Following the round, Hello Alice is now valued at $130 million. Photo courtesy Cayce Clifford/Hello Alice

Houston tech platform raises series C round backed by Mastercard

money moves

Hello Alice, a fintech platform that supports 1.5 million small businesses across the country, has announced its series C round.

The amount raised was not disclosed, but Hello Alice reported that the fresh funding has brought the company's valuation to $130 million. Alexandria, Virginia-based QED Investors led the round, and investors included Mastercard, Backstage Capital, Guy Fieri, Golden Seeds, Harbert Growth Partners Fund, How Women Invest I, LP, Lovell Limited Partnership, Tyler “Ninja” and Jessica Blevins, and Tamera Mowry and Adam Housley, per a news release from the company.

“We are thrilled to hit the milestone of 1.5 million small businesses utilizing Hello Alice to elevate the American dream. There are more entrepreneurs launching this year than in the history of our country, and we will continue to ensure they get the capital needed to grow,” Elizabeth Gore and Carolyn Rodz, co-founders of Hello Alice, say in a news release. “In closing our Series C, we welcome Mastercard to our family of investors and continue to be grateful to QED, How Women Invest, and our advocates such as Guy Fieri.”

The funding will go toward expanding capital offerings and AI-driven tools for its small business membership.

“Our team focuses on finding and investing in companies that are obsessed with reducing friction and providing superior financial services solutions to their customers,” QED Investors Co-Founder Frank Rotman says in the release. “Hello Alice has proven time and time again that they are on the leading edge of providing equitable access to capital and banking services to the small business ecosystem."

Hello Alice, which closed its series B in 2021 at $21 million, has collaborated with Mastercard prior to the series C, offering small business owners the Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard in 2022 and a free financial wellness tool, Business Health Score, last year. Mastercard also teamed up with other partners for the the Equitable Access Fund in 2023.

“With Hello Alice, we’re investing to provide support to small business owners as they look to access capital, helping to address one of the most cited business challenges they face,” Ginger Siegel, Mastercard's North America Small Business Lead, adds. “By working together to simplify access to the products and services they need when building and growing their business, we’re helping make a meaningful impact on the individuals who run their businesses, the customers they serve, and our communities and economy at large.”

While Hello Alice's founders' mission is to help small businesses, their own company was threatened by a lawsuit from America First Legal. The organization, founded by former Trump Administration adviser Stephen Miller and features a handful of other former White House officials on its board, is suing Hello Alice and its partner, Progressive Insurance. The lawsuit alleges that their program to award10 $25,000 grants to Black-owned small businesses constitutes racial discrimination. Gore calls the lawsuit frivolous in an interview on the Houston Innovators Podcast. The legal battle is ongoing.

Inspired by the lawsuit, Hello Alice launched the Elevate the American Dream, a grant program that's highlighting small businesses living out their American dreams. The first 14 grants have already been distributed, and Hello Alice plans to award more grants over the next several weeks, putting their grant funding at over $40 million.


Houston House at SXSW 2024 featured conversations about startup scaling, tips from CEOs, and more. Photo via Allie Danziger/LinkedIn

Overheard: Innovators sound off on future of work, converging industries at Houston House at SXSW 2024

Eavesdropping in Austin

Houston innovators talked big topics at SXSW 2024 — from the startup scaling and converging industries to the future of work.

Houston House, which was put on by the Greater Houston Partnership on March 11, hosted four panels full of experts from Houston. If you missed the day-long activation, here are some highlights from the experts who each commented on the future of the Bayou City when it comes to startups, technology, innovation, and the next generation's workforce.

"When we think about Houston, we think about access to at-scale infrastructure, amenities, and workforce and talent pools."

— Remington Tonar, co-founder and chief growth officer at Cart.com, says about why the company chose to return its headquarters back to Houston last year. One of these amenities, Tonar explained, is Houston's global airports.

"If New York and Austin had a baby, it would be Houston, because you have friendly people with a big-city culture."

— Mitra Miller, vice president and board member of Houston Angel Network, says, adding that Houston has a cost efficiency to it, which should be at the forefront of founders' minds when considering where to locate.

"We are not only attracting global talents, we are also attracting global wealth and foreign investments because we are the rising city of the future. We are the global launch pad where you can scale internationally very quickly."

— Sunny Zhang, founder of TrueLeap, says adding how there's a redistribution of global workforce happening when you consider ongoing global affairs.

"We overwhelmingly as a company, and my co-founder would agree, knew we had to go the Houston path. And we started funneling a lot more resources here."

— Carolyn Rodz, co-founder and CEO of Hello Alice, says, explaining that the pandemic helped equalize the talent across the country, and this has been to the benefit of cities like Houston.

"Houston is here with arms open, welcoming people and actively recruiting."

— Sean Kelly, co-founder and CEO of Amperon, says, emphasizing how Texas has made moves to being business friendly. Amperon was founded in New York, before moving to Houston a couple years ago.

"There is a revolution starting to happen in Houston right now."

— Trevor Best, co-founder and CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics, says, first commenting on the momentum from Rice University, where his company's technology originates from. But, as he adds, when you compare the ecosystem when the startup was founded in 2019 to where it's at now, "there is so much more happening."

"Houston has a critical mass in terms of aerospace."

— Stephanie Munez Murphy of Aegus Aerospace says, saying specifically that NASA's Johnson Space Center holds some responsibility for that. "JSC is the home of opening up space commercialization."

"There's diversity in industries people are coming from, but also in terms of experience and expertise that (Houstonians) have."

— Robyn Cardwell of Omniscience says, adding that Houston's diversity goes further than just where people originate from. "Houston has all these pieces put together ... for growing and scaling organizations," she adds.

"I've worked with thousands of students in Houston who are actively looking to better themselves and grow their career post college or post high school and go into the workforce."

— Allie Danziger of Ascent Funding says, adding that Gen Z, which is already entering the workforce, is entrepreneurial and ready to change the world. "Seeing the energy of Houstonians is just thrilling," she adds.

"We're working together in the Houston community. ... There are so many opportunities to collaborate but we need conveners." 

— Stacy Putman of INEOS says, adding that within industry there has been a lack of discussion and collaboration because of competition. But, as she's observing, that's changing thanks to conveners at colleges or at the Greater Houston Partnership.

"The opportunity for Houston is that everybody has to step up to be in some way, shape, or form helping us with this."

— Raj Salhotra of Momentum Education says about supporting the future workforce of Houston, including low-income household students.

The ultimate who's who of 2023 — these are our favorite Houston Innovators Podcast guests of last year. Photos courtesy

Editor's Picks: 7 favorite Houston Innovator Podcast episodes of 2023

year in review

Editor's note: In 2023, I recorded 50 episodes of the Houston Innovators Podcast — a weekly discussion with a Houston innovator, startup founder, investor, and more. I've rounded up seven podcast episodes that stood out for me looking back at the year of recordings. Scroll through to see whom I selected and stream their individual episodes, and tune into the last episode of the year where I explain why I enjoyed each conversation.



Episode 174 - Rolling out nationwide - Mike Francis and Carrie Horazeck of NanoTech

NanoTech's Chief Commercial Officer Carrie Horazeck and Co-Founder and CEO Mike Francis join the Houston Innovators Podcast to celebrate the nationwide launch of their roof coating product. Photo via LinkedIn

A Houston startup is celebrating its nationwide launch of its flagship product that coats roofs to reduce energy waste.

NanoTech's Nano Shield Cool Roof Coat is a unique product that can be added onto roofs to reduce energy waste on buildings. Co-founder and CEO Mike Francis and Chief Commercial Officer Carrie Horazeck joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to share more details about the product.

"It's just a coating that can go on top of existing structure — any type of commercial roof," Horazeck says on the show. "We have a pretty good amount of data from 2022 showcasing that we can reduce HVAC consumption within the building by about 30 to 40 percent.

"Our clients really see a immediate benefit in their energy bill, and, of course, if you reduce the HVAC consumption, that automatically translates to a decrease in your scope one emissions," she continues. Continue reading.


Episode 181 - Gearing up for high-speed global travel - Sassie Duggleby of Venus Aerospace

Sarah "Sassie" Duggleby of Venus Aerospace joins the Houston Innovators Podcast this week. Photo courtesy of Venus

Sarah "Sassie" Duggleby is on a mission to get people home in time for dinner — whether they are traveling around the world or working for her business. That's why she founded Venus Aerospace, which is developing hypersonic space planes. It's also why she relocated the company from the West Coast to Houston.

"We knew we had to find a location where we could test our engine and still be home for dinner," Duggleby says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our company vision is 'home for dinner.' We want to fly you across the globe and have you home for dinner. And, if you work for us, we want you home for dinner."

Venus's technology enables this revolutionary travel through its supersonic combustion engine — more akin to a rocket's engine than an airplane's — that allows for travel at a higher elevation, she explains on the show. Jet engines rely on air outside of the aircraft to combust, and rocket engines work with a system that supplies air internally. And, as Duggleby explains, the engine can go further with the same amount of fuel, so it's a more sustainable way of traveling too. Continue reading.


Episode 182 - Stopping neurodegenerative diseases in their tracks - Howard Berman of Coya Therapeutics

For Howard Berman, CEO and co-founder of Coya Therapeutics, commercializing his company is personal. Photo courtesy of Coya

When Howard Berman sought out renowned Houston Methodist researcher and neurologist Dr. Stanley Appel, he was looking for treatment for his father, who was suffering from dementia. He wasn't looking for a job, but Dr. Appel had other ideas and asked Berman to meet with him.

"I was interested in what I could do for my dad," Berman says on the Houston Innovators Podcast, explaining how he took the meeting with Dr. Appel, who then presented him with some of his research. "By slide five my jaw had hit the ground.

"He had shown that he could stop the progression in one of his early trials of ALS," Berman says.

Not too long after that meeting, Berman, who founded digital health platform imaware, joined Dr. Appel to lead commercialization of Coya Therapeutics, a biotech startup that raised over $20 million in venture funding before going public a few months ago. Continue reading.


Episode 187 - Bridging the gap to innovation - Ramanan Krishnamoorti of University of Houston

Ramanan Krishnamoorti, vice president of energy and innovation at the University of Houston, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to talk about the university's dedication to helping the city become an innovative force. Photo via UH.edu

Ramanan Krishnamoorti has had a varied career in academia, from an engineering professor to nanotech research. While he never made the transition from researcher to entrepreneur, he managed to snag a CEO title at the university about a decade ago: Chief energy officer.

Since then his role has expanded to include advancing UH's innovation of all kinds — from health tech to the arts — as vice president of energy and innovation at UH. In his role, he oversees the UH Technology Bridge, a lab and coworking space for tenants just a short drive away from UH's main campus, as well as future plans, like a new central campus hub for innovation that's in its early stages of development.

"What we really need at the university today is to bring innovation — which tech transfer is a piece of — and connect that to real-world challenges to deliver what the world needs, which is talented folks delivering new innovative, entrepreneurial, or intrapreneurial programs," Krishnamoorti says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Continue reading.

Episode 193 - Innovating in the East End - Erik Ibarra of Magnolia Fund and ORDRS

Erik Ibarra's latest venture is to give agency to residents in the neighborhood he grew up in. Photo courtesy

Innovation isn't always tinkering with tech or programming software, although serial entrepreneur Erik Ibarra knows that world well. Sometimes it's about rethinking how a community improves and develops without doing the residents a disservice.

That's why Ibarra started Magnolia Fund, a mission-driven investment fund dedicated to enriching the East End community and preserving the neighborhood's culture and history. Ibarra, who has lived in the area the majority of his life, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast, that he's looking to turn residents into investors.

"Our investors from the neighborhood, today they walk around and look at their house and say, 'I own that,' and that's great," Ibarra says. "In the future, our investors should be able to say that, and then point to a building and say, 'I own a portion of that building too. And I helped that small business over there.'" Continue reading.


Episode 198 - The undeniable impact of AI - Anshumali Shrivastava of ThirdAI CorpEpisode 198 - The undeniable impact of AI - Anshumali Shrivastava of ThirdAI Corp

Anshumali Shrivastava joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share the revolutionary work ThirdAI is doing for artificial intelligence. Photo via rice.edu

Anshumali Shrivastava's career has evolved alongside the rise of artificial intelligence. Now, he believes his company represents the future of the industry's widespread implementation.

Shrivastava, who's also a professor at Rice University, founded ThirdAI, pronounced "third eye," in 2021 to democratize artificial intelligence through software innovations. As Shrivastava explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast, AI processes have historically been run on larger, less accessible computing hardware. ThirdAI's tools are able to run on a regular central processing unit, or CPU, rather than the more powerful graphics processing unit, or GPU.

"We focus on the problems that people are facing in the current AI ecosystem," Shrivastava says on the podcast. "Right now, if you are to build some of the large-language models and (linear programming) models, you need a lot of computing power, dedicated engineers to move it, and, even if you are using fully managed services, it's costly and there are a lot of privacy implications because you have to move data around." Continue reading.


Episode 212 - The 'frivolous' lawsuit over DEI funding - Carolyn Rodz and Elizabeth Gore of Hello Alice

Hello Alice Co-Founders Carolyn Rodz and Elizabeth Gore join the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the lawsuit they're facing. Photo courtesy Cayce Clifford/Hello Alice

For years, Hello Alice has been helping small businesses across the country get equitable access to funding and support. Now, the Houston tech company is facing its own obstacle: An affirmative action lawsuit.

"I don't think in a million years that we ever expected anything like this," Elizabeth Gore, co-founder and president of Hello Alice, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There's surprise, then there's fear, and then there's anger. But now on the other side of it, we're emboldened, confident, and more passionate than ever."

America First Legal's lawsuit against Hello Alice and its partner, Progressive Insurance, alleges that their program to award10 $25,000 grants to Black-owned small businesses constitutes racial discrimination. AFL was founded by former Trump Administration adviser Stephen Miller and features a handful of other former White House officials on its board. Continue reading.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Carolyn Rodz and Elizabeth Gore of Hello Alice and Kelly McCormick of UH. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Carolyn Rodz and Elizabeth Gore, co-founders of Hello Alice

Hello Alice Co-Founders Carolyn Rodz and Elizabeth Gore join the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the lawsuit they're facing. Photo courtesy Cayce Clifford/Hello Alice

For years, Hello Alice has been helping small businesses across the country get equitable access to funding and support. Now, the Houston tech company is facing its own obstacle: An affirmative action lawsuit.

"I don't think in a million years that we ever expected anything like this," Elizabeth Gore, co-founder and president of Hello Alice, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There's surprise, then there's fear, and then there's anger. But now on the other side of it, we're emboldened, confident, and more passionate than ever."

America First Legal's lawsuit against Hello Alice and its partner, Progressive Insurance, alleges that their program to award10 $25,000 grants to Black-owned small businesses constitutes racial discrimination. AFL was founded by former Trump Administration adviser Stephen Miller and features a handful of other former White House officials on its board. Read more.

Kelly McCormick, professor at University of Houston's C.T. Bauer College of Business

UH Professor Kelly McCormick is shaking things up with a new class — on Taylor Swift. Photo via UH.edu

This spring, University of Houston business students can enroll in “The Entrepreneurial Genius of Taylor Swift,” the new class is part of the curriculum at coming to the C. T. Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston. Swfities who’re super “ready for it,” however, can get a jump on enrollment now.

“You definitely don’t have to be a hardcore fan — a Swiftie — to learn and appreciate the entrepreneurial genius that has made Taylor Swift an international phenomenon,” notes Kelly McCormick, the Professor of Practice leading the course, citing Swift’s expertise in marketing, fan engagement, community building, and brand strategies.Read more.

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Houston engineers develop breakthrough device to advance spinal cord treatment

future of health

A team of Rice University engineers has developed an implantable probe over a hundred times smaller than the width of a hair that aims to help develop better treatments for spinal cord disease and injury.

Detailed in a recent study published in Cell Reports, the probe or sensor, known as spinalNET, is used to explore how neurons in the spinal cord process sensation and control movement, according to a statement from Rice. The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health, Rice, the California-based Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and the philanthropic Mary K. Chapman Foundation based in Oklahoma.

The soft and flexible sensor was used to record neuronal activity in freely moving mice with high resolution for multiple days. Historically, tracking this level of activity has been difficult for researchers because the spinal cord and its neurons move so much during normal activity, according to the team.

“We developed a tiny sensor, spinalNET, that records the electrical activity of spinal neurons as the subject performs normal activity without any restraint,” Yu Wu, a research scientist at Rice and lead author of the study said in a statement. “Being able to extract such knowledge is a first but important step to develop cures for millions of people suffering from spinal cord diseases.”

The team says that before now the spinal cord has been considered a "black box." But the device has already helped the team uncover new findings about the body's rhythmic motor patterns, which drive walking, breathing and chewing.

Lan Luan (from left), Yu Wu, and Chong Xie are working on the breakthrough device. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

"Some (spinal neurons) are strongly correlated with leg movement, but surprisingly, a lot of neurons have no obvious correlation with movement,” Wu said in the statement. “This indicates that the spinal circuit controlling rhythmic movement is more complicated than we thought.”

The team said they hope to explore these findings further and aim to use the technology for additional medical purposes.

“In addition to scientific insight, we believe that as the technology evolves, it has great potential as a medical device for people with spinal cord neurological disorders and injury,” Lan Luan, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice and a corresponding author on the study, added in the statement.

Rice researchers have developed several implantable, minimally invasive devices to address health and mental health issues.

In the spring, the university announced that the United States Department of Defense had awarded a four-year, $7.8 million grant to the Texas Heart Institute and a Rice team led by co-investigator Yaxin Wang to continue to break ground on a novel left ventricular assist device (LVAD) that could be an alternative to current devices that prevent heart transplantation.

That same month, the university shared news that Professor Jacob Robinson had published findings on minimally invasive bioelectronics for treating psychiatric conditions. The 9-millimeter device can deliver precise and programmable stimulation to the brain to help treat depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Houston clean hydrogen startup to pilot tech with O&G co.

stay gold

Gold H2, a Houston-based producer of clean hydrogen, is teaming up with a major U.S.-based oil and gas company as the first step in launching a 12-month series of pilot projects.

The tentative agreement with the unnamed oil and gas company kicks off the availability of the startup’s Black 2 Gold microbial technology. The technology underpins the startup’s biotech process for converting crude oil into proprietary Gold Hydrogen.

The cleantech startup plans to sign up several oil and gas companies for the pilot program. Gold H2 says it’s been in discussions with companies in North America, Latin America, India, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

The pilot program is aimed at demonstrating how Gold H2’s technology can transform old oil wells into hydrogen-generating assets. Gold H2, a spinout of Houston-based biotech company Cemvita, says the technology is capable of producing hydrogen that’s cheaper and cleaner than ever before.

“This business model will reshape the traditional oil and gas industry landscape by further accelerating the clean energy transition and creating new economic opportunities in areas that were previously dismissed as unviable,” Gold H2 says in a news release.

The start of the Black 2 Gold demonstrations follows the recent hiring of oil and gas industry veteran Prabhdeep Singh Sekhon as CEO.

“With the proliferation of AI, growth of data centers, and a national boom in industrial manufacturing underway, affordable … carbon-free energy is more paramount than ever,” says Rayyan Islam, co-founder and general partner at venture capital firm 8090 Industries, an investor in Gold H2. “We’re investing in Gold H2, as we know they’ll play a pivotal role in unleashing a new dawn for energy abundance in partnership with the oil industry.”

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

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 an e-commerce startup founder, an industrial biologist, and a cellular scientist.

Omair Tariq, co-founder and CEO of Cart.com

Omair Tariq of Cart.com joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share his confidence in Houston as the right place to scale his unicorn. Photo via Cart.com

Houston-based Cart.com, which operates a multichannel commerce platform, has secured $105 million in debt refinancing from investment manager BlackRock.

The debt refinancing follows a recent $25 million series C extension round, bringing Cart.com’s series C total to $85 million. The scaleup’s valuation now stands at $1.2 billion, making it one of the few $1 billion-plus “unicorns” in the Houston area.

Cart.com was co-founded by CEO Omair Tariq in October 2020. Read more.

Nádia Skorupa Parachin, vice president of industrial biotechnology at Cemvita

Nádia Skorupa Parachin joined Cemvita as vice president of industrial biotechnology. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Houston-based biotech company Cemvita recently tapped two executives to help commercialize its sustainable fuel made from carbon waste.

Nádia Skorupa Parachin came aboard as vice president of industrial biotechnology, and Phil Garcia was promoted to vice president of commercialization.

Parachin most recently oversaw several projects at Boston-based biotech company Ginkjo Bioworks. She previously co-founded Brazilian biotech startup Integra Bioprocessos. Read more.

Han Xiao, associate professor of chemistry at Rice University

The funds were awarded to Han Xiao, a chemist at Rice University.

A Rice University chemist has landed a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Health for his work that aims to reprogram the genetic code and explore the role certain cells play in causing diseases like cancer and neurological disorders.

The funds were awarded to Han Xiao, the Norman Hackerman-Welch Young Investigator, associate professor of chemistry, from the NIH's Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) program, which supports medically focused laboratories. Xiao will use the five-year grant to advance his work on noncanonical amino acids.

“This innovative approach could revolutionize how we understand and control cellular functions,” Xiao said in the statement. Read more.