Spruce, founded by Ben Johnson in Houston, has announced a $8 million series A round and a plan to continue expansion. Photo courtesy of Spruce

A Houston-founded startup that designed an app-based service for apartment dwellers has closed an $8 million series A led by Houston-based Mercury Fund.

Spruce, which was founded in Houston in 2016 as Apartment Butler before rebranding and relocating to Austin, announced the close of its latest round this week. The startup partners with multifamily companies to provide concierge-like services, such as cleaning, dog walking, and even COVID-19 sanitation.

"Spruce is changing how people live in their homes," says Ben Johnson, founder and CEO, in a news release. "Today's apartment community is a vibrant micro-economy for services and goods, and Spruce efficiently channels these interactions into a single marketplace. This Series A will expand our offerings to more residents and properties as well as continue our national roll-out."

Mercury Fund also invested in the company's seed round last year, and since that funding, Spruce has expanded out of state and into nine new markets. According to the release, the company, which still has an office in houston, has 40 employees and over 760 properties with 230,000 units on its platform.

"Spruce has perfected their market model and built a best-in-class team. Their resilience and growth during this unprecedented time have impressed us, and we are excited to continue on this journey with them," says Blair Garrou, managing director at Mercury Fund, in the release.

Houston-based Sweat Equity Partners, a new Spruce investor, also contributed to the round. Andrew White, president of the investment group, will also join the board of directors.

"Spruce is building a valuable platform focused on delivering outstanding home services under the unique requirements of the multi-family segment," says White in the release.

Steven Pho, an Austin-based entrepreneur and investor previously with Favor Delivery and RetailMeNot, will also join the board.

"Spruce has an amazing opportunity to quickly and cost effectively reach a mass market through their partnerships with national property managers," Pho says in the release. "This unique channel strategy differentiates Spruce from their competitors and enables them to rapidly achieve scale and density in new markets."

Spruce's platform is available across 760 multifamily properties. Photo via GetSpruce.com

Houston-founded Spruce has added some new services to help sanitize multifamily facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Getty Images

Houston-founded startup launches new COVID-19-focused sanitizing services

keeping clean

A startup that provides concierge services — like cleaning and dog walking — to apartment renters has expanded its services to outside the apartment units to help multifamily properties with sanitization and disinfection services to protect their communities from COVID-19.

Austin-based Spruce, which was founded in Houston in 2016 and still has an office locally, has a new suite of services for disinfecting common areas — like leasing offices, hallways, mail rooms, etc. — using EPA-compliant chemicals.

"Now, more than ever, it is critical for apartment communities to make sure their common areas are regularly decontaminated and disinfected to help slow the spread of the coronavirus and to prevent as many infections as possible," says Ben Johnson, founder and CEO of Spruce, in a statement.

The services include a weekly disinfectant of high-touch spots — like door handles and elevator buttons — as well as a weekly comprehensive cleaning that involves mopping, surface cleaning, and vacuuming. The startup also offers a bimonthly fogging service that can completely cover both indoor and outdoor areas with disinfectant. This solution can protect surfaces for months, according to the news release.

"This is an unprecedented public health crisis, and we worked closely with our clients to determine the biggest need and hope these services will give apartment communities one more weapon to use in the fight against COVID-19 and will help give both operators and their residents peace of mind," Johnson continues in the release.

Spruce still offers its usual suite of services for individual apartment units such as daily chores and housekeeping and pet care, but extra precautions have been added since the coronavirus outbreak. The service providers are required to go through temperature checks before entering the properties. They also wear gloves, changing them out between units, and are incorporating paper products when able.

Since its founding, Spruce, which used to be called Apartment Butler, has expanded throughout the state and into South Florida, Denver, and Salt Lake City. Spruce has raised over $6 million in venture capital, per Crunchbase data, and that includes funds from Houston institutions like Mercury Fund, the Houston Angel Network, and Fitz Gate Ventures, as well as Austin-based Capital Factory.

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

Houston startup rebrands, closes $3 million investment round, and plans first out-of-state expansion

Spruced up

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.

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Early-stage accelerator returns to Houston, announces finalists

prepare for take-off

CodeLaunch, a traveling seed-stage accelerator, is returning to Houston for its latest cohort.

The startup competition sponsored by software development company Improving will have its ultimate showdown on February 28. The final competition pairs six startups with six startup consulting companies.

Jason W. Taylor, CodeLaunch president and founder, says CodeLaunch isn’t your typical startup showcase, as it incorporates music acts, comedy, and crowd networking. Mirroring the set-up of a TV show, the six finalists all present their working products in front of an audience amid these performances.

“I would describe CodeLaunch as the next generation of venture-tainment in North America and the greatest startup show on earth,” Taylor explains.

The 2024 Houston CodeLaunch participant startups — and their mentor partners — are as follows:

Prior to pitch day, all six teams will receive hands-on instruction from CodeLaunch mentors on how to construct their pitches and free professional software development from their partners. Taylor says the strong relationships between CodeLaunch and these developers played a major role in setting the competition in Houston.

“We love Houston and we’re back for a third year in a row because the Houston startup ecosystem works together better than other major startup ecosystems I’ve seen,” Taylor says. “We have some great software development partners in Houston that are building code for those startups.”

Last year, Houston-based startup Energy360, with the mentorship and help of Honeycomb Software, took home the Championship belt and a $100,000 investment offer from Cyrannus VC fund for their energy management system Matt Bonasera, Energy360’s enterprise architect, says he is grateful for the entrepreneurial community CodeLaunch provides, in particular the team’s mentor Oleg Lysiak, Honeycomb VP of Partnerships and Business Development.

“I happened along this great community of people who are really passionate about supporting each other,” Bonasera says.

Lysiak agrees that CodeLaunch is an ideal opportunity for young entrepreneurs looking to hone their skills and expand their product capabilities. Lysiak says he is looking forward to defending Honeycomb’s title as top consultant development team.

“My whole philosophy is to connect people and have different collisions and collaborations,” Lysiak says.

Houston startup completes testing, prepares biosimilar insulin drug for clinical trials

next steps

A Houston biotech startup is one step closer to releasing its marquee drug for the global insulin market, which is projected to break the $90 billion threshold by 2029.

rBIO says it recently completed testing of the properties of R-biolin, an insulin drug that’s biologically identical to Novo Nordisk’s Novolin drug. The patent for Novolin about two decades ago. In March 2023, the Dutch drugmaker announced it was slashing the list price of Novolin by 65 percent to $48.20 per vial and $91.09 per FlexPen.

Executives at rBIO are now pursuing a partnership with a contract research organization to manage clinical trials of R-biolin. If those trials go well, R-biolin will seek approval to supply its insulin therapy to diabetes patients around the world.

Washington University in St. Louis is rBIO’s academic partner for the R-biolin project.

The rBIO platform produces insulin at greater yields that traditional manufacturing techniques do. The company is striving to drive down the cost of insulin by 30 percent.

About 38 million Americans have diabetes, with the vast majority being treated for type 2 diabetes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many people with diabetes must take insulin to control their blood sugar levels.

Research company iHealthcareAnalyst predicts the global market for insulin will surpass the $90 billion mark in 2029.

“There has been a lot of talk in the media about reducing the cost of insulin for diabetic patients, but what is often overlooked is that the domestic demand for insulin will soon outpace the supply, leading to a new host of issues,” Cameron Owen, co-founder and CEO of rBIO, says in a news release.

“We’re dedicated to addressing the growing demand for accessible insulin therapies, and … we’re thrilled to announce the viability of our highly scalable manufacturing process.”

Professionals from the University of California San Diego and Johns Hopkins University established rBIO in 2020. The startup moved its headquarters from San Diego to Houston in 2022.

CEO Cameron Owen and Chief Scientific Officer Deenadayalan Bakthavatsalam work on insulin purification in the Houston lab. Photo courtesy

How AI is changing product management and what you need to know

guest column

For the past 14 months, everyone has been talking about ways artificial intelligence is changing the world, and product management is not an exception. The challenge, as with every new technology, is not only adopting it but understanding what old habits, workflows, and processes are affected by it.

Product managers — as well as startup founders leading a product function — more than any other role, face a challenge of bringing new life-changing products to market that may or may not be received well by their users. A product manager’s goal is complex — bring value, stay ahead of the competition, be innovative. Yet, the "behind the scenes" grind requires endless decision making and trade offs to inspire stakeholders to move forward and deliver.

As we dive into 2024, it is obvious that AI tools do not only transform the way we work but also help product managers create products that exceed customer expectation and drive businesses forward.

Market research and trends analysis

As product managers, we process enormous amounts of market data — from reviewing global and industry trend analysis, to social media posts, predictions, competition, and company goals. AI, however, can now replace hours, if not days, of analyzing massive amounts of data in an instant, revealing market trends, anticipating needs, and foreseeing what's coming next. As a result, it is easier to make effective product decisions and identify new market opportunities.

Competitive analysis

Constantly following competitors, reviewing their new releases, product updates, or monitoring reviews to identify competitor strengths and weaknesses is an overwhelming and time consuming task. With AI, you can quickly analyze competitors’ products, pricing, promotions, and feedback. You can easily compare multiple attributes, including metrics, and identify gaps and areas for improvement — all the insights that are otherwise much harder to reveal quickly and efficiently.

Customer and product discovery

Of course, the most intuitive use case that comes to mind is the adoption of AI in product and customer discovery. For example:

  • Use AI for customer segmentation and persona creation to help visualize personas, prioritize user motivations and expectations, and uncover hidden behavior and needs. You can then create and simplify customer questionnaires for interviews and user groups and target customers more accurately.
  • Analyze quantitative and qualitative data from surveys, support tickets, reviews, and in-person interviews to identify pain points and unmet user needs and help prioritize features for future updates and releases.

Roadmap and sprint management

AI provides value in simplifying roadmap planning and sprint management. Resource optimization is often a gruesome task and AI can help with feature prioritization and resource allocation. It helps teams focus on critical work and increase their productivity. You can even analyze and manage dependencies and improve results across multiple sprints months in advance.

Prototyping and mockup generation

There is no product manager’s routine without multiple mockups, wireframes, and prototypes that explain concepts and collect feedback among stakeholders. AI has become a critical tool in simplifying this process and bringing ideas to life from concept to visualization.

Today, you can use textual or voice descriptions to instantly create multiple visuals with slight variations, run A/B tests and gather valuable feedback at the earliest stage of a product life cycle.

Job search and job interviews

Consider it as a bonus but one of the less obvious but crucial advantages of AI is using it in job search. With the vulnerable and unstable job market, especially for product roles, AI is a valuable assistant. From getting the latest news and updates on a company you want to join, to summarizing insights on the executive team, or company goals, compiling lists of interview questions, and running mock interviews, AI has become a non-judgmental assistant in a distressing and often discouraging job search process.

Use AI to draft cold emails to recruiters and hiring managers, compare your skills to open positions’ requirements, identify gaps, and outline ideas for test assignments.

We already know that AI is not a hype; it is here to stay. However, remember that customers do not consume AI, they consume your product for its value. Customers care whether your product gets their need, solves their problem, and makes their lives easier. The goal of a product manager is to create magic combining human brain capabilities and latest technology. And the best result is with a human at the core of any product.

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Natasha Gorodetsky is the founder and CEO of Product Pursuits, a Houston company that helps early stage and venture-backed startups build products and create impact.