3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Daniel Powell of Spark Biomedical, Carrie Colbert of Curate Capital, and Carson Hager of SafeFun. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — venture capital, medical devices, and software — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Daniel Powell, CEO of Spark Biomedical

A new medical device created in Houston is revolutionizing opioid withdrawal treatment. Photo via sparkbiomedical.com

Houston-based Spark Biomedical has created an opioid withdrawal treatment device known as the Sparrow Therapy System. It's worn over the ear and sends mild electrical signals to trigger cranial nerves that release endorphins that the body has stopped producing on its own during opioid use. These endorphins help the user to make clearer, more logical decisions as they come off of the drug.

"If you ask 100 people who've gone through opioid withdrawal, I would bet 99 of them will tell you they thought they were going to die," Spark BioMed CEO Daniel Powell says. "Giving them the ability to manage that is huge. It's the first step towards addiction recovery. It's not solving the addiction, but it is an absolute barrier to move forward."

Carrie Colbert, general partner at Curate Capital

Carrie Colbert saw an opportunity is funding female-founded companies, and she's taking it. Photo courtesy of Curate Capital

Carrie Colbert has gone from energy executive to fashion and lifestyle content creation to her latest venture — venture investment. With her multifaceted career, she's grown her network across industries and platforms and now some of her followers have become Curate Capital's limited partners.

"Instagram turned out to be one of the best networking tools for me," Colbert says. "You can connect with people wherever they are and wherever you are." Read more.

Carson Hager, president at SafeFun

A Houston entrepreneur created a free smartphone app to easily track and share COVID-19 testing results. Photo courtesy of SafeFun

Last year, Carson Hager felt helpless as he saw Houston restaurants and bars being shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I was thinking what's it going to take for people to be able to feel comfortable to go back out again and go out to bars and restaurants, gyms, salons, club, etcetera," he says.

In April 2020, he decided to act. And with the help of a few programmer friends pulling long hours for about 100 days straight, Hager created SafeFun, a Houston-based digital health passport that allows users to voluntarily and easily share COVID-19 test results and information. Read more.

Carrie Colbert saw an opportunity is funding female-founded companies, and she's taking it. Photo courtesy of Curate Capital

Houston investor goes all in on funding female founders

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 81

Carrie Colbert wasn't planning on becoming a venture capital investor — it just happened organically.

"This has been kind of a backwards process. Our fund was driven by demand," Colbert, founder and general partner of Houston-based Curate Capital, says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We were getting such good deal flow in terms of quantity and quality."

Colbert says she originally carved out a practical career and worked her way up the corporate ladder within the energy industry — first at Anadarko Petroleum and then at Hilcorp Energy Co. — for almost 20 years. On the side, she was also establishing herself as a prominent content creator specializing in all things colorful on her blog and Instagram.

It was through the network she created that she started learning about up-and-coming businesses that she wanted to get involved in — first as an angel investor for a few years and now through her VC.

"Instagram turned out to be one of the best networking tools for me," Colbert says. "You can connect with people wherever they are and wherever you are."

A prime example of this interaction was Jordan Jones, founder and CEO of Austin-based consumer goods company, Packed Party. Jones suggested meeting up with Colbert, and the two hit it off. Down the road when it came time to fundraise, Colbert became Jones' first outside investor.

"I've never had to search for deals," Colbert says. "I connect with them on social media or, in pre-pandemic days, I meet them at creative conferences."

Now, under her Curate Capital, Colbert is raising an initial $10 million fund — and she's already committed about 40 percent of that into companies across industries — consumer packaged goods, fintech, health tech, and more.

"We are not industry specific," Colbert says. "Rather, where I have found our sweet spot to be is businesses by women, for women... That's where I think I can provide the most value."

Female founders continue to be funded less than their male counterparts, and Crunchbase reported that last year the discrepancy increased drastically. Colbert recognizes this need and carved out her niche accordingly.

"Women control so much of the spending, and yet are getting so few of the VC dollars. We really see that as an opportunity. It's not a problem we're trying to fix necessarily — we certainly can't rectify it on our own," Colbert says.

Colbert expects her first fund's initial close around July, and she also plans on announcing new investments in the next few weeks. She's also working on bringing on new limited partners and will soon be launching a crowdfunding opportunity to get more women in her network involved.

Colbert shares more about Curate Capital and her advice for her fellow female entrepreneurs on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Houston SaaS startup closes $12M series A funding round with support from local VC

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A Houston startup with a software-as-a-service platform for the energy transition has announced it closed a funding round with participation from a local venture capital.

Molecule closed its $12 million series A, and Houston-based Mercury Fund was among the company's investors. The company has a cloud-based energy trading and risk management solution for the energy industry and supports power, natural gas, crude/refined products, chemicals, agricultural commodities, softs, metals, cryptocurrencies, and more.

"We led the seed round of Molecule upon their formation and are excited to participate in their series A," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release. "Molecule's success in the ETRM/CTRM industry, especially in relation to electricity and renewables, positions them as the company to beat for the energy transition in the 2020s."

The company will use its new funds to further build out its product as well as introduce offerings to manage renewables credits, according to the release.

"In 2020, we realized that electricity — the growth commodity of the 2020s — represented over half of Molecule's customer base, and we decided to double down," says Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule, in the release. "We were also rated the No. 1 SaaS ETRM/CTRM vendor. With this fundraise, we have the fuel to become No. 1 SaaS platform for power and renewables, and then the market leader overall.

"Molecule is ready to power the energy transition," Soleja continues.

Molecule's last round of funding closed in November 2014. The $1.1 million seed round was supported by Mercury Fund and the Houston Angel Network.

Houston-based afterlife planning startup launches new app

there's an app for that

The passing of a loved one is followed with grief — and paperwork. A Houston company that's simplifying the process of afterlife planning and decision making is making things even easier with a new smartphone app.

The Postage, a digital platform meant to ease with affair planning, recently launched a mobile app to make the service more accessible following a particularly deadly year. The United States recorded 3.2 million fatalities — the most deaths in its history, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After losing three family members back-to-back, Emily Cisek dealt first hand with the difficulty of wrapping up a loved one's life. She saw how afterlife planning interrupted her family's grieving and caused deep frustration. Soon, she began to envision a solution to help people have a plan and walk through the process of losing someone.

The Postage, which launched in September, provides a platform for people to plan their affairs and leave behind wishes for loved ones. The website includes document storage and organization, password management, funeral and last wishes planning, and the option to create afterlife messages to posthumously share with loved ones.

"Right now, as it stands ahead of this app, end-of-life planning is really challenging. It's this daunting thing you have to sit down and do at your computer," says Cisek. Not only is it "daunting," but it's time-consuming. According to The Postage, families can expect to spend nearly 500 hours on completing end-of-life details if there is no planning done in advance.

With more than 74 percent of The Postage's web traffic coming from mobile users, an app was a natural progression. In fact, Entrepreneur reports the average person will spend nine years on their mobile device. Cisek wanted to meet users where they are at with a user-friendly app that includes the same features as the desktop website.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple," she continued.

Cisek and her team focused on providing a "seamless experience" within the app, which took approximately four months to build, which mirrors the desktop platform.

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app.

After snapping a picture, "the next step inherently is sharing it with your loved ones," says Cisek. Photos, family recipes and videos can easily be shared securely with loved ones who accept your invitation to The Postage so "that legacy continues on," she says.

Since The Postage's fall launch, the company has grown a steady base of paid subscribers with plans to expand.

"We're really starting to change the way people plan for the future," says Cisek.