Houston sportstech startup scales, plans expansion into health care

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 109

Aaron Knape joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share how he's taking the sEATz platform into a new vertical. Photo courtesy of sEATz

When sEATz launched, the startup was looking to provide a way for sports fans to order their beer and hotdog to their seat without having to miss a moment of a game. Over the years, the Houston company has expanded its technology to be a reliable platform for mobile order management in stadiums and arenas — and now Aaron Knape, co-founder and CEO, knows the technology can do so much more.

"We started this company with a focus on mobile ordering for sports and entertainment venues," Knape says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We've always known we wanted to get into other industry verticals, and one that stuck out, primarily because it's such a big deal in Houston, is the health care industry."

Knape says he and his co-founder, Marshall Law, let this idea be known to their vendor partners, and eventually sEATz got the right connection to a health care campus to try out a new product: MyEatz.

"What we're building now is a mobile ordering platform for these large health care campuses," Knape says, explaining that the campuses have thousands of employees with limited space and time for dining. "We're starting on our first pilots in the health care industry where we provide that mobile ordering platform and back-end support with our partner Aramark."

Among the first groups to pilot the new product is Houston Methodist, Knape says. The pilots should launch this quarter — either this month or next.

"This could be a much bigger market than sports and entertainment," Knape says. "Sports will continue to be our core market, but this will be a little less seasonal."

And, in light of the last 18 months, less averse to the effects of a shutdown of sports and entertainment. However, the sEATz team entered the COVID-19 pandemic with uncertainty — like most of the world — but the team was able to market sEATz mobile ordering platform as something crucial to bringing back fans in stadiums.

"Our goal was to go out and market ourselves and push the branding of 'we facilitate social distancing, mitigate crowds, and get rid of lines,'" Knape says on the show. "That really resonated with a lot of our clientbase."

Remarkably, sEATz even raised fresh funding amid the pandemic. In November of 2020, the startup closed an oversubscribed $1.6 million seed round led by Valedor Partners. Knape says he's currently focused on the company's to support scaling and growing the team by six or so new employees over the next few months.

"I tell the team that we're kind of coming out of stealth mode — I know we're not in a true stealth mode, but we haven't spent a lot of money on sales and marketing," Knape says. "Now it's time to start putting that emphasis on who we are, that we're here, and we're ready to take over."

Knape shares more on how sEATz is growing and the potential for Houston to build a sportstech niche within the innovation ecosystem on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


The new app answers all those recycling and trash schedule questions. Photo courtesy of Richwood Place

City of Houston sorts trash and curbside recycling questions with new app

there's an app for that

Ah, the age-old Houston recycling questions: Is recycling today? Next week? Is glass accepted? Recycle the birthday card from the ex or burn it?

The City of Houston is here to help with those questions (er, perhaps not the last one) with a new app designed to help locals. HTX Collects is a new mobile app aimed at helping residents keep track of weekly services, updates, and collection delays.

HTX Collects will include collection reminders for garbage, recycling, yard waste and tree/junk waste specific to residents' service addresses. The app will also send a reminder to residents of their collection days, a press release notes. (Yes!)

Other features include:

  • Collection Calendar: Trash, Recycling, Yard Waste, Junk/Tree Waste services. Users can set reminders and receive alerts via email, push notifications, and phone call.
  • Waste Wizard: A searchable solid waste directory, plus curbside services and drop-off location information.
  • Waste Sorting Game: An interactive educational tool to engage, challenge and change recycling behavior.

Residents can find and download the mobile app for Apple and Android devices via the Apple App Store or Google Play Store by searching for the keywords Houston Trash and Recycling.

Those who would prefer not to litter their home screen can visit the website HoustonRecycles.org and search their home address in the My Schedule tool. They can also:

  • Sign up to receive waste collection reminders by email or phone call.
  • Download their collection schedule into their iCal, Google calendar, or Microsoft Outlook calendar. Print their personalized collection schedule.
  • Search the Waste Wizard on HoustonRecycles.org to learn how to recycle or dispose of materials properly.

By the numbers, Houston's Solid Waste Management Department collects curbside service for over 395,000 residential homes within the city limits, per a release. (No word on how many of those collected items are ex's birthday cards.)

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston pools like this are available to rent through Swimmy. Photo courtesy of Swimmy

Splashy European pool-sharing app dives into Houston just in time for summer

sharing is caring

Scorching temps. Baking cars. ERCOT begging locals to set their thermostats to 78 (say what?). Why, it's almost like it's summer in Houston or something.

After a long sweat, nothing cools off like a long swim in a sparkling pool. To that end, a European pool-sharing service is diving into Houston, allow H-Towners to visit safe, secure spaces that come certified and ready to make a splash.

Dubbed Swimmy, the app (available for download on Apple and Android) connects swimmers and sunbathers with pool rentals in their area. Booking sessions range by pool between $25-$35 per person per half day, per a release.

"I have two kids and in just a few clicks we are grabbing our towels and splashing around in a private pool, it's a perfect playdate," Swimmy spokesperson Isobella Harkrider tells CultureMap.

Here's a sample of some local pools, as described by Swimmy:

  • This gorgeous pool features a very large pool space, a garden, lawn and deck chairs, a barbecue, table and chairs and a lawn for bowling and other games.
  • This large, gated pool is perfect for a birthday or celebrating the Fourth of July with friends. The pool owner describes the atmosphere as 'serene' and 'fun' and includes pool chairs.
  • The kids will love to splash around in this huge pool while mom enjoys a sunny day of play and relaxation.
  • In Pearland you can enjoy a day of relaxation with a book at this large pool with a beautiful floral garden, the host describes the pool as "the perfect backdrop for a peaceful oasis."
  • This beautiful indoor and outdoor pool space "allows for comfort, but with access to the outdoors through the windows and skylight," the pool owner says. There are lounge chairs and adequate space for seating. Music is allowed for your blissful day.

Obviously, the pool-sharing app is a no-brainer for those who are shy about inviting themselves to pool-owning friends houses, public pools, and gym pools. But what's in it for pool owners? According to Swimmy, pool owners can bank some serious cash on their under-used — and certified – pools during hot summer months.

"Texas pool owners can make some extra cash this summer, Swimmy makes it easy to turn your pool into a moneymaker and is a profitable move for empty nesters whose certified pools may be less active this summer," says Harkrider.

For more information, visit Swimmy.com or download the app.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Swing into golf games with new friends with this new app. Photo courtesy of TeeMates Golf

New Houston-based golf app links up players, sets tee times, and more

there's an app for that

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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."

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3 businesses join Houston initiative for carbon capture and storage

seeing green

Three big businesses — Air Liquide, BASF, and Shell — have added their firepower to the effort to promote large-scale carbon capture and storage for the Houston area’s industrial ecosystem.

These companies join 11 others that in 2021 threw their support behind the initiative. Participants are evaluating how to use safe carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology at Houston-area facilities that provide energy, power generation, and advanced manufacturing for plastics, motor fuels, and packaging.

Other companies backing the CCS project are Calpine, Chevron, Dow, ExxonMobil, INEOS, Linde, LyondellBasell, Marathon Petroleum, NRG Energy, Phillips 66, and Valero.

Business and government leaders in the Houston area hope the region can become a hub for CCS activity.

“Large-scale carbon capture and storage in the Houston region will be a cornerstone for the world’s energy transition, and these companies’ efforts are crucial toward advancing CCS development to achieve broad scale commercial impact,” Charles McConnell, director of University of Houston’s Center for Carbon Management in Energy, says in a news release.

McConnell and others say CCS could help Houston and the rest of the U.S. net-zero goals while generating new jobs and protecting current jobs.

CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide from industrial activities that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere and then injecting it into deep underground geologic formations for secure and permanent storage. Carbon dioxide from industrial users in the Houston area could be stored in nearby onshore and offshore storage sites.

An analysis of U.S Department of Energy estimates shows the storage capacity along the Gulf Coast is large enough to store about 500 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is equivalent to more than 130 years’ worth of industrial and power generation emissions in the United States, based on 2018 data.

“Carbon capture and storage is not a single technology, but rather a series of technologies and scientific breakthroughs that work in concert to achieve a profound outcome, one that will play a significant role in the future of energy and our planet,” says Gretchen Watkins, U.S. president of Shell. “In that spirit, it’s fitting this consortium combines CCS blueprints and ambitions to crystalize Houston’s reputation as the energy capital of the world while contributing to local and U.S. plans to help achieve net-zero emissions.”

Texas doctor dives into Shark Tank with invention that stops hiccups

shark bait

Humans are weird. Take, as a perfect example, the phenomenon of hiccups — the sudden and involuntary spasm of the diaphragm muscle between regular breaths. All humans experience them, and so do other mammals and even amphibians. But we’re guessing other animals don’t approach treating hiccups in the wacky ways humans do.

For instance, some less-than-successful hiccup remedies of lore include sipping water upside down (and subsequently trying to not drown), holding one’s breath for a long time (and often hiccupping throughout the hold anyway), sucking on a peppermint, gagging oneself or pulling on the tongue, and even gobbling up a spoonful of peanut butter to help change the breathing and swallowing pattern.

The truth is those ideas are mostly a waste of breath. Luckily, one San Antonio doctor has invented a device that supposedly instantly relieves hiccups — and his invention is getting so much attention that he’s even hooked a chance to pitch the product on a new episode of ABC’s entrepreneurial-focused reality show, Shark Tank.

Dr. Ali Seifi, a neurointensivist at UT Health San Antonio and the inventor of the aptly named HiccAway, will appear on an episode of Shark Tank that airs tonight, January 21 at 7 pm.

HiccAway, a straw-like device that a hiccup sufferer uses to sip water through, is likely to wow the sharks — maybe even take their breath away? — as it is the world’s first scientifically proven medical product that safely relieves hiccups.

In fact, HiccAway was recently the subject of an article in JAMA Network Open, a publication of the Journal of the American Medical Association Network. The article addresses a four-month cross-sectional study of 249 participants from multiple countries that found that HiccAway stopped hiccups in almost 92 percent of cases and was rated a heck of a lot more favorably than home remedies.

“I believe that the science behind our product is what makes our product trustworthy and reliable. There are many hiccup remedies that are all hit and miss with no exact science to them,” Seifi says. “Some healthcare products claim they can cure a medical condition, but they don’t have scientific backup to support the product. I can confidently state that HiccAway is one of the few products on Shark Tank so far with a strong published research study as a backup.”

While hiccups are simply an annoyance for most of us, they can also be chronic for patients with cancer, meningitis, multiple sclerosis, stroke, traumatic brain or thoracic injury, and even for patients who have had surgery that requires anesthesia.

“After I witnessed my own neurology patients suffering from hiccups without an effective treatment, I was inspired to develop a safe and effective device that would be simple to use and easily available to all people,” Seifi says. “When you forcefully sip water through the device, it keeps the phrenic and vagus nerves occupied, so they don’t have enough time to cause unwanted spasms in the diaphragm. This interruption stops the hiccups.”

While the HiccAway device is already available to purchase through hiccaway.com and on Amazon, as well as at walmart.com and even in H-E-B stores throughout South Texas and at heb.com, Shark Tank (which boasts a viewing audience of about 7 million) could propel HiccAway and Seifi into a new realm of entrepreneurial success.

“For me, the experience was surreal,” says Victor Fehlberg, president and CEO of Higher Innovations Inc., which manufactures and distributes HiccAway from the Denver area. “It took so long to prepare, so much time was spent waiting, that when the pitch and appearance were finally recorded, it went too fast. It was like I was dreaming because it had been so long in the making.”

The Shark Tank appearance is likely a dream come true for Seifi and the HiccAway team — and a total breath of fresh air for the hiccup-suffering public.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.