This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Amanda Ducach of SocialMama, Sam Newman of Little Red Box Grocery, 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 investment to femtech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Amanda Ducach, founder and CEO of SocialMama

Amanda Ducach, founder of SocialMama, is gearing up for a total rebrand and new product launch. Photo courtesy of SocialMama

For years, Amanda Ducach has been collecting data from the users of her social networking app, SocialMama. Now that data is fueling the AI of the new platform and a whole new phase of the company.

"When you have a compatibility-friendship-based product, you have crazy amounts of data. We could have went and sold that — like an unethical company and like a lot of companies we've unfortunately seen do recently. Instead, we used the data to improve our product to create positive health outcomes for our users," Ducach says.

Ducach share more of what she's working on ahead of the launch of the new platform and what it's been like starting and running a consumer-focused app in Houston on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Sam Newman, founder of Little Red Box Grocery

Equitable access to services is integral to the vitality of all communities. Photo courtesy

In a recent guest column for InnovationMap, Sam Newman, founder of Little Red Box Grocery, writes of how around 40 million Americans, including five million Texans, live in food deserts. Startups have an opportunity for impact.

"Equitable access to services is integral to the vitality of all communities. Good food, secure housing – it doesn’t just nourish bodies and minds, it can spur new investment into our neighborhoods and prove once and for all that manmade deserts of any kind do not have to exist if we let imagination and innovation prevail. If there was ever a time to prioritize access – and action – it is now," he writes. Click here to read more.

Gina Luna, partner at GP Capital Partners

GP Capital Partners is a part of a new initiative to provide training and job placement for future cybersecurity professionals. Photo courtesy

Houston-based private credit and equity investment firm GP Capital Partners has teamed up with LP First Capital, a private equity firm with offices in Austin and New York, to form National Cyber Group. The new entity, headquartered in Washington, D.C., will provide foundational IT certification training, job placement resources, and more, according to a news release.

Gina Luna, managing partner of GP Capital Partners, says this is a huge opportunity for Houston, as the city's tech jobs continue to grow, and the city continues to be a major hub for tech talent.

"There are many Houston companies that need well-trained, qualified cybersecurity analysts and many hard-working Houstonians that would find a career in cybersecurity an attractive path to better opportunity for themselves and their families. National Cyber Group can provide both, which is certainly good for Houston," she says. Click here to read more.

GP Capital Partners is a part of a new initiative to provide training and job placement for future cybersecurity professionals. Photo via Getty Images

Houston firm makes investment into growing, upskilling cybersecurity workforce

tech skills

Two investment firms have partnered to launch a cybersecurity workforce accelerator focused on attracting and training cybersecurity professionals.

Houston-based private credit and equity investment firm GP Capital Partners has teamed up with LP First Capital, a private equity firm with offices in Austin and New York, to form National Cyber Group. The new entity, headquartered in Washington, D.C., will provide foundational IT certification training, job placement resources, and more, according to a news release.

"There is a need for 2 million cybersecurity jobs in the United States today, and most of these are at the entry-level," says Gina Luna, managing partner of GP Capital Partners, specifying that the challenges within the industry include rapid global digitization, technology barriers to training, and increasing competing interests.

"The situation seems insurmountable unless cyber workforce development efforts — training and job placement— outpace global digitalization and conflict," she tells InnovationMap.

Luna says this initiative is similar to the work she did with the Greater Houston Partnership in founding UpSkill Houston almost 10 years ago. However, there is still a need for well-trained, entry-level cybersecurity talent across thousands of businesses and government entities.

National Cyber Group differs from what else is out there in that it provides low-cost, hands-on training with its CyberNow Labs and professional development and job placement services to the equation.

GP Capital Partners' investment included senior secured term debt and a direct equity investment. According to the release, these proceeds along with LPFC's investment, funded the acquisition of the two companies —Total Seminars and CyberNow Labs — and position National Cyber Group to grow and scale the platform over the next few years.

“The formation of National Cyber Group is a direct response to the current cyber talent deficit, and is the collective work of mission-motivated, enterprising individuals who love America and have together taken initiative to create a nationally needed capability, that also changes peoples’ lives for the better every day,” says Gabe Schrade, managing director at LP First Capital, in the release.

Luna says this is a huge opportunity for Houston, as the city's tech jobs continue to grow, and the city continues to be a major hub for tech talent.

"There are many Houston companies that need well-trained, qualified cybersecurity analysts and many hard-working Houstonians that would find a career in cybersecurity an attractive path to better opportunity for themselves and their families. National Cyber Group can provide both, which is certainly good for Houston," she says.


Gina Luna, partner at GP Partners Gina Luna is managing partner of GP Capital Partners. Photo courtesy

Miguel Calatayud, CEO of iwi, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his sustainable business of farming algae for nutritional products. Photo courtesy of iwi

How this Houston innovator plans to make a sustainable impact — one algae farm at a time

Houston innovators podcast episode 120

If there's one thing Miguel Calatayud is passionate about it's conscious capitalism — and specifically that his company, iwi, a Houston-based food and nutritional supplement company, is striking the perfect balance between impact and profit.

The company has created a sustainable suite of products from innovative algae farming in the deserts of Texas and New Mexico. These football field-sized farms operate on desert land using just salt water and sand and produce algae sustainably — all while absorbing CO2. Calatayud says the farms even area able to reuse 98 percent of the water involved in the process.

"In the past, you had to choose between making an impact and making a profit," Calatayud says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "In our case, the way we built the company and the business model we put together, it's actually the opposite. The bigger the impact we make, the bigger the business we're creating."

With all this sustainability to boast about, Calatayud says it's not even the best part. Iwi's products, which include Omega-3 supplements, multivitamins, and even a forthcoming protein — all made from the farmed algae, are also very competitive products in the market.

"We've been growing significantly for one main reason," Calatayud says." It works."

"That's what's really driving the growth in the company because once a customer starts taking iwi, they don't go back to whatever they were taking before," Calatayud continues on the show.

Calatayud says iwi is ready to expand more internationally. The company recently closed an $8 million deal — $5.5 million in senior secured term debt and a $2.5 million direct equity investment — with GP Capital Partners, an investor and strategic partner for the company. The influx of funding will help iwi accelerate sales of its existing products and ramp up development, marketing, and growth of new protein-based product, according to the release. Iwi will also enter new international markets.

"What we are going to do with [GP] and other investors that we have is to take this brand to the next level," Calatayud says. "Last year, we grew 91 percent. This year, we are planning to grow around 200 percent."

Calatayud says the pond systems iwi operates are replicable, and as the company grows he could see building these types of algae farms across the world and even in the Middle East, creating jobs and opportunities globally.

Calatayud shares more about the impact he's making and why Houston is the ideal market for him to do it in on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


A Houston-based fund has deployed capital into a local nutritional supplement business. Photo via Instagram

Houston fund makes first local investment in $8M deal

money moves

A Houston-based investment fund has announced its its latest deal that includes an investment into a local direct-to-consumer supplement company.

GP Capital Partners has invested in Qualitas Health, known as iwi, which produces plant-based omega-3 and protein products that's sold directly to consumers as well as retailers across the United States. Iwi's nutrition supplement is sustainably sourced from the company's cultivation pond systems, which are the size of football fields and located in New Mexico and Texas.

“We are excited about our investment in iwi. They have a proprietary and scalable process to create in-demand products in a sustainable manner," says Gina Luna, principal of the fund, in the news release. "We look forward to working with iwi’s management team as they pursue this transformative opportunity.”

The $8 million deal — $5.5 million in senior secured term debt and a $2.5 million direct equity investment — will help iwi accelerate sales of its existing products and ramp up development, marketing, and growth of new protein-based product, according to the release. Iwi will also enter new international markets.

“The iwi team looks forward to working with GP Capital Partners following their investment in our growing company. We have big plans for accelerating our growth, and are pleased to partner with this team that brings both expertise and relationships to support us in this new stage of the company," says Miguel Calatayud, CEO of iwi, in the release.

Outside of GP, the Houston company's other investors include Grupo Indukern, Gullspång Re:food VC, PeakBridge VC, , Arancia Group, Trucent, SASA, and Minrav. GP launched its $275 million fund last year. It's structured as a Small Business Investment Company and will deploy funding into 20 to 25 companies within the Gulf Coast region.

The supplement company is based in Houston. Photo via Instagram

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

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

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.

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

Houston investor targets middle-market companies with new $275M fund

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 108

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."

Luna explains how, in the world of financing, there's been a gap for this niche. Startups and small businesses have access to venture capital and grants, in some cases, and high-growth businesses might be able to garner private equity funding. And, as Luna knows from her time at JP Morgan, there's loans and banking. But what caught her and her partners' attention was the SBIC model, which is more akin to a private debt or equity fund, but some of the capital comes from SBA and some from private capital from limited partners.

Specifically, the new fund is targeting companies with $10 to $50 million in revenue, but are going through a transition and need funding to support the business through it.

"Ofter, their embarking on aggressive period of growth and need capital to support that, they could be making an acquisition, or it could be a transition between one generation and the next," Luna explains. "It's typically around some kind of event at some stage of the company's life that's not typically provided by a bank. ... Importantly, the owners maintain control, which is very different from a private equity situation."

In terms of deal flow, Luna explains that through her fellow partners and LPs networks, GP Capital is in a great spot to identify the right companies to invest in.

Luna is no stranger to the tech ecosystem in Houston either. After serving as chair of the Greater Houston Partnership, she was instrumental in founding Houston Exponential as the founding chair and board member. She also has supported other tech organizations as an adviser or board member, her latest appointment being with California-based media company, Roku.

She shares more on how she's seen the Houston innovation ecosystem evolve and what she looks for in supporting startups on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Early-stage accelerator returns to Houston, announces finalists

prepare for take-off

CodeLaunch, a traveling seed-stage accelerator, is returning to Houston for its latest cohort.

The startup competition sponsored by software development company Improving will have its ultimate showdown on February 28. The final competition pairs six startups with six startup consulting companies.

Jason W. Taylor, CodeLaunch president and founder, says CodeLaunch isn’t your typical startup showcase, as it incorporates music acts, comedy, and crowd networking. Mirroring the set-up of a TV show, the six finalists all present their working products in front of an audience amid these performances.

“I would describe CodeLaunch as the next generation of venture-tainment in North America and the greatest startup show on earth,” Taylor explains.

The 2024 Houston CodeLaunch participant startups — and their mentor partners — are as follows:

Prior to pitch day, all six teams will receive hands-on instruction from CodeLaunch mentors on how to construct their pitches and free professional software development from their partners. Taylor says the strong relationships between CodeLaunch and these developers played a major role in setting the competition in Houston.

“We love Houston and we’re back for a third year in a row because the Houston startup ecosystem works together better than other major startup ecosystems I’ve seen,” Taylor says. “We have some great software development partners in Houston that are building code for those startups.”

Last year, Houston-based startup Energy360, with the mentorship and help of Honeycomb Software, took home the Championship belt and a $100,000 investment offer from Cyrannus VC fund for their energy management system Matt Bonasera, Energy360’s enterprise architect, says he is grateful for the entrepreneurial community CodeLaunch provides, in particular the team’s mentor Oleg Lysiak, Honeycomb VP of Partnerships and Business Development.

“I happened along this great community of people who are really passionate about supporting each other,” Bonasera says.

Lysiak agrees that CodeLaunch is an ideal opportunity for young entrepreneurs looking to hone their skills and expand their product capabilities. Lysiak says he is looking forward to defending Honeycomb’s title as top consultant development team.

“My whole philosophy is to connect people and have different collisions and collaborations,” Lysiak says.

Houston startup completes testing, prepares biosimilar insulin drug for clinical trials

next steps

A Houston biotech startup is one step closer to releasing its marquee drug for the global insulin market, which is projected to break the $90 billion threshold by 2029.

rBIO says it recently completed testing of the properties of R-biolin, an insulin drug that’s biologically identical to Novo Nordisk’s Novolin drug. The patent for Novolin about two decades ago. In March 2023, the Dutch drugmaker announced it was slashing the list price of Novolin by 65 percent to $48.20 per vial and $91.09 per FlexPen.

Executives at rBIO are now pursuing a partnership with a contract research organization to manage clinical trials of R-biolin. If those trials go well, R-biolin will seek approval to supply its insulin therapy to diabetes patients around the world.

Washington University in St. Louis is rBIO’s academic partner for the R-biolin project.

The rBIO platform produces insulin at greater yields that traditional manufacturing techniques do. The company is striving to drive down the cost of insulin by 30 percent.

About 38 million Americans have diabetes, with the vast majority being treated for type 2 diabetes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many people with diabetes must take insulin to control their blood sugar levels.

Research company iHealthcareAnalyst predicts the global market for insulin will surpass the $90 billion mark in 2029.

“There has been a lot of talk in the media about reducing the cost of insulin for diabetic patients, but what is often overlooked is that the domestic demand for insulin will soon outpace the supply, leading to a new host of issues,” Cameron Owen, co-founder and CEO of rBIO, says in a news release.

“We’re dedicated to addressing the growing demand for accessible insulin therapies, and … we’re thrilled to announce the viability of our highly scalable manufacturing process.”

Professionals from the University of California San Diego and Johns Hopkins University established rBIO in 2020. The startup moved its headquarters from San Diego to Houston in 2022.

CEO Cameron Owen and Chief Scientific Officer Deenadayalan Bakthavatsalam work on insulin purification in the Houston lab. Photo courtesy

How AI is changing product management and what you need to know

guest column

For the past 14 months, everyone has been talking about ways artificial intelligence is changing the world, and product management is not an exception. The challenge, as with every new technology, is not only adopting it but understanding what old habits, workflows, and processes are affected by it.

Product managers — as well as startup founders leading a product function — more than any other role, face a challenge of bringing new life-changing products to market that may or may not be received well by their users. A product manager’s goal is complex — bring value, stay ahead of the competition, be innovative. Yet, the "behind the scenes" grind requires endless decision making and trade offs to inspire stakeholders to move forward and deliver.

As we dive into 2024, it is obvious that AI tools do not only transform the way we work but also help product managers create products that exceed customer expectation and drive businesses forward.

Market research and trends analysis

As product managers, we process enormous amounts of market data — from reviewing global and industry trend analysis, to social media posts, predictions, competition, and company goals. AI, however, can now replace hours, if not days, of analyzing massive amounts of data in an instant, revealing market trends, anticipating needs, and foreseeing what's coming next. As a result, it is easier to make effective product decisions and identify new market opportunities.

Competitive analysis

Constantly following competitors, reviewing their new releases, product updates, or monitoring reviews to identify competitor strengths and weaknesses is an overwhelming and time consuming task. With AI, you can quickly analyze competitors’ products, pricing, promotions, and feedback. You can easily compare multiple attributes, including metrics, and identify gaps and areas for improvement — all the insights that are otherwise much harder to reveal quickly and efficiently.

Customer and product discovery

Of course, the most intuitive use case that comes to mind is the adoption of AI in product and customer discovery. For example:

  • Use AI for customer segmentation and persona creation to help visualize personas, prioritize user motivations and expectations, and uncover hidden behavior and needs. You can then create and simplify customer questionnaires for interviews and user groups and target customers more accurately.
  • Analyze quantitative and qualitative data from surveys, support tickets, reviews, and in-person interviews to identify pain points and unmet user needs and help prioritize features for future updates and releases.

Roadmap and sprint management

AI provides value in simplifying roadmap planning and sprint management. Resource optimization is often a gruesome task and AI can help with feature prioritization and resource allocation. It helps teams focus on critical work and increase their productivity. You can even analyze and manage dependencies and improve results across multiple sprints months in advance.

Prototyping and mockup generation

There is no product manager’s routine without multiple mockups, wireframes, and prototypes that explain concepts and collect feedback among stakeholders. AI has become a critical tool in simplifying this process and bringing ideas to life from concept to visualization.

Today, you can use textual or voice descriptions to instantly create multiple visuals with slight variations, run A/B tests and gather valuable feedback at the earliest stage of a product life cycle.

Job search and job interviews

Consider it as a bonus but one of the less obvious but crucial advantages of AI is using it in job search. With the vulnerable and unstable job market, especially for product roles, AI is a valuable assistant. From getting the latest news and updates on a company you want to join, to summarizing insights on the executive team, or company goals, compiling lists of interview questions, and running mock interviews, AI has become a non-judgmental assistant in a distressing and often discouraging job search process.

Use AI to draft cold emails to recruiters and hiring managers, compare your skills to open positions’ requirements, identify gaps, and outline ideas for test assignments.

We already know that AI is not a hype; it is here to stay. However, remember that customers do not consume AI, they consume your product for its value. Customers care whether your product gets their need, solves their problem, and makes their lives easier. The goal of a product manager is to create magic combining human brain capabilities and latest technology. And the best result is with a human at the core of any product.

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Natasha Gorodetsky is the founder and CEO of Product Pursuits, a Houston company that helps early stage and venture-backed startups build products and create impact.