Nuro, which has several pilot programs on Houston roads, has raised fresh funding — plus a few other short stories of Houston innovation. Photo courtesy of Kroger

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 California tech company with a large presence in Houston has raised hundreds of millions in investment funding, a logistics startup has been ranked among the most innovative companies, the city of Houston has named its new sustainability leader, and more.

California tech company with huge presence in Houston raises $600M

Nuro has fresh funding to deploy its tech in Houston and beyond. Photo courtesy of Nuro

California-based Nuro, which has a large presence in Houston, announced the closing of its $600 million series D round led by Tiger Global Management with participation from Baillie Gifford, Fidelity Management & Research Company, LLC, Gaorong Capital, Google, Kroger, SoftBank Vision Fund 1, funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc., Woven Capital, and other existing investors, per a news release. The new funding will support the development and deployment of Nuro's autonomous delivery service in communities across the country.

"We're thrilled to have the backing of these prominent investors and world class companies, and honored that they support our vision of improving communities and revitalizing local commerce," says Dave Ferguson, Nuro co-founder and president, in the release. "We believe this investment will allow us to accelerate our commercialization strategy and better everyday life with Nuro's technology."

Nuro has launched a few delivery pilots in Houston over the past few years, including the first Nuro pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, pharmacy delivery that launched in 2020, and pizza delivery with Domino's that went live in Woodland Heights earlier this year. Most recently, Nuro partnered with FedEx for last-mile delivery.

"Kroger launched its partnership with Nuro in 2018 to explore grocery delivery through autonomous vehicles," said Yael Cosset, senior vice president and chief information officer for Kroger, in the release. "Since then, Kroger and Nuro completed thousands of deliveries to our customers -- driving innovation that supports our expanding seamless ecosystem by creating consistent and rewarding customer experiences with scalable, sustainable, and profitable solutions."

Nuro has also signed a five year strategic partnership with Google Cloud that support the tech needed to run self-driving simulation workloads, machine learning to improve model accuracy, and storage to manage important data from the vehicles, according to the release.

Houston-based digital supply chain company launches ESG tool

Houston industrial e-commerce startup expands into the construction industry

Houston-based GoExpedi has created a new tool. Photo by Colt Melrose for GoExpedi

GoExpedi, an innovative end-to-end digital supply chain and data analytics solutions company, the launch of ESG Command. The new tool is designed to drive environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives. Users on GoExpedi's platform can identify environmentally-friendly products and certified veteran, minority and women-owned businesses.

"Led by some of the world's largest industrial companies, our clients are driving for more sustainable business practices and more equitable workplaces," says Yang Tang, CTO at GoExpedi, in a news release. "In support of these lofty goals and a more prosperous and environmentally-friendly global community, we grew GoExpedi's digital ecosystem to benefit our clients and suppliers. Our goal is to use technical advances in the supply chain to build a brighter future for all."

Last fall, GoExpedi raised $25 million in its series C in order to grow and scale operations. The company is growing its warehouse presence, most recently in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Houston logistics company ranks among the most innovative companies

Sugar Land-based CommtrexPhoto via commtrex.com

Commtrex, based in the Houston area, has been presented the FreightWaves 2022 FreightTech 100 award. The startup's platform connects professionals in the rail industry. The award also honored other innovative and disruptive companies in the freight industry, including Amazon Freight, DHL Supply Chain, FedEx, Flexport, Phillips Connect, Tesla, Uber Freight, Waymo, and Waze.

"Commtrex is honored and excited to be a part of the FreightWaves FreightTech 100," says Commtrex CEO Martin Lew in a news release. "Our mission at Commtrex is to simplify the movement of freight by rail. We are doing this by creating one centralized platform for shippers to efficiently connect with rail-served transloaders, storage providers, terminals, ports, warehouses, and many other resources that support the global supply chain ecosystem. As the largest rail platform in North America, we will continue to provide best-in-class service for all of our members."

Commtrex will also be eligible to be named to the FreightTech 25, which will be announced at the F3 Virtual Experience, November 9-11.

Houston fintech unicorn opens an office in Paris

HighRadius expands to Amsterdam

HighRadius has opened its newest European office. Photo via highradius.com

Continuing its expansion in Europe, HighRadius opened its new Paris office, which will have local staff for all customer facing operations including consulting, sales and marketing. The Houston-headquartered fintech unicorn also has offices in Germany, Amsterdam, the United Kingdom, India and the United States.

"The new Paris office is a sign of cementing our growing leadership in Europe and will bring the HighRadius Autonomous Software platform even closer to French companies," says Jon Keating, vice president and general manager of HighRadius in EMEA. "Our data-driven, AI software is helping global enterprises rethink and transform their finance and accounting processes. Our aim will be to deliver improvements in Days Sales Outstanding and working capital optimization, accelerate the financial close, and improve productivity in under six months for our new clients in France."

Over the past year, HighRadius has deployed over 300 transformation projects, across 37 out of 44 European countries.The HighRadius Autonomous Software platform has processed in excess of €475 billion in finance transactions in the European region alone, per a news release.

City of Houston names new sustainability leader

Priya Zachariah was named chief resilience and sustainability officer. Photo courtesy of the city of Houston

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced the appointment of Priya Zachariah as chief resilience and sustainability officer for the city of Houston. She will oversee the city's new Office of Resilience and Sustainability. The position is new and combines previously separate but similar roles, providing for more streamlined efforts to implement the Resilient Houston Plan and the Houston Climate Action Plan, according to a news release from the city.

"Sustainability and Resilience are intrinsically tied to each other. We created our resilience and climate plans to forge a path towards a stronger, more equitable city that not only faces and overcomes disaster scenarios, but builds forward to a better Houston tomorrow," says Mayor Turner in the release. "I am confident Priya will help us meet the goals we have established."

Zachariah was previously the senior program manager for Regional and Long-Range Planning at Houston METRO. While at METRO, Zachariah led the team that successfully delivered the METRONext 2040 transit plan for the Houston Region.

"This is a critical juncture for all of us. We now have the opportunity as a community to turn our focus from resilience and climate planning, to implementation and a realization of the benefits of those plans," says Zachariah in the release. "I am grateful for this opportunity and look forward to working with Mayor Turner and all stakeholders to move us toward a more resilient and equitable future."

Station Houston CEO Gabriella Rowe and Rice Alliance Managing Partner Brad Burke named 10 startups to watch. Photo by Natalie Harms

10 most promising Texas startups revealed at inaugural Houston summit

Winner, winner

Texas is booming with digital startups, and Station Houston and the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship hosted a meeting of the minds to discuss the digital revolution at the inaugural Texas Digital Summit at Rice University on December 6.

Thirty-nine companies presented throughout the day; among the group were 26 from the Houston area. At the conclusion of the day, Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston, and Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance, announced 10 "most promising companies" that stood out to a group of investors who attended the event.

All 10 selected were Texas-based, with eight from the Houston area. Here's who the venture capitalists and investors picked for the prize.

Houston-based SafePass

Photo via safepassglobal.com

SafePass pictures a world where visitors on school or corporate campuses can be tracked. The company's technology upends the standard paper or sticker pass you get from the front office, and provides a reusable, trackable device for visitors.

"Our tracking algorithm interacts with already existing WiFi technology — so, the routers that are already at that facility," says Ronald Huff, managing director of SafePass. "We leverage that to get that real-time tracking information."

Houston-based ScribeRule

Getty Images

ScribeRule operates under the assumption that your company's data has already been breached. The software protects data from both internal and external threats so that companies don't have to worry about any type of threat. The technology is scalable and easy to use.

"The problem is very simple," says Chris Melson, president and COO. "Only allow people who are authorized to see your data, see the data. And that's the problem we've solved."

"It's very difficult to protect data in a collaborative environment."

Houston-based Sensoleak

Photo via sensoleak.com

Sensoleak is making it easier for monitors in the oil and gas industry to be alerted about leaks. Using artificial intelligence, machine learning, and internet of things combined into a software, the company is providing a revolutionary solution for a longstanding problem.

"The problem right now is there is a lot of false alarms," says Shoshi Kaganovsky, founder and CEO, "and if there is a leak, it has to leak a lot before it is caught."

The company recently opened a new round of funding.

Sugar Land-based Commtrex

Photo via commtrex.com

The only open, electronic marketplace for rail shippers and asset providers is right in Houston's backyard of Sugar Land. Commtrex makes communications and connections between these transportation entities more efficient and better executed.

"Commtrex's asset management tools and market data is based on real transactions, and benefits our member companies with engagement efficiencies and financial insights," reads the website.

Houston-based Zenus

Photo via zenus-biometrics.com

Let's face it, face recognition is the future of identification, and Zenus has an award-winning technology to move the needle. Utilizing face recognition doesn't need to compromise privacy.

"We are a leading provider of face recognition software," reads the website. "Our cloud-based service can search a database of faces within a blink of an eye and it can be seamlessly integrated into any application."

Houston-based 3GiG

Photo via 3-gig.com

3GiG is a one-stop shop software company for the "oval office" needs of oil and gas companies. Energy leaders can use the services to manage projects, prospects, and more. President and CEO Kandy Lukats compares her company's services to the trending meal kits — like Blue Apron or Hello Fresh —Americans have been crazy about — all the ingredients sent right to your door.

"We believe we've found the niche between the freezer section and doing it yourself," she says.

Austin-based Towny

Photo via towny.com

This Austin company is making it more appealing to shop local. Towny looks to work in cities with under a million residents. The tool is for small, consumer-focused businesses to market their store to consumers. The small business owners pay a flat monthly rate to utilize digital marketing tools from the convenience of their phones.

Towny is already in five towns with 500 clients, says CEO Nathan Baumeister. In January, the company's monthly revenue was $17,000, but for the last two months, the tool has raked in $90,000 monthly.

"We've built a branding, mobile-first platform, where we've taken all these technologies and tactics and put it together in one package at the affordable price of $199 per month," he says.

Dallas-based CommandHound

Photo via commandhound.com

CommandHound is a B2B software that tracks employee tasks and responsibilities. It reminds users on assigned duties and keeps a record of work outcomes for later performance reviews.

"Our ultimate solution is to turn every organization into a high-performance organization through accountability," says Rene Larrave, chairman and CEO. "It's a checklist on steroids."

Houston-based SecurityGate

Photo via securitygate.io

SecurityGate is disrupting the cyber compliance and the cyber regulation market by providing cyber risk assessments at a faster rate than a human auditor could. The software analyzes data, identifies potential cyber security risks, and communicates with the company how to address the threats.

"No matter what industry vertical you're in, every single supply chain out there is worries about supply chain cyber security," says CEO Ted Gutierrez. "And the problem with that, is everyone is doing it manually."

Houston-based DeepCast.ai

Photo via deepcast.ai

Using artificial intelligence and physics, DeepCast.ai can automate operations for industrial companies.

"We simply integrate with system solutions, try to clean and facilitate the data using AI models important to the oil and gas industry," says Arturo Klie, chief technology officer and senior software engineer. "Once the data is clean, we apply our business-informed AI models to solve and provide forecasting real time and analytics.

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Houston tech platform raises series C round backed by Mastercard

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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.


NASA awards $30M to Houston space tech company to develop lunar rover

moon rider

Houston-based space technology company Intuitive Machines has landed a $30 million NASA contract for the initial phase of developing a rover for U.S. astronauts to traverse the moon’s surface.

Intuitive Machines is one of three companies chosen by NASA to perform preliminary work on building a lunar terrain vehicle that would enable astronauts to travel on the moon’s surface so they can conduct scientific research and prepare for human missions to Mars.

The two other companies are Golden, Colorado-based Lunar Outpost and Hawthorne, California-based Astrolab.

NASA plans to initially use the vehicle for its Artemis V lunar mission, which aims to put two astronauts on the moon. It would be the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972 that astronauts would step foot on the lunar surface.

The Artemis V mission, tentatively set for 2029, will be the fifth mission under NASA’s Artemis program.

“This vehicle will greatly increase our astronauts’ ability to explore and conduct science on the lunar surface while also serving as a science platform between crewed missions,” says Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Intuitive Machines says the $30 million NASA contract represents its entrance into human spaceflight operations for the space agency’s $4.6 billion moon rover project. The vehicle — which Intuitive Machines has dubbed the Moon Reusable Autonomous Crewed Exploration Rover (RACER) — will be based on the company’s lunar lander.

“Our global team is on a path to provide essential lunar infrastructure services to NASA in a project that would allow [us] to retain ownership of the vehicle for commercial utilization during periods of non-NASA activity over approximately 10 years of lunar surface activity,” says exploration,” says Steve Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Machines.

Intuitive Machines’ partners on the RACER project include AVL, Boeing, Michelin, and Northrop Grumman.

Intuitive Machines plans to bid on the second phase of the rover project after finishing its first-phase feasibility study. The second phase will involve developing, delivering, and operating the rover.

In February, Intuitive Machines became the first private company to land a spacecraft on the moon with no crewmembers aboard. NASA was the key customer for that mission.

Houston expert: How to avoid 'ghost hiring' while attracting top talent

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One of the latest HR terms grabbing attention today is “ghost hiring.” This is a practice where businesses post positions online, even interviewing candidates, with no intention to fill them. In fact, the role may already have been filled or it may not exist.

Usually, an applicant applies for the job, yet never hears back. However, they may be contacted by the recruiter, only to learn the offer is revoked or a recruiter ghosts them after a first-round interview.

Applicants who are scouring job sites for the ideal position can become discouraged by ghost hiring. Employers do not usually have any ill intentions of posting ghost jobs and talking with candidates. Employers may have innocently forgotten to take down the listing after filling the position.

Some employers may leave positions up to expand their talent pool. While others who are open to hiring new employees, even if they do not match the role, may practice ghost hiring when they want a pool of applicants to quickly pull from when the need arises. Finally, some employers post job roles to make it look like the company is experiencing growth.

When employers participate in ghost hiring practices, job candidates can become frustrated, hurting the employer brand and, thus, future recruiting efforts. Even with the tight labor market and employee turnover, it is best not to have an evergreen posting if there is no intention to hire respondents.

There are several ways employers can engage candidates and, likewise, build a talent pool without misleading job seekers.

Network

A recruiter at their core is a professional networker. This is a skill that many have honed through the years, and it continues to evolve through social media channels. While many recruiters lean on social media, you should not discount meeting people face-to-face. There is power in promoting your organization at professional meetings, alumni groups and civic organizations. Through these avenues, many potential candidates will elect for you to keep them in mind for future opportunities.

Employee Referrals

When recruiters want to deepen their talent pool, they cannot discount the employee referral. Simply letting employees know and clearly stating the exploratory nature of the conversation can lead to stellar results. Employees understand the organization, its culture and expectations, so they are more likely to refer the company to someone who would be a good fit and reflect highly on them.

Alternative Candidates

In recent years, organizations and recruiters are more dialed into skills-first recruiting practices. Creating job postings that emphasize the skill sets needed rather than the years of experience, specific college degree or previous job titles, can yield a crop of candidates who may be more agile and innovative than others. Fostering relationships with people who fit unique skills needed within the organization can help you develop a deeper bench of candidates.

Contingent Workforce

Part-time workers, freelancers, and independent contractors are a great way to build connections and the talent pool. These workers and their skills are known entities, plus they know the organization, which makes them valuable candidates for open roles. If their expertise is needed on a regular basis, it is easier to have open conversations about a potential expansion of their duties or offer full-time work.

Internal Talent

Human resources and recruiters need to work with managers and leadership to intimately know what kind of talent lies within their own organization. Current employees may have the strengths, skills, and capabilities to fill new positions or roles. Through conversations with employees and their managers, you can identify who can flex different skills, but even more importantly, the ambition to grow within the company.

In every instance, it is crucial for recruiters and hiring managers to be transparent in their intentions. Communicating within your network that you are always looking for great talent to fill future roles sets the tone. When communicating with candidates, whether there is a pressing job opportunity or not, be clear from the onset regarding your intentions for hire. With a transparent approach to hiring and candidate development, you will keep the employer brand intact and maintain recruiting power.

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Jaune Little is a director of recruiting services with Insperity.