The ultimate who's who of 2020 — favorite Houston Innovators Podcast guests of last year. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: With 2020 in the rearview, InnovationMap is looking back on the top stories of the year. With over 60 episodes of the Houston Innovators Podcast and about half of those being recorded in 2020, here are the top episides from the year.

Chris Buckner, co-founder and CEO of Mainline

With sports went offline, esports startup Mainline saw an opportunity for growth during the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo courtesy of Mainline

What happened when collegiate sport stadiums shut down and seasons were postponed? People started to turn to esports to get their competitive fix. And Houston-based esports tournament software company Mainline saw a huge boost to business.

"Everyone is looking for how to get sports, or esports, in front of people because everyone is just missing [sports] so much," Chris Buckner, co-founder and CEO of Mainline, says in a June episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We've been very fortunate to work in the industry we do."

On campuses this past spring, colleges are looking for a way to connect with and engage students, Buckner says. And, Mainline has even been able to attract interest on the professional level.

"Our June will pretty much be the best month of our company, and a lot of that is driven by the fact that everyone is looking for a digital solution rather than an in-person solution," Buckner says.

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Fiona Mack, head of JLABS @ TMC

Fiona Mack joined JLABS @ TMC as head of the incubator. Photo courtesy of JLABS

Last year, JLABS @ TMC — a local health tech startup incubator under the Johnson & Johnson arm — welcomed Fiona Mack as the new head of the program. On her plate was assessing the needs of the incubator's 49 member companies in the portfolio and understanding the needs of the Texas innovation ecosystem.

"As I learn more about the history of life science sector in Texas, over the past 20 years there has been an impetuous to build up this critical mass of companies here to really make it a strong hub that competes with the energy sector to make it a pillar of the economy here," Mack says in a November episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

One of the things that's top of mind for Mack is a focus on diversity — both from an entrepreneurship and a representation standpoint.

"From a research perspective, there's a strong effect of having a lack of diversity in a lot of the metrics we're looking at," she shares.

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Joe Alapat, CEO of Liongard

Joe Alapat is the CEO of Houston-based Liongard, which just raised a $17 million series B round. Courtesy of Liongard

Despite a pandemic that at least in some ways negatively affected venture capital investment, a Houston software startup managed to persevere with a $17 million series B. Liongard's CEO Joe Alapat, who co-founded the company with COO Vincent Tran in 2015, says in a May episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast that the round was the result of ongoing relationships with advisers and investors that meant a successful round — even in light of a pandemic.

In the episode, Alapat also shares his advice for Houston startups looking to tap into the Houston innovation ecosystem — something he's watched grow over the past five years. Now, he says, when it comes to new startups in Houston, "the waves are hitting the shore."

"Houston has always been an entrepreneurial city, and this is just that next stage," Alapat says on the episode. "For me, it's the technology side that excites me even more to see technology companies really succeeding."

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Megan Eddings and Amanda Cotler of Accel Lifestyle

Megan Eddings and Amanda Cotler of Accel Lifestyle joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to share how they made the pivot from making T-shirts to face masks. Photos courtesy

For years, Megan Eddings, founder and CEO of Accel Lifestyle, worked on perfecting the perfect antibacterial fabric for an anti-stink athletic clothing line, but it only took her a few weeks to pivot toward using the material to make masks.

On a May episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Eddings and Amanda Cotler, director of operations, shared the story of how this pivot came to be and how they saw the Center for Disease Control was recommending wearing bandanas and cloth when face masks weren't available, they had an epiphany.

"Megan and I read that and immediately hopped on a call with our team," Cotler says. "We had a realization with our antibacterial fabric that a face mask made from it would be so much cleaner."

Within 24 hours, the duo had a sample in their hands, and they had 14,000 yards of their Prema fabric being shipped from California to Houston, where they had managed to find 60 local sewers ready to start making the masks.

Now, with the Houston workforce making moves to return to the workplace, Eddings says she's seen an increased interest in corporations wanting custom masks with the company logo on it for their employees.

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Durg Kumar and Allen Bryant,  partners at Knightsgate Ventures

Houston-founded venture capital firm heads into second fund focused on social impact Durg Kumar (left) and Allen Bryant, partners at Knightsgate Ventures, join the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss their second fund. Photos courtesy

Durg Kumar founded Knightsgate Ventures in order to find and fund startups with a social impact and a profitable business strategy. The Houston-based firm was founded in Houston and has since expanded to add a New York partner, Allen Bryant, to the operation. The duo joined the Houston Innovators Podcast in November.

"For a very long time, there was a perceived trade off between social returns and financial returns," Bryant says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "What we are seeing now is that's really not the case. You actually have businesses that are bringing impactful change and those businesses are propelled by that."

The VC's first fund invested in six startups — including Houston-based Voyager — and is now heading into its second fund. Kumar says the first fund's success was in part due to his network. Now heading into the second go around, Knightsgate's network has grown with the addition of Bryant.

The end of the year, Kumar and Bryant were focused on helping their portfolio startups focus on the next year.

"Now's a good time to retrench and focus on building product," Kumar says, "so that in 2021 when travel restrictions ease, then you've got your refined product to go out and take it to the customers."

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Joy M. Hutton, local leader of the Grow with Google in Houston

Joy M. Hutton leads the Grow with Google in Houston. Photo courtesy of Google

In November, when Google announced it was expanding its Grow with Google Digital Coach program to Houston, Joy M. Hutton was named the local leader. The entrepreneur and business consultant is hoping to help provide important business resources to entrepreneurs just like herself.

"In Houston, you have a lot of different resources that weren't available to startups before just within the past few years, and I think that's huge," Hutton says in a December episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Being more inclusive with people who need the resources who haven't traditionally had access to those resources is a big initiative. I personally am proud to be a part of that."

Hutton specifically calls out resources like MassChallenge and Founder's Institute — both of which she serves as a mentor for — as well as DivInc, gBeta, and of course the Grow with Google program. To get involved, Houston entrepreneurs can head online to learn more and keep an eye out for monthly classes online — and hopefully, in the future, in person events as well.

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Kyle Judah, executive director of Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Kyle Judah joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his new role. Photo courtesy of Lilie

When Kyle Judah accepted his position as executive director at Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, he had spent less than 48 hours in the city of Houston. In fact, his first two months in the role have been spent completely remote and out of town.

Still, his limited in-person interaction with the city and with Rice made an impact.

"One of the things I found so exciting about what's going on in Houston right now that, quite frankly, was incredibly attractive about the opportunity to come and join Lilie and Rice was that Houston has these big pillar companies in energy and health care and all these critical areas that the world, the economy, and the society needs," Judah says in a September episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "That's all in Houston right now."

Judah and Lilie's goal is to help identify the innovation happening on campus at Rice and bring it to the world. And, he says, Rice as a whole has a huge place in the greater Houston innovation ecosystem. The challenge is identifying what industries Houston and Rice have an opportunity to disrupt.

"We can't just copy and paste what works for the Bay Area or what works for Boston," he says. "We have to figure out what is going to be the authentic right sort of centers of excellence for Rice and for Houston — areas like energy, health care, space. It just so happens that these areas that Houston and Rice have historically done better at than anyone else — those happen to be the most grand challenges for all of humanity."

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

This week's innovators to know roundup includes Durg Kumar of Knightsgate Ventures, Rand Stephens of Avison Young, and Shail Sinhasane of Mobisoft. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In today's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators across industries — from commercial real estate to venture capital.

Durg Kumar, managing partner at Knightsgate Ventures

Durg Kumar — along with his New York-based business partner Allen Bryant — join the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss their second fund. Photos courtesy

As Durg Kumar enters into his venture capital firm's second fund, his focus is not diverted from Knightsgate Ventures' existing portfolio in this unprecedented time. Throughout the pandemic, Houston-based Knightsgate has been offering support to these startups.

"Now's a good time to retrench and focus on building product," Kumar says, "so that in 2021 when travel restrictions ease, then you've got your refined product to go out and take it to the customers."

Kumar and Allen Bryant, the VCs other partner, joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss their second fund and more. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Rand Stephens, managing director of Avison Young's Houston office

Rand Stephens discusses COVID-19's effect on office and innovation spaces. Durg Kumar (left) and Allen Bryant, partners at Knightsgate Ventures, join the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss their second fund. Photos courtesy

Since the 1980s, Houston has been increasing focus on diversifying its economy from oil and gas. Rand Stephens has observed this and noted that new innovation centers rising — like The Ion and A&M's new hub in the TMC — are indicators of progress.

"Houston is an incredible diverse city. We have unlimited talent from an engineering standpoint, and I think those types of projects bode well for keeping and attracting top tech talent. I think that's really the key," he says.

He discusses this progress and the effect of the pandemic on CRE in a Q&A. Click here to read more.

Shail Sinhasane, CEO of Mobisoft

This Houston entrepreneur created a new tool can be used to coordinate responsible rides for passengers infected with COVID-19. Photo courtesy

As the pandemic's effects continue to reverberate into aspects of daily life, a Houston software company has pivoted its technology to create an app that can safely transport COVID-19 patients to their quarantine location.

Mobisoft announced the launch of NEMT Pulse, a non-emergency medical transportation app to be used by schools, community health centers, hospitals, and more to easily facilitate isolated rides.

"We pivoted our NEMT software that could be implemented to safely meet the needs of those affected by COVID-19," says Shail Sinhasane, CEO of Mobisoft, in a news release. "This app provides a solution to ensure individuals who have tested positive can get to their quarantine location with one less thing to worry about." Click here to read more.

Durg Kumar (left) and Allen Bryant, partners at Knightsgate Ventures, join the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss their second fund. Photos courtesy

Houston-founded venture capital firm heads into second fund focused on social impact

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 56

When it comes to business, creating a social impact and a profitable business strategy aren't mutually exclusive — especially nowadays — and a Houston-founded venture capital firm is striving to invest in seed-stage tech companies that check both of those boxes.

Knightsgate Ventures was founded in Houston in 2018 by Durg Kumar and has since expanded to add a New York partner, Allen Bryant, to the operation.

"For a very long time, there was a perceived trade off between social returns and financial returns," Bryant says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "What we are seeing now is that's really not the case. You actually have businesses that are bringing impactful change and those businesses are propelled by that."

The VC's first fund invested in six startups — including Houston-based Voyager — and is now heading into its second fund. Kumar says the first fund's success was in part due to his network. Now heading into the second go around, Knightsgate's network has grown with the addition of Bryant.

"We're not just one local regional network; we have a national network," Kumar says. "We're not only looking to invest or raise locally — but also start getting the connection between the two ecosystems and find what Houston can learn from New York and what New York can learn from Houston."

Of course, the other difference between the two funds is that Knightsgate will be raising and investing from fund two on the heels of a pandemic. Thankfully, Kumar says, Knightsgate's portfolio companies were in a good place financially and even made strategic pivots amid the challenges.

Now, through the end of this year, Kumar says he and Bryant are helping their portfolio startups focus on the next year.

"Now's a good time to retrench and focus on building product," Kumar says, "so that in 2021 when travel restrictions ease, then you've got your refined product to go out and take it to the customers."

In the episode, Kumar and Bryant discuss each of their thoughts on Houston's growth as an innovation ecosystems from their two different perspectives.

Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Houstonian designs new experiences to encourage innovation in students

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 154

As director of social innovation at Teach For America Houston, it's Sarah Essama's job to come up with new ways for the organization to support both students and teachers. But, as she explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast this week, Essama realized a huge lesson modern students needed was to learn this innovation process themselves.

Part of being an educator is to prepare students for tomorrow, Essama explains, but with rapid technology development and adaption, no one knows what the future will hold for the job market or the world in general. The best way to prepare the future generation of the workforce is to teach them how to innovate, think differently, and adapt to new ways of doing things.

"That's what people are looking for right now — people who can provide out-of-the-box solutions to problems," Essama says on the show.

This line of thinking turned into Essama founding The Dream Lab, powered by Teach for America Houston.

"The Dream Lab is a set of immersive design spaces where young people leverage their imagination and creativity to innovate and solve problems within their community," she explains.

Last month, the new concept rolled out to high school students in partnership with DivInc Houston, a nonprofit focused on social and economic equity in entrepreneurship, and 21 ninth graders spent the day at the Ion for a mini-innovation accelerator and design showcase.

Strategically, Essama tapped into the Houston innovation ecosystem with the intent of showcasing the community.

"Innovation to me is being able to create something that has never been seen or done before — and that has a very important purpose," she says. "Exposing ourselves to innovation and people who think this way — and learning from them —is key to be able to be competitive tomorrow."

Essama says this program is still in the development phase. She's been testing out the concept with fourth graders and now ninth graders. She hopes the full program will be up and running by next fall.

She shares more details about the grant and the future of The Dream Lab on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Houston-based virtual reality startup raises $3.2M in first outside capital round

fresh funding

HTX Labs, a Houston-based company that designs extended reality training for military and business purposes, announced last week that it has raised its first outside capital.

The company has received a $3.2 million investment from Cypress Growth Capital. Founded in 2017, HTX Labs — developer of the EMPACT Immersive Learning Platform — has been granted funding from the Department of Defense as well as grown its client base of commercial Enterprises. The platform uses virtual and extended reality that "enables organizations to rapidly create, deploy, measure, and sustain cost-effective, secure, and centralized immersive training programs, all within engaging, fully interactive virtual environments," per a news release.

“We have been looking to secure outside capital to accelerate the growth of our EMPACT platform and customer base but we hadn’t found the right partner who provided an investment vehicle that matched our needs,“ says HTX Labs CEO Scott Schneider in the release. “We found everything we were looking for in Cypress Growth Capital. They have a non-dilutive funding model that aligns with our capital expectations and have the level of experience that really makes this smart money.

"Cypress has a decade-long track record of success in helping emerging software and services companies achieve scale," he continues. "It is clear that the team’s collective entrepreneurial and operating experience will be of tremendous benefit to us as we focus on expanding our customer base in a very intentional way.”

The fresh funding will go toward growing and scaling the company's operations — both within the current Department of Defense and expansion opportunities into key commercial markets, like heavy industry, manufacturing, and higher education. Additionally, the funding will support increased customer adoption.

“Scott and his team have built an exceptional business that is poised for dramatic growth,” says Cypress Partner Pat McCaffrey in the release. “HTX Labs’ modern, immersive training solution provides clients with a force multiplier for modernizing training and an unmatched ROI.”

Houston's biggest benefactors gift massive $50M to pivotal Rice University institute

big money

Houston’s most generous couple has once again gifted a massive sum to a local institution. Rich and Nancy Kinder’s Kinder Foundation has donated $50 million to Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, the organization announced.

The Kinder's generous grant will assist the institute’s focus on what it dubs “inclusive prosperity” — that is, “ensuring that everyone can contribute to Houston's success and share in its opportunities.”

This new grant follows the approximately $30 million he Kinder Foundation previously gifted Rice’s Kinder Institute and its affiliates to facilitate its headquarters.

“Over the past decade, the Kinder Institute has played an integral role in shaping Houston,” said Rich Kinder, chairman of the Kinder Foundation. “However, we can do more to inform and more directly address the challenges our communities face, particularly in the areas of housing, education, economic mobility, health and population research.”

To that end, the Kinders’ funds will ensure the institute can assist its partners regardless of their ability to pay for research. Funds will also help the institute respond to community research needs quickly during times of crisis — such as a catastrophic storm or pandemic — when funds aren’t readily available.

Kinder Institute director Ruth López Turley calls the grant “a gift to all of Houston,” speaking to the institute’s work to improve lives through data, research, engagement and action.

“Inclusive prosperity doesn’t just happen spontaneously,” she noted in a statement. “It requires an explicit effort informed by research. Lots of organizations are working hard to make things better, but most of them have very limited research capacity, and that’s what the Kinder Institute is primed to do.”

Founded in 2010, the institute has evolved into a leader in research, data, and policy analysis of critical issues such as housing, transportation, and education. The institute also releases the familiar Kinder Houston Area Survey, which charts significant changes in the way area residents perceive and understand Houston’s ongoing challenges and opportunities.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.