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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Exclusive: Houston Exponential makes strategic marketing hire

innovator to know

Houston Exponential has made another new hire. Clemmie Pierce Martin has joined Houston Exponential as director of marketing and strategy. The nonprofit helps spur the growth of Houston’s innovation ecosystem.

She most recently was director of strategic partnerships and products at Houston-based startup Goodfair, which operates an online thrift store. Before that, she was head of client success at Austin-based startup Mesa Cloud, which offers a platform for tracking student progress.

Martin, who grew up in Houston and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin and Houston’s The Kinkaid School, says her new employer “sees the potential in Houston and our startup ecosystem that I’ve always felt was underserved and underrepresented nationally. I couldn’t be more excited to join a team that is working tirelessly to make sure that for founders and startups anywhere in the world, Houston is not just a choice but rather the clear choice of venue.”

Martin is a great-niece of the late President George H.W. and the late first lady Barbara Bush.

Serafina Lalany, the new executive director of Houston Exponential (HX), says Martin’s experience with startups “is an invaluable asset to the organization.”

“Her insights and experiences … couldn’t be more fitting for HX’s mission to lower the barrier of entry for early stage startups in the city,” Lalany says in a news release.

Lalany became executive director of HX in September. She had been the organization’s vice president of operations and chief of staff. Lalany succeeds Harvin Moore, who resigned this summer as president and CEO of the four-year-old nonprofit.

Earlier this month, HX named Ivery Boston III as director of inclusive innovation. He previously worked for the Miami Downtown Development Authority.

Aside from the new hires, the organization recently restructured its board of directors. The board transitioned to a more informal “convening” board, and an executive committee now oversees HX’s operations.

University of Houston: Navigating between researcher and professor

houston voices

What is the difference between a professor teaching and conducting research? When does a professor need an Institutional Review Board to provide oversight on their project? The NSF has had this come up often enough, presumably, that they wrote a vignette on their website.

Let's take a quiz

The NSF presented the following scenario: “Professor Speakwell teaches undergraduate courses in linguistics in which he demonstrates variability in both the syntax and vocabulary of spoken expression across individuals and cultures. Professor Speakwell involves his students in active learning in the classroom. He brings recordings of spoken English to class and calls on students to say whether they find the example grammatical and to explain or guess what the utterance means.”

Pretty straightforward, right? A professor is a teacher. But most professors move from role-to-role like a chameleon: researcher, artist, CEO, etc. depending on their discipline.

Here's the question

“Professor Researchit, a colleague of Speakwell’s, uses these same techniques with undergraduate student volunteers to do research on variables that predict understanding of utterances. Dr. Researchit develops a protocol, and obtains IRB approval and students’ signed informed consent. Professor Researchit tells Speakwell that he had better get IRB approval and student informed consent since he is doing the same thing.”

Is Professor Researchit Correct?

Danielle Griffin, Ed.D., associate director of the Research Integrity and Oversight Office in the Division of Research at University of Houston was asked to weigh in on this vignette. She answered by saying, “No, Speakwell is not doing the same thing. Speakwell is teaching, not doing research.”

“The keywords in the first paragraph are ‘involves his students in active learning in the classroom.’ Active learning and research are two different things. They are doing hands-on learning about how to conduct research,” she went on to say. “Professor Researchit is actually doing research because the students are participants and the subjects of the data collection.”

Decision tree

When does a professor need an IRB? The government’s Health and Human Services website boasts an Office for Human Research Protections. You can find a “decision tree” there. It helps professors to determine whether an IRB is required for their research. Every institution has something similar; for instance the University of Rhode Island offers a similar tool to figure out the IRB process in a flow chart. The overarching rule is that if you are using human subjects in a clinical trial — you do need IRB oversight.

According to the University of Iowa, “publicly available data do not require IRB review. Examples: census data, labor statistics.” But they also provide a dense, comprehensive list of what else can be conducted without an IRB in place.

The Big Idea

When in doubt of whether you need an IRB or not, reach out to your institution’s IRB facilitators or the office that handles oversight, ethics and integrity. The Research Integrity and Oversight (RIO) Office at the University of Houston, for instance, “supports and educates the research community in all areas of compliance with federal regulations concerning human subjects, animal subjects, conflicts of interest, grant congruency and responsible conduct of research.” It’s better to be safe than sorry, but if the lesson you’re teaching benefits the student, it is probably not a research project.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Cory Thaxton, the author of this piece, is the communications coordinator for The Division of Research.

Houston data analytics firm acquired by Austin agency

m&a moves

Statistical Vision, a Houston-based data and analytics firm, has been scooped up by Austin-based marketing and communications agency Hahn Public for an undisclosed amount.

The deal expands Hahn Public to a 48-person agency with combined annual revenue exceeding $10 million. Statistical Vision has been rebranded as Hahn Stats.

“Our clients come to us drowning in data — sales transactions, marketing information, commodity prices, import and export data, demographics, weather forecasts, etcetera,” Michael Griebe, co-founder and chief statistical officer of what now is Hahn Stats, says in a news release. “We build predictive analytic models to answer specific questions and to point our clients towards revenue growth.”

Griebe and Dirk Van Slyke founded Statistical Vision in 2014. The company's local office is at The Cannon West Houston. Hahn Stats LLC also has an office in Denver.

The data and analytics prowess developed by Statistical Vision will benefit Hahn Public clients like Houston-based ZTERS, Whataburger, the Texas Department of Agriculture, Beef-Loving Texans, H-E-B’s Central Market, Vital Farms, the Propane Education & Research Council, OneGas, GPA Midstream, the East Texas Electric Cooperative, and the Northeast Texas Regional Mobility Authority.

Jeff Hahn, principal of Hahn Public, says the acquisition of Statistical Vision and its data and analytics capabilities will help Hahn Public’s array of food and energy clients, who “continue to face a rapidly changing and uncertain landscape.”

Other businesses under the Hahn umbrella are Apron Food & Beverage Communications, Predictive Media Network, and White Lion Interactive.