Apartment Butler has reemerged as Spruce with fresh funds to take the company to Denver and beyond. Photo via GetSpruce.com

A Houston startup that coordinates hospitality services — such as cleaning, dog walking, etc. — has recently cleaned up itself, with a fresh rebranding and new funds to further develop the company.

Spruce (née Apartment Butler) has closed a venture capital round at $3 million. Princeton, New Jersey-based Fitz Gate Ventures led the round with three Texas investors: Houston-based Mercury Fund, the Houston Angel Network, and Austin-based Capital Factory, which recently announced its Houston outpost.

The fresh funds will allow for Spruce to expand its services out of Texas for the first time. Denver will be the first non-Texas market for the company, according to a news release. The funds will also go toward sales, marketing, and software development scaling.

"We could not be more appreciative of the support from these outstanding investors," says Ben Johnson, founder and CEO of Spruce, in the release. "Since our founding, we have grown aggressively as more and more apartment communities have seen the demand for hotel-inspired services increase dramatically. We look forward to continuing our strategic, rapid growth with this funding that will play a critical role in that expansion."

Last month, Apartment Butler rebranded into Spruce to better represent the company and its market disrupting features, according to a news release.

"Since our inception just a few short years ago, we have experienced an incredible rate of growth, demonstrating the demand residents have for hotel-inspired services in their apartment homes," says Johnson in the June 25 release. "We believe the new Spruce brand name better connects with consumers and reflects the full range of services we have to offer."

Spruce's services include daily chores, housekeeping, pet care (dog walking, pet sitting, etc.), and laundry and dry cleaning. Spruce has a B-to-B-to-C model in which it works with apartment communities to broker partnership deals to reach their residents.

Late last summer, Johnson closed a $2 million seed round for his company and expanded the company to Austin, hinting at the out-of-state growth being in the near future for the startup.



Apartment dwellers that live in a Spruce-partner community can access services through an app or desktop interface.Photo via GetSpruce.com

These five companies are starting 2019 out with some cash, and here's what they plan on doing with it. Getty Images

5 Houston startups beginning 2019 with new capital

Venture adventures

Finding growing Houston startups is as easy as following the money, and a few local companies are starting 2019 strong with a recent round of funding closed. InnovationMap has rounded up a few recent raises to highlight heading into the new year.

Apartment Butler

Ben Johnson's business idea turned into a growing company making the lives of apartment dwellers easier. Courtesy of Apartment Butler

Apartment Butler closed a $2 million seed funding round in October that was led by Houston-based Mercury Fund. The Houston startup partners with apartment communities to streamline services — like cleaning or dog walking — for residents.

Founder Ben Johnson recently spoke with InnovationMap about his career and the company. He says the company plans to launch in Austin this month and another market in March. Apartment Butler will also expand to microservices — smaller services that have only been available to the rich before.

The funding reportedly is being used to expand the company's footprint as well as make competitive hires.

Data Gumbo

blockchain

Blockchain-as-a-service company, Data Gumbo, closed its seed fund with more money than it planned for. Getty Images

Data Gumbo, a Houston company that provides blockchain technology as a service, overachieved when it closed its seed round in August 2018. The company closed with $1.35 million, which is $300,000 more than the goal.

Led by CEO Andrew Bruce, Data Gumbo has a viable product and is producing revenue, according to a release. The company launched a full implementation of its technology on a Diamond Offshore rig this fall, which made it the first commercial installation of industrial blockchain technology.

Among the investors was Houston-based Carnrite Ventures and Silicon Valley's Plug and Play, the release notes.

Validere

Validere, a Canada-based energy logistics company, is expanding in Houston. Courtesy of Validere

While based in Canada, Validere is using its recent raise to expand into the Houston market. The seed round closed in October with $7 million raised. The company's co-founder, Nouman Ahmad, told InnovationMap in a recent article that they are focusing on expanding the Houston office and are actively hiring.

"The goal in 2019 is to be at the same stage — in terms of customer success — in the U.S. market as we were at the end of 2018 in the Canadian market," Ahmad says.

Intelligent Implants

Intelligent Implant's co-founder, Juan Pardo, told the crowd at Demo Day that his company's device allows for 50 percent faster bone growth in patients. Photo by Cody Duty/TMC

Recent graduate of the Texas Medical Center's TMCx medical devices program, Intelligent Implants created a technology that stimulates bone growth following corrective back surgery.

The Houston startup closed a funding round in October with two investors, according to Crunchbase. The total raise was reported as a $1 million Mezzanine round on AngelMD.

Saranas

Saranas Inc. is testing its technology that can detect and track internal bleeding complications. Getty Images

Saranas Inc., a Houston-based medical device company, is currently in its clinical trials thanks to a $2.8 million Series C fund that closed in May 2018. The trials are focused on the company's key device, called the Early Bird Bleed Monitoring System, which is designed to detect and track bleeding complications related to endovascular procedures. These medical procedures treat problems, such as aneurysms, that affect blood vessels.

In a story for InnovationMap, Zaffer Syed, president and CEO of Saranas, says the clinical trials are crucial for receiving approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That approval is expected this year.

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Venture adventures will be a regular roundup on InnovationMap. If your company is in the process of closing or recently closed on a round, please email Natalie Harms at natalie@innovationmap.com.

These three entrepreneurs have a lot up their sleeves for 2019. Courtesy images

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's Who

This week starts in one year and ends in the next, and InnovationMap has three inspiring entrepreneurs to lead you into 2019. All three are behind Houston startups that are planning for big growth in the upcoming year. So, read their stories and get familiar with their names and faces — they aren't going anywhere.

Ben Johnson, founder and CEO of Apartment Butler

Ben Johnson's business idea turned into a growing company making the lives of apartment dwellers easier. Courtesy of Apartment Butler

Ben Johnson has his own master plan. He'd work as an oil and gas banker for a bit, establish himself, get his MBA, and then, when he was in his 40s, would start his own company. He wasn't wrong about his future as an entrepreneur, but he was off by the timeline.

Johnson started Apartment Butler a few years ago when he saw how apartment communities had the potential to provide streamlined access to resident elected services — such as cleaning or pet care. At the same time, apartment communities across the U.S. were looking to beef up their amenities. Now, Apartment Butler is expanding to its third and fourth markets early next year and is looking to provide more services to its users.

Scott Parazynski, CEO of Fluidity Technologies

Scott Parazynski is a accomplished astronaut and surgeon, but he has a new career focus on drone operation. Courtesy of Fluidity

There are Renaissance men and then there's Scott Parazynski. He's has spent 57 days in space, trained as a trauma surgeon, and climbed Mount Everest as a team physician for the Discovery Channel. His latest conquest is designing a drone controller based on movement in space. The device, called the FT Aviator, allows for one-handed piloting of drones and has the potential to affect the way unmanned vehicles are piloted across industries. As the CEO of Fluidity Technologies, he has big plans for what one-handed drone operation can do.

David Grimes, CEO and co-founder of Snap Diligence

David Grimes thought he was creating a useful tool to vet colleagues. Turns out, he made a way for warm connections better than LinkedIn. Courtesy of Snap Diligence

Hell hath no fury like a businessman scorned. When a business partner ended up being a shady miscreant, David Grimes realized there wasn't a digital vetting tool where you can evaluate a potential associate. After thinking on the idea for a while, Grimes found a co-founder and a way to create an algorithm that can take public information and run it against a person. The company he created is called Snap Diligence.

Now, the tool has morphed into something else that's been unexpectedly in demand. Snap Diligence can find business connections through your already-established network of associates. It's this new feature the company is looking to expand in 2019.

Ben Johnson's business idea turned into a growing company making the lives of apartment dwellers easier. Courtesy of Apartment Butler

Houston startup plans to expand services and footprint following $2 million seed round

There's an app for that

Ben Johnson thought consolidating resident services for household chores — like doing the dishes and walking the dog — could be done more efficiently. So, he created Houston-based Apartment Butler in 2016 to do just that.

"I started thinking a lot about apartment industry," Johnson, who is the founder and CEO, says. "I just saw the industry as a whole is one that hadn't been really disrupted yet — the technology was dated."

Johnson, who worked in oil and gas banking for seven years, was commuting to Chicago on the weekends to get his MBA at the University of Chicago at the time. He was surrounded by so many people starting different types of companies. The program pulled him out of the energy industry so that he could see how something like Apartment Butler could work.

Over two years later, Johnson is fresh off a $2 million seed fund raising round that closed August 31. Houston-based Mercury Fund lead the round and Austin-based Capital Factory participated. The money raised went into growing Apartment Butler's staff. In just five months, the team has tripled from four members to 12. The company is hiring a vice president of engineering who will be based in Austin, where the technical team will also grow.

Johnson talks about more growth plans — including a footprint expansion to two new markets and new services for its users — in this week's Featured Innovator interview.

InnovationMap: How did you come up with the idea for your company?

Ben Johnson: I came up with this idea of Apartment Butler because I lived in an apartment, and I had a puppy. I would drive home at lunch to let this puppy out. There were 10 different dog walkers in my apartment community, and it made no sense to me why 10 different people would drive to this apartment community every day to walk dogs. Why can't we just come together and combine out purchasing power as a group of people and get better prices in a more efficient way?

Apartment communities for years had been aggregating things like pest control or trash service and getting a better deal. But why for these resident-elected services there was no medium for residents to broker a deal for themselves.

Separately from this idea, I was fortunate enough to catch a shift in thinking in the apartment industry. Managers and developers for years had been spending more and more money on pools and fitness centers. It had been this arms race for amenities and had been starting to think about more than just those amenities.

IM: How did you get your start?

Johnson: We had three services to start: housekeeping, pet care and dry cleaning/wash and fold.

I really had no idea what I was getting into. I was starting a three-sided platform in a city that doesn't spit out a lot of tech companies — certainly not many with a consumer-facing component. It was just like blind arrogance that led me to do this in a non-target market for startups.

One benefit to being in Houston is that i found a robust network of high networth individuals in the real estate industry that were our first capital. We were able to raise $780,000 in our first angel round in 2016. All of those individuals came from the apartment industry and then became our customers.

IM: What's been a challenge for y'all?

Johnson: Being here in Houston was a real challenge — there are entire skill sets that don't exist here. There's not technical product managers or lead engineers and you don't meet those people organically. When it came time for me to find someone to help me grow this business, it was like shooting in the dark, and I didn't yet have a network. I met someone online and, for a fee, they built our first product, and it left a lot to be desired. I think a lot of people would have stopped there.

Consumer-facing businesses are very, very hard. You look at our lead investor, Mercury Fund, which I would consider ne of the top VCs in the state, if not the country. They built a very successful series of funds doing B-to-B software. Even in Austin, which is known as a tech hub and has a vibrant startup scene doesn't have a big B-to-C presence. There's not capital for B-to-C companies in the middle of the country because the capital required to go direct to consumers is really high and the model is not nearly as predictable. Apartment Butler is not B-to-C; we have a B-to-B-to-C strategy, where we sell to the the apartments and they become our channel for customer acquisition.

IM: So, how did you manage to stand out in an environment that was so tough?

Johnson: What we're doing is unique. I didn't realize how complicated our business model was going to be.

Houston's doing a lot. It's going to be a long road. But as a city, there's a need for the largest venture capital provider in town to support companies that have gotten really good traction, whether or not it fits their mold. The city needs capital to flow into businesses

Every single VC I pitched to in wanted to require us to move to Austin as a condition to our funding. I wanted to grow this business in Houston. I thought I was going to have to move to Austin because there wasn't a VC for us here. The fact that Blair and Mercury stepped up and said, I know this is a little outside the box but this company is great for Houston. We need to keep them." And I'm glad they did.

IM: What's next for your company?

Johnson: To date, we have been delivering services that have already existed. Yes, we can provide a lower price point and have a hotel-like experience where you can just use an app and we go through your apartment office.
What we're doing now and what we're rolling out in January is our first line of microservices that haven't existed before, or only existed for the ultra-rich.
You want someone to just come in and change your bedsheets, wash your dishes, clean your bathroom, or put your groceries away. The type of experience now starts to be just what you need — a lot of people don't want to pay $70 for a whole cleaning.
The other thing would be footprint expansion. We are launching in Austin on January 7, and we'll be launching our fourth market outside of Texas in March. And then from there, we're going to rapidly accelerate how quickly we're expanding.

IM: What keeps you up at night, as it pertains to your business?

Johnson: We are creating a new industry: Resident services in apartments. I know $2 million sounds like a lot of money, but when you're hiring very talented people, it goes fast. There are 100 things I want to try — experiments I want to run to see how we can get new residents and see what works best, and I only have enough money to do 25. So, it's making sure that I try the 25 best things I can afford to do. Prioritization is what keeps me up at night.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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These Houston entrepreneurs and startups are searching for flooding solutions

Flood tech

The feeling is all too familiar for Houstonians. Tropical Storm Imelda hit Houston with devastating flood waters just two years after Hurricane Harvey did its damage.

With any obstacle or challenge, there is room for innovation. Over the past year, InnovationMap has covered various flood tech startups in Houston. Here are six innovations that can make a difference the next time a storm decides to take its toll on Houston.

Self-deploying flood protection for buildings

FloodFrame's technology can protect a home or commercial building from flood water damage. Photo via floodframe.com

A self-deploying flood damage prevention device caught Tasha Nielsen's eye on a trip to Denmark, and then launched the U.S. iteration of FloodFrame to bring the technology here.

FloodFrame works by using buoyancy. A lightweight cloth is wrapped around a tube is installed underground outside the perimeter of your home or business. One end of that cloth is attached to a box that is also installed underground. As flooding begins, an automatic system will release the lids to deploy the inflation of the tube that will protect the structure. When the flood comes in, the system will float on top of the flood — kind of like a pool noodle — and protect the structure from the water.

FloodFrame adds a level of security during flooding events and can be considered more cost-effective when compared to the high cost of renovating or rebuilding after flooding.

"Right now we are focused on residential but I think there's a huge potential for it to go commercial. A lot of commercial buildings are self insured, and commercial developers, industrial developers, this would be a drop in the bucket for the overall cost of the entire project," Nielsen tells InnovationMap. "For homeowners, it's kind of a bigger expense, but I think there is the potential for homebuilders to include it as an option in the entire package of a new house because when you put it in to a mortgage, it's only another like $0.50 a month."

A waterproof container for your car.

After the floods from Hurricane Harvey totaled her car, Rahel Abraham wanted to find a solution. ClimaGuard/Facebook

Floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey seriously damaged about 600,000 vehicles in the Houston area, which included Rahel Abraham's 2008 Infiniti G35. Now, Abraham's brainchild forms the backbone of her Houston-based startup, ClimaGuard LLC. The company's waterproof, temperature-resistant, portable Temporary Protective Enclosure (TPE) can entirely cover a compact car, sedan, or midsize SUV. It comes in three sizes; the cost ranges from $349 to $499.

To protect a vehicle, someone sets a TPE on the ground, a driveway, or another flat surface, then drives the vehicle onto the bottom part of the product, and connects the bottom and top parts with the zipper. Abraham likens it to a clamshell preserving a pearl.

"My goal is not to make it to where it's an exclusive product — available only to those who can afford it — but I want to be able to help those who it would make even more of an economic impact for," Abraham tells InnovationMap.

A network to find shelter.

Reda Hicks create GotSpot — a digital tool that helps connect people with commercial space with people who need it. Courtesy of GotSpot

It only took a natural disaster for Reda Hicks to make her startup idea into a reality.

"I had been thinking on what it would be like to help people find space to do business in and how businesses find a way to stay in business a long time," Hicks tells InnovationMap. "But, I was afraid of the tech."

Hicks, who has practiced law for almost 15 years, wanted to create a website that allows for people with commercial space — a commercial kitchen, conference room, spare desks, etc. — to list it. Then, space seekers — entrepreneurs, nonprofits, freelancers, etc. — can rent it. When Hurricane Harvey hit, Hicks was kicking herself for not acting on her idea sooner.

"It was really Harvey and having so many people desperate to find space for emergency purposes that made me realize there are so many contexts in which people need space right away for something specific," she says. "Certainly the primary user is the entrepreneur trying to grow their business, but there are so many other reasons why a community would need better access to the space it already has."

Now Hicks is growing GotSpot in hopes that short-term rental space and emergency housing can be smooth sailing no matter the circumstances. Recently, the company was named a finalist for MassChallenge Texas in Austin.

A water-absorbing tower. 

Fil Trat would be able to absorb water, filter it, and release it into the body of water when the time comes. Courtesy of Gensler's ByDesign

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, many Houstonians began to think of solutions for the next time Mother Nature struck with her full-force of flooding. Gensler designers Chelsea Bryant, Jordan Gomez, Luisa Melendez, Barbara Novoa, Benjamin Nanson, Maria Qi, and Melinda Ubera created a solution as a part of Gensler's By Design program called Fil Trat. The tower can absorb, filter, and store flood waters until the bayou is ready for the water to be released — cleaner than it was before.

During Harvey, thousands of people were displaced, but Fil Trat has a solution for that too. The tower's floors would alternate between filtration floors and shelters, which could house up to 24 families per floor.

While the suggested Houston locale would be by Buffalo Bayou, the group suggests putting the tower in other coastal cities at risk of devastating flooding.

Sensor-enabled rubber ducks that can track weather developments.

Sensor-enabled rubber ducks might be the solution to keeping track of major weather events. Courtesy of Project Owl

Nearly two years after Hurricane Harvey battered the Houston area, a flock of electronic "rubber ducks" flew above homes in Katy in a broader endeavor to keep first responders and victims connected during natural disasters.

Developers and backers of Project Owl, an Internet of Things (IoT) hardware and software combination, conducted a pilot test of this innovation June 1 — the first day of this year's hurricane season. In the Katy test, 36 "ducks" took flight.

"So, our technology can be deployed to help communities that have been destroyed after natural disasters by providing quickly accessible communications network to coordinate and organize a response," Bryan Knouse, co-founder and CEO of Project Owl, tells InnovationMap.

The DuckLink network comprises hubs resembling rubber ducks, which can float in flooded areas if needed. It takes only five of these hubs to cover one square mile. This network sends speech-based communications using conversational systems (like Alexa and Facebook Messenger) to a central application. The app, the Owl software incident management system, relies on predictive analytics and various data sources to build a dashboard for first responders.

Restored native wetland coastal prairies.

Memorial Park Conservancy is gearing up to unveil one if its first projects within its 10-year master plan redevelopment. Photo courtesy of MPC

Before it was the fourth largest city in America, Houston was a prairie. That type of ecosystem — thick with prairie grass — is very absorbing when it comes to rain water. Cassidy Brown Johnson, a Rice University lecturer and president of the Coastal Prairie Partnership, has been taking every opportunity to raise awareness on the importance of prairie restoration.

"It's really surprising to people that the trees and all this lushness is actually all artificial," Johnson says. "We know that this ecosystem evolved with the cyclical flooding events that happened here."

This movement to bring back Houston's ancient ecosystem is a new focus on a few prairie conservationist groups — and even the Harris County Flood Control. This has been going on for a while, but recent flooding events have opened the eyes of people now looking for reliable solutions to flooding problems.

"After Hurricane Harvey, people started realizing that this might be one of the solutions we could actually investigate and see if it can help us," Johnson says. "A green space is going to absorb way more water than a parking lot."

Memorial Park Conservancy's its master plan redevelopment project includes a lot of prairie restoration plans is expected to deliver by 2028.

The project is a collaborative effort between MPC, Uptown Houston TIRZ, and Houston Parks and Recreation Department to redevelop the 1,500-acre park. An ongoing part of the transformation will be stormwater management upgrades. MPC has budgeted $3 million to this asset of the renovation. While a part of the plan is tributaries for run-off water, bringing back prairie and wetlands will do a great deal to help abate stormwater.

"We're taking ball fields, parking lots, and roads and converting them back to what was here — native wetland coastal prairie," MPC president and CEO Shellye Arnold tells InnovationMap. "This serves important stormwater purposes."

Houston startup creates device to keep loved ones in touch with each other

Caring is sharing

When Charley Donaldson's mother-in-law was battling cancer, he and his wife had great support from their friends and family. But they also knew there were a lot of people who cared about them who didn't know what to say or do during such a challenging time.

"It's like, you want to show people that you care about them, but you don't want to interrupt their day, or you don't want to be a burden to them if they aren't up to company," Donaldson says about the common reactions he heard from others – and often felt himself when he had friends going through similar struggles. "There had to be a way to share the idea of, 'Hey, I'm thinking about you.'"

It took three years of rattling around that idea before CaringBand came to life. The light-up bracelet is Bluetooth enabled, and connects to a mobile app. A person gives the bracelet to a loved one, who then pairs it with his or her smartphone. App users can send and receive pre-set messages of encouragement to and from other app users.

Those wearing a CaringBand bracelet get alerted by a blinking light or vibration that lets them know someone is thinking about them. The wearer then reads these encouraging messages on the CaringBand app when convenient and with no need to respond.

"When we pilot tested it, we were super excited to find out what we thought was validated," says Donaldson. "People really loved knowing that others were keeping them in their thoughts, and those who sent messages liked that they didn't have to worry about saying or doing the wrong thing."

Donaldson says he wanted The CaringBand to be as easy as possible for people to use, and also ensure that it was a solid support system. When someone is going through medical treatments, he knows that can be exhausting, and he also realizes that friends and family want to be able to do something, anything, to express their love and support.

"If you're a normal, compassionate person, you want to show you care about someone," he says. "This lets you do that in your own way."

And while it might sound like The CaringBand is designed to make the senders of messages feel better about offering a good thought for someone, Donaldson says those going through treatments have really loved seeing their bracelets light to up to tell them they're on someone's mind. That small show of support has made a big difference, they told Donaldson in surveys.

"She is sitting on the couch having so much fun reading her messages," says one user in a testimonial. "The smile on her face is priceless." "People tell you they think of you and pray for you all the time," read another. "The bracelet gives you a reminder that they really are."

"We made it super easy," he says. "It's a hardware to software solution and we wanted to erase as many friction points as possible in its creation. This is two touches of a smart phone."

Currently, the CaringBand app is live and functional. The bracelet is still in developmental stages, and Donaldson says the team is working with individuals and groups such as the Tyler Robinson Foundation to further test it. The bracelet should be a go for full distribution and sale by the first quarter of 2020.

"Obviously, this doesn't replace driving over to see someone or having a cup of coffee with a friend," says Donaldson. "But it is a great supplemental tool to show your love and care when you might not know what else to do."