Right on track

Houston company uses blockchain to follow the money

Houston-based Topl can track almost anything using its blockchain technology. Getty Images

When you pick out an engagement ring at the jewelry store, you don't usually know where that jewel came from. You don't know how much the miner was paid for finding it or where it was polished up. However, a Houston company has the blockchain technology that can track every step of the way for that diamond — and for anything else really.

"Everything is already being reported — the location of where it was found, its distributor — but all that information is getting lost," says Kim Raath, CFO of Topl.

Topl, a Houston-based startup that was created by a few Rice University graduate and doctorate students, uses blockchain to connect the dots. It can track anything from jewels to cacao as it goes from the farm to being turned into chocolate bars.

One of the ways Topl's technology is being used is to track money. If an investor gives to a fund, and the fund gives to a startup, there's nothing to connect that first investor to the startup's success or to measure its impact. This is a tool used by investors or donors alike. For instance, if you were to create a scholarship, you can use Topl to track what student received that money and if they are meeting the required metrics for success.

"You can see where your money goes, how it's being spent, and if there's impact being reported," Raath says.

Topl's mission originated out of the fact that 60 percent of the world lives on $10 a day — and it's in the poorest regions of the world where it's the hardest to get funding for a new business. Raath says that in her experience backpacking and volunteering all around the world she learned that banks are too overwhelmed to evaluate these potential businesses. Topl has created a technology where banks can easily generate a report on these entrepreneurs that evaluates and makes a loan or investment recommendation on the business.

The company's capabilities have expanded to include different metrics and industries. The technology is able to be so flexible because it keeps the blockchain simple. Topl's team works with companies wanting to use its services, but doesn't dictate or have a say in the matter of how or why it's used. Topl provides the tools, and companies can take them and scale or customize them.

Raath says that's going to slightly change in 2019. The company, which plans to raise seed funding this year, will expand its team and services to include an app factory. Through that, companies can have Topl customize its software for different uses.

"If we build this network on the three pillars of the triple bottom line — economic, environmental, and social pieces — and if the network can move all three of those types of value, then the potential applications become infinite."

Raath says Topl has a lot of different uses, especially within impact investment, but there's also value in the marketplace for both consumers and retailers — like with diamonds.

"We are a generation that wants a story," she says. "We want an origin, and don't want to be fooled. And, because you might be able to reduce the cost by having this transparency, you might be able to bring down the cost on both sides."

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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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