From restaurant finding apps to a healthy food startup — these are the lifestyle startups to watch in Houston. Getty Images

While sometimes it seems like a lot of the Houston innovation landscape is energy and medical tech companies, there are several lifestyle-focused startups that fly under the radar. Whether it's a fizzle cocktail creator — or a cure for a hangover from said fizzy cocktail — these five Houston startups are ones to watch.

Cheers

Cheers, which has its office out of The Cannon, serves up pre-drinking pills to prevent any day after regrets. Courtesy of Cheers

While the sharks on Shark Tank didn't bite, Brooks Powell's Houston-based startup, Cheers, went on to close a $2.1 million seed round lead by NextView Ventures, which has the likes of TaskRabbit, thredUP, and Letgo among its portfolio. The new investment, Brooks says, has been helping the company rebrand from Thrive, its original moniker, to Cheers.

Powell thought up the company when he was a sophomore at Princeton University. He came across the science surrounding his product's key ingredient, Dihydromyricetin, a natural extract — like caffeine to coffee — that had been identified as an anti-alcohol treatment in 2012 following experiments on the effects on rats.

"I started working with some of my professors and asking them if it was safe and would it be effective," Powell says. Read more about Cheers' growth and origin story here.

Work & Mother

Work & Mother gives new moms a save, stylish place to pump during the workday. Courtesy of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell has been advocating for new mothers long before she had any babies of her own. Though, as of a few weeks ago, the founder of Work & Mother claims a new title of mom to her newborn son.

While laws regulate employers to have private nursing rooms available for new moms, most either offer sub-par conditions or worse — none at all.

"There were constant stories about [women] being told the use the IT closet, or the conference room, or the bathroom or their cars," Donnell tells InnovationMap. "Some of them were pretty big oil and gas firms companies that should've had the resources and space to do better than that."

Work & Mother offers a solution that solves the problem on both sides: A suite of nursing rooms in a downtown office building where business can purchase memberships for employees — and new moms can have a stylish, relaxing place to pump. Read more about Work & Mother here.

Crityk

Crityk's main goal is to be a marketing asset to restaurants. Getty Images

What started as Sumit Sikka's mission to find the best Moscow Mule in Santa Monica has turned into a restaurant locating tool that doubles as a marketing platform for eateries. Houston-based Crityk launched last fall and now serves Houston and Austin restaurants.

"That was kind of the first big pivot," Sikka says. "First, we had an app based on user content. Then we pivoted to have content curated by the restaurant. For the first time ever, the restaurant gets to create their own profile."

There are hundreds of restaurants from Houston on the app now. Read more about Crityk here.

My Drink Bomb

What started as an idea to get her kids to drink more water has turned into a profitable party favor company. Courtesy of My Drink Bomb

Chloé Di Leo was just trying to encourage her kids to drink more water is now by creating fizzing, flavored drink mixes. She sent some extras to school with her kids, who then came home that day with $40.

"Our kids took some to school and came home with some pocket change," Di Leo tells InnovationMap. "They weren't supposed to sell it, but the kids liked it."

Di Leo realized there was a market for these mixes — specifically for adult beverages. She launched My Drink Bomb LLC in Houston at the beginning of summer 2018 and tells InnovationMap that the product was inspired by bath bombs, fizzing once added to a beverage. She created the company with her husband, William Roberts. Together, they own a few local businesses, and Di Leo also is also a jewelry designer at her own store, Chloé Di Leo & Co. Read more about My Drink Bomb here.

The Blonde Pantry

The Bayou City has its own Blue Apron-style startup with locally sourced produce. Courtesy of The Blonde Pantry

While Marla Murphy, a local entrepreneur and nutritionist, has helped Houstonians make healthy decisions with her food blog and consulting company for years, she wasn't sure she was doing enough. Now, the Houstonian has expanded from her meal delivery service to her own store front for locally sourced meals and meal kids.

Murphy relaunched her company, The Blonde Pantry, in March of last year she says to create the only local meal delivery service for the greater Houston area. She opened her store at 2800 Kirby Dr. in February. Read more about The Blonde Pantry here.

This week's innovators to know are involved in tech — from app development to revolutionizing the energy industry. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

From restaurant review apps to a device that monitors oil rigs, this week's innovators to know are tech savvy to say the least. All three took a chance on Houston for their startups, and that chance is paying off.

Christopher Robart, president of Ambyint USA

Christopher Robart leads Ambyint — a technology company creating the Nest thermostat for oil rigs — with his twin brother, Alex. Courtesy of Ambyint

Christopher Robart — along with his twin brother, Alex — is in the business of business development. The two run Ambyint, an oil and gas tech company that creates the Nest thermostat of oil rigs.

The company is looking to expand its customer base this year, as well as grow to be able to service different types of rig pumps.

Sumit Sikka, co-founder of Crityk

Sumit Sikka moved to Houston in order to grow his restaurant reviewing app. Courtesy of Crityk

What started as a quest to find the best Moscow Mule in Southern California has turned into growing business thriving in Houston's dining scene. Sumit Sikka first visited Houston for an event to promote the app he co-founded, Crityk, and basically never left.

"I packed up some of my bags and decided to try here in Houston," Sikka says." It's a lot easier to get to decision makers here in Houston than in LA."

Moji Karimi, co-founder of Cemvita Factory

Moji Karimi's company can take carbon dioxide from a refinery and convert it into glucose or another chemical. Courtesy of Cemvita

Moji Karimi never thought his oil and gas career would overlap with his sister's medical research. But in some ways, the fact the two of them teamed up to create a company that takes carbon dioxide from the air and turns it into something else, makes perfect sense that it crosses industries.

"There are a lot of opportunities bringing a proven science or technology from one industry into another to solve problems," he says.


Crityk's main goal is to be a marketing asset to restaurants. Getty Images

Restaurant-driven app focuses on Houston's food scene

order up

One night, Sumit Sikka was on a quest to find the best Moscow Mule in Santa Monica. He couldn't find anything helpful online, and when he finally did get a good recommendation, he was already done for the night.

It was through this experience that Sikka knew he wanted to make a restaurant finder app, but he wanted to do something different from Yelp or Google Reviews. On those platforms, a restaurant can get crushed by a bad review that provides false information. So, when he started getting the ball rolling on Crityk, he realized he needed to give the restaurants a voice.

"That was kind of the first big pivot," Sikka says. "First, we had an app based on user content. Then we pivoted to have content curated by the restaurant. For the first time ever, the restaurant gets to create their own profile."

The app launched on November 18 and has over 700 restaurant profiles live. There are 250 here in Houston, and 25 are clients, meaning they pay Crityk and have exclusive marketing opportunities, like promoting events — something most restaurants struggle to engage customers with.

"Restaurants do so much marketing, but they do the majority of it inside the restaurant," Sikka says. "Who's not going into your restaurant and not seeing that?"

Crityk users can log into the app and find different restaurant events around town to attend. Users can upload images of food from different restaurants. They rate the specific menu item, rather than the restaurant as a whole. Then, restaurants can link that photo to the specific menu item. Instead of comments on the picture, users can engage with hashtags. Any comments a user might have would go directly to the establishment to be resolved.

Another priority for Crityk is to have photos of every menu item the restaurant offers as well as complete dietary information. It's becoming more and more important for diners to know about vegan, gluten-free, etc. options before getting to the restaurant only to be disappointed with the selection.

Investing in Houston
While the idea came about in California, Sikka, who has a sister who lives in The Woodlands, took a trip to Houston to feel out consumer interest in the app. He hosted an event with a local restaurant and some influencers. The app kind of just exploded in town, Sikka says.

"I packed up some of my bags and decided to try here in Houston," Sikka says." It's a lot easier to get to decision makers here in Houston than in LA."

The development team is still based in India, and Crityk's co-founder, John Kegel, is still based in California. However, Sikka works out of Station Houston, something he says has been an extremely valuable. He says he's made some valuable connections through both Station and the Texas Restaurant Association.

"I think Houston is a phenomenal city to get started in. It's a big city, but it has the feeling of a small city."

Second course?
Still under two months old, the app has a lot of improvements and expansions in the works. Sikka says he wants to double the number of restaurant profiles to 500 by summer. He'd also like to grow the number of paying clients on the site, which would include more restaurants with a full photo menu on the app for users to browse.

Made for foodies

Screenshot via the Crityk app

Crityk is a free smartphone app that connects users to other users and to restaurants directly.

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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 esports to biomaterials — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Zimri Hinshaw, CEO of BUCHA BIO

Zimri T. Hinshaw, CEO of BUCHA BIO, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how he's planning to scale his biomaterials startup to reduce plastic waste. Photo courtesy of BUCHA BIO

After raising a seed round of funding, BUCHA BIO is gearing up to move into its new facility. The biomaterials company was founded in New York City in 2020, but CEO Zimri T. Hinshaw shares how he started looking for a new headquarters for the company — one that was more affordable, had a solid talent pool, and offered a better quality of life for employees. He narrowed it down from over 20 cities to two — San Diego and Houston — before ultimately deciding on the Bayou City.

Since officially relocating, Hinshaw says he's fully committed to the city's innovation ecosystem. BUCHA BIO has a presence at the University of Houston, Greentown Labs, and the East End Maker Hub — where the startup is building out a new space to fit the growing team.

"By the end of this month, our laboratories will be up and running, we'll have office space adjacent, as well as chemical storage," Hinshaw says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Listen to the episode and read more.

Kelly Klein, development director of Easter Seals Greater Houston

A nonprofit organization has rolled out an esports platform and event to raise awareness and funding for those with disabilities. Photo via Easter Seals

For many video games is getaway from reality, but for those with disabilities — thanks to a nonprofit organization —gaming can mean a lot more. On Saturday Dec. 3 — International Day of Persons with Disabilities — from 1 to 9 pm, Easter Seals Greater Houston will be joining forces with ES Gaming for the inaugural Game4Access Streamathon.

Gaming helps enhance cognitive skills, motor skills, improve mental well-being, and can help reduce feelings of social isolation due to the interactive nature of playing with others.

“This is really a unique way for (people) to form a community without having to leave their house, and being part of an inclusive environment,” says Kelly Klein, development director of Easter Seals Greater Houston. ”The adaptive equipment and specialized technology just does so many miraculous things for people with disabilities on so many levels — not just gaming. With gaming, it is an entrance into a whole new world.” Read more.

John Mooz, senior managing director at Hines

Levit Green has announced its latest to-be tenant. Photo courtesy

Levit Green, a 53-acre mixed-use life science district next to the Texas Medical Center and expected to deliver this year, has leased approximately 10,000 square feet of commercial lab and office space to Sino Biological Inc. The Bejing-based company is an international reagent supplier and service provider. Houston-based real estate investor, development, and property manager Hines announced the new lease in partnership with 2ML Real Estate Interests and Harrison Street.

“Levit Green was meticulously designed to provide best-in-class life science space that can accommodate a multitude of uses. Welcoming Sino Biological is a testament to the market need for sophisticated, flexible space that allows diversified firms to perform a variety of research,” says John Mooz, senior managing director at Hines, in a press release. “Sino is an excellent addition to the district’s growing life science ecosystem, and we look forward to supporting their continued growth and success.” Read more.Read more.

Houston company premieres new platform for gig economy workforce

tech support

As the independent workforce continues to grow, a Houston-based company is aiming to connect these workers with companies that match their specific needs with a new digital platform.

FlexTek, a 14-year old recruiting and staffing company, launched a first gig site tailored to the needs of the individual worker. The platform, Workz360, is built to be able to manage projects, maintain quality control, and manage billing and year-end financial reporting.The company is also working to expanding the platform to provide infrastructure to assist independent workers with education, access to savings programs, tax compliance through vetted third-party CPA firms, and hopes in the future to assist with access to liability and medical insurance.

With a younger workforce and a shifting economy, the “gig economy,” which is another way to describe how people can earn a living as a 1099 worker, offers an alternative option to the corporate grind in a post-pandemic workscape. Chief Marketing Officer Bill Penczak of Workz360 calls this era “Gig 2.0,” and attributes the success of this type of workforce to how during the COVID-19 pandemic people learned how to work, and thrive in non-traditional work environments. The site also boasts the fact it won’t take a bite out of the worker’s pay, which could be an attractive sell for many since other sites can take up to 65 percent of profit.

“In the past few years, with the advent of gig job platforms, the Independent workers have been squeezed by gig work platforms taking a disproportionate amount of the workers’ income,” said FlexTek CEO and founder Stephen Morel in a news release. “As a result, there has been what we refer to as ‘pay padding,’ a phenomenon in which workers are raising their hourly or project rates to compensate for the bite taken by other platforms.

"Workz360 is designed to promote greater transparency, and we believe the net result will be for workers to thrive and companies to save money by using the platform,” he continues.

As the workforce has continued to change over the years, a third of the current U.S. workforce are independent workers according to FlexTek, workers have gained the ability to have more freedom where and how they work. Workz360 aims to cater to this workforce by believing in a simple mantra of treating your workers well.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about this, but we like the Southwest Airlines model,” Penczak tells InnovationMap. “Southwest Airlines treats their people very well, and as a result those employees treat the passengers really well. We believe the same thing holds true. If we can provide resources, and transparency, and not take a bite out of what the gig worker is charging, then we will get the best and the brightest people since they feel like they won’t be taken advantage of. We think there is an opportunity to be a little different and put the people first.”

NASA launches new research projects toward astronauts on ISS

ready to research

For the 26th time, SpaceX has sent up supplies to the International Space Station, facilitating several new research projects that will bring valuable information to the future of space.

On Saturday at 1:20 pm, the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft launched on the Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida — bringing with it more than 7,700 pounds of science experiments, crew supplies, and other cargo. The anticipated docking time is Sunday morning, and the cargo spacecraft will remain aboard the ISS for 45 days, according to a news release from NASA.

Among the supplies delivered to the seven international astronauts residing on the ISS are six research experiments — from health tech to vegetation. Here's a glimpse of the new projects sent up to the scientists in orbit:

Moon Microscope

Image via NASA.gov

Seeing as astronauts are 254 miles away from a hospital on Earth — and astronauts on the moon would be almost 1,000 times further — the need for health technology in space is top of mind for researchers. One new device, the Moon Microscope, has just been sent up to provide in-flight medical diagnosis. The device includes a portable hand-held microscope and a small self-contained blood sample staining tool, which can communicate information to Earth for diagnosis.

"The kit could provide diagnostic capabilities for crew members in space or on the surface of the Moon or Mars," reads a news release. "The hardware also may provide a variety of other capabilities, such as testing water, food, and surfaces for contamination and imaging lunar surface samples."

Fresh produce production

Salads simply aren't on the ISS menu, but fresh technology might be changing that. Researchers have been testing a plant growth unit on station known as Veggie, which has successfully grown a variety of leafy greens, and the latest addition is Veg-05 — focused on growing dwarf tomatoes.

Expanded solar panels

Thanks to SpaceX's 22nd commercial resupply mission in 2021, the ISS installed Roll-Out Solar Arrays. Headed to the ISS is the second of three packages to complete the panels that will increase power for the station by 20 to 30 percent. This technology was first tested in space in 2017 and is a key ingredient in future ISS and lunar development.

Construction innovation

Image via NASA.gov

Due to the difference of gravity — and lack thereof — astronauts have had to rethink constructing structures in space. Through a process called extrusion, liquid resin is used to create shapes and forms that cannot be created on Earth. Photocurable resin, which uses light to harden the material into its final form, is injected into pre-made flexible forms and a camera captures footage of the process, per the news release.

"The capability for using these forms could enable in-space construction of structures such as space stations, solar arrays, and equipment," reads the release. "The experiment is packed inside a Nanoracks Black Box with several other experiments from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and is sponsored by the ISS National Lab."

Transition goggles

It's a bizarre transition to go from one gravity field to another — and one that can affect spatial orientation, head-eye and hand-eye coordination, balance, and locomotion, and cause some crew members to experience space motion sickness, according to the release.

"The Falcon Goggles hardware captures high-speed video of a subject’s eyes, providing precise data on ocular alignment and balance," reads the release.

On-demand nutrients

Image via NASA.gov

NASA is already thinking about long-term space missions, and vitamins, nutrients, and pharmaceuticals have limited shelf-life. The latest installment in the five-year BioNutrients program is BioNutrients-2 , which tests a system for producing key nutrients from yogurt, a fermented milk product known as kefir, and a yeast-based beverage, per the release.

"The researchers also are working to find efficient ways to use local resources to make bulk products such as plastics, construction binders, and feedstock chemicals. Such technologies are designed to reduce launch costs and increase self-sufficiency, extending the horizons of human exploration," reads the release.