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5 most popular innovation stories in Houston this week

From a COVID-19 research project featuring Winter the llama to energy tech startups pitching virtually, here's what Houston innovation news trended this week. Photo courtesy of University of Texas at Austin

Editor's note: Halfway through May, the state is tip-toeing back into normality, and non-COVID-related news is starting to resurface — like a Houston startup raising $17 million. However, top news still leaned coronavirus focused.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

This week's Houston innovators to know include Megan Eddings and Amanda Cotler of Accel Lifestyle and Brad Burke of Rice Alliance. Photos courtesy

It seems like 2020 is the year of the pivot and taking what the world has thrown at you —from pandemics to oil gluts — and making something out of what you have. This week's innovators to know include a Houston startup flipping the switch on production to make face masks to the Rice Alliance re-envisioning an annual event that usually takes place at a global conference. Click here to keep reading.

Texas vodka brand doles out $1M grant to Houston research institution for COVID-19 vaccine

Two researchers from Baylor College of Medicine are working on taking their work on a SARS vaccine and adjusting it to target COVID-19 — and they just got $1 million from Tito's Handmade Vodka to keep up their work. Photo via bcm.edu

A vodka distiller based in Austin is sending funds to a Houston research group that's working on a vaccine to fight the coronavirus.

Tito's Handmade Vodka — through its philanthropic arm Love, Tito's — has pledged to give Baylor College of Medicine a $1 million grant to accelerate research on a vaccine for the virus. Click here to continue reading.

13 Houston energy tech startups pitch at Rice Alliance's first virtual event

The show had to go on at the annual Energy Tech Venture Day, which was put on virtually by the Rice Alliance on May 7. Zukiman Mohamad/Pexels

Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship's annual Energy Tech Venture Day is usually hosted as a part of the Offshore Technology Conference that takes over NRG Center each May. However, when OTC announced its cancelation, Rice Alliance made sure the show would go on.

"We had many startups and corporations reach out to us and ask us if we could go ahead with the event in a virtual format, so that's how we ended up where we are today," says Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance at the start of the event. Click here to keep reading.

A COVID-19 research breakthrough out of a Texas university comes from unlikely source

COVID-19 antibody research coming out of the University of Texas stars an unlikely participant: A llama named Winter. University of Texas at Austin/Facebook

In the race to find a treatment for the novel coronavirus, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have announced a potential breakthrough — thanks to a llama.

Scientists from Texas' flagship university who have been collaborating with the National Institutes of Health and Ghent University in Belgium identified an antibody treatment that could potentially neutralize the virus that causes COVID-19. Click here to continue reading.

Houston-based venture firm closes recent fund and reflects on COVID-19's effect on investing

Two Houston venture capitalists weigh in on the state of startup investing in an economic climate recovering from the COVID-19 crisis. Getty Images

It's no secret that — in light of coronavirus-caused closures, market disruption, and historic unemployment — venture capitalist might be a little more hesitant to join in on a startup's investment round. Yet one Houston VC group has managed amidst the crisis — and even succeeded in closing its most recent fund.

Fitz Gate Ventures, which operates out of Houston but with the support of Princeton University, announced the closing of its Fund II on May 5. Focusing on seed and pre-seed rounds, co-founders and managing directors Mark Poag and Jim Cohen will be looking for startups across industries — usually with some revenue and customer base — to write around $500,000 checks to. Click here to continue reading.

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Building Houston

 
 

Raising funds anytime soon? Take these tips from a venture capital insider into consideration. Photo via Getty Images

I have had the incredible opportunity to work with New Stack Ventures as a venture fellow, and after sourcing investment opportunities, shadowing calls with founders, and even leading a couple calls of my own, I have learned a few lessons that might resonate with startup founders who are raising capital.

Responsive founders make a difference

The first and likely most important lesson I have learned during my tenure as a fellow is this: responsive founders truly make a difference in whether or not they raise capital.

I have sent several emails and LinkedIn messages to really intriguing companies, in hopes of connecting for a call and inquiring about their raise. And, I look back and see that many of those outreach messages were left unread. I have also engaged in calls with really intriguing companies where the founder never follows up, and the idea of moving forward with next steps dissipates.

On the flipside of the forgetful founder, I have also witnessed extremely attentive founders: founders who send follow-up messages when they don't receive an immediate response, respond to their emails within the hour, and go above and beyond by sending pitch decks and executive summaries (even when unasked). This type of founder persona excites me with their enthusiasm and eagerness to make a deal. Their responsiveness with the investment process sheds light to how they likely run their businesses.

At the end of the day, many founders can say that they are hustlers and go-getters, but I believe the founders that show me through their actions in the investment process.

Great founders are great storytellers

When I do connect with founders in introductory calls (after the back-and-forth, hopefully responsive email exchange), the thing I look forward to most is hearing their stories. I want to know your story. I want to know what you were doing before your startup (and how that helped prepare you), how you thought of your idea, how you validated your assumptions, how you grew your business, and… everything in between (but all in less than five minutes of time).

Great founders are great storytellers. The great storytellers I have come across invite me into their companies' journeys, and leave me actually caring about their success.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the founder who gives short responses and shows no real connection to their work (giving off the vibe that this is just another startup for them) leaves me unattached to them and their business.

Venture capitalists are more accessible than you might think

Perhaps, I gave this point away when I said that I was sending several emails and LinkedIn messages to founders (which sounds a little desperate), but VCs are way more accessible than you may think. Before working with New Stack Ventures, I had this perception that VCs were extremely hard to reach, exceptionally busy, and a little bit scary. And while one of the two latter characteristics still remains true, I can say with certainty that VCs are not hard to reach.

I can't speak for everyone in venture capital, but I do know that the VCs I work with will respond to founders who message them. Putting yourself out there, as a founder, can lead to advice (which bodes well for your business), a new connection in the industry (which bodes well for your network), and even an investment (which bodes well for the future of your startup). In the end, VCs are spending hundreds of hours, searching for a tractable startup that will change the game, and your startup could be the very gem they are looking for.

So, be bold, be responsive, and tell your story to any and every VC who will listen. I'm all ears.

Note: I was inspired to write this piece by by The Full Ratchet's tips for fundraising entrepreneurs, I thought I would share.

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Christa Westheimer is a Rice University student and the managing director at Rice Ventures. She is a current venture fellow at Chicago-based New Stack Ventures.

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