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.


TaskNow offers household tasks and more in Houston. Photo via Getty Images

2 Houstonians launch app that's the 'Uber for home services'

there's an app for that

Houstonians who need help with everyday life projects are now in luck. A locally based app is here to help check items off that to-do — or honey-do — list.

Cleverly dubbed TaskNow, the new app provides on-demand home services via a mobile platform, connecting local service providers to consumers.

Much like the national Thumbtack, TaskNow links skilled professionals with Houstonians to offer cleaning, moving, packing, furniture assembly, TV wall-mounting, pressure washing, on-location car-detailing, and more.

The Bayou City is Houston is the first market where providers are now available, on-demand. Importantly for wary consumers, area service providers have passed background checks in order to be part of the company's roster of task masters.

Help via TaskNow arrives on the same or next day service for most tasks; customers can also schedule the tasks for future dates and times. Creators boast a "unique upfront pricing policy" that is meant to alleviate price-haggling and hidden fee surprises, according to a press release.

"As native Houstonians, we always envisioned launching here in Houston because we love the city and its home for me and Kathryn," Paul Rao, TaskNow's CEO and co-founder tells CultureMap. Rao, an oil and gas executive veteran, launched TaskNow with entrepreneur Kathryn Josey Stone.

"As we continue to grow throughout Texas and across the U.S., Kathryn and I are especially enthused about Houston because it's a turnkey and trusted solution that serves our neighbors and the city," Rao continues.

Notably, service providers deal no advertising requirements or cost to service providers to join TaskNow, press materials note. This is different from Google, online searches, Angie's, and other "pay-to-play" advertising type platforms, founders note.

Future growth plans include statewide service, plus availability in 30 metro markets across the country by 2023, according to Rao and Stone.

"TaskNow is the only on-demand app platform featuring upfront transparent pricing, so there's no negotiating over the phone or email with multiple providers," Rao adds in a statement. "Our design and functionality are very user friendly and simple to use, with clear job descriptions and pricing. It's the Uber for home services."

Those interested can take on tasks, get pricing, and more at the official site.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

A Houston entrepreneur has created a platform that puts artists first. Photo courtesy of PickleJar

New Houston-based app tips the scales in favor of musicians and fans

tuned in to tips

Like so many business owners, Jeff James' inspiration for his innovative new music app PickleJar, came out of sheer necessity. Sitting in a bar in the buzzy Broadway district in Nashville, Tennessee, James, a serial entrepreneur, realized there had to be a better way to tip performing musicians.

"This young girl comes through the crowd carrying a Yeti bucket asking for 20 dollars for the band," James tells CultureMap. With no cash on hand, James donated via Square. "Sixty dollars later, I had so many questions: would she remember my name? Would she remember my songs? There's gotta be a better way to do this."

James, a former radio DJ and record label veteran, started scribbling his idea for a musician tipping app on a napkin. Two years later, PickleJar was sparked, James says, because "every musician we spoke to hates the way they're paid on these apps like Venmo and Facebook."

Pushing an "artist first," mission statement, PickleJar ensures that every musician utilizing the app keeps 100 percent of the money — something unheard of when James started the process two years ago. Fans donate to musicians on the app, and in turn, get five times that tip in proprietary digital currency called Pick Coins.

"If you tip 100 dollars to a musician, you get 500 Pick Coins," explains James, "that goes to buying tickets, merch, or VIP experiences on our app." Another artist-first perk: The artist also gets 500 Pick Coins in that scenario.

With its own e-commerce platform, PickleJar allows fans to use these Pick Coins for experiences, and musicians to use them for much-needed equipment. PickleJar has partnered with Austin-based Strait Music Company, which will provide musicians with instruments and gear. Musicians can create their own wish lists so that fans can directly contribute to the desired gear.

Fittingly, the company has partnered with local venues for themed nights. Buzzy bar McIntyre's Downtown will feature a tip-worthy Texas artist every Wednesday night in its PickLounge.

PickleJar also allows musicians to livestream. "On Facebook Live, data shows that only about eight to 10 percent of an artist's audience know they're live. On top of that, Facebook takes 30 to 40 percent of the tips." With PickleJar, 100 percent of an artists fans will be notified when the artists in livestreaming.

Fans can even donate directly to a musician's nonprofit of choice, something happening now during Hurricane Ida relief efforts. Numerous artists on PickleJar are raising funds for Ida assistance, James notes. "We really believe that a 'gratitude economy' is emerging," he says. "We wanted to create the easiest way possible for fans to say thank you."

That thank-you option also means fans can send direct messages, notes, and even pictures on the app, which, James acknowledges with a chuckle, could get very interesting.

Another musician-first nuance not found on other apps: PickleJar allows for "smart" splits, so that musicians are appropriately compensated for their specific contribution. An artist who wrote songs and drove the van to a gig, for example, can be funneled a higher percentage of tips than bandmates who contributed less.

James and his Houston-based tech team are also working on a TV channel on streaming devices, dubbed PickleJar Plus.

While one might be tempted to assume PickleJar is meant for those gig-to-gig, struggling musicians, James assures that the app is meant for every level, which he breaks down accordingly:

  • "Never-evers": These folks will never get signed, but use the app to get better
  • "Got talent, not signed": Artists can use PickleJar to build audiences and crowdfund
  • "I'm signed/labeled": Here, signed artists curate setlists which can be monetized via tips
  • "Idols": These artists are already brands. "Kenny Chesney can use this to make sure every dollar goes to a nonprofit," says James. Chesney's team can watch a meter, and when donations hit a specific dollar amount, Chesney can reward fans with their favorite song."

If all this seems to point to James one day managing and representing artists, James says that idea is not entirely off. PickleJar could one day be the world's biggest independent record label, he acknowledges, by the way it allows indies to promote themselves.

"We were in a meeting and the guy says, 'you're gonna change the entertainment world forever,'" James, recalls. "We hope so. We just want to build a relationship with artists — and put them first."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

The new app is live on three Houston-area college campuses. Photo via campusconciergeapp.com

Houston startup addresses gaps in the gig economy with new app

there's an app for that

Two Houstonians are making student side hustles on college campuses a whole lot safer and easier.

When Madison Long and Simone May were undergraduate students at Purdue University, their only option for scoping out basic services — like getting their hair done or hiring a DJ for an event or a photographer for graduation photos — was to ask around among older students. This planted a seed of a business idea in the two women.

Now, the duo has founded Campus Concierge to provide a platform that acts as a marketplace to connect students who have skills or services with potential clients in a safe way. The company, which was a member of DivInc's inaugural Houston accelerator, launched on three college campuses this year — Texas Southern University, Rice University, and Prairie View A&M.

Campus Concierge timed its arrival to the marketplace with the reopening of college campuses for in-person instruction, knowing there would be a need for connection and access.

"Building community is so critical given the fact that it's nerve-wracking any time to ask someone for help — especially now that you are coming back to school after a year of being virtual," says Long, CEO and co-founder of Campus Concierge.

But prior to launch, all Long and May had was virtual. The duo rolled out a six-week social media campaign, which brought over 2,500 students across six different universities onto the Campus Concierge waitlist before they even stepped foot on a college campus to recruit in person.

Campus Concierge's co-founders Madison Long (right) and Simone May met in college. Photo via campusconciergeapp.com

After initial design and testing, Long and May worked on their product during their time at the DivInc. The accelerator, which was announced to launch in Houston last year, aims to build a more inclusive innovation ecosystem and focuses their work on people-of-color and women-founded businesses. Now, Campus Concierge is looking for investors, and credit DivInc for connecting them with potential VCs, angel groups, and angel investors.

"The institutional investment landscape still does rely on very traditional ways of getting in touch with investors — through intros, warm connections," Long tells InnovationMap. "We've been very lucky to be part of DivInc, who has broken down a lot of those doors and a lot of that ambiguity and created a level of transparency plus formal partnerships with folks like Mercury Fund."

The startup founding experience for Long and May has been a positive experience. Long says Houston's innovation ecosystem has been warm and welcoming.

"It doesn't feel like people are working against you or competing with you," May, the company's CTO, adds. "It feels like everyone is working together, and it is very collaborative."

As Black female founders, Long and May say they are encouraged by the diversity and camaraderie of Houston.

"Coming to a city that is so diverse, we're not the exception to everything," Long says. "There are other founders who look like us who are doing really well that we can lean on as mentors, advisers, and take notes from them. ... There is no other place we would have liked to start this platform."

Find stores and restaurants, hours, and event schedules with this new app. Photo courtesy of M-K-T Heights

New app maps out hot Heights development's shopping and restaurants

there's an app for that

Bustling mixed-use Heights development M-K-T (600 N Shepherd Dr.) has been all the buzz lately, with new hip fashion shops such as Nollege and TAFT strolling in and Homestead Breakfast, Lunch & Later serving up breakfast to hungry shoppers. A recent opening party for Chloe Dao's new locale was all the rage on local IG stories.

Now, more good news for M-K-T shoppers: the center has announced a new mobile app, which helps visitors locate a retailer, easily check for upcoming events, or quickly look at what time their favorite restaurant or retailer is opening.

Users can download the app, created by Triten Real Estate Partners, here.

The new app (available for both Apple and Android users ) boasts a full directory of on-site retailers, wellness, restaurants, and corporate headquarters, according to a release. Location-aware maps help users navigate the development and scan images, descriptions, and store hours for each on-site business.

A full, up-to-date calendar of M-K-T's events will help plan what to where and when for scenesters.

"An over 200,000 square foot property can be intimidating to visitors and sometimes walkup signage and printed directories aren't enough", said Lisa Reyerse, marketing and brand director at Triten Real Estate Partner, in a statement.

"The M-K-T Heights mobile app allows our visitors to always have an up-to-date property directory, location-aware map, and a full calendar of on site events in their pocket at all times. The app is simple and easy to use, yet robust with information that our visitors need to help navigate and enjoy their time at M-K-T."

After being announced a few years ago, the M-K-T has slowly opened its stores and eateries over the past several months.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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.

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Houston startup secures big contract, coworking company acquired, and more local innovation news

short stories

Houston is starting 2022 strong in terms of innovation news, and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, the Bayou City is ranked based on its opportunities for STEM jobs, a Houston blockchain startup scores a major contract, Rice University opens applications for its veteran-owned busineess competition, and more.

Data Gumbo announces contract with Equinor

After a successful pilot, Equinor has signed off on a contract with Data Gumbo.. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

Houston-based Data Gumbo, an industrial blockchain-software-as-a-service company, announced that it has signed a contract with Equinor. The global energy company's venture arm, Equinor Ventures, supported the startup's $7.7 million series B round, which closed last year.

The company's technology features smart contract automation and execution, which reduces contract leakage, frees up working capital, enables real-time cash and financial management, and delivers provenance with unprecedented speed, accuracy, visibility and transparency, per the release.

“Equinor is an industry trailblazer, demonstrating the true value of our international smart contract network to improve and automate manual processes, and bring trust to all parties,” says Andrew Bruce, founder and CEO of Data Gumbo, in a news release. “Smart contracts are playing a critical role in driving the energy industry forward. Our work with Equinor clearly demonstrates the benefits that supermajors and their supply chain customers, partners and vendors experience by automating commercial transactions. We are proud to continue our work with Equinor to help them realize the savings, efficiencies and new levels of transparency available through our smart contract network.”

Equinor opted into a pilot with the company a few years ago.

“Since piloting Data Gumbo’s smart contracts for offshore drilling services in 2019, we have worked with the company to continually refine and improve use cases. We now have the potential to expand Data Gumbo’s smart contract network to enable transactional certainty across our portfolio from the Norwegian Continental Shelf to our Brazilian operated assets and beyond,” says Erik Kirkemo, senior vice president at Equinor. “GumboNet reduces inefficiencies and processing time around contract execution in complex supply chains, which is a problem in the broader industry, and we look forward to realizing the streamlined process and cost savings of its rapidly expanding smart contract network.”

WeWork acquires Dallas coworking brand with 6 Houston locations

Common Desk, which has six locations in Houston including in The Ion, has been acquired. Photo courtesy of Common Desk

Dallas-based Common Desk, which has six locations in Houston, announced its acquisition by WeWork. The company's office spaces will be branded as “Common Desk, a WeWork Company,” according to a news release.

“Similar to WeWork, Common Desk is a company built on the concept of bringing people together to have their best day at work," says Nick Clark, CEO at Common Desk, in the release. "With the added support from WeWork, Common Desk will be able to not only leverage WeWork’s decade of experience in member services to improve the experience of our own members but also leverage WeWork’s impressive client roster to further build out our member base.”

Here are the six Common Desk spaces in Houston:

Here's how Houston ranks as a metro for STEM jobs

Source: WalletHub

When it comes to the best cities for jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math, Houston ranks in the middle of the pack. The greater Houston area ranked at No. 37 among the 100 largest metros across 19 key metrics on the list compiled by personal finance website, WalletHub. Here's how Houston fared on the report's metrics:

  • No. 36 – percent of Workforce in STEM
  • No. 74 – STEM Employment Growth
  • No. 43 – Math Performance
  • No. 16 – Quality of Engineering Universities
  • No. 2 – Annual Median Wage for STEM Workers (Adjusted for Cost of Living)
  • No. 90 – Median Wage Growth for STEM Workers
  • No. 75 – Job Openings for STEM Graduates per Capita
  • No. 88 – Unemployment Rate for Adults with at Least a Bachelor’s Degree

Elsewhere in Texas, Austin ranked at No. 2 overall, and Dallas just outranked Houston coming in at No. 34. San Antonio, El Paso, and McAllen ranked No. 51, No. 65, and No. 88, respectively.

Rice University calls for contestants for its 8th annual startup pitch competition for veterans

Calling all veteran and active duty startup founders and business owners. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University is now accepting applications from Houston veterans for its annual business competition. To apply for the 2022 Veterans Business Battle, honorably discharged veterans or active duty founders can head online to learn more and submit their business plan by Feb. 15.

“We’re looking forward to giving veterans the opportunity not just to share their ideas and get financing, but learn from other past winners the lessons about entrepreneurship they’ve lived through while growing their businesses,” event co-chair Reid Schrodel says in a news release.

Over the past few years, finalists have received more than $4 million of investments through the program. This year's monetary prizes add up to $30,000 — $15,000 prize for first place, $10,000 for second place, and $5,000 for third place.

Finalists will be invited to make their business pitch April 22 and 23 at Rice University. Click here to register for the event.

City of Houston receives grant to stimulate STEM opportunities

Houston's youth population is getting a leg up on STEM opportunities. Photo via Getty Images

Thanks to a $150,000 grant from the National League of Cities, the city of Houston has been awarded a chance to provide quality education and career opportunities to at-risk young adults and students. The city is one of five cities also selected to receive specialized assistance from NLC’s staff and other national experts.

“This award is a big win for young people. They will benefit from significant career development opportunities made possible by this grant,” says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a news release. “These are children who would otherwise go without, now having experiences and connections they never thought possible. I commend the National League of Cities for their continued commitment to the future leaders of this country.”

According to the release, the grant money will support the Hire Houston Youth program by connecting diverse opportunity youth to the unique STEM and technology-focused workforce development.

"Our youth deserve educational opportunities that connect them to the local workforce and career exploration, so they can make informed choices about their future career path in Houston’s dynamic economy. Houston youth will only further the amazing things they will accomplish, thanks to this grant," says Olivera Jankovska, director of the Mayor's Office of Education.

Houston software startup raises $12.5M series B

money moves

Houston-based Codenotary, whose technology helps secure software supply chains, has raised $12.5 million in a series B round. Investors in the round include Swiss venture capital firm Bluwat and French venture capital firm Elaia.

The $12.5 million round follows a series A round that was announced in 2020, with total funding now at $18 million.

Codenotary, formely known as vChain, says the fresh round of money will be used to accelerate product development, and expand marketing and sales worldwide. Today, the startup has 100-plus customers, including some of the world’s largest banks.

Codenotary’s co-founders are CEO Moshe Bar and CTO Dennis Zimmer. They started the company in 2018.

Bar co-founded Qumranet, which developed the Linux KVM hypervisor. A hypervisor creates and runs virtual machines. Software provider Red Hat purchased Qumranet in 2008 for $127 million. Before that, he founded hypervisor company XenSource, which cloud computing company Citrix Systems bought in 2007 for $500 million.

“Codenotary offers a solution which allows organizations to quickly identify and track all components in their DevOps cycle and therefore restore trust and integrity in all their myriad applications,” Pascal Blum, senior partner at Bluwat, says in a news release.

The SolarWinds software supply chain hack in 2020 and the more recent emergence of Log4j vulnerabilities have brought the dangers of software lifecycle attacks to the forefront, Bar says. Now, he says, more and more companies are looking for ways to prove the legitimacy of the software that they produce.

Codenotary is the primary contributor to immudb, the an open-source, enterprise-class database with data immutability, or stability, designed to meet the demands of highly used applications.

Dallas-based ridesharing app gears up for expansion across Houston and beyond

HOUSTON INNOVATOR PODCAST EPISODE 118

Before he started his current job, Winston Wright would have thought a startup attempting to compete with the likes of Uber and Lyft was going to fight an uphill battle. Now, he sees how much opportunity there is in the rideshare market.

Wright is the Houston general manager for Alto, a Dallas-based company that's grown its driving service platform into five markets — first from Dallas into Houston and then to Los Angeles, Miami, and, most recently, Washington D.C. Alto's whole goal is to provide reliability and improve user experience.

"We're elevating ridesharing," Wright says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "With Alto, you get a consistent, safe experience with. a high level of hospitality. And that's a key differentiator for us in the market, and we're able to replicate that time and time again."

Wright, whose background is in sales and operations in hospitality, says his vision for alto in Houston is to expand the service — which operates in the central and western parts of the city — throughout the greater Houston area.

"The vision I have for this market is that, as we move forward and continue to expand, that we're covering all of Houston," he says.

This will mean expanding the company's physical presence too. Alto recently announced its larger space in Dallas, and now the Houston operations facility will grow its footprint too.

Wright says he's also focused on growing his team. Over the past two years, pandemic notwithstanding, the company has maintained hiring growth. Alto's drivers are hired as actual employees, not contractors, so they have access to benefits and paid time off.

The company, which raised $45 million in its last round of investment, is expanding next to the Silicon Valley area, followed by three to five more markets in 2022. Then, by the end of 2023, it's Alto's mission to have a completely electronic fleet of vehicles.

"Our goal is to have over 3,000 EV cars and be the first company with a 100 percent electric fleet by 2023," Wright says.

Wright shares more on Alto's future in Texas and beyond, as well as what's challenging him most as he grows the team locally. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.