While each of this week's three innovators has years of experience under their belts, they are each starting something new. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Common ingredients among entrepreneurs is a great idea, plenty of hard work, and a whole lot of luck. And, if they are lucky, they've got some experience under their belts too. These three innovators this week are all in the process of starting something — a venture fund, an app, an investment platform — but lucky for them, they know what they're doing.

Allison Lami Sawyer, partner at The League of Worthwhile Ventures

Courtesy of Allison Lami Sawer

Allison Lami Sawyer's story has stuck with me since I first heard it a few weeks ago. Primarily because she's a fantastic storyteller paired with, well, a great story. She's from Alabama and didn't really meet a female entrepreneur until she was one. She started Rebellion Photonics and ran it for several years before recently leaving to start something new: a seed fund called The League of Worthwhile Ventures. Sawyer isn't afraid to start something new and cherishes her role inspiring or advising other women entrepreneurs by being a role model for innovation — something she didn't have as a kid. Read the full story here.

Chris Staffel, COO at Patients We Share

Courtesy of Chris Staffel

While relatively new to the health care business, Chris Staffel has tons of business experience from both coasts. She brings those skills to Patients We Share, an app aiming to enhance and improve doctor referrals. The idea originated from two doctors here in Houston, but as it started to take off, they invested in business professionals like Staffel to make their dream a reality. Read the full story here.

Rashad Kurbanov, CEO and co-founder of iownit.us

Courtesy of iownit.us

I'm bending the rules a little bit here because, unfortunately, Houston cannot claim Rashad Kurbanov. However, the New Yorker is betting on Houston for his new company, iownit.us. The website is a platform for private securities investors and fund-raising companies to connect and make deals — without any red tape. Kurbanov has years of financial experience, but has never done anything like this before because well, no one has. Read the full story here.

Efficient referrals from doctor to doctor could save a life, so this Houston company is setting out to create a network of medical professionals all accessible in an app. Getty Images

Houston-based company is connecting the dots on patient referrals

Diagnosing doctors

When your doctor recommends that you visit another practitioner, it's only natural that you trust the suggestion. But it's one case in which your physician isn't always an expert. Married doctors Justin Bird, an orthopedic surgeon, and Terri-Ann Samuels, a specialist in female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery, have long noted that patients are often referred incorrectly.

No big deal, right? Just go to another doctor. But not everyone has that luxury. Bird and Samuels never intended to start their own company. But when Bird lost a patient due to faulty referrals, they knew something had to be done.

"He believes that if she hadn't been bounced around from doctor to doctor, they could have saved her life," says Chris E. Staffel, chief operating officer of Patients We Share, the app that the couple created to fix the broken aspect of the health care system.

In 2015, Bird and Samuels began their company when they were shocked to realize that such an app didn't already exist.

"They started working with physicians around the country who said, 'We really, really need this,' and they also invested in it," recounts Staffel. From those friends, they built a physician advisory board of 15 investors.

Prescribing growth
The project was accepted into Johnson & Johnson's incubator, JLABS in 2016, then TMCx's digital startup program in the spring of 2018.

"They started realizing it was gaining momentum and realized they needed to have business people on board," says Staffel.

They hired Michael Antonoff, a Rice University M.B.A., as CEO. He invited former classmate Staffel to join as COO. Having come from a background in oil and gas, Staffel jumped at the chance to try her hand in a different industry.

With new business clout behind PWS, the company is growing quickly. Currently, PWS is entering its next seed round of $2.5 million that will allow the company to pay salaries of new team members and bring some tech development in-house. Until now, the making of the app itself has been outsourced to Mobisoft Infotech, a company based in Houston and India, which has worked on many projects at the Texas Medical Center. Local Black + Grey Studio is responsible for the design.

PWS has been working with both those teams in recent months to get a prototype app ready for launch. Currently, 100 physicians around the country are part of an invite-only pilot program. Soon, Staffel hopes to allow early adopter doctors who haven't been invited to enroll in the program for free. It will likely be in 2020 that patients will start joining the community, too.

How it works
An index of all the providers on the app allows doctors to easily find practitioners in a particular specialty. But there's more to it. Detailed profiles contribute to machine learning that assures the optimal match every time. Patient reviews will also play a role.

Though referrals were the impetus for the creation of PWS, it may be even more important as a communication tool between doctors, fellow clinicians (anyone from nurse practitioners to physical therapists may be invited to join), and patients. Staffel says participants in the pilot program are already using the messaging system to compare notes on cases, even sending photos from surgery to consult on patient issues.

The app's encryption means that it's HIPAA-compliant. Patients provide permission to discuss their cases via the app. And they can be confident of the quality of care they'll receive. Likely, the app will remain largely invite-only, and everyone who joins will share their National Provider Identifier licenses to be vetted against the federal database.

Doctors will communicate directly with patients through the app, but will also share resources digitally. Instead of making copy after copy of information about post-surgical care, for instance, the physician need only press a button to share a link.

Eventually, the goal is for PWS to be used not just nationally, but internationally, not just by individuals, but by whole hospital systems. A world in which doctors can compare notes around globe could be a little safer for us all.

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University of Houston rolls out food delivery robots

on the move

For a small delivery fee of $1.99, students, faculty, and staff across the University of Houston campus can now get their lunch delivered by self-driving robots.

Thirty of San Francisco-based Starship Technologies' autonomous delivery robots now roam the campus thanks to a partnership with New York-based Chartwells Higher Education. The Houston campus is the first to roll out robotic food deliveries.

"This revolutionary delivery method will make it more convenient for the campus community to take advantage of our diverse dining program from anywhere on campus while expanding the hours of operation," says Emily Messa, associate vice president for administration, in a news release. "By opening our campus to this innovative service, which is paid for by the customers, the university didn't have to spend any money purchasing the technology, yet we're enhancing our food delivery capabilities."

Through the Starship Deliveries app, which is available on iOS and Android, users can select from 11 dining institutions and then identify where they are on campus. The platform allows the user to track the progress, and the device can hold up to 20 lbs of food and has the space for about three shopping bags of groceries.

"This increases our capacity to reach more customers, and I expect the robots will quickly become part of campus life," says David Riddle, Chartwells resident district manager, in a news release. (Chartwells manages UH Dining). "Robot delivery will also grow opportunities for UH Dining employees by increasing service hours and growing sales. It has also created additional jobs for students dedicated specifically to servicing the autonomous robots. It's an important advancement for foodservice at UH."

Using machine learning, artificial intelligence and sensors, the company's robots have driven over 350,000 miles and completed over 150,000 deliveries. The Starship robots "can cross streets, climb curbs, travel at night and operate in both rain and snow," per the release.

"Robotic delivery is affordable, convenient and environmentally friendly," says Ryan Tuohy, senior vice president of business development for Starship, in the release. "We're excited to start offering students, staff and faculty at Houston delivery within minutes when they need it most."

Lawyers specializing in startups are hard to comeby in Houston — but here's what you need to know

Guest column

One of the worst, and most expensive, mistakes that we see startup founders make in the very early days of their company is not realizing that hiring lawyers is a lot like hiring doctors: when the stakes are high, you need a highly experienced specialist.

Law has numerous specialties and sub-specialties, and hiring legal counsel with the wrong specialty can mean paying to reinvent the wheel, or simply getting advice that is out of sync with the norms of your industry and the expectations of your seasoned investors.

This challenge can be particularly acute for founders of startups located in Houston. The legal market in any particular city tends to mirror the dominant industries of that city. Houston has some of the world's most prominent energy and healthcare lawyers in the country, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who knows anything about Houston's economy.

Startup lawyers, or more formally —corporate/securities lawyers who are sub-specialized in "emerging companies" — are a different story entirely. Given the nascent status of Houston's startup ecosystem, finding local lawyers who work with emerging technology companies and early-stage funding day in and day out, and know all the norms and nuances, is a challenge.

Very often we see founders get referred to a local lawyer who is a broad generalist that dabbles lightly in many practice areas. Their lack of depth in startup or venture capital work usually leads to clients paying for things that a more specialized lawyer, with a deeper set of precedent forms and institutional knowledge, could simply pull off the shelf. In other cases, founders get referred to very expensive senior corporate lawyers from firms designed for billion-dollar public company representation; totally overkill (and overpriced) for an early-stage startup.

What the smartest Houston founders discover, if they do their homework, is that leveraging the broader "Texas ecosystem" can help not just with sourcing talent for their employee roster or finding venture capital, but with sourcing specialized legal talent as well. In the case of Startup Lawyers, Austin's venture capital and startup ecosystem has produced numerous highly specialized lawyers whose depth of startup/vc experience easily compares with lawyers found in Silicon Valley, but who also regularly interact with investors in the Houston market; and therefore know their expectations. In the case of our firm, Egan Nelson (E/N), a significant number of our clients are located in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and other markets in the general regional area.

Historically, businesspeople have assumed that if they really want top-tier, highly specialized counsel, they had to find that counsel at large, multi-national law firms. That is no longer the case. The broader Texas ecosystem has produced a thriving group of specialized, high-end "boutique" law firms that are recruiting top-tier lawyers away from the traditional mega-firms, and leveraging technology to deliver "leaner" legal counsel; saving hundreds of dollars per hour for entrepreneurs.

It is not uncommon for us to see Houston startups utilizing an emerging companies corporate lawyer in Austin, a regulatory specialist lawyer in Houston, and a tax lawyer in Dallas; all from different firms. This is the future for how emerging companies will source their legal talent, without the constraints of geography or old-fashioned "all in one" law firm structures.

This trend really isn't that new. VCs from Austin and other Texas cities (and the coasts) have regularly been visiting Houston to fund companies, and Houston companies have regularly leveraged contacts in other markets to source specialized resources for their companies. The same dynamics have extended to finding legal counsel. "Localism," and an over-preoccupation with hiring everyone in the same city, isn't really just last year, it's more like last century. There is nothing about legal services for startups that requires any of your lawyers to be within your same city. Videoconferencing works great.

The growth of the Texas ecosystem, and the emergence of specialized boutique law firms, mean that Houston entrepreneurs have far more options to choose from for sourcing specialized legal counsel. Leverage those options to avoid engaging lawyers who are insufficiently experienced, or overkill, for the needs of your company. For more resources on finding and assessing the right lawyers for your Houston startup, see Startup Lawyers, Explained.

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Jose Ancer is an Emerging Companies Partner at Egan Nelson LLP. He also writes for Silicon Hills Lawyer, an internationally recognized startup/vc law blog focused on entrepreneurs located outside of Silicon Valley, including Texas.

Houston blockchain company taps into a new industry, hires new exec

diversifying

A Houston blockchain company that makes it easier and faster to process industry contracts, payment, and more has diversified its business again.

After expanding into the water services industry in August, Houston-based Data Gumbo Corp. has announced its next market: Construction. The startup, which works out of The Cannon Houston, has hired industry veteran Michael Matthews hired as industry principal to work directly on the company's efforts in the $9 trillion sector.

"Construction is one of the world's largest industries, but it has clearly fallen behind others in adopting technology and driving efficiency," says Andrew Bruce, CEO of Data Gumbo, in a news release. "Michael is a recognized leader in the industry and his vision and experience make him an excellent fit to scale Data Gumbo into the construction sector."

Matthews has over 30 years of experience in construction. He says in the release that some of the issues of current practices result in 30 to 40 percent of project costs to be hidden, and he wants to use the GumboNet platform to provide solutions.

"The construction industry lags far behind other industries in both productivity improvement and technology adoption, resulting in billions of lost value," Matthews says in a news release. "The way companies come together to execute projects remains essentially the same despite technology's improvement and we have to make fundamental, disruptive changes to deliver more value."

The growing blockchain-as-a-service company closed $6 million series A round earlier this year. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

Originally built for upstream drilling and completions within the oil and gas industry, Data Gumbo has grown its clientbase over the past few years. The company provides its blockchain-as-a-service services as a subscription for its clients.

Recently, the company was announced to be one of the two Houston-based companies in Plug and Play Tech Center's inaugural Houston cohort, and, earlier this year, the company was named among Crunchbase's top 50 hottest tech companiesCrunchbase's top 50 hottest tech companies. The growing company also hired another executive this summer —the company's new chief commercial officer is Sergio A. Tuberquia — following the closing of a $6 million series A round.