3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

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

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.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Abbey Donnell of Work & Mother, Blair Garrou of Mercury Fund, and Randa Duncan Williams. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In the first weekly roundup of Houston innovators of 2021, I'm introducing you to three innovators across the city — one of the richest people in Houston, a venture capital expert, and a female founder with big plans for 2021.

Abbey Donnell, founder of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell is looking forward to growing Work & Mother in 2021. Courtesy of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell is making sure that when new moms go back to work in downtown Houston in 2021, they'll have a suite of professional, spa-like rooms to pump in. Work & Mother has recently opened its latest location in Three Allen Center and designed it with comfort and safety in mind.

"Pumping at work has always been incredibly hard for mothers. Now, with the pandemic, there are the added complications of germ spread, closed community spaces, and repurposed wellness rooms, which makes pumping at work nearly impossible. Yet, most employers still have a legal obligation to provide a proper space for nursing mothers," says Abbey Donnell, founder and CEO of Work & Mother, in a news release. Click here to read more.

Blair Garrou, managing director of Mercury Fund

Blair Garrou joined the Houston Innovators Podcast this week. Photo via MercuryFund.com

Despite the rollercoaster of a year 2020 has been for venture capital, Blair Garrou says he's never been busier. One thing he's seen increased is an interest in early stage investing — this, he says, is happening as the pandemic has shown a spotlight on the importance of tech and ramped up digitization in business.

"People are realizing that money is in innovation and tech — especially in software," Garrou says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I can't tell you how many individual investors who call interested in investing in Mercury as a fund or our companies. People are not getting the return they desire from the markets and they are seeing tech companies do great things." Click here to read more and stream the podcast episode.

Randa Duncan Williams, owner of Texas Monthly

One of the four richest people in Houston, Randa Duncan Williams owns Texas Monthly. Photo courtesy of Texas Monthly

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the richest of them all? Nevermind, mirror. Forbes just told us. Houston's Duncan family, with a net worth of $22 billion, who once again appear on the annual Forbes ranking of America's richest families. (The Duncans come in at No. 11 on the Forbes list.)

The four children of pipeline mogul Dan Duncan — Randa Duncan Williams, Milane Frantz, Dannine Duncan Avara, and Scott Duncan — inherited a $10 billion estate from their father when he died in 2010. The net worth of each heir exceeds $5 billion.

Randa enjoys the highest profile among the four Duncan siblings. She is chairwoman of Houston-based Enterprise Products Partners, the pipeline giant founded by her father, and owns Austin-based Texas Monthly magazine. Click here to read more.

This week's innovators to know roundup includes Patrick Jankowski of the Greater Houston Partnership, Deanea LeFlore of The Ion, and Dr. Mehdi Razavi of the Texas Heart Institute. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators across the city — from the Greater Houston Partnership, The Ion, and Texas Heart Institute.

Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted its annual economic outlook event online this week. Photo courtesy of the GHP

At the GHP's annual economic outlook, Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research, predicts that 2021 will be a "bipolar year." The first and second halves of the year are going to look different, Jankowski says, it's just a matter of how different at this point. In addition to the vaccine and COVID case numbers, the things the GHP as well as Houston businesses are watching is the new Biden Administration.

"We won't see any significant growth in the economy until we get to the second half of the year," he says. Read more.

Deanea LeFlore, director of partnerships at The Ion

Deanea LeFlore, director of partnerships at The Ion, joins this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Station Houston

Houston is just a few months away from being able to walk into The Ion, and the organization's director of partnerships, Deanea LeFlore, hopes that when that happens, they are entering a innovation hub reflective of the city.

"I think that when people walk into The Ion, what's personally important to me, is that it looks like Houston so that you see yourself reflected in the people in the building as well as the programming," LeFlore says. "That's my biggest hope and aspiration, and I believe we are well on track to be able to deliver on exactly that."

LeFlore shares more on what she's been working on — from online programming to growing partnerships at The Ion. Listen to the podcast and read more.

Dr. Mehdi Razavi, director of Electrophysiology Clinical Research & Innovations at the Texas Heart Institute

A medical device coming out of the Texas Heart Institute has been recognized for its innovation. Photo via THI

A new technology out of Houston's Texas Heart Institute's was named the top future medical product design worldwide last month as part of the annual Create the Future Design contest. The med device, which allows for pain-free defibrillation, is being developed by THI's Electrophysiology Clinical Research & Innovations team in conjunction with scientists at Rice University and UCLA, the technology allows doctors to place up to 12 tiny nodes around the heart to pace and defibrillate the heart without using a shock.

The technology will be most useful for atrial fibrillation and ventricular fibrillation, which can lead to sudden death, stroke, and congestive heart failure, according to Dr. Mehdi Razavi, the head investigator on this project and leader of the THI team.

"It's extremely painful. It's like someone takes a two by four and just pounds you from the inside in the chest, or a horse kicking you in the chest," Razavi says. He went on to add: "I have actually one patient who was a Vietnam veteran. He said nothing that he faced in battle was as disconcerting—not just because of the pain, but the fact that you don't know when the pain is when the shock is about to happen. That anxiety is just overwhelming." Read more.

This week's innovators to know roundup includes Kirsten Siebach of Rice University, Mike Francis of NanoTech Inc., and Kim Raath of Topl. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In today's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators across industries — from space exploration to materials science.

Kirsten Siebach, assistant professor at Rice University

It's Kirsten Siebach's second Mars rover mission to work on. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Kirsten Siebach is getting ready for her Mars mission — one that keeps her firmly planted on Earth, but will allow her to search for ancient microbial life on the Red Planet nonetheless. The Rice University professor has again been selected by NASA to join a research team overseeing a rover that is currently en route to Mars.

"Because there is only one rover, the whole team at NASA has to agree about what to look at, or analyze, or where to drive on any given day," Siebach says in the release. "None of the rovers' actions are unilateral decisions. But it is a privilege to be part of the discussion and to get to argue for observations of rocks that will be important to our understanding of Mars for decades." Read more.

Mike Francis, co-founder of NanoTech Inc.

Mike Francis, co-founder of NanoTech, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his plans to fireproof California. Photo courtesy of NanoTech

Mike Francis wants to fireproof the state of California. It's a lofty goal, but he has the means. His company, NanoTech Inc., has an innovative product that can insulate and fireproof materials, and, buoyed by a $5 million seed round, he's well on his way to being able to slowly but surely fireproof existing infrastructure in the West Coast.

"We're working with all of the major players in the state of California to not only fireproof the utility infrastructure, but eventually homes and businesses," Francis says on last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our goal, if we're looking into the future, is to fireproof that state — and we're working with the right people and companies to make it happen." Read more and listen to the podcast.

Kim Raath, CEO of Topl

More and more consumers are expecting transparency from companies, and this Houston startup is on a mission to use blockchain to make businesses more transparent. Courtesy of Topl

Nowadays, consumers care about where their products come from — and if they exist due to a humanitarian or sustainable supply chain — and the onus is on businesses to increase transparency. That's where Topl, a Houston-based blockchain company, and its new partner Trackz, a Denver-based supply chain software company, come in.

"Topl and TrackX's solution will be a great option for companies having to comply with new regulations and compliance mandates," says Kim Raath, CEO of Topl. "Further, our joint solution allows users to visualize their supply chain data, monitor suppliers, and easily report the progress of ESG initiatives to all stakeholders."

This week's innovators to know roundup includes Roberta Schwartz of Houston Methodist, Jani Tuomi of imaware, and Jill Chapman of Insperity. Photos courtesy

3​ Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In today's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators across industries — including some with COVID-19 news.

Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president of Houston Methodist Hospital

Roberta Schwartz is leading the innovation initiative at Houston Methodist. Courtesy of Houston Methodist

Houston Methodist and its Center for Innovation — led by Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president of Houston Methodist Hospital — has been in the innovation news around Houston in a few ways. First, the health care innovation hub was recognized with the Listies award for corporate innovation and Schwartz accepted the award on behalf of her team.

Last week, Houston Methodist was announced to be on the short list for the COVID-19 vaccine being developed and distributed by Pfizer.

And finally, Schwartz shared details about a new voice technology the hospital has implemented into their operating rooms. The technology uses ambient listening to help surgeons operate hands free from typing or note taking and focus on their patient. Read more.

Jani Tuomi, co-founder of imaware

Jani Tuomi, co-founder of imaware, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his company's, early disease screening, COVID-19 testing, and more. Photo courtesy of imaware

As COVID-19 was emerging as an international threat across January and February, Jani Tuomi and his team at imaware — a Houston health tech startup providing at-home testing for chronic conditions — quickly jumped on a way to provide at-home coronavirus testing.

"Right away there was an amazing reception," Tuomi says, adding that big companies were looking to provide their employees on-site training. "There was way more need for testing than supply was available."

Imaware formed strategic partnerships with other Texas companies, including Austin-based startup Wheel — the telemedicine partner. Basically, users take a quick assessment online and if they are high risk, a health care worker is deployed to the patient's site to conduct the test. Once finished, the lab analyzes the sample and telemedicine professionals reach out with results and next steps. Read more and stream the podcast.

Jill Chapman, senior performance consultant with Insperity

Jill Chapman is a senior performance consultant with Insperity. Photo courtesy of Insperity

With Thanksgiving in the rearview, the holiday season is in full swing. And, as some companies in Houston have either partially or completely resumed in-office workdays, businesses might also be looking to spread some holiday cheer around the workspace. Jill Chapman, a senior performance consultant with Insperity, shared in a guest column for InnovationMap her ideas for safe virtual and in-person festivities.

"Business leaders should consider hosting holiday celebrations that honor their employees and align with their ongoing safety protocols," she writes. "For companies that continue to conduct in-person business, holiday celebrations may be safely held outside in Houston's temperate climate. For companies that plan to proceed with virtual celebrations, think outside the box for developing an event that colleagues will enjoy." Read more.

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Houston venture capitalist says it's time for more women in VC

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 73

In all the turmoil of 2020, Samantha Lewis had at least one silver lining. The former director of Goose Capital transitioned into her new position as principal at Mercury Fund.

However fortunate she feels to have her new position, she shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast this week that there's not nearly enough of women like her in venture capital.

"The bottom line is there has to be more women with check-writing abilities," Lewis says on the show. "And when there is more women with check-writing abilities, more women will get funded."

Joining the podcast at the start of Women's History Month, Lewis says that the pandemic disproportionately affected women's careers across the board — but when it comes to VC, the solution is growing the female representation at firms.

"It is up to the people in VC hiring or the institutional investors who are giving money to funds to make sure there's a woman on the investment team," she says — adding that just one isn't enough.

In her role at Mercury, Lewis is helping build up the fund's processes — something she specialized in at Goose. She's also focused on building up the portfolio around a specific theme.

"One of the things specifically that Mercury brought me over to focus on from an investment perspective is something we're calling our 'power theme,'" Lewis says. "Think about it as giving people the power to make decisions that are authentic to their values around sustainability and impact."

There have been significant changes in consumer values driven by millennials, and businesses are prioritizing sustainability and transparency in order to keep up. Lewis discusses how Houston-based Topl, which is one of Mercury's portfolio companies, has a major role to play in this space.

Another key area of interest for Lewis is fintech.

"The other piece of the theme is thinking about the democratization of financial services," Lewis says. "Legacy financial institutions have ignored large groups of our population here in America and broader for a very long time. Technology is actually breaking down a lot of those barriers, so there are all these groups that have traditionally been ignored that now technology can reach to help them build wealth."

Lewis discusses more about how Mercury Fund is at an inflection point and how the Houston innovation ecosystem is developing with intention on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.



Rice Business Plan Competition names 2021 startups to compete for over $1M in prizes

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After receiving applications from over 440 startups from around the world, the Rice Business Plan Competition has named 54 startups to compete in the 2021 event.

Touted as the world's largest and richest student startup competition, RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, takes place April 6 to 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC will be virtually held.

"In the midst of a chaotic year, I'm excited to bring good news to deserving startups," says Peter Rodriguez, dean of the Jones Graduate School of Business, in a video announcement. "For the second year now, we'll bring this competition to you virtually, and while we'll miss welcoming you to Houston, we see this as an opportunity to lower the participation barrier for startups."

Per usual, the competition will be made up of elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants will also receive virtual networking and mentoring.

"The virtual competition will still bring with it the mentorship, guidance, and, of course, the sought after more than $1 million in prizes, including $350,000 investment grand prize from Goose Capital," Rodriguez says in the video.

Over the past 20 years, the competition has seen over 700 startups go on to raise $2.675 billion in funding. The 2021 class — listed below — joins those ranks.

The 2021 RBPC startups include:

  • Candelytics, Harvard University
  • Paldara Inc., Oklahoma State University
  • Bruxaway Inc., University of Texas
  • Smoove Creations, Northern Kentucky University
  • Flowaste Inc., University of Notre Dame
  • Polair, Johns Hopkins University
  • Kit Switch, Standard University
  • Kegstand, Colorado University at Boulder
  • Bullyproof, University of Arkansas
  • AI Pow, Texas A&M University
  • Solbots Technologies, BITS Pilani
  • Lelantos Inc., Columbia University
  • Early Intervention Systems, George Washington University
  • Phenologic, Michigan State University
  • AI-Ris, Texa A&M University
  • Lira Inc., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Shelly XU Design (SXD), Harvard University
  • Transform LLC, University of Virginia
  • Almond Finance, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Aspire360, Columbia University
  • Mindtrace, Carnegie Mellon University
  • Renew Innovations, Chulalongkorn University
  • MentumQR, University of Western Ontario
  • Hubly Surgical, Johns Hopkins University
  • FibreCoat GmbH, RWTH Aachen University
  • LFAnt Medical, McGill University
  • GABA, Morehouse School of Medicine
  • EasyFlo, University of New Mexico
  • SwiftSku, Auburn University
  • Floe, Yale University
  • blip energy, Northwestern University
  • Cerobex Drug Delivery Technologies, Tufts University
  • M Aerospace RTC, CETYS University
  • NASADYA, University of Illinois Urbana Champaign
  • Flux Hybrids, NC State University
  • ANIMA IRIS, University of Pennsylvania
  • Big & Mini, University of Texas at Austin
  • OYA, UCLA
  • ArchGuard, Duke University
  • Padma Agrobotics, Arizona State University
  • VRapeutic, University of Ottawa
  • SEAAV Athletics, Quinnipiac University
  • Adatto Market, UCLA
  • Karkinex, Rice University
  • AgZen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Blue Comet Medical Solutions, Northwestern University
  • Land Maverick, Fairfield University
  • Anthro Energy, Stanford University
  • ShuffleMe, Indiana University Bloomington
  • ElevateU, Arizona State University
  • QBuddy, Cornell University
  • SimpL, University of Pittsburgh
  • Ichosia Biotechnology, George Washington University
  • Neurava, Purdue University

What Houston startup founders looking for funding need to know about working with VCs

guest column

I have had the incredible opportunity to work with New Stack Ventures as a venture fellow, and after sourcing investment opportunities, shadowing calls with founders, and even leading a couple calls of my own, I have learned a few lessons that might resonate with startup founders who are raising capital.

Responsive founders make a difference

The first and likely most important lesson I have learned during my tenure as a fellow is this: responsive founders truly make a difference in whether or not they raise capital.

I have sent several emails and LinkedIn messages to really intriguing companies, in hopes of connecting for a call and inquiring about their raise. And, I look back and see that many of those outreach messages were left unread. I have also engaged in calls with really intriguing companies where the founder never follows up, and the idea of moving forward with next steps dissipates.

On the flipside of the forgetful founder, I have also witnessed extremely attentive founders: founders who send follow-up messages when they don't receive an immediate response, respond to their emails within the hour, and go above and beyond by sending pitch decks and executive summaries (even when unasked). This type of founder persona excites me with their enthusiasm and eagerness to make a deal. Their responsiveness with the investment process sheds light to how they likely run their businesses.

At the end of the day, many founders can say that they are hustlers and go-getters, but I believe the founders that show me through their actions in the investment process.

Great founders are great storytellers

When I do connect with founders in introductory calls (after the back-and-forth, hopefully responsive email exchange), the thing I look forward to most is hearing their stories. I want to know your story. I want to know what you were doing before your startup (and how that helped prepare you), how you thought of your idea, how you validated your assumptions, how you grew your business, and… everything in between (but all in less than five minutes of time).

Great founders are great storytellers. The great storytellers I have come across invite me into their companies' journeys, and leave me actually caring about their success.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the founder who gives short responses and shows no real connection to their work (giving off the vibe that this is just another startup for them) leaves me unattached to them and their business.

Venture capitalists are more accessible than you might think

Perhaps, I gave this point away when I said that I was sending several emails and LinkedIn messages to founders (which sounds a little desperate), but VCs are way more accessible than you may think. Before working with New Stack Ventures, I had this perception that VCs were extremely hard to reach, exceptionally busy, and a little bit scary. And while one of the two latter characteristics still remains true, I can say with certainty that VCs are not hard to reach.

I can't speak for everyone in venture capital, but I do know that the VCs I work with will respond to founders who message them. Putting yourself out there, as a founder, can lead to advice (which bodes well for your business), a new connection in the industry (which bodes well for your network), and even an investment (which bodes well for the future of your startup). In the end, VCs are spending hundreds of hours, searching for a tractable startup that will change the game, and your startup could be the very gem they are looking for.

So, be bold, be responsive, and tell your story to any and every VC who will listen. I'm all ears.

Note: I was inspired to write this piece by by The Full Ratchet's tips for fundraising entrepreneurs, I thought I would share.

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Christa Westheimer is a Rice University student and the managing director at Rice Ventures. She is a current venture fellow at Chicago-based New Stack Ventures.