ESPN's inaugural esports competition for college students is premiering at Comicpalooza. Jamie McInall/Pexels

For the first time ever, ESPN is hosting the Collegiate Esports Championship, and it's chosen Houston's 11th annual Comicpalooza to host it on May 10 to May 12 at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

"We are honored ESPN has chosen Houston and Comicpalooza for their inaugural Collegiate Esports Championship," says Michael Heckman, Comicpalooza president and senior vice president at Houston First, in a release. "Each year we strive to provide unique experiences for our different pop culture fandoms. Esports is undoubtedly popular and expanding. Teaming up with ESPN to bring the CEC here allows us to engage our audiences in a completely new, exciting way."

Students from hundreds of schools have competed to make it to the semifinals and championship in Houston, and scholarships are on the line. The weekend will have 22 teams across five video games — Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, Overwatch, StarCraft II, and Street Fighter V — according to ESPN.

"As universities continue to grow their esports programs at the varsity, non-varsity and club levels, we're proud to be providing a platform for national exposure and recognition of some of the most talented players in the collegiate space," says John Lasker, vice president of Digital Media Programming for ESPN, in a release. "Through our collaboration with top publishers in the industry, players will be able to showcase their talent in high-level competition on some of the most prominent esports titles."

Attendees and fans have access to the events with a Comicpalooza pass, but can also opt for the conference's Gaming Speed Pass for extra perks like reserved seating, a private lounge, and opportunities to meet the talent. Conference goers can also compete themselves in several different video games, according to the website.

Houston is a growing hub for esports. Mainline, a spin off company of Houston-based sports marketing company FanReact, launched this year to account for the growing presence of esports. Mainline's CEO, Chris Buckner, tells InnovationMap in an interview earlier this year that, especially because of this ESPN competition, other cities have their eyes on Houston for esports.

"I have been personally in contact with every major university in the city and they all are taking esports seriously," Buckner says in an interview. "It's actually a really exciting time for esports in Houston."

Chris Buckner (left), who has served as FanReact's CEO since its founding in 2014, will be the CEO of Mainline, and Patrick Schneidau has been hired to serve as CEO of FanReact. Photos courtesy

Houston startup spins off services to focus on esports and hires new CEO

CEO subs in

Houston-based FanReact LLC has decided to divide and conquer. The sports marketing and digital solutions platform announced it will spin off its Mainline business as its own company so that it can better focus on the esports market.

Chris Buckner, who has served as FanReact's CEO since its founding in 2014, will be the CEO of Mainline, and Patrick Schneidau has been hired to serve as CEO of FanReact. Both companies are evaluating which assets and employees go where, but both entities plan to hire.

"We see a tremendous opportunity for Mainline in the esports market," says Buckner in a release. "The acceleration in growth in our media and collegiate partnerships gave us the opportunity to focus exclusively on that market. At this point it makes sense to separate our Mainline business from FanReact to give each organization dedicated resources to serve our customers and partners."

Schneidau has has a long career in Houston's tech scene. He spent 12 years at Houston software company PROS and was on the leadership team when the company went public in 2007. Since he left his position as CMO at PROS, he served as the chair of the Talent Committee for Houston Exponential and serves on the board for InnovationMap.

Together, Schneidau and Buckner see the potential for Houston to rise as an epicenter for esports.

"Houston has the second highest viewership of any city in the United States behind Los Angeles," Buckner tells InnovationMap. "I think that's a product of Houston's diversity."

The spinoff allows for Buckner to focus on Mainline, which has become necessary as the business grew over time.

"The Mainline business has been so successful in recent history, that it just made sense for us to dedicate resources toward building that market," Schneidau says. "The momentum in that market as a whole — and in Mainline specifically — is just too large to ignore and not put 100 percent of Chris' time in."

Houston makes sense for an esports market, and the city is on board. ESPN's inaugural collegiate esports championship will be hosted in Houston from May 10 to 12 at the George R Brown Convention Center during the Comicpalooza weekend — and local organizations are on board with the rise of esports in Houston.

"I have been personally in contact with every major university in the city and they all are taking esports seriously," Buckner says. It's actually a really exciting time for esports in Houston."

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Houston SaaS startup closes $12M series A funding round with support from local VC

money moves

A Houston startup with a software-as-a-service platform for the energy transition has announced it closed a funding round with participation from a local venture capital.

Molecule closed its $12 million series A, and Houston-based Mercury Fund was among the company's investors. The company has a cloud-based energy trading and risk management solution for the energy industry and supports power, natural gas, crude/refined products, chemicals, agricultural commodities, softs, metals, cryptocurrencies, and more.

"We led the seed round of Molecule upon their formation and are excited to participate in their series A," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release. "Molecule's success in the ETRM/CTRM industry, especially in relation to electricity and renewables, positions them as the company to beat for the energy transition in the 2020s."

The company will use its new funds to further build out its product as well as introduce offerings to manage renewables credits, according to the release.

"In 2020, we realized that electricity — the growth commodity of the 2020s — represented over half of Molecule's customer base, and we decided to double down," says Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule, in the release. "We were also rated the No. 1 SaaS ETRM/CTRM vendor. With this fundraise, we have the fuel to become No. 1 SaaS platform for power and renewables, and then the market leader overall.

"Molecule is ready to power the energy transition," Soleja continues.

Molecule's last round of funding closed in November 2014. The $1.1 million seed round was supported by Mercury Fund and the Houston Angel Network.

Houston-based afterlife planning startup launches new app

there's an app for that

The passing of a loved one is followed with grief — and paperwork. A Houston company that's simplifying the process of afterlife planning and decision making is making things even easier with a new smartphone app.

The Postage, a digital platform meant to ease with affair planning, recently launched a mobile app to make the service more accessible following a particularly deadly year. The United States recorded 3.2 million fatalities — the most deaths in its history, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After losing three family members back-to-back, Emily Cisek dealt first hand with the difficulty of wrapping up a loved one's life. She saw how afterlife planning interrupted her family's grieving and caused deep frustration. Soon, she began to envision a solution to help people have a plan and walk through the process of losing someone.

The Postage, which launched in September, provides a platform for people to plan their affairs and leave behind wishes for loved ones. The website includes document storage and organization, password management, funeral and last wishes planning, and the option to create afterlife messages to posthumously share with loved ones.

"Right now, as it stands ahead of this app, end-of-life planning is really challenging. It's this daunting thing you have to sit down and do at your computer," says Cisek. Not only is it "daunting," but it's time-consuming. According to The Postage, families can expect to spend nearly 500 hours on completing end-of-life details if there is no planning done in advance.

With more than 74 percent of The Postage's web traffic coming from mobile users, an app was a natural progression. In fact, Entrepreneur reports the average person will spend nine years on their mobile device. Cisek wanted to meet users where they are at with a user-friendly app that includes the same features as the desktop website.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple," she continued.

Cisek and her team focused on providing a "seamless experience" within the app, which took approximately four months to build, which mirrors the desktop platform.

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app.

After snapping a picture, "the next step inherently is sharing it with your loved ones," says Cisek. Photos, family recipes and videos can easily be shared securely with loved ones who accept your invitation to The Postage so "that legacy continues on," she says.

Since The Postage's fall launch, the company has grown a steady base of paid subscribers with plans to expand.

"We're really starting to change the way people plan for the future," says Cisek.