eavesdropping in houston

Overheard: Here's what experts say on the future of startup investment in Houston

Venture Houston brought together key innovators and investors focused on Houston — here's what they said. Photo via Getty Images

Last week, over 2,500 people registered to Venture Houston to talk about startups and venture capital in Houston for two full days.

The two-day conference, which was put on by HXVF, the Houston Angel Network, the Rice Alliance, and Houston Exponential, took place February 4th and 5th and brought together startups, investors, corporations, and anyone who cares to advance the Houston tech ecosystem.

Click here to see what companies won big in the event's startup pitch competition.

Throughout the various panels and keynote addresses, Houston innovation leaders sounded off on what the future of Houston looks like in terms of venture activity. Missed the discussion or just want a refresher on on the highlights? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual conference.

“The way I look at it, Houston has an opportunity to really emerge as one of the leading startup cities in the country.”

SteveCase, chairman and CEO of Revolution Ventures and co-founder of AOL.

He makes a reference to the iconic line "Houston, we have a problem" — which now is defined by a time of opportunity. Case adds that his VC fund, Revolution, which has invested in Houston-based GoodFair, is looking for new investments in Houston.

“We were behind. We were slow to start, but in typical Houston fashion, now we are escalating with real momentum."

Amy Chronis, Houston managing partner of Deloitte and 2021 Greater Houston Partnership board chair.

Chronis notes on the fact that VC activity in Houston is up 250 percent since 2016, and in that time the city has focused on diversifying its business. Now, the city touts its active corporate community, global diversity, and more.

"In Houston, companies and talent are looking at ways to change the world," she adds.

“I see there being a significant amount of seed capital taking off.”

StephanieCampbell, managing director of the Houston Angel Network and The Artemis Fund.

Campbell calls out new funds to Houston, like Golden Section Ventures and her own fund, Artemis. She adds that with over $700 million invested in Houston deals last year, the city is in a good place, and she is anticipating more angel activity.

"While this is really exciting progress, there's still a lot of work to be done in terms of seed and early-stage funding," she continues.

“I see there being billion-dollar venture funds here in Houston on the life science front over the next decade.”

John "JR" Reale, managing director of Integr8d Capital.

Reale, who's also the executive in residence at TMC Innovation, says he's seen the growth and potential of the life science industry in Houston.

"You can see the intentionality of the infrastructure that's being built that's going to attract diverse founders and all talent," he says.

“What I really see is the trajectory for Houston has been changing over the last couple years.”

BradBurke, managing director for the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship.

Burke points to three things that have really moved the needle on Houston's progress as an innovative city. The first was the Texas Medical Center establishing its Innovation Institute a few years back, and the next is how Houston's top energy companies are making big moves to support the energy transition. Finally, he says, The Ion, which is set to open this year, is the third reflection point for progress.

“The Houston startup scene is a very special place. It’s a community I actively choose to be a part of, and it activates me every day.”

Rakesh Agrawal, CEO and founder of SnapStream.

“We’ve got a really incredible story to tell.”

SusanDavenport, senior vice president of economic development for the GHP.

Davenport adds that this is exactly what the GHP is doing — making Houston's story known. And she says they have talked to global business leaders and they describe the city as a modern, cosmopolitan, truly global city.

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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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