Day Edwards, co-founder of ChurchSpace, and Margo Jordan, CEO of Enrichly, were among the recipients of grants from Google. Photos courtesy

Two Houston-based startups were named among 50 companies nationwide to receive $100,000 as part of the Google for Startups Black Founders Fund this month.

The $5 million fund aims to close the wealth gap for Black founders around the country by offering 50 $100,000 non-dilutive awards, meaning that the investment does not require founders to give up equity in exchange for funding. The award also includes programming, mentorship and access to free mental health therapy and now includes 176 founders in the United States.

ChurchSpace and Enrichly were the two Houston-based companies to receive the award.

ChurchSpace, known as the Airbnb for churches, is a mission-based company that aims to help churches convert underused real estate into event, meeting and commercial kitchen space to boost revenue and relieve financial burden while remaining compliant with IRS regulations for non-profits.

“We applied to Google for Black Startups to have the opportunity to gain perspective on how to build a better product and experience for our customers,” Day Edwards, co-founder of ChurchSpace, said in a statement. “We believe that being a part of the program will enable us as Black founders to better lead and build a tech-enabled platform that is eradicating church underutilization rates across the nation.”

The company recently participated in the inaugural cohort of the AWS Impact Accelerator for Black Founders, which included a pre-seed fundraising campaign and a $125,000 equity-free grant from Amazon. The company plans to launch the second iteration of its marketplace in December 2022.

Meanwhile, Enrichly provides on-site mental health curriculums for schools through machine learning, gamification and data automation. The company's logic model is designed to have short-term, mid-term and long-term results in students' goal setting abilities, emotion and stress management techniques, conflict resolution, etiquette, relationships, resilience and more.

“The Google for Startups Black Founders Fund is an incredible opportunity for the growth of our company.” Margo Jordan, CEO of Enrichly, said in the statement.

Enrichly plans to use the funds to expand its team and reach growth goals in the future.

Earlier this summer, Google for Startups also selected three Houston companies for its inaugural Google for Startups Latino Founders Fund. Read more about the companies selected here.
This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Bill Voss of Everest, Day Edwards of ChurchSpace, and Tim Neal of GoExpedi. 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 — from e-commerce to the '"AirBNB for churches" — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Bill Voss, founder and CEO of Everest

Bill Voss joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss upcoming upgrades to Everest. Photo via LinkedIn

Bill Voss wanted to create a digital marketplace that would be a one-stop shop for outdoor activity equipment, apparel, and sporting goods. He had the vision, and he launched Everest. But it's taken some time to develop the platform he dreamt of.

"Our biggest challenge to date was technology. For the past two years, we have been developing our own technology," Voss says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Before the end of this year, there will be a brand new website with a better user experience and an amazing marketplace app. It's going to be really exciting."

Voss says he has mountainous goals for Everest — and the potential for impact on the entire sports and outdoors industry is there. As the new website, app, and streaming service all deliver over the next year, Voss says the company will take a huge step toward being able to disrupt the industry. Click here to read more.

Day Edwards, co-founder and CEO of ChurchSpace

Day Edwards and her startup, ChurchSpace, are fresh off an Amazon accelerator. Photo courtesy of Church Space

Houston startup, ChurchSpace, recently participated in the inaugural cohort of the AWS Impact Accelerator for Black Founders, which included a pre-seed fundraising campaign and a $125,000 equity injection from Amazon.

"Being a part of the inaugural AWS Impact Accelerator has changed the trajectory and tech build of ChurchSpace," says Day Edwards, CEO and co-founder of the company. "From the grant time to having the ability to build a platform using the latest technologies to ensure churches can share their space safely has truly been a blessing. I urge any female founder to definitely take time to apply. This is a life changing opportunity for all startups."

The AWS Impact Accelerator strengthened ChurchSpace’s efforts of turning underutilized church real estate into on-demand event, worship, and kitchen space. The program provides high-potential, pre-seed startups the tools and knowledge to reach key milestones such as raising funding or being accepted to a seed-stage accelerator program. Click here to read more.

Tim Neal, founder and CEO of GoExpedi

Houston-based GoExpedi placed on this year's Inc. 5000. Photo by Colt Melrose for GoExpedi

In the latest edition of its roundup of fastest growing privately held companies, Inc. magazine has recognized dozens of Houston organizations.

Houston startup GoExpedi, an industrial supply chain and analytics company, is the highest ranking local tech company on the list. GoExpedi ranked No. 675 in the 2022 edition of Inc. 5000, with a 924 percent growth rate between 2018 and 2021.

"The team at GoExpedi is honored to rank number 675 among America's Fastest-Growing Private Companies on the Inc. 5000 Annual List," says Tim Neal, CEO of GoExpedi, in a news release. "GoExpedi has grown exponentially since launching in 2017 due to our forward-thinking and innovative supply chain solutions." Click here to read more.

Amazon's accelerator focused on founders of color has helped Houston startup ChurchSpace reach new milestones. Image via bookchurchspace.com

Houston-based 'AirBNB for churches' startup completes Amazon accelerator, gathers fresh funding

now accelerating

Houston startup, ChurchSpace, recently participated in the inaugural cohort of the AWS Impact Accelerator for Black Founders, which included a pre-seed fundraising campaign and a $125,000 equity-free grant from Amazon.

The startup, coined as the “AirBNB for churches” is a tech-enabled marketplace that has a mission to minimize low utilization rate of church real estate across the country. Per the website, ChurchSpace is accepting congregations on its waitlist and is expected to launch this fall.

The AWS Impact Accelerator strengthened ChurchSpace’s efforts of turning underutilized church real estate into on-demand event, worship, and kitchen space. The program provides high-potential, pre-seed startups the tools and knowledge to reach key milestones such as raising funding or being accepted to a seed-stage accelerator program.

"Being a part of the inaugural Aws Impact Accelerator has changed the trajectory and tech build of ChurchSpace," says Day Edwards, CEO and co-founder of the company. "From the grant, to have the tech stack and resources needed to build Version 2 of ChurchSpace to ensure Churches can share their space safely has truly been a blessing. Before AWS we weren’t clear on our fundraising strategy. Now after ending AWS we are clear, with a date to open our pre seed round, and even better we have investors waiting! I urge any female founder to definitely take the time to apply this is a life-changing opportunity for all start-ups."

As one of 25 startups selected for the program, ChurchSpace also received credits, extensive training, mentoring and technical guidance, as well as introductions to Amazon leaders and teams, networking opportunities with potential investors, and ongoing advisory support.

“For underrepresented founders, access is power. And as Black founders with an audacious mission to eradicate high church underutilization rates, the access to capital, mentorship and tech innovation support will create tidal waves of positive impact that reach far beyond our internal operations but spread to thousands of local communities across the nation,” says Emmanuel Brown, ChurchSpace co-founder and COO.

AWS recently announced its three-year, $30 million commitment to the program. Amazon is currently looking for female founders for the next cohort that is now open with the deadline date of August 26.

MassChallenge Texas alum, ChurchSpace was founded in 2020 by two Black millennial pastors’ kids who witnessed the crippling effects that large church financial overhead placed on church leaders. The marketplace allows churches to earn extra revenue while remaining compliant with IRS nonprofit regulations. ChurchSpace is expecting to launch in 10 states with over 6,000 waitlisted users.

“I want to congratulate a truly innovative and inspiring group of startups selected from thousands of applicants for this opportunity. On behalf of the entire team, we are honored to support them on their journey,” says Howard Wright, vice president of startups at AWS.

Day Edwards is the co-founder and CEO of Church Space, which was founded in 2020. Photo courtesy of Church Space

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Houston immuno-oncology company reaches next FDA milestone, heads to phase 2 trial

green light

A Houston immuno-oncology company has recently made major headway with the FDA, including both a fast track and an orphan drug designation. It will soon start a phase 2 trial of its promising cancer fighting innovation.

Diakonos Oncology was born in 2016, the brainchild of Baylor researchers already hard at work in the realm of dendritic cell vaccines. Drs. Will Decker, Matt Halpert, and Vanaja Konduri partnered with Dan Faust, a Houston businessman and pharmacist, to bring their treatment to the public, says COO Jay Hartenbach.

The name Diakonos means “deacon or servant in Greek,” he explains. “A lot of companies end up focusing on treating a specific disease or cancer and what you end up having is a significant amount of potential but with a lot of tradeoffs and downsides. And so our goal is we need to eliminate the cancer but we can't harm or dramatically malign the patient in doing so.”

How do they do that? Because the therapy catalyzes a natural immune response, it’s the patient’s own body that’s fighting the cancer. Hartenbach credits Decker with the idea of educating dendritic cells to attack cancer, in this case, glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), one of the most aggressive cancers with which doctors and patients are forced to tangle.

“Our bodies are already very good at responding very quickly and aggressively to what it perceives as virally infected cells. And so what Dr. Decker did was basically trick the immune system by infecting these dendritic cells with the cancer specific protein and mRNA,” details Hartenbach.

Jay Hartenbach is the COO of Diakonos Oncology. Photo courtesy of Diakonos Oncology

But GBM isn’t the only cancer on which Diakonos Oncology has its sights set. Other notably stubborn-to-treat cancers that they’re working on include pancreatic cancer and angiosarcoma. The scientists are focused on meeting unmet medical needs, but also realize that treating such cancers would allow for the fastest determination of whether or not the treatment was effective.

The fast track designation, originally received last fall, means that the drug approval time for DOC1021, Diakonos’ glioblastoma vaccine, will be only six months. But Hartenbach highlights an additional boon, the fact that the special designation also allows for more frequent communications with the FDA.

“That’s very helpful for us, right as we're contemplating how to design the upcoming trials. From a business standpoint, it also is incredibly helpful because it provides a third party validation of what we're doing and the results that we're seeing,” he says.

What they’re seeing includes the survival of 13 out of 16 patients from the initial October 2021 enrollment. The three patients who passed away received the lowest dose of DOC1021. Hartenbach says that the remaining patients are thriving, with no serious adverse effects. With a median survival rate of 15 to 21 months, it’s hard to understate the significance of these patients’ success.

Diakonos Oncology is headquartered in Houston, with a staff of 10 in Space City and an additional eight distributed employees. Hartenbach says that the company’s hometown has been instrumental in its success. He mentions that the robust innovation of the Texas Medical Center meant that as the company has grown, there has never been a motivation to leave Houston.

“You're having a lot of both investment and companies actually moving to Houston,” Hartenbach says. “So we’ve been fortunate to have started there. There are bigger traditional biotech hubs, San Diego, Boston, and San Francisco, but Houston really is now putting itself on the map and it's getting a lot of attention.”

One of the companies responsible for that improved reputation? Diakonos Oncology and its promising approach to aggressive cancers.

Houston professor earns competitive NSF award, nearly $700,000 grant

science supported

An assistant professor at Rice University has won one of the highly competitive National Science Foundation's CAREER Awards.

The award grants $670,406 over five years to Amanda Marciel, the William Marsh Rice Trustee Chair of chemical and biomolecular engineering, to continue her research in designing branch elastomers that return to their original shape after being stretched, according to a statement from Rice. The research has applications in stretchable electronics and biomimetic tissues.

“My goal is to create a new paradigm for designing elastomers,” Marciel said in a statement. “The research has four aims: to determine the role of comb polymer topology in forming elastomers, understanding the effects of that topology on elastomer mechanics, characterizing its effects on elastomer structure and increasing the intellectual diversity in soft matter research.”

Marciel, who joined the faculty at Rice in 2019, is one of about 500 researchers to receive the NSF's CAREER Award each year. The award recognizes early-career faculty members who “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the NSF.

In addition to supporting Marciel's research, the funds will also go toward creating opportunities in soft matter research for undergraduates and underrepresented scientists. It will establish a new annual symposium called the Texas Soft Matter Meeting, where community college teachers can participate in a soft matter laboratory module and students in the Research Experiences for Undergrads program at Rice will present their summer research.

Recently, Rice also launched the new Rice Synthetic Biology Institute, which aims to strengthen the synthetic biology community across disciplines at the university. It is part of an $82 million investment the university put toward synthetic biology, neuroengineering and physical biology in 2018.

A fellow team or Rice researcher is also working on wearable haptic accessories. A member of the team was recently named to the 2024 cohort of Rice Innovation Fellows. Click here to learn more.