With Clutch, connecting brands with creators has never been easier and more inclusive. Photo courtesy of Clutch

An app that originally launched on Houston college campuses has announced it's now live nationwide.

Clutch founders Madison Long and Simone May set out to make it easier for the younger generation to earn money with their skill sets. After launching a beta at local universities last fall, Clutch's digital marketplace is now live for others to join in.

The platform connects brands to its network of creators for reliable and authentic work — everything from social media management, video creation, video editing, content creation, graphic design projects, and more. With weekly payments to creators and an inclusive platform for users on both sides of the equation, Clutch aims to make digital collaboration easier and more reliable for everyone.

“We’re thrilled to bring our product to market to make sustainable, authentic lifestyles available to everyone through the creator economy," says May, CTO and co-founder of Clutch. "We’re honored to be part of the thriving innovation community here in Houston and get to bring more on-your-own-terms work opportunities to all creators and businesses through our platform.”

In its beta, Clutch facilitated collaborations for over 200 student creators and 50 brands — such as DIGITS and nama. The company is founded with a mission of "democratizing access to information and technology and elevating the next generation for all people," according to a news release from Clutch. In the beta, 75 percent of the creators were people of color and around half of the businesses were owned by women and people of color.

“As a Clutch Creator, I set my own pricing, schedule and services when collaborating on projects for brands,” says Cathy Syfert, a creator through Clutch. “Clutch Creators embrace the benefits of being a brand ambassador as we create content about the products we love, but do it on behalf of the brands to help the brands grow authentically."

The newly launched product has the following features:

  • Creator profile, where users can share their services, pricing, and skills and review inquiries from brands.
  • Curated matching from the Clutch admin team.
  • Collab initiation, where users can accept or reject incoming collab requests with brands.
  • Collab management — communication, timing, review cycles — all within the platform.
  • In-app payments with a weekly amount selected by the creators themselves.
  • Seamless cancellation for both brands and creators.
Clutch raised $1.2 million in seed funding from Precursor Ventures, Capital Factory, HearstLab, and more. Clutch was originally founded as Campus Concierge in 2021 and has gone through the DivInc Houston program at the Ion.

Madison Long, left, and Simone May co-founded Clutch. Photo courtesy of Clutch

Madison Long, left, and Simone May co-founded Clutch to democratize side gig success on college campuses. Photo courtesy of Clutch

Houston-based gig economy startup raises $1.2M, launches beta platform

so clutch

Two Houstonians on a mission to enable safe and equitable entrepreneurship on college campuses have launched a new beta platform and closed pre-seed funding.

Clutch, a digital marketplace startup founded by Simone May and Madison Long, closed its pre-seed round of funding at $1.2 million – led by Precursor Ventures and other partners such as Capital Factory and HearstLab. The investment from this round will support Clutch’s national open beta launch of its platform for brands and student creators nationwide and its continued investment in customer and product strategy.

“We are at this inflection point where marketing is changing,” May says in a press release. “We know that the next generation can clearly see that and I think a lot of marketing agencies are starting to catch on. We need to be prioritizing the next generation’s opinion because they are driving who is interested in what they buy. This upcoming generation does not want to be sold to and they don’t like inorganic, inauthentic advertisements. That’s why user generated content is so big, it feels authentic.”

Originally founded as Campus Concierge before rebranding as Clutch, the company has grown the business to 200 vetted student creators – 75 percent of whom are people of color.

“We have a huge passion for democratizing access to ensure that people who look like us also make money that supports their lifestyle in a meaningful way,” says May, who is also CTO of Clutch.

The company was a member of DivInc's inaugural Houston accelerator cohort in 2021, which May says helped the company develop its pitch deck, financial models and pushed the team to think about what it means to be a startup.

“Madison and Simone have an incredible vision for Clutch that they are bringing to life,” said Preston James, CEO and Founder of DivInc in a statement. “[…] Clutch is a life changer for so many. We’re thrilled to be part of their journey as an investor and partner, and very excited to see their continued growth and success.”

Looking ahead, Clutch wants to grow and enhance the team – wanting to take the platform to the next level by finding new means of selling its services. In addition, it wants to become a place for support and a resource to help the freelance lifestyle – connecting their content creators with a centralized market for retirement funds, investments, health care and all things they may require.

“The next generation is one that craves flexible, empowering and meaningful work that supports their balanced lifestyle,” says Long, who serves as CEO. “We want to be a force for the next generation in the changing landscape of what it means to be successful in your career to something that is dynamic, ever-changing and on your own terms.”

A Houston tech startup launches a crowdfunding campaign — and more local innovation news. Photo courtesy of The Postage

Roundup: Houston startups announce new partnerships, crowdfunding campaigns, and more

Short stories

The Houston innovation ecosystem has been bursting at the seams with news from innovative tech companies and disruptive Houston startups as we fly through the final quarter of 2021.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, a Texas energy tech company gets selected for a prestigious program, a med device company heads to clinical trials, a startup launches a crowdfunding campaign, and more.

The Postage launches crowdfunding campaign

The Postage is looking for financial support with its new campaign. Photo courtesy of The Postage

The Postage, a Houston-based, full-service digital platform to help organize affairs to make after-life planning a smoother process for families, has announced the launch of a crowdfunding campaign through MicroVentures.

"This crowdfunding offering is selling crowd notes to raise maximum offering proceeds of $500,000 with a minimum investment of $100," according to a news release. "We currently anticipate closing this offering on April 4, 2022."

More information on this offering can be found at: https://invest.microventures.com/offerings/the-postage.

Emily Cisek co-founded the company after she experienced an overwhelming experience following a death in her family.

"I just knew there had to be a better way, and that's why I started The Postage," Cisek says on an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "My background had historically been in bringing offline businesses online, and I started doing some research on how I could make this space better. At the time, there really wasn't anything out there."

Texas company selected for Chevron Technology Ventures Catalyst Program

This Texas company has joined CTV's startup program. Photo via Getty Images

SeebeckCell Technologies, while based in Arlington, Texas, is no stranger to the Houston innovation ecosystem. The startup was in the first class of the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator, participated in the MassChallenge Texas Houston cohort, and is a member at Greentown Houston. The company announced earlier this month a new Houston association as it was invited to participate in the Chevron Technology Ventures Catalyst Program to develop further their technology platform designed to recover industrial waste heat energy, increasing energy consumption efficiency, and eliminating battery replacement in IoT applications, according to a news release.

"SeebeckCell is excited to be supported by Chevron, a technology leader in the energy market," says Ali Farzbod, co-founder and CEO of Seebeckcell Technologies, in the release. "This is inspiring hope in the scientific community as we see Chevron continue to back commercializing academically developed technologies that provide potential solutions for addressing climate change. Through collaboration and partnership, we're able to grow our startup and we're grateful for participating in the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator that helped connect us with Chevron."

SeebeckCell Technologies is helping petroleum and gas industries and emerging markets solve energy waste with an innovative liquid based thermoelectric generator.

VenoStent heads to clinical trials

VenoStent

VenoStent has reached the clinical trials stage. Photo via venostent.com

VenoStent Inc. has announced successful enrollment in its initial feasibility clinical trial. The med device startup is a tissue engineering company that's developing smart polymer wraps to transform the efficacy of the vascular surgery industry, which sees five million operations each year.

"We are very pleased to announce that we have successfully enrolled twenty end-stage renal disease patients in our initial feasibility study taking place in Asuncion, Paraguay," says Tim Boire, CEO., in a news release "After years of development, we are confident that our bioabsorbable wrap technology can have a positive impact on the lives of patients that require hemodialysis to sustain life. This is a major milestone toward our mission to improve the quality and length of life for end-stage renal disease patients, as well as others needing vascular surgery."

VenoStent is an alum of TMC Innovation's accelerator and has been named a most promising company by Rice Alliance.

Cart.com announces latest partnership

Cart.com has a new partner, which has increased access to tools for its clients. Photo via cart.com

Houston-based Cart.com, an end-to-end ecommerce services provider and Amazon competitor, has announced yet another new partnership. The company has teamed up with Extend, which provides modern extended warranties and product protection plans. The partnership means that Cart.com merchants have access to a new revenue stream and new ways to increase customer satisfaction by leveraging Extend's platform and technology-enabled proprietary insurance stack.

"Like Cart.com, Extend is fixing the fractured ecommerce ecosystem by providing a truly innovative, effortless, and easy-to-understand service for both merchants and their customers," says Omair Tariq, Cart.com co-founder and CEO, in a news release. "By creating seamless solutions to serve brands, we empower them to focus completely on their customers. The partnership with Extend fits squarely in this view; anyone who has wrangled with extended warranty claims in the past understands the friction involved. Extend is rewriting the rules for product protection and customer service while Cart.com takes care of everything from the factory floor to the customer door. Through this partnership with Extend, we're now seamlessly covering the post-purchase experience too."

Extend launched in 2019 — a time when only the top 1 percent of merchants could offer extended warranties and protection plans to help their customers, according to the release. Now, Extend is valued at $1.6 billion, has raised over $315 million in venture capital, is on track to sell more than three million protection plans in 2021.

"The relationship between an ecommerce company and its customer doesn't end with the sale," says Woodrow Levin, co-founder and CEO of Extend, in the release. "Our technology will allow Cart.com's clients to continue to engage customers after they make a purchase, unlocking opportunities to increase brand loyalty, open new revenue channels, and create lasting customer relationships. Together, we're empowering clients to deliver a better experience for customers and we are excited to continue to build on that vision."

Campus Concierge rebrands to Clutch with revamped website

A Houston startup has just flipped a switch. Image via thatsclutch.com

Campus Concierge is now Clutch, the Houston-based startup announced on its Facebook page last month. The new name also came with a revamped website.

Madison Long and Simone May had the idea for the company when they were undergraduate students at Purdue University and 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. Launched earlier this year, the platform is 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.

"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," Long, CEO and co-founder of Clutch, previously told InnovationMap.

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."

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Texas nonprofit grants $68.5M to Houston organizations for recruitment, research

Three prominent institutions in Houston will be able to snag a trio of high-profile cancer researchers thanks to $12 million in new funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

The biggest recruitment award — $6 million — went to the University of Texas MD Anderson Center to lure researcher Xiling Shen away from the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation in Los Angeles.

Shen is chief scientific officer at the nonprofit Terasaki Institute. His lab there studies precision medicine, including treatments for cancer, from a “systems biology perspective.”

He also is co-founder and former CEO of Xilis, a Durham, North Carolina-based oncology therapy startup that raised $70 million in series A funding in 2021. Before joining the institute in 2021, the Stanford University graduate was an associate professor at Duke University in Durham.

Shen and Xilis aren’t strangers to MD Anderson.

In 2023, MD Anderson said it planned to use Xilis’ propriety MicroOrganoSphere (MOS) technology for development of novel cancer therapies.

“Our research suggests the MOS platform has the potential to offer new capabilities and to improve the efficiency of developing innovative drugs and cell therapies over current … models, which we hope will bring medicines to patients more quickly,” Shen said in an MD Anderson news release.

Here are the two other Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awards that will bring noted cancer researchers to Houston:

  • $4 million to attract David Sarlah to Rice University from the University of Illinois, where he is an associate professor of chemistry. Sarlah’s work includes applying the principles of chemistry to creation of new cancer therapies.
  • $2 million to lure Vishnu Dileep to the Baylor College of Medicine from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is a postdoctoral fellow. His work includes the study of cancer genomes.

CPRIT also handed out more than $56.5 million in grants and awards to seven institutions in the Houston area. Here’s the rundown:

  • MD Anderson Cancer Center — Nearly $25.6 million
  • Baylor College of Medicine — Nearly $11.5 million
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — More than $6 million
  • Rice University — $4 million
  • University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston — More than $3.5 million
  • Methodist Hospital Research Institute — More than $3.3 million
  • University of Houston — $1.4 million

Dr. Pavan Reddy, a CPRIT scholar who is a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and director of its Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Care Center, says the CPRIT funding “will help our investigators take chances and explore bold ideas to make innovative discoveries.”

The Houston-area funding was part of nearly $99 million in grants and awards that CPRIT recently approved.

Houston space company's lunar lander touches down on the moon in historic mission

touchdown

A private lander on Thursday made the first U.S. touchdown on the moon in more than 50 years, but managed just a weak signal back until flight controllers scrambled to gain better contact.

Despite the spotty communication, Intuitive Machines, the company that built and managed the craft, confirmed that it had landed upright. But it did not provide additional details, including whether the lander had reached its intended destination near the moon’s south pole. The company ended its live webcast soon after identifying a lone, weak signal from the lander.

“What we can confirm, without a doubt, is our equipment is on the surface of the moon,” mission director Tim Crain reported as tension built in the company’s Houston control center.

Added Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus: “I know this was a nail-biter, but we are on the surface and we are transmitting. Welcome to the moon.”

Data was finally starting to stream in, according to a company announcement two hours after touchdown.

The landing put the U.S. back on the surface for the first time since NASA’s famed Apollo moonwalkers.

Intuitive Machines also became the first private business to pull off a lunar landing, a feat achieved by only five countries. Another U.S. company, Astrobotic Technology, gave it a shot last month, but never made it to the moon, and the lander crashed back to Earth. Both companies are part of a NASA-supported program to kick-start the lunar economy.

Astrobotic was among the first to relay congratulations. “An incredible achievement. We can’t wait to join you on the lunar surface in the near future,” the company said via X, formerly Twitter.

Intuitive Machines “aced the landing of a lifetime,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted.

The final few hours before touchdown were loaded with extra stress when the lander's laser navigation system failed. The company's flight control team had to press an experimental NASA laser system into action, with the lander taking an extra lap around the moon to allow time for the last-minute switch.

With this change finally in place, Odysseus descended from a moon-skimming orbit and guided itself toward the surface, aiming for a relatively flat spot among all the cliffs and craters near the south pole.

As the designated touchdown time came and went, controllers at the company's command center anxiously awaited a signal from the spacecraft some 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) away. After close to 15 minutes, the company announced it had received a weak signal from the lander.

Launched last week, the six-footed carbon fiber and titanium lander — towering 14 feet (4.3 meters) — carried six experiments for NASA. The space agency gave the company $118 million to build and fly the lander, part of its effort to commercialize lunar deliveries ahead of the planned return of astronauts in a few years.

Intuitive Machines' entry is the latest in a series of landing attempts by countries and private outfits looking to explore the moon and, if possible, capitalize on it. Japan scored a lunar landing last month, joining earlier triumphs by Russia, U.S., China and India.

The U.S. bowed out of the lunar landscape in 1972 after NASA's Apollo program put 12 astronauts on the surface. Astrobotic of Pittsburgh gave it a shot last month, but was derailed by a fuel leak that resulted in the lander plunging back through Earth's atmosphere and burning up.

Intuitive Machines’ target was 186 miles (300 kilometers) shy of the south pole, around 80 degrees latitude and closer to the pole than any other spacecraft has come. The site is relatively flat, but surrounded by boulders, hills, cliffs and craters that could hold frozen water, a big part of the allure. The lander was programmed to pick, in real time, the safest spot near the so-called Malapert A crater.

The solar-powered lander was intended to operate for a week, until the long lunar night.

Besides NASA’s tech and navigation experiments, Intuitive Machines sold space on the lander to Columbia Sportswear to fly its newest insulating jacket fabric; sculptor Jeff Koons for 125 mini moon figurines; and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for a set of cameras to capture pictures of the descending lander.