Houston fintech startup continues to grow to represent a new era of investing

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 78

What does the future of investment look like? That's something Youngro Lee thinks about daily – and he shares his thoughts on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of NextSeed

When Youngro Lee and his co-founders launched NextSeed — an investment platform that allows non-accredited investors to invest in small, local businesses for as little as $100 — they were creating something that hadn't existed before. Now, Lee is actively working toward a world where this type of crowd-sourced investment is commonplace.

And the industry is changing — finally. The first change was in 2012 when the Jobs Act allowed for unaccredited investors to make small-scale investments into businesses. It was this new law change that drove Lee and his co-founders to create NextSeed as the landscape of both investors and companies that were able to get funding began to evolve.

"Investing is traditionally seen as something you can't do unless you're rich," Lee says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There was a certain understanding of what anyone (looking to invest) should do. … But now the world is so different."

And the financial world was due some changes, Lee says. If you look at the top 10 companies in the world right now, he explains on the show, most of those companies weren't on that list 20 years ago. "And that's not a coincidence," he says.

"Technologies, lifestyles, and generations change, but in the world of finance — because of regulations and old school mentality — it doesn't catch up," Lee says.

But new companies — like NextSeed on the private side of the market and Robinhood representing public investment — are putting investment power into the hands of individuals. And the new generations of investors look at investment differently.

"The future of investment is less about, 'let me maximize my ROI,'" he says, "it's going to transition to, 'I want to invest in things that make me happy and things that I value."

Last fall, NextSeed and New York-based Republic, another investment platform, entered into a strategic partnership that mutually benefits both companies and expands their horizons — both geographically and on an industry level. From Republic's perspective, the company is tapping into a new market in Houston and Texas — a region that's growing its population and attracting new businesses.

Lee shares more about the deal, the future of investing, and how he's watched the Houston innovation ecosystem develop over the years on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


On this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Softeq Founder and CEO Chris Howard shares how he's focusing on supporting the Houston innovation ecosystem. Photo courtesy of Softeq

Longtime Houston tech entrepreneur prioritizes giving back to ecosystem​

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 77

When Chris Howard founded his technology consulting firm in 1997, there wasn't a tech scene in town. But as the company grew over the past 20-plus years, so did Houston's innovation ecosystem — and Howard had a front-row seat for it all.

Now, Softeq's CEO is making sure he's doing what he can to further support tech startups in Houston with the recently launched Softeq Innovation Lab.

"I want to give back as an entrepreneur and a Houstonian," Howard says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I really want to leverage Softeq's expertise in order to help these companies grow in the same way that we've been doing for a couple of decades now."

The lab exists to cultivate innovation in Houston and build upon the specialized software and hardware proficiency Howard and his Softeq team has — just as it has supported its clients over the past two decades. The full-stack, full cycle engineering services company not only executes programing projects for clients, but also helps them to realize what's possible. Working with both startups and larger corporations, Softeq works on over 100 projects a year.

"We see a full spectrum of what's possible that cuts across many different industries and technologies," Howard explains. "Even the big guys are in a bubble of their own world and don't necessarily know what's going on and what can be done today. We have that experience to help them."

It's an exciting time for the region in terms of tech and innovation, and Howard is ready to make sure Softeq is a part of the conversation.

"There's really a lot of tech in Texas, and we just need to be able to tell that story and connect the dots," he says on the show.

Specifically in Softeq's headquarters in Houston, the innovation lab is geared at supporting innovators from startups and corporations alike — and across industries.

"Houston really is ripe for innovation. The first wave of disruption was in Silicon Valley, but the second wave is happening in industries that are really central to Houston's economy — such as energy, health care, and financial services," Howard says.

One thing Howard hopes to be able to expand into next is financial support of startups.

"I would like to see us add a venture arm as well, where we're actually helping companies get funding both from us as well as other LPs in Houston," he says.

Howard shares more about the Softeq Innovation Lab and how COVID-19 has affected his business and technology in general on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Rachel Moncton joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share why ClassPass chose Houston for its fourth domestic hub and what the consumer tech company has on its horizon for 2021. Photo courtesy of ClassPass

Tech exec shares how she's excited to 'make a splash' in Houston with recent expansion

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 75

When Rachel Moncton decided she wanted to move back to the United States after years of growing consumer tech company ClassPass internationally, she had no clue where she was going to end up.

The current vice president of marketing had served in various leadership roles for the company, and the powers at be at ClassPass, a consumer-facing tech company that brings together fitness classes and wellness experiences onto one app, decided that Moncton's move would be to spearhead the company's fourth office in Houston.

ClassPass, which was founded in New York City in 2011 before quickly opening its second office in San Francisco. Moncton says a few years ago the company conducted a search for a city that would make for a great expansion and, while Houston was definitely a contender, Missoula, Montana, became the next hub for ClassPass, which has raised over $500 million in venture capital. But, Houston was top of mind for the next expansion.

"When we were thinking about our fourth U.S. office, we wanted something bigger — we're growing quickly and knew we would have to tap into a large talent pool," Moncton says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, noting other elements like Houston's parks, sports teams, culture, universities, and more.

"I get a lot of people saying, 'Houston? That's an interesting choice and not what we'd expect,'" Moncton says. "But that's one of the things we like about it. There's a good startup scene here but not a million different consumer tech companies, so it's nice that we are able to make a bit of a splash."

Last fall, Moncton made her move to Houston to stand up the office virtually, at first, and now the local team is 10 people strong. Currently, ClassPass is looking for its physical space somewhere inside the loop and is hoping to have it open by this summer. Likely, Moncton says, the office will start in a coworking or flexible space that will be able to grow alongside the team.

And speaking of growth, Moncton says ClassPass is still hiring in Houston for roles from sales and finance to customer service and more.

"We are hiring across the board. It's fun for the teams to get to meet people you might not be working with day to day, and it fosters a better sense of empathy and understanding of how the company works," Moncton says. "Even though I lead marketing, it's by no means a marketing hub."

As ClassPass expands its presence, Moncton says she's focused on expanding the company's partners on the app. ClassPass has historically connected users to fitness studios but now is featuring more and more health, wellness, and beauty experiences.

"The technology we've built is to help people find things to book in their city," Moncton says. "There's a lot of (fitness studios) and it can be hard to find what you're looking for. Beauty and wellness are no different."

Moncton shares more about what she's excited about for the future of ClassPass, and how she's experienced Houston so far on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


WizeHire CEO Sid Upadhyay joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share his big plans for his company as it gears up for growth. Photo courtesy of WizeHire

Houston startup plans to expand to revolutionize tech-enabled small business support

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 74

Hiring and recruiting has been a challenging and inefficient process for small businesses — yet it could not be more important as a company with a small, growing team.

"Today, whether you're running a startup for the first or second time, at the end of the day, you're just wearing too many hats," says Sid Upadhyay, co-founder and CEO of WizeHire, on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Recruiting is one of those things where we know talent is the lifeblood of our businesses, but we just don't have the time to think about the process."

Upadhyay says his company, Houston-based WizeHire, lives and breathes for small businesses, and in 2014 the company launched to tap into technology to provide a software service that can streamline a more effective way for startups and small businesses to hire — and hire optimally.

Last month, the company — founded by Upadhyay, Nick Carneiro, and Jay Niblick — closed a $7.5 million series A funding round that was led by Houston-based Mercury Fund and Amplo, which is based just north of Houston in Spring. Additional support came from existing backers Ruchit Shah and RigUp co-founder Sandeep Jain. The fresh funding will go toward expansion — both of its team as well as WizeHire's products.

Upadhyay says the the effects of the pandemic — which includes many businesses ceasing to hire — had profound repercussions on WizeHire.

"We saw half our revenue disappear overnight," Upadhyay says. "As we were going through that up-and-down roller coaster, it was one of the most humbling experience."

Upadhyay says WizeHire has a close relationship with its customers, and they were reaching out asking for guidance from WizeHire during the uncertain times. Upadhyay's team took the opportunity to provide low or no-cost support, especially when it comes to navigating the CARES Act.

"We started to educate our customers about everything from PPP loans to tax credits," Upadhyay says. "We went so far as to connect 300 of our customers to banks — otherwise they wouldn't have been able to get these loans."

These efforts are what led WizeHire to its first venture capital raise. The bootstrapped company has a client base that includes more than 7,000 businesses, and the company recorded $4.7 million in run rate in 2020. Now, in light of the impact WizeHire was able to make with its clients during the pandemic, Upadhyay says the company is going to expand to include other key services, like identifying tax credits.

"We're really going beyond just the hire," Upadhyay says. "We're getting to this role where we're going to help you grow your business."

Upadhyay discusses more about WizeHire's plans for 2021 and the intentionality of the business on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury Fund, joins this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Mercury Fund

Houston venture capitalist says it's time for more women in VC

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 73

In all the turmoil of 2020, Samantha Lewis had at least one silver lining. The former director of Goose Capital transitioned into her new position as principal at Mercury Fund.

However fortunate she feels to have her new position, she shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast this week that there's not nearly enough of women like her in venture capital.

"The bottom line is there has to be more women with check-writing abilities," Lewis says on the show. "And when there is more women with check-writing abilities, more women will get funded."

Joining the podcast at the start of Women's History Month, Lewis says that the pandemic disproportionately affected women's careers across the board — but when it comes to VC, the solution is growing the female representation at firms.

"It is up to the people in VC hiring or the institutional investors who are giving money to funds to make sure there's a woman on the investment team," she says — adding that just one isn't enough.

In her role at Mercury, Lewis is helping build up the fund's processes — something she specialized in at Goose. She's also focused on building up the portfolio around a specific theme.

"One of the things specifically that Mercury brought me over to focus on from an investment perspective is something we're calling our 'power theme,'" Lewis says. "Think about it as giving people the power to make decisions that are authentic to their values around sustainability and impact."

There have been significant changes in consumer values driven by millennials, and businesses are prioritizing sustainability and transparency in order to keep up. Lewis discusses how Houston-based Topl, which is one of Mercury's portfolio companies, has a major role to play in this space.

Another key area of interest for Lewis is fintech.

"The other piece of the theme is thinking about the democratization of financial services," Lewis says. "Legacy financial institutions have ignored large groups of our population here in America and broader for a very long time. Technology is actually breaking down a lot of those barriers, so there are all these groups that have traditionally been ignored that now technology can reach to help them build wealth."

Lewis discusses more about how Mercury Fund is at an inflection point and how the Houston innovation ecosystem is developing with intention on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.



Richard Seline of Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how it's time for the world to see Houston as the resilient city it is. Photo courtesy of ResilientH20

Expert says Houston is the prime spot for creating and testing game-changing resilience solutions

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 72

The city of Houston, along the rest of the Lone Star State, has been hit from every direction — pandemics, hurricanes, winter storms, and more.

"We're just whipsawed," says Richard Seline, co-founder at the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub Collaboratory. "We've gone from back-to-back storms and hurricanes to COVID to snow and ice and its impact on energy. People are just exhausted."

Now, Seline says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, this exhaustion is festering into frustration and anger — and calling for change. The things that need to change, Seline says, includes growing investment and innovation in resilience solutions.

"As a fourth generation Houstonian, it's just so hard to see my hometown get hit persistently with a lot of these weather and other type of disasters," Seline says.

These unprecedented disasters — which are of course occurring beyond Houston and Texas — have also sparked a growing interest in change for insurance companies that have lost a trillion dollars on the United States Gulf Coast over the past seven years, Seline says. Something has got to change regarding preparation and damage mitigation.

Creating conversations about change is exactly what Seline and the Resilience Innovation Hub, which is based out of The Cannon Tower in downtown Houston, is focused on. Following all these catastrophic events, the industry is overwhelmed with data — and now is the time to put it to use on innovation and tech solutions.

"We are drowning in data and hungry for intelligence — actionable intelligence," Seline says, adding that now innovators and entrepreneurs are taking on this data and creating solutions.

The challenge then becomes convincing decision makers to pivot from what they know and are comfortable with to what they don't know and what they aren't comfortable with.

And, Seline says on the show, that needs to happen across the board — from public and private companies to government entities and nonprofits both locally and beyond.

"I think that it's time to flip this on its head and say to the world, 'we got it.,'" Seline says. "Because we know these challenges, we are opening the world to the best ideas to be piloted and demonstrated. All I ask is that we get elective and appointed officials who are open to ideas and solutions. That's how innovation occurs."

Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Over $1.4M in prizes awarded at Rice University's student startup competition

RBPC 2021

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

Houston health center working with new study that uses app to track long-term COVID-19 effects

pandemic innovation

Aided by technology, medical sleuths at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston are tracking the long-term effects of COVID-19 as part of a national study.

At the heart of the study is an app that allows patients who have shown COVID-19 symptoms and have been tested for COVID-19 to voluntarily share their electronic health records with researchers. The researchers then can monitor long-term symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, depression, and cardiovascular problems.

UTHealth is one of eight U.S. sites for the INSPIRE trial (Innovative Support for Patients with SARS COV-2 Infections Registry). Researchers are recruiting study participants from Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. They want to expand recruitment to urgent care clinics in the Houston area.

Aside from accessing patients' data through the Hugo Health platform, UTHealth researchers will ask participants to fill out brief follow-up surveys every three months over the course of 18 months. The study complies with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the federal law that protects patients' information from being disclosed without their knowledge.

"This is a very novel and important study," Dr. Ryan Huebinger, assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at UTHealth's McGovern Medical School and co-principal investigator of the study, says in a news release.

In a study like this, researchers typically must see a patient in person or at least reach out to them.

"Using this platform is novel because we don't have to schedule additional appointments or ask questions like 'How long were you hospitalized?' – we can automatically see that in their records and survey submissions," Huebinger says.

Mandy Hill, associate professor in the McGovern Medical School's Department of Emergency Medicine and the study's co-principal investigator, says about one-fourth of the people in the study will be local residents who didn't test positive for COVID-19.

"That group will be our control group to be able to compare things like prevalence and risk factors," Huebinger says.

Eligible participants must be at least 18 years old, must have experienced COVID-19 symptoms, and must have been tested for COVID-19 in the past four weeks.

"This is not going to be the last pandemic. The more information we can gather across communities now will give us a leg up when the next pandemic happens," Hill says, "so that we can be more prepared to take steps toward prevention."

Researchers hope to sign up at least 300 study participants in Houston. The entire INSPIRE trial seeks to enroll 4,800 participants nationwide. The study is supposed to end in November 2022.

"There's such great potential for numerous research findings to come out of this study. We could find out if people in Houston are suffering from post-COVID-19 symptoms differently than other parts of the country, whether minorities are more affected by long-hauler symptoms, and if certain interventions work better than others," Hill says.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is financing the study. Aside from UTHealth, academic institutions involved in the research are:

  • University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas
  • Rush University Medical Center in Chicago
  • Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut
  • University of Washington in Seattle
  • Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of California, San Francisco