who's who

3 Houston innovators to know this week

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Kristen Phillips of Golden Section Studios, David Aaronson of REVS, and Carolyn Rodz of Hello Alice. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from startup and small business support to electric vehicles — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Kristen Phillips, director of Golden Sections Studios

Kristen Phillips joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss a new B2B volunteer platform. Photo courtesy of GSS

For years, Golden Section Technology — and its accompanying venture arm — has worked to develop SaaS technology and has created a large network of experts and mentors. Now, the group has created a venture studio to support SaaS startups with this vast network, says Kristen Phillips, director of Golden Section Studios.

Additionally, Phillips says her team has a lot of lessons learned to share with the companies they will support.

"When you're dealing with early-stage companies, a lot of it just boils down to product-market fit and making sure you're able to develop a technology that's scalable that works with your customers as you scale," Phillips says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It sounds simple, but it's not easily mastered." Click here to read more.

David Aaronson, CEO and co-founder of REVS

In the coming weeks, REVS plans to set up EV charging stations at properties in Texas and California. Photo courtesy of REVS

Electric Vehicles are growing in popularity, and it's time for the infrastructure to catch up. Houston-based Refuel Electric Vehicle Solutions (REVS), has plans to roll out its offering — consulting, installation, and management services for electric vehicle (EV) charging stations — to multifamily and commercial real estate properties across the U.S. Those properties include apartment complexes, office buildings, hotels, and shopping centers.

As EVs "become more prevalent, it is imperative that commercial real estate and multifamily owners and operators realize that their assets will provide the future infrastructure for charging these vehicles," CEO and Co-founder David Aaronson says.

In the coming weeks, REVS — which Aaronson co-founded with his son, Mike — plans to set up EV charging stations at properties in Texas and California. Click here to read more.

Carolyn Rodz, CEO of Hello Alice

Carolyn Rodz, and her California-based co-founder Elizabeth Gore, recently raised funds to continue to grow Hello Alice, which supports startups and small businesses. Photos via helloalice.com

Machine learning-enabled small business support company Hello Alice, founded in Houston with a presence in California, has closed its $21 million series B raise. The funds come at a pivotal time for the company, which worked hard during the pandemic to support struggling business and now aims to support entrepreneurs of all backgrounds as the world re-emerges out of the COVID-19 era.

"We are thrilled to have a cap table as diverse as the business owners we serve," says Carolyn Rodz, co-founder and CEO of Hello Alice, in the release. "Our investors are leaders from the Black, Hispanic, LGBTQ+, Women, and US Veteran communities. As a Latina founder and fellow small business owner, I want to ensure that as our company grows, we are fueling future diversity in capital and breaking through ceilings for the benefit of our community."

The round, according to a press release, will be used to refine the predictive capabilities on its platform, launch a mobile application, and more. Click here to read more.

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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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