This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Gautam Phanse of Chevron Technology Ventures, Dede Raad of Dress Up Buttercup, and Benjamin Foster of Nurseify. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from climatetech to health care — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Gautam Phanse, strategic relationship manager for Chevron Technology Ventures

Gautam Phanse of Chevron Technology Ventures answers questions about this unique program. Photo courtesy

Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures has applications open for its second Chevron Studio cohort that matches entrepreneurs with promising technologies coming out of universities and labs. The overall goal of the studio — a collaboration between Chevron and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL — is to scale up and commercialize early-stage technologies that have the potential to impact the future of energy.

"The goal of Chevron Studio is to scale up and commercialize technology developed in the Universities and National Labs. We curate the intellectual property developed at universities and national labs and provide a platform to match entrepreneurs with the IP," says Gautam Phanse, the strategic relationship manager for Chevron Technology Ventures. "The program provides seed funding and a pathway through incubation, pilot and field trials to scale up the technologies. The uniqueness of this program is its target and the breadth of its scope — all the way from incubation to field trials."

Phanse joins InnovationMap for a Q&A to explain more about the opportunity. Read more.

Dede Raad, founder of Dress Up Buttercup

Dede Raad of Dress Up Buttercup created a unique pitch series — completely fueled by her social media community — that gave a spotlight to eight businesses. Photo via dressupbuttercup.com

After growing her audience to over a million followers on Instagram, Houston fashion blogger Dede Raad felt the pressure to expand her business — but she didn't feel inspired by any particular line of business to grow into.

"In the blogging world, which I've been doing for about seven years, everyone's next step is to start a brand and to start something of their own," Raad, founder of Dress Up Buttercup, tells InnovationMap. "I just don't have anything in my heart that I was really passionate about. I know once you start something, you have to give it your all."

But what Raad realized — after a year of thinking about her next move and a chance viewing of Shark Tank — was that tons of business founders were passionate about their own brands, and there was an opportunity for Raad use her community to support them instead of coming up with something of her own. She launched "Build Up Buttercup," an initiative that featured small business pitches for a select group of investors. Read more.

Benjamin Foster, CEO and founder of Nurseify

In honor of Black History Month, Houstonian Benjamin Foster shares some of his lessons learned about navigating the business world as a Black founder. Photo courtesy

Last month was a time to reflect on Black history — as well as to look forward to the future of Black Americans. Benjamin Foster, a Houston entrepreneur, wrote a guest column about his experience as a Black founder.

"No matter how smart or hard working you are, it is impossible for a nonprofit owner, entrepreneur, or business owner to know everything about running and managing a business," he writes. "For me, I understood the health care industry and business management side, but I acknowledged that as a founder, it was okay to not know it all and to need the support of a village to get traction to keep moving forward." Read more.

Dede Raad of Dress Up Buttercup created a unique pitch series — completely fueled by her social media community — that gave a spotlight to eight businesses. Photo via dressupbuttercup.com

Houston fashionista fuels fresh brands with pitch series

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After growing her audience to over a million followers on Instagram, Houston fashion blogger Dede Raad felt the pressure to expand her business — but she didn't feel inspired by any particular line of business to grow into.

"In the blogging world, which I've been doing for about seven years, everyone's next step is to start a brand and to start something of their own," Raad, founder of Dress Up Buttercup, tells InnovationMap. "I just don't have anything in my heart that I was really passionate about. I know once you start something, you have to give it your all."

But what Raad realized — after a year of thinking about her next move and a chance viewing of Shark Tank — was that tons of business founders were passionate about their own brands, and there was an opportunity for Raad use her community to support them instead of coming up with something of her own.

She put the call out to her followers to find founders with growing brands. Raad launched "Build Up Buttercup," an initiative that featured small business pitches for a select group of investors, with her husband, Ted. The event, which happened last October, resulted in eight business pitches across four episodes uploaded to Dress Up Buttercup's page that garnered hundreds of thousands of views. The initiative also resulted in a handful of investments and cash prizes.

"It was a crazy four days, but it was so cool to see the brands and the passion behind it and for Ted and I to help in both a financial and advising way," Raad says.

Raad was joined at the event with fellow investors, which included Houston-based investment firms Curate Capital and Trend Ventures, the investment arm of influencer management company Trend Management, founded by Ted Raad.

Of the eight that pitched, four companies received investments. Dress Up Buttercup invested in Houston-based jewelry company Burdlife and children's clothing brand Poppy Kids. Trend Ventures made investments in Cold Cork and Houston-based tech startup, AIM7, which closed its seed round in December.

Raad tells InnovationMap that she'd be interested in hosting another edition of "Build Up Buttercup" in the future, but for now she's focused on her two new brands. Her role within both of the companies is very hands on, she explains, and meets with the founders at least once a week. She also markets both brands to her Instagram community.

"We're not just sending you a check — we want to be involved," Raad says. "I've worked with brands for the past seven years, and I've seen what people are buying. I have such a power in my community, and I know what they like."

This Houston startup has fresh funding to build out its data intelligence platform. Photo via aim7.com

Houston sportstech platform raises $1.3M seed round

fresh funding

How many times have you forced yourself to do an arduous workout when you just weren’t feeling it? Despite what some trainers will tell you, you probably didn’t feel any better after. Sports scientist Dr. Erik Korem could have told you that, but more importantly, so could his creation, AIM7.

Marketed as “the fastest, easiest way to change your habits and improve your health,” Korem just raised a $1.3 million seed round that will bring his ambitious app to consumers in its beta form early next month.

The data intelligence platform would know that on a day that you’re stressed, that Peloton tabata ride might not be in your best interest. How? “The data from your Apple Watch or your Fitbit is just data. ‘I walked 7000 steps or I slept 8 hours,’” explains Korem. “We are the recommendation engine that makes this usable for you.”

When using AIM7, there’s no sticking to a set schedule of workouts. With both short term and long term goals in mind, the technology tells you what your body needs when you need it. On a day that your health tracking device notes that you haven’t slept well and your body is stressed, Korem says, the run you had planned may be replaced by a more realistic 20 minutes of yoga.

Korem’s team member, Dr. Chris Morris coined the term “fluid periodization” and has published academic work on the concept.

“Just because you have something written on paper doesn’t mean that your body is going to adapt to that stress,” says Korem. In the sports world, that means tailoring workouts to the immediate situation — and reaping improvements in performance.

Korem should know. He’s been using this concept for years as a High Performance director for both college and professional football teams, a trainer for gold medal Olympians and even working with the United States Department of Defense. In 2016, then-GM of the Houston Texans, Rick Smith, hired Korem to work his magic on his team as one of pro football’s first directors of sports science. His time with the Texans ended in 2018, but it provided him with a key investor—Smith himself.

The $1.3 million, which Korem says AIM7 will use to hire more engineers to add to his team, owes much to his success at last month’s Houston-based Dress Up Buttercup pitch contest, Build Up Buttercup. Hosted by local fashion blogger and influencer Dede Raad and her husband, Ted, the contest gave Korem a forum to share his story.

“I didn’t quite understand the scope of it,” he admits. “I didn’t realize it was going to be this full ‘Shark Tank’ thing, but I prepared and memorized my pitch. It’s just game time, right?”

Other investors include John Jarrett of Academy Sports and Outdoors, former Cleveland Browns coach Freddie Kitchens, and Jamaican track-and-field Olympian Veronica Campbell Brown, whom Korem has trained for years.

Currently, AIM7 boasts a remote team of five full-time employees as well as many more part-time helpers. As the brand, which Korem started in 2020, takes off, Korem says, “My dream is to build a standalone health and wellness tech company in Houston… I want to set up something really special in Houston.”

Erik Korem founded AIM7, which just closed $1.3 million in seed funding. Photo via aim7.com

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Houston tech platform raises series C round backed by Mastercard

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Hello Alice, a fintech platform that supports 1.5 million small businesses across the country, has announced its series C round.

The amount raised was not disclosed, but Hello Alice reported that the fresh funding has brought the company's valuation to $130 million. Alexandria, Virginia-based QED Investors led the round, and investors included Mastercard, Backstage Capital, Guy Fieri, Golden Seeds, Harbert Growth Partners Fund, How Women Invest I, LP, Lovell Limited Partnership, Tyler “Ninja” and Jessica Blevins, and Tamera Mowry and Adam Housley, per a news release from the company.

“We are thrilled to hit the milestone of 1.5 million small businesses utilizing Hello Alice to elevate the American dream. There are more entrepreneurs launching this year than in the history of our country, and we will continue to ensure they get the capital needed to grow,” Elizabeth Gore and Carolyn Rodz, co-founders of Hello Alice, say in a news release. “In closing our Series C, we welcome Mastercard to our family of investors and continue to be grateful to QED, How Women Invest, and our advocates such as Guy Fieri.”

The funding will go toward expanding capital offerings and AI-driven tools for its small business membership.

“Our team focuses on finding and investing in companies that are obsessed with reducing friction and providing superior financial services solutions to their customers,” QED Investors Co-Founder Frank Rotman says in the release. “Hello Alice has proven time and time again that they are on the leading edge of providing equitable access to capital and banking services to the small business ecosystem."

Hello Alice, which closed its series B in 2021 at $21 million, has collaborated with Mastercard prior to the series C, offering small business owners the Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard in 2022 and a free financial wellness tool, Business Health Score, last year. Mastercard also teamed up with other partners for the the Equitable Access Fund in 2023.

“With Hello Alice, we’re investing to provide support to small business owners as they look to access capital, helping to address one of the most cited business challenges they face,” Ginger Siegel, Mastercard's North America Small Business Lead, adds. “By working together to simplify access to the products and services they need when building and growing their business, we’re helping make a meaningful impact on the individuals who run their businesses, the customers they serve, and our communities and economy at large.”

While Hello Alice's founders' mission is to help small businesses, their own company was threatened by a lawsuit from America First Legal. The organization, founded by former Trump Administration adviser Stephen Miller and features a handful of other former White House officials on its board, is suing Hello Alice and its partner, Progressive Insurance. The lawsuit alleges that their program to award10 $25,000 grants to Black-owned small businesses constitutes racial discrimination. Gore calls the lawsuit frivolous in an interview on the Houston Innovators Podcast. The legal battle is ongoing.

Inspired by the lawsuit, Hello Alice launched the Elevate the American Dream, a grant program that's highlighting small businesses living out their American dreams. The first 14 grants have already been distributed, and Hello Alice plans to award more grants over the next several weeks, putting their grant funding at over $40 million.


NASA awards $30M to Houston space tech company to develop lunar rover

moon rider

Houston-based space technology company Intuitive Machines has landed a $30 million NASA contract for the initial phase of developing a rover for U.S. astronauts to traverse the moon’s surface.

Intuitive Machines is one of three companies chosen by NASA to perform preliminary work on building a lunar terrain vehicle that would enable astronauts to travel on the moon’s surface so they can conduct scientific research and prepare for human missions to Mars.

The two other companies are Golden, Colorado-based Lunar Outpost and Hawthorne, California-based Astrolab.

NASA plans to initially use the vehicle for its Artemis V lunar mission, which aims to put two astronauts on the moon. It would be the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972 that astronauts would step foot on the lunar surface.

The Artemis V mission, tentatively set for 2029, will be the fifth mission under NASA’s Artemis program.

“This vehicle will greatly increase our astronauts’ ability to explore and conduct science on the lunar surface while also serving as a science platform between crewed missions,” says Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Intuitive Machines says the $30 million NASA contract represents its entrance into human spaceflight operations for the space agency’s $4.6 billion moon rover project. The vehicle — which Intuitive Machines has dubbed the Moon Reusable Autonomous Crewed Exploration Rover (RACER) — will be based on the company’s lunar lander.

“Our global team is on a path to provide essential lunar infrastructure services to NASA in a project that would allow [us] to retain ownership of the vehicle for commercial utilization during periods of non-NASA activity over approximately 10 years of lunar surface activity,” says exploration,” says Steve Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Machines.

Intuitive Machines’ partners on the RACER project include AVL, Boeing, Michelin, and Northrop Grumman.

Intuitive Machines plans to bid on the second phase of the rover project after finishing its first-phase feasibility study. The second phase will involve developing, delivering, and operating the rover.

In February, Intuitive Machines became the first private company to land a spacecraft on the moon with no crewmembers aboard. NASA was the key customer for that mission.

Houston expert: How to avoid 'ghost hiring' while attracting top talent

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One of the latest HR terms grabbing attention today is “ghost hiring.” This is a practice where businesses post positions online, even interviewing candidates, with no intention to fill them. In fact, the role may already have been filled or it may not exist.

Usually, an applicant applies for the job, yet never hears back. However, they may be contacted by the recruiter, only to learn the offer is revoked or a recruiter ghosts them after a first-round interview.

Applicants who are scouring job sites for the ideal position can become discouraged by ghost hiring. Employers do not usually have any ill intentions of posting ghost jobs and talking with candidates. Employers may have innocently forgotten to take down the listing after filling the position.

Some employers may leave positions up to expand their talent pool. While others who are open to hiring new employees, even if they do not match the role, may practice ghost hiring when they want a pool of applicants to quickly pull from when the need arises. Finally, some employers post job roles to make it look like the company is experiencing growth.

When employers participate in ghost hiring practices, job candidates can become frustrated, hurting the employer brand and, thus, future recruiting efforts. Even with the tight labor market and employee turnover, it is best not to have an evergreen posting if there is no intention to hire respondents.

There are several ways employers can engage candidates and, likewise, build a talent pool without misleading job seekers.

Network

A recruiter at their core is a professional networker. This is a skill that many have honed through the years, and it continues to evolve through social media channels. While many recruiters lean on social media, you should not discount meeting people face-to-face. There is power in promoting your organization at professional meetings, alumni groups and civic organizations. Through these avenues, many potential candidates will elect for you to keep them in mind for future opportunities.

Employee Referrals

When recruiters want to deepen their talent pool, they cannot discount the employee referral. Simply letting employees know and clearly stating the exploratory nature of the conversation can lead to stellar results. Employees understand the organization, its culture and expectations, so they are more likely to refer the company to someone who would be a good fit and reflect highly on them.

Alternative Candidates

In recent years, organizations and recruiters are more dialed into skills-first recruiting practices. Creating job postings that emphasize the skill sets needed rather than the years of experience, specific college degree or previous job titles, can yield a crop of candidates who may be more agile and innovative than others. Fostering relationships with people who fit unique skills needed within the organization can help you develop a deeper bench of candidates.

Contingent Workforce

Part-time workers, freelancers, and independent contractors are a great way to build connections and the talent pool. These workers and their skills are known entities, plus they know the organization, which makes them valuable candidates for open roles. If their expertise is needed on a regular basis, it is easier to have open conversations about a potential expansion of their duties or offer full-time work.

Internal Talent

Human resources and recruiters need to work with managers and leadership to intimately know what kind of talent lies within their own organization. Current employees may have the strengths, skills, and capabilities to fill new positions or roles. Through conversations with employees and their managers, you can identify who can flex different skills, but even more importantly, the ambition to grow within the company.

In every instance, it is crucial for recruiters and hiring managers to be transparent in their intentions. Communicating within your network that you are always looking for great talent to fill future roles sets the tone. When communicating with candidates, whether there is a pressing job opportunity or not, be clear from the onset regarding your intentions for hire. With a transparent approach to hiring and candidate development, you will keep the employer brand intact and maintain recruiting power.

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Jaune Little is a director of recruiting services with Insperity.