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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Houston biotech company expands leadership as it commercializes sustainable products

joining the team

Houston-based biotech company Cemvita recently tapped two executives to help commercialize its sustainable fuel made from carbon waste.

Nádia Skorupa Parachin came aboard as vice president of industrial biotechnology, and Phil Garcia was promoted to vice president of commercialization.

Parachin most recently oversaw several projects at Boston-based biotech company Ginkjo Bioworks. She previously co-founded Brazilian biotech startup Integra Bioprocessos.

Parachin will lead the Cemvita team that’s developing technology for production of bio-manufactured oil.

“It’s a fantastic moment, as we’re poised to take our prototyping to the next level, and all under the innovative direction of our co-founder Tara Karimi,” Parachin says in a news release. “We will be bringing something truly remarkable to market and ensuring it’s cost-effective.”

Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita, says the hiring of Parachin represents “the natural next step” toward commercializing the startup’s carbon-to-oil process.

“Her background prepared her to bring the best out of the scientists at the inflection point of commercialization — really bringing things to life,” says Moji Karimi, Tara’s brother.

Parachin joins Garcia on Cemvita’s executive team.

Before being promoted to vice president of commercialization, Garcia was the startup’s commercial director and business development manager. He has a background in engineering and business development.

Founded in 2017, Cemvita recently announced a breakthrough that enables production of large quantities of oil derived from carbon waste.

In 2023, United Airlines agreed to buy up to one billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel from Cemvita’s first full-scale plant over the course of 20 years.

Cemvita’s investors include the UAV Sustainable Flight Fund, an investment arm of Chicago-based United; Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, an investment arm of Houston-based energy company Occidental Petroleum; and Japanese equipment and machinery manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a logistics startup founder, a marketing expert, and a solar energy innovator.

Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager Portal

Houston logistics SaaS innovator is making waves with its expanded maritime shipping platform. Photo courtesy of Voyager

For several years now, Matthew Costello has been navigating the maritime shipping industry looking for problems to solve for customers with his company, Voyager Portal.

Initially, that meant designing a software platform to enhance communications and organization of the many massive and intricate global shipments happening every day. Founded in 2018 by Costello and COO Bret Smart, Voyager Portal became a integral tool for the industry that helps users manage the full lifecycle of their voyages — from planning to delivery.

"The software landscape has changed tremendously in the maritime space. Back in 2018, we were one of a small handful of technology startups in this space," Costello, who serves as CEO of Voyager, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Now that's changed. ... There's really a huge wave of innovation happening in maritime right now." Read more.

Arielle Rogg, principal and founder of Rogg Enterprises

Arielle Rogg writes in a guest column for InnovationMap about AI in the workforce. Photo via LinkedIn

Arielle Rogg isn't worried about artificial intelligence coming for her job. In fact, she has three reasons why, and she outlines them in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"The advent of AI pushes us humans to acquire new skills and hone our existing abilities so we can work alongside these evolving technologies in a collaborative fashion. AI augments human capabilities rather than replacing us. I believe it will help our society embrace lifelong learning, creating new industries and jobs that have never existed before," she writes in the piece. Read more.

Nathan Childress, founder of Solar Slice

Solar Slice Founder Nathan Childress says his new venture offers a fulfilling way to encourage and promote solar energy and a greener planet. Photo via LinkedIn

Nuclear engineer and entrepreneur Nathan Childress wants consumers to capture their own ray of sunlight to brighten the prospect of making clean energy a bigger part of the power grid. That's why he founded Solar Slice. The new venture offers a fulfilling way to encourage and promote solar energy and a greener planet.

Although trained in nuclear power plant design, solar power drew his interest as a cheaper and more accessible alternative, and Childress tells InnovationMap that he thinks that the transition to cleaner energy, in Texas especially, needs to step up.

Recent studies show that 80 to 90 percent of the money invested into fighting climate change “aren’t going to things that people actually consider helpful,” Childress says, adding that “they’re more just projects that sound good, that are not actually taking any action." Read more.

Report: Amid difficult market, Houston sees uptick in VC funding

seeing green

Houston-area startups saw a healthy increase in venture capital funding during the first half of 2024 compared with the same period last year, new data shows.

In the first six months of this year, Houston-area startups attracted $760.55 million in VC funding, according to the latest PitchBook-NVCA Venture Monitor. That’s up 17.7 percent from the $645.99 million collected in the first six months of 2023.

Keep in mind that these figures might not match previously reported numbers. That’s because PitchBook regularly adjusts data as new information becomes available.

In light of various factors, such as the ongoing hype over artificial intelligence, fundraising will likely continue to be challenging for U.S. startups as a whole, according to Nizar Tarhuni, vice president of institutional research and editorial at PitchBook, a provider of VC data.

Nonetheless, Bobby Franklin, president and CEO of the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA), points out that American venture capital “is finding its footing in 2024.”

Across the country, VC funding for startups in the first half of 2024 totaled $93.4 billion, up 6.5 percent from the $87.7 billion raised during the same period last year, according to the PitchBook-NVCA Venture Monitor.

“With steadily increasing deal values, especially across early-stage investments, more first-time financings, and increased crossover investor participation, [the second quarter of 2024] was a good one for VC,” says Franklin. “Now it’s up to founders, investors, and regulators to support, rather than stifle, these green shoots as the market heads toward a recovery.”

In the second quarter alone, VC funding in the U.S. jumped from $35.4 billion in 2023 to $55.6 billion in 2024. That’s an increase of 57 percent.

By contrast, the Houston area’s VC funding went in the opposite direction. Startups in the region scored $231.79 million in VC during the second quarter of 2024 vs. $333.17 million during the same period a year earlier. That’s a drop of 30 percent.

So far in 2024, Houston-based Fervo Energy dominates VC hauls for startups in the metro area. In March, the provider of geothermal power announced it had secured $244 million in funding, with Oklahoma City-based oil and gas company Devon Energy leading the round.

Fervo’s latest pot of VC represents more than 30 percent of all Houston-area VC funding during the first six months of 2024.

Tim Latimer, co-founder and CEO of Fervo, says the $244 million investment enables his company “to continue to position geothermal at the heart of 24/7 carbon-free energy production.”

Fervo says the latest VC round will support development of its 400-megawatt geothermal project in Beaver County, Utah. The Cape Station facility is expected to start generating power for the grid in 2026.