4 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Aleece Hobson of HX Venture Fund, Denis Akhiyarov of AiKYNETIX, and Sean Harkins and Brien Beach of AMPD Labs. Photos courtesy

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

Aleece Hobson, venture partner for the HX Venture Fund

Aleece Hobson of HX Venture Fund shares what people can expect from Venture Houston on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of HXVF

Today is a big day for Aleece Hobson — venture partner for the HX Venture Fund, a fund of funds investing in venture capital firms across the country that have interest in investing in Houston companies. She joined the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to discuss Venture Houston, which takes place today, and why it is so important to HXVF to showcase Houston.

"Houston is a destination for innovation — we are not a flyover city," she says on the show. Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Denis Akhiyarov, CEO and co-founder of AiKYNETIX

Houston-based AiKYNETIX is equipping runners with high-tech tracking tools. Image courtesy of AiKYNETIX

Houstonain Denis Akhiyarov wanted to design a way to easily improve running performance. He founded AiKYNETIX uses real-time technology to provide a new option for runners on treadmills.

“Runners spend a lot of time, energy and money to run better,” says Akhiyarov, CEO and co-founder of the company. “In my personal life with training for nine marathons, I’ve seen limitations with wearables, they don’t actually track running form while running. Overall, our technology tracks not only your basic parameters but it can also analyze the human running form while in motion.”

AiKYNETIX, which was founded in January 2021, is positioned to replace power meters and can make a treadmill smarter. It has ability to plug into interactive video platforms for sports and serves as a much cheaper and more widely available analysis tool outside of motion capture labs, he says. Click here to read more.

Sean Harkins and Brien Beach, co-founders of AMPD Labs

Sean Harkins and Brien Beach opened AmPd Labs' space in the Heights last month. Images via ampdlabs.llc

Last year, Sean Harkins introduced his friend Brien Beach to the world of additive manufacturing, and together the duo saw a business opportunity not only for themselves — but also for all of Houston.

Harkins had been working in 3D printing and additive manufacturing — the process of creating an object by building it one layer at a time — for the last decade and studied industrial design at the University of Houston. Working together, Harkins and Beach launched AmPd Labs, Houston’s next-generation additive manufacturing facility for industrial design and production.

“There is a hill to climb with market acceptance, but we want to be the champions of that and Houston is just a great place to start this because it's the largest industrial city in America and there's so much industry here and there's tons of engineers in this community,” says Beach. “Houston is such a business-forward place. A ‘how can I help you’ type of business place.” Click here to read more.

Aleece Hobson of HX Venture Fund shares what people can expect from Venture Houston on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of HXVF

Innovator introduces Houston's tech scene to leading VCs, entrepreneurs

houston innovators podcast episode 150

In less than a week, hundreds of innovators and investors — from Houston and beyond — will congregate for a day full of networking, thought leadership, and more. And the spotlight is on Houston.

Aleece Hobson — venture partner for the HX Venture Fund, a fund of funds investing in venture capital firms across the country that have interest in investing in Houston companies — joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Venture Houston and why it is so important to HXVF to showcase Houston.

"Houston is a destination for innovation — we are not a flyover city," she says on the show.

The inaugural edition of Venture Houston took place virtually last year — and the turnout shocked HXVF and its team.

"We wanted to bring together prominent VCs alongside the corporates in Houston and include Houston-based founders and get those three communities talking and engaging. And to show all of Houston and outside of Houston what the city's tech ecosystem was all about," Hobson says of last year's event. "We weren't quite sure what to expect with that first event. We thought we'd get 300 or so participants."

The event actually attracted over 2,500 registrants from across the nation, and accomplished what the organization wanted to do, Hobson says.

Now, the event is able to return — this time in an in-person capacity — at the Ion on Sept. 13. Hobson says her team is expecting several hundred attendees and even has plans for overflow tickets.

The full day of programing will kick off with a conversation with Goop founder and Academy Award-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow in conversation with Dana Settle, co-founder and managing partner of New York-based Greycroft. Goop is among Greycroft's portfolio companies, and HXVF invested in Greycroft in 2020.

Venture Houston is the ultimate showcase for HXVF, bringing together the three entities that make up the model — the limited partners and corporations that invest in HXVF, the venture capital firms that receive investment from HXVF, and the founders from Houston that then see new investments from HXVF's portfolio funds. The three types of players will all be a part of the day as speakers, panelists, and guests.

"We hope that all the attendees can understand how the innovation ecosystem comes together with these three groups," Hobson explains.

Hobson shares more details about the event on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

This week's Houston innovators to know includes Aleece Hobson of HX Venture Fund, Leland Putterman of Trivie, and Eleonore Cluzel of gBETA Houston. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of who's who in Houston innovation include the HX Venture Fund's newest team member, a startup founder whose app is gamifying corporate training, and a Houston accelerator leader who's pivoted to digital.

Aleece Hobson, venture partner at the HX Venture Fund

Aleece Hobson joined the HX Venture Fund as venture partner. Photo courtesy of HXVF

The HX Venture Fund has expanded its portfolio of venture capital finds its invested in, and with that came a new team member for the fund of funds. Managing director Sandy Guitar — who runs the fund with Guillermo Borda — brought on Houston native Aleece Hobson as venture partner.

"Aleece joining is a phenomenal step for us — a dedicated resource and venture partner on activation," says Guitar on the hire. "I think it speaks to the seriousness of purpose we have to make this not just an investment platform, but one that moves the needle on Houston." Read more.

Leland Putterman, co-founder of Trivie Inc.

Trivie, which gamifies corporate training, has launched a new way for employees to connect with remote learning amid the pandemic. Photo via Trivie.com

Texas-based corporate training tool Trivie already had many clients with needs for safety training, COVID-19 has brought new compliance guidelines to the forefront of every industry. Currently, Trivie has made the CDC's coronavirus guidelines available to all of its clients for no additional charge to be used across their entire employment bases.

Additionally, with most of America's workforce working from home, Putterman expressed that it's common for employees to feel disconnected.

"The only way to maintain that company culture and close communication with confidence is to use something like Trivie," he says. "There's no feedback loop right now. The only way to bridge that gap is to have something like Trivie that's the glue." Read more.

Eléonore Cluzel, director of gBETA Houston

Eléonore Cluzel, director of gBETA Houston, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share how the cohort has been going — and to introduce each member of the inaugural cohort. Photo courtesy of gBETA

Things aren't going according to plan for Eléonor Cluzel, who is running the inaugural gBETA Houston cohort virtually. While it isn't ideal, Cluzel shares on the Houston Innovator's Podcast how she's adapted the program for digital — as well as introduces the five Houston companies in the program.

"Going virtual was a really good pivot on our end. I think that the cohort has adjusted very well," Cluzel says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It is tough. They put tremendous effort into it and I'm proud to be working with them." Read more.

The HX Venture Fund reached a proof point of its model — one that arrived much earlier than expected. Getty Images

Houston's fund of funds expands its portfolio and team after reaching benchmark with local investment

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When a Houston software startup closed a $17 million series B funding round, it was a big win for more than just the startup. Not only was the deal among the few Houston venture capital deals to happen amid the COVID-19 outbreak, but it represented a proof of concept for Houston's fund of funds.

The HX Venture Fund was founded in October of 2018 to encourage investment into local startups by raising corporate funds and investing into a portfolio of non-Houston venture capital funds that show an interest in Houston. HXVF hit a milestone last month when Liongard, a software-as-a-service company based in Houston, closed its fundraising round led by Updata Partners — one of HXVF's portfolio funds.

To date, the HXVF has reviewed over 150 venture capital funds and invested in eight: Austin-based LiveOak Venture Partners and Next Coast Ventures, Washington D.C.-based Updata Partners, Chicago-based Baird Capital, San Francisco-based VenBio, and Boston-based .406 Ventures, OpenView Venture Partners, and Material Impact Fund. Since each investment, those funds have invested in over 30 startups that are also included in the greater HXVF portfolio.

These HXVF portfolio funds represent various stages — from seed to growth stages, like Liongard — and across industries, from software and hardware to life sciences — "the whole gamut," says Sandy Guitar, managing director of HXVF.

"What that means now is there is over $2 billion of venture capital that actively has Houston on its radar right now," Guitar tells InnovationMap.

The Liongard investment represents a proof point for the fund of funds — one that comes earlier than expected. HXVF invested in Updata less than six months before Liongard closed its round with Updata's lead investment. Guitar says she expected to get to this milestone within 18 to 24 months of the fund of funds deploying capital — and it's happened in just nine months.

"You have this trickle down effect, where it can easily take two to three years to get your capital at work," Guitar says, explaining that HXVF first has to raise funds from its corporate partners, then vet and invest in the VCs, and, finally, wait to see how those funds invest.

Of course, the pandemic has not exactly helped the growth of Houston's startup and venture capital sectors. While COVID-19 has allowed growth in some sectors — telemedicine, for instance — it has limited the opportunities for startups to test the market.

"To build great startups, a startup has to do what I call 'run into walls.' They have to test the market, get it wrong, and pivot. The problem right now is there are no walls to run into," Guitar says. "You have to have an actively running economy and market for proof points of what's working and what's not working."

Meanwhile, Guitar observes, VC investors have limited their activity to their own networks due to the inability to meet face-to-face with unfamiliar startups. Comparing the VC-startup relationship to a marriage, you wouldn't meet and marry someone you've never met in person just like investors wouldn't fund an entrepreneur they have only ever met via Zoom.

"A lot of VCs are staying in their known networks in the short term," says Guitar, while, in the long term, VCs are going to rely on introductions to entrepreneurs from their network.

With this benchmark secured, HXVF is continuing to grow its portfolio — as well as its team. Recently, Guitar — who runs the fund with Guillermo Borda — brought on Houston native Aleece Hobson as venture partner.

"Aleece joining is a phenomenal step for us — a dedicated resource and venture partner on activation," says Guitar on the hire. "I think it speaks to the seriousness of purpose we have to make this not just an investment platform, but one that moves the needle on Houston."

Guitar says HXVF is also growing its limited partners with the addition of Rice University, which joins the likes of HEB, Shell, Chevron, and Houston Methodist — to name a few.

"We're going to be getting even closer to our limited partners' needs and introducing them to the 34 portfolio companies," Guitar says "and creating meaningful collisions between those two groups."

Aleece Hobson joined the HX Venture Fund as venture partner. Photo courtesy of HXVF

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Four Houston scientists named rising stars in research

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Four Houston scientists were named among a total of five Texas rising stars in research by the Texas Academy of Medicine, Engineering, Science & Technology, or TAMEST, last month.

The group will be honored at the 2023 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards by TAMEST in May. According to Edith and Peter O’Donnell Committee Chair Ann Beal Salamone, the researchers "epitomize the Texas can-do spirit."

The Houston winners include:

Medicine: Dr. Jennifer Wargo

A physician and professor of surgical oncology and genomic medicine at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Wargo was named a 2023 honoree for her discoveries surrounding the "important connection between treatment outcomes and a patient’s gut microbiome," according to a statement from TAMEST.

Engineering: Jamie Padgett

The Stanley C. Moore Professor of Engineering at Rice University, Padgett was honored for her work that aims to "enhance reliability and improve the sustainability of critical community infrastructure" through developing new methods for multi-hazard resilience modeling.

Physical sciences: Erez Lieberman Aiden

As a world-leading biophysical scientist and an associate professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor College of Medicine, is being honored for his work that has "dramatically impacting the understanding of genomic 3D structures." He is working with BCM to apply his findings to clinical settings, with the hope that it will eventually be used to treat disease by targeting dark matter in the body.

Technology innovation: Chengbo Li

As a geophysicist at ConocoPhillips, Li is being recognized for innovations in industry-leading Compressive Seismic Imaging (CSI) technology. "This CSI technology allows the oil and gas industry to produce these seismic surveys in less time, with less shots and receivers, and most importantly, with less of an environmental impact," his nominator Jie Zhang, founder and chief scientist of GeoTomo LLC, said in a statement.


James J. Collins III at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas was also named this year's rising star in the biological sciences category for his research on schistosomiasis, a disease that impacts some of the world’s poorest individuals.

The O'Donnell Awards have granted more than $1.5 million to more than 70 recipients since they were founded in 2006. Each award includes a $25,000 honorarium and an invitation to present at TAMEST’s Annual Conference each year, according to TAMEST's website.

The awards expanded in 2002 to include both a physical and biological sciences award each year, thanks to a $1.15 million gift from the O’Donnell Foundation in 2022.

Following a pivot, this Houston founder is ready make her mark on the creator economy

houston innovators podcast episode 171

When Madison Long started her company with her co-founder and friend, Simone May, she knew she wanted to do one thing: Provide a platform for young people to have reliable access to payment for their skills and side hustles. Through starting a business, making a name change, launching a beta, going through a pivot, completing an accelerator, and more — that mission hasn't changed. And now, young people across the country can opt into the platform.

Houston-based creator economy platform Clutch celebrated its nationwide launch earlier this month. The platform connects brands to its network of creators for reliable and authentic work — everything from social media management, video creation, video editing, content creation, graphic design projects, and more.

When the company first launched its beta in Houston, the platform (then called Campus Concierge) rolled out at three Houston-area universities: Texas Southern University, Rice University, and Prairie View A&M. The marketplace connected any students with a side hustle to anyone on campus who needed their services.

Long shares on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast that since that initial pilot, they learned they could be doing more for users.

"We recognized a bigger gap in the market," Long says. "Instead of just working with college-age students and finding them side hustles with one another, we pivoted last January to be able to help these young people get part-time, freelance, or remote work in the creator economy for businesses and emerging brands that are looking for these young minds to help with their digital marketing presence."

Once focusing on the gig economy, Clutch changed its focus to the creator economy. The founders launched a new beta after closing $1.2 million in seed funding last year.

"Even though we did have to pivot, we're excited to be at the place now where we do deeply understand how to service both sides of our marketplace — the next-gen creatives and the emerging brands — so that they can really empower each other to meet their goals," Long says on the show.

Clutch, which went through the DivInc Houston accelerator, credits a part of the company's ability to survive the challenges from making pivots on being founded in Houston.

"We attribute a lot of Clutch's success — especially early on — to being located in Houston," Long says, explaining that she moved to Houston from California in 2021 to focus on the company. "It was physically being in the tech ecosystem that was blossoming in the Houston network that allowed us to feel safe making the pivots we were making and get a lot of guidance from mentors we were meeting."

She shares more about what's next for Clutch on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

10 can't-miss Houston business and innovation events for February

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It's time to look at what's on the agenda for February for Houston innovators — from pitch competitions to networking events.

Here's a roundup of events not to miss this month. Mark your calendars and register accordingly.

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

Feb. 8 — Digital Marketing Luncheon

Join Insperity, a partner of The Cannon, and digital marketing expert, Danny Gavin, at The Cannon Downtown for a lunch and learn.

The event is Wednesday, February 8, at noon, at The Cannon Downtown. Click here to register.

Feb. 9 — Innovation on Tap: Fred Higgs, Engineering at Rice University

Discuss research in the speaker’s engineering lab at Rice University on key Industry 4.0 technologies, namely additive manufacturing.

The event is Thursday, February 9, at 4 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

February 10 — Women in Leadership Conference 

The 23rd annual Women in Leadership Conference will be held in-person at Rice University. The conference has been a beacon of inspiration in the Houston community, empowering women to accomplish their career goals. In panel discussions and interactive workshops, attendees hear from leaders across different industries, explore various approaches to leadership, and discuss future opportunities for success.

The event is Friday, February 10, at 8 am, at McNair Hall at Rice University. Click here to register.

Feb. 15 — Real Talk from Real VCs

Join this event for a candid fireside chat on venture capital and its role in supporting and growing innovative startups.

The event is Wednesday, February 15, at 5:30 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 16 — Engage VC: Lerer Hippeau

Lerer Hippeau is an early-stage venture capital firm founded and operated in New York City. Since 2010, they have invested in entrepreneurs who embody audacity, endurance, and winning mindset – good people with great ideas who aren't afraid to do hard things. Join the HX Venture Fund to hear Caitlin Strandberg, Partner at Lerer Hippeau discuss her perspective on how to build and scale a great company, what early-stage investors are looking for, why Houston, and market trends among other topics.

The event is Thursday, February 16, at 8:30 am, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 16 — Female Founders and Funders

Calling all rockstar female founders and investors in the Houston area. Mark your calendars for this month's Female Founders and Funders meetup. Coffee and breakfast is provided and the event is free to attend.

The event is Thursday, February 16, at 9 am, at Sesh Coworking. Click here to register.

Feb. 21 — Web3 & HOU: Demystifying the Web3 Space Panel I

Join us to learn more about Web3 and its numerous applications.

The event is Tuesday, February 21, at 6 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 22 — The Trailblazer’s Guide to Cultivating Authenticity

In this fun and interactive workshop presented by Erica D’Eramo of Two Peirs Consulting, we’ll look at how to foster a leadership style that works for you, even in the absence of role models.

The event is Wednesday, February 22, at 2 pm, at Sesh Coworking. Click here to register.

Feb. 22 — Houston Startup Showcase

The Houston Startup Showcase is a year-long series of monthly pitch competitions. Founders will pitch at the Ion and compete for the grand prize package. Watch the startups pitch their company and see who the judges will name the champion of the Houston Startup Showcase 2023.

The event is Wednesday, February 22, at 6 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 23 — Navigating Innovation in the Corporate World

Join us for a fireside chat with leaders from Houston's largest employers, including Microsoft and Chevron to discuss how they have navigated successful careers in technology and innovation.

The event is Thursday, February 23, at 11:30 am, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 27-March 2 — Houston Tech Rodeo

The Houston Tech Rodeo is a conference showcasing the best and brightest of the Houston startup community in the region and beyond by putting investors, entrepreneurs, industry leaders, and creative minds in a room to talk about the biggest innovations and the future of tech sandwiched by some happy hours and friendly competition.

The events run Monday, February 27, through Thursday, March 2, at various locations in Houston. Click here to register.

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