protect your lunch

A Houston entrepreneur is thinking out of the box with smart lockers for food and personal items

Dommonic Nelson wants to make sure everyone's lunches are safe. Photo via cleverboxcompany.com

Someone kept taking Dommonic Nelson's lunch. A Texas Southern University student living at home and commuting from Greenspoint, Nelson only had a few minutes to scarf down his lunches between studying Maritime Transportation. But regularly, he'd reach into the community refrigerator on campus, only to find, well, nothing.

One night, Nelson was in the shower, wondering why his lunch had been taken again, and the long journey to Clever Box Co. began. He barged into his grandfather's room — it was 2:40 in the morning — and told him he had an idea for a series of high-tech boxes designed for storing various things. The boxes could keep personal items (the Stash Box) and packages (the Happy Box) in large companies and coworking spaces, and for people to quickly pick up their food from restaurants without having to wait in line (the Yummy Box). If Nelson couldn't get his lunches back, he was going to make an entire business on making sure no one got stolen from again.

"We're taking ordinary lockers normally found in office buildings and retrofitting them to make them smart lockers," Nelson says.

It wasn't a bad idea, given a 2017 Peapod study that claims 71 percent of Americans have had their lunch stolen. But like most late-night shower ideas, Nelson's didn't work. Firstly, it wasn't a locker — he was stuck on refashioning community refrigerators, and no one wanted to buy in. He denied a $70,000 job offer in the maritime industry to make $14.50 an hour at Southwest Airlines, which gave him free travel. That took him all over the country, and finally, on one trip to California, where a last-minute meeting with Michael Feinberg, whose firm Bluefish Concepts was featured on CNBC's Make Me A Millionaire Inventor, crushed his dreams. You have the right idea, Feinberg said, but the wrong formula. It seemed like nobody needed a smart refrigerator. On the flight home to Houston, Nelson cried.

Nelson had entered entrepreneurship early. As a kid, he found his stepdad's old CDs and asked to try selling them. He made $500 that first week, bought a CD burner, and made $4,000 in three months by ripping tunes from beloved artists and selling them on the cheap. He was making cash in a place where there wasn't a whole lot of it — and he didn't do it by reinventing how music was sold; he just made it a more efficient process for his Greenspoint neighbors.

It was the same idea that would save Nelson's forthcoming business. Back in Houston, some of Feinberg's words echoed in his head: We already have refrigerators, we already have lockers. Why not just enhance them? Nelson didn't need to reinvent the wheel, or the refrigerator. He just needed to bring high-tech efficiency to lockers, to make them more secure but still easy to use.

One day, not long after getting back from his California meeting, Nelson ordered food online. He was busy, trying to work through the kinks in the design and figure out new markets, but he had to wait in line at the restaurant. He thought about the way that many restaurants treat pick-ups as an honor system — leaving them out for anyone to take, just like he had left his food in a refrigerator at school. There had to be a better way to do this, he thought. So he made one.

The rest of 2018, Nelson and a software engineer locked themselves in an attic and coded the design for the Yummy Box, which won Station Houston's Demo Day Pitch Competition that December. The next month, Clever Box Co. received its first order and exhibited their technology at Station Houston 3.0. There, they found Station Houston was struggling to develop a way to store parcels — Nelson collaborated with the start-up hub and designed the Happy Box, which sends messages to users when they have a delivery.

"We looked at it as a great opportunity to diversify our offerings," Nelson says.

Recently, Nelson finalized the pilot program for the Yummy Box at SouthernQ BBQ, a decade-old East Texas barbecue joint that has gained attention in the last few years as one of Houston's best spots.

Clever Box Co., too, is getting awards. Last month, Nelson took home one of 26 Houston Business Journal Fast 100 and Innovation Awards. And right now, he's raising $200,000 in revenue and hopes to expand his teams of three to make smarter and more secure locks for all of the boxes. Eventually, he hopes to partner with food delivery companies like Grubhub and Uber Eats for residential spaces. He imagines a Yummy Box in the lobby of his own apartment building — a driver will drop it off, he says, and Nelson will take the elevator down, walk to the locker, and open it up. Inside, he'll find his lunch. No one will have taken it.

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Building Houston

 
 

Here's what companies are in the latest cohort for gBETA. Photo courtesy of gBETA

An early-stage accelerator has picked its latest cohort of five Houston companies.

The Fall 2020 cohort of gBETA Houston includes:

  • AllIDoIsCook is founded by Tobi Smith and focused on exposing the world to Africa's cuisine by manufacturing gourmet food products delivered directly to customer doors and available at grocers. Since launching, AllIDoIsCook has built out a manufacturing facility, shipped over 8,000 boxes and generated $1.1 million in revenue all without outside funding.
  • Chasing Watts makes it easy for cyclists to coordinate or find rides with fellow riders in their area with its web-based and native application. The company has over 3,000 users and grew 135 percent from Q2 to Q3 in new ride views.
  • DanceKard, founded by Erica Sinner, is a new dating platform that connects individuals and groups with one another by bringing the date to the forefront of the conversation and making scheduling faster and easier with special promotions featuring local establishments. Since launching in August of 2021, DanceKard has over 170 users on the platform.
  • Dollarito is a digital lending platform that helps the low-income Hispanic population with no credit history or low FICO score access fair credit. Founded by Carmen Roman, Dollarito applies AI into banking, transactional and behavioral data to evaluate the repayment capability more accurately than using FICO scores. The company has1,000 users on their waitlist and plans to beta test with 100 or more customers in early 2022.
  • SeekerPitch, founded by Samantha Hepler, operates with the idea that jobseekers' past job titles and resumes are not always indicative of their true capabilities. Launched last month, SeekerPitch empowers companies to see who jobseekers are as people, and get to know them through comprehensive profiles and virtual speed interviews, and the company already has 215 jobseekers and 20 companies on the platform, with one pilot at University of Houston and three more in the pipeline.

The companies kicked off their cohort in person on October 18, and the program concludes on December 14 with the gBETA Houston Fall 2021 Pitch Night. At this event, each company will present their five-minute pitch to an audience of mentors, investors, and community members.

"The five founding teams selected for our gBETA Houston Fall 2021 cohort are tackling unique problems they have each experienced personally, from finding access to cultural foods, fitness communities and authentic dating experiences to challenges with non-inclusive financing and hiring practices," says Kate Evinger, director of gBETA Houston, in the release. "The grit and passion these individuals bring to their roles as founders will undoubtedly have a tremendous impact in the Houston community and beyond."

The accelerator has supported 15 Houston startups since it launched in Houston in early 2020. The program, which is free and hosted out of the Downtown Launchpad, is under the umbrella of Madison, Wisconsin-based international accelerator, gener8tor.

"Downtown Launchpad is an innovation hub like no other, and I am so proud of what it is already and what it will become," says Robert Pieroni, director of economic development at Central Houston Inc., in the release. "The five startups selected for the gBETA Houston Fall 2021 cohort are exploring new challenges that can become high-impact Houston businesses."

gBETA announced its plan to launch in Houston in September 2019. The program's inaugural cohort premiered in May and conducted the first program this summer completely virtually. The second cohort took place last fall, and the third ran earlier this year.

"These founders are building their companies and benefiting from the resources Downtown Launchpad provides," Pieroni continues, "and the proof is in the data – companies in these programs are creating jobs, growing their revenues and exponentially increasing their funding, which means these small starts up of today, working in Downtown Launchpad, are growing into the successful companies of tomorrow."

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