Houston — much like the rest of the world — has a growing freelance economy. A local innovator has created a platform for freelancers to find work. Photo courtesy of Common Desk

By 2027, freelancers will account for the majority of the American workforce — and Houston is already well represented by the freelance space.

According to a recent study, Houston is home to 117,260 skilled freelancers who generated more than $4.1 billion in revenue in 2018. This burgeoning environment for freelancers presents many opportunities for innovations in the tech world, as one Houston entrepreneur has already discovered.

Yared Akalou, founder-and-CEO of Alcove Group and self-described designer-focused entrepreneur, released his third innovation catering to freelancers of the Houston area. His digital solutions platform, IAmOther50, assists freelancers with securing new clients by sharing their personal stories rather than just submitting their professional experience, it uses videos and articles to promote the work of a freelancer and connect them to their next client.

"I am really on a mission," Akalou tells InnovationMap. "I have been talking about the future of work for over a decade now. The paradigm will change to viewing work as a service, so it is important to tell a freelancer's story through a more engaging and novel way."

At first glance, the digital platform seems like a departure for Akalou who in 2017 founded Alcove, a portable laptop case that serves as a private workspace for freelancers to use amid coffee shops or coworking spaces. However, IAmOther50 serves as a distinctly separate yet integral part of his innovation landscape.

"These projects have been a combination of my focus and research," says Akalou. "My new platform works hand in hand with Alcove, supporting the mission to help people stay productive from anywhere."

The digital platform serves to capture the brand of the freelancer along with their personality and experience. It lives at the intersection of popular social media platforms and professional platforms such as LinkedIn, except just for freelancers in the Houston area. Currently, any freelancing professional in the Houston area can join for free by filling out a survey that customizes their goals for their profile.

"IAmOther50 provides information in a contextual way," says Akalou. "We have this guiding principle of delivering value even before the prospective client contacts the freelancer for an interview or potential position. It's about going beyond just a resume of what you've done and showcasing how you add value right now."

Akalou, who is also one of the mentors in The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, is focused on elevating the professional profiles of many freelancers, including those outside the Houston area. He is aiming to grow the platform to a self-service platform that can connect freelancers to clients all over the biggest metropolitan areas soon.


From after-alcohol relief to a smart pillbox, these Houston-founded companies have innovative holiday gifts to offer. Images via Instagram

8 gift ideas from Houston startups

innovative gifts

It's holiday gift crunch time right about now, and whether you're scrambling for gifts or planning how you're going to treat yourself, Houston startups have innovative options for you.

All of the following gift ideas have a Houston tie, which makes for an extra special gift within a gift. While they are all available online, some might specify it's too late to ship by Christmas.

Here are eight ideas for gifts made by Houston startups.

A smart pillbox to make taking medicine cool

EllieGrid, the smart pillbox, makes it easier — and way cooler — to take your medicine. EllieGrid/Instagram

Never would you ever think to get a loved one a pillbox for Christmas — but EllieGrid is not your ordinary pillbox. The medical device has been completely reimagined by its Houston founders. The box, which is synced with a smartphone, will light up when it's time to take a dose. The lights indicate which compartment to pull from and how many pills to take. The app notifies you too, and, if you're gifting this to someone you want to stay on top of, you can actually opt in to receive the notifications and can be alerted if there's not compliance.

The box is available online for $149.

A personal, creative card that doubles as a work of art

tellinga

Tellinga creates artistic and personal cards for every occasion. Courtesy of Tellinga

There's giving a card, then there's doing even more than that. Houston-based Tellinga isn't just a maker of greeting cards; it's in the business of storytelling, and customers can have personalized artworks delivered right to their mailboxes — a site for reclaiming, founder Alex Kurkowski says, from the dread of bills and marketing materials.

"I'm trying to tap back into the tangible, physical and real side of life," Kurkowski says.

The cards begin at $9.99 and are perfect for reaching that loved one who you don't get to spend time with this holiday season.

A portable workspace for the friend on the go

Alcove

Alcove transforms from a laptop case to a private workspace in just a few moves. Courtesy of Alcove

It's a mobile world we're living in, but that does not mean you have to sacrifice comfort, design, and privacy. Houston-based Alcove has designed a solution in its laptop-carrier-turned-workspace. The item can convert into a productive work area in seconds — the wings pop out, the top lifts, and a kickstand holds the case upright while ergonomically holds up the laptop at a 40- to 45-degree angle. Founder Yared Akalou even consulted with an acoustic engineer to ensure the materials are optimized for users.

Alcove's items are available online in two colors in two sizes, starting at $49.

Skincare products from a Houston success story

drunk elephant

Houston-founded Drunk Elephant had a great year this year with a huge exit to an international company. Photo via drunkelephant.com

A couple months ago, a Houston skincare company was acquired in an international $845 million deal. So, while Drunk Elephant is far from just a local startup, you can give the gift of beauty this holiday season that is also a nod to a Houston success story.

Houstonian Tiffany Masterson, founder and chief creative officer, started the company in Houston in 2012. The quality of products and playful branding attracted a broad range of demographics as the company experienced exponential growth.

"I started this business as an industry outsider, and from the beginning I did things a little differently," Masterson says in a news release. "To join with a powerhouse beauty company such as Shiseido that leads the industry in innovation and global excellence is a dream come true for me and for Drunk Elephant. We share similar values, most importantly an unwavering commitment to the consumer. I chose a partner who will let the brand continue to be itself, with the same formulations and the same team."

Online, Drunk Elephant sells a few options for holiday gifts. The set pictured is on sale for $62.

An anti-stink workout shirt for the fitness freak

The perfect anti-stink workout wear is designed right here in Houston. Courtesy of Accel Lifestyle

Any devote workout fanatic deserves an opportunity to have workout clothes that don't smell up their entire laundry basket. Houston-based Accel Lifestyle, founded by chemist Megan Eddings, has a solution. The clothing is made with an anti-stink material created patented by Eddings. The pieces are also sustainably and ethically made in the United States. For every shirt bought, the company also plants five trees as a way of giving back.

Men and women's tops are available online in different styles from $59 to $89.

A creative cocktail that fizzes

What started as an idea to get her kids to drink more water has turned into a profitable party favor company. Courtesy of My Drink Bomb

The ability to make bar-quality cocktails at home has never been easier — or as fun — now that Houston-based My Drink Bomb is in business. The company, which has seen great success in the wedding favor industry, creates drink bombs that fizz like bath bombs that are packed with flavors and ingredients. All the user has to do is just add water and, if so inclined, their liquor of choice. Mocktails and kid-friendly options are available too.

The bombs are available online in two-packs for $12.50, but prices per bomb drop as you order larger packs.

A foolproof hangover cure

cheers

Cheers has a solution for after-alcohol recovery. Photo via Instagram/cheershealth

Hangovers are never fun and seem to just get worse as the years go by. Houston-based Cheers has created a suite of products that help you when you're in recovery mode. The key ingredient, Dihydromyricetin, a natural extract — like caffeine to coffee. This year, the company even has gift sets to choose from where you can even customize a message to your recipient.

The sets range from just $20 to $80, which includes all three products, and are available online.

Timeless table pieces for any occasion

rigby

This isn't your grandmother's tableware company. Courtesy of Rigby

A good tableware set comes into your life once in a lifetime — and usually that occasion is from a wedding registry. But a Houston entrepreneur wants to change that way of thinking. Sara Kelly created her direct-to-consumer tableware brand called Rigby, which features handcrafted stoneware dishes, glassware, and a flatware line.

"With Rigby I want to encourage individuals in all life stages to feel at home with the present," says Kelly in a news release. "You shouldn't feel like you have to wait for a big lifetime event, like getting married or buying a house, to purchase tableware and other items that make your time at home more enjoyable."

The products, which are sold in sets, range from $19 to $280. They are available online, as are gift card options.

It's not easy getting green. Getty Images

3 tips for a successful crowdfunding campaign

Know before you hit go

Kickstarter is a widely popular crowdfunding platform that helps people to raise money and awareness for their creative projects. While known for product-focused campaigns, musicians to film producers have also achieved success on the platform. In September of 2017, my Houston-based startup GetAlcove.com launched our first kickstarter campaign. While we exceeded our campaign goal, it was a very intense 45 day campaign. Let's consider the statistics:


Yes, almost 70 percent of projects fail. Don't fret. Understanding how to effectively plan and launch your campaign will increase your chances for meeting your campaign goals.

By March 2017, my co-founder and I received enough customer feedback to warrant the pursuit of developing Alcove Workstation™ further. We were attracted to crowdfunding as it presented a viable option for validating our concept with a wider audience while also raising the initial working capital necessary to mass producing Alcove. After researching the various crowdfunding platforms, we decided on Kickstarter as it is well known for launching product-focused campaigns and has a strong brand that we could leverage during our marketing efforts. While we read countless publications on how to prepare for our crowdfunding campaign, our experience on Kickstarter garnered three key lessons.

1. Spend up to one year prepping before launching your campaign.

I can't stress this enough. After we decided to launch, we spent six months engaging with our target audience and obtaining verbal commitments from friends and family and past colleagues to back our project. We also presented at local events and evangelized our brand via social media marketing. In hindsight, we should have spent additional time finalizing the production ready sample of our product prior to launching.

Once you launch your campaign, the clock starts ticking and you'll need deliver fast. Due to a myriad of issues with remote manufacturing, we inevitably missed our original ship date. Fortunately, the kickstarter community is forgiving and recognizes the inherent challenges with bringing a product to market. Even so, I recommend launching your campaign as close to your final concept as possible to reduce unforeseen delays with manufacturing and shipping logistics.

Once you launch your campaign, the clock starts ticking and you'll need deliver fast.

2. Determine which crowdfunding platform is right for your project.

There are four main types of crowdfunding platforms. Kickstarter and Indiegogo are rewards-based whereas platforms like GoFundMe are donation-based. More recently, equity, and debt based platforms like Houston's NextSeed have garnered attention from campaigners seeking alternative methods to raising funds and deferring payment.

Take the time to read about each type and contact each platform for specifics about how they will support your campaign during and after campaign. Indiegogo does a solid job of highlighting their partnerships with vendors that can assist you during different stages of your campaign; offering marketing promotion, direct links to manufacturing vendors, and additional funding options even after your campaign ends.

The next step to determining the right platform for your project is to search for similar "like" products. If you are launching the most revolutionary ear buds on the planet, then you want to ensure people are backing ear buds or similar product on the platform/s you are considering. A simple search on each site will pull up all ear bud projects to date. Then, you can quickly assess the patterns of the most successful vs. unsuccessful campaigns.

3. Launch the right campaign goal, with the right team, at the right time.

This is both important and hard to determine. Let's break it down.

The right campaign goal
The campaign goal is the total dollar amount you want to raise by the end of your campaign. The goal amount can be adjusted once on Kickstarter but I recommend that you keep it low — $5,000-$10,000 — to ensure you meet your goal within two days — three days max. Keep in mind you are competing with four to five thousand live projects at any given time. If you make your campaign goal, Kickstarter's algorithm pushes your project up the list and you have a good shot of being listed or even featured on the front page of Kickstarter's website. If you make your campaign goal too high and don't meet your goal with those couple days, Kickstarter's algorithm pushes your project down the list. If I recall, our campaign went from approximately 115 to 800 after day two. Each day that passes, your project is pushed even further down the list of over 4000 projects. What this means to your project is that unless you have a serious marketing engine behind you, no one will see your project outside of your immediate contact list or followers on social media. This is where hiring the right team of marketers and PR can be invaluable.

The right team
Think of the development of your crowdfunding campaign as a micro-enterprise site that requires the right mix of talent to build out. Funded startups with established teams and products in market, for instance, are launching on Kickstarter as a way to increase market awareness of their new products. For the boot-strapped startups with small teams, leverage your strengths and hire for gaps in skills to ensure you develop the right communications, pricing strategy, and overall layout of your page. To be clear, a production quality video is an absolute must.

The right time
Finally, consider the timing of your launch to align with complimentary events or holidays. If your product is focused on education/learning, the obvious timeframe would be to launch during back to school. Another way to galvanize your target audience is to identify popular conferences for your industry. For our campaign, we aligned with the Tech Disrupt conference in San Francisco and literally went live on Kickstarter directly from our exhibit booth!

While I can not make any guarantees for your campaign's success, I am confident that if you apply these tips, you will be that much closer to achieving your campaign goals.

------

Yared Akalou is the founder of Houston-based Alcove.

These three entrepreneurs are in the business of solving problems. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Entrepreneurs see a problem, and solve it. This week's three innovators to know are no different. All three have personal stories of realizing there's something not right — and there's something they could do about it.

Here are this week's innovators with small businesses and big growth plans.

Yared Akalou, founder of Alcove Group

Courtesy of Yared Akalou

Yared Akalou found the perfect job for himself — only problem was that it was in San Diego. Uninterested in moving his wife and young daughter across the country, he decided to prove to his new employer that he could handle most of the job's responsibilities remotely, while traveling when needed.

It wasn't easy, and his user experience-focused mind realized there was a concentration problem when you worked remotely in public spaces. Now, with Alcove, he's created a solution. Alcove is a laptop case that pops up into a workspace that increases focus and privacy.

Alcove is available online, but Akalou has lofty goals of partnering with large companies to get Alcove in the hands of consultants, for instance.

Megan Eddings, founder of Accel Lifestyle

Courtesy of Accel Lifestyle

Entrepreneurs have to have a certain amount of positivity when it comes to all the challenges they face, and Megan Eddings has a surplus of both challenges and positivity. She's fought for years to design the perfect fabric that doesn't hold on to bacteria and sweat smells for a line of athleticwear she's creating. The chemist-turned-medical sales professional is now close to getting her company, Accel Lifestyle, off the ground.

When she's not focusing on Accel, she likes to inspire others to follow their passions and take a leap of faith like she did at speaking engagements or on social media. She even inspired her husband, Kyle, to start something of his own too.

Josh Feinberg, co-founder of Tenavox

Courtesy of Tenavox

For years, Josh Feinberg was a broker focusing on The Woodlands when he realized there was a huge need in the commercial real estate sector that brokers weren't able to fill. The equation was just off — there just aren't enough brokers to manage the millions of available square feet of space in major metros.

Feinberg created Tenavox with his business partner, Marissa Limsiaco, who is based in Austin. Tenavox is a website where small business owners can find space that fits their needs. Tenavox can benefits both sides of the transaction: entrepreneurs are only shown compatable properties and brokers are only getting tenant leads that are serious contenders.

The site also has VoxLink, which is a directory of industry experts — tenant brokers, moving companies, lawyers, etc. Feinberg hopes to expand to 50 metros in the next five years.

Alcove transforms from a laptop case to a private workspace in just a few moves. Courtesy of Alcove

Houston entrepreneur creates a portable workspace for productivity on the go

my space

By 2020, almost half of the American workforce will be freelance or contract employees. To prepare for this new way of doing business, innovators have been abuzz with coming up with software and AI workplace solutions.

However, Yared Akalou, a Houston entrepreneur, took a step back from the digital solutions sprouting up everywhere, and he designed a tangible tool for remote workers to have their own private workspace amid a loud coffee house or busy coworking space.

Alcove goes from laptop case to personal workspace with just a few moves. The wings pop out, the top lifts, and a kickstand holds the case upright while ergonomically holds up the laptop at a 40- to 45-degree angle. Akalou even consulted with an acoustic engineer to ensure the materials are optimized for users.

"Our goal is threefold," Akalou says, "to enhance privacy, increase focus, and improve communications within your laptop."

Akalou formed his LLC in March 2017 and went straight into prototypes and market research, before launching his Kickstarter campaign in September 2017 from his booth at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco. He more than met his goal of $20,000 and just completed all the preorders for Alcove.

Now, Alcove has direct presales available for order on its website, which is relaunching this month. However, Akalou has big plans for what he wants to do next. First, he wants to tap into distributors to carry his product — the Best Buys and Brookstones of the world. Next, he wants to have B2B partnerships with big companies to get Alcove in the hands of their employees.

"When you start as a consultant for Accenture for example," Akalou says, "they give you a company laptop and a briefcase. That briefcase ends up in the back of your closet. Alcove would be a more useful product."

In addition to getting this current product on shelves and in the hands of remote workers, Akalou has a product roadmap for several other tools. He wants Alcove to be a complete line of hardware, so to speak, for workplace solutions.


Alcove can even be its own shoulder bag when you're on the go.Courtesy of Alcove

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston hospital joins the metaverse with new platform

now online

Houston Methodist has launched a platform that is taking medical and scientific experts and students into the metaverse.

The MITIEverse, a new app focused on health care education and training, provides hands-on practice, remote assistance from experienced clinicians, and more. The app — named for the Houston Methodist Institute for Technology, Innovation and Education, aka MITIE — was created in partnership with FundamentalVR and takes users into virtual showcase rooms, surgical simulations, and lectures from Houston Methodist faculty, as well as collaborators from across the world.

“This new app brings the hands-on education and training MITIE is known for to a new virtual audience. It could be a first step toward building out a medical metaverse,” says Stuart Corr, inventor of the MITIEverse and director of innovation systems engineering at Houston Methodist, in a news release.

Image courtesy of Houston Methodist

The hospital system's DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center has created a virtual showcase room on the app, and users can view Houston Methodist faculty performing real surgeries and then interact with 3D human models.

"We view the MITIEverse as a paradigm-shifting platform that will offer new experiences in how we educate, train, and interact with the health community,” says Alan Lumsden, M.D., medical director of Houston Methodist DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center, in the release.

“It essentially democratizes access to health care educators and innovators by breaking down physical barriers. There’s no need to travel thousands of miles to attend a conference when you can patch into the MITIEverse," he continues.

Image courtesy of Houston Methodist

Houston doctors get approval for low-cost COVID vaccine abroad

green light

A Houston-born COVID-19 vaccine has gotten the go-ahead to be produced and distributed in Indonesia.

PT Bio Farma, which oversees government-owned pharmaceutical manufacturers in Indonesia, says it’s prepared to make 20 million doses of the IndoVac COVID-19 vaccine this year and 100 million doses a year by 2024. This comes after the vaccine received authorization from the Indonesian Food and Drug Authority for emergency use in adults.

With more than 275 million residents, Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country.

IndoVac was created by the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and Baylor College of Medicine. Drs. Peter Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi lead the vaccine project. Bio Farma is licensing IndoVac from BCM Ventures, the commercial group at the Baylor College of Medicine.

“Access to vaccines in the developing world is critical to the eradication of this virus,” Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, says in a news release.

Aside from distributing the vaccine in Indonesia, Bio Farma plans to introduce it to various international markets.

“The need for a safe, effective, low-cost vaccine for middle- to low-income countries is central to the world’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Bottazzi, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and associate dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor.

“Without widespread inoculation of populations in the developing world, which must include safe, effective booster doses, additional [COVID-19] variants will develop, hindering the progress achieved by currently available vaccines in the United States and other Western countries.”

Bio Farma says it has completed Phase 1 and Phase 2 clinical trials for IndoVac and is wrapping up a Phase 3 trial.

IndoVac is a version of the patent-free, low-cost Corbevax vaccine, developed in Houston and dubbed “The World’s COVID-19 Vaccine.” The vaccine formula can be licensed by a vaccine producer in any low- or middle-income country, which then can take ownership of it, produce it, name it, and work with government officials to distribute it, Hotez told The Texas Tribune in February.

Among donors that have pitched in money for development of the vaccine are the Houston-based MD Anderson and John S. Dunn foundations, the San Antonio-based Kleberg Foundation, and Austin-based Tito’s Vodka.

“During 2022, we hope to partner with the World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies to vaccinate the world. We believe that global vaccine equity is finally at hand and that it is the only thing that can bring the COVID pandemic to an end,” Hotez and Bottazzi wrote in a December 2021 article for Scientific American.

Houston research: How best to deliver unexpected news as a company

houston voices

According to Forbes, the volume of mergers and acquisitions in 2021 was the highest on record, and 2022 has already seen a number of major consolidation attempts. Microsoft’s acquisition of video game company Activision Blizzard was the biggest gaming industry deal in history, according to Reuters. JetBlue recently won the bid over Frontier Airlines to merge with Spirit Airlines. And, perhaps most notably, Elon Musk recently backed out of an attempt to acquire Twitter.

It can be hard to predict how markets will react to such high-profile deals (and, in Elon Musk and Twitter’s case, whether or not the deal will even pan out). But Rice Business Professor Haiyang Li and Professor Emeritus Robert Hoskisson, along with Jing Jin of the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, have found that companies can take advantage of these deals to buffer the effects of other news.

The researchers looked at 7,575 mergers and acquisitions from 2001 to 2015, with a roughly half-and-half split between positive and negative stock market reactions. They found that when there’s a negative reaction to a deal, companies have two strategies for dealing with it. If it’s a small negative reaction, companies will release positive news announcements in an attempt to soften the blow. But when the reaction is really bad, companies actually tend to announce more negative news afterward. Specifically, companies released 18% less positive news and 52% more negative news after a bad market reaction.

This may seem counterintuitive, but there’s a method to the madness, and it all has to do with managing expectations. If people are lukewarm on a company due to a merger or acquisition, it’s possible to sway public opinion with unrelated good news. When the backlash is severe, though, a little bit of good PR won’t be enough to change people’s minds. In this case, companies release more bad news because it’s one of their best chances to do so without making waves in the future. If people already think poorly of a company due to a recent deal, more bad news isn’t great, but it doesn’t come as a surprise, either. Therefore, it’s easier to ignore.

It might make more sense to just keep quiet if the market reaction to a deal is bad, and this study found that most companies do. However, this only applies when releasing more news would make a mildly bad situation worse. If things are already bad enough that the company can’t recover with good news, it can still make the best out of a bad situation by offloading more bad news when the damage will be minimal. Companies are legally obligated to disclose business-related news or information with shareholders and with the public. If it’s bad news, they like to share it when the public is already upset about a deal, instead of releasing the negative news when there are no other distractions. In this case the additional negative news is likely to get more play in the media when disclosed by itself.

But what happens when people get excited about a merger or acquisition? In these cases, it also depends on how strong the sentiment is. If the public’s reaction is only minimally positive, companies may opt to release more good news in hopes of making the reaction stronger. When the market is already enthusiastic about the deal, though, companies won’t release more positive news. The researchers found that after an especially positive market reaction to a deal, companies indeed released 12% less positive news but 56% more negative news. Also, one could argue that the contrasting negative news makes the good news on the acquisition look even better. This may be important especially if the acquisition is a significant strategic move.

There are several reasons why a company wouldn’t continue to release positive news after a good press day and strong market reaction. First of all, they want to make sure that a rise in market price is attributed to the deal alone, and not any irrelevant news. A positive reaction to a deal also gives companies another opportunity to disclose bad news at a time when it will get less attention. If the bad news does get attention, the chances are better that stakeholders will go easy on them — a little bit of bad press is forgivable when the good news outshines it.

Companies may choose to release no news after a positive reaction to a merger or acquisition, the same way they might opt to stay quiet after backlash. They’re less likely to release positive news when stakeholders are already happy, preferring to save that news for the next time they need it, either to offset a negative reaction or strengthen a weak positive reaction.

Mergers and acquisitions can produce unpredictable market reactions, so it’s important for companies to be prepared for a variety of outcomes. In fact, Jin, Li and Hoskisson found that the steps taken by companies before deals were announced didn’t have much effect on the public’s reaction. They found that it’s more important for companies to make the best out of that reaction, whatever it turns out to be.

The researchers also found that, regardless of whether the market reaction was positive or negative, as long as the reaction was strong, companies could use the opportunity to hide smaller pieces of bad news in the shadow of a headline-making deal. Overall, the magnitude of the reaction mattered more than the type of reaction. People tend to have stronger reactions to unexpected news, though, so companies prefer to release negative news when market expectations are already low.

These findings are relevant beyond merger announcements, of course; they also point to strategies that could be useful in everyday communications. A key takeaway is that negative information is less upsetting when people already expect bad things — or when it comes after much bigger, and much better, news. Bad news is always hard to deliver, but this research gives us a few ways to soften the blow.

------

This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Jing Jin, Haiyang Li and Robert Hoskisson.