Ampersand and Curate Capital are working together to move the needle on the future of work. Photo courtesy of Curate Capital

A Houston-based startup focused on upskilling young professionals has closed its latest round of funding with support from a local investor.

Ampersand Professionals Inc. raised $1.75 million in pre-seed funding led by Curate Capital, a Houston-based, female-focused venture capital fund. Carrie Colbert, Curate's founding and general partner, will join Ampersand's advisory board.

Ampersand — founded in 2020 by Allie Danziger with Co-Founders Kathrin Applebaum and Scott Greenberg — has developed a platform for businesses to easily implement internship programs. The program also upskills and educates young professionals, providing them career development and job skills training.

"Ampersand's mission to democratize access to career-building opportunities for young professionals, ties in nicely with Curate's mission to empower women, says Colbert in a news release. "The company's platform will have a direct positive impact on young women (and others) as they begin their professional careers."

Both the female founders are personally driven by motivating and inspiring women and driving future of work solutions. The fresh funding will go toward expanding the Ampersand platform and network.

"The shift to remote work during the pandemic not only completely changed the way we all work, but also made it even more difficult for so many recent, and soon-to-be graduates, to make the connections needed to land their first internship and then gain the meaningful training to excel in those roles," says Danziger in the release. "This infusion of capital allows Ampersand to expand our e-learning platform, matching algorithm capabilities, ensure our training matches the needs of our business partners, and expand our university partnerships around the country."

Since September 2020, the Ampersand team has developed its training and career development platform with over 100 hours of job skills training content, according to the release, and has placed over 200 driven professionals in remote internships. (InnovationMap has been a business partner in Ampersand's program.)

Curate Capital was founded in 2020 by Carrie Colbert and Mark Latham. The firm, and its initial $10 million fund, is focused on funding early-stage, female-founded companies.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Daniel Powell of Spark Biomedical, Carrie Colbert of Curate Capital, and Carson Hager of SafeFun. Courtesy photos

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 — venture capital, medical devices, and software — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Daniel Powell, CEO of Spark Biomedical

A new medical device created in Houston is revolutionizing opioid withdrawal treatment. Photo via sparkbiomedical.com

Houston-based Spark Biomedical has created an opioid withdrawal treatment device known as the Sparrow Therapy System. It's worn over the ear and sends mild electrical signals to trigger cranial nerves that release endorphins that the body has stopped producing on its own during opioid use. These endorphins help the user to make clearer, more logical decisions as they come off of the drug.

"If you ask 100 people who've gone through opioid withdrawal, I would bet 99 of them will tell you they thought they were going to die," Spark BioMed CEO Daniel Powell says. "Giving them the ability to manage that is huge. It's the first step towards addiction recovery. It's not solving the addiction, but it is an absolute barrier to move forward."

Carrie Colbert, general partner at Curate Capital

Carrie Colbert saw an opportunity is funding female-founded companies, and she's taking it. Photo courtesy of Curate Capital

Carrie Colbert has gone from energy executive to fashion and lifestyle content creation to her latest venture — venture investment. With her multifaceted career, she's grown her network across industries and platforms and now some of her followers have become Curate Capital's limited partners.

"Instagram turned out to be one of the best networking tools for me," Colbert says. "You can connect with people wherever they are and wherever you are." Read more.

Carson Hager, president at SafeFun

A Houston entrepreneur created a free smartphone app to easily track and share COVID-19 testing results. Photo courtesy of SafeFun

Last year, Carson Hager felt helpless as he saw Houston restaurants and bars being shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I was thinking what's it going to take for people to be able to feel comfortable to go back out again and go out to bars and restaurants, gyms, salons, club, etcetera," he says.

In April 2020, he decided to act. And with the help of a few programmer friends pulling long hours for about 100 days straight, Hager created SafeFun, a Houston-based digital health passport that allows users to voluntarily and easily share COVID-19 test results and information. Read more.

Carrie Colbert saw an opportunity is funding female-founded companies, and she's taking it. Photo courtesy of Curate Capital

Houston investor goes all in on funding female founders

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 81

Carrie Colbert wasn't planning on becoming a venture capital investor — it just happened organically.

"This has been kind of a backwards process. Our fund was driven by demand," Colbert, founder and general partner of Houston-based Curate Capital, says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We were getting such good deal flow in terms of quantity and quality."

Colbert says she originally carved out a practical career and worked her way up the corporate ladder within the energy industry — first at Anadarko Petroleum and then at Hilcorp Energy Co. — for almost 20 years. On the side, she was also establishing herself as a prominent content creator specializing in all things colorful on her blog and Instagram.

It was through the network she created that she started learning about up-and-coming businesses that she wanted to get involved in — first as an angel investor for a few years and now through her VC.

"Instagram turned out to be one of the best networking tools for me," Colbert says. "You can connect with people wherever they are and wherever you are."

A prime example of this interaction was Jordan Jones, founder and CEO of Austin-based consumer goods company, Packed Party. Jones suggested meeting up with Colbert, and the two hit it off. Down the road when it came time to fundraise, Colbert became Jones' first outside investor.

"I've never had to search for deals," Colbert says. "I connect with them on social media or, in pre-pandemic days, I meet them at creative conferences."

Now, under her Curate Capital, Colbert is raising an initial $10 million fund — and she's already committed about 40 percent of that into companies across industries — consumer packaged goods, fintech, health tech, and more.

"We are not industry specific," Colbert says. "Rather, where I have found our sweet spot to be is businesses by women, for women... That's where I think I can provide the most value."

Female founders continue to be funded less than their male counterparts, and Crunchbase reported that last year the discrepancy increased drastically. Colbert recognizes this need and carved out her niche accordingly.

"Women control so much of the spending, and yet are getting so few of the VC dollars. We really see that as an opportunity. It's not a problem we're trying to fix necessarily — we certainly can't rectify it on our own," Colbert says.

Colbert expects her first fund's initial close around July, and she also plans on announcing new investments in the next few weeks. She's also working on bringing on new limited partners and will soon be launching a crowdfunding opportunity to get more women in her network involved.

Colbert shares more about Curate Capital and her advice for her fellow female entrepreneurs on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


From cancer-fighting companies raising millions to Houston area high school students learning how to start a company, here's some short stories on innovation you may have missed. Photo via inveox.com

TMCx company raises millions, Rice Business launches a podcast, and more Houston innovation news

Short stories

Even during the dog days of summer, Houston has innovation news from all industries. In case you missed something, here's a news roundup of some short innovation stories — from raised funds to launched apps, podcasts, and programs.

If you know of innovation-focused news happening, email me at natalie@innovationmap.com with the details and subscribe to our daily newsletter that sends fresh stories straight to your inboxes every morning.

TMCx company raises 17€ million 

Photo via inveox.com

Munich-based Inveox, a, AI-enabled cancer-diagnosis technology startup, just set up shop in the Texas Medical Center as a part of TMCx's ninth cohort. The company now has another thing to brag about: 17 million euros worth of investment.

"My founding partner Dominik Sievert and I are very grateful that our investors put such great trust in us and our vision," says managing partner Maria Sievert in a release. "Together we are working towards the goal of using our innovation capacities to develop technologies that can be put to serve people. We want to help lab technicians who give their best every day at labs and we want to ensure the safety of patients as well as the speed and reliability of the entire diagnostic process. That's why we will use this further investment for our forthcoming series production and expansion into new markets."

The funds will go toward production of the company's technology.

Rice's Jones Graduate School of Business launches The Index podcast

Pexels

Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business, has launched, The Index, a podcast that explores thought-provoking topics and business-related ideas.

According to a news release, The podcast grew out of a 2019 South by Southwest partnership between Texas Monthly and Rice Business — the two entities teamed up for a podcast taping about digital wildcatting.

Saul Elbein hosts The Index. He is a contributor to the New York Times Magazine, the NPR radio show "This American Life," and other outlets. Find the latest episode here.

Life science startup organization closes $5.25 million round

Getty Images

With the close of its $5.25 million round, Fannin Partners LLC — a Houston-based early-stage life science commercialization company — has brought in over $155 million for its portfolio companies.

The funds in part will go toward developing Fannin Innovation Studio. The studio anticipates adding 15 new portfolio companies over the next five years.

"With our portfolio companies Procyrion and Pulmotect advancing in their clinical development and with BreviTest poised for market launch in 2020, our investor group has recognized the tremendous progress we've made," says Fannin founder and chairman Leo Linbeck III in a release. "We are pleased to welcome the additional investment from existing and new investors in this round."

Houston app relaunches following raising $150,000 from local investor

Courtesy of Social Mama

An app that connects moms based on children's ages and common mom problems has relaunched with major upgrades after a year in beta. That's not the only thing Social Mama is celebrating. The startup secured $150,000 funding from local female powerhouse and blogger, Carrie Colbert.

Founder Amanda Ducach says she wanted to create an app that could smartly link moms going through similar struggles — from teething and potty training to single parenting or postpartum depression.

"The social impact of the product is so important," Ducach says in a previous InnovationMap story. "I can't explain to you the isolation and the problem that exists in motherhood. I was completely unaware of it before I started the company."

Austin tech startup lands major Houston-based client

office space

Getty Images

Houston-based Lionstone Investments has made a deal with Austin-based Bractlet, a smart building software company. The deal translates to Bractlet implementing its technology in Lionstone's 31 office properties across the United States.

"Lionstone is recognized in the industry for its commitment to a data-driven approach to real estate investing," says Lionstone's head of portfolio management and co-head of operations, Tom Paterson, in a news release. "Implementing Bractlet's technology at the portfolio-level allows us to make informed decisions that benefit our investors, conserve energy, and improve tenant comfort and productivity. In this manner, Lionstone is able to provide best-in-class management throughout the entire investment lifecycle."

Houston area high school launches entrepreneurship program

Texas Teacher

Pexels

It's never too early to learn the ins and outs of entrepreneurship. Friendswood High School has announced that it will be launching INCubatoredu, a program to help students learn important lessons in the startup world, this fall.

"The Mustang Business INCubator is that authentic experience we were looking for in our business, marketing, and finance program of study," Susan Kirkpatrick, executive director of career technical education at FHS, says in a release. "Students will research a real-world problem that is of interest to them and work to find a product or service solution."

The program will be housed in a newly renovated creative space on the FHS campus. According to the release, the school will host a launch party for the program in the fall.

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City launches public dashboard for tracking COVID-19 in Houston's wastewater

data points

In 2020, a group of researchers began testing Houston's wastewater to collect data to help identify trends at the community level. Now, the team's work has been rounded up to use as an online resource.

The Houston Health Department and Rice University launched the dashboard on September 22. The information comes from samples collected from the city's 39 wastewater treatment plants and many HISD schools.

"This new dashboard is another tool Houstonians can use to gauge the situation and make informed decisions to protect their families," says Dr. Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer for the health department and professor in the practice of statistics at Rice University, in a news release. "A high level of virus in your neighborhood's wastewater means virus is spreading locally and you should be even more stringent about masking up when visiting public places."

The health department, Houston Water, Rice University, and Baylor College of Medicine originally collaborated on the wastewater testing. Baylor microbiologist Dr. Anthony Maresso, director of BCM TAILOR Labs, led a part of the research.

"This is not Houston's first infectious disease crisis," Maresso says in an earlier news release. "Wastewater sampling was pioneered by Joseph Melnick, the first chair of Baylor's Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology, to get ahead of polio outbreaks in Houston in the 1960s. This work essentially ushered in the field of environmental virology, and it began here at Baylor. TAILOR Labs is just continuing that tradition by providing advanced science measures to support local public health intervention."

It's an affordable way to track the virus, says experts. People with COVID-19 shed viral particles in their feces, according to the release, and by testing the wastewater, the health department can measure important infection rate changes.

The dashboard, which is accessible online now, is color-coded by the level of viral load in wastewater samples, as well as labeled with any recent trend changes. Houstonians can find the interactive COVID-19 wastewater monitoring dashboard, vaccination sites, testing sites, and more information at houstonemergency.org/covid19.

Rice University rises with massive $100M gift for innovative new student center

student centered

Rice University's Owls are soaring of late, with the school just being named the top in Texas and No. 7 in the U.S. Now, the institution known as the "Ivy League of the South" is the recipient of a mammoth gift aimed at a game-changing student center.

The Moody Foundation has granted Rice University a massive $100 million for its planned Moody Center for Student Life and Opportunity, which will replace Rice's current Memorial Center (RMC), and will become a new focal point for the university's 300-acre wooded campus, the school announced.

Notably, this new student center is designed by Sir David Adjaye of Adjaye Associates; the acclaimed architect's other works include the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Scheduled to break ground in early 2022 and construction completed in 2023, the brand-new Moody Center for Student Life and Opportunity will maintain some elements of the old RMC, namely the chapel and cloisters. Students and staff can expect demolition of the rest of the existing RMC, per a press release.

Moody's $100 million grant matches the record for the largest gift in the university's history. (Last year, the Robert A. Welch Foundation donated $100 million to the school to establish the innovation-driven Welch Institute.) The Moody Foundation has contributed over $125 million to Rice since 1964, a press release notes.

As part of the Moody $100 million gift, a new Moody Fund for Student Opportunity will support an endowment dedicated to student programs "physically anchored in the new student center and elsewhere in the university," according to the school.

All this supports Rice's recently announced plans for a 20-percent expansion of the undergraduate student body by fall 2025, as CultureMap previously reported.

"We are extremely grateful for this extraordinary philanthropy in support of Rice students," said Rice president David Leebron in a statement. "This gift will enable our students to broaden their engagements and experiences while at Rice in ways that will empower their success throughout their lives. It will also enable us to both connect more deeply with Houston and with the world. This will be the epitome of what an inclusive and outward-looking student center should be."

Elle Moody, a trustee of both the Moody Foundation and Rice, added: "As a Rice University alumna, I know this gift will have a profound and lasting effect on the campus and its students. This investment is supporting much more than just a building. We're investing in every student, so they have access to pursue any endeavor whether it's leadership, artistic, athletic, global or more."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.