Here's your latest roundup of innovation news you may have missed. Photo via Getty Images

It's been a busy month so far with plenty of Houston startup news, major ecosystem events, and more — and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, three startups join three different accelerator programs, a Houston innovator publishes a book, and a PE-backed tech company makes changes to its C-suite.

Rivalry Tech snags spot in Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech Accelerator

Rivalry Tech, the parent company for stadium mobile ordering platform sEATz, was selected for a prestigious program. Photo via rivalrytech.com

A Houston-based startup has been selected for the third cohort for the Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech Accelerator. Rivalry Tech, a software company that provides mobile ordering technology platform sEATz to stadiums, is one of 10 startups in the program.

The new cohort was selected from over 920 applicants across 40 countries. The six-month program — expanded from its previous 12-week format — allows access to access to leaders and decision makers from across the partner consortium, including NBC Sports, Sky Sports, Comcast Spectacor, Golf, NASCAR, WWE, PGA TOUR, U.S. Ski & Snowboard, USA Swimming, and USA Cycling.

Since the first class in 2021, SportsTech startup alumni have participated in 90 pilots, partnerships, and commercial deals with consortium partners.

"Our alumni from the first two classes of the Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech accelerator continue to display a prowess for delivering impactful technology while unlocking new revenue opportunities, and I look forward to seeing what powerful innovations and unique partnerships emerge from this year’s program,” says Jenna Kurath, vice president of Startup Partnerships and Head of Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech, in a news release. "As we evaluated how to bring even more value to our startups and SportsTech partners, a clear need emerged - more time collaborating to tackle complex business challenges. The new six-month format creates additional space for focused testing and experimentation with a curriculum designed for business refinement while allowing the enterprise-ready startups we've selected to continue serving their existing customers.”

PE-backed HungerRush names new execs

HungerRush has a handful of new execs. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based HungerRush, a cloud software provider for the restaurant industry, announced new leaders within its C-suite. The company, recently backed by New York City-based private equity firm Corsair Capital New York City-based private equity firm Corsair Capital, announced three new executives.

  • David Tabachnick has been named CFO. He joins the company from Acoustic where he most recently served as CAO. He brings more than 20 years’ experience to his new role as CFO, including extensive private equity experience through Vista Equity Partners.
  • Patrick Hughes joins as vice president of finance. He will focus on emphasizing longstanding partnerships, reporting, automation, and environment of controls and advise on growth paths for HungerRush. With more than 15 years’ experience in both accounting and FP&A, he excels in high growth environments focused on technology advancements.
  • Jim DaBroi has been appointed COO. He has more than 25 years of experience in developing and growing customer support operations for various SaaS and payments companies. In his role at HungerRush he will be focused on leading the deployment and installations of customer success and technical support efforts.
  • Ashishh Desai has been named vice president of independent operators sales following the company's acquisition of Menufy acquisition. He was previously a co-founder of Kansas City-based Menufy, an industry-leading online food ordering platform acquired in October 2021 and will continue to build and grow HungerRush’s I/O sector.

“We are excited to attract this caliber of world-class Fintech and PE-based talent with the addition of David and Patrick, who together will be key to our rapid growth strategy. In addition, the appointments of Jim and Ashishh bring deep experience in SaaS, payments and sales to our team that is unmatched," says HungerRush CEO Perry Turbes in a news release. "With our now robust leadership team, we will continue to accelerate our commitment to elevate the restaurant technology space and meet the evolving needs of our customers to help them achieve their own goals in the restaurant industry.”

Heroshe named to nonprofit accelerator's spring cohort

The Heroshe team will participate in a hybrid accelerator program. Photo via heroshe.com

A Houston-based tech startup called Heroshe has joined Virgina-based hybrid accelerator Lighthouse Labs for their spring 2023 cohort. Heroshe, according to its website, is a purpose-driven technology company solving the problem of access to global commerce for African businesses.

"We are on a mission to bridge the commerce gap, simplify imports and empower Africans to access global markets," reads the website.

Its eleventh year, Lighthouse Labs, a nonprofit organization, named eight companies to its Batch 14, which begins March 13 in Richmond, Virginia, and ends with Demo Day on May 23.

“This cohort’s companies offer bold solutions to address current-day problems in industries ranging from logistics to cybersecurity, health/wellness to retail, and real estate to software,” says Paul Nolde, managing executive director at Lighthouse Labs, in a news release. “This group of startups represents the best of innovation and entrepreneurship across the Commonwealth and beyond.”

Around 200 companies applied and were evaluated. Of the applications, 49 moved forward to the first round of reviews, and 17 participated in interviews. All companies will receive $20,000 in equity-free funding, participate in weekly educational programming, get mentorship from Lighthouse’s extensive mentor network, and connect directly with local partners and investors.

Houston innovator publishes first book

Kara Branch's book is available on Amazon. Image via Amazon

A Houston innovator — an award-winning one at that — has published a book Kara Branch is the CEO of Black Girls Do Engineer, an organization on a mission to inspire future women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.She released her first book, “What is S.T.E.M.?”

"Many are familiar with the acronym S.T.E.M. but don’t necessarily understand what the term means," reads the book's description. "This book will help you understand what is S.T.E.M. and introduce you to S.T.E.M. careers that falls under each letter."

IncentiFind finds spot in growth-focused program

IncentiFind was selected for a new program. Photo courtesy of IncentiFind

IncentiFind, a Houston-based startup that helps the real estate industry find grant opportunities, has joined Chicago-based Moderne Ventures' inaugural "Passport Class," which is a six-month program providing its participants education, exposure, insight, and relationships to drive customer growth.

"Unlike a traditional accelerator, Moderne Passport is a comprehensive industry immersion program that helps companies of all stages – seed through pre-IPO – hone their go-to-market strategies in the real estate sector, build relationships with industry leaders and execute pilot programs and customer relationships with some of the largest companies in the world," says Carolyn Kwon, Moderne Passport director, in a news release.

IncentiFind, founded by Natalie Goodman, is one of six companies selected for the first batch of startups. Moderne Ventures is a venture capital firm focused on the industries of real estate, finance, insurance, ESG, and home services.

"Moderne most often looks outside its industries to find technologies that can be applicable within them," says Constance Freedman, founder and managing partner at Moderne Ventures. "This latest Passport cohort was curated to include innovative solutions that are highly applicable to some of our industry's most pressing challenges. We look forward to helping these companies optimize their products and services and connect with partners in the Moderne Network who can benefit most from them."

These five individuals are up for the DEI Champion award this week. Here's what challenges they are facing promoting an equitable innovation ecosystem. Photos courtesy

Houston's 2022 DEI Champions share obstacles they are overcoming promoting equitable innovation

EAVESDROPPING AT THE HOUSTON INNOVATION AWARDS GALA

As one of the most diverse cities in the world, Houston's business and innovation community has a unique opportunity to prioritize not just its diverse population, but also to make sure the city has equitable and inclusive opportunities.

Five Houstonians have been named finalists in the DEI Champion category for the Houston Innovation Awards Gala, which will be held on November 9. They shared some of the challenges they are facing as they fight to make sure Houston has an equitable innovation ecosystem.

"I have always been the only Black women in all of my engineering roles, and I worked so hard to get there and quite often feel so uncomfortable in this space. So, individuals who question my name don't always understand the important of someone expressing that I see you to an individual can mean. However, this is a challenge I am willing to face because I am changing people lives and these lives I am changing will impact the world."

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— Kara Branch, founder and CEO of Black Girls Do Engineer Corp. "Although I believed in myself and that girls that look like me needed that representation and someone to mentor them and expose them to S.T.E.M., I had no one to do this for me, so I had to do this for girls in my community," she says. "I have faced some people who fight me about my name, but my name had to be my name because I needed to let Black girls know I was talking to them."

"You can’t expect to make an impact, big or small, if you’re not willing to meet people where they are. One challenge we’ve seen when it comes to talking about and implementing DEI programs within the organization is that not everyone has the same understanding of what diversity, equity, and inclusion is."

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Arianne Dowdell, vice president and chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer for Houston Methodist. "Another challenge we see is that sometimes people expect to see change immediately," she continues. "This is a journey not a race, and if done right, it’s something that will continue to evolve and grow."

"Nobody wants to be tagged as difficult or uncomfortable to be with. A lot of bystanders will also make a calculated risk when witnessing bias, what is in it for me? Many will turn a blind eye if there are other interests at play."

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— Juliana Garaizar, head of Houston incubator for Greentown Labs and lead investor for Portfolia. Garaizar explains that she sees people afraid of facing the repercussions that come with speaking up or standing up to bias and harassment.

"Sustainable funding. We have the talent, the access to mentors and STEM education/activities and preparation workshops and certifications. But not having the capital to hire and effectively manage this growth has been very challenging to where we've had to say no to expansion (girls in need) and and increase in girls within our yearlong and skill-building programs."

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— Loretta Williams Gurnell, founder of SUPERGirls SHINE Foundation. She continues, "However, because we are serious in creating a diverse and sustained pipeline for more underserved girls (women) in STEM, we heavily rely on organizations that are like-minded in practices and core values to partner with and provide our services and opportunities to their girls and vice versus. It builds community and sustainability for all who are involved."

"The problems we face are so daunting and overwhelming that it can be hard to know where to start. ... At some point I realized that you just have to start somewhere, and you have to go deep in one area." 

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— Rob Schapiro, director of Microsoft's Energy Acceleration Program. "Only 27 percent of STEM workers are women. A mere 2 percent of venture capital money goes to women and far less to black women. The average wealth of the top 5 percent of White American households is seven times more than the average of the top 5 percent of Black households. These kinds of statistics can paralyze you into inaction," he explains. "It is great to be an ally to all, but you can have more impact if you focus your attention and efforts on a specific area. What is challenging still is that you will want to do more and spread your efforts, but you have to stay disciplined. One person cannot fix everything. But, using your privilege and your network you can influence many others and through them make a huge impact."

The five finalists for Mentor of the Year in the Houston Innovation Awards sound off on their best advice. Photos courtesy

Houston's top startup mentors of 2022 share go-to advice for founders

words of wisdom

Houston is home to many great mentors — all hailing for completely different backgrounds.

At the Houston Innovation Awards Gala on November 9, InnovationMap and Houston Exponential are honoring five finalists selected by judges — and naming one winner — who have dedicated at least a portion of their lives to supporting others within the startup and tech scene in Houston.

Here are some words of wisdom from our awards honorees from the Mentor of the Year category for the 2022 Houston Innovation Awards.

"I always remind people to be open and ask for help. There is a common misconception that if you disclose your idea, someone else will quickly run with it and beat you to market! ... Don’t alienate yourself by overprotecting the idea and keeping it all to yourself. The more you open up about your idea the more feedback you’ll get, good and bad, both of which are vital in the success of the product long term."

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- Alfredo Arvide, Blue People and HOUnited. Arvide, who's been an advisor for over a decade, adds, that "most markets are big enough to allow competition to thrive, so keeping your idea behind close doors until you launch may hurt you as the market may not be ready for it. Having multiple players competing in the market will help you in the long run, as long as you have a great product and a sound marketing strategy."

"Understand the problem you are trying to solve. Build a team that works well together and has the intellect, drive, and willingness to develop and bring to market a solution for that problem. Leadership is not about giving orders and making all the decisions. It is about creating the environment for your team members individually and collectively to do their best work and be most fulfilled."

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- Barbara Burger, adviser and board member for several startups and organizations. With over 20 years of experience supporting startups, Burger says she is mostly focused on startups dedicated to decarbonizing the energy system.

"Don't have 'rocking chair regret.' What I mean is when you are old and in a rocking chair, you aren't going to regret the year (or less) you took away from a guaranteed salary to test if your idea worked. So, take the time and follow your dreams — you never know what could happen!"

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- Craig Ceccanti, T-Minus Solutions. Ceccanti, who also co-founded Pinot's Palette and Rivalry Technologies, has been mentoring for over a decade. "I love helping people and always have so helping others achieve their dreams is a natural progression for me, he says. "I've also had incredible mentors and I like to pay it forward every chance I get. I feel that mentoring is fun, therapeutic, and mutually beneficial as I feel I learn from the smart people I get to talk to daily!

"Bring great people on your journey with you — team members, advisors, investors, mentors, consultants, etc."

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- Emily Reiser, Texas Medical Center and Enventure. Reiser, who's mentored companies for several years, says it's her own mentors that inspired her. "I had excellent mentors who generously gave their time for me, especially Upendra Marathi, and it's just a given that I mentor others. It's a privilege to learn from the people I mentor and see them become successful."

"Be your own cheerleader. Stay true to yourself and don't give up."

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Kara Branch, founder of Black Girls Do Engineer Corp. "I have always been the only black woman in all my roles. As a mother of three daughters, my oldest daughter inspired Black Girls Do Engineer Corp.," Branch says. "When she daughter was 9, she came to me and said she wanted to be a software engineer. ... If anyone can help her achieve her dreams is her mom and I wanted to create a space for girls who look like my daughter to come together and do the things they love and are passionate about."

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Health tech startup launches Houston study improve stroke patients recovery

now enrolling

A Houston-born company is enrolling patients in a study to test the efficacy of nerve stimulation to improve outcomes for stroke survivors.

Dr. Kirt Gill and Joe Upchurch founded NeuraStasis in 2021 as part of the TMC Biodesign fellowship program.

“The idea for the company manifested during that year because both Joe and I had experiences with stroke survivors in our own lives,” Gill tells InnovationMap. It began for Gill when his former college roommate had a stroke in his twenties.

“It’s a very unpredictable, sudden disease with ramifications not just for my best friend but for everyone in his life. I saw what it did to his family and caregivers and it's one of those things that doesn't have as many solutions for people to continue recovery and to prevent damage and that's an area that I wanted to focus myself on in my career,” Gill explains.

Gill and Upchurch arrived at the trigeminal and vagus nerves as a potential key to helping stroke patients. Gill says that there is a growing amount of academic literature that talks about the efficacy of stimulating those nerves. The co-founders met Dr. Sean Savitz, the director of the UTHealth Institute for Stroke and Cerebrovascular Diseases, during their fellowship. He is now their principal investigator for their clinical feasibility study, located at his facility.

The treatment is targeted for patients who have suffered an ischemic stroke, meaning that it’s caused by a blockage of blood flow to the brain.

“Rehabilitation after a stroke is intended to help the brain develop new networks to compensate for permanently damaged areas,” Gill says. “But the recovery process typically slows to essentially a standstill or plateau by three to six months after that stroke. The result is that the majority of stroke survivors, around 7.6 million in the US alone, live with a form of disability that prevents complete independence afterwards.”

NeuraStasis’ technology is intended to help patients who are past that window. They accomplish that with a non-invasive brain-stimulation device that targets the trigeminal and vagus nerves.

“Think of it kind of like a wearable headset that enables stimulation to be delivered, paired to survivors going through rehabilitation action. So the goal here is to help reinforce and rewire networks as they're performing specific tasks that they're looking to improve upon,” Gill explains.

The study, which hopes to enroll around 25 subjects, is intended to help people with residual arm and hand deficits six months or more after their ischemic stroke. The patients enrolled will receive nerve stimulation three times a week for six weeks. It’s in this window that Gill says he hopes to see meaningful improvement in patients’ upper extremity deficits.

Though NeuraStasis currently boasts just its two co-founders as full-time employees, the company is seeing healthy growth. It was selected for a $1.1 million award from the National Institutes of Health through its Blueprint MedTech program. The award was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The funding furthers NeuraStasis’ work for two years, and supports product development for work on acute stroke and for another product that will aid in emergency situations.

Gill says that he believes “Houston has been tailor-made for medical healthcare-focused innovation.”

NeuraStasis, he continues, has benefited greatly from its advisors and mentors from throughout the TMC, as well as the engineering talent from Rice, University of Houston and Texas A&M. And the entrepreneur says that he hopes that Houston will benefit as much from NeuraStasis’ technology as the company has from its hometown.

“I know that there are people within the community that could benefit from our device,” he says.

Texas Space Commission launches, Houston execs named to leadership

future of space

Governor Greg Abbott announced the Texas Space Commission, naming its inaugural board of directors and Texas Aerospace Research and Space Economy Consortium Executive Committee.

The announcement came at NASA's Johnson Space Center, and the governor was joined by Speaker Dade Phelan, Representative Greg Bonnen, Representative Dennis Paul, NASA's Johnson Space Center Director Vanessa Wyche, and various aerospace industry leaders.

According to a news release, the Texas Space Commission will aim to strengthen commercial, civil, and military aerospace activity by promoting innovation in space exploration and commercial aerospace opportunities, which will include the integration of space, aeronautics, and aviation industries as part of the Texas economy.

The Commission will be governed by a nine-member board of directors. The board will also administer the legislatively created Space Exploration and Aeronautics Research Fund to provide grants to eligible entities.

“Texas is home to trailblazers and innovators, and we have a rich history of traversing the final frontier: space,” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick says in a news release. “Texas is and will continue to be the epicenter for the space industry across the globe, and I have total confidence that my appointees to the Texas Space Commission Board of Directors and the Texas Aerospace Research and Space Economy Consortium Executive Committee will ensure the Texas space industry remains an international powerhouse for cutting-edge space innovation.”

TARSEC will independently identify research opportunities that will assist the state’s position in aeronautics research and development, astronautics, space commercialization, and space flight infrastructure. It also plans to fuel the integration of space, aeronautics, astronautics, and aviation industries into the Texas economy. TARSEC will be governed by an executive committee and will be composed of representatives of each higher education institution in the state.

“Since its very inception, NASA’s Johnson Space Center has been home to manned spaceflight, propelling Texas as the national leader in the U.S. space program,” Abbott says during the announcement. “It was at Rice University where President John F. Kennedy announced that the U.S. would put a man on the moon—not because it was easy, but because it was hard.

"Now, with the Texas Space Commission, our great state will have a group that is responsible for dreaming and achieving the next generation of human exploration in space," he continues. "Texas is the launchpad for Mars, innovating the technology that will colonize humanity’s first new planet. As we look into the future of space, one thing is clear: those who reach for the stars do so from the great state of Texas. I look forward to working with the Texas Space Commission, and I thank the Texas Legislature for partnering with industry and higher education institutions to secure the future of Texas' robust space industry."

The Houston-area board of directors appointees included:

  • Gwen Griffin, chief executive officer of the Griffin Communications Group
  • John Shannon, vice president of Exploration Systems at the Boeing Company
  • Sarah "Sassie" Duggleby, co-founder and CEO of Venus Aerospace
  • Kirk Shireman, vice president of Lunar Exploration Campaigns at Lockheed Martin
  • Dr. Nancy Currie-Gregg, director of the Texas A&M Space Institute

Additionally, a few Houstonians were named to the TARSEC committee, including:

  • Stephanie Murphy, CEO and executive chairman of Aegis Aerospace
  • Matt Ondler, president and former chief technology officer at Axiom Space
  • Jack “2fish” Fischer, vice president of production and operations at Intuitive Machines
  • Brian Freedman, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership and vice chairman of Wellby Financial
  • David Alexander, professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Rice Space Institute at Rice University

To see the full list of appointed board and committee members, along with their extended bios, click here.