3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Erica Sinner of DanceKard, Angela Wilkins of Rice University, and Gina Luna of GP Capital Partners. 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 — from dating tech to investment — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Erica Sinner, founder of DanceKard

Houston-based DanceKard is focused on getting singles off the endless swiping in order to make lasting connections and relationships. Photo courtesy of DanceKard

A proud Houstonian, Erica Sinner, whose background is in commercial real estate, was interested in creating a dating app that brought in local businesses. She launched DanceKard with several different offerings — all geared at driving in-person connections. Users can join the app to find events — not necessarily singles-specific events, although those are an option, but meetups where you know a certain number of singles will be in attendance.

"We focus a lot on group dating," Sinner explains. "That's something nobody does."

Singles, along with their single friends, can indicate on the app that they are interested in four, six, or eight-person dates, and see if their are other groups of friends looking to connect. Click here to read more.

Angela Wilkins, executive director of the Ken Kennedy Institute at Rice University

"Better and personalized healthcare through AI is still a hugely challenging problem that will take an army of scientists and engineers." Photo courtesy

Angela Wilkins, executive director of the Ken Kennedy Institute at Rice University, knows data and artificial intelligence can hold bias. It is, after all, designed by humans who have biases whether they know it or not. An issue with this is when these biases affect health care.

"AI presents the opportunity to bring greater personalization to healthcare, but it equally presents the risk of entrenching existing inequalities. We have the opportunity in front of us to take a considered approach to data collection, regulation, and use that will provide a fuller and fairer picture and enable the next steps for AI in healthcare," Wilkins writes in her guest column. Click here to read more.

Gina Luna, partner at GP Capital Partners

Gina Luna joins the Houston Innovators Podcast this week. Photo courtesy of Gina Luna

For most of Gina Luna's career, which includes two decades at JP Morgan before running her own strategic consulting firm, her bread and butter has been working with privately held, lower-middle market companies. Her latest endeavor is no different.

Luna — along with Paul Hobby, and Peter Shaper at Genesis Park — have joined forces to create GP Capital Partners, a new $275 million fund structured as a Small Business Investment Company. The fund will deploy funding into 20 to 25 companies within the region.

"The four of us just thought there was a real opportunity to bring this kind of capital to middle market companies in Houston, Texas, an the Gulf Coast region," Luna says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We have already seen, even in the relatively early days, there is a need an an opportunity to invest in great companies, and we are really excited to be doing that." Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Houston-based DanceKard is focused on getting singles off the endless swiping in order to make lasting connections and relationships. Photo courtesy of DanceKard

Houston entrepreneur is flipping the switch on online dating with new app

so over swiping

Like most people who are single and looking for a relationship, Erica Sinner is familiar with the dating apps. She's swiped and messaged with men in her area, but has little to show for it other than comically lazy responses from not-so potential soulmates.

Then Sinner had an idea. What if there was a platform that encouraged meetups and group dates and limited in-app conversations? An anti-dating app platform that took users off their phones, paused endless swiping, and also gave local businesses — bars, restaurants, etc. — a chance to host events or generate new business?

Then she thought, why not create it herself? Sinner started DanceKard to fill this need within the dating app landscape. After a soft launch a couple months ago, the app has over 170 users on the platform and recently joined gBETA's early-stage accelerator program.

"I think people forgot how great an in-person meeting is whenever you're getting to know someone," Sinner tells InnovationMap. "I love the fact that dating apps have made it easier to meet people, but at the end of the day, after you spend three days or a week talking to someone and then you meet them in person, and there's just something you don't like."

Sinner explains it like reading the book before seeing the movie — everyone is going to seem better when you build them up in your head.

"I've found, personally, there are guys who I met in person who are amazing, and I just wouldn't have thought that if I saw them online first," she says.

The name is a callback to when women connected with their suitors at a local dance. Women penciled in dances with their gentlemen callers, and that's how they got to know them — through a spin around the dancefloor.

"We're the modern day version of that type of dating," Sinner says, with less dancing but right in line with generating in-person conenctions.

A proud Houstonian, Sinner, whose background is in commercial real estate, was interested in bringing in local businesses from the start. DanceKard has several different offerings — all geared at driving in-person connections. Users can join the app to find events — not necessarily singles-specific events, although those are an option, but meetups where you know a certain number of singles will be in attendance.

"We focus a lot on group dating," Sinner explains. "That's something nobody does."

Singles, along with their single friends, can indicate on the app that they are interested in four, six, or eight-person dates, and see if their are other groups of friends looking to connect.

DanceKard also provides discounts and deals at its business partners' establishments. This drives business while also making deciding where to meet up a lot easier — and affordable.

"Everyone knows dating can get expensive — especially for the guys," Sinner says. "So, daters can go out on these dates and use a discount."

At the end of the day, DanceKard and Sinner are laser focused on creating relationships for their users. Modern dating has been defined by swiping on apps or drinking in bars, but that doesn't have to be your only options. DanceKard's events and opportunities will be more than just at bars — users can meet at the museum or the zoo and have an activity to connect with others over.

"People are looking for things other than drinking," she says. "They're realizing that if they are going to a bar where there are singles, that doesn't equate to a relationship."

For now, she's also focused on her hometown of Houston and is really being intentional about supporting local businesses and Houstonians themselves.

"Houston is a great opportunity," she says. "It's not about me, it's about this town. We have great people and great businesses."

Here's what companies are in the latest cohort for gBETA. Photo courtesy of gBETA

Early-stage accelerator announces 5 startups to its fall 2021 Houston cohort

ready to grow

An early-stage accelerator has picked its latest cohort of five Houston companies.

The Fall 2020 cohort of gBETA Houston includes:

  • AllIDoIsCook is founded by Tobi Smith and focused on exposing the world to Africa's cuisine by manufacturing gourmet food products delivered directly to customer doors and available at grocers. Since launching, AllIDoIsCook has built out a manufacturing facility, shipped over 8,000 boxes and generated $1.1 million in revenue all without outside funding.
  • Chasing Watts makes it easy for cyclists to coordinate or find rides with fellow riders in their area with its web-based and native application. The company has over 3,000 users and grew 135 percent from Q2 to Q3 in new ride views.
  • DanceKard, founded by Erica Sinner, is a new dating platform that connects individuals and groups with one another by bringing the date to the forefront of the conversation and making scheduling faster and easier with special promotions featuring local establishments. Since launching in August of 2021, DanceKard has over 170 users on the platform.
  • Dollarito is a digital lending platform that helps the low-income Hispanic population with no credit history or low FICO score access fair credit. Founded by Carmen Roman, Dollarito applies AI into banking, transactional and behavioral data to evaluate the repayment capability more accurately than using FICO scores. The company has1,000 users on their waitlist and plans to beta test with 100 or more customers in early 2022.
  • SeekerPitch, founded by Samantha Hepler, operates with the idea that jobseekers' past job titles and resumes are not always indicative of their true capabilities. Launched last month, SeekerPitch empowers companies to see who jobseekers are as people, and get to know them through comprehensive profiles and virtual speed interviews, and the company already has 215 jobseekers and 20 companies on the platform, with one pilot at University of Houston and three more in the pipeline.

The companies kicked off their cohort in person on October 18, and the program concludes on December 14 with the gBETA Houston Fall 2021 Pitch Night. At this event, each company will present their five-minute pitch to an audience of mentors, investors, and community members.

"The five founding teams selected for our gBETA Houston Fall 2021 cohort are tackling unique problems they have each experienced personally, from finding access to cultural foods, fitness communities and authentic dating experiences to challenges with non-inclusive financing and hiring practices," says Kate Evinger, director of gBETA Houston, in the release. "The grit and passion these individuals bring to their roles as founders will undoubtedly have a tremendous impact in the Houston community and beyond."

The accelerator has supported 15 Houston startups since it launched in Houston in early 2020. The program, which is free and hosted out of the Downtown Launchpad, is under the umbrella of Madison, Wisconsin-based international accelerator, gener8tor.

"Downtown Launchpad is an innovation hub like no other, and I am so proud of what it is already and what it will become," says Robert Pieroni, director of economic development at Central Houston Inc., in the release. "The five startups selected for the gBETA Houston Fall 2021 cohort are exploring new challenges that can become high-impact Houston businesses."

gBETA announced its plan to launch in Houston in September 2019. The program's inaugural cohort premiered in May and conducted the first program this summer completely virtually. The second cohort took place last fall, and the third ran earlier this year.

"These founders are building their companies and benefiting from the resources Downtown Launchpad provides," Pieroni continues, "and the proof is in the data – companies in these programs are creating jobs, growing their revenues and exponentially increasing their funding, which means these small starts up of today, working in Downtown Launchpad, are growing into the successful companies of tomorrow."

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Houston sustainability-focused company raises $50 million to plant new indoor farming facility

seeing green

Houston-based Dream Harvest Farming Co., which specializes in sustainably growing produce, has landed a $50 million investment from Orion Energy Partners to open a 100,000-square-foot indoor farming facility in Houston. The facility will enable the company to dramatically ramp up its operations.

The new facility, which will be built in Southwest Houston, is scheduled for completion in January 2023. Dream Harvest’s existing 7,500-square-foot facility in Southwest Houston supplies 45 Whole Foods stores in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas, as well as Sweetgreen restaurants in Texas.

The company currently employs 25 people. With the addition of the 100,000-square-foot facility, Dream Harvest’s headcount will rise to 65.

Dream Harvest relies on wind-powered, year-round indoor vertical farming to generate 400 times the yield of an outdoor farm while using 95 percent less water and no pesticides.

“Because the vast majority of America’s produce is grown in California and has to be shipped over long distances, most of the country receives produce that is old, has a poor flavor profile, and a short shelf life — a major contributing factor to the more than 30 percent of fresh vegetables being discarded in the U.S. each year,” Dream Harvest says in a December 7 news release.

Zain Shauk, co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest, says his company’s method for growing lettuce, baby greens, kale, mustards, herbs, collards, and cabbage helps cut down on food waste.

“Demand for our produce has far outpaced supply, an encouraging validation of our approach as well as positive news for our planet, which is facing the rising problem of food and resource waste,” Shauk says. “While we have the yields today to support our business, we are pleased to partner with Orion on this financing, which will enable us to greatly expand our production and increase access to our produce for many more consumers.”

Dream Harvest expects to expand distribution to more than 250 retail locations in 2022.

“Orion’s focus on sustainable infrastructure and deep experience in building large industrial facilities will be complementary to Dream Harvest’s impressive track record of being a reliable supplier to high-caliber customers by achieving consistent yields, food safety, and operational efficiencies … ,” says Nazar Massouh, co-managing partner and CEO of Orion Energy Partners, which has offices in Houston and New York City.

Other companies in the Orion Energy Partners portfolio include Houston-based Caliche Development Partners, Tomball-based Python Holdings, The Woodlands-based Evolution Well Services, Houston-based Produced Water Transfer, and Houston-based Tiger Rentals.

Zain Shauk is the co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest. Photo courtesy of Dream Harvest

Exclusive: Houston logistics SaaS startup raises $2.5M seed round

money moves

A Houston company that's providing software solutions for middle-mile logistics challenges has raised fresh funding.

Velostics Inc., which has an enterprise software-as-a-service model that specializes in automating inbound logistics at industrial facilities — like terminals and warehouses — announced it has raised $2.5 million. The seed round was led by Kansas-based Flyover Capital with participation from Small Ventures USA, Cultivation Capital, Starboard Star, Congress Avenue Ventures and BioUrja Ventures.

Founded by Gaurav Khandewal, Velostics targets the $37 billion inbound logistics management market, a so-called "log jam" for businesses that the company's software strives to make flow a lot more optimally.

“Flyover is incredibly excited to support the Velostics team in their mission to transform inbound logistics,” says Keith Molzer, managing partner at Flyover Capital. “This segment of the supply chain is ripe for better technology to address challenges of congestion, driver labor shortages, and the growing demands of ecommerce. Gaurav and team are an exceptional group of entrepreneurs ready to drive efficiency and a better customer experience at industrial facilities.”

The fresh funding will go toward recruiting top talent for Velostics's team, particularly in its account management, inside sales, and marketing departments, as well as continuing to develop the AI-driven product, which has an impact for both its users and the environment.

“Idling trucks waiting outside facilities emit over 42 million tons of CO2 annually — eight times the US national average. By orchestrating the movement of trucks in and out of facilities, not only do we provide tremendous supply chain benefits, we also help the environment," Khandewal says in the release. "We’re excited to partner with our customers and our investors to solve global congestion.”

Flyover Capital was founded in 2014 and has a keen interest in the Houston market, Dan Kerr, principal at the firm, previously told InnovationMap.

Houston is "one of the cities among those that fall in our region where we plan to spend a significant amount of time," Kerr said in May of last year. "We cover a lot of ground, but there are certain cities were we try to get there quarterly. Houston is definitely one of those places."

In September, Khandewal joined the Houston Innovators Podcast and discussed how he has been a champion of Houston innovation since he started ChaiOne in 2009. He shared how he thinks the city has a great opportunity to be a leader in logistics technology.

"I think that there are some trends in Houston that I'm seeing as a founder, and one of them is logistics," Khandewal says on the show.

Gaurav Khandelwal, CEO and founder of ChaiOne and Velostics Gaurav Khandelwal is the CEO and founder of Velostics. Photo courtesy

Houston VC-backed tech founder on reinventing a sales team and supporting financial independence

Houston innovators podcast episode 112

Four years ago, Samantha Ettus found herself as a keynote speaker in a room with thousands of ambitious and talented women. It was a conference for multi-level marketing sales associates and, as Ettus found out later, most of them — despite their talent and passion — were losing money on whatever product they were selling.

"I realized there was a problem. There obviously was a need — all of these people want to be doing something outside of their families that gives them fulfillment and meaning and has goals associated with it — but they also want to be earning money," Ettus says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "And the first part was being fulfilled — but the second part wasn't."

Ettus created an alternative to check both of those boxes. Park Place Payments is a fintech startup founded in 2018 in California. Houston was one of the initial six test market for the business model, and the company now has over 1,000 account executives across all 50 states. Sales team members are trained for free on how to sell Park Place's payment processor service to local businesses.

Ettus says the payment processor industry is competitive and most small business owners are very disappointed with the customer service they receive. The average business changes payment processors every three years, Ettus says, and Park Place wants to change that.

"Payments is an industry where something always goes wrong," Ettus says. "As a small business owner, if you can't reach someone — that's really important for the livelihood of your business. ... We really think of ourselves as an outsourced payment partner for small businesses."

This past year has been one for growth for Park Place, Ettus says, and earlier this year, she closed on the company's seed round, which was supported by Curate Capital, founded by Houstonian Carrie Colbert. Now the company is focused on its tech team, including hiring a CTO. Early next year, Ettus hopes to close a Series A round, again with support — financially and otherwise — from Colbert.

"I feel so lucky because a lot of people pointed us to traditional Silicon Valley VCs in the beginning, and I had a lot of conversations. I didn't feel some of those firms had the patience to grow with us," Ettus says.

The company has been tied to Houston from its early days, from testing the business in town to a Houston-based early hire, Nancy Decker Lent, who is a founding member of the team and head of product for Park Place.

Ettus shares more on her passion for supporting financial independence for women and how she plans to grow her company on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.