3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

This week's batch of innovators have had to be pretty creative in their industries. Courtesy photos

The ability to innovate lives in one's ability to think outside of the box — no matter the industry. This week's Houston innovators to know have had to get creative and think of new ways of doing things, from retailing to creating greeting cards.

Harvin Moore, president of Houston Exponential

Harvin Moore, who has a 20-year career in tech and innovation, has been named as president of Houston Exponential. Courtesy of HX

Harvin Moore has been a banker, an educator, an elected official, and more — but his newest title is president of Houston Exponential, which suits him just fine.

Now, under his new role, he's leading the nonprofit that's focused on connecting, promoting, and attracting within Houston's innovation ecosystem.

"There's no question that five years from now, or 10 years from now, Houston will be a very large and continually rapidly growing tech economy," Moore tells InnovationMap. "The question is just how fast it is going to get here." Read more.

Alex Kurkowski, founder of Tellinga

Alex Kurkowski wanted to tell a better story. Courtesy of Tellinga

Alex Kurkowski has a problem with traditional greeting cards.

"They're templated. They're frozen, stagnant, fixed in what they are," Kurkowski says. "They suck."

The Rice University MBA grad decided he would do something about it. He created his business, Tellinga — short for "telling a story" — to create a new avenue for people to communicate a message to their loved ones. Kurkowski has big plans for his company and the platform he's creating. Read more.

Steve Scala, executive vice president of corporate development for DiCentral

Steve Scala joined DiCentral in 2014 to focus on growing the company worldwide. Courtesy of DiCentral

Something's brewing in retail — and it's scaring the industry. Steve Scala writes in a guest column for InnovationMap that dropshipping — the process of shipping products direct from vendors to customers, cutting out warehouses and storage facilities — is only going to gain traction in the industry.

"The study found that approximately 88 percent of retailers see dropship as inevitable to long-term success," Scala writes. "According to 87 percent of those retailers surveyed also experienced an increase in revenue as a result of dropshipping. Customer service also benefitted from dropship, with 84 percent of retailers noting improvements to customer service after adopting the dropshipping fulfillment model." Read more.

A study found that approximately 88 percent of retailers see dropship as inevitable to long-term success. Pexels

Streamlining supply chain efforts can help retailers survive the changing landscape, says this Houston expert

Guest Column

It's undeniable that retail habits of consumers is changing. DiCentral, a B2Bi managed services provider, recently partnered with the Center for Supply Chain Research at Lehigh University to survey over 180 global retail and manufacturing decision-makers and identify how evolving consumer buying behaviors are driving this dramatic shift in the retail landscape. The transformational supply chain challenges retailers and manufacturers are facing today indicate a new reality for retail.

The first of its kind study titled, "Supply Chain Collaboration in Transformative Vertical Industries: Implications of Omnichannel and Dropshipping," examines the motivations, challenges, benefits, and supply chain implications of the dropshipping model through which retailers ship orders directly from vendor warehouses, thereby reducing excess inventory and warehousing costs.

The study found that approximately 88 percent of retailers see dropship as inevitable to long-term success. According to 87 percent of those retailers surveyed also experienced an increase in revenue as a result of dropshipping. Customer service also benefitted from dropship, with 84 percent of retailers noting improvements to customer service after adopting the dropshipping fulfillment model.

From the manufacturers' perspective, dropshipping can significantly improve relationships with retailers as reported by 71 percent of manufacturing respondents. As many as 66 percent of manufacturers also experienced an increase in revenue after implementation of a dropship order fulfillment capability.

Challenges for both retail and manufacturing respondents point to systems limitations as being a primary obstacle to deploying an enterprise dropship program. According to the study, 40 percent of manufacturers acknowledged system limitations as being a challenge. Retailers responded similarly, with 32 percent identifying systems (ERP, EDI, WMS, etc.) as a hindrance.

While retailers and manufacturers face similar obstacles in streamlining supply chains, the benefits to both remain clear. As businesses look to maximize revenue and enhance customer service, dropshipping is a proven advantage to achieving both goals. Decision-makers in retail and manufacturing would be prudent to explore dropshipping as a means of achieving the ROI and improved quality of customer service.

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Steve Scala is executive vice president of corporate development at Houston-based DiCentral, a growing SaaS company.

With its new German office, Houston-based DiCentral looks to grow into other European markets, such as France, Italy, and Spain. Pexels

Houston SaaS company expands in Europe following acquisition

You're up, Europe

After slowly expanding worldwide for years, a Houston-based software-as-a-service company finally has a firm footing in Europe following its acquisition of a German company.

In December, DiCentral closed its deal with a Munich-based supply chain company named Compello Germany. With that acquisition, DiCentral Europe was born. Steve Scala, executive vice president of corporate development, says the deal was made possible after the company raised $15 million from Kanye Anderson Capital Advisors LP in 2016.

"We have a large supply chain network over Asia and North America, which gave us great coverage for our clients. In Europe, however, we're dealing with different supply chains," Scala says. "We had few people on the ground in Europe even though we have clients based there as well as clients elsewhere who conduct business there. We saw the need to fill that gap."

The new German office opens doors for the company to enter other European markets, and Scala says the company is looking into France, Italy, and Spain.

Currently, DiCentral's largest offices are in Houston and Ho Chi Minh City where they employ 150 and 300 people respectively. The company, which was founded in 2000 by Chairman and CEO Thuy Mai, has about 600 employees in total, and focuses on bonding buyers and suppliers, so both sides can optimize both the physical and digital supply chain.

DiCentral offers cloud-based electronic data interchange and supply chain solutions to its clients. By using DiCentral's propriety software, its clients, which include retailers, original equipment manufacturers, suppliers and more across many industry verticals, can find solutions tailored to their business.

"Global supply chains quickly can become very complex, especially when you add web purchases or individual orders from retailers that are sent from the manufacturers but made to look like they were sent from the retailer," Scala explains.

DiCentral allows businesses to improve their visibility of the supply chain by automating fulfillments, shipping and receiving processes.

"The end result for clients, whether they are a manufacturer, retailer or a third-party involved in distribution, using our software is improving the efficiency of supply chain," Scala continues. "With our solutions, clients can ramp up their operations even when navigating incredibly complex supply chains."

As DiCentral plans its continued European expansion, the company is facing various challenges from training its new 35 employees in Munich to potential logistical and regulatory issues.

"Our primary focus in 2019 is integrating the German operations with DiCentral. There are a lot of privacy challenges in Europe with GDPR, which means we need to be smart and cautious with how to deploy data centers because of stricter data privacy rules," Scala says.

Despite the challenges, Scala expects the new acquisition to lead to large growth for the company.

"I'm excited for the future. We closed on some great business contracts last year, however, the way our business works, we don't make money until there are transactions taking place across our network," Scala says.

It can take months to fully integrate clients into the DiCentral network, but Scala looks forward to the new revenue source. New contracts with large companies will allow DiCentral to continue fueling its global growth. The company continues to grow and hire, both abroad and locally, for various positions in sales, customer support, product management and marketing.

While the business continues to grow with an eye on new market sectors and areas for expansion, the DiCentral global headquarters are still located right by NASA. As a company founded in Texas, many of its original client base is based within the state.

"Texas has been a great location for us. We have data centers here in Texas, our headquarters are in Houston, so the original infrastructure of the company is all in Texas," says Scala.


Steve Scala joined DiCentral in 2014 to focus on growing the company worldwide. Courtesy of DiCentral

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Houston in-seat ordering app gets rodeo ready, prepares for busy XFL season

dining delivered

A Houston startup isn't afraid to take on the 21-day Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo with its in-seat ordering technology.

Houston-based sEATz, through its partnership with Aramark and NRG Stadium, will be serving up stadium food to rodeo goers this year every single night of the show. Rather than be intimidated the size and scale of Rodeo Houston, sEATz, equipped with a recently upgraded app, is ready for the challenge.

"Twenty-one nights in a row for us is great — that just shows the flexibility and scalability of our model," says CEO and co-founder Aaron Knape.

For those headed out to the rodeo with tickets in the 100s — the lower section — sEATz will have in-seat delivery and pickup lanes. Users can download the app, plug in their seat information, order, pay, and hang tight for a delivery. SEATz will be available every night of the rodeo — from the start of the show to the concert.

The sEATz app has been freshly updated and is ready to rodeo. Photo courtesy of sEATz

Knape and co-founder and COO Marshall Law founded sEATz in 2018 after an idea Law had when he missed a key play at an Astros 2017 World Series game. Now, SEATz is active in 10 different venues and plans to roll out in 15 more this year, Knape says. The app has served fans at football and soccer games — and even delivered during the Rolling Stones concert at NRG Stadium last year.

"It's really great to be able to be a part of the rodeo as far as a provider to help enhance that experience in the stadium," Knape says. "It goes back to our model of we want to serve a venue and the fans in that venue — not necessarily a specific sport or concert."

SEATz had a busy football season, servicing the likes of The Texans, the University of Houston Cougars, and more, but turns out, football is not over. Through its partnership with Delaware North, the food and beverage provider for UH's TDECU Stadium, sEATz has added the XFL's Houston Roughnecks fans to its roster of users.

The team's first game on February 8 had over 17,000 in attendance, according to news reports. The team won 37 to 17 against the Los Angeles Wildcats. The second game for the Roughnecks is on Sunday, February 16, and the league recently announced the final championship game will be hosted in Houston.

"I think those fans came to have a really good time," Knape says of last weekend's game. "We're actually going to be quadrupling staff for Sunday's game."

SEATz, which closed is seed round last fall with $1.3 million raised, plans to raise another round early this year. The company is also actively recruiting teams and venues ahead of the baseball season, Knape says.

New energy tech startup accelerator has its eyes on Houston

calling all energy entrepreneurs

Houston is on the radar of a newly formed startup accelerator that concentrates on companies in the energy sector and other commodities markets.

The Stamford, Connecticut-based accelerator, PointForward LLC, is seeking startups for its inaugural 12-week accelerator program, which kicks off in June. While the program will take place in Stamford, PointForward hopes to attract applicants from Houston. Each team accepted by the program will receive up to $100,000 in funding, along with mentoring and access to business resources, in exchange for a 7 percent equity stake.

"We are looking for early stage companies focused on a range of offerings — such as trading, logistics, and technology — related to the energy and commodity markets that can achieve high growth and scale," says Greg Schindler, founder of PointForward. "In particular, we are seeking companies where our network of industry contacts, including potential investors and customers, can provide key leverage."

In April, PointForward plans to choose three to six teams for its first accelerator program. Schindler says PointForward is willing to accommodate logistical challenges posed by a startup's critical people being located in, say, Houston but being asked to spend 12 weeks in Stamford.

"We understand that some companies may be working on physical products and may find it difficult to bring all the founders up to Stamford. That's OK," he says. "However, key members of each team should plan to be on site in Stamford for the full 12 weeks. This helps establish a vibrant founder community. We also understand if founders need to travel between Houston and Stamford."

PointForward plans to host demo days this September in Houston and New York City where startup teams will make pitches to potential investors.

Freepoint Commodities LLC, a commodities merchant based in Stamford, launched PointForward. Freepoint employs about 50 people in Houston, which is the headquarters of its retail energy business, Freepoint Energy Solutions LLC. Freepoint Commodities started that subsidiary in 2017.

"Houston is at the heart of the energy world," Schindler says, "and is extremely important to our efforts."

Freepoint Energy Solutions currently operates in Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Texas. The company entered Texas' commercial and industrial electricity market in July 2018.

Freepoint Commodities recently signed a deal with the Texas GulfLink LLC subsidiary of Sentinel Midstream LLC, based in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Richardson, for construction and operation of a deepwater crude oil export facility near the Brazoria County town of Freeport. Texas GulfLink has an office in Houston.

The Texas GulfLink facility will include an onshore oil storage terminal connected by a 42-inch pipeline to a manned platform about 37 miles off the Texas Gulf Coast. From the platform, crude oil will be transported to two buoys, enabling large vessels to load as many as 85,000 barrels of oil per hour.

The Houston metro area is projected to see a $751.8 million economic lift from construction of Texas GulfLink and related facilities.