3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's innovators to know in Houston includes Ayse McCracken of Ignite Healthcare Network, Philipp Sitter of VIPinsiders, and Diane Yoo of Medingenii. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In today's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators — from health care investing to marketing technology — all making headlines in Houston this week.

Ayse McCracken, founder and board chair of Ignite Healthcare Network

Ayse McCracken joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss women in health care and Ignite Madness. Photo courtesy of Ignite

When the pandemic hit and shut down businesses across the world, Ayse McCracken knew immediately what group of people were likely going to be the most affected: Women in health care. It just so happens that her nonprofit organization, Ignite Healthcare Network, exists to serve this same group of people, so she got to work on creating online events that were intentional and meaningful.

"With COVID, it has only escalated the importance of our work, so we've elevated our voices through our webinar series," McCracken says on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast.

This week, Ignite's virtual startup competition concludes with the finals. She shares more about the program and Ignite's mission on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Philipp Sitter, founder of VIPinsiders

Restaurateur Philipp Sitter launched VIPinsiders last year. Photo courtesy of VIPinsiders

Restaurants have undoubtedly suffered due to loss of business during the shutdown, but they face an uphill battle back to normalcy, and restaurateur Philipp Sitter knew his tech tool could help. He created VIPinsiders as a marketing tool to reach customers in a data-driven way.

"The restaurant gets to know me [the customer], it understands how often I visit, it also gets to reward my visitation," explains Sitter. "Most importantly, it reminds me to come back when I haven't visited in a while."

Data recorded by VIPinsiders shows that 48 percent of users visit restaurants with the platform "more often" in the first 90 days. Click here to read more.

Diane Yoo, managing partner at Medingenii

Diane Yoo, who was hospitalized due to COVID-19 earlier this year, created a VC fund that's investing in health tech solutions for the disease. Photo courtesy of Medingenii

Just a few weeks after being hospitalized from COVID-19, Diane Yoo was investing in a medical device startup that could have made a world of difference to her recovery. After closing its initial fund, Medingenii invested in several Houston health startups including Vitls, a wearable device that can track and send vitals remotely.

"The pandemic has really validated some of the business models we're invested in," she tells InnovationMap.

Now, fueled by her first round of success and eager to advance other life-changing technologies, Yoo is looking toward a second fund. Click here to read more.

Diane Yoo, who was hospitalized due to COVID-19 earlier this year, created a VC fund that's investing in health tech solutions for the disease. Photo courtesy of Medingenii

Houston investor recovers from COVID-19 — then funds startups innovating solutions for the disease

money moves

While so many of Houston's venture capital groups and entrepreneurs have been figuring out the best ways to navigate fundraising amid a pandemic, Diane Yoo managed to close an oversubscribed initial fund and deployed investments into health tech startups during COVID-19 — while also recovering from the disease itself.

Entrepreneur turned investor Diane Yoo launched her health tech-focused venture capital fund, Medingenii Capital, last year, but didn't start fundraising for its initial fund until this year.

Yoo says she and her partners, entrepreneur and investor Greg Campbell, neurologist Dr. Eddie Patton, Dr. Sreedhar Mandayam, and investor Gen Fukunaga, were virtually meeting with over a dozen potential investors weekly and closed the round in under two months.

It was right around closing when Yoo says she caught COVID-19.

"It ravaged every part of my body, and I ended up having to be hospitalized because I couldn't breathe," she says.

Yoo recovered after a month and a half of enduring the disease, only to come out of that experience to fund innovative Houston companies working on COVID-19 solutions. Medingenii focuses on early stage health tech, including genomics, health IT, medical devices, and patient engagement.

"The pandemic has really validated some of the business models we're invested in," she tells InnovationMap.

One example from Medingenii's portfolio is Houston-based medical device company, Vitls. The company's technology includes a wearable device that can monitor vital signs and sync with a smartphone app and sends key information to doctors remotely.

As Yoo thinks back to her COVID-19 treatment, Vitls could have helped her and her fellow patients get out of the crowded hospital wing and home to recover sooner — with the peace of mind of remote care thanks to the device.

"When I was in the ER room, it was overcrowded," Yoo says. "If you were not seriously ill, they would dismiss you because there was just no room. But if you went home with Vitls, you could have sent all your vitals to your doctor from home."

Fueled by a mission to find more health tech solutions like Vitls and with the quick pace of her first fund — Yoo says she's already deployed the capital into Houston-based startups and is looking toward the second fund, which will again focus on Houston startups.

"We really love Houston," Yoo says. "We want to invest a lot of our fund here, and we continue to do that and plan to do that. We see a lot of opportunity in Houston and look forward to working with the innovation ecosystem here."

Big companies are using your data to make a profit — but what if you got a kickback of that cash? That's what Houston-based Social Chains is trying to do. Pexels

Houston startup aims to flip the script on social media marketing

anti social media

Social media companies are using user data for their own financial gain, but what if users had a cut in the profits? That's the business model for Houston-based Social Chains.

"Social Chains is a social media platform of real people, real privacy, and real rewards," says Srini Katta, founder and CEO of the company. "We're fixing three problems in the social media industry."

The first problem is that user data has market value, but only the Facebook, Google, and other platforms are reaping the rewards, not the user, who's the backbone of the platform. User privacy and a growing number of fake accounts are the other issues Social Chains addresses. Katta says he realized that most importantly, users should own their data

"On our platform, the user is a stakeholder. Our platform distributes 50 percent of the profits to the users," he says.

User privacy is protected and encrypted on this new platform, and users must register with a government-issued identification. Social Chains prevents fake accounts by using facial recognition.

The biggest differentiating factor of this platform is that users make real money, but it's kept track by the site's token system, which uses blockchain technology, and users receive some of the so-called "S tokens" just for signing up. And, businesses only pay for the ads that users engage with. For instance, for a marketing email, businesses will only pay for the emails that were actually opened. It's a win-win situation, as the user receives a kickback whenever they open a marketing email or engage with ads.

Social Chains already has 5,000 users and, Katta says, that's with little to no marketing efforts. Currently, he's been working out a few kinks before launching into marketing for the platform, though he expects to do that beginning next month. Most of Social Chain's current users are high school to college students, so that will be the primary demographic for the marketing strategy.

Katta says he first encountered some of the challenges using social media marketing at one of his former startups when attempting to use Facebook ads to grow the company. He says he saw increased engagement, but not as significant of an increase in sign ups on his company page.

"We looked back to see who are the people clicking on the ads," he says. "We looked at their profiles, and they were not from the United States, even though we had given geographic preferences."

He found out that third party ad management platforms were working with Facebook and click farms all around the world to increase engagement results. Katta starting thinking of a solution for this marketing problem.

"Then, in 2016, with the rise of 'fake news,' we realized this was a bigger problem," he says.

In addition to user growth, Katta hopes to grow his investors, and the company is seeking funds for its seed round in 2019.

"To be honest, we need $100 million to build this out, so we're trying to raise money," Katta says. "Personally, I've put in $3.5 million before I took any money from investors. I have a lot of skin in the game."

Currently, Social Chains has three team members, with a fourth joining soon. Diane Yoo, who is a founding member and director of the Rice Angel Network, leads growth and investor relations for the company. One obstacle for the team has been being spread out from Houston to The Woodlands and even Austin.

"I've lived in New York and San Francisco. I moved to Houston because I wanted a quiet place to raise my family," Katta says. "The biggest challenge for Houston, compared to other cities, is other cities are so dense. Houston is so sprawling. It's really hard to network, and meet potential employees."

One of the crucial connectors for Katta has been Station Houston. The team plans on meeting to work together two days a week at Station. In addition to being a great workspace, the area acts as a good hub for potential partnerships for Social Chains. Startups need marketing, of course.

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Growing Houston-based drone software company snags government contract

ready for liftoff

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Report: Houstonians lose days-worth of time each year due to rush hour

not in the fast lane

Traffic is a part of life in Houston. But a new study quantifies just how much time the average Bayou City dweller spends sitting in rush hour gridlock every year—and the results are eye opening.

According to a study released this month by CoPilot, Houstonians lose nearly four days of time each year due to rush hour commuting.

The report found that rush hour extends Houstonians' commute by an extra 22 minutes per day. Annually, that totaled an additional 91.6 hours commuting due to rush hour.

This earned the Houston area (including the Woodlands and Sugar Land) a No. 8 spot on CoPilot's list of cities where commuters lose the most time to rush hour.

Evening commutes saw the highest increase in time in Houston, with the average commuter spending 14 additional minutes on roadways due to rush hour. Morning rush hour in Houston added about eight minutes to commuters' daily drives.

Houston was the only Texas city to make CoPilot's list of the top 15 cities that lost the most time to rush hour traffic. New York drivers lost the most time to rush hour, which adds about 32 minutes to daily commutes and 132 hours a year, according to the report. Los Angeles drivers lost the second-most time, followed by urban Honolulu, Miami, Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Birmingham, Alabama.

The report found that drivers in Houston spend about eight more minutes commuting during rush hour than the average driver in the county. That totals to about 30 more hours per year than the average U.S. driver.

Commute times have been dropping nationally, reaching a low of 25.6 minutes in 2021 compared to 27.6 minutes in 2019, as more workers have transitioned to hybrid schedules or working from home, according to CoPilot

In 2020, Houston drivers even witnessed a 33 percent drop in traffic compared to in 2019, according to a study from Rice.

Still, Houston roadways are consistently ranked among the most congested in the country. Last year, a similar study found that the typical Houston driver wasted 46 hours due to traffic congestion.

Portions of the 610 West Loop are notorious for being ranked as the state's most congested roadways, and other stretches of roads are known as some of the worst bottlenecks in Texas.