Houston voices

How Houston startups can find funding in the age of coronavirus

Finding funding might be harder during the pandemic. But there are some startups thinking outside the box to attain theirs. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Almost eight months in to the pandemic and many startups are still fighting to survive. Finding funding has become harder in an era the New York Times calls "The Great Unwinding." But not every startup is succumbing to a bleak fate. Some have shown unique strategies for attaining funding. Here, we'll delve into a few examples of startup companies whose founders have managed to snag funding and stay afloat amid the crashing waters of coronavirus.

Government contracts

Payam Banazadeh, CEO of Capella Space, told Graham Winfrey, senior technology editor for Inc., that it would behoove tech startups to look into acquiring government contracts if possible. His Silicon Valley-based satellite communications startup snagged a lucrative government contract with the Department of Defense. "The government seeks startups that are doing unique things. If they find a product they like, they're going to pursue it. Government contracts help raise additional funding while also de-risking companies in the eyes of investors," Banazadeh said.

Funding conversations matter

Nesh is a company based in Houston that acts as a smart assistant for the energy industry. The startup spent the pandemic engaged in conversations with potential investors. "It's easier to talk to investors at this time. We've had more conversations in the past few months than all of 2019, but nobody is willing to write checks just yet," said Sidd Gupta, founder of Nesh, to Crunchbase News, a tech startup-centric outlet.

The Houston-based company also pivoted by expanding into other oil and gas areas like renewables. Nesh even decided to make its platform accessible free of charge during the shutdown.

Take matters into your own hands

Laally is a breastfeeding assistance device company. During their funding strategizing, they examined all the usual funding avenues: VC, angels, debt, non-profit and potential partnerships with bigger entities. Most of these sources asked for proof of concept and a proven history of solid sales before even thinking of putting money on the table.

Well, that wasn't possible for founders Max and Kate Spivak. They decided to go it alone. Self-funding. "As a family and rookie entrepreneurs, we made the decision to put our money in the balance and hire a partner for the tech part of the business," Max Spivak said told Crunchbase News.

"Even when things got rough as the pandemic worsened, and they did get very rough for us, we didn't have pressure from investors to liquidate assets or investors demanding their money back. That's because we were our own funders," said Kate Spivak.

Creativity can conquer COVID-19

Sometimes adversity is the mother of creativity. These three startup founders stepped outside the box of traditional funding strategies. They discovered ways to change their companies and attain funding during a pandemic that has its foot on the neck of the economy.

Thanks to people like Sidd Gupta, Payam Banazadeh, and the Spivaks, startup founders have a better idea of what they need to do for their startups to live another day. For their companies to see a light at the end of an 8-month long tunnel. The pandemic might have our faces covered, our friends at arm's length, and our jobs in limbo. But it cannot strip away the power of human ingenuity, innovation, and creativity. The founders named above are walking proof.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

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Building Houston

 
 

InformAI has three AI-based products geared at improving health care. Photo via Getty Images

In Houston, we’re lucky to have top-tier doctors in the Texas Medical Center, ready to treat us with the newest technology. But what about our family members who have to rely on rural hospitals? Thanks to one Houston company, doctors in smaller community hospitals may soon have new tools at their disposal that could improve outcomes for patients around the world.

Since InnovationMap last caught up with Jim Havelka, CEO of InformAI, two years ago, that hope has come far closer to a reality. InformAI is a VC-backed digital health company. Part of JLABS @ TMC innovation facilities, the company uses artificial intelligence to develop both diagnostic tools and clinical outcome predictors. And two of the company’s products will undergo FDA regulatory testing this year.

SinusAI, which helps to detect sinus-related diseases in CT scans, received its CE Mark — the European equivalent of FDA approval — last year and is being sold across the Atlantic today, says Havelka. He adds that in the United States alone, there are roughly 700,000 sinus surgeries that the product is positioned to support.

Another product, RadOnc-AI, is designed to help doctors prescribe radiation dose plans for head and neck cancers.

“Ideally the perfect plan would be to provide radiation to the tumor and nothing around it,” says Havelka. “We’ve built a product, RadOnc-AI, which autogenerates the dose treatment plan based on medical images of that patient.”

It can be an hours-long process for doctors to figure out the path and dose of radiation themselves, but the new product “can build that initial pass in about five minutes,” Havelka says.

That in itself is an exciting development, but because this technology was developed using the expertise of some of the world’s top oncologists, “the first pass plan is in line with what [patients would] get at tier-one institutions,” explains Havelka. This creates “tremendous equity” among patients who can afford to travel to major facilities and those that can’t.

To that end, RadOnc-AI was recently awarded a $1.55 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, a state agency that funds cancer research. The Radiological Society of North America announced late last year that InformAI was named an Aunt Minnie Best of Radiology Finalist.

“It’s quite prestigious for our company,” says Havelka. Other recent laurels include InformAI being named one of the 10 most promising companies by the Texas Life Science Forum in November.

And InformAI is only gaining steam. A third product is earlier in its stage of development. TransplantAI will optimize donor organ and patient recipient matches.

“A lot of organs are harvested and discarded,” Havelka says.

His AI product has been trained on a million donor transplants to help determine who is the best recipient for an organ. It even takes urgency into account, based on a patient’s expected mortality within 90 days. The product is currently a fully functional prototype and will soon move through its initial regulatory clearances.

The company — currently backed by three VC funds, including DEFTA Partners, Delight Ventures, and Joyance Partners — is planning to do another seed round in Q2 of 2023.

“We’ve been able to get recognized for digital health products that can be taken to market globally,” says Havelka.

But what he says he’s most excited about is the social impact of his products. With more money raised, InformAI will be able to speed up development of additional products, including expanding the cancers that the company will be targeting. And with that, more and more patients will one day be treated with the highest level of care.

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