New data shows that Houston communities saw an uptick in startup founding from Black entrepreneurs. Photo courtesy

It might seem that the formation of startups would have stagnated amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet that was anything but the case for Houston startups founded by Black entrepreneurs.

A recent study by economists at Rice University, Boston University, Columbia University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that from 2019 to 2020, the startup rate rose 32 percent in four largely Black areas of Houston: Kashmere Gardens, Missouri City, South Acres, and Sunnyside. By comparison, the statewide startup rate during that period was only 10 percent.

There's no denying that Black-owned businesses already have a significant impact on the economy of the Houston metro area.

A report released in 2019 by the Greater Houston Black Chamber estimated the group's more than 1,500 members collectively generate anywhere from $1 billion to $2 billion in annual revenue. A little over one-fifth of the population in the Houston area is Black. That population is projected to grow 34 percent between 2010 and 2030.

In 2015, personal finance website NerdWallet ranked Houston the 15th best metro in the country and the best metro in Texas for Black-owned businesses.

The Rice economist who contributed to the study is Yupeng Liu, a doctoral student at the university's Jones Graduate School of Business. While he and his fellow researchers note that their study doesn't confirm a cause-and-effect relationship, "it is useful to note that the federal relief payments, and their uniform distribution (independent of eligibility criteria), may have played a role in enabling new firm formation in Black neighborhoods which might otherwise have been constrained by discrimination."

Furthermore, some experts speculate that last year's rise of the racial justice movement may have helped lift up Black entrepreneurs, and that many Black Americans set up new businesses out of necessity in 2020 after being laid off or seeing their work income or hours reduced.

The study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, compared startup data for 2020 in Texas and seven other states — Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, New York, Tennessee, Vermont, and Washington — with startup data for 2019. In all, the number of business formations spiked by 21 percent, with the growth of Black-owned startups being especially pronounced. However, an estimated 40 percent of Black-owned businesses closed during the pandemic, compared with 20 percent across all racial and ethnic groups.

The findings of the research bureau's study mirror a subsequent report from the Ewing Kauffman Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes entrepreneurship. The report found more Black-owned businesses were launched last year compared with the total population than at any time in the past 25 years, according to the Los Angeles Times. On average, 380 out of every 100,000 Black adults became new entrepreneurs during the 2020 pandemic, up from 240 in each of the previous two years, the report shows.

In reporting on the National Bureau of Economic Research study, CBS News and The New York Times spotlighted two new Black-owned startups in Houston.

Last July, Destiny McCoy and Oyinda Adebo of Houston launched a mental health company called Wellness for Culture. The company already has been so successful that McCoy says it now supports her financially, according to CBS News.

"All I knew is that I wanted to help Black women," McCoy told CBS News, "and all I knew was I didn't want to do therapy in the typical way."

Another Black entrepreneur from Houston, Pilar Donnelly, enjoyed similar success in 2020. Last summer, Donnelly began making playhouses for her two 6-year-old boys, the Times reported.

"She had been laid off from her job in sports marketing and wanted to give them something for their birthday. With no background in woodworking, she started off with a design she liked online and watched YouTube to learn woodworking techniques," according to the Times. "After making a number of playhouses for her friends and family, she realized it could be a business. That business, which she registered in June, is called Wish You Wood Custom Creations."

Woodworking is now Donnelly's full-time job.

"Everyone I encountered either had a really good year or a really bad year — and for me I had a good year," she told the Times. "Now I'm working outside in the grass and the dirt. I have a workshop in the garage; I have scrap wood everywhere. My life is really different."

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Houston cardiac health startup raises $43 million series B to grow AI-backed platform

money moves

A Houston-based tech company that has a product line of software solutions for cardiac health has raised funding.

Octagos Health, the parent company of Atlas AI — a software platform for cardiac devices like pacemakers, defibrillators, ambulatory monitors and consumer wearables — has announced a $43 million series B raise that will bring their technology to many more hearts.

Morgan Stanley Investment Capital led the investment, which also included funds from Mucker Capital and other continuing strategic investors. The goal of the raise is to supply funds to accelerate Atlas AI’s growth across the United States and to expand into other areas of care, including ambulatory monitors, consumer wearables, and sleep.

"This investment will enable us to accelerate enhancements to our platform, in addition to scaling our commercial team and operations. We are currently the only company that helps cardiology practices migrate their historical data from legacy software providers and fully integrates with any EHR (exertion heart rate) system. We do this while enabling customized reporting supported by patient and practice decision-support analytics," says Eric Olsen, COO of Octagos Health, in a press release.

Octagos Health was founded by a team of healthcare pros including CEO Shanti Bansal, a cardiologist and founder of Houston Heart Rhythm, an atrial fibrillation center. The goal was to find a new way to deal with the massive amount of data that clinicians encounter each day in a way that combines software and the work of human doctors.

According to the Octagos Health website, “Our solution allows clinicians to focus on other ways of delivering meaningful healthcare and more efficiently manage their remotely monitored patients.”

It works thanks to customizable reporting features that allow patients’ healthcare teams to get help while monitoring them, but to do it precisely as they would if they were crunching numbers themselves.

"We are excited to partner with Octagos Health and support their vision of transforming cardiac care," says Melissa Daniels, managing director of Morgan Stanley Expansion Capital. "Octagos Health has demonstrated exceptional growth and innovation in a critical area of healthcare. We believe their platform and vertically integrated software and services significantly improve patient care and streamline cardiac monitoring processes for healthcare providers."

Will Hsu, co-founder and partner of Mucker Capital, agrees. “Octagos Health is poised for scale – industry leading gross margins, a very sticky product that doctors and clinical staff love, and a market ready for disruption with artificial intelligence. This is the new wave for diagnostic care,” he says. And with this raise, it will be available to even more clinicians and patients across the country.

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.