Spruce, founded by Ben Johnson in Houston, has announced a $8 million series A round and a plan to continue expansion. Photo courtesy of Spruce

A Houston-founded startup that designed an app-based service for apartment dwellers has closed an $8 million series A led by Houston-based Mercury Fund.

Spruce, which was founded in Houston in 2016 as Apartment Butler before rebranding and relocating to Austin, announced the close of its latest round this week. The startup partners with multifamily companies to provide concierge-like services, such as cleaning, dog walking, and even COVID-19 sanitation.

"Spruce is changing how people live in their homes," says Ben Johnson, founder and CEO, in a news release. "Today's apartment community is a vibrant micro-economy for services and goods, and Spruce efficiently channels these interactions into a single marketplace. This Series A will expand our offerings to more residents and properties as well as continue our national roll-out."

Mercury Fund also invested in the company's seed round last year, and since that funding, Spruce has expanded out of state and into nine new markets. According to the release, the company, which still has an office in houston, has 40 employees and over 760 properties with 230,000 units on its platform.

"Spruce has perfected their market model and built a best-in-class team. Their resilience and growth during this unprecedented time have impressed us, and we are excited to continue on this journey with them," says Blair Garrou, managing director at Mercury Fund, in the release.

Houston-based Sweat Equity Partners, a new Spruce investor, also contributed to the round. Andrew White, president of the investment group, will also join the board of directors.

"Spruce is building a valuable platform focused on delivering outstanding home services under the unique requirements of the multi-family segment," says White in the release.

Steven Pho, an Austin-based entrepreneur and investor previously with Favor Delivery and RetailMeNot, will also join the board.

"Spruce has an amazing opportunity to quickly and cost effectively reach a mass market through their partnerships with national property managers," Pho says in the release. "This unique channel strategy differentiates Spruce from their competitors and enables them to rapidly achieve scale and density in new markets."

Spruce's platform is available across 760 multifamily properties. Photo via GetSpruce.com

Startups all over Houston and across industries are answering the call for tech solutions to COVID-19-caused issues from real estate and mental health to new software and services. Duy Do/Getty Images

9 Houston startups that are pivoting to provide COVID-19-related services

Startups to the rescue

From software to new services, several Houston startups are using this time of crisis to roll out new options for people living in the time of the COVID-19 crisis.

Last week, InnovationMap rounded up seven health tech startups providing health care solutions. This week, here are nine more startups that have reacted to the coronavirus with new tech solutions.

GotSpot

Reda Hicks, founder of GotSpot, has launched Rescue Spot to help out Houstonians dealing with the COVID crisis. Courtesy of GotSpot

Reda Hicks founded her company Gotspot — a digital tool that helps connect people with commercial space with people who need it — on the heels of Hurricane Harvey after seeing how hard it was for Houstonians to activate physical spaces in an emergency.

Now, in the face of another — albeit drastically different — situation, Hicks has created Rescue Spot to be that activation portal for specific COVID-19-related crisis needs.

"We are working with local community leaders to try to activate specific kind of space for emergency response," Hicks says in a Facebook interview with Bunker Labs, "so, restaurants turned into community kitchens, cold storage for perishables, storefronts that can be used as drive-by distribution centers, and places for people to house their pets while their owners are feeling overwhelmed and can't take care of their four-legged family members as well."

People with space or in need of a Rescue Spot can list their space or needs online.

SocialMama

Houston-based SocialMama uses its platform to connect mothers based on location, interests, and the things their children have in common. Courtesy of SocialMama

Houston-based SocialMama was founded in May of last year to connect mothers using machine learning that factors in vicinity, children's ages, shared motherly struggles, and more to create a support group digitally and socially. Now, the startup has sped up the release of a new feature so that users have more mental health resources during the pandemic.

Founder and CEO Amanda Ducach created SocialMama's expert program — an update to the app, which has been downloaded by over 15,000 users since launch — to connect moms to professionals specializing in everything from family medicine and mental health to career and personal safety. A portion of these experts join from Gravida, a post partum and return to work resource, according to a news release.

"Knowing someone is on the other side of the screen with a very similar story is truly comforting. The app considers all females, including those planning to become moms, those who are trying to conceive, those who have lost a child, etc. SocialMama is here for our community in a whole new way with the launch of our expert program," says Ducach in the release.

With mothers being tasked with educating and entertaining their children at home during the crisis on top of their regular jobs and duties, many are turning to SocialMama's online forum and app for support, ideas, and solidarity.

Accel Lifestyle

Accel's masks are made out of their specialty anti-bacteria fabric. Photo courtesy of Accel

While you might not usually think an activewear brand has anything to contribute to the fight against the coronavirus, you have to remember that Accel Lifestyle isn't a typical activewear brand. Founder Megan Eddings created the Prema® anti-bacterial fabric for an anti-stink feature in her clothing. That feature has another use: Preventing the spread of the disease.

Accel quickly pivoted her t-shirt-making supply chain to designing and sewing the masks. The reusable, washable masks are available online for individuals to purchase, but one Houston hospital system has made a huge purchase. Houston Methodist ordered 9,000 masks to be made for their hospital staff.

"The fact that a hospital system that is on the forefront of COVID-19 is choosing Accel Lifestyle to create PPE is profound and humbling," Eddings says in a press release. "I truly believe we're all in this together and we all have a role to play during this pandemic. If Accel Lifestyle can help flatten the curve in any way, then we're going to do it."

Predictive Solutions

A Houston startup has created a web tool for tracking the coronavirus. Pexels

Houston-based Predictive Solutions created a web application in March to give the residents of Harris County all the local information on COVID-19 in the palm of their hands — and now the tool has been expanded to the entire state.

The online map identifies nearby testing locations as well as indicates cases that have been self reported in the area. While not trying to be comprehensive, the website is trying to track trends with the disease.

"We developed the app to help streamline communication between the City of Houston, the healthcare community, aid organizations and Harris County residents, while mitigating the logistical nightmare of making sure presumed cases get tested," says Stewart Severino, co-founder and CEO of Predictive Solutions, in a news release. Read more.

Truss

Truss has modified its software to advance communications while hospitals are cracking down on visitors amid the coronavirus outbreak. Getty Images

Houston-based Truss usually focuses on digital community engagement, but Patrick Schneidau, CEO of the company, says he felt called to do something to help families separated due to strict emergency visitation rules at hospitals.

"You read all the stories of loved ones not being able to be together during this time," Schneidau, who is a member of InnovationMap's board, previously told InnovationMap. "That was the area we wanted to focus on."

Schneidau describes the software as a secure portal for small groups to interact via smart devices. Physicians can interface with family members via video chat or recorded messages, as well as answer any questions. Schneidau is looking for health care organizations to work with the technology so that patients and their doctors can have secure access to loved ones. Read more.

ChaiOne

Houston-based ChaiOne has launched a new tool that can help companies track supply chain delays resulting from COVID-19. Photo courtesy of ChaiOne

Houston-based ChaiOne recently announced the soft launch of its new software called Velostics — the "slack" for logistics that solves wait times and cash flow challenges in the supply chain and logistics industry. The digital logistics platform is set to aid the struggling supply chain as surging demands stretch suppliers, offering their platform free for 60 days.

"At ChaiOne we have a history of helping Houstonians whenever disaster strikes," says CEO and founder, Gaurav Khandelwal. "We created a disaster connect app during Hurricane Harvey for free that connected people with the resources they need. Velostics by pure happenstance happened to be ready for situations like [the coronavirus] when there's a lot of parties that need to collaborate."

Velostics results in an improved cash cycle for clients, cutting a 90-day settlement down to one day, along with an overhead reduction that reduces costs and improves output along with error reduction. The digital platform is specially engineered to reduce waste while keeping the supply chain running efficiently. Read more.

Umanity

Launched in Houston, Umanity's new tool aims to better connect nonprofits with supplies and volunteers amid the COVID-19 crisis. Photos via umanity.io

Umanity, which is a part of the Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator's first cohort, has created a philanthropic supply chain tool that's now available as an app or through desktop. The software can match and map local individual or nonprofit needs to organizations or volunteers, plus provide real-time analytics. During the coronavirus outbreak, they have mobilized its resources connecting supplies with nonprofits and volunteers with safe ways to help organizations that need it most during this crisis.

The company, which is working with several city of Houston officials to direct citizens the resources they need during the crisis, is creating a network of communities to efficiently provide them the resources they need. The centralized platform shows a complete picture of who needs help and who can help all on the same platform while measuring the real-time economic impact of donations and every volunteer hour.

"I started this company because I wanted to transition everyday acts of service into actual data-driven solutions," says Ryan-Alexander Thomas, CEO and founder of Umanity. "My goal is that during the next crisis, for example, hurricane season, if somebody needs something they have access to get it when they need it, not two years later or after the crisis." Read more.

Otso

Houston small businesses are struggling to pay their rent with doors closed and operations ceased — but where should the relief come from? Getty Images

When Josh Feinberg had the idea for his newest startup, Otso, he was hoping to remove the pointless burden of cash deposits required for new commercial and retail leases. But as the coronavirus pandemic began enacting stay-at-home mandates that forced small businesses to close their physical spaces, he had another idea.

Otso, with its financial partner Euler Hermes, provides landlords with an alternative to cash security deposits. While he first envisioned this tool for new leases, Feinberg created a system so that local businesses that are struggling to pay their rent can opt into this type of contract through an addendum to the lease. They can get back their cash deposits and use that capital now when times are tough.

"If we can get some liquidity back into the hands of the business, they have some a better chance of survival," Feinberg previously told InnovationMap.

Tenants or landlords can begin the process online. Feinberg recently joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the unprecedented state of commercial real estate and offer his advice for business owners. Click here to listen.

Spruce

Houston-founded Spruce has added some new services to help sanitize multifamily facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Getty Images

Houston-founded, Austin-based Spruce, which has an office locally, has launched a new suite of services for disinfecting common areas — like leasing offices, hallways, mail rooms, etc. — using EPA-compliant chemicals.

"Now, more than ever, it is critical for apartment communities to make sure their common areas are regularly decontaminated and disinfected to help slow the spread of the coronavirus and to prevent as many infections as possible," says Ben Johnson, founder and CEO of Spruce, in a statement.

The services include a weekly disinfectant of high-touch spots — like door handles and elevator buttons — as well as a weekly comprehensive cleaning that involves mopping, surface cleaning, and vacuuming. The startup also offers a bimonthly fogging service that can completely cover both indoor and outdoor areas with disinfectant. This solution can protect surfaces for months, according to the news release.

"This is an unprecedented public health crisis, and we worked closely with our clients to determine the biggest need and hope these services will give apartment communities one more weapon to use in the fight against COVID-19 and will help give both operators and their residents peace of mind," Johnson continues in the release. Read more.

Houston-founded Spruce has added some new services to help sanitize multifamily facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Getty Images

Houston-founded startup launches new COVID-19-focused sanitizing services

keeping clean

A startup that provides concierge services — like cleaning and dog walking — to apartment renters has expanded its services to outside the apartment units to help multifamily properties with sanitization and disinfection services to protect their communities from COVID-19.

Austin-based Spruce, which was founded in Houston in 2016 and still has an office locally, has a new suite of services for disinfecting common areas — like leasing offices, hallways, mail rooms, etc. — using EPA-compliant chemicals.

"Now, more than ever, it is critical for apartment communities to make sure their common areas are regularly decontaminated and disinfected to help slow the spread of the coronavirus and to prevent as many infections as possible," says Ben Johnson, founder and CEO of Spruce, in a statement.

The services include a weekly disinfectant of high-touch spots — like door handles and elevator buttons — as well as a weekly comprehensive cleaning that involves mopping, surface cleaning, and vacuuming. The startup also offers a bimonthly fogging service that can completely cover both indoor and outdoor areas with disinfectant. This solution can protect surfaces for months, according to the news release.

"This is an unprecedented public health crisis, and we worked closely with our clients to determine the biggest need and hope these services will give apartment communities one more weapon to use in the fight against COVID-19 and will help give both operators and their residents peace of mind," Johnson continues in the release.

Spruce still offers its usual suite of services for individual apartment units such as daily chores and housekeeping and pet care, but extra precautions have been added since the coronavirus outbreak. The service providers are required to go through temperature checks before entering the properties. They also wear gloves, changing them out between units, and are incorporating paper products when able.

Since its founding, Spruce, which used to be called Apartment Butler, has expanded throughout the state and into South Florida, Denver, and Salt Lake City. Spruce has raised over $6 million in venture capital, per Crunchbase data, and that includes funds from Houston institutions like Mercury Fund, the Houston Angel Network, and Fitz Gate Ventures, as well as Austin-based Capital Factory.

Apartment Butler has reemerged as Spruce with fresh funds to take the company to Denver and beyond. Photo via GetSpruce.com

Houston startup rebrands, closes $3 million investment round, and plans first out-of-state expansion

Spruced up

A Houston startup that coordinates hospitality services — such as cleaning, dog walking, etc. — has recently cleaned up itself, with a fresh rebranding and new funds to further develop the company.

Spruce (née Apartment Butler) has closed a venture capital round at $3 million. Princeton, New Jersey-based Fitz Gate Ventures led the round with three Texas investors: Houston-based Mercury Fund, the Houston Angel Network, and Austin-based Capital Factory, which recently announced its Houston outpost.

The fresh funds will allow for Spruce to expand its services out of Texas for the first time. Denver will be the first non-Texas market for the company, according to a news release. The funds will also go toward sales, marketing, and software development scaling.

"We could not be more appreciative of the support from these outstanding investors," says Ben Johnson, founder and CEO of Spruce, in the release. "Since our founding, we have grown aggressively as more and more apartment communities have seen the demand for hotel-inspired services increase dramatically. We look forward to continuing our strategic, rapid growth with this funding that will play a critical role in that expansion."

Last month, Apartment Butler rebranded into Spruce to better represent the company and its market disrupting features, according to a news release.

"Since our inception just a few short years ago, we have experienced an incredible rate of growth, demonstrating the demand residents have for hotel-inspired services in their apartment homes," says Johnson in the June 25 release. "We believe the new Spruce brand name better connects with consumers and reflects the full range of services we have to offer."

Spruce's services include daily chores, housekeeping, pet care (dog walking, pet sitting, etc.), and laundry and dry cleaning. Spruce has a B-to-B-to-C model in which it works with apartment communities to broker partnership deals to reach their residents.

Late last summer, Johnson closed a $2 million seed round for his company and expanded the company to Austin, hinting at the out-of-state growth being in the near future for the startup.



Apartment dwellers that live in a Spruce-partner community can access services through an app or desktop interface.Photo via GetSpruce.com

These three entrepreneurs have a lot up their sleeves for 2019. Courtesy images

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's Who

This week starts in one year and ends in the next, and InnovationMap has three inspiring entrepreneurs to lead you into 2019. All three are behind Houston startups that are planning for big growth in the upcoming year. So, read their stories and get familiar with their names and faces — they aren't going anywhere.

Ben Johnson, founder and CEO of Apartment Butler

Ben Johnson's business idea turned into a growing company making the lives of apartment dwellers easier. Courtesy of Apartment Butler

Ben Johnson has his own master plan. He'd work as an oil and gas banker for a bit, establish himself, get his MBA, and then, when he was in his 40s, would start his own company. He wasn't wrong about his future as an entrepreneur, but he was off by the timeline.

Johnson started Apartment Butler a few years ago when he saw how apartment communities had the potential to provide streamlined access to resident elected services — such as cleaning or pet care. At the same time, apartment communities across the U.S. were looking to beef up their amenities. Now, Apartment Butler is expanding to its third and fourth markets early next year and is looking to provide more services to its users.

Scott Parazynski, CEO of Fluidity Technologies

Scott Parazynski is a accomplished astronaut and surgeon, but he has a new career focus on drone operation. Courtesy of Fluidity

There are Renaissance men and then there's Scott Parazynski. He's has spent 57 days in space, trained as a trauma surgeon, and climbed Mount Everest as a team physician for the Discovery Channel. His latest conquest is designing a drone controller based on movement in space. The device, called the FT Aviator, allows for one-handed piloting of drones and has the potential to affect the way unmanned vehicles are piloted across industries. As the CEO of Fluidity Technologies, he has big plans for what one-handed drone operation can do.

David Grimes, CEO and co-founder of Snap Diligence

David Grimes thought he was creating a useful tool to vet colleagues. Turns out, he made a way for warm connections better than LinkedIn. Courtesy of Snap Diligence

Hell hath no fury like a businessman scorned. When a business partner ended up being a shady miscreant, David Grimes realized there wasn't a digital vetting tool where you can evaluate a potential associate. After thinking on the idea for a while, Grimes found a co-founder and a way to create an algorithm that can take public information and run it against a person. The company he created is called Snap Diligence.

Now, the tool has morphed into something else that's been unexpectedly in demand. Snap Diligence can find business connections through your already-established network of associates. It's this new feature the company is looking to expand in 2019.

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Exclusive: Houston Exponential makes strategic marketing hire

innovator to know

Houston Exponential has made another new hire. Clemmie Pierce Martin has joined Houston Exponential as director of marketing and strategy. The nonprofit helps spur the growth of Houston’s innovation ecosystem.

She most recently was director of strategic partnerships and products at Houston-based startup Goodfair, which operates an online thrift store. Before that, she was head of client success at Austin-based startup Mesa Cloud, which offers a platform for tracking student progress.

Martin, who grew up in Houston and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin and Houston’s The Kinkaid School, says her new employer “sees the potential in Houston and our startup ecosystem that I’ve always felt was underserved and underrepresented nationally. I couldn’t be more excited to join a team that is working tirelessly to make sure that for founders and startups anywhere in the world, Houston is not just a choice but rather the clear choice of venue.”

Martin is a great-niece of the late President George H.W. and the late first lady Barbara Bush.

Serafina Lalany, the new executive director of Houston Exponential (HX), says Martin’s experience with startups “is an invaluable asset to the organization.”

“Her insights and experiences … couldn’t be more fitting for HX’s mission to lower the barrier of entry for early stage startups in the city,” Lalany says in a news release.

Lalany became executive director of HX in September. She had been the organization’s vice president of operations and chief of staff. Lalany succeeds Harvin Moore, who resigned this summer as president and CEO of the four-year-old nonprofit.

Earlier this month, HX named Ivery Boston III as director of inclusive innovation. He previously worked for the Miami Downtown Development Authority.

Aside from the new hires, the organization recently restructured its board of directors. The board transitioned to a more informal “convening” board, and an executive committee now oversees HX’s operations.

University of Houston: Navigating between researcher and professor

houston voices

What is the difference between a professor teaching and conducting research? When does a professor need an Institutional Review Board to provide oversight on their project? The NSF has had this come up often enough, presumably, that they wrote a vignette on their website.

Let's take a quiz

The NSF presented the following scenario: “Professor Speakwell teaches undergraduate courses in linguistics in which he demonstrates variability in both the syntax and vocabulary of spoken expression across individuals and cultures. Professor Speakwell involves his students in active learning in the classroom. He brings recordings of spoken English to class and calls on students to say whether they find the example grammatical and to explain or guess what the utterance means.”

Pretty straightforward, right? A professor is a teacher. But most professors move from role-to-role like a chameleon: researcher, artist, CEO, etc. depending on their discipline.

Here's the question

“Professor Researchit, a colleague of Speakwell’s, uses these same techniques with undergraduate student volunteers to do research on variables that predict understanding of utterances. Dr. Researchit develops a protocol, and obtains IRB approval and students’ signed informed consent. Professor Researchit tells Speakwell that he had better get IRB approval and student informed consent since he is doing the same thing.”

Is Professor Researchit Correct?

Danielle Griffin, Ed.D., associate director of the Research Integrity and Oversight Office in the Division of Research at University of Houston was asked to weigh in on this vignette. She answered by saying, “No, Speakwell is not doing the same thing. Speakwell is teaching, not doing research.”

“The keywords in the first paragraph are ‘involves his students in active learning in the classroom.’ Active learning and research are two different things. They are doing hands-on learning about how to conduct research,” she went on to say. “Professor Researchit is actually doing research because the students are participants and the subjects of the data collection.”

Decision tree

When does a professor need an IRB? The government’s Health and Human Services website boasts an Office for Human Research Protections. You can find a “decision tree” there. It helps professors to determine whether an IRB is required for their research. Every institution has something similar; for instance the University of Rhode Island offers a similar tool to figure out the IRB process in a flow chart. The overarching rule is that if you are using human subjects in a clinical trial — you do need IRB oversight.

According to the University of Iowa, “publicly available data do not require IRB review. Examples: census data, labor statistics.” But they also provide a dense, comprehensive list of what else can be conducted without an IRB in place.

The Big Idea

When in doubt of whether you need an IRB or not, reach out to your institution’s IRB facilitators or the office that handles oversight, ethics and integrity. The Research Integrity and Oversight (RIO) Office at the University of Houston, for instance, “supports and educates the research community in all areas of compliance with federal regulations concerning human subjects, animal subjects, conflicts of interest, grant congruency and responsible conduct of research.” It’s better to be safe than sorry, but if the lesson you’re teaching benefits the student, it is probably not a research project.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Cory Thaxton, the author of this piece, is the communications coordinator for The Division of Research.

Houston data analytics firm acquired by Austin agency

m&a moves

Statistical Vision, a Houston-based data and analytics firm, has been scooped up by Austin-based marketing and communications agency Hahn Public for an undisclosed amount.

The deal expands Hahn Public to a 48-person agency with combined annual revenue exceeding $10 million. Statistical Vision has been rebranded as Hahn Stats.

“Our clients come to us drowning in data — sales transactions, marketing information, commodity prices, import and export data, demographics, weather forecasts, etcetera,” Michael Griebe, co-founder and chief statistical officer of what now is Hahn Stats, says in a news release. “We build predictive analytic models to answer specific questions and to point our clients towards revenue growth.”

Griebe and Dirk Van Slyke founded Statistical Vision in 2014. The company's local office is at The Cannon West Houston. Hahn Stats LLC also has an office in Denver.

The data and analytics prowess developed by Statistical Vision will benefit Hahn Public clients like Houston-based ZTERS, Whataburger, the Texas Department of Agriculture, Beef-Loving Texans, H-E-B’s Central Market, Vital Farms, the Propane Education & Research Council, OneGas, GPA Midstream, the East Texas Electric Cooperative, and the Northeast Texas Regional Mobility Authority.

Jeff Hahn, principal of Hahn Public, says the acquisition of Statistical Vision and its data and analytics capabilities will help Hahn Public’s array of food and energy clients, who “continue to face a rapidly changing and uncertain landscape.”

Other businesses under the Hahn umbrella are Apron Food & Beverage Communications, Predictive Media Network, and White Lion Interactive.