3 Houston innovators to know this week

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This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Alessio Lorusso of Roboze, Tobi Smith of All I Do Is Cook, and Pradeep Sharma of the University of Houston. 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 — from 3D printing to food and cooking — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Alessio Lorusso, founder and CEO of Roboze

Alessio Lorusso joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss why he chose Houston to set up U.S. operations for his large-scale 3D printing company, and how the city has the potential to become a hub for the industry. Photo via LinkedIn

The hit the pandemic has had on the global supply chain has been a huge hit to so many companies. However, one Italian company with its United States headquarters in Houston, has an alternative for customers — large scale, in-house production. Roboze, which recently completed a multimillion-dollar fundraise, has seen explosive growth due in large part to how COVID-19 has affected the global supply chain over this past two years.

"This was an incredible accelerator for us," says Alessio Lorusso, CEO and founder, on the Houston Innovators Podcast. He adds that, while Roboze has attracted large corporate customers, the business is seeing growth in the small to mid-sized company sector.

"The moment is now," Lorusso says. "The time to integrate printing capabilities and have the possibility to print parts in house is something that needs to be done now." Click here to read more and listen to the podcast.

Tobi Smith, founder of All I Do Is Cook

All I Do Is Cook is on a mission to grow accessibility to Nigerian dishes. Image via allidoiscook.com

Tobi Smith wanted to take his business to the next level — and he found the perfect opportunity to do so. After completing the gBETA accelerator program and winning the grand prize in the ClearCo ClearPitch competition, Smith and his business partner Bethany Oyefeso are transitioning their small business, All I Do Is Cook, into a startup with the ultimate goal of making Nigerian food accessible to everybody.

Smith and Oyefeso came one step closer to that goal when Phoencia, a Houston grocery story, started stocking the startup's condiments in 2021. In that same year, Smith and Oyefesso joined the gBETA accelerator program. Smith described this program as being instrumental in the advancement of their company from a small business to a start up, now at the beginning of their pre-seed funding phase.

“They taught us everything about what it meant to be a start up and connected us with mentors and other individuals working in the food and beverage space,” says Smith. Click here to read more.

Pradeep Sharma, engineering department chair at the University of Houston

Pradeep Sharma, M.D. Anderson Chair Professor and department chair at the University of Houston, was named to the National Academy of Engineering. Photo via uh.edu

The National Academy of Engineering elected its new members, and five local scientists are among the new 133-person cohort — as is Elon Musk, if you were wondering. The appointment is among the highest professional distinctions in an engineer's career.

Pradeep Sharma, M.D. Anderson Chair Professor and department chair, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Houston, was recognized for establishing the field of flexoelectricity, leading to the creation of novel materials and devices and insights in biophysical phenomena.

“Nature has provided us very few piezoelectric materials even though their applications in energy harvesting and in making sensors is very important. What we did was use theory to design materials that perform like piezoelectric ones, so that they can create electricity,” says Sharma in the release. Click here to read more.

This week's Houston innovators to know include Megan Eddings and Amanda Cotler of Accel Lifestyle and Brad Burke of Rice Alliance. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

It seems like 2020 is the year of the pivot and taking what the world has thrown at you —from pandemics to oil gluts — and making something out of what you have.

This week's innovators to know include a Houston startup flipping the switch on production to make face masks to the Rice Alliance re-envisioning an annual event that usually takes place at a global conference.

Megan Eddings and Amanda Cotler of Accel Lifestyle

Photos courtesy

When Megan Eddings and Amanda Cotler saw the CDC was recommending medical professionals wear bandanas or strips of cloth when surgical face masks weren't available, they had an idea.

The duo behind Accel Lifestyle, a Houston-based athletic wear startup that has a bacteria-resistent fabric, hopped on a call to see how they could rework their supply chain to quickly pivot to making face masks.

When setting up the company, Eddings, Accel's founder, made it a priority to avoid sweatshops, and she set up her supply chain to be completely within the United States — something that's been beneficial to the company's COVID pivot.

"If we did not have a 100 percent domestic supply chain, there's no way we could have done this," Eddings says.

Eddings and Cotler joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to share the story of how Accel went from deciding to make the masks to selling them by the thousands to Houston Methodist.

"When you think of face masks, you wouldn't think about activewear or thinking of Accel being a part of the fight against coronavirus," Cotler says. However, that might no longer be the case for the company now. Click here to learn more and to stream the podcast episode.

Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship

Photo via alliance.rice.edu

Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship typically hosts their Energy Tech Venture Day from the one of the halls within NRG Arena at the annual Offshore Technology Conference. However, the conference that attracts thousands of people from around the world, much like so many events, was canceled due to coronavirus.

But Brad Burke and his team at the Rice Alliance turned to tech to introduce the first virtual event, which then took place on Thursday, May 7. Burke introduced the event that had 39 startups that represented 11 different states and six different countries, 13 call Houston their HQ.

"We had many startups and corporations reach out to us and ask us if we could go ahead with the event in a virtual format, so that's how we ended up where we are today," says Burke. Click here to read more.

This week's innovators to know are Debbie Mercer, Andrew Bruce, and Maria Maso. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

While headlines about coronavirus keep multiplying — similar to the virus' cases, Houston's innovation news hasn't yet slowed.

This week's people to know include a female entrepreneur who's leveling the playing field for outdoorsy women, a blockchain expert with new growth, and an investor creating the angel network she's been wanting for years.

Debbie Mercer, founder of Zip Hers

Photo courtesy of Zip Hers

Debbie Mercer, a Houston entrepreneur, has designed articles of clothing to empower female athletes. The marathon runner was tired of seeing female runners standing in long lines, awaiting their turns to do their business behind closed doors, while their male friends resorted to quickly and discreetly ducking behind the porta-potties, or finding nearby trees. Precious time ticked by as the women watched their male counterparts continue the race.

The Houstonian created Zip Hers, an activewear brand that has a full-length zipper lining the bikini area of each pant, to accommodate on-the-go women. The Zip Hers concept and design was intended to level the playing field for women and men when it comes to competitive sports.

"If we're wasting time on a bathroom break and they're not, that holds us back…Maybe it's our little tiny contribution to women's equality. We just really want to help women be the best that they can be," Mercer says. Click here to read more.

Andrew Bruce, CEO and founder of Data Gumbo Corp.

Photo courtesy of Data Gumbo

For the fist time, Data Gumbo Corp.'s GumboNet will be used in geothermal energy drilling thanks to the startup's new Indonesia-based client, Air Drilling Associates, a drilling and project management service provider.

"Expansion into Southeast Asia with ADA's deployment signals GumboNet's global applicability and benefit to industry — in this case, geothermal energy development," says Andrew Bruce, CEO and founder of Data Gumbo, in a news release. "We are excited that Data Gumbo is entering yet another sector of the energy market for improvements across its supply chain." Click here to read more.

Maria Maso, founder of Business Angel Minority Association

Photo courtesy of Nijalon Dunn

Maria Maso, frustrated with her investment opportunities in Houston, has launched the Business Angel Minority Association, or baMa, to gather established or brand new angel investors to move the needle on investments into minority-founded startups. Maso, founder and CEO, and Garaizar, president, want to round up 100 investors by the end of 2020. And they want these investors to write checks.

"We are not a networking organization. We are an investment organization. We are expecting at some point that you are writing a check to a startup," Maso says. "If we are doing our job properly and we are showing you the right startups, you should be able to make a check at some point." Click here to read more.

This week's innovators to know are focused on bringing startup programming and venture capital to Houston. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This past week has been full of exciting innovation news in Houston — from big fundraising round closings to a new unicorn coming out of the Bayou City.

Houston innovators to know this week include a new program director for Houston's newest startup accelerator, a venture capital fund leader, and more.

Eléonore Cluzel, program director of gBETA Houston program as director

Courtesy of gBETA Houston

Houston's newest accelerator program, gBETA, named its new local leader. Eléonore Cluzel will lead the gBETA Houston program as director, and will be the point person for the program in the region for the two annual cohorts. Previously, Cluzel worked for Business France mentoring French startups and small businesses. In her new position, she says she's excited to support founders across all industries and foster innovation.

"We're adding another resource for local founders to grow their startups and to raise money, and not have to move to Silicon Valley to do it," she says. "We will also serve as a connector, introducing founders to mentors and investors within the community and across gener8tor broader network." Click here to read more.

Sandy Wallis, managing director of the HX Venture Fund

Courtesy of Sandy Wallis

After 20 years in the venture capital world, Sandy Guitar Wallis has seen the evolution of investing — on both coasts and here in Houston as well. Now, as managing director of the HX Venture Fund, Wallis leads the fund of funds that's investing in VCs around the country in order to bring investment to Houston.

"We have raised a fund of funds with the HX Venture Fund, and we're deploying that capital across probably 10 venture capital funds over time," Wallis explains on the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Each one of those funds, will invest in 15 to 20 underlying private companies. So, at the end of the day, HX Venture Fund 1 will have exposure to 10 VC funds, as an example, and — by virtue of those investments — maybe 300 private companies." Click here to read more.

James Y. Lancaster, Texas branch manager for Arkansas-based VIC Technology Venture Development

Photo courtesy of VIC

Startups fail — and there are a number of reasons why that is. James Y. Lancaster, who serves as Texas branch manager for Arkansas-based VIC Technology Venture Development, writes in a guest column for InnovationMap about the second most common reason for startup failure: funding.

"A key part of the startup CEO's job is to understand how much total cash remains on hand and whether it is enough to carry the startup towards a milestone that can lead to successful financing as well as a positive cash flow," Lancaster writes. "Just as important is how to allocate their time and efforts to the fundraising process along the way." Click here to read more.

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Gwyneth Paltrow, VCs to headline exciting upcoming Houston summit

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A Houston-based fund of funds is bringing back its venture-focused event — and this year, you might recognize the keynote speaker.

Venture Houston hosted by the HX Venture Fund will take place on Monday, September 12, at The Ion. The day will kick off with a conversation with Goop founder and Academy Award-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow in conversation with Dana Settle, co-founder and managing partner of New York-based Greycroft. Goop is among Greycroft's portfolio companies, and HXVF, which deploys capital in to out-of-town VCs they have an interest and intention in investing into Houston startups, invested in Greycroft in 2020.

Some of the event's other speakers — from outside Texas as well as home grown —include LeadEdge Capital's Mitchell Green, Cart.com's Omair Tariq, Solugen's Gaurab Chakrabati, and many more. The full event agenda and list of speakers are both available online.

The program of the event is centered around key topics directly affecting Houston's innovation ecosystem, such as energy transition, sustainability, startup scaling, the future of health care, entrepreneurship, talent acquisition, and more.

“Venture Houston will bring together some of the most proven venture capitalists from the nation to the Houston stage, alongside Houston’s corporate leaders and most innovative entrepreneurs," says Sandy Guitar, managing director of the HX Venture Fund. "We are delighted to bring conversations around lessons learned and best practices to The Ion so that we can continue to nurture the incredible growth we are experiencing in the innovation ecosystem in Houston.”

Venture Houston is supported and sponsored by organizations including Insperity, Rice University, Greater Houston Partnership, Silicon Valley Bank, and Halliburton Labs.

"Houston's innovation ecosystem is experiencing a compelling transformation," says Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the GHP. "Venture Houston 2022 is the premier event for corporate leaders, venture capital investors, and entrepreneurs to plug into what is happening in the city. We are proud to sponsor and share the stage with leaders helping to illuminate the power of venture capital for Houston’s innovation ecosystem."

Registration is open online for the September 12 event.

Local startup to upgrade EV charging in Houston and beyond

seeing green

At 3 a.m. one night, just as he had many nights before, Tarun Girish found himself leaving his Houston apartment in search of an EV charger.

Once he located one, he would sit in his car for an hour and a half while his vehicle charged — with not much to do but wait.

But it was on this night he wondered if there was a way to use his previous hospitality experience to build a new kind of experience for EV drivers. He then developed his first iteration of a business plan — all while sitting in his driver’s seat.

His idea became Sparks Spaces, a startup formed in 2021 looking to shake up the EV charging game — the company aims to elevate the experience of charging electric vehicles by focusing on the space between car and charger by creating an airport lounge-type space for drivers. These EV lounges would include luxury waiting areas, clean restrooms, high-end food options, and availability to utilize them 24/7.

“We’ve seen a huge issue in the EV charging space where the experience side has been neglected,” says Girish, founder and CEO of Sparks Spaces.

Currently, Sparks Spaces is operating out of The Ion and installed a charging point outside of the building to help collect insights into what drivers are needing and are wanting to learn more about their customer base.

Eventually, the company’s goal is to take forgotten buildings and transition them into becoming EV charging hubs.

“The Ion is giving us a lot of resources to make sure that we are tailoring the solution to the right problem,” he says. “We’ve learned how to build a frictionless experience where the driver scans a QR code, pays for the duration of the charging session and then plugs in.”

When Sparks Spaces scales out, the team is eyeing two locations inside The Loop — one in Montrose and one on Shepherd Drive. The design would focus on natural lighting, safety and security.

The startup went through the Smart City Ion Accelerator but will be applying to a couple more accelerators that have more exposure into the EV construction space.

“We’re trying to provide a brand consistent experience from the time a driver drives into a lot to the time they leave,” he says. “We’ll be providing all fast-charging and level 2 charging services for drivers and will be completely universal so that any EV can utilize us.”

Sparks Spaces is looking to raise a $1.1 million seed round that will focus on research and development, the case studies and the architectural designs for a prototype that can be implemented in its locations.

“We want to be the definition of charging and lounges and experiences should be the forefront of EV charging,” he says. “The average household who owns an EV expects a certain level of luxury and expectations on experience. They are used to airport lounges when traveling. We want to reflect that in the EV charging space.”

Tarun Girish is on a mission to make EV charging easier and more comfortable. Photo courtesy

Houston expert weighs in on the trustworthiness of cryptocurrency

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Interest in cryptocurrencies reignited during the pandemic, driven in part by trillions of dollars in stimulus money that left many investors with “free money” to put to work. And while bitcoin recently tumbled nearly 55 percent from its peak, it remains the most valuable crypto asset in the world, with a market capitalization of around $589 billion. Its investors argue that it’s still a safer bet than stocks during this period of economic upheaval.

A renewed interest in cryptocurrencies — digital currencies that rely on blockchain technology, in which transactions are verified and records maintained by a decentralized system that uses cryptography — is widespread. Large corporations like Tesla, Mass Mutual and KPMG Canada have announced plans to hold cryptocurrency assets in treasury or accept them as payment. Meanwhile, major financial institutions are offering customers more digital asset investment options. Twelve years after bitcoin’s birth, mainstream investors are honing in on the currency, too.

In the midst of this market fascination, a fundamental question still remains. What exactly is cryptocurrency, and why should we care? And what about other industry buzzwords, like blockchain, decentralized exchanges or non-fungible tokens (NFTs)? Are they all just fads that will fade away?

Some have called cryptocurrency a Ponzi scheme, a tool for illicit activities, or a short-term fascination that will be irrelevant in a few years. It’s an understandable mindset, since there’s no intrinsic value in cryptocurrencies — not unlike the U.S. dollar after it stopped being backed by gold in the 1970s. But it’s also a shortsighted one. Blockchain technology, which allows users to exchange information on a secure digital ledger, is extremely useful because it automates contractual arrangements through computer programming.

I’m a firm believer that cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology that underpins them are here to stay, and understanding how this technology has transformed our environment, and how it will continue to evolve, is critical to succeeding in business.

First steps

Bitcoin took the first major steps towards a truly electronic cash system in 2008, in the midst of one of the worst financial collapses of all time. Governments worldwide were bailing out financial institutions that had been deemed “too big to fail.” Perceptions of economic inequality spurred movements such as Occupy Wall Street, which was fueled by a distrust in banks.

Bitcoin, on the other hand, wasn’t created by a trusted source — in fact, no one knows exactly who invented it. In a 2008 white paper, “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” Satoshi Nakamoto — the pseudonymous individual presumed to have developed bitcoin — described the currency as a way to securely facilitate financial transactions between parties without having to involve a central intermediary. No longer would people have to put their trust in the large financial institutions that failed them during the financial crisis.

Detractors find the lack of a central authority with blockchain worrisome, but proponents say it’s exactly the point: You no longer have to trust the person or institution you’re dealing with. You only have to trust the algorithms that run the program — and presumably an algorithm will never run off with your money.

Instead, blockchain enables a cooperative of members to run the shared network ledger required to keep track of a currency’s credits and debits. No one can shut down the system so long as a group of computers anywhere in the world is able to connect to the internet and run bitcoin’s software.

Because of bitcoin, today we can uniquely own digital assets and transfer them with the certainty that people can’t spend the same cryptocurrency twice. The transactions that bitcoin-like applications make possible are registered in permanent and immutable digital records for all to see in a common ledger.

By enabling fast and easily verifiable transactions, blockchain technology is also streamlining business operations in banking, supply chains, sustainability, healthcare and even voting. Development in these sectors and others is continuing at an intense pace. Annual global funding of blockchain projects now runs in the billions of dollars. From 2020 to 2021 alone, it jumped from several billion to nearly $30 billion.

Second generation

Since bitcoin’s arrival, we’ve seen a second, more sophisticated generation of cryptocurrencies evolve, with Ethereum as their flagship. Ethereum has its own programming language, enabling users to write and automate self-executing smart contracts, allowing for the creation of tokens for a specific use. For example, imagine that when Uber was founded, it had created an Uber token, and only people who owned Uber tokens could use the rideshare service. Tokens currently power thousands of decentralized applications that give people more privacy and control in a variety of areas, such as internet browsing, financial services, gaming and data storage, among others.

Some critiques of cryptocurrency remain. One growing concern is that cryptocurrencies require a significant amount of energy to run their networks, leading to higher transaction costs, energy waste and limited scalability. Newer cryptocurrencies are attempting to find ways to verify transactions that require less energy.

Some people also worry about ongoing volatility in cryptocurrency markets. A third generation of cryptocurrencies has emerged to address this concern: so-called “stablecoins,” which are pegged to a government-issued currency, a commodity, assets, or basket of assets. For some, stablecoins are serving as an onramp into the world of crypto from the world of traditional finance.

Before a new technology becomes part of everyday life, we often see a long period of development, improvement and consumer adoption. Cryptocurrency and blockchain markets are still in this early development stage, but they’re also moving quickly into the mainstream. The total market capitalization of cryptocurrencies late last year briefly reached the $3 trillion mark, or roughly 15 percent of the U.S. GDP, and there’s been more than $100 billion locked into decentralized finance applications.

Large companies like IBM, Amazon and Bank of America are leading the way by tapping into blockchain technology in their daily business activities. It won’t be long until this market, previously characterized by speculation and wild volatility, will be transformed into a stable infrastructure framework. But companies need to get up to speed on the industry now. Those that commit to doing so will be the ones that thrive.


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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was written by Manolo Sánchez, an adjunct professor of operations management at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.