Winner, winner

Houston 'RedBox of dry cleaning' startup wins the Rockets' Launchpad Contest and pockets a $10,000 prize

Houston-based Hamper, which makes dry cleaning convenient, won the Rockets and BBVA Compass' LaunchPad competition. Courtesy of Hamper

Safir Ali and his brother, Mubeen, thought they had a better way to improve and modernize the dry cleaning user experience, and, lucky for them, the judges behind the 2019 LaunchPad Contest agreed.

The contest, sponsored by the Houston Rockets and BBVA Compass, will reward Hamper with a $10,000 prize, along with a consultation with Rockets and BBVA Compass executives and a host of other prizes. But winning the startup competition, which seeks to recognize Houston-area entrepreneurs using technology to advance their businesses, has been icing on the cake for Hamper's successes.

The brothers grew up in their parents' dry cleaning store. After school and over summer vacations, the boys would work in the shop, which their father founded shortly after emigrating to the U.S. in 1989.

"I had this 'aha' moment in 2016," Safir says. "I had graduated from Texas A&M in 2014 and was working a corporate job and the last thing on my mind was joining the family business. But I started to see all the pain points for people in dry cleaning."

The biggest, he observed, was the inconvenience of it all. He'd notice people rushing to collect their shirts and suits in the after-work hours between 5 and 7 p.m., harried looks on their faces in the sprint to get there in time, relief that they'd made it before the doors closed at 7.

"'I'm so glad you're still open!' they'd tell us," he says. "And I thought, there really has to be a better way."

That better way, he and Mubeen are betting, is Hamper. Safir describes it as "the Red Box of dry cleaning." Customers can deposit their dry cleaning in a kiosk in their office building, and it will be delivered straight to their suite. Originally, Safir thought the kiosks could be stand-alones, but it proved to be easier to partner with high-traffic office spaces, like those in the busy Galleria or over in Williams Tower.

Hamper's concept is two-pronged, but simple. Before the company even built a drop-off kiosk, they created an app that would allow people to schedule when a driver could come and collect their dry cleaning. Using technology similar to the kinds of location software Uber uses, Hamper users could create an account, tick off what items they needed laundered or dry cleaned, then select both a pick up and a drop off time. A Hamper driver would come and collect the items, and then return with them fully pressed and cleaned.

The app launched in 2017, but it was never the end game.

"The kiosk prototype took us a year and a half to build out," says Safir, who enlisted the help of some friends who'd studied mechanical and electrical engineering to do it. Last summer, Hamper started a pilot program for the kiosks, setting them up in three Class-A office buildings.

"The idea is that the buildings and offices can offer dry cleaning as another amenity," says Safir.

For customers, using a Hamper kiosk is easy. The first time they visit the kiosk, they input their mobile phone number, then create an account with their name and office suite. They then scan the special Hamper bag they've picked up either from a promotional visit by Hamper or from the kiosk itself. Each bag has a unique QR code that becomes attached to the customer record. Once the bag is scanned, customers receive a text message to connect with Hamper and complete their order, listing the items they've put into the bag and inputting payment information. They then seal the bag and drop it into the kiosk. Hamper drivers collect all of the bags, and bring them to the Ali family's dry cleaning shop, where they are laundered. Once they're ready, the items are brought back to the offices. Customers keep the dry cleaning bags for their next order.

"We strive for excellence, both in terms of price and quality of service," says Safir, who's a member at Station Houston. "When the garments come in and when they go out, we have a seven-point inspection system. If a seam's come loose or a button has been broken somewhere along the way, we fix that."

Being able to combine the quality of a family business with 21st century technology has been exciting for Safir. The kiosk software was built in Angular, and is now hosted on React JS. Hamper's revamped website is about to make the transition to React JS, having formerly existed on Angular.

"The cool thing for us is that we're gearing up to build software for our dry cleaning facility – we call it the plant," says Safir. "We want to revamp the traditional experience where each garment is given an individual ticket and someone staples that onto the garment and pushes it through the system."

He envisions a system where a permanent barcode will be imprinted on a particular garment's care tag, so that whenever that garment comes back to Hamper, all the information about its cleaning will be there: does the customer like light starch, does it need some sort of additional care.

"If we can automate that intake process, we can be more efficient," says Safir. "At some point, I'd love to look at using AI to do things like spot stains or other damages before we wash the garments."

Safir knows he's disrupting the family business, and he readily admits that his father looked at him and his brother like they were crazy when they first broached the idea. But he came to appreciate the brothers' worth ethic, which Safir says they inherited from their mom and dad,and the idea that his sons were making a dream of his come true.

"For as long as I can remember, my dad talked about wanting a warehouse space in addition to a retail store," says Safir. "And thanks to the business we've brought in, we're working to make that a reality. We'll probably move in in September."

Once they do, Safir knows, two generations of dry cleaners will co-exist, using the tools of their centuries to continue their business.

In addition to the prize money from the Rockets Launchpad Contest, Hamper will also be recognized in a joint press release announcing the company's win, as well as getting some love at halftime at an upcoming Rockets game and having the win posted on social media.

From entrepreneur networking opportunities to thought-provoking panels, here's where you need to be in December. Getty Images

Before everyone checks out of 2019, Houston has a couple more weeks filled with exciting entrepreneurial networking opportunities. Scroll through the curated list of innovation events you can't miss.

For a full calendar of Houston innovation events, head to Houston Exponential's page.

If you know of innovation-focused events for this month or next, email me at natalie@innovationmap.com with the details and subscribe to our daily newsletter that sends fresh stories straight to your inboxes every morning.

December 3 — Intro to the Houston Startup Scene & Ask Me Anything with Omair Tariq and Dr. Brittany Barreto

Are you new to the Houston tech startup community? Thinking about moving here? Trying to figure out how to plug in? Come hear a comprehensive overview from local community leaders and get a chance to introduce yourself and ask questions at the Intro to the Houston Startup Scene & Ask Me Anything. Tickets are $10.

Details: The event is from 4 to 7 pm on Tuesday, December 3, at The Cannon (1334 Brittmoore Road). Learn more.

December 3 — Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement community forum

The Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement is gathering for a second time to discuss securing a Community Benefits Agreement with Rice Management Company as they develop the 16-acre Innovation District around the old Sears building and Fiesta at the edge of Third Ward.

Details: The event is from 6 to 8 pm on Tuesday, December 3, at Wesley Chapel AME Church (2209 Emancipation Ave.). Learn more.

December 3-4 — InvestH2O 2019 Forum: Investing in Resiliency

With nearly $1 trillion in losses over the past 5-7 years for FEMA and other federal agencies, states-counties-cities, private insurance and reinsurance companies, industry and business operations from water- and weather-related incidents, the need for alternative investment and resource allocation could not be more obvious. The event's programming will be focused on innovating solutions.

InnovationMap readers can attend for free through this link.

Details: The event is from Tuesday, December 3, to Wednesday, December 4, at various locations. Learn more.

December 4 — The Cannon & EPIcenter - Jumpstart your innovation Happy Hour

In partnership with The Cannon, EPIcenter's Incubator and Accelerator will be hosting a six-week seminar using the Wendy Kennedy curriculum, "So what? Who cares? Why you?" for innovators in any industry. Director of the EPIcenter Energy Incubator and Accelerator and certified Business Coach Andi Littlejohn will lead participants through a proven methodology to discover, define and describe the commercial opportunities of innovations.

Details: The event is from 4 to 6 pm on Wednesday, December 4, at The Cannon (1334 Brittmoore Road). Learn more.

December 4 — The Ion Smart Cities Accelerator Demo Day

The Ion Smart Cities Accelerator will present its inaugural cohort of companies that are addressing the needs of Houston's people by deploying technology into the infrastructure and civic fabric that makes Houston so strong.

Details: The event is from 5 to 8 pm on Wednesday, December 4, at ion Accelerator and Prototyping Lab (1301 Fannin Street, Suite 2100). Learn more.

December 5 — Houston Region Economic Outlook

The Greater Houston Partnership's Annual Houston Region Economic Outlook event will feature Partnership Senior Vice President of Research Patrick Jankowski who will deliver the 2020 employment forecast for the region. ConocoPhillips Chief Economist Helen Currie will follow with a presentation on the national economy.

Details: The event is from 9:30 am to 1:30 pm on Thursday, December 5, at the Royal Sonesta (2222 West Loop S.). Learn more.

December 5 — Evening of Pediatric Device Innovation

Please join JLABS @ TMC for the 5th Annual Evening of Pediatric Device Innovation as top experts from Houston and across the country will discuss the latest in pediatric medical device innovation and updates on bringing a pediatric medical device to market.

Details: The event is from 3 to 6:30 pm on Thursday, December 5, at the TMC Innovation Institute (2450 Holcombe Blvd). Learn more.

December 5 — Meet & Greet with Flyover Capital

Meet Flyover Capital's Dan Kerr on his last night in town and learn how they are working to creating the next generation of technology success stories outside the coastal tech hubs.

Details: The event is from 6 to 7:30 pm on Thursday, December 5, at WeWork (708 Main Street, 3rd Floor). Learn more.

December 11 — ENRICH/LEAP Information Session

ENRICH and LEAP are 6-8 week fellowship programs where you and a team of your peers will work directly with established companies on one of a wide scope of projects. These invaluable programs allow people the ability to gain skills and insights that only professional work can offer. Come hear Enventure leadership discuss these programs and learn how you can get involved.

Details: The event is from 5:30 to 8 pm on Wednesday, December 11, at the TMC Innovation Institute (2450 Holcombe Blvd). Learn more.

December 12 — WeWork Labs x NextSeed Launch Event

WeWork Labs, a global acceleration program with a location in downtown Houston, and NextSeed, a Houston-based online investment platform, have announced a partnership set to begin in December. Together, the two entities will build a support system for Houston-based food entrepreneurs to provide workshops, programming, events, and more.

Details: The event is from 6 to 8:30 pm on Thursday, December 12, at WeWork (708 Main Street). Learn more.

December 14 — Smart Infrastructure Hackathon

On Saturday, December 14, join Microsoft and The Cannon for a smart infrastructure hackathon. Bring your own ideas and team, or join a team when you arrive. Everyone is welcome, regardless of skill level.

Details: The event is from to 9 am to 7 pm on Saturday, December 14, at The Cannon (1334 Brittmoore Road). Learn more.

December 14 — TEDxHoustonWomen 2019 : BOLD + Brilliant!

Connect with a locally rooted, globally connected community of people interested in leading the change they wish to see in the world; and sow the seeds to collaborate with innovative thinkers who catalyze ideas toward action.

Details: The event is from 10:30 am to 4 pm on Saturday, December 14, at Unity of Houston (2929 Unity Dr). Learn more.

December 17 — The Future of Work: Closing the Skills Gap

GA gathers Houston industry leaders to share how they approach the challenge of upskilling the workforce. In this discussion, we'll cover how to bridge the gap between current team capabilities and the skills needed to stay competitive. Whether radically reskilling existing teams or onboarding new talent, the companies who adapt fastest will stand the test of time.

Details: The event is from 8:30 to 11 am on Tuesday, December 17, at Station Houston (1301 Fannin Street, 21st Floor). Learn more.