3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Robert Kester of Honeywell Rebellion, Serafina Lalany of Houston Exponential, and Shaun Noorian of Empower Pharmacy. 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 oil and gas tech to pharmaceuticals — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Robert Kester, president and general manager at Honeywell Rebellion

Robert Kester, founder of Rebellion Photonics and president and general manager at Honeywell

Robert Kester joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his entrepreneurial journey. Photo courtesy of Honeywell

Robert Kester co-founded Rebellion Photonics in 2010. After several years of developing the device that could be used to automate the process and improve safety on oil and gas sites, Kester and his team saw a rising need for the tech — which also meant a need for Rebellion to scale quickly. In 2019, Rebellion exited in an acquisition by Honeywell.

"For us it just made sense that we could team up with Honeywell and figure out how we could scale this thing globally and quickly, so that we could help be a solution for climate change," Kester continues.

Now, as president and general manager at Honeywell Rebellion, Kester still works on his technology under the umbrella of the Honeywell brand. He joined the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to discuss the transition and what he's focused on now. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Serafina Lalany, interim president of Houston Exponential

Serafina Lalany, vice president of operations at Houston Exponential

Last week, Serafina Lalany is acting as interim identifies the organization's new leader. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Serafina Lalany, vice president of operations at Houston Exponential, will act as interim executive director for the organization after Harvin Moore, who has served as president of HX since June 2019, announced his resignation last week. HX's Chair Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures, says Moore is resigning to devote more time to working with growth-stage companies as a mentor, adviser, and investor.

"In a rapidly growing and evolving landscape like this one, we must ensure resources are leveraged for greatest impact," Burger says. "The HX executive committee believes now is an appropriate time re-strategize with the HX organization to ensure it is aligned with the current needs of the innovation ecosystem. While changes may be called for to place resources where they can do the most good, there remains a need for a broad ecosystem champion and HX will continue to serve in that role." Click here to read more.

Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy

Houston founder talks growth and innovation in the pharmaceuticals industry Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy, joined InnovationMap for a Q&A on his rapidly growing compounding pharmacy business. Photo courtesy of Empower Pharmacy

Shaun Noorian founded Empower Pharmacy so he could create a business that was service focused, and now the company has grown and expanded — and is now working on building two new 85,000-square-foot facilities in Houston. Noorian, in a Q&A with InnovationMap, explained that Houston has been integral to his success.

"I think being in Houston is one of the reasons why we've grown to become the largest compounding pharmacy in the nation," Noorian tells InnovationMap. "I'm sure we're all aware that having the largest medical center in the world in your own backyard is a great way to have more prescribers than pretty much any other city in the country. That definitely helped us and continues to help us grow.

"Additionally, being the third largest city by population means we have a large workforce to pull a diverse workforce for whatever this company needs," he continues. "Having a diverse workforce has been integral in our growth." Click here to read more.

Harvin Moore has resigned from his position as president of Houston Exponential. Serafina Lalany is acting as interim executive director. Photos courtesy of HX

Houston Exponential leader resigns, interim named

leadership change

Houston Exponential has announced a leadership change, according to a statement from the organization.

Harvin Moore, who has served as president of HX since June 2019, has announced his resignation to the chair of the organization, Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures. In the statement, Burger says Moore is resigning to devote more time to working with growth-stage companies as a mentor, adviser, and investor.

Serafina Lalany, vice president of operations at HX, will act as interim executive director.

"In a rapidly growing and evolving landscape like this one, we must ensure resources are leveraged for greatest impact," Burger says. "The HX executive committee believes now is an appropriate time re-strategize with the HX organization to ensure it is aligned with the current needs of the innovation ecosystem. While changes may be called for to place resources where they can do the most good, there remains a need for a broad ecosystem champion and HX will continue to serve in that role."

Moore — who followed Russ Capper, the inaugural executive director of HX — has a 20-year career in tech and startups in Houston. He is a principal at an early-stage investment firm, Frontera Technology Ventures, and before that served as COO for Space Services Holdings Inc. According to his LinkedIn profile, he's also the director of Industrial Tech Acquisitions Inc., a blank check company, or SPAC.

"Under Harvin's leadership over the last two years, HX has maintained its successful trajectory and achieved important milestones," Burger continues in the statement. "I wish him well in his future endeavors."

According to the statement, all other Houston Exponential staff will remain in place during this review period to support ongoing activities.

Here's who's making the call for the inaugural InnovationMap Awards. Graphic via Gow Media

InnovationMap names judges for inaugural awards program

in the hot seat

It's been two weeks since InnovationMap announced its inaugural awards program presented by Techwave — and the ecosystem is already buzzing with excitement to find out the top innovative companies in town.

The InnovationMap Awards will honor Houston's innovators and their breakthrough technologies across industries. The program and hybrid event — which will take place September 8 — will shine a spotlight on the movers and shakers within Houston's burgeoning innovation community. Nominations are open for the awards now — and the deadline to submit your nomination is July 23.

Click here to nominate a deserving company.

But who will decide this year's finalists and winners for the event? A cohort of eight of the best innovation leaders in the Bayou City. Introducing: The 2021 InnovationMap Awards judges:

Juliana Garaizar, head of Greentown Houston and vice president of Greentown Labs

Courtesy photo

A longtime angel investor and Houston innovation leader, Juliana Garaizar is no stranger to the local ecosystem. Prior to her current role leading Greentown Labs in Houston, she served as director of the Texas Medical Center's Venture Fund and managing director at the Houston Angel Network. She's also involved with Houston-based Business Angel Minority Association, or baMa, and has worked with Portfolia for over five years.

Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge

Photo courtesy of MassChallenge

​A leader in Houston innovation for several years now, Jon Nordby oversees Boston-based MassChallenge's entire Texas operation. MassChallenge's global accelerator program supports an annual cohort of startups across industries. Prior to his current role, he served as director of strategy at Houston Exponential and vice president of talent and innovation at the Greater Houston Partnership.

Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston

Photo courtesy of Impact Hub Houston

Grace Rodriguez has dedicated herself to helping do-gooders do greater, as her LinkedIn page proudly boasts, and for the past three years, she's been doing that by leading Impact Hub Houston, a locally rooted, globally connected 501c3 nonprofit that champions inclusive, impact-driven innovation. She also co-founded Station Houston in 2016.

Emily Reiser, senior manager of innovation community engagement at the Texas Medical Center

Photo courtesy of TMC Innovation

Emily Reiser is like a switchboard operator for TMC Innovation, where she's worked with health tech startups since 2019. She supports clinicians, innovators, corporate partners, and business advisers who are dedicated to advancing healthcare innovation all while providing a common ground for collaboration, connection, and innovation.

Serafina Lalany, vice president of operations at Houston Exponential

Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Serafina Lalany leads operations at Houston Exponential, the city's nonprofit focused on accelerating the development of Houston's innovation economy. She's also a board member of Diversity Fund Houston — a micro venture fund created to invest in minority tech founders during the "friends and family round."

Alex Gras, managing director at The Cannon

Photo via LinkedIn

After spending eight years in oil and gas, Alex Gras took his management skills to The Cannon Houston — a network of entrepreneurial hubs across Houston. The Cannon is the InnovationMap Awards venue for the September 8 event.

Rajasekhar Gummadapu, CEO of Techwave

Photo courtesy

Raj Gummadapu is the co-founder of Techwave, the award program's presenting sponsor. An accountant by trade, he has about 17 years of experience with combination of working with "big 5" consulting companies and various midsize to Fortune 100 companies across different industries on various strategic initiatives and global process and systems transformations.

Natalie Harms, editor of InnovationMap

Photo courtesy

Natalie Harms has been at the helm of InnovationMap — Houston's voice for Innovation — since its inception in October 2018. She oversees all editorial operations of the site and hosts its weekly podcast, the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Houston's VC activity has hit a new milestone. Photo via Getty Images

Report: Houston venture capital raised exceeds $1B over the past year

VC update

Over the past 12 months, companies in Houston have raised over $1 billion in venture funding — for the first time, according to a new report from Houston Exponential.

"Crossing the billion-dollar mark is a watershed moment for Houston," says Harvin Moore, president of Houston Exponential, in the report. "Venture capital invested in Houston startups has tripled since 2016."

HX was founded in 2017 to focus on convening citywide efforts towards growing Houston's technology innovation ecosystem.

"The sustained level of progress we've seen in startup formation and growth over the past four years shows that Houston has what it takes to do what other leading cities have done: build a vibrant and healthy innovation economy," Moore continues.

Source: Pitchbook and Houston Exponential

Reaching this new benchmark is due to an active first quarter of 2021. VC funding from January through April 2021 totaled $748 million across 53 deals. This figure represents more VC funding than all of 2020.

Some of the year's largest VC deals so far include:

The industry breakdown has evolved as well, according to the report. Information technology represents the largest chunk of the $1.1 billion raised in Houston between April 2020 and April 2021, followed closely by health care.

Source: Pitchbook and Houston Exponential

There's still progress to be made, according to Moore, but these numbers represent significant growth of the ecosystem.

"We've come a long way in a short time, but it's still very early in the game," says Moore in the release. "Our rate of startup formation and growth is still much smaller than other cities, including some significantly smaller than Houston. But these results are making it more clear than ever that Houston is a great place to start and grow a business – and I think we will see these numbers continue to grow."

Percy Miller, aka Master P, took the virtual stage at the Houston Tech Rodeo kick-off event. Photo courtesy of HTR

Overheard: Master P shares his entrepreneurial advice at Houston Tech Rodeo kickoff

eavesdropping in Houston

Percy Miller developed his music career as Master P, but it's far from his only entrepreneurial endeavor. At Houston Exponential's kick-off event for the 2021 Houston Tech Rodeo, Miller took the virtual stage with Zack O'Malley Greenburg, a journalist and author.

In the discussion, Miller shared his experience in his many fields of entrepreneurship, including music, fashion, consumer packaged goods, and more. He focused on trusting your own hard work, surrounding yourself with a good support system, and embracing failure — something he's done throughout his career.

"I don't look at it as a loss. I look at it as a lesson. Every 'L' is a lesson," he says. "Every time I had a business fail, I learned something from it and it opened up a door into a future."

To hit the highlights from the fireside chat with Master P, check out some overheard moments below. To stream the full broadcast, click here.

“A music career only lasts 3 to 5 years at the most. … I started diversifying my portfolio and I looked at the tech side and said, ’This is where you got to be at.’”

Miller says he was out in the Bay Area in the '90s and early '00s, and he saw first hand the tech scene developing in Silicon Valley. He even released an album in 2005 called Ghetto Bill, a reference to Bill Gates.

“I have failed a lot — don’t be afraid to fail. Get out and take that chance on yourself.”

Miller's music career mirrors, in some ways, the dynamic path of a startup. He received a $10,000 investment from his grandparents and used it to launch his career.

"I created an empire with $10,000," he says.

But It wasn't always easy, and Miller remembers the hustle, selling his music from the trunk of his car, and his many failures.

“You have to be committed to what you do — and you have to love it. It never was about money. When you’re passionate about something, you have a purpose. You’ll get there. If you do it for money, you’ll probably never be successful.”

Passion is a key ingredient in the recipe for success, Miller explains. It drives accomplishment and, "if you get it that easy, you'll probably lose it even quicker," he continues.

“I have an entrepreneurial spirit — I have to learn everything about what I’m doing.”

When it came to developing his music career, Miller says he wore every different hat in the process because he knew he would work the hardest.

"For me, if I can be the talent and the person who runs the company, I feel like there's no limit," Miller says. "I knew I could depend on myself."

“Show me your friends, and I can show you your future.”

Miller started his own record label, No Limit Records, and it was here he cultivated an environment of artists who didn't just want to perform, get pampered, and hang out at the club.

"People at No Limit — it was like a university," he says. "Everybody was coming to study to not only learn how to be an artist but also learn entrepreneurship and financial literacy."

“Most people wanted that advanced check, that money upfront. But my thing was I wanted the control in the end. When you come from a poor culture, you look at things differently. At least I did.”

Miller says he learned this at a young age, that if you hold the power, you make the decisions. "I want better for my kids and the only way I am going to do that is by creating longevity where I own the largest percent of the company," he says.

“It’s all about economic empowerment — we’re stronger together.”

Miller says he's focused on product and taking over the grocery stores, as well as driving economic empowerment for other BIPOC-founded companies and putting money back into the community.

"I want to focus on other minority-owned companies and brands get their products on the shelves,' he says.

Houston is hosting a bit of a tech takeover next week. Photo via Getty Images

These are the events to attend each day during the Houston Tech Rodeo 2021

where to be

For the second year, Houston Exponential has tapped into the Houston innovation ecosystem to coordinate a week of events to speak to the city's startups, investors, and startup development organizations.

Houston Tech Rodeo will feature over 160 events between May 16 to 23 both online and all across town. From panels and meetups to office hours and pitch events, there's a lot to navigate in the second annual week. For a complete list of Tech Rodeo events (most of which are free), head to the website.

Here are the events you should make sure not to miss. (InnovationMap is a partner for the event.)

Note: You must register for HTR to be able to register for each event. For that reason, the event pages aren't linked directly. Find the information for each event through the HTR event website under the agenda tab, then sort by the day to find the specific event.

Monday: Gettin' in the Game with Master P: A Fireside Chat

The second annual Houston Tech Rodeo kicks off with hip-hop mogul, actor, producer, entrepreneur, and philanthropist, Percy (Master P) Miller on Monday, May 17, at 8 pm. "Gettin' In the Game with Master P" will be an exclusive fireside chat with the legend himself, interviewed by A-List Angels author and former Forbes editor, Zack O'Malley Greenburg. Hear about Master P's journey going from an international rap artist to a CEO, avid investor, and founder of Nemesis RR-- adding diversity in the automotive industry and empowering a culture of dreamers.

The event is free and available online. Register online.

Other Monday online events not to miss:

  • 11 am — HTX: Building a Thriving & Inclusive Innovation Ecosystem — join leaders from across the region's startup ecosystem, including Halliburton Labs, DivInc and The Ion, as they discuss how Houston has become a thriving hub for digital technology while fostering a culture of inclusive innovation.
  • 3 pm — All Roads Lead to Houston - Cross Industry Collaboration, the Intersection of Innovation — this event will focus on the "how" rather than "why", systemic barriers to collaboration, and available resources to analyze, de-risk and solve technology problems through meaningful collaboration.

Tuesday: Unleashing Innovation for Resilience in Disaster and Risk Mitigation

Tired of the hurricanes, snow and ice, COVID and just about every other disaster affecting Houstonian's businesses, homes, communities? Join risk mitigation experts for an in-person and virtual panel on May 18 at 2 pm. The panelists will address how Greater Houston becomes an innovation hub for pre-disaster and risk mitigation across droughts and floods, spills and leaks, fires and explosions, health and pandemics...and engages diverse populations for inclusion as entrepreneurs and mitigated locations.

The event is free and available online. Register online.

Other Tuesday online events not to miss:

  • 11:30 am — Demystifying Med Tech & Digital Health InvestmentsAttend this event to learn from the experts on what investors are seeking in digital health and med tech.
  • Noon — Made in Houston: Building Houston's Digital FutureHouston is on a mission to lead the way in digital transformation. How governments and corporations should accelerate the use of tech solutions and services while balancing the concerns of individuals on the adoption of such tools?
  • 5 pm (hybrid) — HTX Sports Tech: Panel & Happy Hour — HTX Sports Tech is hosting an in-person and online happy hour discussion between Houston's esports and sports industry leaders as we'll discuss the landscape of the esports and sports tech industry, share ideas on the role the industry can impact Houston's developing tech ecosystem, and opportunities to shape the future of the industry through innovative and collaborative efforts.

Wednesday: How Will Innovation Create a Diverse Rising Tide Within Houston's Ecosystem?

Houston is building a thriving innovation ecosystem, but innovation itself won't advance diverse economic prosperity given the status quo. So the question is…how will Houston leverage the city's biggest asset — its diversity — to maximize our potential? Panelists discuss at the online event on May 19 at 11 am.

The event is free and available online. Register online.

Other Wednesday online events not to miss:

  • 11 am — The Big Deal with EsportsDid an esports tournament really sell out the Staples Center? Did the winner of the Fortnite World Cup really make more than Tiger Woods in the Masters? Is esports really bigger than Major League Baseball? Join the discussion on how esports is transforming the business of competitive entertainment.
  • 3 pm — How 3D Printing Can Transform Houston's Manufacturing LandscapeJoin Houston 3D printing experts as they discuss the changing manufacturing landscape of the city and highlight the importance of innovation, economic impact, and sustainability through the adoption of industrial 3D printing technologies.
  • 4 pm — Rice Business Entrepreneurship Association Presents: Throw Your Wild Idea into the Arena First Pitch Competition Have you identified a problem space and a tech-enabled potential solution? The Rice Business Entrepreneurship Association wants to hear your early-stage wild idea. Come make your 90 second pitch and seek advisors, team members, and helpful feedback on your concept. Submit your info here.

Thursday: Female Founders' Tough Lessons Learned

Have an idea for a startup, already launched and building your startup, or just want to hear from those who've already been there? Join a powerhouse panel of female startup founders on May 20 at 9:30 am. Listen as the panelists share their journey and entrepreneurial struggles, and what it really takes to launch and run a startup.

The event is free and available online. Register online.

Other Thursday online events not to miss:

  • 11 am — BORN GLOBAL — Houston Tech Rodeo's International track will offer thoughtful discussions on the hour beginning at 11 am with a keynote.
  • 2 pm — Creating Space (and Tech) for DiversityA diverse panel of experts in space and technology will speak on their experience in these fields.

Friday: $50k Houston Investment Challenge

The Capital Factory challenge will occur on May 21 at Houston Tech Rodeo in partnership with Houston Exponential and will feature five technology startup finalists from greater Houston that will be evaluated by a panel of successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. One will walk away with a $50,000 investment.

The event is free and available online. Register online.

Other Friday online events not to miss:

  • 11 am — FemTech Panel — Join a virtual discussion with femtech leaders brought to you by FemTech Focus.
  • 1 pm — Innovation at Scale: Boosting Climatetech and Clean Energy Startups — Join Greentown Labs Houston for a virtual panel on incubating and supporting clean energy startups. The panel, featuring leaders from the regional climatetech innovation ecosystem and moderated by Greentown Houston Launch Director Juliana Garaizar, will discuss how to best set up startups for success and scale.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston founder using tech to disrupt the legacy planning industry eyes expansion

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 95

Anyone who's ever lost a loved one knows how stressful the process can be. Not only are you navigating your own grief, but you're bombarded with decisions you have to make. And if that loved one wasn't prepared — as most aren't — then the process is more overwhelming than it needs to be.

On top of that, Emily Cisek realized — through navigating three family deaths back to back — how archaic of a process it was. Rather than wait and see if anything changed, Cisek jumped on the market opportunity.

"I just knew there had to be a better way, and that's why I started The Postage," Cisek, co-founder and CEO of the Houston-based company, says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "My background had historically been in bringing offline businesses online, and I started doing some research on how I could make this space better. At the time, there really wasn't anything out there."

The tech-enabled platform allows users of all ages to plan for their demise in every way — from saving and sharing memories when the time comes to organizing pertinent information for the loved ones left behind. And, as of last month, users can no generate their own last will and testament.

"We launched the online will maker — it wasn't in my roadmap for another six months or so — because every single person that was coming in was looking at something else on our platform, but then going to the will part and asking, 'Hey is this something I can create here?'" Cisek says.

Recognizing that this was a good opportunity to generate new users, Cisek quickly added on the feature for a flat $75 fee. Then, members pay $3.99 a month to be able to edit their will whenever they need to and also receive access to everything else on the platform.

Cisek saw a huge opportunity to grow with the pandemic, which put a spotlight after-life planning. The silver lining of it all was that more people were discussing after-life planning with their family members.

"We're having more open dialogue about life and end-of-life planning that I don't see any other scenario really bringing that to light," she explains. "In some ways, it's been positive because having the conversation with people has been easier than it had been before."

While anyone can access The Postage's platform, Cisek says she's focused on getting the word out nationally. Following some imminent funding and partnerships, national marketing and growth campaigns are on the horizon.

Cisek shares more on her career and he unique challenges she faces as a B-to-C entrepreneur on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Houston's post-pandemic economy slowly creeping back, new study says

bouncing back

While COVID-19 cases are alarmingly surging in Texas, here in Houston, businesses are slowly returning to a new normal (for now). So, just how well is the Bayou City recovering economically from the pandemic, compared to other big-city counterparts around the United States and in Texas?

So-so, according to a revealing new report.

A new list, published July 29 by financial advice website SmartAsset, ranks the U.S. cities with the strongest economic recoveries from the pandemic.

SmartAsset looked at five data points for 49 of the largest U.S. cities to determine the economic winners:

  • Percentage change in consumer spending
  • Percentage change in small businesses that are open
  • Percentage change in small business revenue
  • Percentage change in job postings
  • March 2021 unemployment rate

Houston performed slightly better than the studywide average in three of the metrics, (although some of the numbers still look pretty bleak). The Houston stats are:

1. Change in consumer spending (January 2020-April 2021)

  • Houston: 11.7 percent
  • Studywide average: 7.3 percent

2. Change in small businesses open (January 2020-April 2021)

  • Houston: -34.5 percent
  • Studywide average: -32.51 percent

3. Change in small business revenue (January 2020-April 2021)

  • Houston: -36.6 percent
  • Studywide average: -30.9 percent

4. March 2021 unemployment rate

  • Houston: 10.6 percent
  • Studywide average: 6.6 percent

Elsewhere in Texas, The SmartAsset ranking puts Dallas at No. 19, and Fort Worth, at No. 11. Among the most populous cities in the SmartAsset study, Dallas ranks highest. Austin lands at No. 23 for pandemic economic recovery, with San Antonio at No. 38.

Only one other Texas city, El Paso, appears in the top 20 (No. 8). Salt Lake City, Utah tops the list.

University of Houston's Bauer College of Business recently analyzed Houston's pandemic recovery. In its report, the Bauer study notes a bigger bounce-back in the U.S. than Houston — and that oil and gas downturns selectively hurt Houston more than the rest of Texas.

In some good news, the Bauer study reports the biggest sectors that have the biggest recoveries: healthcare, retail, and food service.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Coworking company targets downtown for latest Houston location

growing workspace

A Dallas-based coworking company is expanding its Houston presence into downtown.

WorkSuites plans to open its fourth Houston-area location on September 1 at 1000 Main, a 36-story, 837,161-square-foot office tower formerly known as Reliant Energy Plaza. The high-rise is bounded by Main, Lamar, Travis and McKinney streets.

The new WorkSuites location will be on the 23rd floor of 1000 Main. It will feature 10 private offices, along with coworking space, common areas, meeting rooms, and a kitchen. WorkSuites will share amenities with other 23rd-floor tenants. Those include pool tables, two golf simulators, a coffee and beer bar, and large meeting rooms.

WorkSuites also is setting up a "WorkTank" in the tunnel that connects 1000 Main with other downtown office buildings. This area will feature five private offices and additional coworking space.

"The amenities offered … will make our members feel like they've joined an exclusive country club — but with better views," Tosha Bontrager, senior director of brand and products at WorkSuites, says in a news release.

WorkSuites already operates three coworking spaces here — in Houston's Galleria area, as well as in Sugar Land and The Woodlands. The company also operates 15 locations in Dallas-Fort Worth.

"We've seen a dramatic increase in demand for hybrid, part-time office space and coworking — and who wouldn't want to spend a few days a week in a stunning WorkSuites-designed office in the nicest building in … downtown Houston?" WorkSuites founder and CEO Flip Howard says.

WorkSuites originated as Meridian Business Centers. The company adopted the WorkSuites brand name a few years ago.