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.

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New women's health and beauty biz led by Houston entrepreneur emerges from stealth with $35M in funding

beauty tech

A Houston health tech entrepreneur who's started six businesses in his career has announced his latest endeavor.

Dr. Kimon Angelides, founder of Houston health tech startups Livongo Health and Vivante Health, launched FemTec Health, a tech-enabled women's health sciences and beauty company focused on transforming the total healthcare experience for women. The company is emerging from stealth mode this week with already 10 million members, two clinical trials in progress, and a team of over 150.

FemTec Health is building the data analytics platform to support products and services for women in every life stage. The patent-pending BiomeAI™engine uses AI and deep machine learning to translate consumer, genetic, microbiome, and biometric data into the delivery of holistic healthcare personalized for every woman, according to a news release from the company.

"Our platform can be implemented across all areas including specialty care, wellness and prevention, reproductive care, sexual wellness, mental health, chronic care, and beyond," Angelides says in the release. "It is driven by state-of-the-art genomics and digital technologies that empower women to take control of their health at every stage of their life journey, based on their individual health profiles."

Angelides serves as the new company's chairman and interim CEO. Photo via LinkedIn

FemTec has already raised more than $35 million in funding from a myriad of investors, capital, and shareholders, including Longmont Capital, Ithaca LifeSciences, Unilever Ventures, Estee Lauder, Shiseido, e.Ventures, Viking Global, and Trinity Capital.

The company, which has been in the works since May of 2020, has assembled an all-star team of experts, including Dr. Kimberly Capone, chief scientific officer (formerly with Johnson & Johnson), and Dr. Laura Clapper, COO (formerly Cigna, CVS-Aetna).

"Women's health has been under-researched and underrepresented for too long," says Capone in the release. "As a woman and a scientist, I have often been the sounding board for friends and family on their wellness journey – offering advice and feedback on skincare, vaginal care, probiotics and supplements that can help with issues in skin and vaginal health, PMS and menopause. What I hear consistently is that women do not know where to go, or what products to choose that may help."

This is exactly the need the technology will help to solve.

"This is where FemTec Health's unified and coordinated platform comes in — we provide personalized services and science-based products that are meaningful and effective for women at all stages of their lives. I believe the future is female and FemTec Health will help get us there," Capone continues.

FemTec Health's business and growth model is to expand via acquisitions — and the company has several under its belt already, including beauty subscription box Birchbox, universal beauty store Mira Beauty, and beauty industry social marketing platform Liquid Grids, which has over 1.5 million members, according to the release.

"Our first acquisitions within women's health and beauty are key to our mission to revolutionize the women's healthcare and beauty industry," says Angelides, who is the company's executive chairman and interim CEO. "Women deserve a comprehensive, all encompassing model designed specifically for them. The starting point is to really understand a woman's healthcare needs and then apply smart technology like AI and predictive analytics to translate the data into actionable outcomes."

In the near future, the company plans on re-launching Birchbox, using the BiomeAI™ platform to give subscribers curated personalized skin and healthcare products. Birchbox was sold to private equity firm, Viking Global — one of FemTec's investors, in 2018.

"I have always believed in the power of women as a community, and I believe this is a natural step in the evolution of Birchbox," says Katia Beauchamp, founder of Birchbox, in the release. "Eleven years ago, we were compelled by an ability to build deep customer relationships month after month. FemTec's vision for the future of women's healthcare was inspirational to me and I could see the opportunity for the thousands of women in the Birchbox community to extend beyond consumer beauty products to a more holistic health and wellness offering."

According to the release, more strategic partnerships with health and wellness companies will be announced soon.

Houston university's MBA program claims coveted top spot of annual ranking

top of class

Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business has raked in yet another top spot on an annual list of top MBA programs.

A new ranking from Poets & Quants, which covers news about business schools, puts Rice at No. 3 among the world's best MBA programs for entrepreneurship. That's up from No. 15 on last year's list.

The Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis grabbed the top spot in this year's ranking. Elsewhere in Texas, the University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business lands at No. 14, the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth at No. 35, and the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University in University Park at No. 36.

Poets & Quants judged the schools on 16 metrics related to their entrepreneurship initiatives.

Poets & Quants says Rice's Jones Graduate School of Business "itself is less than three decades old. But entrepreneurship was baked into its DNA from the get-go. The late Ed Williams and current professor Al Napier are credited with starting the entrepreneurial focus. But it wasn't until 2013 when Jones plucked Yael Hochberg from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management that the program really started to surge."

Rice's entrepreneurship offering combines academic courses and associated programs led by the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Lilie) with programs offered by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship.

"The ability to be a student while working on your startup in class, under the expert guidance of our world-class faculty, gives our Rice entrepreneurs a competitive advantage over any others out there," Hochberg, head of the Rice Entrepreneurship Initiative and academic director of the Rice Alliance, says in a news release.

The Rice Alliance's OwlSpark Accelerator supplements the MBA program. The accelerator serves as a capstone program and launchpad for students seeking to start their own businesses. Meanwhile, the Rice Business Plan Competition, the largest intercollegiate student startup competition in the world, lets students pitch their startups in front of more than 300 judges. And the Rice Alliance Technology Venture Forums allows students to showcase their startups to investors and corporations.

"The ability for students to launch their nascent startups, obtain mentoring from members of the Houston entrepreneurial ecosystem, and then pitch to hundreds of angel investors, venture capitalists, and corporations provides a unique opportunity that cannot be found on many campuses or in many regions," says Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance.

Houston entrepreneur amps up support for diverse businesses with new NAACP partnership

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 107

Carolyn Rodz didn't feel the need to rush into Hello Alice's series B raise. The company, which was co-founded by Rodz and Elizabeth Gore in 2017, closed its series B at $21 million this summer, but Rodz says they did so with a specific goal.

Rodz, who joined the Houston Innovators Podcast this week, says she didn't want to get on the cycle that is round after round of venture capital. Instead, she's prioritizing profitability. And to have that, Hello Alice — platform for small business owners to find capital, networks and business services — needed to be able to reach more small business owners.

"When we made the decision to raise, it was really about making sure that we had good, strong core fundamentals and that we felt like we were putting good money to work where we can scale the business," Rodz says on the show. "It's our belief that the more smalls business owners we can support, it gives us a more unified and stronger voice to go implement systemic change."

The round was led by Virginia-based QED Investors with participation from new investors including Backstage Capital, Green Book Ventures, Harbert Growth Partners, and How Women Invest. It followed what was not only a rollercoaster of a year for the small businesses Hello Alice exists to serve, but also the company itself.

"It changed us permanently as a company," Rodz says of the pandemic.

On the show, Rodz characterizes the time for Hello Alice, which included slimming down the company's overhead, while simultaneously offering thought leadership, support, and resources for companies. Within a few days of the shutdown, Hello Alice was helping to deploy grants to entrepreneurs affected by COVID-19.

As challenging as the pandemic was for Hello Alice, it was validating too. Rodz says the company had a 700 percent increase in revenue and an 1,100 percent acquisition growth.

"We'd never operated in a downcycle, but what we learned through that process was that we're a really valuable resource for business owners when times are great, but we're also a really valuable resource for them when times are tough," she explains.

This validation set the scene for the series B, but following that raise, and, due in part to the doors opened by new investor networks, a new partnership with the NAACP Empowerment Program. Rodz says that the NAACP was given a lot of resources to put to work to build racial equity through economic empowerment. The relationship began with an introduction from Hello Alice investor, Green Book.

"They are real co-builders of this platform with us, so we're making sure we're actually putting money back into those communities," Rodz says of the partnerships Hello Alice has had with the NAACP and other equitable organizations. "NAACP was a huge milestone for us, something we're really proud of as a business. And I think it's a partnership that will continue to grow and make sure that we're aligned with how we're working on how we can build better together.

Rodz shares more on Hello Alice's growth as well as her observations on how Houston has evolved as an innovation ecosystem. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.