Fifteen of Houston Innovation Awards finalists share the best advice they've given or received. Photo via Getty Images

The startup journey is a long and winding road, and there's many ways to navigate it. Fifteen of this year's finalists have shared what their most valuable startup advice for their fellow Houston founders.

From the importance of mentorship to tips for female and BIPOC founders, these pearls of wisdom come directly from a selection of finalists across a handful of categories, including DEI Champion, BIPOC-Owned Business, Female-Owned Business, and Mentor of the Year.

Read these excerpts of advice from Houston's innovation community's top startup founders and supporters.

Click here to secure your tickets to the November 8 event where we'll name the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards winners.

"Be comfortable with asking for and accepting help. This journey is a marathon, not a sprint, but helping yourself with supportive people around is critical." — Cameron Carter of Rosarium Health, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"Underrepresented founders often have trouble asking for what they want or deserve. ... Don't be scared to ask for what you want, or what you believe you deserve." — Pedro Silva of Milkify, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"It's not 'fake it' until you make it. It's 'take it' until you make it. Be proud to be you." — Pamela Singh of CaseCTRL, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"When starting a company, remember it’s a game of attrition. The best way to last longer than your nearest neighbor is to find your tribe." — Aaron Fitzgerald of Mars Materials, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"Know your worth and add tax. Choose your partners wisely — at home and work. Invest in the best stock you own: YOU." — Katie Mehnert of ALLY Energy, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"Whatever battle you're fighting now that no one knows about — go ahead and WIN the war." — Shoshi Kaganovsky of Feelit Technologies, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"My advice would be to find truly effective mentors who are willing to open up their network for you. It doesn't matter if the mentors are men or women — what matters is that they genuinely care about your professional success and who you are as a person." — Tatiana Fofanova of Koda Healthcare, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"Remember...There are a BILLION ways to apply sunscreen, but no matter how you apply it, it ALL protects you from the sun. Like sunscreen, there are infinite ways to succeed in the startup world. Trust your gut, stick to your vision, and keep trying until you find what works for you. ... Your purpose and vision should be your North Star, guiding decisions in team-building, coaching, and creating a company culture. Stick to that purpose—it's what will drive you through the rollercoaster of entrepreneurship." — Emily Cisek of The Postage, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"First and foremost, embrace your uniqueness. As a woman of color, you bring a distinctive perspective to the table. Your background is not just a part of who you are; it's a strength that sets you apart in a male-dominated industry. ... Resilience is your greatest ally. Challenges will arise, and it's okay to acknowledge them. What matters most is how you respond. Each obstacle is an opportunity for growth and learning. ... Lastly, trust yourself. You are not just running a business; you are shaping a narrative of empowerment and change." — Ghazal Qureshi of UpBrainery Technologies, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"Figure out, learn, and understand your mission inside and out and use it to make all your major business (and sometimes personal) decisions." — LaGina R Harris, founder and CEO of The Us Space and Mentor of the Year finalist

"Know your value and continue advocating for inclusion." — Janice Tran of Kanin Energy, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"Be your true, authentic self. There are going to be some people that like what you are doing, and there's going to be some people that don't, but the biggest thing is being true to who you are, and that's always going to flourish more than being who someone else wants you to be." — Muriel Foster, director of gBETA Houston and Mentor of the Year finalist

"Until you hire someone, you are the one wearing the product manager hat. You've got to love the problem more than the solution." — Wade Pinder, founder of Product Houston and Mentor of the Year finalist

"Be the person your younger self needed. Representation really does matter. Be a listening ear, share your lessons, and allow people to blossom under your leadership." — Michelle Ngome, founder and president of the African American Marketing Association and DEI Champion finalist

"Embrace your unique perspective as a source of strength and innovation. ... In Houston's dynamic startup scene, your presence and contributions as a traditionally marginalized founder or investor are essential for driving innovation and diversity. By staying resilient, seeking support, and advocating for inclusivity, you can navigate the entrepreneurial journey and make a lasting impact on both your business and the broader community." — Jessica Adebiyi, diversity and professional development director at Womble Bond Dickinson and DEI Champion finalist

Get to know the startups in the running for the Houston Innovation Awards People's Choice award. Photos courtesy

Here's what companies are in the running for Houston's startup of the year

you decide

There's one category at the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards that's yet to be decided — and that's because the decision is up to you.

The People's Choice: Startup of the Year category will honor the fan favorite of this year's awards. Seven companies will be showcasing their unique technologies at the event, and attendees get to decide their fate.

Click here to secure your tickets to the November 8 event where you get to help choose the winner of this exciting category.

Here are the seven companies, selected by this year's judges, who are up for the honor.

Blue People, helping bring ideas to life through software development expertise.

Enrique Carro, CEO of Blue People. Photo courtesy of Blue People

What's the company culture like at your company? How big of a priority is maintaining it as the company grows?

At our company, culture isn't just a buzzword; it's the heart of who we are. We have this fun concept called the "Blue Tags" where everyone picks a cool, sometimes hilarious, nickname—it's our way of saying, "Hey, we love your uniqueness!" And guess what? Fridays are special because we gather employees for a celebratory meeting where tequila shots are allowed that we call Viernes De Shots (Friday's Shots). However, it's not just about the shots; it's about building connections and recognizing our achievements as a team. Furthermore, our "Blue Principles", or what other companies call core values, guide us every day, woven into everything we do. As we grow, keeping this inclusive vibe alive is at the top of our to-do list! Cheers to a unique and awesome workplace!

How would you describe your leadership style in three words?

Adaptive, inspirational, and empowering

How has your company given back to the community in the past year or so?

In the past year, our company has been deeply committed to giving back to the community through various initiatives. We actively engaged in the Tejano Tech Summit and fostered dialogue with Tech & Tequila talks. Moreover, we dedicated our time as judges in the Young Inventors competition, encouraging and supporting young talent. Our CTO played a pivotal role by mentoring students in software engineering projects, emphasizing cloud technology, modern stack, and agile methodologies. We also proudly emerged as winners in the 50 cent G-Unity Business Lab Pitch competition and actively participated in programs like gener8tor gBeta accelerator and Codelaunch. Additionally, we extended our outreach to the academic realm, coaching and mentoring participants in events such as the Sam Houston State University Innovation Pitch Competition, where we achieved 1st place, and collaborating with Latin Venture Studio as partners. As a testament to our commitment to community engagement, we are part of the DevOpsDays Houston organization committee, contributing to a series of technical conferences. Furthermore, we play a role in The Houston Tech Rodeo, showcasing the best of the Houston startup community through conferences and friendly competitions, reinforcing our dedication to the growth and development of the community we are part of.

DrySee, innovative waterproof dressing with liquid intrusion technology.

Robert Bradley Greer is the CEO of DrySee. Photo via LinkedIn

What's the company culture like at your company? How big of a priority is maintaining it as the company grows?

DrySee has an adaptive environment with open communication and transparency. Our leadership is available to receive and provide regular feedback, and values the spirit of entrepreneurship. DrySee feels that the imaginative and engaged atmosphere is important to our growth and success.

How would you describe your leadership style in three words?

Inclusive, team-oriented, and consensus-driven.

How has your company given back to the community in the past year or so?

We donated thousands of DrySee bandages to the medical efforts in Ukraine.

Eden Grow Systems, next generation farming technologies.

Leo Barton Womack Jr is the CEO of Eden Grow Systems. Photo courtesy of Eden Grow

What's the company culture like at your company? How big of a priority is maintaining it as the company grows?

We are on a mission to bring food sovereignty to the people. Our vision is that our world is A Garden OF Eden, and we are here to serve it.

How would you describe your leadership style in three words?

Service, example, and commitment.

How has your company given back to the community in the past year or so?

We are deploying our systems into food desserts, schools, Ukraine, and around the world helping underserved communities begin their journey to food independence.

Feelit Technologies, nanotechnology for preventive maintenance to eliminate leaks, fires and explosions, increase safety and reduce downtime.

Shoshi Kaganovsky, president of North America at Feelit Technologies. Photo courtesy of Feelit

What's the company culture like at your company? How big of a priority is maintaining it as the company grows?

Culture is people-oriented. We are focusing on building a team that lasts. Diversity is key. Giving chances and creating opportunities is what will advance our world further. We believe that the human asset is the most important asset we have. It's a huge priority for us to maintain this is make sure that as we grow, our culture leads the way for us, with respect, dedication and innovation.

How would you describe your leadership style in three words?

Lead by example.

How has your company given back to the community in the past year or so?

School supplies, mentorship programs for children, sponsorship and hiring people from war zones/conflicted territories.

Fervo Energy, leveraging proven oil and gas drilling technology to deliver 24/7 carbon-free geothermal energy.

Tim Latimer, CEO and co-founder of Fervo Energy. Photo via LinkedIn

What's the company culture like at your company? How big of a priority is maintaining it as the company grows?

Fervo's culture revolves around four core values: build things that last; innovate through collaboration; do what we say we're going to do; stop and smell the roses. Taken together, these values create a highly creative, collaborative, and optimistic culture in which employees are encouraged to be open-minded, honest, and supportive. Maintaining this culture as Fervo's scales is one of the executive team's highest priorities.

How would you describe your leadership style in three words?

Visionary, determined, and collaborative.

How has your company given back to the community in the past year or so?

Fervo has joined the Real Energy Alliance of Houston and the Greater Houston Partnership to contribute to the broader Houston business and environmental community. Fervo also sponsored a class at Rice University to provide undergrads with clean energy mentorship and experiential learning opportunities. Fervo also recruited summer interns from the University of Houston Bauer College of Business.

Rhythm Energy, 100 percent renewable electricity service for residential customers in Texas.

P.J. Popovic, CEO of Houston-based Rhythm Energy. Photo courtesy of Rhythm

What's the company culture like at your company? How big of a priority is maintaining it as the company grows?

At Rhythm Energy, our company culture is defined by several key aspects: Passionate: Our team is genuinely passionate about renewable energy and our mission to make a positive impact on the planet. Collaborative: Collaboration is at the heart of our culture. We encourage cross-functional teamwork and open communication. Encouraging: We foster an environment that encourages innovation and supports employees in pursuing their ideas and initiatives. Flexibility: Our employees appreciate the flexibility we offer, allowing them to balance work and life effectively. Impact: Everyone at Rhythm Energy understands the meaningful impact our work has on the environment and society. Maintaining this culture is a top priority for us as we grow. We take proactive steps, such as quarterly surveys and team discussions, to gather feedback and implement positive changes. Our commitment to preserving this culture remains unwavering.

How would you describe your leadership style in three words?

Visionary, resilient, and approachable.

How has your company given back to the community in the past year or so?

Rhythm gives back to the community in a variety of ways. First, we have a very sustainable approach to our work environment, which promotes a remote first work culture, recycles, composts, and uses sustainable office supplies. Second, we actively participate in community service projects, whether volunteering at the Houston Food Bank, doing park clean up at Buffalo Bayou Park or planting trees at Memorial Park. Last, but not least, we partner with many local organizations, such as elementary school PTOs, youth sports clubs and performing arts education programs like Theatre Under the Stars, and really focus on giving back and educating the youth in the community, as they are the future and most impacted by our sustainable decisions today.

The Postage, a comprehensive life planning and succession software platform for families and small businesses.

Emily Cisek, CEO and co-founder of The Postage. Photo courtesy of The Postage

What's the company culture like at your company? How big of a priority is maintaining it as the company grows?

At The Postage, our company culture is all about understanding, supporting, and empowering each other. We're like a team of sailors, believing that when we lift one boat, we lift all. We value empathy, making sure we put ourselves in our customers' shoes, understanding their needs, and building solutions that truly matter. Everyone is encouraged to go that extra mile, take initiative, and embrace challenges as opportunities to learn and grow. We believe in transparency, keeping communication open, honest, and straightforward. As we grow, keeping this culture alive and thriving is a big deal for us. It's what makes us who we are, and we'll keep nurturing it because it's key to our success and how we want to make a positive mark in the world.

How would you describe your leadership style in three words?

Empathetic, transparent, and empowering.

How has your company given back to the community in the past year or so?

At The Postage, we're all about giving back and spreading kindness in the community. For the past three years, we've been honored to partner with the Smilin Rylen Foundation, a cause that truly hits home for us. Rylen's spirit is a big inspiration for us. He's a driving force behind our dedication to making a positive impact every day. So, to celebrate his life we encourage acts of kindness within our team and community. Small gestures, like helping out or sharing a kind word, mean a lot to us and embody the positivity Rylen always shared. Our commitment doesn't stop there. We proudly support the Smilin Rylen Foundation, not only financially but by getting involved in their events. We believe in spreading kindness and compassion, just as they do. At The Postage, we're all about making a positive mark, and Houston is our hub to make that happen. We're committed to uplifting our diverse and vibrant community, embracing the opportunity to lead the way. Even though we're a young company, our goal of creating a positive impact on people's lives remains strong, and we're thrilled about the future and the potential to keep making a meaningful difference, right here in Houston and beyond.

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New Houston venture studio emerges to target early-stage hardtech, energy transition startups

funding the future

The way Doug Lee looks at it, there are two areas within the energy transition attracting capital. With his new venture studio, he hopes to target an often overlooked area that's critical for driving forward net-zero goals.

Lee describes investment activity taking place in the digital and software world — early stage technology that's looking to make the industry smarter. But, on the other end of the spectrum, investment activity can be found on massive infrastructure projects.

While both areas need funding, Lee has started his new venture studio, Flathead Forge, to target early-stage hardtech technologies.

“We are really getting at the early stage companies that are trying to develop technologies at the intersection of legacy industries that we believe can become more sustainable and the energy transition — where we are going. It’s not an ‘if’ or ‘or’ — we believe these things intersect,” he tells EnergyCapital.

Specifically, Lee's expertise is within the water and industrial gas space. For around 15 years, he's made investments in this area, which he describes as crucial to the energy transition.

“Almost every energy transition technology that you can point to has some critical dependency on water or gas,” he says. “We believe that if we don’t solve for those things, the other projects won’t survive.”

Lee, and his brother, Dave, are evolving their family office to adopt a venture studio model. They also sold off Azoto Energy, a Canadian oilfield nitrogen cryogenic services business, in December.

“We ourselves are going through a transition like our energy is going through a transition,” he says. “We are transitioning into a single family office into a venture studio. By doing so, we want to focus all of our access and resources into this focus.”

At this point, Flathead Forge has seven portfolio companies and around 15 corporations they are working with to identify their needs and potential opportunities. Lee says he's gearing up to secure a $100 million fund.

Flathead also has 40 advisers and mentors, which Lee calls sherpas — a nod to the Flathead Valley region in Montana, which inspired the firm's name.

“We’re going to help you carry up, we’re going to tie ourselves to the same rope as you, and if you fall off the mountain, we’re falling off with you,” Lee says of his hands-on approach, which he says sets Flathead apart from other studios.

Another thing that's differentiating Flathead Forge from its competition — it's dedication to giving back.

“We’ve set aside a quarter of our carried interest for scholarships and grants,” Lee says.

The funds will go to scholarships for future engineers interested in the energy transition, as well as grants for researchers studying high-potential technologies.

“We’re putting our own money where our mouth is,” Lee says of his thesis for Flathead Forge.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston-based lunar mission's rocky landing and what it means for America's return to the moon

houston, we have a problem

A private U.S. lunar lander tipped over at touchdown and ended up on its side near the moon’s south pole, hampering communications, company officials said Friday.

Intuitive Machines initially believed its six-footed lander, Odysseus, was upright after Thursday's touchdown. But CEO Steve Altemus said Friday the craft “caught a foot in the surface," falling onto its side and, quite possibly, leaning against a rock. He said it was coming in too fast and may have snapped a leg.

“So far, we have quite a bit of operational capability even though we’re tipped over," he told reporters.

But some antennas were pointed toward the surface, limiting flight controllers' ability to get data down, Altemus said. The antennas were stationed high on the 14-foot (4.3-meter) lander to facilitate communications at the hilly, cratered and shadowed south polar region.

Odysseus — the first U.S. lander in more than 50 years — is thought to be within a few miles (kilometers) of its intended landing site near the Malapert A crater, less than 200 miles (300 kilometers) from the south pole. NASA, the main customer, wanted to get as close as possible to the pole to scout out the area before astronauts show up later this decade.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will attempt to pinpoint the lander's location, as it flies overhead this weekend.

With Thursday’s touchdown, Intuitive Machines became the first private business to pull off a moon landing, a feat previously achieved by only five countries. Japan was the latest country to score a landing, but its lander also ended up on its side last month.

Odysseus' mission was sponsored in large part by NASA, whose experiments were on board. NASA paid $118 million for the delivery under a program meant to jump-start the lunar economy.

One of the NASA experiments was pressed into service when the lander's navigation system did not kick in. Intuitive Machines caught the problem in advance when it tried to use its lasers to improve the lander's orbit. Otherwise, flight controllers would not have discovered the failure until it was too late, just five minutes before touchdown.

“Serendipity is absolutely the right word,” mission director Tim Crain said.

It turns out that a switch was not flipped before flight, preventing the system's activation in space.

Launched last week from Florida, Odysseus took an extra lap around the moon Thursday to allow time for the last-minute switch to NASA's laser system, which saved the day, officials noted.

Another experiment, a cube with four cameras, was supposed to pop off 30 seconds before touchdown to capture pictures of Odysseus’ landing. But Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s EagleCam was deliberately powered off during the final descent because of the navigation switch and stayed attached to the lander.

Embry-Riddle's Troy Henderson said his team will try to release EagleCam in the coming days, so it can photograph the lander from roughly 26 feet (8 meters) away.

"Getting that final picture of the lander on the surface is still an incredibly important task for us,” Henderson told The Associated Press.

Intuitive Machines anticipates just another week of operations on the moon for the solar-powered lander — nine or 10 days at most — before lunar nightfall hits.

The company was the second business to aim for the moon under NASA's commercial lunar services program. Last month, Pittsburgh's Astrobotic Technology gave it a shot, but a fuel leak on the lander cut the mission short and the craft ended up crashing back to Earth.

Until Thursday, the U.S. had not landed on the moon since Apollo 17's Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closed out NASA's famed moon-landing program in December 1972. NASA's new effort to return astronauts to the moon is named Artemis after Apollo's mythological twin sister. The first Artemis crew landing is planned for 2026 at the earliest.

3 female Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

If the energy transition is going to be successful, the energy storage space needs to be equipped to support both the increased volume of energy needed and new energies. And Emma Konet and her software company, Tierra Climate, are targeting one part of the equation: the market.

"To me, it's very clear that we need to build a lot of energy storage in order to transition the grid," Konet says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The problems that I saw were really on the market side of things." Read more.

Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. Photo courtesy of Sage

A Houston geothermal startup has announced the close of its series A round of funding.

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. The proceeds aim to fund its first commercial geopressured geothermal system facility, which will be built in Texas in Q4 of 2024. According to the company, the facility will be the first of its kind.

“The first close of our Series A funding and our commercial facility are significant milestones in our mission to make geopressured geothermal system technologies a reality,” Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems, says. Read more.

Clemmie Martin, chief of staff at The Cannon

With seven locations across the Houston area, The Cannon's digital technology allows its members a streamlined connection. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

After collaborating over the years, The Cannon has acquired a Houston startup's digital platform technology to become a "physical-digital hybrid" community.

Village Insights, a Houston startup, worked with The Cannon to create and launch its digital community platform Cannon Connect. Now, The Cannon has officially acquired the business. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“The integration of a world-class onsite member experience and Cannon Connect’s superior virtual resource network creates a seamless, streamlined environment for member organizations,” Clemmie Martin, The Cannon’s newly appointed chief of staff, says in the release. “Cannon Connect and this acquisition have paved new pathways to access and success for all.” Read more.