A Houston entrepreneur is creating a fun and educational platform for children that helps to preserve their heritage. Photo by Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

Theoharis Dimarhos grew up in a family determined to follow tradition. As a child, his mother serenaded him with old Greek folk songs he still remembers, and his parents made speaking Greek a rule of the house. Dimarhos lived the immigrant family experience, and now he's developed a modern way to preserve pass down culture to the masses.

"My parents came from Greece in 1981, and in typical fashion, they didn't have much and didn't speak the language at all," says Dimarhos, who was born in Cleveland, Ohio. Living the first-generation American experience, he watched his parents work tirelessly to provide for the family and maintain their Greek culture in America.

Dimarhos did get his own immigrant story when his parents decided to move back to Greece when he was 7. After assimilating to Greece, he traveled back to the United States for college, where he learned to readjust once more.

"I kind of got that immigrant experience a couple of times," he says.

While Dimarhos grew up surrounded by his own heritage, he began to realize that "our native cultures were destined to fade if there wasn't a more modern way for children and our little siblings to learn more about their roots."

When talking with his friends from other countries outside of Greece, a general consensus grew: without modern learning, family heritage would slip away.

Enter: Ellis, an app that helps children connect to their culture. The app includes Greek songs, fables, mythology, history, and language.

Named after Ellis Island, a gateway into the United States for so many immigrants in history, Ellis nurtures Greek tradition in a way that caters to children through technology.

"I've always seen [Ellis Island] as a monument of courage to chase your dreams. . .people came and built this country, but also never forgot where they came from."

Interactive technology is becoming a large part of early childhood education, especially during COVID-19, as more families are at-home with children learning virtually. Children are the targets of over 80 percent of the top-selling paid apps in the education category of the iTunes store, according to a published analysis by Carly Shuler in 2012.

Dimarhos and his wife are deeply tied to their Greek heritage, and hope to pass that history and appreciation to their own children once they start a family.

"We wanted to make sure that there was a 21st century way for us and for our children to learn that goes beyond books," he says. "Something that's a little more immersive and fun — fun is very important — and educational."

Ellis is currently being beta tested with a group of 200 active users within the Greek community. The app, which targets ages 0-8, rolls out weekly content to parents.

"I'm receiving texts from friends who are parents begging me to put more content out because they need something to keep their children occupied," says Dimarhos. "Not only are regular schools closed, but cultural schools that are offered by the community are also closed and struggling to open back up."

Time spent on the app can be as short as five minutes and stretch into hours of learning time.

"The goal is always for children to pick up little phrases and words each time they listen," explains Dimarhos.

The stories and songs are all audio-based, tying into activities like waking up, eating breakfast, and bathtime.

"There's something magical about tying in an audio story or song with everyday tasks for kids," says Dimarhos.

Dimarhos parents see the app as "the next step of passing down the torch of our culture," he says.

"They tried to do it with the tools that they had for myself and my sister. . .We're trying to do the exact same thing that they did and their parents did, just with the tools that technology offers us," he says.

Dimarhos, who previously worked in economic development in Austin, had his first experience with startups when his former boss gave him a chance to work with his international accelerator for startups.

"I got my opening into the tech world through the international accelerator and seeing amazing immigrant founders create jobs and strive to do great things in America," he shares.

"Quite honestly, a startup that celebrates different cultures couldn't have a better home than in Houston," he says, noting the massive immigrant population and variety of cultures in the city.

In Dimarhos' own life, he's come across immigrants as well as first and second generation Americans who wish to preserve their own cultures.

"They've wished there was a more modern way to have access to those resources," he explains.

In the future, Dimarhos intends to quickly broaden the app to "launch in every immigrant community in the United States and around the world."

Connecting to cultural roots is something Dimarhos feels is "sacred" to immigrant families.

"It's something that you have the obligation from your parents as they give you everything for you to succeed in life. You kind of carry that obligation to carry that torch and pass it on to your children and their children," he explains.

"We grow up with that and the vision and the mission is just to create something that makes that a little bit easier to keep our cultures alive. I honestly think it's part of what makes this country great," he says.

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Exclusive: Hardtech-focused program announces Houston expansion, seeks local leader

changing the world

An organization that directs support to scientists developing impactful technology has decided on Houston for its fifth program.

Activate was founded in Berkeley, California, in 2015 to bridge the gap between the federal and public sectors to deploy capital and resources into the innovators creating transformative products. The nonprofit expanded its programs to Boston and New York before launching a virtual fellowship program — Activate Anywhere, which is for scientists 50 or more miles outside one of the three hubs.

"Our mission is to empower scientists to reinvent the world by bringing their research to market," Aimee Rose, executive managing director of Activate, tells InnovationMap. "There's so much technical talent that we educate in this country every year and so many amazing inventions that happen, that combining the two, which is the sort of inventor/entrepreneur, and giving them the support mechanisms they need to get on their feet and be successful, has the potential to unlock an incredible amount of value for the country, for the environment, and to address other social problems."

This year, Activate is planting seeds in Houston to grow a presence locally and have its first set of fellows in 2024. While Activate is industry agnostic, Rose says a big draw from Houston is the ability to impact the future of energy.

"We're super excited about Houston as an emerging ecosystem for the clean energy transition as being the energy capital of the world, as well as all the other emerging players there are across the landscape in Houston," Rose says. "I think we can move the needle in Houston because of our national footprint."

The first order of business, Rose says, is hiring a managing director for Activate Houston. The job, which is posted online, is suited for an individual who has already developed a hardtech business and has experience and connections within Houston's innovation ecosystem.

"We want to customize the program so that it makes the most sense for the community," Rose says about the position. "So, somebody that has the relationships and the knowledge of the ecosystem to be able to do that and somebody that's kind of a mentor at heart."

The program is for early-stage founders — who have raised less than $2 million in funding — working on high-impact technology. Rose explains that Activate has seen a number of microelectronics and new materials companies go through the program, and, while medical innovation is impactful, Activate doesn't focus on pharmaceutical or therapeutic industries since there are existing pathways for those products.

Ultimately, Activate is seeking innovators whose technologies fall through the cracks of existing innovation infrastructure.

"Not every business fits into the venture capital model in terms of what investors would expect to be eventual outcomes, but these these types of businesses can still have significant impact and make the world a better place," Rose says, explaining how Activate is different from an incubator or accelerator. "As opposed as compared to a traditional incubator, this is a very high touch program. You get a living stipend so you can take a big business technical risk without a personal risk. We give you a lot of hands on support and mentoring."

Each of the programs selects 10 fellows that join the program for two years. The fellows receive a living stipend, connections from Activate's robust network of mentors, and access to a curriculum specific to the program.

Since its inception, Activate has supported 104 companies and around 146 entrepreneurs associated with those companies. With the addition of Houston, Activate will be able to back 50 individuals a year.

Four Houston scientists named rising stars in research

who to watch

Four Houston scientists were named among a total of five Texas rising stars in research by the Texas Academy of Medicine, Engineering, Science & Technology, or TAMEST, last month.

The group will be honored at the 2023 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards by TAMEST in May. According to Edith and Peter O’Donnell Committee Chair Ann Beal Salamone, the researchers "epitomize the Texas can-do spirit."

The Houston winners include:

Medicine: Dr. Jennifer Wargo

A physician and professor of surgical oncology and genomic medicine at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Wargo was named a 2023 honoree for her discoveries surrounding the "important connection between treatment outcomes and a patient’s gut microbiome," according to a statement from TAMEST.

Engineering: Jamie Padgett

The Stanley C. Moore Professor of Engineering at Rice University, Padgett was honored for her work that aims to "enhance reliability and improve the sustainability of critical community infrastructure" through developing new methods for multi-hazard resilience modeling.

Physical sciences: Erez Lieberman Aiden

As a world-leading biophysical scientist and an associate professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor College of Medicine, is being honored for his work that has "dramatically impacting the understanding of genomic 3D structures." He is working with BCM to apply his findings to clinical settings, with the hope that it will eventually be used to treat disease by targeting dark matter in the body.

Technology innovation: Chengbo Li

As a geophysicist at ConocoPhillips, Li is being recognized for innovations in industry-leading Compressive Seismic Imaging (CSI) technology. "This CSI technology allows the oil and gas industry to produce these seismic surveys in less time, with less shots and receivers, and most importantly, with less of an environmental impact," his nominator Jie Zhang, founder and chief scientist of GeoTomo LLC, said in a statement.


James J. Collins III at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas was also named this year's rising star in the biological sciences category for his research on schistosomiasis, a disease that impacts some of the world’s poorest individuals.

The O'Donnell Awards have granted more than $1.5 million to more than 70 recipients since they were founded in 2006. Each award includes a $25,000 honorarium and an invitation to present at TAMEST’s Annual Conference each year, according to TAMEST's website.

The awards expanded in 2002 to include both a physical and biological sciences award each year, thanks to a $1.15 million gift from the O’Donnell Foundation in 2022.

Following a pivot, this Houston founder is ready make her mark on the creator economy

houston innovators podcast episode 171

When Madison Long started her company with her co-founder and friend, Simone May, she knew she wanted to do one thing: Provide a platform for young people to have reliable access to payment for their skills and side hustles. Through starting a business, making a name change, launching a beta, going through a pivot, completing an accelerator, and more — that mission hasn't changed. And now, young people across the country can opt into the platform.

Houston-based creator economy platform Clutch celebrated its nationwide launch earlier this month. The platform connects brands to its network of creators for reliable and authentic work — everything from social media management, video creation, video editing, content creation, graphic design projects, and more.

When the company first launched its beta in Houston, the platform (then called Campus Concierge) rolled out at three Houston-area universities: Texas Southern University, Rice University, and Prairie View A&M. The marketplace connected any students with a side hustle to anyone on campus who needed their services.

Long shares on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast that since that initial pilot, they learned they could be doing more for users.

"We recognized a bigger gap in the market," Long says. "Instead of just working with college-age students and finding them side hustles with one another, we pivoted last January to be able to help these young people get part-time, freelance, or remote work in the creator economy for businesses and emerging brands that are looking for these young minds to help with their digital marketing presence."

Once focusing on the gig economy, Clutch changed its focus to the creator economy. The founders launched a new beta after closing $1.2 million in seed funding last year.

"Even though we did have to pivot, we're excited to be at the place now where we do deeply understand how to service both sides of our marketplace — the next-gen creatives and the emerging brands — so that they can really empower each other to meet their goals," Long says on the show.

Clutch, which went through the DivInc Houston accelerator, credits a part of the company's ability to survive the challenges from making pivots on being founded in Houston.

"We attribute a lot of Clutch's success — especially early on — to being located in Houston," Long says, explaining that she moved to Houston from California in 2021 to focus on the company. "It was physically being in the tech ecosystem that was blossoming in the Houston network that allowed us to feel safe making the pivots we were making and get a lot of guidance from mentors we were meeting."

She shares more about what's next for Clutch on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.