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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University of Houston rolls out food delivery robots

on the move

For a small delivery fee of $1.99, students, faculty, and staff across the University of Houston campus can now get their lunch delivered by self-driving robots.

Thirty of San Francisco-based Starship Technologies' autonomous delivery robots now roam the campus thanks to a partnership with New York-based Chartwells Higher Education. The Houston campus is the first to roll out robotic food deliveries.

"This revolutionary delivery method will make it more convenient for the campus community to take advantage of our diverse dining program from anywhere on campus while expanding the hours of operation," says Emily Messa, associate vice president for administration, in a news release. "By opening our campus to this innovative service, which is paid for by the customers, the university didn't have to spend any money purchasing the technology, yet we're enhancing our food delivery capabilities."

Through the Starship Deliveries app, which is available on iOS and Android, users can select from 11 dining institutions and then identify where they are on campus. The platform allows the user to track the progress, and the device can hold up to 20 lbs of food and has the space for about three shopping bags of groceries.

"This increases our capacity to reach more customers, and I expect the robots will quickly become part of campus life," says David Riddle, Chartwells resident district manager, in a news release. (Chartwells manages UH Dining). "Robot delivery will also grow opportunities for UH Dining employees by increasing service hours and growing sales. It has also created additional jobs for students dedicated specifically to servicing the autonomous robots. It's an important advancement for foodservice at UH."

Using machine learning, artificial intelligence and sensors, the company's robots have driven over 350,000 miles and completed over 150,000 deliveries. The Starship robots "can cross streets, climb curbs, travel at night and operate in both rain and snow," per the release.

"Robotic delivery is affordable, convenient and environmentally friendly," says Ryan Tuohy, senior vice president of business development for Starship, in the release. "We're excited to start offering students, staff and faculty at Houston delivery within minutes when they need it most."

Lawyers specializing in startups are hard to comeby in Houston — but here's what you need to know

Guest column

One of the worst, and most expensive, mistakes that we see startup founders make in the very early days of their company is not realizing that hiring lawyers is a lot like hiring doctors: when the stakes are high, you need a highly experienced specialist.

Law has numerous specialties and sub-specialties, and hiring legal counsel with the wrong specialty can mean paying to reinvent the wheel, or simply getting advice that is out of sync with the norms of your industry and the expectations of your seasoned investors.

This challenge can be particularly acute for founders of startups located in Houston. The legal market in any particular city tends to mirror the dominant industries of that city. Houston has some of the world's most prominent energy and healthcare lawyers in the country, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who knows anything about Houston's economy.

Startup lawyers, or more formally —corporate/securities lawyers who are sub-specialized in "emerging companies" — are a different story entirely. Given the nascent status of Houston's startup ecosystem, finding local lawyers who work with emerging technology companies and early-stage funding day in and day out, and know all the norms and nuances, is a challenge.

Very often we see founders get referred to a local lawyer who is a broad generalist that dabbles lightly in many practice areas. Their lack of depth in startup or venture capital work usually leads to clients paying for things that a more specialized lawyer, with a deeper set of precedent forms and institutional knowledge, could simply pull off the shelf. In other cases, founders get referred to very expensive senior corporate lawyers from firms designed for billion-dollar public company representation; totally overkill (and overpriced) for an early-stage startup.

What the smartest Houston founders discover, if they do their homework, is that leveraging the broader "Texas ecosystem" can help not just with sourcing talent for their employee roster or finding venture capital, but with sourcing specialized legal talent as well. In the case of Startup Lawyers, Austin's venture capital and startup ecosystem has produced numerous highly specialized lawyers whose depth of startup/vc experience easily compares with lawyers found in Silicon Valley, but who also regularly interact with investors in the Houston market; and therefore know their expectations. In the case of our firm, Egan Nelson (E/N), a significant number of our clients are located in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and other markets in the general regional area.

Historically, businesspeople have assumed that if they really want top-tier, highly specialized counsel, they had to find that counsel at large, multi-national law firms. That is no longer the case. The broader Texas ecosystem has produced a thriving group of specialized, high-end "boutique" law firms that are recruiting top-tier lawyers away from the traditional mega-firms, and leveraging technology to deliver "leaner" legal counsel; saving hundreds of dollars per hour for entrepreneurs.

It is not uncommon for us to see Houston startups utilizing an emerging companies corporate lawyer in Austin, a regulatory specialist lawyer in Houston, and a tax lawyer in Dallas; all from different firms. This is the future for how emerging companies will source their legal talent, without the constraints of geography or old-fashioned "all in one" law firm structures.

This trend really isn't that new. VCs from Austin and other Texas cities (and the coasts) have regularly been visiting Houston to fund companies, and Houston companies have regularly leveraged contacts in other markets to source specialized resources for their companies. The same dynamics have extended to finding legal counsel. "Localism," and an over-preoccupation with hiring everyone in the same city, isn't really just last year, it's more like last century. There is nothing about legal services for startups that requires any of your lawyers to be within your same city. Videoconferencing works great.

The growth of the Texas ecosystem, and the emergence of specialized boutique law firms, mean that Houston entrepreneurs have far more options to choose from for sourcing specialized legal counsel. Leverage those options to avoid engaging lawyers who are insufficiently experienced, or overkill, for the needs of your company. For more resources on finding and assessing the right lawyers for your Houston startup, see Startup Lawyers, Explained.

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Jose Ancer is an Emerging Companies Partner at Egan Nelson LLP. He also writes for Silicon Hills Lawyer, an internationally recognized startup/vc law blog focused on entrepreneurs located outside of Silicon Valley, including Texas.

Houston blockchain company taps into a new industry, hires new exec

diversifying

A Houston blockchain company that makes it easier and faster to process industry contracts, payment, and more has diversified its business again.

After expanding into the water services industry in August, Houston-based Data Gumbo Corp. has announced its next market: Construction. The startup, which works out of The Cannon Houston, has hired industry veteran Michael Matthews hired as industry principal to work directly on the company's efforts in the $9 trillion sector.

"Construction is one of the world's largest industries, but it has clearly fallen behind others in adopting technology and driving efficiency," says Andrew Bruce, CEO of Data Gumbo, in a news release. "Michael is a recognized leader in the industry and his vision and experience make him an excellent fit to scale Data Gumbo into the construction sector."

Matthews has over 30 years of experience in construction. He says in the release that some of the issues of current practices result in 30 to 40 percent of project costs to be hidden, and he wants to use the GumboNet platform to provide solutions.

"The construction industry lags far behind other industries in both productivity improvement and technology adoption, resulting in billions of lost value," Matthews says in a news release. "The way companies come together to execute projects remains essentially the same despite technology's improvement and we have to make fundamental, disruptive changes to deliver more value."

The growing blockchain-as-a-service company closed $6 million series A round earlier this year. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

Originally built for upstream drilling and completions within the oil and gas industry, Data Gumbo has grown its clientbase over the past few years. The company provides its blockchain-as-a-service services as a subscription for its clients.

Recently, the company was announced to be one of the two Houston-based companies in Plug and Play Tech Center's inaugural Houston cohort, and, earlier this year, the company was named among Crunchbase's top 50 hottest tech companiesCrunchbase's top 50 hottest tech companies. The growing company also hired another executive this summer —the company's new chief commercial officer is Sergio A. Tuberquia — following the closing of a $6 million series A round.