Houston startup addresses gaps in the gig economy with new app

there's an app for that

The new app is live on three Houston-area college campuses. Photo via campusconciergeapp.com

Two Houstonians are making student side hustles on college campuses a whole lot safer and easier.

When Madison Long and Simone May were undergraduate students at Purdue University, their only option for scoping out basic services — like getting their hair done or hiring a DJ for an event or a photographer for graduation photos — was to ask around among older students. This planted a seed of a business idea in the two women.

Now, the duo has founded Campus Concierge to provide a platform that acts as a marketplace to connect students who have skills or services with potential clients in a safe way. The company, which was a member of DivInc's inaugural Houston accelerator, launched on three college campuses this year — Texas Southern University, Rice University, and Prairie View A&M.

Campus Concierge timed its arrival to the marketplace with the reopening of college campuses for in-person instruction, knowing there would be a need for connection and access.

"Building community is so critical given the fact that it's nerve-wracking any time to ask someone for help — especially now that you are coming back to school after a year of being virtual," says Long, CEO and co-founder of Campus Concierge.

But prior to launch, all Long and May had was virtual. The duo rolled out a six-week social media campaign, which brought over 2,500 students across six different universities onto the Campus Concierge waitlist before they even stepped foot on a college campus to recruit in person.

Campus Concierge's co-founders Madison Long (right) and Simone May met in college. Photo via campusconciergeapp.com

After initial design and testing, Long and May worked on their product during their time at the DivInc. The accelerator, which was announced to launch in Houston last year, aims to build a more inclusive innovation ecosystem and focuses their work on people-of-color and women-founded businesses. Now, Campus Concierge is looking for investors, and credit DivInc for connecting them with potential VCs, angel groups, and angel investors.

"The institutional investment landscape still does rely on very traditional ways of getting in touch with investors — through intros, warm connections," Long tells InnovationMap. "We've been very lucky to be part of DivInc, who has broken down a lot of those doors and a lot of that ambiguity and created a level of transparency plus formal partnerships with folks like Mercury Fund."

The startup founding experience for Long and May has been a positive experience. Long says Houston's innovation ecosystem has been warm and welcoming.

"It doesn't feel like people are working against you or competing with you," May, the company's CTO, adds. "It feels like everyone is working together, and it is very collaborative."

As Black female founders, Long and May say they are encouraged by the diversity and camaraderie of Houston.

"Coming to a city that is so diverse, we're not the exception to everything," Long says. "There are other founders who look like us who are doing really well that we can lean on as mentors, advisers, and take notes from them. ... There is no other place we would have liked to start this platform."

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Barbara Burger of Chevron, Ashley DeWalt of DivInc, and Kelli Newman of Newman & Newman Inc. Courtesy photos

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 — energy venture, sports tech, and communications — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures

Chevron Technology Ventures made two recent investments from its brand new fund. Courtesy of CTV

In February, Chevron Technology Ventures LLC launched its newest $300 million Future Energy Fund II to build on the success of the first Future Energy Fund, which kicked off in 2018 and invested in more than 10 companies specializing in niches like carbon capture, emerging mobility, and energy storage. The initial fund contained $100 million.

"The new fund will focus on innovation likely to play a critical role in the future energy system in industrial decarbonization, emerging mobility, energy decentralization, and the growing circular carbon economy," Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures says in a February 25 release.

Now, a few months later, Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures, has announced that the fund has made its first two investments — one in a company with offshore wind turbines and one that's working on an alternative energy source from ammonia. Read more.

Ashley DeWalt, managing director of DivInc

Ashley DeWalt, managing director of DivInc, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss diversity and inclusion, sports tech, and all things Houston. Photo courtesy of DivInc

Houston has a huge opportunity for sports innovation, says Ashley DeWalt, and he should know. He's spent over 15 years in the industry at both the professional and collegiate levels.

"We have a very high concentration of current and former professional athletes that live in Houston," DeWalt says, "and I truly believe — and the data shows this — these professional athletes are going to invest in sports tech."

DeWalt — who is the Houston-based managing director at DivInc, which just expanded to Houston — joined the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to discuss sports tech and diversity in the Houston innovation ecosystem. Stream the episode and read more.

Kelli Newman, president of Newman & Newman Inc.

In her guest column, Kelli Newman explains missed communications and branding opportunities for Houston innovators. Photo courtesy of Newman & Newman

Chances are, you aren't making the most out of branding and storytelling opportunities. At least that's what Kelli Newman, president of the Houston-based communication strategies firm, Newman & Newman Inc., found in her recent research into the Houston innovation ecosystem.

"For two months we interviewed investors, accelerators, industry customers and entrepreneurs themselves, asking for missed opportunities they may be seeing in what and how companies are communicating," she writes in a guest column for InnovationMap in which she explains her findings.

From setting yourself apart from the competition and tapping into empathy, Newman shares her tips from her findings. Read more.

Ashley DeWalt, managing director of DivInc, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss diversity and inclusion, sports tech, and all things Houston. Photo courtesy of DivInc

Diversity-focused nonprofit leader announces new VC partner, calls for Houston to be sports tech hub

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 79

For 15 years, Ashley DeWalt has been working within the sports and entertainment industry — particularly within branding and consulting. Now, as managing director for DivInc, he's taking his business acumen and relationship-focused style to fostering startup growth for diverse founders in Houston.

DivInc, which was founded and is based in Austin, is a nonprofit focused on identifying hurdles for diverse founders as well as providing support for these founders. The organization recently announced its expansion into the Houston market, and DeWalt joined as managing director to focus on building the nonprofit's relationships with startups, corporations, universities, and more.

"I'm laser focused on identifying corporate partners aligned with our mission and vision of what we are striving to do within this ecosystem," DeWalt says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Also on his list of groups to partner with is investors — whether that's individual angel investors or venture capital funds. The very first official partner DeWalt himself has brought on is Houston-based Mercury Fund.

"I've always been about building long-term relationships with people that are meaningful relationships," DeWalt says. "With Mercury, they understood that and were willing to commit and step up to the plate."

The new partnership, which was officially announced today, includes bringing on Mercury Fund's team to provide mentorship and support from a programming perspective, but also financial support. Mercury committed to partnering on a $1 million capital campaign that will support the organization.

DivInc's first Houston cohort, which was recently announced, will be able to benefit from this partnership as well as a partnership with Verizon that is providing each company in this current cohort a $10,000 undiluted grant.

While his involvement with DivInc is fairly recent, DeWalt has been working with sports startups from all over the world for a few years through Stadia Ventures, a sports innovation hub. DeWalt shares on the show how he has been a huge advocate for Houston and the sports activity in the area. From his perspective, the city has so many coaches and athletes on both the professional and collegiate levels — and these coaches and athletes are the future sports innovators and investors.

"We have a very high concentration of current and former professional athletes that live in Houston," DeWalt says, "and I truly believe — and the data shows this — these professional athletes are going to invest in sports tech."

Fostering diverse innovators and sports tech are two separate but overlapping goals that DeWalt has and is passionate about — and he's determined to help Houston's innovation ecosystem develop in an inclusive and equitable way.

"At the end of the day, if we can't figure out that rubix cube here in Houston, no one can," he says.

DeWalt shares more about what he's focused on and where DivInc is headed on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


The city's top power players within Houston's energy innovation ecosystem joined virtual SXSW to discuss Houston's life science innovation scene and developing an inclusive ecosystem. Photos courtesy

Overheard: Houston's innovation leaders weigh in on the city's developing ecosystem at SXSW

EAVESDROPPING ONLINE

Another day of SXSW 2021 has concluded, and just like the first day, Houston innovators logged on to discuss technology and innovation that's taking off in town.

The second of the two days of programming focused on the development of the Houston innovation ecosystem — including how the city is factoring in diversity and inclusion into development — with interviews hosted by me, Natalie Harms, editor of InnovationMap. Missed out on the fun? Catch up with a few overheard moments from Houston House or stream the full interviews below.

"“We have to be true to ourselves of what works for Houston. Making sure the DEI is interwoven and in our DNA of our ecosystem so that we don’t make the same mistakes as other cities." — Ashley DeWalt, managing director of DivInc Houston

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

Houston has an advantage in developing its innovation ecosystem because it can do so by learning from established ecosystems on the coasts. Locally, that means making diversity and inclusion a top priority. At a virtual SXSW Houston House panel, Ashley DeWalt, managing director of DivInc Houston, and Jan Odegard, interim executive director of The Ion, discuss the importance of prioritizing inclusion in developing Houston's innovation ecosystem. Click here to watch the full interview.

“This pandemic has really highlighted a lot of the health care disparities that are present within our systems. … Houston is in a unique position to address that.” — Fiona Mack, head of JLABS @ TMC

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

The Texas Medical Center is the largest medical center in the world with over 10 million patients coming in annually — and JLABS @ TMC is right in the middle of that. With this access to patients and clinical trials, Houston has a lot of potential to attract new innovative companies solving the world's biggest health care problems. At a virtual SXSW Houston House HOU Talk, Fiona Mack, head of JLABS @TMC, discusses the momentum behind health tech innovation in Houston. Click here to watch the full interview.

“Whatever the training is, you have to actually create bias disruptors and points of friction and processes that change behavior. If we don’t have a way to implement what we learn, it doesn’t really change culture.” — LaTanya Flix, senior vice president at the GHP

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, corporations of all shapes and sizes were inspired to look inward to address inequity within their workforce — from training to shifts in workplace culture. At a virtual SXSW Houston House HOU Talk, LaTanya Flix, senior vice president of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) at the Greater Houston Partnership, shares how she's on a mission to spread mindful DEI initiatives across all of the GHP's member organizations. Click here to watch the full interview.

“I see a world where I’m sitting in a boardroom, and I’m not the only woman anymore.” — Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury Fund

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

Women in venture capital are used to being the only women in the room and are fighting for that not to be the case for future generations. At a virtual SXSW Houston House panel, Sandy Guitar, managing director of the HX Venture Fund moderates a discussion with fellow women in VC, Paige Pitcher, director of innovation at Hines, and Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury Fund. Click here to watch the full interview.

“There’s an incredible number of innovations that have popped up in Houston, but a lot of them have been centered around solving engineering-type problems at industrial scale — and that still exists, but doesn’t get as much coverage as consumer-facing technologies.” — Josh Pherigo, director of research and data analytics at GHP

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

When tracking any sort of progress or growth, business look to their numbers and data. Houston's innovation system is no different. At a virtual SXSW Houston House HOU Talk, Josh Pherigo, director of research and data analytics at the Greater Houston Partnership, dives in deep with the facts and figures of Houston's burgeoning innovation ecosystem by following the venture dollars coming into local startups. Click here to watch the full interview.

“If you look at the density in Houston, being the energy capital of the United States, there are probably few places in the world where you can walk 15 minutes in either direction and talk to about 100 companies that would potentially be customers.” — Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager Portal

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

A good startup idea comes from necessity and a way to apply technology to solve problems and shorten business delivery times, and the maritime shipping industry has a lot of opportunities for these types of innovations. At a virtual SXSW Houston House HOU Talk, Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager Portal, sets sail on a conversation about the maritime shipping industry — and how it was ripe with disruption. Click here to watch the full interview.

“You have institutions of exception in Houston where innovation flows from. The question isn’t that it’s not there, it’s how have we been tapping it.” — David Schubert, president of Magnolia Tejas Corp.

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

Houston has a burgeoning life science innovation scene — but what's that next step for its development? At a virtual SXSW Houston House HOU Talk, David Schubert, president of Magnolia Tejas Corp. discusses the potential of Houston's world-class oncologists and biotech innovators have to make the city a hub for cancer innovation. Click here to watch the full interview.

The Ion has fresh funds to commit to its accelerator programs. Courtesy of Rice University

The Ion receives $1.5M economic development grant to go toward Houston accelerator programs

accelerating accelerators

The Ion — a rising hub for innovation being developed in Midtown by Rice Management Company — has received a $1.5 million grant to go toward supporting its startup accelerator programs.

The grant from the Economic Development Administration is a part of the organization's Build to Scale (B2S) program and will also benefit three accelerators: the Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator, and DivInc Accelerator.

"Receiving this grant is a big win for our city — furthering the Ion's opportunity to bring together leading minds to solve some of our toughest challenges," says Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance, in a news release from Rice. "We believe that it's a fully collaborative approach that will lead to accelerating energy innovation and sustainable solutions."

All three of these accelerators will be represented in The Ion's Accelerator Hub and will work in collaboration, according to the release, in The Ion, which is expected to open in 2021 with cohorts set to open applications in early 2021.

"We are really excited about working together with DivInc and the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship to realize the full potential of the opportunities that these funds will help unleash," says Jan Odegard, interim executive director of the Ion, in the release.

The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator has cycled through two rounds of cohorts — first focusing on resilience and mobility in Cohort 1 then air quality, water purification, and other cleantech in Cohort 2.

The 12-week Clean Energy Accelerator was only recently announced by The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship at the annual Energy Tech Venture Forum earlier this month. The program is established to support Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner's Climate Action Plan.

Meanwhile, DivInc's accelerator comes out of a partnership with the Austin-based nonprofit and The Ion, which was announced in spring of this year. The goal with this program is to increase access to minority entrepreneurs.

"DivInc embodies the mindset that this generation and all the generations of innovators to follow must be inclusive of people of color and women entrepreneurs – who will build successful scalable growth companies to address tomorrow's challenges and opportunities," says Preston James, chief executive officer at DivInc, in the release.

"By removing the barriers that currently exist, we unleash this untapped potential and lift Houston to new economic heights. To do this we must establish strong collaboration with partners like The Ion, Rice University, the EDA and many others."

The Ion has tapped DivInc. as a partner. Courtesy of Rice University

The Ion announces partnership with nonprofit to serve Houston's diverse entrepreneurs

diving into diversity

Houston is ranked the No. 1 diverse city in the nation, and a local organization has forged a new partnership to make sure that diversity is represented within the city's innovation ecosystem.

The Ion, an innovation hub currently rising in Midtown Sears Building, and DivInc, a Texas nonprofit, have agreed to partner to advance diversity among Houston entrepreneurs. It's Austin-based DivInc's first Houston initiative, according to a news release.

"Our experience equipping diverse entrepreneurs with strategies to create exceptional companies, coupled with the Ion's enthusiasm and thoughtful approach to building an inclusive space where entrepreneurs from all walks of life can thrive is a winning combination," says Preston L. James, founder and CEO of DivInc, in the release.

"No matter where they are in their entrepreneur journey, we want all Houstonians to know DivInc is here to help you achieve your biggest dreams."

Since its founding in 2016, DivInc has worked to provide over 60 founders and more than 50 tech companies with resources and support for growth. Locally, DivInc is already working on programming to extend its reach to Houston entrepreneurs, including a kick-off event at The Ion on Tuesday, March 3, at 5:30 pm.

"As The Ion looked for a partner to provide best practices and resources to our local business communities and leaders that have historically been overlooked, we knew our partner needed to be ambitious, thoughtful and encouraging, but also have a record of success and experience working shoulder-to-shoulder with entrepreneurs," says Deanea LeFlore, senior director of The Ion, in the release.

"Our efforts and relationship with DivInc will do just that. We can't wait to help our stakeholders take their businesses to new heights and further demonstrate Houston is the best city in America for diverse entrepreneurs to thrive."

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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."

Houston university's MBA program claims coveted top spot of annual ranking

top of class

Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business has raked in yet another top spot on an annual list of top MBA programs.

A new ranking from Poets & Quants, which covers news about business schools, puts Rice at No. 3 among the world's best MBA programs for entrepreneurship. That's up from No. 15 on last year's list.

The Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis grabbed the top spot in this year's ranking. Elsewhere in Texas, the University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business lands at No. 14, the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth at No. 35, and the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University in University Park at No. 36.

Poets & Quants judged the schools on 16 metrics related to their entrepreneurship initiatives.

Poets & Quants says Rice's Jones Graduate School of Business "itself is less than three decades old. But entrepreneurship was baked into its DNA from the get-go. The late Ed Williams and current professor Al Napier are credited with starting the entrepreneurial focus. But it wasn't until 2013 when Jones plucked Yael Hochberg from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management that the program really started to surge."

Rice's entrepreneurship offering combines academic courses and associated programs led by the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Lilie) with programs offered by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship.

"The ability to be a student while working on your startup in class, under the expert guidance of our world-class faculty, gives our Rice entrepreneurs a competitive advantage over any others out there," Hochberg, head of the Rice Entrepreneurship Initiative and academic director of the Rice Alliance, says in a news release.

The Rice Alliance's OwlSpark Accelerator supplements the MBA program. The accelerator serves as a capstone program and launchpad for students seeking to start their own businesses. Meanwhile, the Rice Business Plan Competition, the largest intercollegiate student startup competition in the world, lets students pitch their startups in front of more than 300 judges. And the Rice Alliance Technology Venture Forums allows students to showcase their startups to investors and corporations.

"The ability for students to launch their nascent startups, obtain mentoring from members of the Houston entrepreneurial ecosystem, and then pitch to hundreds of angel investors, venture capitalists, and corporations provides a unique opportunity that cannot be found on many campuses or in many regions," says Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance.

Houston entrepreneur amps up support for diverse businesses with new NAACP partnership

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 107

Carolyn Rodz didn't feel the need to rush into Hello Alice's series B raise. The company, which was co-founded by Rodz and Elizabeth Gore in 2017, closed its series B at $21 million this summer, but Rodz says they did so with a specific goal.

Rodz, who joined the Houston Innovators Podcast this week, says she didn't want to get on the cycle that is round after round of venture capital. Instead, she's prioritizing profitability. And to have that, Hello Alice — platform for small business owners to find capital, networks and business services — needed to be able to reach more small business owners.

"When we made the decision to raise, it was really about making sure that we had good, strong core fundamentals and that we felt like we were putting good money to work where we can scale the business," Rodz says on the show. "It's our belief that the more smalls business owners we can support, it gives us a more unified and stronger voice to go implement systemic change."

The round was led by Virginia-based QED Investors with participation from new investors including Backstage Capital, Green Book Ventures, Harbert Growth Partners, and How Women Invest. It followed what was not only a rollercoaster of a year for the small businesses Hello Alice exists to serve, but also the company itself.

"It changed us permanently as a company," Rodz says of the pandemic.

On the show, Rodz characterizes the time for Hello Alice, which included slimming down the company's overhead, while simultaneously offering thought leadership, support, and resources for companies. Within a few days of the shutdown, Hello Alice was helping to deploy grants to entrepreneurs affected by COVID-19.

As challenging as the pandemic was for Hello Alice, it was validating too. Rodz says the company had a 700 percent increase in revenue and an 1,100 percent acquisition growth.

"We'd never operated in a downcycle, but what we learned through that process was that we're a really valuable resource for business owners when times are great, but we're also a really valuable resource for them when times are tough," she explains.

This validation set the scene for the series B, but following that raise, and, due in part to the doors opened by new investor networks, a new partnership with the NAACP Empowerment Program. Rodz says that the NAACP was given a lot of resources to put to work to build racial equity through economic empowerment. The relationship began with an introduction from Hello Alice investor, Green Book.

"They are real co-builders of this platform with us, so we're making sure we're actually putting money back into those communities," Rodz says of the partnerships Hello Alice has had with the NAACP and other equitable organizations. "NAACP was a huge milestone for us, something we're really proud of as a business. And I think it's a partnership that will continue to grow and make sure that we're aligned with how we're working on how we can build better together.

Rodz shares more on Hello Alice's growth as well as her observations on how Houston has evolved as an innovation ecosystem. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.