Austin Rolling, Gabriella Rowe, and Aaron Knape are this week's Houston innovators to know. Photos courtesy

In this weekly roundup of Houston innovators, we find an entrepreneur who created the tech solution he wished he'd had as a salesman, an innovation leader with big goals for The Ion, and a startup founder who's in for a very busy March.

Here are this week's Houston innovators to know.

Austin Rolling, CEO and co-founder of Outfield

austin rolling

Photo courtesy of Outfield

As an experienced salesman, Austin Rolling knows the challenges salespeople face on a daily basis. Rolling, who worked in a number of positions in both inside and outside sales with such big name companies as Whirlpool and Beats by Dre. He tells InnovationMap about how he wished he had better tools for communication and keeping organized.

"Fast forward some years later, my co-founder and I decided to work on a solution that could help support outside sales agents and I was able to use my domain expertise as an outside sales rep to ID the realm of solutions for various customer segments," Rolling says.

Rolling runs Outfield, a Houston-based software company gives field reps an intuitive interface to manage their territory and accounts on-the-go as well as instantly communicate with the rest of their team effortlessly across all devices. Click here to read more.

Gabriella Rowe, executive director of The Ion

Courtesy of Station Houston

Now that Station Houston has merged with Capital Factory, Gabriella Rowe, who previously served Station as CEO, has completely transitioned into her role as executive director of The Ion. On last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Rowe discussed the merger and how her goal for The Ion is to make the facility a vehicle for innovation development, but also create a diverse and inclusive environment reflective of Houston's own diversity.

"We're creating an opportunity for Houstonians," Rowe says on the episode, explaining why she's focused on bringing in a wide range of programming and education into The Ion.

In the episode, Rowe also discusses the Ion Smart Cities Accelerators, which has 10 companies from its inaugural cohort in pilot mode across Houston and has launched applications for its second cohort, as well as why she thinks Houston's innovation ecosystem is sure to succeed this time around. Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Aaron Knape, co-founder and CEO of sEATz

Courtesy of sEATz

Like most lifelong Houstonians, Aaron Knape has a long history with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. But this season, he'll be involved in a whole new way. Knape's startup, sEATz, an in-seat delivery app, will be live in certain sections of the rodeo at NRG Stadium.

"It's really great to be able to be a part of the rodeo as far as a provider to help enhance that experience in the stadium," Knape says. "It goes back to our model of we want to serve a venue and the fans in that venue — not necessarily a specific sport or concert."

SEATz had a busy football season, servicing the likes of The Texans, the University of Houston Cougars, and more, but turns out, football is not over. Through its partnership with Delaware North, the food and beverage provider for UH's TDECU Stadium, sEATz has added the XFL's Houston Roughnecks fans to its roster of users. Click here to read more.

Houston-based Outfield, a sales management app, wants to gamify the sales process for its users. Photo via outfieldapp.com

Growing Houston startup is gamifying professional sales with management tools for sellers

Always be gaming

Actor Alec Baldwin's "always be closing" monologue is not only the most popular scene in David Mamet's 1992 film, "Glengarry Glen Ross," it has become the unofficial mantra for sales professionals worldwide.

While that ABC line, the art of persuasion and strong product offerings are necessary pillars in sales, the ability to centralize data and foster accountability, productivity and drive revenue is just as vital. That's where Outfield, a web and mobile-based CRM, comes in. The app specializes in data driven revenue and efficiency solutions for companies with a burgeoning outside sales force.

"Outfield is a software solution designed specifically to support organizations to drive revenue, generate efficiencies and build operational structures via outside sales, field marketing efforts and field merchandising efforts," says Austin Rolling, CEO and co-founder of Outfield.

"For example, the merchandising that seen in a grocery store where sales reps are taking pictures of displays, dropping off marketing collateral, setting up demos and setting up tastings, those are the types of programs where individuals will likely use our software solutions in order to manage their workflow operations," Rolling adds.

How it works

Outfield's selling point revolves around helping organizations discover valuable insights about their market vertical, track and verify their sales team's activity and manage their field operations.

Simply put, it gives field reps an intuitive interface to manage their territory and accounts on-the-go as well as instantly communicate with the rest of their team effortlessly across all devices.

Outfield makes it easier for sales teams to keep track of projects and clients. Photo via outfieldapp.com

"Prior to starting Outfield, I worked in a number of sales positions, both outside and inside sales positions," says Rolling, who worked in sales with such big name companies as Whirlpool and Beats by Dre. "When I was in outside sales, I was always underwhelmed with the amount of support and solutions we were provided while we were out in the field. I always knew there was an opportunity there because the tools that we had were lacking in terms of capabilities.

"Fast forward some years later, my co-founder and I decided to work on a solution that could help support outside sales agents and I was able to use my domain expertise as an outside sales rep to ID the realm of solutions for various customer segments."

Rolling founded Outfield with co-founder Adam Steele in 2015 and operates out of The Cannon, an entrepreneurial co-working space specifically designed to house Houston-based startups and small businesses.

Management tools for sellers

The company began as a solution for a nutraceutical and supplement company called Cellucor.

Cellucor needed an efficient way to manage its legion of outside sales reps, which were servicing stores like Vitamin Shoppe and GNC where they worked with the in-store representatives to promote their brand products.

The company also wanted to track the whereabouts of its sales reps, monitor their touch points in the field and centralize the teams' reports and call forms.

"Sales reps are able to manage their relationships and interactions with their customers through the tool," says Rolling. "We can also integrate with our customers' inside sales tool if they have one. We can send our data over to other systems. It depends on whether or not the system that we are looking to integrate with actually has an open API that we can transmit data from our system to theirs.

"In terms of sales numbers and touch points that you have with customers, there's a report that outside sales reps need to fill out while out in the field. They can record all of the information then sync that data into the cloud, so the sales manager or sales director can see all of that data from the web-based version of Outfield."

Rolling's intimate understanding of the needs of outside sales reps and knowledge of the industry vertical has been immeasurable in growing Outfield's client base, which has expanded to over 200 customers in 75 countries.

Gamifying sales

Over the next five years, the burgeoning startup plans to build on its momentum as a disruptor in the space by incubating and releasing a new suite of products that will ultimately have a number of synergies with Outfield.

The most pressing product is League Play, a built-in game for salespeople within the Outfield CRM platform that allows sales reps the opportunity to compete and collaborate with one another similar to popular video games such as MLB The Show 20 or NBA 2K20.

"League Play essentially allows reps to build reputations of being star performers based on their utilization and activity of their Outfield account," says Rolling. "They're able to leverage that data and this will be good for comparison purposes for upper management. Therefore, if a sales manager or sales director wants to know who their star player is, they can go into League Play see how their sales reps are performing. We designed it to be very reminiscent of sports."

The tool has leaderboards and signature player cards, which is similar to Topps baseball cards. The player cards features the sales reps' profile, including all of the statistics of their individual performance and offer attributes.

"Like Madden, you can go in and see how their ratings are," says Rolling. "This is something that's going to be groundbreaking. This is something that has not been done before. The idea is to be sales as a sport to take advantage of sales reps' competitive nature. It should boost their overall productivity, which managers should be able to reap the benefits of, while reps will be able to build their own brand and personal reputation. It's a great way to boost performance overall."

All sales reps that utilize Outfield will be automatically entered into League Play. While the platform allows sales reps the chance to feel like they're athletes, it also helps them build reputations for themselves as top tier sales professionals and give them more of a vested interest in utilizing the application.

Moving forward, Outfield wants to further permeate the market in its widespread use of advanced analytics with the help of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

"We want to be able to think about KPI's and metrics that can tell the story of outside sales in a very specific way," says Rolling. "We think that we can infuse and generate an appetite for people who want to think more intelligently about their go-to-market activities because one thing we're learning and know for sure is that our customers aren't getting less competitive, they're getting more competitive."

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.