There's an app for that

Houston startup plans to expand services and footprint following $2 million seed round

Ben Johnson's business idea turned into a growing company making the lives of apartment dwellers easier. Courtesy of Apartment Butler

Ben Johnson thought consolidating resident services for household chores — like doing the dishes and walking the dog — could be done more efficiently. So, he created Houston-based Apartment Butler in 2016 to do just that.

"I started thinking a lot about apartment industry," Johnson, who is the founder and CEO, says. "I just saw the industry as a whole is one that hadn't been really disrupted yet — the technology was dated."

Johnson, who worked in oil and gas banking for seven years, was commuting to Chicago on the weekends to get his MBA at the University of Chicago at the time. He was surrounded by so many people starting different types of companies. The program pulled him out of the energy industry so that he could see how something like Apartment Butler could work.

Over two years later, Johnson is fresh off a $2 million seed fund raising round that closed August 31. Houston-based Mercury Fund lead the round and Austin-based Capital Factory participated. The money raised went into growing Apartment Butler's staff. In just five months, the team has tripled from four members to 12. The company is hiring a vice president of engineering who will be based in Austin, where the technical team will also grow.

Johnson talks about more growth plans — including a footprint expansion to two new markets and new services for its users — in this week's Featured Innovator interview.

InnovationMap: How did you come up with the idea for your company?

Ben Johnson: I came up with this idea of Apartment Butler because I lived in an apartment, and I had a puppy. I would drive home at lunch to let this puppy out. There were 10 different dog walkers in my apartment community, and it made no sense to me why 10 different people would drive to this apartment community every day to walk dogs. Why can't we just come together and combine out purchasing power as a group of people and get better prices in a more efficient way?

Apartment communities for years had been aggregating things like pest control or trash service and getting a better deal. But why for these resident-elected services there was no medium for residents to broker a deal for themselves.

Separately from this idea, I was fortunate enough to catch a shift in thinking in the apartment industry. Managers and developers for years had been spending more and more money on pools and fitness centers. It had been this arms race for amenities and had been starting to think about more than just those amenities.

IM: How did you get your start?

Johnson: We had three services to start: housekeeping, pet care and dry cleaning/wash and fold.

I really had no idea what I was getting into. I was starting a three-sided platform in a city that doesn't spit out a lot of tech companies — certainly not many with a consumer-facing component. It was just like blind arrogance that led me to do this in a non-target market for startups.

One benefit to being in Houston is that i found a robust network of high networth individuals in the real estate industry that were our first capital. We were able to raise $780,000 in our first angel round in 2016. All of those individuals came from the apartment industry and then became our customers.

IM: What's been a challenge for y'all?

Johnson: Being here in Houston was a real challenge — there are entire skill sets that don't exist here. There's not technical product managers or lead engineers and you don't meet those people organically. When it came time for me to find someone to help me grow this business, it was like shooting in the dark, and I didn't yet have a network. I met someone online and, for a fee, they built our first product, and it left a lot to be desired. I think a lot of people would have stopped there.

Consumer-facing businesses are very, very hard. You look at our lead investor, Mercury Fund, which I would consider ne of the top VCs in the state, if not the country. They built a very successful series of funds doing B-to-B software. Even in Austin, which is known as a tech hub and has a vibrant startup scene doesn't have a big B-to-C presence. There's not capital for B-to-C companies in the middle of the country because the capital required to go direct to consumers is really high and the model is not nearly as predictable. Apartment Butler is not B-to-C; we have a B-to-B-to-C strategy, where we sell to the the apartments and they become our channel for customer acquisition.

IM: So, how did you manage to stand out in an environment that was so tough?

Johnson: What we're doing is unique. I didn't realize how complicated our business model was going to be.

Houston's doing a lot. It's going to be a long road. But as a city, there's a need for the largest venture capital provider in town to support companies that have gotten really good traction, whether or not it fits their mold. The city needs capital to flow into businesses

Every single VC I pitched to in wanted to require us to move to Austin as a condition to our funding. I wanted to grow this business in Houston. I thought I was going to have to move to Austin because there wasn't a VC for us here. The fact that Blair and Mercury stepped up and said, I know this is a little outside the box but this company is great for Houston. We need to keep them." And I'm glad they did.

IM: What's next for your company?

Johnson: To date, we have been delivering services that have already existed. Yes, we can provide a lower price point and have a hotel-like experience where you can just use an app and we go through your apartment office.
What we're doing now and what we're rolling out in January is our first line of microservices that haven't existed before, or only existed for the ultra-rich.
You want someone to just come in and change your bedsheets, wash your dishes, clean your bathroom, or put your groceries away. The type of experience now starts to be just what you need — a lot of people don't want to pay $70 for a whole cleaning.
The other thing would be footprint expansion. We are launching in Austin on January 7, and we'll be launching our fourth market outside of Texas in March. And then from there, we're going to rapidly accelerate how quickly we're expanding.

IM: What keeps you up at night, as it pertains to your business?

Johnson: We are creating a new industry: Resident services in apartments. I know $2 million sounds like a lot of money, but when you're hiring very talented people, it goes fast. There are 100 things I want to try — experiments I want to run to see how we can get new residents and see what works best, and I only have enough money to do 25. So, it's making sure that I try the 25 best things I can afford to do. Prioritization is what keeps me up at night.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

Houston-based Moleculin has three different oncology technologies currently in trials. Getty Images

Immunotherapy and personalized medicine get all the headlines lately, but in the fight against cancer, a natural compound created by bees could beat them in winning one battle.

In 2007, chairman and CEO Walter Klemp founded Moleculin Biotech Inc. as a private company. The former CPA had found success in life sciences with a company that sold devices for the treatment of acne. That introduction into the field of medical technology pushed him toward more profound issues than spotty skin.

"Coincidentally, the inventor of that technology had a brother who was a neuro-oncologist at MD Anderson," Klemp recalls.

The since-deceased Dr. Charles Conrad slowly lured Klemp into what he calls the "cancer ecosphere" of MD Anderson. In 2016, the company went public. And it looks like sooner rather than later, it could make major inroads against some of the toughest cancers to beat.

Klemp observed that while Houston has the world's largest medical center, "the tragic irony" is that other cities have far more biotech money ready to be invested.

"The Third Coast is really starved for capital," he says. "What drew me into this was I was one of the few entrepreneurs that lived here that knew the ropes in terms of tapping into East and West Coast capital structures and could make that connection for them."

The company has three core technologies currently being tested with some success, but the most promising is called WP1066, named for researcher Waldemar Priebe, "a rock star" in his native Poland, according to Klemp, who works at MD Anderson. Though Priebe came to the U.S. in the 1980s, he is still an adjunct professor at the University of Warsaw and conducts some of his trials in Poland because it's easier to get grant money there.

WP1066 uses propolis, a compound of beeswax, sap and saliva that bees produce to seal small areas of their hives, as a base. The molecular compound that Priebe discovered affects STAT3 (signal transducer and activator of transcription), a transcription factor that encourages tumor development. In short, the active compound in WP1066 both downregulates the STAT3, a long-time Holy Grail in the cancer research world, and directly attacking the tumor, but also quieting T Cells, which allows the body's own immune system to fight the cancer itself. Essentially, it works both as chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

WP1066 is demonstrating drug-like properties in trials at MD Anderson on glioblastoma, the aggressive brain cancer that recently took the life of the hospital's former president, John Mendelsohn, as well as John McCain and Beau Biden. It is also being tested against pancreatic cancer, one of the most virulent killers cancer doctors combat.

Priebe also created Annamycin, named for his oldest daughter, a first-line chemotherapy drug that fights Acute Myeloid Leukemia without the cardiotoxicity that can damage patients' hearts even as they beat their cancer.

WP1122 uses yet another mechanism to fight cancer.

"Most people don't know that morphine is essentially a modified version of heroin," Klemp explains.

The difference between the poppy-based drugs? Heroin can cross the blood-brain barrier. It's described as the dicetyl ester of morphine. WP1122 is the dicetyl ester of 2DG (2-Deoxyglucose), a glycolysis inhibitor, which works by overfilling tumor cells with fake glucose so that they can't consume the real glucose that makes them grow.

"The theory is, we could feed you so full of junk food that eventually you'd starve to death," Klemp elucidates. It can cross the blood-brain barrier and is metabolized slowly, meaning that it can be made into a drug in a way that 2DG cannot.

What's impressive about Moleculin is its diversity of drugs. Most companies have one drug that gets all or most of the attention. Moleculin has strong hopes for all three currently in trials.

"It's essentially multiple shots on the goal," says executive vice president and CFO Jonathan Foster.

Moleculin has 13 total employees, five of whom are based in Houston. An office in the Memorial Park area serves as a landing pad for employees and collaborators from around the world to get their work done when in Space City. The virtual office set-up works for the company because experts can stay in their home cities to get their work done. And that work is on its way to saving scores of lives.