Debbie Mercer, a Houston entrepreneur, has designed articles of clothing to empower female athletes. Photo courtesy of Zip Hers

It was race day for avid marathon runner, Debbie Mercer. She and her race pack got up early on a brisk winter's day in Chicago, Illinois, piling on warm layers over their compression tights, to run the Chicago Marathon.

Miles into the race, Mercer and her friends made a pit stop at the portable bathrooms. The female runners stood 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.

"I remember thinking 'I wish there was some way that we could do that too,'" Mercer recalls.

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.

From full-length pants and tights, to 3-inch compression or loose shorts, Zip Hers has established an array of products suitable active women. However, it was a long and winding road to producing such innovative, high-quality products that could be competitive in such a vast industry of activewear, according to Mercer.

Zip Hers in the making

Photo courtesy of Zip Hers

Mercer kicked off prototype production in 2016. She jumped around to various designers and manufacturers, turning away samples that didn't quite fit her vision for the product. Part of the challenge, Mercer describes, was finding a manufacturer who could manipulate stretch and non-stretch fabric in high-quality ways. Maintaining maximum comfort and a sleek design were challenges when the new variable of a zipper was thrown into the mix.

"It took us a while to get the zipper design perfect so that it would fit well and have a design that was comfortable," Mercer says. "We had to find the right manufacturer to find the skill to make these. We found one in Dallas and one in Houston."

Through trial and error, the Zip Hers design team produced a smooth design that coexists seamlessly with the delicate areas that sit around the zipper. They created a custom-made zipper pull, an invisible, thin disk embossed with the Zip Hers logo.

"Women can easily grab it when they're squatting, and don't have to struggle to find it… you can't even tell that a zipper is there. It's very sleek," Mercer says. "They're all handmade. We have to have special fabric for the panels and…have to have special machines to get the seams just right."

By September 2019, the Zip Hers prototype was finalized and officially launched via the company's online retail site.

Game changers

Photo courtesy of Zip Hers

Zip Hers products, the first of their kind, are sure to change the game for female marathon runners, hikers and any other outdoor activity fanatics, Mercer says. With so many athletic brands available on the internet, Mercer hopes that Zip Hers' innovative approach to active wear, and the unique opportunity they offer to women, will help set the brand apart.

"We really don't see any other products out there like ours…As far as apparel goes, we're the only one," Mercer says.

Since launching last year, Zip Hers has watched their clientele expand with predominantly long distance runners and adventure goers. With the 'athleisure' trend on the rise, they're also seeing more women buying leisurewear for yoga classes, or indoor casual use. Mercer says that she hopes Zip Hers will continue to expand to reach female fishers, hunters, climbers, and even first responders, so that women never have to take off their duty belts.

From various race-day experiences of waiting in long bathroom lines as precious time ticks by, to when nature calls during outdoor activities involving co-ed company, Mercer confronted women's realities by proposing an empowering solution for women.

"Ultimately, it gives women a choice. What's more empowering for women than the power to choose what's best for them?" Mercer says.

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10 can't-miss Houston business and innovation events in August

where to be

This month, Houstonians have yet another good batch of in-person and online innovation events — from Zoom panels to conferences — and you and your tech network need to know about them.

Here's a roundup of virtual events not to miss this month — like demo days, workshops, conventions, and more.

Note: This post might be updated to add more events.

August 4 — Bayou Startup Showcase

Join Rice University and the University of Houston to celebrate the launch of the newest startups from OwlSpark and RED Labs. The Eighth Annual Bayou Startup Showcase will have founders from Class 9 showcase their summer progress. Come listen to pitches, network and get a first look at Houston's newest startups.

The event is on Wednesday, August 4, at 6 pm. It's free and happening at The Cannon (1334 Brittmoore Rd). Click here to register.

August 5 — Ask-Me-Anything Event With Carin Luna-Ostaseski: Tackling Roadblocks as a Solopreneur

A Hello Alice alum and first-generation Cuban American, Carin Luna-Ostaseski has truly achieved the unexpected, launching her one-woman operation through crowdfunding and becoming one of the first Hispanic entrepreneurs in history to create a scotch whisky brand. During the virtual event, she'll answer all of your questions, offer tips on navigating uncharted territory in business, and share details on the newly launched Entrepreneurial Spirit Fund by SIA Scotch that's awarding $10,000 grants to small business owners of color.

The event is on Thursday, August 5, at 1:30 pm. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

August 10 — FTE Show: Creating a Digitally Enabled Innovation Community that Works with Jon Lambert and Lawson Gow

The way entrepreneurial communities interact and collaborate today cannot keep pace with the ever increasing speed of innovation. What are best ways to leverage physical and virtual hub interactions to create a digitally enabled innovation community with that works? Join The Cannon Founder Lawson Gow and CEO Jon Lambert as they share specifics around what they are trying, where they are getting traction and where they are most challenged.

The event is on Tuesday, August 10, at noon. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

August 10 — HealthTech Beyond Borders

This online event created to offer business opportunities and global collaboration focused on innovation and technology in medicine between companies in Chile and the United States. Join the International Summit to explore the future and impact of new technologies in the health sector.

The event is on Tuesday, August 10. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

August 11 — Open Project Night: Building an Equitable, Inclusive and Resilient Houston

Impact Hub Houston is proud to bring you a monthly opportunity to come together to work on solutions for some of Houston's most pressing issues. Our city is full of changemakers across all ages, cultures, skillsets, and industries. This is your chance to conned and collaborate for the greater good.

The event is on Wednesday, August 11, at 5 pm. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

August 11 — Women in AI USA: WaiACCELERATE 2021 Demo Day

Ethical leadership & business acceleration program, WaiACCELERAT USA, aims to bridge the gender gap in the industry and targets female innovators looking to start a business in the fields of AI, Machine Learning and Data Science. With the final Pitch Event "ACCELER-AI-TE!" organized in VR, we will celebrate 40+ impact and commercially-proof early-stage startups and their founders

The event is on Wednesday, August 11, at 6 pm. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

August 12-13 — EVOLVE 2021: How AI is Transforming Industry

Join industry leaders from the world's largest and most innovative companies for this 2-day hybrid event featuring both technical and business presentations focused on the real-world value of Artificial Intelligence. Evolve will provide a unique, interactive experience where you will learn from and engage with thought leaders from across North America.

The event is on Thursday, August 12, to Friday, August 13. It's free and happening at Houston Marriott Sugar Land and online. Click here to register.

August 17 — Texas Startup Scene & Ask Me Anything with Wogbe Ofori

Are you an entrepreneur starting a new company? Recently moved your company to Texas? Want to find out how to connect with other entrepreneurs, mentors, and investors in the startup ecosystem? Join Capital Factory to hear an overview from experienced entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, investors, and community partners at Intro to Texas Startup Scene & Ask Me Anything. Get a chance to introduce yourself and ask any questions on entrepreneurship and other related topics.

The event is on Tuesday, August 17, at 2 pm. It's free and happening online Click here to register.

August 18 — Tips for Working with a Gen Z Intern

Ampersand CEO, Allie Danziger, will speak to business owners and founders on the benefits of hiring an intern for your growing business, and tips for managing a remote, or in person, intern. It has to be a lot more than just "getting coffee" in order to maximize the experience on both sides and Allie will talk through tips on clear communication, ideal assignments, best way to structure the relationship and more. She will answer attendees questions, live, and discuss real-life scenarios the aspiring professionals and business partners in Ampersand have faced.

The event is on Wednesday, August 18, at 11 am. It's free and happening at The Cannon (1334 Brittmoore Rd). Click here to register.

August 19 — LatinX in Tech presented by Accenture

Capital Factory is dedicated to increasing diversity in the tech community and making its co-working space an inclusive environment for people of all backgrounds and identities. Attendees can look forward to a keynote address from a serial entrepreneur or investor, insightful discussion sessions, a startup showcase pitch competition, and informative panels.

The event is on Thursday, August 19, at noon. It's free and happening online Click here to register.

August 25 — The Cannon + Dell Pitch Party

Calling all member startups that are fundraising or are planning to open a round in 2021. The Cannon has partnered with Dell to host a virtual Pitch Party. Prizes will include up to $10k in Dell Equipment and the opportunity to pitch in the winners round later this year. If you would like to learn more and be considered to pitch, please fill out the application here.

The event is on Wednesday, August 25, at noon. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

Rice University bioengineers create insulin-producing medical device

health tech

A team of bioengineers at Houston's own Rice University have created an implant that can produce insulin for Type 1 diabetics. The device is being created by using 3D printing and smart biomaterials.

Omid Veiseh, an assistant professor of bioengineering, and Jordan Miller, associate professor of bioengineering, have been working on the project for three years and have received support from JDRF by way of a grant. Veiseh has a decade of experience developing biomaterials that protect implanted cell therapies from the immune system an Miller has spent more than 15 years specializing in 3D print tissues with vasculature, or networks of blood vessels.

"If we really want to recapitulate what the pancreas normally does, we need vasculature," Veiseh says in a news release. "And that's the purpose of this grant with JDRF. The pancreas naturally has all these blood vessels, and cells are organized in particular ways in the pancreas. Jordan and I want to print in the same orientation that exists in nature."

The challenge with Type 1 diabetes is balancing insulin intake, and studies estimate that less than a third of Type 1 diabetics in the U.S. are able to achieve target blood glucose levels consistently. Veiseh and Miller are working toward demonstrating that their implants can properly regulate blood glucose levels of diabetic mice for at least six months. To do that, they'll need to give their engineered beta cells the ability to respond to rapid changes in blood sugar levels.

"We must get implanted cells in close proximity to the bloodstream so beta cells can sense and respond quickly to changes in blood glucose," Miller says, adding that the insulin-producing cells should be no more than 100 microns from a blood vessel. "We're using a combination of pre-vascularization through advanced 3D bioprinting and host-mediated vascular remodeling to give each implant several shots at host integration."

Another challenge these experts are facing is a potential delay that can happen if the implant is too slow to respond to high or low blood sugar levels.

"Addressing that delay is a huge problem in this field," Veiseh says. "When you give the mouse — and ultimately a human — a glucose challenge that mimics eating a meal, how long does it take that information to reach our cells, and how quickly does the insulin come out?"

By incorporating blood vessels in their implant, he and Miller hope to allow their beta-cell tissues to behave in a way that more closely mimics the natural behavior of the pancreas.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

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

Will Womble, CEO of Umbrage

Startup founder on how Houston has evolved as a software hub — and why there's no better place to be

Will Womble joins this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy

Will Womble describes his company, Umbrage, as fiercely loyal to Houston. The business, which publicly launched earlier this year, supports companies large and small with their software design, development, and more. Womble says he saw a void in Houston for this type of company, and he's attempting to fill it.

"What makes us different is speed to market — we're all onshore. We're all Houston-based, with the exception of five of our 40 employees," Womble says. "Houston was our focus and mission."

Womble has seen Houston evolve as an innovation ecosystem over the years, and now the game has changed. Click here to read more.

Katie Mehnert, founder and CEO of ALLY Energy

Katie Mehnert's company, ALLY Energy, has made an acquisition. Photo via Katie Mehnert

ALLY Energy announced it has acquired Clean Energy Social, a jobs and networking community for the clean energy industry. The deal expands ALLY's platform into the solar, wind, power, oil and gas, power and utilities, biofuels, hydrogen, geothermal, carbon capture, and other sectors that make up the energy transition.

"It's time to tackle the enormous challenge of the energy transition by connecting companies and candidates to resources so we can reduce the time and capital it takes to recruit and reskill," says Katie Mehnert, founder and CEO of ALLY Energy, in a news release. "We can speed up decarbonization by centralizing resources into one digital experience. This acquisition is a much-needed human capital investment to advance net-zero goals." Click here to read more.

James Reinstein, president and CEO of Saranas

Saranas closed its series B round this week. Photo via Saranas.com

Saranas Inc. announced that it closed a $12.8 million series B investment led by Wisconsin-based Baird Capital, the venture capital and global private equity arm of Baird, a global company with a location in Houston. Austin-based S3 Ventures also supported the round. The company will use the funds to continue its clinical trials, per a news release.

"We are pleased to announce this round of funding led by Baird Capital," says Saranas President and CEO James Reinstein in the release. "It underscores the importance of real-time monitoring of bleeding complications and our opportunity to accelerate the commercialization of Early Bird. We look forward to expanding our clinical evidence through prospective clinical trials and launching next generation products, including Bird on a Wire, to address a much broader range of endovascular procedures." Click here to read more.