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Expert: New 401k investment options would spur Houston venture capital and innovation

Could tapping into 401k investment be a gamechanger for Houston startup funding? Photo via Getty Images

With fossil fuels facing an uncertain future, Houston is wisely pushing to further develop its innovation economy with initiatives like Houston Exponential and Rice Management Company's Ion, as well as the No. 1 ranked entrepreneurship programs at the University of Houston (undergraduate) and Rice (graduate).

Venture capital is both the critical fuel and limiting factor to expanding Houston's innovation ecosystem, but the vast majority of venture capital in this country is focused outside of Houston in places like Silicon Valley and Austin. How can we increase the local pool of venture capital focused on Houston?

A recent federal guidance provides the answer with a new option for adding dramatically to Houston's venture capital resources. On June 3rd 2020, the Department of Labor issued an information letter allowing 401k funds to invest in private equity, including venture capital. Houston has hundreds of thousands of employees contributing to 401k retirement plans, including those working at our 41 Fortune 1000 companies as well as other major employers like the Texas Medical Center hospitals. If even a small fraction of their savings could be channeled into Houston-focused venture capital funds (or funds of funds like the HX Venture Fund), it could add hundreds of millions of dollars to Houston's startup ecosystem.

How would this work? While federal guidance does not allow direct private equity investments in 401k plans, it does allow private equity to be part of the mix in target date, target risk, or balanced funds offered. Imagine the creation of a "Houston Balanced Fund" focused on a portfolio of equities and bonds from Houston companies, local government bonds, and a 15 percent allocation to Houston-focused venture capital (the maximum allowed for illiquid assets). The fund would be a bet on a prosperous long-term future for Houston — something I think many Houstonians would enthusiastically add to their retirement portfolios. Once created, it could be added to the investment options in 401k employer plans all over the city.

As an example of the power of this model: if 100,000 employees — only 3 percent of 3 million jobs in the Houston metro — invested just $10,000 of their 401k portfolios into a Houston Balanced Fund with 15 percent allocated to venture capital, it would inject an additional $150 million dollars into the local venture capital pool to spur new innovations and companies that can be the future of Houston's economy — a 20 percent increase to the $715 million of venture capital invested in Houston in 2020. This new venture capital could be leveraged even more by focusing it on early-stage Houston startups that might have trouble attracting the attention of national VC firms. As they mature to Series B rounds and beyond, they should have no trouble bringing in capital from outside the region.

This is an opportunity for Houston to do something no other city has done — to be innovative with not just new ventures and technologies, but with how they're financed. We can be proactive pioneers fueling Houston's 21st-century innovation ecosystem.

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Tory Gattis writes the Houston Strategies blog and is a Founding Senior Fellow with the Urban Reform Institute – A Center for Opportunity Urbanism.

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Building Houston

 
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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