Topl's latest fundraising round includes participation from a Houston investor as well as international partners. Image via Getty Images

A blockchain technology company that was founded out of Rice University has closed its latest round of funding.

Founded in 2017, Topl is a blockchain-as-a-service company that's developing a purpose-built blockchain ecosystem to empower impact and sustainability within its userbase of businesses. The company's $15 million series A round was co-led by Houston-based Mercury, Republic Asia, and Malta-based Cryptology Asset Group.

“Topl’s blockchain was purpose built to power the next wave of supply chains and markets, that are more sustainable and inclusive,” says Chris Georgen, founder and managing director of Topl, in a news release. “Every decision we’ve made has been relentlessly focused on this problem and it’s exciting to see this approach yielding results with more than 30 different impact-forward use cases already live or approaching launch. Through this latest fundraise and with the strong network we’ve built, we’re looking to accelerate the growth of our ecosystem and setting a goal of at least 100 applications launched by next year.”

The company, which is now headquartered in Austin but still has a presence in Houston, has raised over $20 million in investment to date. Topl announced its $3 million seed round of funding — also led by Mercury — in 2020.

“Despite broader market dynamics across the Web3 sector, Topl’s strategic and early focus on users allowed the team to build an incredibly strong foundation that can weather cycles by providing an increasingly in-demand service to companies implementing various sustainable initiatives,” says Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury, in the release. “We are excited to support Topl in this pivotal growth period.”

The round included two new international investors in Topl. Republic Asia is a newly launched arm of private investing platform Republic that is focused on fintech and web3 solutions. Houstonian Youngro Lee leads the division as executive vice president at Republic and head of Republic Asia and will join Topl's board to assist with international expansion.

“Sustainability and climate considerations are no longer mere luxuries, but an absolute necessity for companies to contribute to global finance and commerce,” Lee says in the release. “Topl will make it easier than ever for any organization around the world to harness the power of blockchain to track and monetize their positive environmental impact.”

Cryptology, with its European operations, also brings Topl key international presence.

"It's been an honor to see Topl progress from when it first entered Iconic Lab's accelerator program back in 2018 to where it is today," says Patrick Lowry, CEO of Cryptology, in the release. "Cryptology is hyper-focused on driving crypto adoption in an impact-focused, sustainable manner. We are proud to add Topl to our portfolio of companies and excitedly await Topl's network decentralization."

In addition to increasing its international impact, Topl will reportedly continue to build out its blockchain and technology. Per the release, Topl expects to launch a traceability platform for ethically and sustainably sourced products later this year.

Topl, which launched a grant program to fund Web3 startups and developers with inclusive and sustainable solutions, plans to announce its first 20 grant awards early next year. The grant recipients will also receive development, go-to-market, and fundraising support from Topl's team and network.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Grace Rodriguez of Impact Hub Houston, Youngro Lee of NextSeed, and Liz Youngblood of Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center. Courtesy photos

3 Houston 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 industries — startup development, fintech, and health care — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston

Impact Hub Houston has two new initiatives for female founders. Photo courtesy of Impact Hub Houston

Two accelerator programs were recently announced and they both are aimed at supporting female founders — and one Houston organization is behind them both. Impact Hub Houston announced that it has partnered up with Frost Bank to sponsor eight female founders to participate in Impact Hub's new Accelerate Membership Program.

Additionally, Impact Hub Houston has teamed up with MassChallenge for their own initiative supporting female founders in the Houston-Galveston region in partnership with Houston-based Workforce Solutions. The three organizations are collaborating to launch launch a bootcamp to support female founders in the greater Houston region.

"As a female founder myself, I'm incredibly excited about this opportunity to support and uplift more women entrepreneurs and women-led businesses in our region," says Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston, in a news release. "By now, it's no secret that women, and especially women of color, are under-invested in; and this is our chance to change that by helping more women strengthen their businesses and prepare to seek funding." Click here to read more.

Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed and COO of Republic

What does the future of investment look like? That's something Youngro Lee thinks about daily – and he shares his thoughts on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of NextSeed

The world of investing is changing — and the power shift is tilting from the rich elite to individuals. Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed and COO of Republic, has seen the change starting several years ago.

"Investing is traditionally seen as something you can't do unless you're rich," Lee says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There was a certain understanding of what anyone (looking to invest) should do. … But now the world is so different."

Lee shares more about the future of investing and how he's watched the Houston innovation ecosystem develop over the years on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Liz Youngblood, president of Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and senior vice president and COO of St. Luke's Health

As we enter year two of the pandemic, the way hospitals function now and in the future is forever changed. Photo courtesy

No industry has been unaffected by COVID-19, Liz Youngblood, president of Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and senior vice president and COO of St. Luke's Health, observes in a guest column for InnovationMap. But hospitals — they've had a spotlight shown on them and their technology adoption since day one of the pandemic.

"The pace of innovation for hospitals has been at breakneck speed — from the evolution of new treatment protocols to the need to reconfigure physical spaces to support an influx of patients while also promoting a healing environment during this unprecedented time," she writes.

Hospitals, she says, look and feel completely different now than they did last year and the year before that. Click here to read more.

What does the future of investment look like? That's something Youngro Lee thinks about daily – and he shares his thoughts on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of NextSeed

Houston fintech startup continues to grow to represent a new era of investing

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 78

When Youngro Lee and his co-founders launched NextSeed — an investment platform that allows non-accredited investors to invest in small, local businesses for as little as $100 — they were creating something that hadn't existed before. Now, Lee is actively working toward a world where this type of crowd-sourced investment is commonplace.

And the industry is changing — finally. The first change was in 2012 when the Jobs Act allowed for unaccredited investors to make small-scale investments into businesses. It was this new law change that drove Lee and his co-founders to create NextSeed as the landscape of both investors and companies that were able to get funding began to evolve.

"Investing is traditionally seen as something you can't do unless you're rich," Lee says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There was a certain understanding of what anyone (looking to invest) should do. … But now the world is so different."

And the financial world was due some changes, Lee says. If you look at the top 10 companies in the world right now, he explains on the show, most of those companies weren't on that list 20 years ago. "And that's not a coincidence," he says.

"Technologies, lifestyles, and generations change, but in the world of finance — because of regulations and old school mentality — it doesn't catch up," Lee says.

But new companies — like NextSeed on the private side of the market and Robinhood representing public investment — are putting investment power into the hands of individuals. And the new generations of investors look at investment differently.

"The future of investment is less about, 'let me maximize my ROI,'" he says, "it's going to transition to, 'I want to invest in things that make me happy and things that I value."

Last fall, NextSeed and New York-based Republic, another investment platform, entered into a strategic partnership that mutually benefits both companies and expands their horizons — both geographically and on an industry level. From Republic's perspective, the company is tapping into a new market in Houston and Texas — a region that's growing its population and attracting new businesses.

Lee shares more about the deal, the future of investing, and how he's watched the Houston innovation ecosystem develop over the years on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


This week's innovators to know roundup includes Youngro Lee of NextSeed, Joy M. Hutton of Google's Digital Coaches, and Aaron Knape of sEATz. Photos courtesy

3​ Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In today's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators across industries — from sports tech to startup mentorship.

Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed

Youngro Lee NextSeed

With the acquisition, Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed, has been named the COO of Republic. Courtesy of NextSeed

Youngro Lee has a new title thanks to an acquisition. Republic, a growing New York-based private investment platform, has acquired Houston-based NextSeed, according to announcements from both companies. With the acquisition, Lee now also serves as COO of Republic.

It's a pivotal moment for the private investment community as just two weeks ago the SEC announced changes to Regulation Crowdfunding that included raising the fundraising caps from $1.07 million to $5 million. Between the new regulations and the new Republic deal, investing on NextSeed's platform will grow in scale.

"Now, by partnering with Republic, we believe that we can achieve so much more together for our entire business and investor community," NextSeed's executive team says in an email to investors. "We have known and worked with the Republic team for over four years, as both firms tried to strengthen and grow this industry since the very beginning of this movement." Read more.

Joy M. Hutton, Grow with Google Digital Coach for Houston

Joy M. Hutton will lead Grow with Google in Houston. Photo courtesy

A new Google initiative is expanding its Texas presence this month, and Houston entrepreneur Joy M. Hutton, founder of Joy of Consulting, will serve as the Grow with Google Digital Coach for Houston.

"The Grow with Google team is making an effort to close the gap in resources that Black and LatinX small business owners have not generally had access to — in Houston and beyond," Hutton says in the release. "I live and breathe entrepreneurship, so I'm honored to participate in the Google Digital Coaches program and excited to work with Houston entrepreneurs who are traditionally underrepresented." Read more.

Aaron Knape, co-founder and CEO of sEATz

Houston-based sEATz has raised funding to help scale to the demands as fans safely return to stadiums. Photo courtesy of sEATz

When COVID-19 hit, Aaron Knape and his team at sEATz had to think long and hard about how their tech platform for in-stadium food and merchandise delivery would survive. However, what seemed like an insurmountable challenge became sEATz's biggest opportunity.

"We really started seeing how integral our platform was going to be for the safe return for sports and entertainment," says Aaron Knape, CEO and co-founder of sEATz."When we started getting that momentum and traction with our clients, our investor base and perspective investor base got really excited."

And those excited investors allowed the startup to raise a second seed round of venture capital to the tune of $1.6 million. Read more.

With the acquisition, Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed, has been named the COO of Republic. Courtesy of NextSeed

Houston investment platform acquired, new partnership grows investor access

Nextseed's next phase

A growing New York-based private investment platform has acquired Houston-based NextSeed, according to announcements from both companies.

Republic announced the acquisition Monday, November 16, and appointed Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed, as Republic's new COO. It's the third acquisition for Republic this year. Fig, a gaming-focused platform, and Compound, a real estate-focused platform, both joined the Republic family, allowing investors access to other industries.

"The NextSeed acquisition is just the latest milestone for Republic as we deliver the most expansive platform of marketplace offerings and investment types for private investors globally," Republic CEO Kendrick Nguyen says in a release.

Lee founded NextSeed with CMO Abe Chu and CTO Bob Dunton six years ago following the passage of the JOBS Act in 2012, that allowed smaller investments from non-accredited investors. Since then, NextSeed has facilitated $20 million in investments from 25,000 members into 75 local businesses.

It's a pivotal moment for the private investment community as just two weeks ago the SEC announced changes to Regulation Crowdfunding that included raising the fundraising caps from $1.07 million to $5 million. Between the new regulations and the new Republic deal, investing on NextSeed's platform will grow in scale.

"Now, by partnering with Republic, we believe that we can achieve so much more together for our entire business and investor community," NextSeed's executive team says in an email to investors. "We have known and worked with the Republic team for over four years, as both firms tried to strengthen and grow this industry since the very beginning of this movement."

Republic's founders are alums from AngelList and have made Republic one of the top private investing platforms in the industry with around 1 million members and more than $200 million facilitated through individual and institutional investors, according to the email.

According to NextSeed's email to its investors, little will change on the platform for investors, aside from access to new deals from Republic and its subsidiaries. Additionally, NextSeed will maintain its headquarters in Houston and the deal marks Republic's entrance into Houston and Texas.

WeWork Labs and NextSeed have teamed up to help Houston's food entrepreneurs. Photo courtesy of WeWork

WeWork accelerator partners with Houston-based investment platform for food entrepreneurship

food for thought

Two Houston programs that exist to help grow and develop food and hospitality startups have teamed up to combine their resources and programming.

WeWork Labs, a global acceleration program with a location in downtown Houston, and NextSeed, a Houston-based online investment platform, have announced a partnership set to begin in December. Together, the two entities will build a support system for Houston-based food entrepreneurs to provide workshops, programming, events, and more.

"Houston food entrepreneurs are keen to solve the big problems the food industry is facing today," says Carlos Estrada, head of WeWork Labs in Houston, in a news release. "Houston is among the leading cities for startup innovation and we see our partnership with NextSeed as an exciting first-of-its-kind initiative that will prove to support even more food entrepreneurs in the area, arming them with the network and tools they need to get their concepts off the ground and transform into leading businesses."

WeWork brings in its international food labs programming, and NextSeed will be able to provide access to capital through its platform. In March, the company launched NextSeed Space — a pop-up retail and kitchen space for startups to test their food and operations.

"Since inception, NextSeed has been focused on developing a world-class technology platform to democratize finance and strengthen local communities," says NextSeed CEO, Youngro Lee, in a news release. "By partnering with WeWork Labs, we are excited to be able to expand the level of support we can provide to our clients and member businesses through services like coaching, mentoring and dedicated workspace to help them ultimately reach their goals."

The first joint event hosted will be a reception and panel on December 12 from 6 to 8:30 pm at WeWork's Jones Building location in downtown. For event details, click here.

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Houston hospital joins the metaverse with new platform

now online

Houston Methodist has launched a platform that is taking medical and scientific experts and students into the metaverse.

The MITIEverse, a new app focused on health care education and training, provides hands-on practice, remote assistance from experienced clinicians, and more. The app — named for the Houston Methodist Institute for Technology, Innovation and Education, aka MITIE — was created in partnership with FundamentalVR and takes users into virtual showcase rooms, surgical simulations, and lectures from Houston Methodist faculty, as well as collaborators from across the world.

“This new app brings the hands-on education and training MITIE is known for to a new virtual audience. It could be a first step toward building out a medical metaverse,” says Stuart Corr, inventor of the MITIEverse and director of innovation systems engineering at Houston Methodist, in a news release.

Image courtesy of Houston Methodist

The hospital system's DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center has created a virtual showcase room on the app, and users can view Houston Methodist faculty performing real surgeries and then interact with 3D human models.

"We view the MITIEverse as a paradigm-shifting platform that will offer new experiences in how we educate, train, and interact with the health community,” says Alan Lumsden, M.D., medical director of Houston Methodist DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center, in the release.

“It essentially democratizes access to health care educators and innovators by breaking down physical barriers. There’s no need to travel thousands of miles to attend a conference when you can patch into the MITIEverse," he continues.

Image courtesy of Houston Methodist

Houston doctors get approval for low-cost COVID vaccine abroad

green light

A Houston-born COVID-19 vaccine has gotten the go-ahead to be produced and distributed in Indonesia.

PT Bio Farma, which oversees government-owned pharmaceutical manufacturers in Indonesia, says it’s prepared to make 20 million doses of the IndoVac COVID-19 vaccine this year and 100 million doses a year by 2024. This comes after the vaccine received authorization from the Indonesian Food and Drug Authority for emergency use in adults.

With more than 275 million residents, Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country.

IndoVac was created by the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and Baylor College of Medicine. Drs. Peter Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi lead the vaccine project. Bio Farma is licensing IndoVac from BCM Ventures, the commercial group at the Baylor College of Medicine.

“Access to vaccines in the developing world is critical to the eradication of this virus,” Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, says in a news release.

Aside from distributing the vaccine in Indonesia, Bio Farma plans to introduce it to various international markets.

“The need for a safe, effective, low-cost vaccine for middle- to low-income countries is central to the world’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Bottazzi, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and associate dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor.

“Without widespread inoculation of populations in the developing world, which must include safe, effective booster doses, additional [COVID-19] variants will develop, hindering the progress achieved by currently available vaccines in the United States and other Western countries.”

Bio Farma says it has completed Phase 1 and Phase 2 clinical trials for IndoVac and is wrapping up a Phase 3 trial.

IndoVac is a version of the patent-free, low-cost Corbevax vaccine, developed in Houston and dubbed “The World’s COVID-19 Vaccine.” The vaccine formula can be licensed by a vaccine producer in any low- or middle-income country, which then can take ownership of it, produce it, name it, and work with government officials to distribute it, Hotez told The Texas Tribune in February.

Among donors that have pitched in money for development of the vaccine are the Houston-based MD Anderson and John S. Dunn foundations, the San Antonio-based Kleberg Foundation, and Austin-based Tito’s Vodka.

“During 2022, we hope to partner with the World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies to vaccinate the world. We believe that global vaccine equity is finally at hand and that it is the only thing that can bring the COVID pandemic to an end,” Hotez and Bottazzi wrote in a December 2021 article for Scientific American.

Houston research: How best to deliver unexpected news as a company

houston voices

According to Forbes, the volume of mergers and acquisitions in 2021 was the highest on record, and 2022 has already seen a number of major consolidation attempts. Microsoft’s acquisition of video game company Activision Blizzard was the biggest gaming industry deal in history, according to Reuters. JetBlue recently won the bid over Frontier Airlines to merge with Spirit Airlines. And, perhaps most notably, Elon Musk recently backed out of an attempt to acquire Twitter.

It can be hard to predict how markets will react to such high-profile deals (and, in Elon Musk and Twitter’s case, whether or not the deal will even pan out). But Rice Business Professor Haiyang Li and Professor Emeritus Robert Hoskisson, along with Jing Jin of the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, have found that companies can take advantage of these deals to buffer the effects of other news.

The researchers looked at 7,575 mergers and acquisitions from 2001 to 2015, with a roughly half-and-half split between positive and negative stock market reactions. They found that when there’s a negative reaction to a deal, companies have two strategies for dealing with it. If it’s a small negative reaction, companies will release positive news announcements in an attempt to soften the blow. But when the reaction is really bad, companies actually tend to announce more negative news afterward. Specifically, companies released 18% less positive news and 52% more negative news after a bad market reaction.

This may seem counterintuitive, but there’s a method to the madness, and it all has to do with managing expectations. If people are lukewarm on a company due to a merger or acquisition, it’s possible to sway public opinion with unrelated good news. When the backlash is severe, though, a little bit of good PR won’t be enough to change people’s minds. In this case, companies release more bad news because it’s one of their best chances to do so without making waves in the future. If people already think poorly of a company due to a recent deal, more bad news isn’t great, but it doesn’t come as a surprise, either. Therefore, it’s easier to ignore.

It might make more sense to just keep quiet if the market reaction to a deal is bad, and this study found that most companies do. However, this only applies when releasing more news would make a mildly bad situation worse. If things are already bad enough that the company can’t recover with good news, it can still make the best out of a bad situation by offloading more bad news when the damage will be minimal. Companies are legally obligated to disclose business-related news or information with shareholders and with the public. If it’s bad news, they like to share it when the public is already upset about a deal, instead of releasing the negative news when there are no other distractions. In this case the additional negative news is likely to get more play in the media when disclosed by itself.

But what happens when people get excited about a merger or acquisition? In these cases, it also depends on how strong the sentiment is. If the public’s reaction is only minimally positive, companies may opt to release more good news in hopes of making the reaction stronger. When the market is already enthusiastic about the deal, though, companies won’t release more positive news. The researchers found that after an especially positive market reaction to a deal, companies indeed released 12% less positive news but 56% more negative news. Also, one could argue that the contrasting negative news makes the good news on the acquisition look even better. This may be important especially if the acquisition is a significant strategic move.

There are several reasons why a company wouldn’t continue to release positive news after a good press day and strong market reaction. First of all, they want to make sure that a rise in market price is attributed to the deal alone, and not any irrelevant news. A positive reaction to a deal also gives companies another opportunity to disclose bad news at a time when it will get less attention. If the bad news does get attention, the chances are better that stakeholders will go easy on them — a little bit of bad press is forgivable when the good news outshines it.

Companies may choose to release no news after a positive reaction to a merger or acquisition, the same way they might opt to stay quiet after backlash. They’re less likely to release positive news when stakeholders are already happy, preferring to save that news for the next time they need it, either to offset a negative reaction or strengthen a weak positive reaction.

Mergers and acquisitions can produce unpredictable market reactions, so it’s important for companies to be prepared for a variety of outcomes. In fact, Jin, Li and Hoskisson found that the steps taken by companies before deals were announced didn’t have much effect on the public’s reaction. They found that it’s more important for companies to make the best out of that reaction, whatever it turns out to be.

The researchers also found that, regardless of whether the market reaction was positive or negative, as long as the reaction was strong, companies could use the opportunity to hide smaller pieces of bad news in the shadow of a headline-making deal. Overall, the magnitude of the reaction mattered more than the type of reaction. People tend to have stronger reactions to unexpected news, though, so companies prefer to release negative news when market expectations are already low.

These findings are relevant beyond merger announcements, of course; they also point to strategies that could be useful in everyday communications. A key takeaway is that negative information is less upsetting when people already expect bad things — or when it comes after much bigger, and much better, news. Bad news is always hard to deliver, but this research gives us a few ways to soften the blow.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Jing Jin, Haiyang Li and Robert Hoskisson.