Matthew Costello, Kristina Haag, and Greg Wright are this week's Houston innovators to know. Courtesy photos

It's the penultimate Monday of 2019, which means it's also the penultimate roundup of Houston innovators to know this week.

Today's featured innovators include an entrepreneur revolutionizing the maritime shipping industry, a fashion designer striving for comfort in Houston's long summers, and a startup advocate shining a spotlight on cybersecurity.

Matthew Costello, co-founder and CEO of Voyager

Matthew Costello Voyager

Houston-based Voyager, co-founded by Matthew Costello, has created a software solution for inefficient communication practices of the maritime shipping industry. Photo courtesy of Voyager

While in business school, Matthew Costello could not kick the thought of all the inefficiencies within the maritime shipping industry. He asked a friend, Bret Smart, to help him look into some of the logistical communications issues within the industry. The two co-founders of Houston-based Voyager started asking some questions for all the different parties involved in shipping across seas.

"The data we got back was pretty alarming," Costello says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It basically showed that whoever you speak to in the maritime industry, people are spending about 40 percent of their day on what we would consider low-value, low-complexity tasks." Read more and stream the podcast here.

Kristina Haag, founder of Cotidíe

Kristina Haag worked a corporate job that required her to run around Houston. She thought of her new fashion line out of wanting stylish clothes conducive to Houston's climate. Lauren Marek/Cotidié

Houston is a humid subtropical climate — the majority of the year brings hot and sticky weather. Local entrepreneur Kristina Haag found herself struggling to find traditional clothing that is comfortable in the Texas heat, so she created it herself.

"With Cotidié, it is all about the functionality of the clothing," says Haag, founder of the clothing line Cotidié. "It is more traditional items, but the use of technical fabrics is our differentiating factor."

The online retailer, which launched in June 2019, offers pieces specifically tailored for women who are up against Houston's hot and muggy climate. Read more here.

Greg Wright, founder of Hatch Pitch

Houston-based Hatch Pitch will host two competitions in spring of 2020 — one marks the return of the competition to the Bayou City. Photo courtesy of Hatch Pitch

For eight years, Greg Wright has been organizing a SXSW pitch competition in Austin for startups from around the world that are using technology to improve life. In 2020, Wright is bringing Houston-based Hatch Pitch back into the Bayou City — a goal he's had for a while — for a new cybersecurity-focused event.

"Many people know us as being associated with Austin and SXSW, but not many people know us as being based in Houston," Wright tells InnovationMap. "There's been a big push to bring Hatch back to Houston, and what we've been struggling with is finding the right vehicle."

After Hatch Pitch Summit returns to Austin for its ninth year on March 16, Cyber Hatch will be hosted by the annual Houston Cyber Summit on April 28. Read more here.

Houston-based Hatch Pitch will host two competitions in spring of 2020 — one marks the return of the competition to the Bayou City. Photo courtesy of Hatch Pitch

Pitch competition returns to Houston with cybersecurity-focused event

Back to Hou

For eight years, Greg Wright has been organizing a SXSW pitch competition in Austin for startups from around the world that are using technology to improve life. In 2020, Wright is bringing Houston-based Hatch Pitch back into the Bayou City — a goal he's had for a while — for a new cybersecurity-focused event.

"Many people know us as being associated with Austin and SXSW, but not many people know us as being based in Houston," Wright tells InnovationMap. "There's been a big push to bring Hatch back to Houston, and what we've been struggling with is finding the right vehicle."

After Hatch Pitch Summit returns to Austin for its ninth year on March 16, Cyber Hatch will be hosted by the annual Houston Cyber Summit on April 28. Applications for both competitions are open and available online.

"We are excited to bring Hatch Pitch to Houston for the first time since 2013," says Wright, founder of the competition, in a press release. "The gathering of all this expertise at Houston Cyber Summit is the perfect place to foster innovation. It's an opportunity to meet and exchange ideas between startups, investors, customers, partners, leaders and change-makers."

The Houston Cyber Summit, which is going into its fourth year, will introduce a new innovation track to the event, which attracts cybersecurity experts from across industries. The pitch competition will shine a spotlight on early-stage companies creating safety and security online.

"The Houston Cyber Summit annually brings together a highly qualified, trusted network of business, government and academic leaders from across the Greater Houston region and beyond," says Umesh Verma, founder of Houston Cyber Summit and CEO of BLUE LANCE. "Partnering with industry leader Hatch Pitch, adds a new and exciting dimension to the cybersecurity and privacy landscape of our region and creates a new set of high paying jobs."

For each of the two spring competitions, four finalists will be selecting from hundreds of applications from companies around the world. All eight finalists will have access to mentors before pitching at the live events where they will field questions from the panel of judges. Similar to years prior, the pitches will be live streamed.

Over the past near decade, Hatch Pitch finalists have gone on to raise over $360 million and seen 11 successful exits. Recently Houston-based Braincheck, which won the competition in 2016, raised an $8M series A round earlier this year.

Take a good look at these Houston entrepreneurs' faces, because you might be seeing them in downtown Austin next weekend for SXSW. Photos courtesy

5 Houston innovators headed to SXSW to know this week

Who's Who

Welcome to a special edition of InnovationMap's weekly innovators to know series. This week has more innovators featured than ever, and we're highlighting a particular group of people: The Houston founders headed for SXSW in Austin later this week. From startup founders, coworking space leaders, and pitch competition organizers, here's the Houston SXSW attendees you should know about.

Scott Parazynski, CEO of Fluidity Technologies

Courtesy of Fluidity

Houston-based Fluidity Technologies and its drone controller, FT Aviator, will be presenting at the 11th annual SXSW Pitch event on Saturday, March 9, at 5 p.m. The company has been named a finalist in the Hyper-Connected Communities category. Fluidity is lead by CEO Scott Parazynski, a former NASA astronaut, pilot, and physician. The FT Aviator has the potential to revolutionize drone technology. The joystick-like controller is based off movement in space, Parazynski says, and is less prone to user error by someone not as well trained in drone operation.

Fluidity will find out if it wins in its category on Sunday, March 10, at 6:30 p.m. at the SXSW Pitch awards program.

Lawson Gow, founder and CEO of The Cannon

Courtesy of The Cannon

There's no better setting to talk Texas entrepreneurialism than a stage at SXSW, and that's what Lawson Gow, founder and CEO of The Cannon, is going to be doing on the "Austinpreneur: The Texas Startup Manifesto" panel presented by Capital Factory on Saturday, March 9, at 11 am.

Gow, who is the son of InnovationMap's parent company's CEO, has been juggling a lot since the launch of Cannon Ventures last year and the anticipation of The Cannon's new West Houston 120,000-square-foot facility, which is expected to deliver in May.

Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston

Courtesy of Station Houston

Gabriella Rowe, the fearless leader of startup acceleration hub, Station Houston, is headed for the state capital to talk, well, capital. Rowe will be a panelist on the "Startup Funding: From Apprenticeships to Professions" panel on Saturday, March 9, at 12:30 pm.

Rowe has served as CEO of Station Houston since August. The nonprofit has a lot going on ahead of The Ion's launch, of which the Station is the programming partner. Read more about that — and why Rowe says wild horses couldn't drag her out of Houston —in her Featured Innovator piece.

Katharine Forth, founder and CEO of Zibrio

Courtesy of Zibrio

Another Houston company selected as a finalist of the 11th annual SXSW Pitch event is Zibrio SmartScale, which is in the Health and Wearable category and is presenting on Sunday, March 10, at 5 pm. The company is all about balance. Its product, a smart scale that tracks balance, aims to reduce dangers that come with poor balance — injuries, deaths, and costs from falls. Katharine Forth leads the company as CEO and founder. The company was a member of TMCx's 2015 medical devices cohort.

Right after pitching, Forth will find out if her company wins in its category on Sunday, March 10, at 6:30 p.m. at the SXSW Pitch awards program.

Greg Wright, founder of HATCH Pitch

Courtesy of HATCH

For the eighth year, Houston-based HATCH Pitch is headed to Austin for SXSW to host its pitch competition focused on startups making the world a better place. Greg Wright, founder of the pitch program, will be there leading the event, which takes place on Monday, March 11, from 10 am to noon. The competition will be between four finalists. While only invited guests guests can attend, the pitches will be streamed online in an interactive way, so viewers can post comments or questions to the mentors, pitchers, and judges.

Houston-based HATCH Pitch has revealed its four finalists. The startups will take the stage during SXSW in March. Courtesy of HATCH Pitch

Houston-based pitch contest announces 2019 finalists ahead of SXSW competition

Get cracking

For the eighth year, Houston-based HATCH Pitch is headed to Austin for SXSW to host its pitch competition focused on startups making the world a better place.

This year's competition, which takes place on March 11, will be between four finalists. While the competition is invite only to guests, the pitches will be streamed online in an interactive way, so viewers can post comments or questions to the mentors, pitchers, and judges.

  • Sydney-based Edwel Energy is an app that allows users to compare the carbon footprint of millions of different products and services to enhance their eco-friendly decision-making process.
  • eHealthNow, based in Philadelphia, is the first HIPAA compliant platform that optimizes treatment plans for cancer patients in China by using oncologists overseas.
  • Dallas-based Mambo, an innovative webapp, allows for communities to customize member experiences, increase the sense of belonging, and grow revenue.
  • Neuroflow, another Philadelphia-based startup, is a health tech and analytics company that has a tool that promotes behavioral health access and engagement in order to improve outcomes, overall wellness, and cost of care.

"We chose these four startups because they are solving difficult problems that have real impact on real people," Greg Wright, founder of HATCH, says. "Their focus is on health, wellness, and environmental sustainability. Their success will make life better for overlooked groups and communities."

HATCH, a nonprofit organization that began in 2012, has dozens of alumni that have gone on to raise over $340 million and had 10 exits. The contest's 2019 mentors and judges have yet to be announced, but some of the past judges include Werner Vogels of Amazon, Kerry Rupp of True Wealth Ventures, Juliana Garaizar of TMCx, and more.

"The goal of HATCH Pitch is to provide coaching and connections to tech startups making life better," Wright says. "I'm proud that we have remained focused on this objective by evolving our summit event to provide maximum benefit to the selected finalists by surrounding them with the experience of our accomplished alumni, mentors, investors, and potential customers."

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Houston tech platform raises series C round backed by Mastercard

money moves

Hello Alice, a fintech platform that supports 1.5 million small businesses across the country, has announced its series C round.

The amount raised was not disclosed, but Hello Alice reported that the fresh funding has brought the company's valuation to $130 million. Alexandria, Virginia-based QED Investors led the round, and investors included Mastercard, Backstage Capital, Guy Fieri, Golden Seeds, Harbert Growth Partners Fund, How Women Invest I, LP, Lovell Limited Partnership, Tyler “Ninja” and Jessica Blevins, and Tamera Mowry and Adam Housley, per a news release from the company.

“We are thrilled to hit the milestone of 1.5 million small businesses utilizing Hello Alice to elevate the American dream. There are more entrepreneurs launching this year than in the history of our country, and we will continue to ensure they get the capital needed to grow,” Elizabeth Gore and Carolyn Rodz, co-founders of Hello Alice, say in a news release. “In closing our Series C, we welcome Mastercard to our family of investors and continue to be grateful to QED, How Women Invest, and our advocates such as Guy Fieri.”

The funding will go toward expanding capital offerings and AI-driven tools for its small business membership.

“Our team focuses on finding and investing in companies that are obsessed with reducing friction and providing superior financial services solutions to their customers,” QED Investors Co-Founder Frank Rotman says in the release. “Hello Alice has proven time and time again that they are on the leading edge of providing equitable access to capital and banking services to the small business ecosystem."

Hello Alice, which closed its series B in 2021 at $21 million, has collaborated with Mastercard prior to the series C, offering small business owners the Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard in 2022 and a free financial wellness tool, Business Health Score, last year. Mastercard also teamed up with other partners for the the Equitable Access Fund in 2023.

“With Hello Alice, we’re investing to provide support to small business owners as they look to access capital, helping to address one of the most cited business challenges they face,” Ginger Siegel, Mastercard's North America Small Business Lead, adds. “By working together to simplify access to the products and services they need when building and growing their business, we’re helping make a meaningful impact on the individuals who run their businesses, the customers they serve, and our communities and economy at large.”

While Hello Alice's founders' mission is to help small businesses, their own company was threatened by a lawsuit from America First Legal. The organization, founded by former Trump Administration adviser Stephen Miller and features a handful of other former White House officials on its board, is suing Hello Alice and its partner, Progressive Insurance. The lawsuit alleges that their program to award10 $25,000 grants to Black-owned small businesses constitutes racial discrimination. Gore calls the lawsuit frivolous in an interview on the Houston Innovators Podcast. The legal battle is ongoing.

Inspired by the lawsuit, Hello Alice launched the Elevate the American Dream, a grant program that's highlighting small businesses living out their American dreams. The first 14 grants have already been distributed, and Hello Alice plans to award more grants over the next several weeks, putting their grant funding at over $40 million.


NASA awards $30M to Houston space tech company to develop lunar rover

moon rider

Houston-based space technology company Intuitive Machines has landed a $30 million NASA contract for the initial phase of developing a rover for U.S. astronauts to traverse the moon’s surface.

Intuitive Machines is one of three companies chosen by NASA to perform preliminary work on building a lunar terrain vehicle that would enable astronauts to travel on the moon’s surface so they can conduct scientific research and prepare for human missions to Mars.

The two other companies are Golden, Colorado-based Lunar Outpost and Hawthorne, California-based Astrolab.

NASA plans to initially use the vehicle for its Artemis V lunar mission, which aims to put two astronauts on the moon. It would be the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972 that astronauts would step foot on the lunar surface.

The Artemis V mission, tentatively set for 2029, will be the fifth mission under NASA’s Artemis program.

“This vehicle will greatly increase our astronauts’ ability to explore and conduct science on the lunar surface while also serving as a science platform between crewed missions,” says Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Intuitive Machines says the $30 million NASA contract represents its entrance into human spaceflight operations for the space agency’s $4.6 billion moon rover project. The vehicle — which Intuitive Machines has dubbed the Moon Reusable Autonomous Crewed Exploration Rover (RACER) — will be based on the company’s lunar lander.

“Our global team is on a path to provide essential lunar infrastructure services to NASA in a project that would allow [us] to retain ownership of the vehicle for commercial utilization during periods of non-NASA activity over approximately 10 years of lunar surface activity,” says exploration,” says Steve Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Machines.

Intuitive Machines’ partners on the RACER project include AVL, Boeing, Michelin, and Northrop Grumman.

Intuitive Machines plans to bid on the second phase of the rover project after finishing its first-phase feasibility study. The second phase will involve developing, delivering, and operating the rover.

In February, Intuitive Machines became the first private company to land a spacecraft on the moon with no crewmembers aboard. NASA was the key customer for that mission.

Houston expert: How to avoid 'ghost hiring' while attracting top talent

guest column

One of the latest HR terms grabbing attention today is “ghost hiring.” This is a practice where businesses post positions online, even interviewing candidates, with no intention to fill them. In fact, the role may already have been filled or it may not exist.

Usually, an applicant applies for the job, yet never hears back. However, they may be contacted by the recruiter, only to learn the offer is revoked or a recruiter ghosts them after a first-round interview.

Applicants who are scouring job sites for the ideal position can become discouraged by ghost hiring. Employers do not usually have any ill intentions of posting ghost jobs and talking with candidates. Employers may have innocently forgotten to take down the listing after filling the position.

Some employers may leave positions up to expand their talent pool. While others who are open to hiring new employees, even if they do not match the role, may practice ghost hiring when they want a pool of applicants to quickly pull from when the need arises. Finally, some employers post job roles to make it look like the company is experiencing growth.

When employers participate in ghost hiring practices, job candidates can become frustrated, hurting the employer brand and, thus, future recruiting efforts. Even with the tight labor market and employee turnover, it is best not to have an evergreen posting if there is no intention to hire respondents.

There are several ways employers can engage candidates and, likewise, build a talent pool without misleading job seekers.

Network

A recruiter at their core is a professional networker. This is a skill that many have honed through the years, and it continues to evolve through social media channels. While many recruiters lean on social media, you should not discount meeting people face-to-face. There is power in promoting your organization at professional meetings, alumni groups and civic organizations. Through these avenues, many potential candidates will elect for you to keep them in mind for future opportunities.

Employee Referrals

When recruiters want to deepen their talent pool, they cannot discount the employee referral. Simply letting employees know and clearly stating the exploratory nature of the conversation can lead to stellar results. Employees understand the organization, its culture and expectations, so they are more likely to refer the company to someone who would be a good fit and reflect highly on them.

Alternative Candidates

In recent years, organizations and recruiters are more dialed into skills-first recruiting practices. Creating job postings that emphasize the skill sets needed rather than the years of experience, specific college degree or previous job titles, can yield a crop of candidates who may be more agile and innovative than others. Fostering relationships with people who fit unique skills needed within the organization can help you develop a deeper bench of candidates.

Contingent Workforce

Part-time workers, freelancers, and independent contractors are a great way to build connections and the talent pool. These workers and their skills are known entities, plus they know the organization, which makes them valuable candidates for open roles. If their expertise is needed on a regular basis, it is easier to have open conversations about a potential expansion of their duties or offer full-time work.

Internal Talent

Human resources and recruiters need to work with managers and leadership to intimately know what kind of talent lies within their own organization. Current employees may have the strengths, skills, and capabilities to fill new positions or roles. Through conversations with employees and their managers, you can identify who can flex different skills, but even more importantly, the ambition to grow within the company.

In every instance, it is crucial for recruiters and hiring managers to be transparent in their intentions. Communicating within your network that you are always looking for great talent to fill future roles sets the tone. When communicating with candidates, whether there is a pressing job opportunity or not, be clear from the onset regarding your intentions for hire. With a transparent approach to hiring and candidate development, you will keep the employer brand intact and maintain recruiting power.

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Jaune Little is a director of recruiting services with Insperity.