more access to funding

Houston group launches equitable fund of funds to increase impact at a lower barrier of entry

Urban Capital Network have launched a fund-of-funds to allow investors to tap into later-stage startups at a much lower barrier of entry. Images via urbancapitalnetwork.com

Early stage investing has always been a tried and true way for investors to get in on the ground floor of a tech company for a smaller financial commitment — but it's risky. Urban Capital Network has created an alternative.

UCN was founded to democratize investment opportunities and help investors of color find investment opportunities all while cutting their teeth as novice investors. Lenny Saizan, co-founder of UCN, says that its Horizon Fund II allows for UCN investors to get involved in venture-backed companies at a much lower price tag.

Saizan explains that UCN members are in that lower tier of accredited investors who don't necessarily have $250,000 or $1 million to invest in a fund — but they have $15,000 to $25,000 to invest.

"We allow more people to participate in venture funds or venture-backed opportunities," Saizan tells InnovationMap. "Instead of going into one deal at a very early stage, you’re getting in a later stage where the deal is more de-risked and you have a better chance of returns."

As members start to see returns on these premium investment opportunities, Saizan says, UCN encourages their investors to look at earlier stage within their own communities.

“We recognized that there was still an issue with minority founders getting funded as well,” Saizan says of UCN's mission as a whole. “We thought the best approach would be to create wealth and income within the communities that those founders would be reaching out to.”

Horizon Fund II will deploy capital in up to five funds — each with 15 to 30 portfolio companies. The first two investment opportunities have already been secured: Pegasus Tech Ventures's Pre-IPO Fund and Mercury Fund V, a Houston VC firm. In two years, UCN has seen five exits across its six funds. It's the group's second fund of funds — the first was an investment in Mercury Fund IV.

Eric Tait, co-founder at UCN, says they are looking for variety in the funds they invest in and are targeting top-tier, and highly rated VC firms all over the country that UCN's leadership has connections with.

“We’re relatively agnostic in terms of industry,” Tait says. “We do try to have a portfolio allocation that will create a return threshold that is varied.”

Typically, Tait explains, investing in a VC fund won't garner returns for seven to 10 years. However, UCN specifically targeted Pegasus's Pre-IPO Fund because ROI is expected between years two and four.

Tait says one of the things of focus for UCN this year is to grow the network's reach.

“A big goal for us is to tap into more institutional investors — like family offices, and things of that nature,” Tait says. “What we’ve realized is what we’ve been able to do for individual investors has been locked down, and we can do the same thing on a smaller scale for institutional dollars who are interested in these opportunities but don’t want to put in $1 million.”

Saizan says his team is also looking to give members a tech upgrade when it comes to accessing information and deals on UCN's platform. Additionally, he wants to focus on strengthening the group's network of VCs and how UCN interacts with them. He says firms reach out with interest all the time, and he wants to streamline that process using technology.

“We really want to formalize our network,” Saizan says. “We’re bringing diverse deal flow, diverse investors, diverse talent, and a diverse perspective. So, a lot of times VCs tap us when they are looking for an opportunity — or maybe they have an opportunity and want to know what we think.”

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Building Houston

 
 

Activate is planting its roots in Houston with a plan to have its first set of fellows next year. Photo via Getty Images

An organization that directs support to scientists developing impactful technology has decided on Houston for its fifth program.

Activate was founded in Berkeley, California, in 2015 to bridge the gap between the federal and public sectors to deploy capital and resources into the innovators creating transformative products. The nonprofit expanded its programs to Boston and New York before launching a virtual fellowship program — Activate Anywhere, which is for scientists 50 or more miles outside one of the three hubs.

"Our mission is to empower scientists to reinvent the world by bringing their research to market," Aimee Rose, executive managing director of Activate, tells InnovationMap. "There's so much technical talent that we educate in this country every year and so many amazing inventions that happen, that combining the two, which is the sort of inventor/entrepreneur, and giving them the support mechanisms they need to get on their feet and be successful, has the potential to unlock an incredible amount of value for the country, for the environment, and to address other social problems."

This year, Activate is planting seeds in Houston to grow a presence locally and have its first set of fellows in 2024. While Activate is industry agnostic, Rose says a big draw from Houston is the ability to impact the future of energy.

"We're super excited about Houston as an emerging ecosystem for the clean energy transition as being the energy capital of the world, as well as all the other emerging players there are across the landscape in Houston," Rose says. "I think we can move the needle in Houston because of our national footprint."

The first order of business, Rose says, is hiring a managing director for Activate Houston. The job, which is posted online, is suited for an individual who has already developed a hardtech business and has experience and connections within Houston's innovation ecosystem.

"We want to customize the program so that it makes the most sense for the community," Rose says about the position. "So, somebody that has the relationships and the knowledge of the ecosystem to be able to do that and somebody that's kind of a mentor at heart."

The program is for early-stage founders — who have raised less than $2 million in funding — working on high-impact technology. Rose explains that Activate has seen a number of microelectronics and new materials companies go through the program, and, while medical innovation is impactful, Activate doesn't focus on pharmaceutical or therapeutic industries since there are existing pathways for those products.

Ultimately, Activate is seeking innovators whose technologies fall through the cracks of existing innovation infrastructure.

"Not every business fits into the venture capital model in terms of what investors would expect to be eventual outcomes, but these these types of businesses can still have significant impact and make the world a better place," Rose says, explaining how Activate is different from an incubator or accelerator. "As opposed as compared to a traditional incubator, this is a very high touch program. You get a living stipend so you can take a big business technical risk without a personal risk. We give you a lot of hands on support and mentoring."

Each of the programs selects 10 fellows that join the program for two years. The fellows receive a living stipend, connections from Activate's robust network of mentors, and access to a curriculum specific to the program.

Since its inception, Activate has supported 104 companies and around 146 entrepreneurs associated with those companies. With the addition of Houston, Activate will be able to back 50 individuals a year.

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