble? Our research found three critical changes in leadership practices that enabled them to adapt.

1. Keep the music playing.

Like a jazz ensemble, the Houston Symphony tried to keep the music playing, literally and figuratively. While Revenite stopped playing music and functioning as an organization, the Houston Symphony kept playing … anything. For example, the livestreamed Living Room Series was a far different product than a fully staffed professional production with 70 musicians in a 3,000-seat venue. However, those performances brought in new patrons and donors, and nurtured the symphony’s relevance in the community. This experiment also helped build the organization’s experience with livestreaming, which proved to be an important launching point for a more comprehensive virtual offering. Leaders, staff members, and musicians discovered their hidden capabilities around playing different types of music, utilizing novel technologies, and coordinating in new ways.

Without clarity on how the pandemic would unfold, the Houston Symphony focused on short-term decisions, asking “What can we play this week?” instead of trying to have an answer for the rest of the year. This allowed the symphony to have the most relevant information to inform its operations — real-time information that could be used to make decisions today, instead of relying on shaky assumptions about an unknown future. Leaders of any type of organization can understand a crisis by experimenting and then taking stock of lessons learned instead of remaining frozen by fear and uncertainty.

2. Don’t wait to practice transparency.

Houston’s leaders fostered strong trust between management and all employees. As resources become scarce during a crisis, it’s easy for trust to erode if decisions lack transparency. Instead of shrouding decision-making in secrecy, the Houston Symphony invited representatives from the front-line staff to weigh in on critical decisions. Relationships with the musicians’ union strengthened. By revealing sensitive information and disclosing the dire predicament the organization faced early on, leaders built trust and sparked a sense of urgency. Both were required in order for the team to quickly make significant changes.

Trust also came from empowering employees to experiment and not punishing them for making mistakes. For example, the marketing team had to try different campaign messages until they found one that resonated with patrons. The development team turned the mere fact that the symphony was playing into a comeback story—one that donors eagerly supported. The operations team discovered ways to socially distance musicians and audiences and continually modified its plans as the pandemic evolved.

3. Collaborate on a postcrisis identity.

Finally, the Houston Symphony constructed a new postcrisis identity that reflected its leadership role in the community. Instead of trying to return to pre-pandemic norms, leaders expanded the organization’s mission to cater to a wider, more diverse set of community members. The organization committed to experimenting with new types of music and continued with livestreaming to introduce audiences worldwide to a larger repertoire of selections. Expanded educational programs helped it reach underserved communities, providing a stronger foundation to diversify the artistic talent base.

Having helped shape the Houston Symphony’s comeback during the pandemic, employees embraced this community centered vision and rallied to keep the transformation momentum going. Additionally, they all came to see their own skill sets differently. After effectively coping with major adversity and helping to build a stronger organization, employees came to see themselves as capable crisis navigators — which will help everyone during future crises.

A Second Act

As our research progressed into its second year, we grew increasingly certain that Revenite would fold. We turned out to be wrong. As the organization neared the brink of death, Revenite’s leaders stopped waiting for the crisis to abate and ushered in a dramatic turnaround. It began when leaders engaged in updating. Updating is a leadership competency in which prior beliefs are revised to better address problems. It’s often a struggle for leaders to change direction after committing to a course of action, but Revenite’s leaders managed to dislodge their previous views of the crisis as the organization withered. They managed to adapt, as any jazz musician must.

Although the relationship with Revenite’s musicians had been deeply tarnished, leaders restarted a dialogue. The full impact of the furlough and Revenite’s decision to suspend operations became clear. Leaders updated their assessments of employees’ emotional states, gaining a more vivid understanding of how they had suffered economically and emotionally. Musicians explained that they had felt disconnected from their love of performance and struggled to stay sharp without practicing as an entire orchestra. After learning about employees’ hardships, leaders finally felt an urgent need to course-correct.

Revenite’s leaders next updated their assumptions about financial resources. They finally acknowledged that cost cutting was not a viable business strategy or a pathway to transformation. Instead of viewing employees as cost centers, leaders shifted to seeing them as revenue generators. By becoming more strategic with their resourcefulness, Revenite’s leaders could mobilize their existing resources to respond to the crisis more effectively. Musicians returned from furlough and started helping to increase revenues through donor outreach and, eventually, concerts.

Leaders also started noticing more about how other entities were adjusting to the crisis. They found inspiration in the Houston Symphony’s ability to operate during the pandemic — and also learned from Revenite’s musicians’ efforts to create COVID-safe concerts to raise money for themselves during the furlough. These examples showed Revenite’s leaders that operating during a pandemic was possible — something they had thought was insurmountable earlier in the year. By the end of year two of the pandemic, Revenite was well on its way to returning to its precrisis strength.

When a crisis hits, getting jazzy will help leaders in any industry adapt and positively transform their organizations. Instead of fearfully retreating at the onset of a crisis, using resourcefulness as a set of strategic tools can help leaders turn a threat into an opportunity. By unlocking the hidden potential of existing resources, organizations can emerge from a crisis with better financials, stronger operations, higher team morale, and a reinvigorated sense of purpose.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Scott Sonenshein, the Henry Gardiner Symonds Professor of Management at Rice University, author of Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less — and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined (HarperCollins, 2017), and coauthor (with Marie Kondo) of Joy at Work: Organizing Your Professional Life (Little, Brown Spark, 2020).