3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Philipp Sitter of RepeatMD, Abbey Donnell of Work & Mother, and Chris Howard of Softeq. 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 health tech to software— recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Philipp Sitter, founder of RepeatMD

RepeatMD offers its clients rewards-based software and is expanding with a new fintech tool. Photo via LinkedIn

Ever the entrepreneur, Philipp Sitter saw an opportunity to equip health service professionals with marketing tools. RepeatMD, founded in December 2020, specializes in white-label rewards apps for plastic surgeons, medical spas, dermatologists, and similar businesses. Now, it's expanding into the "buy now, pay later" fintech realm through a new deal with BTL Industries, a Marlborough, Massachusetts-based provider of body-sculpting equipment.

Through these services, Sitter sees his company being a one-stop-shop for this type of tech.

"We see us becoming ubiquitous in the industry, where anybody that's a dermatologist, a plastic surgeon, or a medical spa has [our app]," Sitter says. Click here to read more.

Abbey Donnell, founder and CEO of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell, founder of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell created a service before employers even knew they needed it. Courtesy of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell knows she's doing something different. Her company, Work & Mother, builds out and runs lactation suites as an amenity to office buildings.

"We're in a strange niche of the industry. We don't really fall completely into a real estate bucket and we don't fall completely into a tech bucket," Donnell says. "It makes finding investors who really understand what we're doing a little bit trickier."

Despite these challenges, the company has grown and is even eyeing a national expansion. Click here to read more.

Chris Howard, CEO and founder of Softeq

A Houston software company has announced the five early-stage startups it will be supporting through its new venture studio. Photo courtesy of Softeq

A lasting tech ecosystem requires successful tech entrepreneurs to give back to the next generation of new businesses. Chris Howard knows that, and it's why his company, Softeq Development Corporation, announced its inaugural cohort for the Softeq Venture Studio. The program, which will be offered quarterly for four to six startups each cohort, is geared at helping its resident startups quickly develop their technology and build their businesses.

"Historically, most tech startups had a founder with development skills. However, we're now seeing more and more business people, doctors, and other professionals start companies, and they need a strong engineering partner to develop their products," says Christopher A. Howard, Softeq founder and CEO, in a news release.

"We take it several steps further with the Venture Studio providing technology business consulting, development services, and much-needed cash. We're a vested partner, so we also help secure follow-on funding for continued growth," he continues. Click here to read more.

Abbey Donnell created a service before employers even knew they needed it. Photo courtesy of Work & Mother

How this Houston innovator created a whole new type of business to revolutionize the workplace for new moms

Houston innovators Podcast episode 105

Abbey Donnell always thought she'd run her own business one day. But did she think she'd start a business that builds out and runs lactation suites as an employee amenity within office buildings? No, she can't say that she did.

However, that's what she's done with Work & Mother, a growing Houston-based business that's both a real estate play and a femtech company. Donnell was working in the advertising and marketing industry and moonlighting as an MBA student at Rice University when the idea came to her. She saw her friends starting having kids and saw how they struggled with the return to work. If they forgot essential supplies for pumping, they'd have to run to the store real quick. Or, they'd have to pump in a room that sacrificed privacy, cleanliness, and/or comfort.

It's something women are hesitant to advocate for themselves, Donnell says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, adding that they are more willing to just deal with the lack of appropriate facilities than raise a fuss. Through her work at Rice and an early pilot in an office building, Donnell essentially started a whole new type of business.

"We created this service for commercial office buildings," Donnell says, explaining that the business works directly with office building landlords to build out the facility. "The new business model creates a win-win-win scenario because it's more cost efficient and is a better solution for all parties, as well as adding privacy and being more streamlined."

In addition to the facilities, which are decorated in a spa-like way that adds comfort to the rooms, Work & Mother adds on to its amenities service with a smartphone app for new moms working in the building to book their pumping room.

The fact that Work & Mother is created a whole new type of service has presented Donnell with a unique set of challenges. For one, fundraising has been a process that includes educating potential investors — most of which are likely men without personal experience with the burden new moms face.

"We're in a strange niche of the industry. We don't really fall completely into a real estate bucket and we don't fall completely into a tech bucket," Donnell says. "It makes finding investors who really understand what we're doing a little bit trickier."

Despite the challenges, Work & Mother has gotten some traction coming out of the pandemic — something that has benefited the business model in that more people are aware of the importance of sanitation and staying healthy in the workplace. Work & Mother has two open locations now with more on the horizon — including expanding outside of Texas thanks to a partnership with CBRE.

Donnell discusses the partnership and the future of Work & Mother on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Work & Mother — with the help of CBRE Group Inc. — is gearing up for a national expansion. Photo courtesy of Work & Mother

Houston female-founded startup takes on national expansion

going places

Houston-based Work & Mother Services LLC is embarking on a nationwide expansion of its network of lactation suites.

Work & Mother already operates two locations in downtown Houston (The Jones on Main and Three Allen Center) and is preparing to open locations at Four Oaks Place in Houston and Eastlake at Tillery in Austin. Beyond that growth, the company aims to expand to metro areas like Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City.

Work & Mother has tapped Abby Alford and Lucian Bukowski of commercial real estate services company CBRE Group Inc. to find space in expansion markets. Both of them work out of CBRE's office on Post Oak Boulevard.

Work & Mother's lactation suites feature private rooms, hospital-grade pumps, and refrigeration and storage options. As part of its service, the company offers a booking app and support resources, such as lactation consultants and career coaches, to working mothers who are breastfeeding their babies.

"Most employers have a legal obligation to provide a proper space for nursing mothers, but pumping at work has always been incredibly difficult, with in-office solutions and multipurpose wellness rooms often failing moms and contributing to high turnover rates around motherhood — many employers don't even realize they have a problem until it's too late," Abbey Donnell, founder and CEO of Work & Mother, says in a CBRE news release.

"We look forward to supporting more new mothers' return to work and providing the real estate services that office tenants and landlords need in a post-pandemic world to promote wellness, flexibility, and inclusion in the workplace," Donnell adds.

A Work & Mother suite is an amenity shared by tenants of an office building. The company says its suites help employers adhere to federal labor laws, reduce HR risks, and retain female employees.

"The pandemic has forced tenants and landlords alike to reimagine workplaces with a greater focus on employee experience in order to recruit and retain top talent," CBRE's Alford says.

Donnell, a Rice University alumna, started her company in 2017. She is a certified lactation counselor and a former advertising executive.

Earlier this year, Work & Mother raised an undisclosed amount of funding from The Artemis Fund, a Houston-based firm that supports women-led startups; the Texas HALO Fund, a Houston-based investment firm; and the Beam Angel Network, an Austin-based nonprofit that backs startups founded by women.

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.

Work & Mother has opened its latest location in downtown Houston. Photo courtesy of Work & Mother

Female-founded startup opens facility for new working moms in downtown Houston

pump it up

As companies roll out back-to-work plans for the new year, one subset of workers' needs might be overlooked: new, breastfeeding mothers. However, one Houston startups is looking out for them with a new downtown location.

Work & Mother Services LLC creates and manages a suite of breastfeeding rooms and support equipment — along with a booking smartphone app, and has officially opened its new suite at Three Allen Center. The new facility has 10 private rooms, each equipped with a hospital grade pump, milk storage bags and other supplies; cleaning and sanitizing stations; lockers; refrigeration options; and more.

Work & Mother takes a professional and spa-like approach to a daily, usually dreaded task new moms take on, while also allowing the employer a chance to provide its employees a necessary amenity.

"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.

Per the Fair Labor Standards Act Section 7(r), companies with 50 or more employees are required to provide "a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk." Companies that aren't in compliance with Section 7(r) — and lack the resources to do so — can either purchase individual or company memberships to Work & Mother.

Brookfield Properties, which is the management company over Allen Center, has now helped its tenants have access to a facility that will help them be compliant.

"Brookfield Properties is deeply committed to creating highly amenitized work environments for our tenants," says Travis Overall, executive vice president and head of the Texas Region for Brookfield Properties. "We have a strong presence of working mothers at the Allen Center campus, which requires thoughtfully curated wellness amenities, such as Work & Mother. We look forward to having this valuable resource readily available for our working mothers once it opens."

Work & Mother has opened other locations downtown, including one at 712 Main St., but the new location at Three Allen Center, designed by PDR Corp., is the latest.

"It's been a great experience to partner with Brookfield Properties on this project, it's clear that they truly care about their tenants. The space at Allen Center is a beautiful, professional amenity that enables working mothers of the buildings and surrounding area to pump safely and with dignity," says Donnell.

Next year, Work & Mother plans to open its first non-Houston location in Austin.

Private rooms

Photo courtesy of Work & Mother

The new facility in Three Allen Center has 10 private rooms, and mothers can book on the Work & Mother app.

This week's Houston innovators to know roundup includes Aimee Woodall of The Black Sheep Agency, Alok Pant of Unvired, and Abbey Donnell of Work & Mother. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Houston's rising COVID-19 case numbers and Texas' new regulations for bars and restaurants are a sure sign that the city isn't out of the woods from the pandemic — and that includes Houston's startups and entrepreneurs.

This week's three Houston innovators to know include three people who are advocating for continuing through the pandemic — the right way, from using tech to better communicate with employees at home to factoring in the new moms when you roll out your back-to-work plans.

Aimee Woodall, CEO and founder of the Black Sheep Agency

Aimee Woodall has been focused on innovation and creativity during COVID-19 for her own company, The Black Sheep Agency, but also for its clients. Photo courtesy of The Black Sheep Agency

Aimee Woodall founded The Black Sheep Agency in order to help impact-based businesses tell their stories. Now, amid COVID-19, that mission is more important than ever.

"We write, we design, we build campaigns, we work in the digital space — whatever it takes to tell the story of the organization and to rally other people to not only pay attention to what the organization is doing but to also find their own way to participate in moving that mission forward," Woodall shares on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Thinking back to when COVID-19 really started affecting business and her campaigns, Woodall remembers how she and her team had to reevaluate existing content, pivot planned projects, and, in some cases, cancel events or programming. Read more.

Alok Pant, founder and CEO of Unvired

A Houston software startup has created a communication tool and is allowing free access amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Unvired

A Houston startup recently released an app to help employees voice their concerns and keep businesses with their finger on the pulse of employee morale. The survey is customizable for each business and contains questions with the most important factors such as employee health and well being, communication, confidence, and leadership.

"Digital Forms fits in with a whole new paradigm in the software world," says Alok Pant, CEO of Unvired. "It allows a business user to make their own specialized applications fast and easy with no coding necessary."

The low-code platform has a drag-and-drop form building feature to instantly deploy surveys, can store data in the Unvired Cloud, and instantly generate reports for insights in the administration portal. Read more.

Abbey Donnell, founder of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell's startup, Work & Mother, provides a new way for new moms to pump breast milk during the workday. Courtesy of Work & Mother

As offices started to reopen and release new safety measures that will be put in place in the office, Abbey Donnell noticed a certain group or people who were going to be affected by these measures: New moms. Mother's rooms are usually multi purposeful, lack access to sinks, and seen as expendable, Donnell writes in a guest column for InnovationMap,

"If mother's needs are not part of this vital return to work safety conversation, women may be left behind," she writes. "So let's start the conversation." Read more.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston innovator joins VC world to increase her social impact

Q&A

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

------

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Houston college system plans to open $30M resiliency-focused center

to the rescue

Houston’s initiative to protect the city from catastrophes is getting a big boost from Houston Community College.

The college is developing the Resilience Center of Excellence to aid the city’s resilience campaign. At the heart of this project is the 65,000-square-foot, $30 million Resiliency Operations Center, which will be built on a five-acre site HCC’s Northeast campus. The complex is scheduled to open in 2024.

HCC estimates the operations center will train about 3,000 to 4,000 local first responders, including police officers and firefighters, during the first three years of operation. They’ll be instructed to prepare for, manage, and respond to weather, health and manmade hazards such as hurricanes, floods, fires, chemical spills, and winter freezes.

According to The Texas Tribune, the operations center will include flood-simulation features like a 39-foot-wide swift water rescue channel, a 15-foot-deep dive area, and a 100-foot-long “rocky gorge” of boulders.

The college says the first-in-the-nation Resilience Center of Excellence will enable residents, employers, civic organizations, neighborhoods, and small businesses to obtain education and certification aimed at improving resilience efforts.

“Our objective is to protect the well-being of our citizens and our communities and increase economic stability,” Cesar Maldonado, chancellor of HCC, said when the project was announced.

Among the programs under the Resiliency Center of Excellence umbrella will be non-credit courses focusing on public safety and rescue, disaster management, medical triage, and debris removal.

Meanwhile, the basic Resilience 101 program will be available to businesses and community organizations, and the emergency response program is geared toward individuals, families, and neighborhoods.

HCC’s initiative meshes with the City of Houston’s Resilient Houston, a strategy launched in 2020 that’s designed to protect Houston against disasters. As part of this strategy, the city has hired a chief resilience and sustainability officer, Priya Zachariah.

“Every action we take and investment we make should continue to improve our collective ability to withstand the unexpected shocks and disruptions when they arrive — from hurricanes to global pandemics, to extreme heat or extreme cold,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said last year. “The time is now to stop doing things the way we’ve always done them because the threats are too unpredictable.”

In an InnovationMap guest column published in February 2021, Richard Seline, co-founder of the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub, wrote that the focus of resilience initiatives should be pre-disaster risk mitigation.

“There is still work to be done from a legislative and governmental perspective, but more and more innovators — especially in Houston — are proving to be essential in creating a better future for the next historic disaster we will face,” Seline wrote.