3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Erica Sinner of DanceKard, Angela Wilkins of Rice University, and Gina Luna of GP Capital Partners. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from dating tech to investment — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Erica Sinner, founder of DanceKard

Houston-based DanceKard is focused on getting singles off the endless swiping in order to make lasting connections and relationships. Photo courtesy of DanceKard

A proud Houstonian, Erica Sinner, whose background is in commercial real estate, was interested in creating a dating app that brought in local businesses. She launched DanceKard with several different offerings — all geared at driving in-person connections. Users can join the app to find events — not necessarily singles-specific events, although those are an option, but meetups where you know a certain number of singles will be in attendance.

"We focus a lot on group dating," Sinner explains. "That's something nobody does."

Singles, along with their single friends, can indicate on the app that they are interested in four, six, or eight-person dates, and see if their are other groups of friends looking to connect. Click here to read more.

Angela Wilkins, executive director of the Ken Kennedy Institute at Rice University

"Better and personalized healthcare through AI is still a hugely challenging problem that will take an army of scientists and engineers." Photo courtesy

Angela Wilkins, executive director of the Ken Kennedy Institute at Rice University, knows data and artificial intelligence can hold bias. It is, after all, designed by humans who have biases whether they know it or not. An issue with this is when these biases affect health care.

"AI presents the opportunity to bring greater personalization to healthcare, but it equally presents the risk of entrenching existing inequalities. We have the opportunity in front of us to take a considered approach to data collection, regulation, and use that will provide a fuller and fairer picture and enable the next steps for AI in healthcare," Wilkins writes in her guest column. Click here to read more.

Gina Luna, partner at GP Capital Partners

Gina Luna joins the Houston Innovators Podcast this week. Photo courtesy of Gina Luna

For most of Gina Luna's career, which includes two decades at JP Morgan before running her own strategic consulting firm, her bread and butter has been working with privately held, lower-middle market companies. Her latest endeavor is no different.

Luna — along with Paul Hobby, and Peter Shaper at Genesis Park — have joined forces to create GP Capital Partners, a new $275 million fund structured as a Small Business Investment Company. The fund will deploy funding into 20 to 25 companies within the region.

"The four of us just thought there was a real opportunity to bring this kind of capital to middle market companies in Houston, Texas, an the Gulf Coast region," Luna says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We have already seen, even in the relatively early days, there is a need an an opportunity to invest in great companies, and we are really excited to be doing that." Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Houston-based DanceKard is focused on getting singles off the endless swiping in order to make lasting connections and relationships. Photo courtesy of DanceKard

Houston entrepreneur is flipping the switch on online dating with new app

so over swiping

Like most people who are single and looking for a relationship, Erica Sinner is familiar with the dating apps. She's swiped and messaged with men in her area, but has little to show for it other than comically lazy responses from not-so potential soulmates.

Then Sinner had an idea. What if there was a platform that encouraged meetups and group dates and limited in-app conversations? An anti-dating app platform that took users off their phones, paused endless swiping, and also gave local businesses — bars, restaurants, etc. — a chance to host events or generate new business?

Then she thought, why not create it herself? Sinner started DanceKard to fill this need within the dating app landscape. After a soft launch a couple months ago, the app has over 170 users on the platform and recently joined gBETA's early-stage accelerator program.

"I think people forgot how great an in-person meeting is whenever you're getting to know someone," Sinner tells InnovationMap. "I love the fact that dating apps have made it easier to meet people, but at the end of the day, after you spend three days or a week talking to someone and then you meet them in person, and there's just something you don't like."

Sinner explains it like reading the book before seeing the movie — everyone is going to seem better when you build them up in your head.

"I've found, personally, there are guys who I met in person who are amazing, and I just wouldn't have thought that if I saw them online first," she says.

The name is a callback to when women connected with their suitors at a local dance. Women penciled in dances with their gentlemen callers, and that's how they got to know them — through a spin around the dancefloor.

"We're the modern day version of that type of dating," Sinner says, with less dancing but right in line with generating in-person conenctions.

A proud Houstonian, Sinner, whose background is in commercial real estate, was interested in bringing in local businesses from the start. DanceKard has several different offerings — all geared at driving in-person connections. Users can join the app to find events — not necessarily singles-specific events, although those are an option, but meetups where you know a certain number of singles will be in attendance.

"We focus a lot on group dating," Sinner explains. "That's something nobody does."

Singles, along with their single friends, can indicate on the app that they are interested in four, six, or eight-person dates, and see if their are other groups of friends looking to connect.

DanceKard also provides discounts and deals at its business partners' establishments. This drives business while also making deciding where to meet up a lot easier — and affordable.

"Everyone knows dating can get expensive — especially for the guys," Sinner says. "So, daters can go out on these dates and use a discount."

At the end of the day, DanceKard and Sinner are laser focused on creating relationships for their users. Modern dating has been defined by swiping on apps or drinking in bars, but that doesn't have to be your only options. DanceKard's events and opportunities will be more than just at bars — users can meet at the museum or the zoo and have an activity to connect with others over.

"People are looking for things other than drinking," she says. "They're realizing that if they are going to a bar where there are singles, that doesn't equate to a relationship."

For now, she's also focused on her hometown of Houston and is really being intentional about supporting local businesses and Houstonians themselves.

"Houston is a great opportunity," she says. "It's not about me, it's about this town. We have great people and great businesses."

Here's what companies are in the latest cohort for gBETA. Photo courtesy of gBETA

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."

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Houston startup shakes up antiquated hiring process for the next generation

new way to hire

Companies across the country have been requiring resumes and cover letters from their new hire hopefuls since the World War II era, and it's about time that changed. A startup founded in Houston has risen to the occasion.

Houstonian Samantha Hepler had the idea for SeekerPitch when she was looking for her next move. She felt like she had developed a formidable career in digital transformation and had worked with big name clients from Chevron to Gucci. However, she couldn't even get an interview for a role she felt she would be a shoe-in for.

"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."

And she wasn't alone in this frustration. Hepler says she discovered she was one of the 76 percent of job candidates who get filtered out based on former job titles and keywords. At the same time, Hepler says she discovered that 80 percent of companies reported difficulty finding talent.

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

"I was just a symptom of a larger problem companies were facing," Hepler says. "Companies were using algorithms to dilute their talent pool, and then the hires they were making weren't quality because they were looking for people based on what they've done. They weren't looking at people for what they could do."

SeekerPitch, which is in the current cohort of gBETA Houston, 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.

"We empower companies to hear the candidates' stories," Hepler says. "We're bringing candidates streaming to computer screens. We are the Netflix of recruiting."

Hepler gives an example of a first-generation college graduate who's got "administrative assistant" and "hostess" on her resume — but who has accomplished so much more than that. She put herself through school with no debt and in three years instead of four. SeekerPitch allows for these types of life accomplishments and soft skills into the recruiting process.

SeekerPitch profiles allow job seekers to tell their story — not just their past job experience. Photo courtesy of SeekerPitch

Over the past few years, a trend in hiring has been in equity and diversity, and Hepler says that people have been trying to address this with blurring out people's names and photos.

"Our belief is that connection is the antidote to bias," Hepler says, mentioning a hypothetical job candidate who worked at Walmart because they couldn't afford to take multiple unpaid internships. "They can't come alive on a resume and they won't stand a chance next to another person."

SeekerPitch is always free for job seekers, and, through the end of the year, it's also free for companies posting job positions. Beginning in January 2022, it will cost $10 per day to list a job opening. Also next year — Hepler says she'll be opening a round of pre-seed funding in order to grow her team. So far, the company has been bootstrapped, thanks to re-appropriated funding from Hepler's canceled wedding. (She opted for a cheaper ceremony instead.)

Right now, SeekerPitch sees an opportunity to support growing startups that need to make key hires — and quickly. The company has an ongoing pilot partnership with a Houston startup that is looking to hiring over a dozen positions in a month.

"As a startup, your key hires are going to make or break your company — but you have to hire quickly," Hepler says. "That's the ultimate challenge for startups. ... But if you don't hire well it can cost your company a lot of money or be the demise of your company. It's people who make a company great."

New Houston-based specialty pet supply company aims to pamper your pooch

good dog

Considering that Americans will reportedly spend $109.6 billion on pets this year, according to new data, it really pays to be discerning when buying. Now, Houston dog owners can stay local when shopping for their fur babies.

Houstonians Brad Madrid and Bobby Dwyer have launched Fido, a new e-commerce pet wellness brand. Available all over Houston, Texas, and indeed, the nation,

Fido products will initially start with Chill Chews and Clear Ears, both of which are scientifically formulated and aim to provide relief and comfort, per a press release. Products are lab-tested and veterinarian-approved, per the company.

Anxious pups may benefit from Chill Chews, which make training, traveling, and everyday life smoother and are said to help pets relax. The Clear Ears, meanwhile, is composed of natural ingredients such as eucalyptus and aloe and is meant to keep pets’ ears clean and clear of any wax, debris, fungus, and bacteria.

“As a professional dog trainer and breeder, I’ve worked with hundreds of dogs which has allowed me to develop a deep understanding of how dogs think and function,” said Dwyer in a statement. “Through my profession, I’ve discovered a need for products to ensure canines’ health and wellness, and it’s our mission to provide great products to make good boys even better.”

Brad Madrid and Bobby Dwyer have launched Fido, a new e-commerce pet wellness brand. Photo courtesy of Fido

Madrid and Dwyer aren’t just business partners but also brothers-in-law. Bringing science to Fido, Madrid boasts a background in pharmaceuticals, while Dwyer brings canine know-how with his experience as a dog trainer.

Both hope to see their business grow by leaps and bounds. Products are available for purchase on the website and shipping is available nationwide. Plans for products to be sold in local pet stores, as with international shipping available in the future.

If current data is any indication, Madrid and Dwyer are in the right business. A survey of 2,000 dog and cat owners found that 52 percent of respondents said they spend more money on their pets than they do on themselves each year, per GoBankingRates.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

How universities can help equip Houston with a skilled cybersecurity workforce

guest column

With an increasing number of data breaches, a high job growth rate, and a persistent skills gap, cybersecurity professionals will be some of the most in-demand workers in 2022. It’s more important than ever to have people that are properly trained to protect individuals, corporations, and communities.

Demand for cybersecurity talent in Texas is high. According to Burning Glass Labor Insights, employers in the Houston metro area have posted over 24,000 cybersecurity jobs since the beginning of 2021. But the pipeline of cybersecurity workers is very low, which means many local and national companies don’t have enough people on the front lines defending against these attacks.

Unfortunately, it looks like the cybersecurity skills gap is far from over. An annual industry report from the Information Systems Security Association shows that the global demand for cybersecurity skills still far exceeds the current supply of traditionally qualified individuals, with 38 percent of cybersecurity roles currently unfilled. This shortage has real-life, real-world consequences that can result in misconfigured systems and improper risk assessment and management.

How can companies help close the cybersecurity skills gap within their own organizations? We believe it will become increasingly important to look beyond “traditionally qualified” candidates and view hands-on experience as the same, or even more important than, the certifications or bachelor degree requirements often found in cybersecurity job descriptions.

The top open cybersecurity roles in the Houston area include analysts, managers, engineers, and developers. Employees in these positions are essential to the everyday monitoring, troubleshooting, testing and analyzing that helps companies protect data and stay one step ahead of hackers. When looking to fill these roles, hiring managers should be looking for candidates with both the knowledge and experience to take on these critical positions.

Fortunately, Houston-based companies looking to establish, grow, or upskill their cybersecurity teams don’t have to go far to find top-tier talent and training programs. More local colleges and universities are offering alternative credential programs, like boot camps, that provide students with the deep understanding and hands-on learning they need to excel in the roles that companies need to fill.

2U, Inc. and Rice University have partnered to power a data-driven, market-responsive cybersecurity boot camp that provides students with hands-on training in networking, systems, web technologies, databases, and defensive and offensive cybersecurity. Over 40 percent of the students didn’t have bachelor degrees prior to enrolling in the program. Since launching in 2019, the program has produced more than 140 graduates, some of whom have gone on to work in cybersecurity roles at local companies such as CenterPoint Energy, Fulcrum Technology Solutions, and Hewlett Packard.

Recognizing programs like university boot camps as local workforce generators not only gives companies a larger talent pool to recruit from, but also increases the opportunity for cybersecurity teams to diversify and include professionals with different experiences and backgrounds. We’re living in a security-first world, and the right mix of cybersecurity talent is essential to keeping us protected wherever we are.

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David Vassar is the dean of Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies at Rice University. Bret Fund is vice president overseeing cybersecurity programs at 2U.