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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Mayor greenlights major solar farm project in south Houston

shine on

Mayor Sylvester Turner and the city council have given the green light on a project that will convert a 240-acre former landfill in Sunnyside into a brownfield solar installation.

The public-private partnership with Sunnyside Energy LLC. received unanimous approval on a lease agreement that will move the project — which is a part of the City's Climate Action Plan and Complete Communities Initiative — forward.

"The Sunnyside landfill has been one of Houston's biggest community challenges for decades, and I am proud we are one step closer to its transformation," says Mayor Turner in a news release. "I thank the Sunnyside community because this project would not have come together without its support. This project is an example of how cities can work with the community to address long-standing environmental justice concerns holistically, create green jobs and generate renewable energy in the process."

The solar field, which is anticipated to be installed and working by the end of next year, will be able to power 5,000 homes and offset 120 million pounds of CO2 each year, according to the release.

"We applaud the actions of Mayor Turner and the City Council in taking this significant step," says Dori Wolfe, managing director of Sunnyside Energy LLC, in the release. "It is a strong vote of confidence for this impactful project. All members of the project team realize that this Sunnyside Solar facility will be an iconic statement in the rejuvenation of the community. We are grateful that Mayor Turner has given us his support."

The city's involvement with the company began in 2017 when Houston joined the C40 Reinventing Cities Competition – a global competition to promote sustainable energy projects. As a part of the competition and through the city's efforts on the initiative, powers at be selected the winning proposal from Wolfe Energy LLC, which formed Sunnyside Energy LLC to execute the urban solar farm project.

Per the lease agreement, the city of Houston owns the land and Sunnyside Energy will be the tenant responsible for permitting, construction, operation, and more.

Houston health company acquired by Seattle tech biz

M&A Moves

A West Coast health tech company has announced the acquisition of Houston-based 2nd.MD.

Accolade Inc., which uses technology solutions to help users better understand their benefits and the health care system, announced last week that it has signed a definitive agreement to acquire Houston-based expert medical opinion company 2nd.MD.

The goal of the acquisition is to further simplify the healthcare experience for employees and increase return on investment for employers, according to a press release from Accolade, and the company will continue to offer 2nd.MD's service on a stand-alone basis as well.

"We share a common vision to help every person live their healthiest life by dramatically improving quality and accessibility of care through a people-focused, clinically-driven support model," says Rajeev Singh, CEO of Accolade, in the release. "Bringing 2nd.MD's world-class Care Team and digital approach with expert medical consultation into Accolade, and continuing to offer it on a stand-alone basis, will have an immediate and measurable impact for our customers, their employees, and the health plans we work with."

"Both companies have built deep relationships with employers and health plans by helping employees navigate the increasingly complex and inconsistent healthcare system," Singh continues. "With the addition of 2nd.MD, we'll nearly double our total addressable market while providing the most comprehensive, integrated healthcare navigation experience available."

2nd.MD supports over 300 employers — connecting more than 7 million people to over 900 nationally recognized, board-certified medical specialists. According to the release, the company reported unaudited revenues of approximately $35 million.

"When it is you or a loved one facing a serious health decision, waiting for weeks to receive a second opinion from an expert isn't acceptable. We've built a scalable Expert Medical Opinion offering that treats every member like family," says Jason Melton, CEO of 2nd.MD. "Combining our Care Teams and technology with Accolade will enhance the reach and quality of support to members from the moment of crisis to the other side of treatment on the path to wellness. We share a common business vision, our cultures are highly aligned around employee purpose and we share a common mission to change healthcare for the benefit of all consumers."

5 PR and marketing tips for Houston startups and small businesses in 2021

guest column

The past year has been a rollercoaster for small businesses. When the pandemic hit, every single person was affected. We've all had to pivot in some way either personally, professionally, or both.

As public relations and marketing professionals who specialize in working with small businesses, we've spent the last 10 months in the trenches with our clients, advising and helping business owners and entrepreneurs navigate these uncertain times. While small business revenue is down since January 2020, it's not all doom and gloom out there – we've seen many other businesses experience unexpected success and growth, and according to economists, we are entering the greatest entrepreneurial economy of our time.

And as we start this new year, there is no better time to invest in business growth and planning. Below are five tips to help you get started.

1. Get smart on your PR

Whether you know a little or a lot about public relations, marketing, and social media, take some time to get caught up on the current landscape. It is constantly changing, and having a better understanding of how traditional media, social media, paid marketing, owned content and all other components can benefit your business will inform decisions about where to allocate your time and resources.

First, assess what stage of business you are in as well as your business goals to determine what PR and marketing tools could be most beneficial to your growth at this time. Not all small businesses are prepared, financially or otherwise, to invest in PR, and there are fundamental steps you can do on your own to get your business positioned to succeed.

With online education booming, there are many free resources and tools at your disposal. We created All You Need Method to simplify PR and marketing for small business owners. You can download our Free PR Roadmap on our website to assess what level of PR support is right for your business. We also created The PR Starter Kit online course to give small business owners the fundamental tools they need to use PR, marketing, and social media to support business growth and build a lasting brand – and it only takes a few hours to complete.

2. Revisit your target audience

The world has changed significantly over the past year and so have the wants, needs, habits, and interests of consumers. As a small business, it's imperative to understand your target audience's current problems in order to relate to them, build trust, and deliver a product or service that is meeting their needs.

Before investing time and financial resources creating and executing a 2021 business plan, take a step back and consider your ideal customer. Outline how the past year has created opportunities or challenges in their life, problems they are facing, new shopping habits, lifestyle shifts, communication preferences, concerns, etc. If you have more than one ideal customer, work through this exercise for each.

With this new perspective, you will be equipped to make business decisions through the lens of how you can better serve your customers, rather than how to increase revenue.

3. Stand for something

Brands that are succeeding today are the brands that are authentic, vulnerable, and that stand for something. According to a global study by Zeno Group in July 2020, consumers are 4 to 6 times more likely to purchase and champion purpose-driven companies.

Having a purpose doesn't require a brand to have a philanthropy component or an outspoken political stance – it's about identifying your specific values and making them apparent through your messaging and leadership within your industry. Values could include committing to sustainable production methods, outstanding customer service, commitment to diversity, or supporting a specific cause. What is most important is that your values are authentic and that you can stand behind them long-term.

As the founder/owner of a small business, you have an opportunity to put a face and values behind the brand so that your company is about more than selling something.

4. Clarify your message

After revisiting your target audience and carefully considering your brand values, incorporate those findings into your messaging. Conduct an audit of your website, social media channels, and all external facing materials, and update your messaging to ensure that if your ideal customer had a 30 second encounter with your brand, they would walk away with your most important messaging points. Important points to consider as you craft new messaging include:

  • How your product or service solves a problem for or benefits your target audience
  • Brand values
  • Points of differentiation

5. Be authentic and communicative

Before the days of social media, a brand had to rely on third parties, including editorials and ads in magazines and newspapers, to spread the word about their brand. Social media and all "owned channels," including a brand's website, blog, and newsletter, have leveled the playing field and allow small business owners to have control over their communication with customers. Through your owned channels, a brand can decide what to post and when, which is incredibly valuable.

While securing press and advertising opportunities is valuable to growth and brand awareness, it's largely outside of one's control. Focus your time and financial resources on communicating with your audience by creating content for your owned channels. Creating content and posting consistently can seem overwhelming to a solopreneur or small team, but there are ways to make it manageable:

  • Pick only a few owned channels to focus on, prioritizing platforms you are most familiar with using and where your audience is most active
  • Quality and consistency are more important than quantity. If you're only posting once a week due to bandwidth, commit to that frequency and increase frequency as you are able
  • To inspire and inform content creation, think about how you can serve your customers through your areas of expertise and what is relevant to both your brand and audience (events, holidays, partnerships, new product launches, etc.)
  • Create a content calendar so that you can plan out posts a month in advance to avoid last minute scrambling to decide what to post

Once you've worked through these five tips, make a plan to support your business goals - and start thinking in two phases.

  • Phase 1: Pandemic Home Stretch - Although there is hope with a COVID-19 vaccine, we know we will likely be dealing with the effects indefinitely. Use this time of uncertainty to get your business in the best shape possible.
  • Phase 2: Post Pandemic - How do you want your business or brand to show up when the world opens back up? It feels far off, but it is closer than you think and there is a huge opportunity for those who are willing to put in the work now.

Remember, these challenging times will pass. There is massive opportunity for the businesses and brands who are willing to reflect, pivot, and plan for a brighter future.

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Kathryn Worsham Humphries and Carla M. Nikitaidis are the co-creators of Houston-based All You Need Method, a PR and marketing resource for small business owners and entrepreneurs.