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A Houston entrepreneur created a free smartphone app to easily track and share COVID-19 testing results. Photo courtesy of SafeFun

Houston tech-turned-hospitality entrepreneur launches global health passport

there's an app for that

The pandemic brought Houston hospitality entrepreneur Carson Hager — a self-described "recovering programmer" — back to his roots in an attempt to help people gather together once more.

After 20 years in the tech world — he sold his consumer-grade commercial software company Cynergy Systems to KPMG in 2014 —Hager founded the Hospitable Viking, known for popular local bars like Rosemont in Montrose and Cherry downtown.

"It gives me some chaos," he says of his new industry. "It's something to do that's a very different challenge."

But the pandemic added a new challenge and even more chaos in his industry. As restrictions were put in place in the spring of 2020 and many (including Hager himself) didn't feel comfortable dining and drinking in public, he watched as many in his industry lost their jobs, businesses, and sense of community.

"I live in restaurants and bars and I wouldn't have gone anywhere at that point," Hager says. "I was thinking, what's it going to take for people to be able to feel comfortable to go back out again and go out to bars and restaurants, gyms, salons, club, etcetera."

In April 2020, he decided to act. And with the help of a few programmer friends pulling long hours for about 100 days straight, Hager created SafeFun, a Houston-based digital health passport that allows users to voluntarily and easily share COVID-19 test results and information.

The free app extracts and analyzes PDF test results from a variety of COVID-19 tests including molecular/diagnostic, antigen and antibody tests. SafeFun then validates the test against records from 100 partnering testing centers, including the likes of Walgreens, CVS, and Walmart, to ensure that the results are credible and summarizes the information for users to easily share through the app or in person.

After completing the build out in September 2020, Hager and his small team of four approached various city governments with the hopes of having them come on board as partners and support using the app for business purposes. However, what they found was that users were more interested in using SafeFun for personal reasons.

After a few more weeks of programming, Hager and team released the consumer-facing version in late 2020. Currently SafeFun has about 12,000 users around the world, according to Hager. Today it's mainly used ahead of a small gathering with friends, when visiting family, or to date.

SafeFun also has the capability to process and analyze proof of vaccine and other tests for infectious diseases. However, the current road block in the COVID realm is that in the U.S. most vaccine providers do not provide digital for PDF documentation.

Still, Hager envisions various potential uses for SafeFun in the future: for cruises, air travel, and even STD testing. Or, as Hager says, "God forbid, future pandemics."

This Houston hospital is tapping into tech to best optimize its COVID-19 vaccination process. Photo courtesy of MD Anderson

New app gives Houston hospital a better shot at giving COVID-19 vaccinations to employees

there's an app for that

Across the country, millions of people eagerly await their COVID-19 vaccinations. But many of them are encountering a big roadblock on the path toward eradicating the pandemic: scheduling their shots.

To overcome that hurdle, some organizations have turned to technology. San Antonio-based grocery chain H-E-B, for instance, will let customers schedule COVID-19 vaccinations through a web-based scheduler. As with H-E-B's app, many vaccination-scheduling tools are just now becoming available.

Houston's MD Anderson Cancer Center is one huge step ahead of the vaccination curve, though. Back in September, the hospital — part of the massive Texas Medical Center complex — started planning how it would roll out vaccinations for its more than 21,000-member workforce. As part of that planning, MD Anderson developed an in-house app enabling its employees to schedule their own vaccination appointments.

"We have an incredible team of informatics developers who worked in conjunction with our human resource and employee health leaders to design an app that's accessible on your phone or from any computer," says Dr. Welela Tereffe, chief medical executive at MD Anderson. "The app feeds you information about what appointments are available and then floats an appointment reminder to your calendar as well as sending you text reminders."

Beginning December 15, MD Anderson employees received the hospital's initial round of shots. They were the first employees who used the app to schedule appointments at workplace vaccination clinics. As of January 5, more than 8,700 hospital employees had been vaccinated with the first dose of either the Pfizer vaccine or Moderna vaccine. The immunizations are not mandatory. In all, 10,700 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been shipped to MD Anderson since December 14, and every one of them is already spoken for.

Yolan Campbell, associate vice president of HR operations at MD Anderson, says the vaccination scheduling app built on knowledge the hospital's team had accumulated throughout 2020 in producing apps for COVID-19 tests and other pandemic-related purposes.

Tereffe notes that COVID-19 vaccination scheduling has "caused a lot of stress" for health care providers. MD Anderson hoped to avoid that stress by incorporating the app into its vaccination plan.

"The app that that our teams have designed is very simple, very user-friendly," Tereffe says. "It prompts you to put in your preferred contact information, both email and phone. It allows you to choose a block of time and a day that you'd like to be vaccinated. And it puts the information right there at your fingertips about the vaccine and the vaccine clinic process so that you can review it in real time."

As soon as an employee chooses an appointment slot, they receive conformation via the app. Through the app, an employee can cancel or reschedule an appointment.

"I think that level of access and control really helps to reassure people that they can trust the process," Tereffe said.

The app also gives MD Anderson more control over the vaccination clinics, according to Campbell and Tereffe. For instance, a dashboard created by IT professionals at the hospital gathers data from the app to track how many vaccinations have been given, how many appointments have been canceled, and which times and days are most popular for vaccinations. Tereffe said those real-time insights have enabled MD Anderson to adjust the operating hours for vaccination clinics.

To supplement the app, MD Anderson provides extra assistance with vaccination scheduling for employees with language or technology barriers, Tereffe said. The hospital also runs a vaccination hotline staffed by HR professionals.

Looking ahead, Tereffe said MD Anderson will accept any COVID-19 vaccine that's been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). So far, that's limited to the Pfizer and Moderna versions.

"We have a process in place to hold unique clinics for each type of vaccine and each dose of vaccine to ensure that people get the vaccine that they have chosen … and that they always get the correct second dose," Tereffe said. "Our intent is to help our employees make informed decisions."

Wayt is a new app that makes both sides of a shopping transaction smoother and social distancing compliant. Photo courtesy of Wayt

Houston-area student creates new app to help businesses operate safely during COVID-19

there's an app for that

A 17-year-old high school student from the Houston area stepped up to help his local community, as the coronavirus continues to keep many customers from shopping the way they used to.

The Wayt app, created during the stay-at-home order in March, presents itself as an efficient and easy-to-use platform to streamline shopping during the times of the coronavirus. The app provides businesses and their customers with a platform to communicate making curbside pickup, booking appointments, and joining a virtual line a breeze.

"The platform provides a new set of tools for both the customers and the employees of businesses," says Ethan Saadia, app developer and Wayt creator. "With the use of this app, businesses can streamline the process and remove the hassle of shopping for customers."

The app offers a new way to open businesses by using technology that can manage capacity and keep them connected as many businesses move to curbside pickup. The platform allows customers to receive notifications about their order and tap a button to tell the business they're here, removing the hassle of calling customers to tell them their order is ready.

Wayt provides businesses with the customer name and car information, it even lets them know if the customer wants the order delivered directly to their trunk or other areas of their vehicle. This instant notification system keeps businesses and clients safe allowing them to practice strict social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"The use of this app will be able to remove a lot of the anxiousness that we have currently," says Saadia. "It will allow for a more convenient shopping experience as we continue to deal with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic in all of our lives."

The platform also allows businesses to offer shopping appointments to abide with reduced capacity mandates, letting customers pick when they can come in within the constraints customized by the business. The app also makes standing in line while keeping social distancing recommendations easy by having customers tap a button on the app to get in line.

According to Saadia, a lot of these changes — like curbside pickup and virtual lines — are here to stay.

"From my perspective and experiences from my friends and family," says Saadia. "Curbside pickup and virtual lines are definitely here to stay because even before the pandemic, popular places used to have long lines and that presented many new challenges. The pandemic is just accelerating technological change that will make our lives easier."

Saadia, a serial innovator and app developer, started his first company in 2013 called PCs for Me where he sells DIY computer kits that help kids learn computer science. While he expects to continue that venture and Wayt, Saadia says he's conscious that things can change unexpectedly as he enters his senior year.

"I know we live under a very uncertain time and I don't really know what's going to happen with school a month from now or a year from now," says Saadia. "My plan is to keep taking it day by day working on Wayt to improve the user experience and work on other apps that I have on the pipeline."

Ethan Saadia, a 17-year-old high school student, created an app to improve the user experience of shopping during a pandemic.

OrangeCrate provides a locally-owned option for delivery. Courtesy of OrangeCrate

New locally owned food delivery app rolls into Houston area

orange you glad?

A new delivery app aims to give diners a locally owned alternative to the big national names. Meet OrangeCrate, an app that does things a little differently.

Unlike the national brands, each OrangeCrate affiliate is locally owned and has a specific geographic territory. Franchisee Cody Lee has brought the company to two areas of Houston, Fort Bend County and the greater Memorial area. Lee launched in Fort Bend on June 1 and will bring Memorial online August 24.

"We're just like UberEats or DoorDash, but we're locally owned and locally operated, so I have a lot of control and flexibility versus some of the bigger name brands," Lee tells CultureMap.

That flexibility starts with the cost restaurants pay to use OrangeCrate. While national operators might charge as much as 30 percent to deliver a meal, Lee says OrangeCrate's fees are typically half that, usually between 10 and 15 percent.

Customer fees start at $2.99 and go up depending on how far away from the restaurant they live. Most orders also have a $10 minimum.

In terms of control, Lee trains each driver personally and monitors them when they're working. Unlike other services, drivers may only make one delivery at once, and they're only allowed to make OrangeCrate deliveries while they're on the company's schedule.

"I can chat with them and understand if there's an issue and minimize the impact to the customer," Lee says. "There's a lot of control where I can maintain a lot of variables to ensure the customer experience."

From a user's perspective, the experience will feel familiar. Order and pay via OrangeCrate's website and app. A driver — wearing masks and gloves, of course — will arrive with a bright orange bag containing the food order.

Lee says that so far his biggest challenge has been building awareness of the brand and convincing restaurateurs that he's a viable alternative to the more familiar names. From his perspective, restaurants that promote his company can save money on delivery fees and expand their reach, which is particularly important at a time when some people don't feel comfortable eating in restaurants.

"Most people know the bigger guys," Lee says. "It's important to hear Orange Crate, and that we're a local option; we're also a cheaper option. They get the same or better service for their customers."

In Fort Bend County, Lee has started with a roster of mostly national and regional chains like Chili's, 5 Guys, and Chuy's, but he says he's trying to add as many local restaurants as possible. In the Memorial area, he hopes to launch with between 50 and 60 establishments.

"My focus is on local restaurants and earning their business," Lee says. "I will only be adding local restaurants as we go forward."

So far, Lee has seen enough growth that he's optimistic about the service's future. He's got his eyes on Galveston and The Woodlands as potential market for expansive, with Inner Loop neighborhoods in his long term plans.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

You can order Mala Sichuan to be delivered thanks to newly launched Chowbus. Photo by Isabel Protomartir

Chicago-based food delivery app launches to serve Houstonians

introducing chowbus

A new delivery app wants to make it easier for Houstonians to access the best dishes from Chinatown. Chowbus, a nationwide service that focuses on Asian cuisines, has arrived in Houston.

Among the 80-plus restaurants available at launch, diners may use the app to order dishes from Chinatown favorites such as Mala Sichuan Bistro, Arco Seafood, and Ocean Palace as well as relative newcomers like Chengdu Taste, Chongqing Chicken Pot, and Meet Fresh. Deliveries are available from 11 am to 10 pm to points within the Houston city limits as well as to suburbs such as Pearland, Sugar Land, and Katy.

Customers pay a delivery fee that costs between $2.99 and $4.99 depending on their proximity to the restaurant, but the app does provide a bundling option that allows people to order dishes from multiple restaurants without paying an additional fee. True die-hards can subscribe to Chowbus Plus; for $9.99 per month, all deliveries over $25 are free and deliveries between $15 and $25 cost $1.99.

"We are excited to roll out our service to the Houston community," Chowbus co-founder and CEO Linxin Wen said in a statement. "The city is known for its vibrant culinary scene, which includes tons of great authentic Asian restaurants. We're proud to help Space City discover them."

Beyond helping restaurants expand their reach, Chowbus aims to be a good partner to its restaurants by providing them with analysis of best-selling dishes as well as high quality digital photography. On average, Chowbus claims to boost delivery revenue by 25-percent for restaurants on the platform.

"We're thrilled by the opportunity to partner with Chowbus," said Shanjian Li, the owner of Chongqing Chicken Pot, a Szechuan restaurant in Chinatown's Bellaire Food Street complex. "We hope this will help more Houstonians discover the flavorful dishes that we work so hard to create every day."

Based in Chicago, Chowbus has been a growth spurt. The platform now offers delivery from more than 3,000 restaurants in over 20 cities across North America such as Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, and Boston.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Nearly half of Houston workers complain of serious burnout, says new report

working hard

Local workers who're especially dreading that commute or cracking open the laptop in the morning aren't alone. A new study reveals that nearly half of Houston laborers are more burned out on the job.

Some 49 percent of Bayou City residents report to be burned out at work, according to employment industry website Robert Half. That's significantly higher than last year, when only 37 percent reported burnout in a similar poll.

Meanwhile, more than one in four Houston workers (28 percent) say that they will not unplug from work when taking time off this summer.

Not surprisingly, American workers are ready for a vacation. Per a press release, the research also reveals:

  • One in four workers lost or gave up paid time off in 2020
  • One in three plans to take more than three weeks of vacation time this year

Elsewhere in Texas, the burnout is real. In Dallas, 50 percent of workers report serious burnout. More than a quarter — 26 percent — of Dallasites fear they won't disconnect from the office during summer vacation.

In fun-filled Austin, 45 percent of the workforce complain of burnout. Some 32 percent of Austinites feel they can unplug from work during the summer.

Fortunately for us, the most burned-out city in the U.S. isn't in the Lone Star State. That dubious title goes to the poor city of Charlotte, North Carolina, where 55 percent of laborers are truly worn out.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston small biz tech platform raises $21M series B

money moves

A tech company focused on supporting and growing startups and small businesses has reached its own next big growth milestone this week.

Machine learning-enabled small business support company Hello Alice, founded in Houston with a large presence in California, has closed its $21 million series B raise led by Virginia-based QED Investors with participation from new investors including Backstage Capital, Green Book Ventures, Harbert Growth Partners, and How Women Invest.

The raise comes at a pivotal time for the company, which worked hard during the pandemic to support struggling business and now aims to support entrepreneurs of all backgrounds as the world re-emerges out of the COVID-19 era. The fresh funds, according to a press release, will be used to refine the predictive capabilities on its platform, launch a mobile application, and more.

"These investments signal that despite the recent challenges small business owners have faced, there is an economic tidal wave that will revitalize Main Street, led by the entrepreneurs we serve," says Elizabeth Gore, co-founder and president of Hello Alice, in the release.

Since April 2020, Hello Alice has granted over $20 million in emergency funds and resources for small business owners affected by the pandemic. According to the release, the largest percentage of those grants went to "New Majority owners," especially people of color and women. Additionally, the company has reportedly experienced 1,100 percent growth and has expanded to support 500,000 small business owners weekly, with an increased revenue of more than 600 percent through its SaaS platform.

"We are thrilled to have a cap table as diverse as the business owners we serve," says Carolyn Rodz, co-founder and CEO of Hello Alice, in the release. "Our investors are leaders from the Black, Hispanic, LGBTQ+, Women, and US Veteran communities. As a Latina founder and fellow small business owner, I want to ensure that as our company grows, we are fueling future diversity in capital and breaking through ceilings for the benefit of our community."

According to a recent report Hello Alice produced in partnership with GGV Capital, now is the time to support small businesses. The report found that 83 percent of owners surveyed (which included 97,739 founders operating in all 50 states) believe their business will perform better in 2021 than in 2020. Most of the founders — 93 percent — plan to hire this year compared to the almost half — 45 percent — that laid off employees in 2020. Additionally, founders have an increased focus on tech — 75 percent said they are going to spend more on tech this year compared to last.

"Small business owners are the backbone of the U.S. economy, but many fail before they've had an opportunity to meaningfully serve the community in which they're based," says Frank Rotman, QED Investors Founding Partner, in the release. "Access to both capital and business expertise remain the biggest obstacles for SMBs, challenges heightened for women- and minority-owned businesses.

"Traditionally, corporations and government grants want to engage and support, but there hasn't been a source of truth on who can qualify for their diversity grants, funds and programs," he continues. "Hello Alice solves this problem, building tools that empower the new majority and enabling corporations and governments to support SMBs. Founders Carolyn and Elizabeth and the entire Hello Alice team are having a real, tangible impact on the ecosystem. We are incredibly excited to help them help others."

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to two local innovators, as well as one honorary Houstonian, across industries — energy, manufacturing, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Juliana Garaizar, head of Greentown Houston and vice president of Greentown Labs

Juliana Garaizar is transitioning her role at Greentown Houston. Courtesy photo

Juliana Garaizar has a new role within Greentown Labs. She's lead the local team as launch director, and now is taking a new role now that Greentown Houston has opened its doors. Garaizar recently discussed with InnovationMap why now is the perfect time for Greentown to premiere in Houston.

"I think that if Greentown had happened one year before or even one year later, it wouldn't be the right time. I really believe that our main partners are transitioning themselves — Shell, Chevron, and many others are announcing how they are transitioning," she says. "And now they look at Greentown as an execution partner more than anything. Before, it was a nice initiative for them to get involved in. Now, they are really thinking about us much more strategically." Click here to read more.

Misha Govshteyn, CEO of MacroFab

Misha Govshteyn joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the evolving electronics manufacturing industry. Photo courtesy of MacroFab

Electronics manufacturer and MacroFab, run by CEO Misha Govshteyn, much like the rest of the business world, was not immune to the effects of the pandemic. But as some business returned last summer, Govshteyn says MacroFab bounced back in a big way.

"In a lot of ways, the concepts we've been talking about actually crystalized during the pandemic. For a lot of people, it was theoretically that supply chain resiliency is important," Govshteyn says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Single sourcing from a country halfway around the world might not be the best solution. ... When you have all your eggs in one basket, sooner or later you're going to have a break in your supply chain. And we've seen nothing but breaks in supply chains for the last five years." Click here to read more.

Kerri Smith, interim executive director of the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator

A new clean energy accelerator has announced its first cohort. Photo via rice.edu

The Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator, a 12-week program that will prepare startups to grow their business, connect them with strategic partners and mentors, launch pilots, and fundraise, has named its inaugural cohort.

"We were impressed with the quality, potential and range of clean energy solutions being commercialized by our applicant pool and took great care in assessing their potential as well as our ability to meet their identified needs," says Kerri Smith, the accelerator's interim executive director. "The selection process was very competitive. We had a difficult time paring down the applications but are looking forward to working with our first class of 12." Click here to read more.