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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California-founded biotech startup relocates to join Houston's emerging bioeconomy

Cameron Owen had an idea for a synthetic biology application, and he pitched it to a handful of postdoctoral programs. When he received the feedback that he didn't have enough research experience, he decided to launch a startup based in San Diego around his idea. He figured that he'd either get the experience he needed to re-apply, or he'd create a viable company.

After three years of research and development, Owen's path seems to have taken him down the latter of those two options, and he moved his viable company, rBIO, to Houston — a twist he didn't see coming.

“Houston was not on my radar until about a year and a half ago,” Owen says, explaining that he thought of Houston as a leading health care hub, but the coasts still had an edge when it came to what he was doing. “San Diego and the Boston area are the two big biotech and life science hubs.”

But when he visited the Bayou City in December of 2021, he says he saw first hand that something new was happening.

“Companies from California like us and the coastal areas were converging here in Houston and creating this new type of bioeconomy,” he tells InnovationMap.

Owen moved to Houston last year, but rBIO still has an academic partner in Washington University in St. Louis and a clinical research organization it's working with too, so he admits rBIO's local footprint is relatively small — but not for long.

"When we look to want to get into manufacturing, we definitely want to build something here in Houston," he says. "We’re just not to that point as a company."

In terms of the stage rBIO is in now, Owen says the company is coming out of R&D and into clinical studies. He says rBIO has plans to fundraise and is meeting with potential partners that will help his company scale and build out a facility.

With the help of its CRO partner, rBIO has two ongoing clinical projects — with a third coming next month. Owen says right now rBIO is targeting the pharmaceutical industry’s biologics sector — these are drugs our bodies make naturally, like insulin. About 12 percent of the population in the United States has diabetes, which translates to almost 40 million people. The demand for insulin is high, and rBIO has a way to create it — and at 30 percent less cost.

This is just the tip of the iceberg — the world of synthetic biology application is endless.

“Now that we can design and manipulate biology in ways we’ve never been able to before,” Owen says, "we’re really only limited by our own imagination.”

Synthetic biology is a field of science that involves programing biology to create and redesign natural elements. While it sounds like science fiction, Owen compares it to any other type of technology.

“Biology really is a type of software,” he says. “Phones and computers at their core run on 1s and 0s. In biology, it’s kind of the same thing, but instead of two letters, it’s four — A, C, T, and G.”

“The cool thing about biology is the software builds the hardware,” he continues. “You put that code in there and the biology builds in and of itself.”

Owen says the industry of synthetic biology has been rising in popularity for years, but the technology has only recently caught up.

“We’re exploring a brave new world — there’s no doubt about that,” Owen says.

Houston Airports soar with first-class awards in international ceremony

top of the line

We can now dub Houston the city of first-class airports and first-class service.

During the 2023 Skytrax World Airport Awards in Amsterdam, the Houston airport system earned several prestigious honors, including a second consecutive five-star rating.

Skytrax is the leading international air transport rating organization; they determine their ratings based on annual audits of every airport. This year, the Houston airport system won in a new category that was unveiled at the ceremony – “Best Art in the Airport” – which was determined by a panel of judges.

Mario Diaz, the director of aviation for Houston Airports, said in a press release that superior customer service is the “guiding light” for the city’s airport system.

“Excellent customer service is at our core; an expansive and eclectic arts program, just awarded World’s Best Art Program in 2023, provides a meaningful and memorable experience,” said Diaz.

The awards continued to stack up. William P. Hobby Airport maintained its five-star rating for the second year in a row. It is one of 18 total five-star airports in the world, but the one and only five-star Skytrax airport in North America.

Other accolades the Hobby Airport earned include:

  • Best Regional Airport in North America, for the second consecutive year
  • No. 2 Best Airport in the United States
  • No. 3 Best Airport in North America

George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) maintained its four-star classification for the sixth year in a row. It was also named the fourth best airport in North America, and third best in the United States.

Houston mayor Sylvester Turner said the Skytrax awards reaffirm the city airports’ “dedication to detail and commitment to customer service.”

“Houston truly is a global city where our guests are valued and celebrated,” he praised. “Another year of [five]-star and [four]-star ratings is proof that the investments we continue to make in our Houston Airports arts program, airport infrastructure and technology and team members are smart and successful investments that lead to a world-class and award-winning passenger experience.”

More information about the awards can be found on fly2houston.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston expert: Here's why your top candidate turned down your job offer

guest column

One of the most disappointing (and costly) things as a hiring manager is when your top candidate declines the job offer. You spend months defining target skills and characteristics, reviewing résumés and interviewing candidates to narrow down to your finalist of choice. You put together what you believe is a strong offer, and the candidate says “no.” What went wrong?

It’s not an employer’s job market anymore. In this transformed workplace, and at a time of historically low unemployment, it is very much an employee’s market, and he/she can afford to be selective. Below are some common reasons candidates turn down job offers and what you can do to prevent them.

No. 1: The interview process took too long

It takes time to identify the right fit, and a typical hiring process will often involve 2-3 interviews with decision makers in different locations. You also want to pinpoint a candidate you like and compare him/her to other candidates. When all is said and done, you’re often looking at an interview process that can take 6-8 weeks. During this time, it’s critical to stay in touch with the candidate. A simple email with a status update will help keep them engaged. This is also a great time to check references, showing the candidate your continued interest.

While you’re focused on filling the position, it’s easy to forget candidates have deadlines, too. A lengthy interview process with periods of little interaction can make a candidate feel you don’t respect his/her time or make your company appear disorganized, something they may be leery of based on past experience. Setting expectations upfront and maintaining open lines of communication are key in this candidate-driven environment.

Equally important to an efficient hiring process is encouraging non-essential decision makers to let go after a certain point. For example, once a small sized business graduates to a midsized company, a CEO should not make the mistake of thinking they have to talk to every single prospect. They need to approve them. Delegating and trust are key.

No. 2: You didn’t ‘sell’ the opportunity enough

It’s easy to forget interviews are as much about the candidate interviewing you as you interviewing the candidate. While you want to assess the person’s skills and cultural fit, the candidate wants to know how the role will match his/her personal and professional goals. Heck, they want to know how it stacks up against other jobs for which they might be applying!

Career growth is something every candidate wants. It’s critical for the hiring manager to discuss training and personal development opportunities. This is particularly important for millennials, who are often more motivated by the ability to learn and grow than they are by an increase in financial compensation. It’s also important to talk about the company culture and what makes you stand out. Bottom line: You want the candidate to leave the interview knowing he/she will be appreciated by your company and will get an experience that can’t be found elsewhere. To this end, expressing genuine interest in their life outside of work (loved ones, what makes them tick, etc.) can make all the difference.

No. 3: Lack of employer brand appeal

Companies spend a lot of time branding their products and services but don’t always think about how they look to future employees. Your M.O. is how you show candidates what it’s like to work for you. This includes their overall interview process experience, reviews on websites like Glassdoor, as well as posts your company and employees share on social media.

Let candidates get to know your company through posts. Show your team having fun together, being involved in the community and as customer-focused professionals. Employees also give hints about their work experience in their own social content. If they’re happy, it’ll show in their online activity.

These first three reasons for why a job offer might be turned down are all about how a hirer makes a candidate feel, but the fine print matters too.

No. 4: Job duties

It may seem like a no-brainer that a job description should be well-written, but more often than not, it’s unclear what will be expected of said employee. When you do the internal work ahead of time, getting alignment on what’s required and the intricacies of the existing (or new) position, it leaves little room for misunderstanding and/or disappointment post-hire.

No. 5: Compensation and benefits

Lastly, a strong compensation and benefits package is critical in securing your top pick. For some roles, that will mean an offer heavily weighed on the salary side. For others, it will be uncapped commissions or the opportunity for equity. Make sure the package is competitive with the industry, and will appeal to your ideal candidate and make him/her want to join your team.

Remember to think “outside the box” with extra benefits like flexible work hours, the ability to work remotely, PTO/unlimited sick days or vacation. The cost to implement these perks is low, but they often mean more to the candidate than higher pay.

In today’s employee-driven job market, top candidates are looking for a comprehensive package, growth opportunities, and a welcoming work environment that will provide lasting happiness and satisfaction.

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Hazel Kassu is the managing director of Houston-based recruiting firm, Sudduth Search.