3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's innovators to know are Debbie Mercer, Andrew Bruce, and Maria Maso. Courtesy photos

While headlines about coronavirus keep multiplying — similar to the virus' cases, Houston's innovation news hasn't yet slowed.

This week's people to know include a female entrepreneur who's leveling the playing field for outdoorsy women, a blockchain expert with new growth, and an investor creating the angel network she's been wanting for years.

Debbie Mercer, founder of Zip Hers

Photo courtesy of Zip Hers

Debbie Mercer, a Houston entrepreneur, has designed articles of clothing to empower female athletes. The marathon runner was tired of seeing female runners standing in long lines, awaiting their turns to do their business behind closed doors, while their male friends resorted to quickly and discreetly ducking behind the porta-potties, or finding nearby trees. Precious time ticked by as the women watched their male counterparts continue the race.

The Houstonian created Zip Hers, an activewear brand that has a full-length zipper lining the bikini area of each pant, to accommodate on-the-go women. The Zip Hers concept and design was intended to level the playing field for women and men when it comes to competitive sports.

"If we're wasting time on a bathroom break and they're not, that holds us back…Maybe it's our little tiny contribution to women's equality. We just really want to help women be the best that they can be," Mercer says. Click here to read more.

Andrew Bruce, CEO and founder of Data Gumbo Corp.

Photo courtesy of Data Gumbo

For the fist time, Data Gumbo Corp.'s GumboNet will be used in geothermal energy drilling thanks to the startup's new Indonesia-based client, Air Drilling Associates, a drilling and project management service provider.

"Expansion into Southeast Asia with ADA's deployment signals GumboNet's global applicability and benefit to industry — in this case, geothermal energy development," says Andrew Bruce, CEO and founder of Data Gumbo, in a news release. "We are excited that Data Gumbo is entering yet another sector of the energy market for improvements across its supply chain." Click here to read more.

Maria Maso, founder of Business Angel Minority Association

Photo courtesy of Nijalon Dunn

Maria Maso, frustrated with her investment opportunities in Houston, has launched the Business Angel Minority Association, or baMa, to gather established or brand new angel investors to move the needle on investments into minority-founded startups. Maso, founder and CEO, and Garaizar, president, want to round up 100 investors by the end of 2020. And they want these investors to write checks.

"We are not a networking organization. We are an investment organization. We are expecting at some point that you are writing a check to a startup," Maso says. "If we are doing our job properly and we are showing you the right startups, you should be able to make a check at some point." Click here to read more.

Debbie Mercer, a Houston entrepreneur, has designed articles of clothing to empower female athletes. Photo courtesy of Zip Hers

Houston entrepreneur levels the playing field for female runners with new activewear line

running game

It was race day for avid marathon runner, Debbie Mercer. She and her race pack got up early on a brisk winter's day in Chicago, Illinois, piling on warm layers over their compression tights, to run the Chicago Marathon.

Miles into the race, Mercer and her friends made a pit stop at the portable bathrooms. The female runners stood in long lines, awaiting their turns to do their business behind closed doors, while their male friends resorted to quickly and discreetly ducking behind the porta-potties, or finding nearby trees. Precious time ticked by as the women watched their male counterparts continue the race.

"I remember thinking 'I wish there was some way that we could do that too,'" Mercer recalls.

The Houstonian created Zip Hers, an activewear brand that has a full-length zipper lining the bikini area of each pant, to accommodate on-the-go women. The Zip Hers concept and design was intended to level the playing field for women and men when it comes to competitive sports.

"If we're wasting time on a bathroom break and they're not, that holds us back…Maybe it's our little tiny contribution to women's equality. We just really want to help women be the best that they can be," Mercer says.

From full-length pants and tights, to 3-inch compression or loose shorts, Zip Hers has established an array of products suitable active women. However, it was a long and winding road to producing such innovative, high-quality products that could be competitive in such a vast industry of activewear, according to Mercer.

Zip Hers in the making

Photo courtesy of Zip Hers

Mercer kicked off prototype production in 2016. She jumped around to various designers and manufacturers, turning away samples that didn't quite fit her vision for the product. Part of the challenge, Mercer describes, was finding a manufacturer who could manipulate stretch and non-stretch fabric in high-quality ways. Maintaining maximum comfort and a sleek design were challenges when the new variable of a zipper was thrown into the mix.

"It took us a while to get the zipper design perfect so that it would fit well and have a design that was comfortable," Mercer says. "We had to find the right manufacturer to find the skill to make these. We found one in Dallas and one in Houston."

Through trial and error, the Zip Hers design team produced a smooth design that coexists seamlessly with the delicate areas that sit around the zipper. They created a custom-made zipper pull, an invisible, thin disk embossed with the Zip Hers logo.

"Women can easily grab it when they're squatting, and don't have to struggle to find it… you can't even tell that a zipper is there. It's very sleek," Mercer says. "They're all handmade. We have to have special fabric for the panels and…have to have special machines to get the seams just right."

By September 2019, the Zip Hers prototype was finalized and officially launched via the company's online retail site.

Game changers

Photo courtesy of Zip Hers

Zip Hers products, the first of their kind, are sure to change the game for female marathon runners, hikers and any other outdoor activity fanatics, Mercer says. With so many athletic brands available on the internet, Mercer hopes that Zip Hers' innovative approach to active wear, and the unique opportunity they offer to women, will help set the brand apart.

"We really don't see any other products out there like ours…As far as apparel goes, we're the only one," Mercer says.

Since launching last year, Zip Hers has watched their clientele expand with predominantly long distance runners and adventure goers. With the 'athleisure' trend on the rise, they're also seeing more women buying leisurewear for yoga classes, or indoor casual use. Mercer says that she hopes Zip Hers will continue to expand to reach female fishers, hunters, climbers, and even first responders, so that women never have to take off their duty belts.

From various race-day experiences of waiting in long bathroom lines as precious time ticks by, to when nature calls during outdoor activities involving co-ed company, Mercer confronted women's realities by proposing an empowering solution for women.

"Ultimately, it gives women a choice. What's more empowering for women than the power to choose what's best for them?" Mercer says.

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Houston data solutions startup rebrands, expands to support neuroscience research

startup soars

With a new CEO and chief operating officer aboard, Houston-based DataJoint is thinking small in order to go big.

Looking ahead to 2022, DataJoint aims to enable hundreds of smaller projects rather than a handful of mega-projects, CEO Dimitri Yatsenko says. DataJoint develops data management software that empowers collaboration in the neuroscience and artificial intelligence sectors.

"Our strategy is to take the lessons that we have learned over the past four years working with major projects with multi-institutional consortia," Yatsenko says, "and translate them into a platform that thousands of labs can use efficiently to accelerate their research and make it more open and rigorous."

Ahead of that shift, the startup has undergone some significant changes, including two moves in the C-suite.

Yatsenko became CEO in February after stints as vice president of R&D and as president. He co-founded the company as Vathes LLC in 2016. Yatsenko succeeded co-founder Edgar Walker, who had been CEO since May 2020 and was vice president of engineering before that.

In tandem with Yatsenko's ascent to CEO, the company brought aboard Jason Kirkpatrick as COO. Kirkpatrick previously was chief financial officer of Houston-based Darcy Partners, an energy industry advisory firm; chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Houston-based Solid Systems CAD Services (SSCS), an IT services company; and senior vice president of finance and general manager of operations at Houston-based SmartVault Corp., a cloud-based document management company.

"Most of our team are scientists and engineers. Recruiting an experienced business leader was a timely step for us, and Jason's vast leadership experience in the software industry and recurring revenue models added a new dimension to our team," Yatsenko says.

Other recent changes include:

  • Converting from an LLC structure to a C corporation structure to enable founders, employees, and future investors to be granted shares of the company's stock.
  • Shortening the business' name to DataJoint from DataJoint Neuro and recently launching its rebranded website.
  • Moving the company's office from the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute (TMCx) to the Galleria area. The new space will make room for more employees. Yatsenko says the 12-employee startup plans to increase its headcount to 15 to 20 by the end of this year.

Over the past five years, the company's customer base has expanded to include neuroscience institutions such as Princeton University's Princeton Neuroscience Institute and Columbia University's Zuckerman Institute for Brain Science, as well as University College London and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. DataJoint's growth has been fueled in large part by grants from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

"The work we are tackling has our team truly excited about the future, particularly the capabilities being offered to the neuroscience community to understand how the brain forms perceptions and generates behavior," Yatsenko says.

Deadline extended for inaugural InnovationMap Awards nominations

nominate now

If you didn't get a chance to submit your nomination for the inaugural InnovationMap Awards presented by Techwave by the July 23 deadline — you're in luck. The nomination period has been extended, and you now have an extra week to submit.

The new — and final — deadline for nominations is July 30 by midnight. Submissions can be made online at InnovationMapAwards.com.

Following nominations, the nominated companies will receive an application to submit by August 13. The already nominated companies will receive their applications today. So, if you're interested in being a part of the awards and you haven't received an application from InnovationMap by the end of Monday, July 26, your company has not already been nominated.

The categories for the awards are:

  • BIPOC-Owned Business honoring an innovative tech company founded or co-founded by BIPOC representation
  • Female-Owned Business honoring an innovative tech company founded or co-founded by a woman
  • Health Care Business honoring a health care business with an innovative solution within life sciences
  • Energy Transition Business honoring an energy business with an innovative solution within renewables, climatetech, clean energy, and beyond
  • Space Tech Business honoring an aerospace business with an innovative solution within space exploration
  • Sports Tech Business honoring a tech business with an innovative solution within sports
  • Top Founder Under 40 honoring an innovative founder younger than 40 by Sept. 8, 2021
  • Lifetime Achievement Award honoring an innovator who's made a lasting impact on the Houston innovation community
  • People's Choice: Startup of the Year selected via an internet voting portal ahead of the event
  • Techwave's Texas Advocate Awards honoring two non-Houston based companies selected by our presenting sponsor, Techwave

Earlier this month, InnovationMap named the eight judges for this year's awards. Click here to see who will be selecting the award finalists and winners.

Follow along on InnovationMap as we learn more about the program's inaugural nominees. Then, on September 8, we will host the finalists and a group of special guests at The Cannon for a celebration of the city's top innovators. A livestream of the event will be open to everyone on the night of the awards — tune in to find out who takes home the big win across all 10 categories.

Click here to RSVP for what will surely be a can't-miss event in Houston innovation.

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 oil and gas tech to pharmaceuticals — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Robert Kester, president and general manager at Honeywell Rebellion

Robert Kester, founder of Rebellion Photonics and president and general manager at Honeywell

Robert Kester joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his entrepreneurial journey. Photo courtesy of Honeywell

Robert Kester co-founded Rebellion Photonics in 2010. After several years of developing the device that could be used to automate the process and improve safety on oil and gas sites, Kester and his team saw a rising need for the tech — which also meant a need for Rebellion to scale quickly. In 2019, Rebellion exited in an acquisition by Honeywell.

"For us it just made sense that we could team up with Honeywell and figure out how we could scale this thing globally and quickly, so that we could help be a solution for climate change," Kester continues.

Now, as president and general manager at Honeywell Rebellion, Kester still works on his technology under the umbrella of the Honeywell brand. He joined the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to discuss the transition and what he's focused on now. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Serafina Lalany, interim president of Houston Exponential

Serafina Lalany, vice president of operations at Houston Exponential

Last week, Serafina Lalany is acting as interim identifies the organization's new leader. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Serafina Lalany, vice president of operations at Houston Exponential, will act as interim executive director for the organization after Harvin Moore, who has served as president of HX since June 2019, announced his resignation last week. HX's Chair Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures, says Moore is resigning to devote more time to working with growth-stage companies as a mentor, adviser, and investor.

"In a rapidly growing and evolving landscape like this one, we must ensure resources are leveraged for greatest impact," Burger says. "The HX executive committee believes now is an appropriate time re-strategize with the HX organization to ensure it is aligned with the current needs of the innovation ecosystem. While changes may be called for to place resources where they can do the most good, there remains a need for a broad ecosystem champion and HX will continue to serve in that role." Click here to read more.

Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy

Houston founder talks growth and innovation in the pharmaceuticals industry Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy, joined InnovationMap for a Q&A on his rapidly growing compounding pharmacy business. Photo courtesy of Empower Pharmacy

Shaun Noorian founded Empower Pharmacy so he could create a business that was service focused, and now the company has grown and expanded — and is now working on building two new 85,000-square-foot facilities in Houston. Noorian, in a Q&A with InnovationMap, explained that Houston has been integral to his success.

"I think being in Houston is one of the reasons why we've grown to become the largest compounding pharmacy in the nation," Noorian tells InnovationMap. "I'm sure we're all aware that having the largest medical center in the world in your own backyard is a great way to have more prescribers than pretty much any other city in the country. That definitely helped us and continues to help us grow.

"Additionally, being the third largest city by population means we have a large workforce to pull a diverse workforce for whatever this company needs," he continues. "Having a diverse workforce has been integral in our growth." Click here to read more.