Support Houston startups by shopping local this holiday season. Photos courtesy

'Tis the season for giving — and what if you could check off your holiday to-do list and simultaneously support some local startups? This year's Houston startup gift guide includes comfortable-yet-stylish heels, culinary treats, and more.

Need some more ideas? Browse last year's roundup of Houston startup-created gift ideas and check out the 2020 and 2019 startup gift guides as well for even more options.

For the family fashionista: All-day comfort shoes

Steffie Tomson founded a company to prioritize comfort — without sacrificing style — for women on the go. Photo via getawaysticks.com

Before starting her business, Houstonian Steffie Tomson ordered $2,000 worth of shoes and sliced them all in half with a bandsaw just to see what was inside. Tomson, a neuroscientist by trade and the founder and CEO of footwear startup Getaway Sticks, had an idea for a different kind of shoe — one that was redesigned to prioritize women’s comfort.

Earlier this year, Tomson shared the Getaway Sticks origin story with InnovationMap. The heels are available online for around $200 per pair.

For the resident chef: Fresh fish delivered

Sugar Land-based Fish Fixe floated their seafood delivery service on Shark Tank last year. Photo via Shark Tank

Houstonians Melissa Harrington and Emily Castro saw how beneficial incorporating fish into your diet can be — so they decided to launch an easier way to do it. They launched Fish Fixe in 2017 to deliver seafood with easy-to-access instructions on storage and thawing — plus cooking recipes that take around 20 minutes.

The duo appeared on the 13th season of Shark Tank last year. In 2020, as InnovationMap reported, the company saw a 400-percent increase in sales. They pitched asking for $200,000 in investment. Lori Greiner, the "queen of QVC," took the bait — and 25 percent equity.

Shoppers can stock up on various boxes from $109 to $219, or opt for a gift card for their loved one.

For the health nut: Sustainably-sourced nutrients

A Houston-based fund has deployed capital into a local nutritional supplement business. Photo via Instagram

Houston--based iwi creates nutritional supplements for the brain and the heart — and they are doing it in a sustainable setting: algae farms. These football field-sized farms operate on desert land using just salt water and sand and produce algae sustainably — all while absorbing CO2. Miguel Calatayud, CEO of the company, tells InnovationMap that the farms even area able to reuse 98 percent of the water involved in the process. Earlier this year, iwi received an investment from a local group in an $8 million deal.

The company has almost a dozen options online for around $30 per canister of supplements.

For your aging loved ones: Afterlife planning and memory keeping

The Postage — a Houston-based company that's streamlining afterlife planning — has rolled out a new app. Photo courtesy of The Postage

There's a lot that goes into legacy and afterlife planning, and a Houston startup has emerged to make the process a whole lot easier. The Postage helps its users generate their wills and organize information to leave behind, the company's founder, Emily Cisek, shares with InnovationMap. The platform also every user to leave messages, photos, and memories in a digital vault that will stand the test of time.

Giving the gift of legacy planning can be an option for anyone in your family — from the grandparents to the newlyweds.

For someone seeking luscious locks: Hair growth tracking kit

This startup is making sure every follicle of hair on your head is counted. Photo via myhaircounts.com

While it might seem odd to gift someone a hair loss tracking kit, this product from a Houston company has helped many men and women suffering from hair density challenges. MyHairCounts created a hair density imaging kit and app based on proprietary and patent-pending software. The kit includes a variety of items such as scalp imaging guides, a comb, and gel to help individuals photograph their hair follicles at specified angles. Users then upload these photographs into the app for analyses which are delivered within 48 hours. These analyses inform the user whether or not their hair regrowth treatment is effective.

The kit itself is just $40 and available online. Users can work with the company on a longer hair growth plan, too.

Bonus: What to bring to the table

Support Houston startups by bringing these goodies to your next festive shindig. Photos courtesy

Sometimes your presence is the present, and if you're headed to some holiday dinner parties, here are some innovative ideas for the potluck.

  • Houston-based Dream Harvest Farming Co., a vertical indoor farming company producing leafy greens and herbs and delivering them locally to grocery stores in Texas and nearby states. Pick up Dream Harvest products at a Whole Foods location, and read more about the company.
  • This year has been a big one for the growing Bread Man Baking Co., as the company expanded from its 5,000-square-foot kitchen and moved its operations into a new 40,000-square-foot facility on the northeast side of Houston. Pick up some of the company's products at Whole Foods or HEB. Read more about the company.
  • A new, “hyperpure” oxygen-enriched water brand has rolled out in Houston in single-serve and subscription options. Dubbed HOW — Hyperpure Oxygenated Water — the award-winning super-filtered water (via a 14-level filtration process that removes impurities down to the nano-level .0001 microns) is now available at 35 specialty retailers around town. Read more about the company.

Zain Shauk, co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast just ahead of Earth Day. Photo courtesy of Dream Harvest

Houston innovator: 'The climate has already changed' — here's the impact indoor farming can make

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 130

Modern agriculture and produce farming is not sustainable — whether you're using the environmental impact definition of that word or in terms of a lasting economy.

This concept has been made abundantly clear to Zain Shauk, co-founder and CEO of Houston-based Dream Harvest Farming Co., a vertical indoor farming company producing leafy greens and herbs and delivering them locally to grocery stores in Texas and nearby states.

"The inspiration for Dream Harvest is really the problem with our food system and agriculture today," Shauk says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Thirty-five percent of the produce grown is thrown away before you even have a chance to eat it. Almost more astounding than that is that 80 percent of our water use as a nation is agricultural."

Shauk brings up California as an example because the state's constant water shortage is hindering outdoor farming. The country relies on California for leafy greens, and both due to the lack of water and the fact that it takes produce seven to 10 days to travel from the West Coast to Texas grocery aisles, it's not an ideal process in any way. Dream Harvest can change that.

"The climate is changing now. We talk about Earth Day and the importance of realizing our impact on the planet, but we are already there," Shauk says on the show. "The climate has already changed."

The future of produce depends on making more environmentally friendly changes to the supply chain, and new technologies are enabling vertical indoor farming to effect these changes in some part. Dream Harvest recently received a $50 million investment from Orion Energy Partners to open a 100,000-square-foot indoor farming facility in Houston to scale production. Shauk says he's also using the funding to support research and development to expand into other types of produce, but he has a lot to consider — affordability of the produce, maintaining sustainability, and more.

"It's going to take a lot of work and a lot of research. What I do know is we've come a long way with leafy greens," Shauk says. "When we started, we weren't growing in a way that makes financial sense with the amount of money we have to spend growing the product — and now we do."

Some of the reasons for advances in vertical farming is new technology — which is coming out of a slightly different green industry.

"Cannabis has really driven a lot of the innovation — there's been so much money poured into the marijuana industry to grow it for commercial sale, and that's evolved a rapid development in technology for indoor growing," Shauk says, adding that one example of this is indoor lighting. "There's so much interest in making money on marijuana, that we're benefiting off that from produce."

Shauk shares more about the future of Dream Harvest and vertical farming, as well as what Houstonians can do to shrink their carbon footprint, on the podcast episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Gaurav Khandelwal of Velostics, Samantha Hepler of SeekerPitch, and Zain Shauk of Dream Harvest. 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 — from logistics tech to sustainability — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Gaurav Khandelwal, CEO and founder of Velostics

Velostics has fresh funding to support growing its logistics software solution. Photo courtesy of Velostics

The logistics industry has a lot of room for improved optimization — and that's exactly what Gaurav Khandelwal set out to do when he founded Velostics. The company just raised its $2.5 million seed round that will go toward recruiting top talent for Velostics's team, particularly in its account management, inside sales, and marketing departments, as well as continuing to develop the AI-driven product, which has an impact for both its users and the environment.

“Idling trucks waiting outside facilities emit over 42 million tons of CO2 annually — eight times the US national average. By orchestrating the movement of trucks in and out of facilities, not only do we provide tremendous supply chain benefits, we also help the environment," Khandelwal says in the release. "We’re excited to partner with our customers and our investors to solve global congestion.” Click here to read more.

Samantha Hepler, CEO and founder of SeekerPitch

Samantha Hepler had the idea for SeekerPitch based on her own ill-fated job hunt experience. Photo courtesy of SeekerPitch

When Houstonian Samantha Hepler was trying to find a job, she couldn't even get in the door. Due to algorithms and antiquated hiring processes, she was overlooked.

"I knew if I could just get through the door, a company would see the value in me," Hepler tells InnovationMap. "I wasn't being seen, and I wasn't being heard. I didn't know a way to do that."

This experience gave her the idea for SeekerPitch, a platform that allows job seekers to create an account and tell their story — not just their job history. The platform prioritizes video content and quick interviews so that potential hires can get face-to-face with hiring managers. Click here to read more.

Zain Shauk, co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest

Dream Harvest picked up funding to open a 100,000-square-foot indoor farming facility in Houston. Photo courtesy of Dream Harvest

Houston-based Dream Harvest Farming Co., which specializes in sustainably growing produce, has landed a $50 million investment from Orion Energy Partners to open a 100,000-square-foot indoor farming facility in Houston. The facility will enable the company to dramatically ramp up its operations.

Zain Shauk, co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest, says his company’s method for growing lettuce, baby greens, kale, mustards, herbs, collards, and cabbage helps cut down on food waste.

“Demand for our produce has far outpaced supply, an encouraging validation of our approach as well as positive news for our planet, which is facing the rising problem of food and resource waste,” Shauk says. “While we have the yields today to support our business, we are pleased to partner with Orion on this financing, which will enable us to greatly expand our production and increase access to our produce for many more consumers.” Click here to read more.

Dream Harvest picked up funding to open a 100,000-square-foot indoor farming facility in Houston. Photo courtesy of Dream Harvest

Houston sustainability-focused company raises $50 million to plant new indoor farming facility

seeing green

Houston-based Dream Harvest Farming Co., which specializes in sustainably growing produce, has landed a $50 million investment from Orion Energy Partners to open a 100,000-square-foot indoor farming facility in Houston. The facility will enable the company to dramatically ramp up its operations.

The new facility, which will be built in Southwest Houston, is scheduled for completion in January 2023. Dream Harvest’s existing 7,500-square-foot facility in Southwest Houston supplies 45 Whole Foods stores in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas, as well as Sweetgreen restaurants in Texas.

The company currently employs 25 people. With the addition of the 100,000-square-foot facility, Dream Harvest’s headcount will rise to 65.

Dream Harvest relies on wind-powered, year-round indoor vertical farming to generate 400 times the yield of an outdoor farm while using 95 percent less water and no pesticides.

“Because the vast majority of America’s produce is grown in California and has to be shipped over long distances, most of the country receives produce that is old, has a poor flavor profile, and a short shelf life — a major contributing factor to the more than 30 percent of fresh vegetables being discarded in the U.S. each year,” Dream Harvest says in a December 7 news release.

Zain Shauk, co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest, says his company’s method for growing lettuce, baby greens, kale, mustards, herbs, collards, and cabbage helps cut down on food waste.

“Demand for our produce has far outpaced supply, an encouraging validation of our approach as well as positive news for our planet, which is facing the rising problem of food and resource waste,” Shauk says. “While we have the yields today to support our business, we are pleased to partner with Orion on this financing, which will enable us to greatly expand our production and increase access to our produce for many more consumers.”

Dream Harvest expects to expand distribution to more than 250 retail locations in 2022.

“Orion’s focus on sustainable infrastructure and deep experience in building large industrial facilities will be complementary to Dream Harvest’s impressive track record of being a reliable supplier to high-caliber customers by achieving consistent yields, food safety, and operational efficiencies … ,” says Nazar Massouh, co-managing partner and CEO of Orion Energy Partners, which has offices in Houston and New York City.

Other companies in the Orion Energy Partners portfolio include Houston-based Caliche Development Partners, Tomball-based Python Holdings, The Woodlands-based Evolution Well Services, Houston-based Produced Water Transfer, and Houston-based Tiger Rentals.

Zain Shauk is the co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest. Photo courtesy of Dream Harvest

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.