This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Scott Gale of Halliburton Labs, Amanda Ducach of Ema, and Jon Nordby of Anthropy Partners. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Scott Gale, executive director of Halliburton Labs

Scott Gale, executive director of Halliburton Labs, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share his call to action for Houston Energy and Climate Startup Week. Photo courtesy of Halliburton Labs

Scott Gale will be the first to admit that hosting a week of curated events targeted to a group of individuals within the tech and energy space isn't a novel idea — Climate Week NYC has been taking over Manhattan for over a decade. But Gale believes Houston deserves to have its own time to shine.

Earlier this month, Halliburton Labs, Rice Alliance, and Greentown Houston announced the inaugural Houston Energy and Climate Startup Week 2024 to take place in September, but Gale, executive director of Halliburton Labs, says he hopes this is just the beginning of Houston organizations coming together to collaborate on the initiative.

"I think we have a really awesome initial coalition. Whether your the fifth company or organization to raise its hand to do something that week or the 50th — it really doesn't matter," Gale says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It really is an open invitation — and I want to make that super clear." Read more.

Amanda Ducach, founder and CEO of ema

Amanda Ducach, founder of ema, has raised funding. Photo courtesy of SocialMama

A Houston-based startup that's improving health and wellness for women with its artificial intelligence-backed platform has raised a bridge round of funding.

Ema closed its latest bridge round, bringing its total funding to nearly $2 million. The company received investment from Kubera's Venture Capital and Victorum Capital, which joined existing investors Hearst Labs, Wormhole Capital, Acumen America, and Techstars.

Ema strives to deliver "personalized, empathetic, and evidence-based support" to its users through its generative AI technology. The platform has more than 100,000 users, and has expanded into the B2B sector with $100,000 in contracts within just 30 days after pivoting to this model, according to the company.

"Ema was born from a deep-seated belief in the transformative power of AI to make women's health care more accessible and effective," Amanda Ducach, CEO of Ema, says in a news release. "Our recent funding and rapid B2B growth validate our approach and enable us to further our mission." Read more.

Jon Nordby, managing partner at Anthropy Partners

Founders with a laser focus on a problem, showed remarkable advantage, says Houston expert Jon Nordby. Photo courtesy

In a new series of guest columna for InnovationMap, Jon Nordby is sharing his observations from years with working with founders.

"My top observation is that the success of founders often hinges on their focus on a specific problem, from the perspective of the problem holder (which is not always their customer) and particularly a problem set they care deeply about," he writes. "This focus is far more impactful than merely having a great idea. Founders with a laser focus on a problem, showed remarkable advantages."

Nordby is the managing partner at Anthropy Partners, a Houston-based investment firm, and professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Houston. Read more.

Ema, which operates as a health and wellness-focused, AI-based chat for women, has raised additional funding. Screenshot courtesy of Ema

Houston AI femtech startup raises $2M round to expand platform to B2B opportunities

fresh funding

A Houston-based startup that's improving health and wellness for women with its artificial intelligence-backed platform has raised a bridge round of funding.

Ema closed its latest bridge round, bringing its total funding to nearly $2 million. The company received investment from Kubera's Venture Capital and Victorum Capital, which joined existing investors Hearst Labs, Wormhole Capital, Acumen America, and Techstars.

Ema strives to deliver "personalized, empathetic, and evidence-based support" to its users through its generative AI technology. The platform has more than 100,000 users, and has expanded into the B2B sector with $100,000 in contracts within just 30 days after pivoting to this model, according to the company.

"Ema was born from a deep-seated belief in the transformative power of AI to make women's health care more accessible and effective," Amanda Ducach, CEO of Ema, says in a news release. "Our recent funding and rapid B2B growth validate our approach and enable us to further our mission."

The company, originally founded as SocialMama looking to connect mothers digitally to each other and, later, physicians and experts, rebranded a year ago. The platform aims to be comprehensive and holistic to positively affect women's health and wellness journeys across life stages and categories.

"Our vision extends beyond immediate health concerns; we see Ema as a companion that can support women throughout their lives, offering guidance, support, and understanding whenever they need it," Ducach explains. "This latest round of funding will help us expand into new areas, including employee benefits, where we believe we can make a substantial difference."

Amanda Ducach founded the company in 2019. Photo via Twitter

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Amanda Ducach of ema, Bobby Bryant of DOSS, and Abbey Donnell of Work & Mother. Photos courtesy

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 femtech to real estate — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Amanda Ducach, founder and CEO of ema

Amanda Ducach, founder of ema is launching her business's new product. Photo courtesy of SocialMama

Amanda Ducach set out to create a platform where mothers could connect with each other socially, but when she launched SocialMama just ahead of a global pandemic, she soon learned there was a bigger market need for access to information surrounding women's health — from fertility to menopause.

After pivoting her femtech platform to include women's health experts, she realized her technology wasn't able to completely support growing user base. The platform, which was called SocialMama, saw users engaging with experts in similar ways — and as Ducach looked into growing the platforms users, she realized that 24/7 access to experts was going to be hard to scale.

"We noticed that most of these conversations were repetitive," Ducach tells InnovationMap. "You had women asking an expert about tracking ovulation a hundred times a day. Having an OBGYN answer that question a hundred times a day was crazy and just not scalable." Read more.

Bobby Bryant, CEO and founder of DOSS

DOSS is a real estate platform founded in Houston that helps democratize access to homeownership. Photo via askdoss.com

Real estate and homeownership has been historically exclusionary. Bobby Bryant — the first Black man to create and franchise a real estate brokerage brand — wanted to do something about that.

Considering the history of the real estate industry — women weren't able to buy homes without being married and African Americans were refused outright thanks to the country's history of redlining — Bryant tells InnovationMap he saw an opportunity for a business.

“I look at diversity as our superpower, and I look at the opportunity to kick that door down," he says. Read more.

Abbey Donnell, founder of Work & Mother

Work & Mother is expanding. Photo courtesy of Work & Mother

Houston-based Work & Mother, which outfits commercial buildings with lactation accommodations for working parents, announced this month that it has entered into an agreement to open two new lactation suites outside the state of Texas.

The company, founded by Abby Donnell, will open suites in two commercial office buildings in Boston, Massachusetts, and Arlington, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. The new suites are expected to be completed this summer.

Work & Mother currently has suites in Allen Center, The Jones on Main and Four Oaks Place in Houston, as well as East Lake at Tillery in Austin and Lincoln Centre in Dallas. Read more.

A Houston founder is introducing you to ema — a GPT-based chat platform and your new best friend in women's health. Photo via Canva

Exclusive: Houston startup rebrands to provide AI chat tool focused on women’s health

meet ema

Amanda Ducach set out to create a platform where mothers could connect with each other socially, but when she launched SocialMama just ahead of a global pandemic, she soon learned there was a bigger market need for access to information surrounding women's health — from fertility to menopause.

After pivoting her femtech platform to include women's health experts, she realized her technology wasn't able to completely support growing user base. The platform, which was called SocialMama, saw users engaging with experts in similar ways — and as Ducach looked into growing the platforms users, she realized that 24/7 access to experts was going to be hard to scale.

"We noticed that most of these conversations were repetitive," Ducach tells InnovationMap. "You had women asking an expert about tracking ovulation a hundred times a day. Having an OBGYN answer that question a hundred times a day was crazy and just not scalable."

Ducach says that about 16 months ago, her team took a step back to recreate the platform incorporating GPT technology. GPT stands for generative pre-trained transformer, and is a family of artificial intelligence language models most recently made popular but ChatGPT developed by OpenAI.

Now, after building out the platform, Ducach's company has rebranded to ema. The AI-based chat tool — named from the three letters in the middle of "female" — is meant to feel like texting "your childhood best friend who became an OBGYN physician," Ducach says. Not only can the chat provide crucial medical information, but it has a memory and can pick up conversations where they left off to be a constant resource to users.

The new platform, deemed ema, operates as an AI-based chat for women to engage with. Screenshot courtesy of ema

"Ema can answer everything from, 'how do I improve my baby's latch,' to 'how to I get a diabetic-friendly brownie recipe,' to 'give me an affirmation that's spoken like Snoop Dog because I'm feeling sad today,'" Ducach says.

Ducach first described the evolution of the company to AI-based communication last summer on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Now, the platform is gearing up for its launch next month and plans to raise seed funding this year to double her current team of 10 people to support the company's growth. Ducach, who was accepted into the Techstars Austin program in 2021, also says she's looking for more beta users in the meantime, and those interested should reach out to her or her team.

Ultimately, Ducach says the mission of ema is to democratize access to women's health care so that women feel supported and just a few taps away from important information.

"Barriers to care for women who face socioeconomic disparities is where you see the need for change," Ducach says. "For us, it's reducing those barriers of care. Ema is always in your pocket. You have access to her 24/7. The way that ema is really structured and her purpose is to catch red flags so that we can then help the female user get to positive health outcomes."

Amanda Ducach founded the company in 2019. Photo via Twitter

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Amanda Ducach of SocialMama, Sam Newman of Little Red Box Grocery, and Gina Luna of GP Capital Partners. Courtesy photos

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 investment to femtech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Amanda Ducach, founder and CEO of SocialMama

Amanda Ducach, founder of SocialMama, is gearing up for a total rebrand and new product launch. Photo courtesy of SocialMama

For years, Amanda Ducach has been collecting data from the users of her social networking app, SocialMama. Now that data is fueling the AI of the new platform and a whole new phase of the company.

"When you have a compatibility-friendship-based product, you have crazy amounts of data. We could have went and sold that — like an unethical company and like a lot of companies we've unfortunately seen do recently. Instead, we used the data to improve our product to create positive health outcomes for our users," Ducach says.

Ducach share more of what she's working on ahead of the launch of the new platform and what it's been like starting and running a consumer-focused app in Houston on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Sam Newman, founder of Little Red Box Grocery

Equitable access to services is integral to the vitality of all communities. Photo courtesy

In a recent guest column for InnovationMap, Sam Newman, founder of Little Red Box Grocery, writes of how around 40 million Americans, including five million Texans, live in food deserts. Startups have an opportunity for impact.

"Equitable access to services is integral to the vitality of all communities. Good food, secure housing – it doesn’t just nourish bodies and minds, it can spur new investment into our neighborhoods and prove once and for all that manmade deserts of any kind do not have to exist if we let imagination and innovation prevail. If there was ever a time to prioritize access – and action – it is now," he writes. Click here to read more.

Gina Luna, partner at GP Capital Partners

GP Capital Partners is a part of a new initiative to provide training and job placement for future cybersecurity professionals. Photo courtesy

Houston-based private credit and equity investment firm GP Capital Partners has teamed up with LP First Capital, a private equity firm with offices in Austin and New York, to form National Cyber Group. The new entity, headquartered in Washington, D.C., will provide foundational IT certification training, job placement resources, and more, according to a news release.

Gina Luna, managing partner of GP Capital Partners, says this is a huge opportunity for Houston, as the city's tech jobs continue to grow, and the city continues to be a major hub for tech talent.

"There are many Houston companies that need well-trained, qualified cybersecurity analysts and many hard-working Houstonians that would find a career in cybersecurity an attractive path to better opportunity for themselves and their families. National Cyber Group can provide both, which is certainly good for Houston," she says. Click here to read more.

Amanda Ducach, founder of SocialMama, is gearing up for a total rebrand and new product launch. Photo courtesy of SocialMama

Houston founder transitions startup to femtech platform focused on women's reproductive health and wellness

houston innovators podcast episode 138

When Amanda Ducach founded her social media platform, SocialMama, she was looking for a way to connect mothers going through similar challenges. The idea was to provide camaraderie and friendship as a solution to the usually lonely and isolated journey of motherhood. However, after the platform's success among its users — and the added burdens a global pandemic provided — Ducach realized she needed to offer more to the community she created.

Ducach explains that even before the pandemic, the data was showing that women needed more. On this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, she describes the biocycle social approach, a health practice that focuses on supporting women socially, psychologically, and physically to fully attain better health and wellness.

"That's what's so unique about what we're doing," Ducach says. "Most of the platforms, products, services, or organizations are all really fragmented. It's really hard to find a female health resource that also cares about social building and physicality — you really need all three."

Additionally, Ducach wanted to build a platform for all women — whether or not they identify as mothers yet. She wanted to expand to include everyone from fertility to menopause. The core focus for the company is to help address loneliness — something exacerbated by the pandemic.

"Before COVID, no one cared about loneliness," she shares. "I've been pitching for a long time and people just didn't care."

So, Ducach got to work on creating a whole new platform. After being participating in the 2021 Techstars Austin cohort, she's been working with her team over the past 10 months in stealth to fundraise and build the empathetic artificial intelligence-based platform. It's a whole new product, she says, and it's coming with a whole new name too — just one she can't yet disclose. The current plan is to launch in September following a seed round of funding.

From the very beginning, Ducach says, she wasn't obsessed with user growth, as you might think someone with a mobile app would be. She says instead, she looks closely at the data — how users were engaging with the app and what the product-market fit

"It's really important that when you lead anything in technology is to look at the data," she says. "As technology founders, you have to build as lean as you can so you can make changes and get out a new version of the product."

Now that data is fueling the AI of the new platform and a whole new phase of the company.

"When you have a compatibility-friendship-based product, you have crazy amounts of data. We could have went and sold that — like an unethical company and like a lot of companies we've unfortunately seen do recently. Instead, we used the data to improve our product to create positive health outcomes for our users," Ducach says.

Ducach share more of what she's working on ahead of the launch of the new platform and what it's been like starting and running a consumer-focused app in Houston. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Houston investors back new platform for retail traders looking to follow financial influencers

making a splash

As anyone who witnessed the impact Gamestop's meme stock had on the country already realizes, influential investors can drive momentum within the financial sector. And one company with fresh funding from a Houston firm is betting on that exactly.

CashPool is a new mobile platform that gives everyday investors the opportunity to derive influence from the investment strategies and trades made by trusted and influential stock traders who have built substantial followings on social media platforms. By allowing retail traders the chance to join social media influencers’ various “pools” on its platform, CashPool is primed to change the way the masses acquire wealth.

This is the kind of algorithmic trading aimed at a new generation of investors that gets the attention of early-stage venture capital funds like Houston-based Ten X Labs, a pre-seed angel fund that recently invested in CashPool to help the trading platform continue its mission of transforming the investment landscape.

"We are thrilled to receive funding from Ten X Labs, as it validates our innovative approach to trading and investing," CashPool Founder and CEO Averett Barksdale says in a news release. "This investment will enable us to further enhance our platform, expand our user base and continue to revolutionize the industry. We believe that everyone should have transparent, governed access to profitable trading and investment opportunities, and through CashPool we are making that vision a reality."

Connecting the dots

CashPool is broker agnostic connector, allowing its users to keep their current brokers like Robinhood, Coinbase, Charles Schwab, Acorns, Fidelity, ETRADE, Stash, Sofi and Betterment and creates a seamless investment experience.

“We are that middle piece,” says Barksdale. “So your money stays on whatever brokerage you’ve connected to the platform, and we just execute the trades on your brokerage for you.”

Considering that users’ money remains with their original brokerage, how does CashPool monetize its platform?

“We don’t charge users to execute trades,” says Barksdale. “We charge per pool you join. So, on our platform, strategies are called pools and a user can join as many strategies as they want.”

Financial influencers set the strategies. These are profitable traders who have become influencers on various social media platforms and built-up followings comprised of people who are or are desiring to be retail traders themselves.

“There are a ton of people out there who actually are profitable traders,” says Barksdale. “Same as what we saw happen with GameStop and the whole Reddit situation. That was a financial influencer, right? It just so happens that he had a strategy that he thought would work and it turned out for a while it did work, right?

“We want to not only empower the retail trader, but empower these financial influencers who are profitable as well. Just because it's a whole marketplace out there for it. But a lot of times the retail trader doesn't quite understand who to go with. On our platform, you could see the results of these financial influencers right before your eyes on our platform. So you can see if they're profitable or not, or if someone's just on Instagram or whatever, social media platform posting screenshots but aren’t actually executing those trades.”

Increasing transparency

With trading, past success can be an arbiter for future performance, so with CashPool, users can choose to join the pools of influencers who have documented success as a trader on the platform.

“On our platform you can't hide,” says Barksdale. “We're connected to their brokerage account, so we see what trades they're making in real time. We also see their performance in real time, and we display that on the platform. That's something that you really can't get around. So if someone on Instagram says they traded this stock, then I made X amount of dollars and had this percentage of return, then you go to the platform and look at your pool and see they didn't do that and were lying the whole time, it’s literally just putting everything out there in the open. We have the kind of transparency that doesn't exist currently right now in the space.”

Broadcasting one’s successes is easy, but what about the losses?

“I thought it was going to be a lot more difficult just thinking, do people really want to show what they're doing?” says Barksdale. “But the thing that I've seen is a lot of these traders are a whole lot more competitive. And the traders who are doing it, they're constantly talking out against people who aren't actually doing it in real life.

“A lot of the traders who are actually profitable, they do live trades every day. But how do users if they should pay to get into a specific trader’s live trading session? Like, how do they know they're profitable already?

“On CashPool, users can see an actual influencer's win rate and say, 'Okay, 86 percent of the time they are profitable, and I could see how many trades they've made in total.' From that standpoint, users can make an educated decision on what pools to join and pay for.”

CashPool users can join as many pools as they see fit, but the cost of each pool’s membership may vary due to the popularity or success percentage rate of the financial influencer.

“You can join as many pools as you want, but what we suggest is you start by joining the pools of influencers that you already follow and trust, that you're already following like on Twitter or YouTube or Instagram or whatever it may be,” says Barksdale. “We are suggesting that you follow them first and you join their pools first. What we do is on the monetization side is we allow the creators on our platform who are the influencers to set their own price for their pool.”

Building a secure network

Outside of who or what to follow, information security is likely a concern for potential users. Financial influencers’ trade information is readily available (win percentages and number of trades, not dollar amounts), but users’ won’t be able to see other users’ information on the platform.

“Currently, we have a list of 10 brokerages who are on board, and then we're working to onboard more as we keep going on,” says Barksdale. “So, we have like your Interactive brokerages, and we also have a few other ones that are UK specific and Canada specific. We would love to have every single brokerage on the platform, but unfortunately, there are a couple that are still kind of playing hard to get, so to speak.”

The first rollout of CashPool is set, but version two will likely include content creation from the financial influencers.

Barksdale, who has a background in product development and experience working at companies like Charles Schwab and Fidelity, is mostly excited about the prospect of CashPool unlocking expert financial strategies for everyone, not just the financial advisors behind the closed doors of Wall Street.

“Yes, my philosophy is that financial health and financial growth should be accessible for all,” says Barksdale. “The thing that gets me is it needs to be responsible. So, for example, RobinHood is a platform that doesn't necessarily care if you are making responsible decisions, they just care that you're trading on that platform.

“Our platform is strictly focused on actually being the place where these retail traders can make responsible decisions centered around investing and trading.”

Tech companies contribute to recovery fund for those affected by Houston storm

helping hands

The past month in Houston has been marked by severe flooding and a sudden storm that left nearly a million residents without power. The Houston Disaster Alliance has established the Severe Weather and Derecho Recovery Fund to help those impacted by the weather.

“The Greater Houston Disaster Alliance was formed so that in times of crisis, there is a swift and efficient response to help those severely impacted begin the process of recovery,” said Stephen Maislin, president and CEO, Greater Houston Community Foundation. “When disaster strikes, it requires a collaborative and coordinated response from the nonprofit, for-profit, public sector, and philanthropic community to ensure the most vulnerable in our region get the help they need to start the recovery and rebuilding process.”

At least a million dollars has been donated to the fund, courtesy of $500,000 from the CenterPoint Energy Foundation and another $500,000 from Comcast. With Houston now a federally declared disaster area by President Joe Biden, impacted residents are able to apply for various grants and aid.

Those still struggling from the weather events should call the 211 Texas/United Way HELPLINE. Assistance is available for housing, utilities, food, elder assistance, and other areas. Crisis counseling is also available.

“Outside of times of disaster, we know that 14 percent of households in our region are struggling on income below the federal poverty line and 31 percent of households in our region are working hard but struggling to make ends meet. It’s these neighbors who are disproportionately impacted when disaster strikes,” said Amanda McMillian, president and CEO, United Way of Greater Houston. “This fund allows us to lift up the most vulnerable who have been impacted by recent weather events to ensure they can not only recover from the immediate crisis, but also prepare themselves for future disasters.”

The derecho storm that hit Houston on Thursday, May 16 had wind gusts up to 100mph. Nearly a million people in the Houston area were left without power, and as of Wednesday CenterPoint was still working to restore electricity to more than 60,000 people. Photos showed that the storm toppled massive power pylons, took down trees, and even ripped the sides off buildings. Miniature tornadoes touched down in parts of the city, adding to the devastation.

The Houston Disaster Alliance was launched in 2023 as a joint effort between the Greater Houston Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Houston to help mitigate the damage of weather crises year-round. This has become increasingly necessary as Houston's weather has become more unpredictable than ever.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.