3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Daniel Powell of Spark Biomedical, Carrie Colbert of Curate Capital, and Carson Hager of SafeFun. 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 — venture capital, medical devices, and software — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Daniel Powell, CEO of Spark Biomedical

A new medical device created in Houston is revolutionizing opioid withdrawal treatment. Photo via sparkbiomedical.com

Houston-based Spark Biomedical has created an opioid withdrawal treatment device known as the Sparrow Therapy System. It's worn over the ear and sends mild electrical signals to trigger cranial nerves that release endorphins that the body has stopped producing on its own during opioid use. These endorphins help the user to make clearer, more logical decisions as they come off of the drug.

"If you ask 100 people who've gone through opioid withdrawal, I would bet 99 of them will tell you they thought they were going to die," Spark BioMed CEO Daniel Powell says. "Giving them the ability to manage that is huge. It's the first step towards addiction recovery. It's not solving the addiction, but it is an absolute barrier to move forward."

Carrie Colbert, general partner at Curate Capital

Carrie Colbert saw an opportunity is funding female-founded companies, and she's taking it. Photo courtesy of Curate Capital

Carrie Colbert has gone from energy executive to fashion and lifestyle content creation to her latest venture — venture investment. With her multifaceted career, she's grown her network across industries and platforms and now some of her followers have become Curate Capital's limited partners.

"Instagram turned out to be one of the best networking tools for me," Colbert says. "You can connect with people wherever they are and wherever you are." Read more.

Carson Hager, president at SafeFun

A Houston entrepreneur created a free smartphone app to easily track and share COVID-19 testing results. Photo courtesy of SafeFun

Last year, Carson Hager felt helpless as he saw Houston restaurants and bars being shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I was thinking what's it going to take for people to be able to feel comfortable to go back out again and go out to bars and restaurants, gyms, salons, club, etcetera," he says.

In April 2020, he decided to act. And with the help of a few programmer friends pulling long hours for about 100 days straight, Hager created SafeFun, a Houston-based digital health passport that allows users to voluntarily and easily share COVID-19 test results and information. Read more.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Alfredo Arvide of Slalom Consulting, Allison Post of the Texas Heart Institute, and Jeff Price of Pronto Pay. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — tech consulting, health care, and fintech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Alfredo Arvide, senior principal within product engineering at Slalom Consulting

Should you launch an app? Or just a web page? This consultant weighs in with his advice. Photo courtesy of Slalom

Tech founders have a lot of decisions to make, and Alfredo Arvide of Slalom Consulting wrote a guest column for InnovationMap to help advise on a big one.

"One of the biggest decisions you'll have to make as an entrepreneur is whether you should host your product or service on the web, via an app, or through a webapp," he writes. "Product development has a million intricacies that will dictate – and sometimes demand – a specific route to market." Read more.

Allison Post, manager of innovation partnerships at the Texas Heart Institute

Allison Post joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share what she's focused on in cardiac innovation. Photo courtesy of THI

In a perfect world, Houston's health care institutions work collaboratively on innovative health care solutions and the city soars as a major hub for life science innovation. That perfect world is Allison Post's goal. As Texas Heart Institute's manager of innovation partnerships, she is in charge of supporting THI innovators and connecting the institute with the rest of the city.

"I only see just phenomenal things for Houston, and what I really want is for the Texas Medical Center to become even more interconnected. We've got to be able to transfer ideas and thoughts and intentions seamlessly between these institutions and right now there are a lot of barriers," Post says. "And I really think Texas Heart is hopefully going to serve as an example of how to take down those barriers." Read more and stream the episode.

Jeff Price, founder and CEO of Pronto Pay

This Houston startup has an app for helping employees get a portion of their paychecks before payday. Photo via Pexels

So much of the country lives paycheck to paycheck, and Jeff Price saw a business opportunity to help out employees who need an advance on their wages. He founded Pronto Pay in the first quarter of 2021. The software aims to connect hourly works with transparent access to wages earned before pay day without disrupting the employers' books.

"When you think about it, payroll hasn't changed in nearly two centuries. As far as we can remember, you get paid weekly or bi-weekly. And that's precisely the point we're trying to solve," Price says. Read more.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Chris Howard of Softeq, Stephanie Hertzog of Sodexo, and Moody Heard of Buildforce. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — oil and gas, tech development, and construction staffing — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Chris Howard, CEO of Softeq

On this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Softeq Founder and CEO Chris Howard shares how he's focusing on supporting the Houston innovation ecosystem. Photo courtesy of Softeq

A sign of a blossoming innovation ecosystem is when experienced and successful founders turn their focus to supporting emerging startups. That's what Chris Howard, who founded his tech company over 20 years ago, is looking to do with a new innovation lab and more in the works.

"I want to give back as an entrepreneur and a Houstonian," Howard says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I really want to leverage Softeq's expertise in order to help these companies grow in the same way that we've been doing for a couple of decades now."

Howard shares more about the Softeq Innovation Lab and how COVID-19 has affected his business and technology in general on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Stephanie Hertzog, CEO of Sodexo

Stephanie Hertzog is hoping the future workforce of her company and others within the energy industry better reflects the city's diverse populations. Photo courtesy of Sodexo

Ever since taking the helm at Houston-based Sodexo Energy Resources North America, CEO Stephanie Hertzog has been intentional with prioritizing diversifying the workforce of the company. In a Q&A with InnovationMap, she notes on how the energy industry has been known as pretty homogeneous, especially within the gender divide. But things are changing.

"And we need to all be focusing on getting more of not only diversity, but inclusion as well," she says. "It's not just about hiring a diverse group, it's about making those people feel included when they get here and having them want to stay and be a part of our industry." Read more.

Additionally this week, Hertzog expands on her call for the energy industry to diversify in a guest column for InnovationMap. Click here to read it.

Moody Heard, CEO of BuildForce

Houston-based Buildforce is developing a technology to better connect contractors and the trade professionals they employ. Photo courtesy of Buildforce

A Houston innovator is tapping into tech to disrupt a booming industry in Houston, Texas, and beyond .Buildforce is a construction staffing app that aims to more efficiently connect contractors to skilled workers in trades ranging from electrical, mechanical, and plumbing to flooring, concrete, painting, and more.

The company raised a $1.5 million pre-seed round led by Houston-based Mercury Fund and is led by CEO Moody Heard.

"Our key insight is that providing a superior service to construction employers starts with providing a superior experience for tradesmen and women," Heard says in a news release. "Talent is the greatest finite resource in construction in Texas. In order to deliver talent to our contractor partners, we've created a job placement experience that is simple, friendly, and transparent. That's something people in the construction trades aren't used to, and has helped us grow incredibly quickly over the past several months." Click here to read more.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Henal Patel of DocJuris, Patricia van Ee of Inhance Technologies, and Andrew Bruce of Data Gumbo. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three innovators across industries — plastics manufacturing, software, blockchain — recently making headlines.


Henal Patel, CEO of DocJuris

DocJuris has raised its first round of venture funding to grow its team to keep up with demand for its legal software platform. Photo courtesy of DocJuris

Henal Patel, CEO of Houston-based DocJuris, raised his first round of funding without ever having to move from behind his computer screen. The SaaS company founded in 2018 raised $3.2 million in seed funding led by New York-based RTP Seed with additional support from Houston-based Seed Round Capital along with others.

Patel says he was looking for funds as well as support from investors who had experience with software and could open doors to new clients for the legal software.

"Our platform is designed to empower legal, sales, and procurement teams and corporations to negotiate and close contracts with greater speed and precision," Patel says. "The underlying mission is to solve the last-mile of contracting." Click here to read more.

Patricia van Ee, chief commercial officer at Inhance Technologies

Houston-based sustainable plastics manufacturer Inhance Technologies has announced recent growth as business continues to boom. Photo via inhancetechnologies.com

Patricia van Ee has a new role at a growing Houston-based company. The new chief commercial officer at Inhance Technologies just assumed the position in January as the sustainable manufacturer, which transforms conventional plastics into high-performance materials, has opened its new 75,000-square-foot site in St. Louis.

"The expansion in St. Louis is a great moment for the company and a sign of the organization's ambition in sustainable solutions for plastics," van Ee says in a release. "We know consumers are favoring more recyclable plastics, especially in packaging … ." Click here to read more.

Andrew Bruce, CEO and founder of Data Gumbo

Data Gumbo, founded by Andrew Bruce, has launched a new tool for customers focused on transparency and ESG reporting. Photo courtesy of Data Gumbo

Last week, Data Gumbo, provider of GumboNet™, announced its new tool, GumboNet ESG, a sustainability measurement solution that can pull together a company's operational data to ESG standards reporting. The tool incorporates the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board framework for transparency and allows industrial companies access to real-time verifiable environmental performance monitoring.

"GumboNet ESG provides the ability to execute a company's monitoring of sustainability goals over time across their supply chain, providing trustworthy and auditable reports for the market against the credible and widely used SASB standards," says Andrew Bruce, founder and CEO of Data Gumbo, in a news release. "It's a new dawn for reliable and automated environmental impact measurements based on smart contracts powered and secured by blockchain."

Existing Data Gumbo customers will have access to the GumboNet ESG as part of their GumboNet subscription. All GumboNet ESG users can use the ESG tool to provide verified and transparent reporting to their customers, investors, media, and more. Click here to read more.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Richard Seline of the Resilience Innovation Hub, Deanna Zhang of Tudor, Pickering, and Holt, and Brad Hauser of Soliton. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three innovators across industries recently making headlines — from resilience technology to energy innovation.

Richard Seline, co-founder at the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub Collaboratory

Richard Seline of Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how it's time for the world to see Houston as the resilient city it is. Photo courtesy of ResilientH20

Richard Seline says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, that people are exhausted and these feelings are festering into frustration and anger — and calling for change. The things that need to change, Seline says, includes growing investment and innovation in resilience solutions.

"As a fourth generation Houstonian, it's just so hard to see my hometown get hit persistently with a lot of these weather and other type of disasters," Seline says.

These unprecedented disasters — which are of course occurring beyond Houston and Texas — have also sparked a growing interest in change for insurance companies that have lost a trillion dollars on the United States Gulf Coast over the past seven years, Seline says. Something has got to change regarding preparation and damage mitigation. Read more and stream the podcast.

Deanna Zhang, director of energy technology at Houston-based Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co.

Deanna Zhang of Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. writes a response to the energy crisis that occured in Texas in February. Photo courtesy of TPH

Deanna Zhang specializes in energy tech, and what she witnessed from February's winter weather was basically an epic fail caused by a myriad of issues.

"But it's oversimplifying to say that the only solution to preventing another situation like this is continued or increased reliance on the oil and gas industry," she writes in a guest article for InnovationMap. "What last week ultimately demonstrated was the multitude of technology solutions that needs to scale up to provide us with the best energy reliability and availability." Read more.

Brad Hauser, CEO of Soliton

Houston-based Soliton can use its audio pulse technology to erase scars, cellulite, and tattoos. Photo courtesy of Soliton

A Houston company has created a technology that uses sound to make changes in human skin tissue. Soliton, led by Brad Hauser, is using audio pulses to make waves in the med-aesthetic industry. The company, which is licensed from the University of Texas on behalf of MD Anderson, announced that it had received FDA approval earlier this month for its novel and proprietary technology that can reduce the appearance of cellulite.

"The original indication was tattoo removal," Hauser says. "The sound wave can increase in speed whenever it hits a stiffer or denser material. And tattoo ink is denser, stiffer than the surrounding dermis. That allows a shearing effect of the sound wave to disrupt that tattoo ink and help clear tattoos."

According to Hauser, the team then turned to a second application for the technology in the short-term improvement in the appearance of cellulite. With the use of the technology, patients can undergo a relatively pain-free, 40- to 60-minute non-invasive session with no recovery time. Read more.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Niloufar Molavi of Central Houston Inc., Dan Purvis of Velentium, and Chris Staffel of Goose Capital. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three innovators — each either new to their role or with a bit of acquistion news.

Niloufar Molavi, board chair at Central Houston Inc.

Niloufar Molavi will lead Central Houston Inc.'s board this year — and she's got fostering innovation on her to-do list. Photo courtesy of CHI

Last week, Nilofar Molavi assumed the role of board chair for Central Houston. She leads PwC's Global energy practice and has served on the CHI board since 2011 and chairs the organization's innovation committee. CHI was among the partners behind the Downtown Launchpad, a 17,000-square-foot innovation hub, which had its grand opening last fall.

"With the fall 2020 opening of Downtown Launchpad, we have deepened our investment in innovation, which we hope will garner long-term results and economic vitality for downtown as well as the Houston region at large," she continues. "We look forward to developing bridge programs with area universities and organizations and leveraging existing resources to bring more high-tech prospects to our central city." Read more.

Dan Purvis, CEO of Velentium

A Houston company has made a strategic acquisition. Photo courtesy of Velentium

Houston-based Velentium, which specializes in the design and manufacturing of medical devices announced that it has acquired Texas company Oasis Testing, a designer of automated test systems for the energy and manufacturing industries.

"Despite the immense challenges facing the business community in 2020, last year was a monumental year of growth for our firm, and we're pleased to start 2021 building upon our world-class team of technical experts," says Dan Purvis, CEO of Velentium, in a news release. "Oasis Testing has been a trusted partner for the last five years and shares in our commitment to solving clients' most complex challenges to change lives for a better world. We're incredibly excited to welcome them to the Velentium family and expand our business more deeply into energy and manufacturing."

Purvis will lead the new combined company as CEO. Read more.

Chris Staffel, managing director at Goose Capital

Goose Capital recently named its new managing director. Photo courtesy of Chris Staffel

Houston-based investment group Goose Capital Inc. named Chris Staffel as managing director — along with Jeff Smisek as the firm's president and Jay Collins as chair of the board of directors.

A serial entrepreneur and investor in over 30 startups, Staffel joins Goose to lead day-to-day operations and drive new investment opportunities.

"It is an honor to join the team at Goose Capital and work alongside experienced industry leaders," Staffel says in the release. "I look forward to leveraging my entrepreneurial experience to help the start-ups in which we invest, while strategically identifying early stage investment opportunities." Read more.

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Exclusive: Houston coworking company to open sports tech-focused hub

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It's game time for a Houston-based coworking company that's working on opening a sports innovation hub this summer.

The Cannon is working on opening new hub in 53 West, a Galleria-area office building recently renovated by Braun Enterprises. The project is in partnership with Gow Media, InnovationMap's parent company, and will be co-located with the media business that runs Gow Broadcasting LLC and the SportsMap Radio Network, which includes local sports station 97.5 as well as national syndicated content.

The Cannon's founder Lawson Gow tells InnovationMap that Gow Media — founded by Lawson's father, David Gow — and Braun Enterprises were opportunistic partners for the organization.

"We've always been optimistically looking for strategic partners that we can co-locate with or team up with to create a hyper focused, niche community," Lawson Gow says. "We've spent a lot of time thinking about what that can be."

Expected to open midsummer, the new two-story space will have 23 offices and a 1,500-square-foot open space that can be used for events. All existing Cannon members will have access to the space, and potential tenants can expect a similar pricing model to The Cannon's other three Houston-area locations.

Houston makes sense for sports tech, which Gow defines as encompassing four categories of innovation — fan engagement, activity and performance, fantasy and gambling, and esports. Houston has the money, the big four sports teams, a big fan base, and corporate interest, he explains.

"Sports tech is a thing we can win at. There's no global hub for sports tech — so Houston can do that," Gow says. "We've always had that in our heads as a direction we want the city to head down, so it just makes it so opportunistic to create a space for that kind of innovation at work for the city."

53 West has been undergoing renovations recently. Photo via braunenterprises.com

Houston-based cancer and disease bio-venture launches after multimillion dollar series A

money moves

Sporos Bioventures LLC launched this month after closing a $38.1 million round of series A financing.

The Houston-based biotech company aims to accelerate the development of breakthrough therapies for cancer and immune diseases by sharing resources, capital, access to clinical trial infrastructure, and talent from within its knowledgeable team of biotech executives, entrepreneurs, academic scholars, and investors. The company was launched with four entities: Tvardi Therapeutics, Asylia Therapeutics, Nirogy Therapeutics, and Stellanova Therapeutics.

The most advanced of the four entities, Tvardi, is currently in Phase 1 clinical trial to evaluate it's STAT3 oral inhibitor. It was named a "most promising" life sciences company at the 2020 Texas Life Science Forum, hosted by BioHouston and the Rice Alliance in December. The remaining entities are in the development stages and are focused on cancer, autoimmune disease, fibrosis, and tumor growth, among other conditions.

"Sporos was founded to accelerate the development of new medicines by addressing inefficiencies and risk in the establishment of new biotech companies," Peter Feinberg, Sporos co-founder, said in a statement. "By leveraging our extensive network, including the Texas Medical Center, we first identify transformative scientific opportunities and then deploy our top-tier talent, funding, and operational support to drive these insights into a growing pipeline of first-in-class treatment options."

In conjunction with the launch, Sporos named Michael Wyzga as the company's founding CFO. Wyzga was previously CFO at Genzyme for 12 years and has held various senior-level positions in the industry.

"By strategically deploying valuable resources to young companies that would not typically be supported by top-tier seasoned talent and infrastructure, we believe that we can efficiently bring a diverse set of therapies through clinical development," Wyzga said in a statement. "I am thrilled to join a team with decades of scientific and operational expertise and look forward to guiding our strategic and financial growth."

Wyzga joins a team of seasoned leaders in the biotech and cancer research fields, including Dr. Ronald DePinho, professor of Cancer Biology and past president of MD Anderson, who will serve as the chair of Sporos' Strategic Advisory Council. Jeno Gyuris, a biotech executive in oncology drug discovery and development with more than 25 years of experience, will serve as chief science officer. And Alex Cranberg, an experienced active early-stage biotech investor, serves as director.

To expand or not to expand? Houston researcher weighs in on global growth

houston voices

You built your business from the ground up, patiently finding techniques and products that work, carefully crafting solid bonds with your clients. Then one day a new project, opportunity or simple request poses a question: Is it time to branch out overseas?

Of the welter of questions to consider, the first and most important involves location: not just the physical location of the prospective expansion site, but the cultural differences between a firm's home country and its new destination. Secondly, key company traits need to be considered in choosing the investment locations. Is your firm large or small? Young or old? Finally, of pivotal importance to companies outside the United States: Is your company privately held or state-owned?

In a recent paper, Rice Business professor Yan Anthea Zhang looked closely at these three variables with Yu Li of the University of International Business and Economics Business School in Beijing, China and Wei Shi of the Miami Business School at the University of Miami. What, the researchers wanted to know, was the relation of these three features and firms' location choices for their overseas investments?

To find out, Zhang and her colleagues analyzed 7,491 Chinese firms that had recently ventured into foreign markets with 9,558 overseas subsidiaries. Because China now has become the world's leading source of foreign direct investments, the sample promised to be instructive. Thanks to the large sample size, researchers could test hypotheses relating to firm size, age, ownership and the impact of geographical and cultural distance on their location choices.

After studying the elements of geographic distance and cultural distance, Zhang and her colleagues uncovered a paradox. Companies that had an advantage in tackling one dimension of distance were actually disadvantaged — because of the same characteristic — in another dimension.

How, exactly, did this paradox work? Larger firms, with access to more resources, can "experiment with new strategies, new products, and new markets," the researchers wrote. This large size makes geographic distance less of a concern, but it comes with a ponderous burden of its own. Company culture is directly influenced by the country of origin, Zhang wrote. Transferring that culture into a completely different environment can cause the kind of shock that could lead to failure, even with financial and physical resources to ease the geographical distance. Conversely, smaller firms may be more nimble and able to adapt to needed cultural changes — but lack the resources to make true inroads in a foreign market.

A similar paradox exists for older and younger firms, Zhang wrote. A younger firm is more likely to adapt to a culturally distant country than an older firm might, even if that youth means that geographical distance is a greater logistical challenge.

State-owned firms face a similar paradox, one that comes down to the balance of resources against cultural flexibility. A company with state-generated resources may be better equipped to move a caravan people, machinery and materials to a distant new location. However, state-owned companies often typically lack the internal cultural flexibility to handle expansion to a different environment.

What does this mean for the average manager? Simply that going global demands meticulous weighing of factors. Does your firm have the practical resources to expand overseas? Does your staff have the personal flexibility and willingness to meld company culture with that of a different milieu? It's a truism that major overseas expansions require money and heavy lifting. Less obviously, managers of successful companies must thread a very fine needle: ensuring they have the material resources to get their business overseas physically, while confirming that company culture is light enough on its feet to thrive in day-to-day life in a new place.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Yan Anthea Zhang, a professor and the Fayez Sarofim Vanguard Chair of Strategy in the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.