who's who

3 female Houston innovators to know this week

This week's innovators to know roundup includes Fiona Mack of JLABS, Grace Rodriguez of Impact Hub Houston, and Emily Cisek of The Postage. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In today's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three female innovators across industries — from life science to impact innovation.

Fiona Mack, head of JLABS @ TMC

Fiona Mack has joined JLABS @ TMC as head of the incubator. She shares her vision for the lab on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of JLABS

Fiona Mack is among the latest additions to the Houston innovation ecosystem, as she joined JLABS @ TMC just a few months ago. On her plate right now is assessing the needs of the incubator's 49 member companies in the portfolio and understanding the needs of the Texas innovation ecosystem.

"As I learn more about the history of life science sector in Texas, over the past 20 years there has been an impetuous to build up this critical mass of companies here to really make it a strong hub that competes with the energy sector to make it a pillar of the economy here," Mack says. Read more and stream the podcast interview.

Grace Rodriguez, executive director and CEO of Impact Hub Houston

Grace Rodriguez and her team at Impact Hub Houston is in for a busy week. Courtesy of Impact Hub Houston

Grace Rodriguez has a marathon of a week ahead of her — but it's an exciting one. The fourth annual Houston Innovation Summit is going on now, and she's really passionate about the theme.

"The focus on education and policy is really interesting to me — it's not just about tech and business anymore," Rodriguez says. "It's really about how we are supporting businesses in the face of the pandemic, climate change crises — floods, fires, hurricanes — the entire world is being affected by these crises. ... [We need to focus on] how we are making sure that people are aware of everything that's happening and how we can innovate solutions." Read more about the latest from Impact Hub and what THIS events not to miss.

Emily Cisek, founder of The Postage

The Postage is a new company that uses technology to help ease the experience of afterlife responsibilities for family members. Photo courtesy of The Postage

Three years ago, Emily Cisek was struck with immense grief when she lost three family members back to back. She says she learned first-hand how arduous the process of wrapping up someone's life is and how it can take away from the grieving process.

Cisek's grief planted a seed and she has the idea for The Postage, a digital platform that helps collect information and digital assets in one place to ease with affair planning.

"I think the way The Postage has [made planning more available] it's provided a price point, an understanding and steps involved that are more easily accessible; no matter what age group, what race, what your background is, your religion, anything like that, you're able to sign up," says Cisek. Read more.

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Building Houston

 
 

Cloudbreak Enterprises is getting in on the ground level with software startups — quickly helping them take an idea to market. Photo via Getty Images

Lauren Bahorich is in the business of supporting businesses. In February 2020, she launched Cloudbreak Enterprises — B-to-B SaaS-focused, early-stage venture studio — with plans to onboard, invest in, and support around three new scalable companies a year. And, despite launching right ahead of a global pandemic, that's exactly what she did.

Bahorich, who previously worked at Golden Section Ventures, wanted to branch off on her own to create a venture studio to get in on the ground level of startups — to be a co-founder to entrepreneurs and provide a slew of in-house resources and support from development and sales to marketing and administration.

"We start at zero with just an idea, and we partner with out co-founders to build the idea they have and the domain expertise and the industry connections to take that idea and built a product and a company," Bahorich says.

Bahorich adds that there aren't a lot of venture studios in the United States — especially in Houston. While people might be more familiar with the incubator or accelerator-style of support for startups, the venture studio set up is much more intimate.

"We truly see ourselves as co-founders, so our deals are structured with co-founder equity," Bahorich says, explaining that Cloudbreak is closer to a zero-stage venture capital fund than to any incubator. "We are equally as incentivized as our co-founders to de-risk this riskiest stage of startups because we are so heavily invested and involved with our companies."

Cloudbreak now has three portfolio companies, and is looking to onboard another three more throughout the rest of the year. Bahorich runs a team of 15 professionals, all focused on supporting the portfolio. While creating the studio amid the chaos of 2020 wasn't the plan, there were some silver linings including being able to start with part-time developers and transition them to full-time employees as the companies grew.

"Within the first month, we were in shutdown here in Houston," Bahorich says. "But it's been a great opportunity for us. Where a lot of companies were pivoting and reassessing, we were actually able to grow because we were just starting at zero ourselves."

Cloudbreak's inaugural companies are in various stages and industries, but the first company to be onboarded a year ago — Relay Construction Solutions, a bid leveling software for the construction industry — joined the venture studio as just an idea and is already close to first revenue and potentially new investors. Cloudgate is also creating a commercial real estate data management software and an offshore logistics platform. All three fall into a SaaS sweet spot that Bahorich hopes to continue to grow.

"We are looking to replace legacy workflows that are still performed in Excel or by email or phone," Bahorich says. "It's amazing how many opportunities there are that fit into that bucket — these high-dollar, error-prone workflows that are still done like it's 1985."

Given the hands-on support, Bahorich assumed she'd attract mostly first-time entrepreneurs who don't have experience with all the steps needed to launch the business. However, she says she's gotten interest from serial entrepreneurs who recognized how valuable the in-house support can be for expediting the early-stage startup process.

"What I'm realizing is a selling point is our in-house expertise. These founders are looking for technical co-founders," Bahorich says. "We can both provide that role and be capital partners."

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