HX Venture Fund leader talks investment trends in Houston and plans for 2020

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 13

Sandy Wallis, managing director of the HX Venture Fund, has seen investing in Houston change over her 20-year career. Courtesy of Sandy Wallis

After 20 years in the venture capital world, Sandy Guitar Wallis has seen the evolution of investing — on both coasts and here in Houston as well.

Now, as managing director of the HX Venture Fund, Wallis is playing the long game. The fund of funds acts as a broker to other venture funds, raising money from limited partners and then strategically doling out investments to non-Houston venture funds, with the hope that those funds circle back into the Houston innovation ecosystem with a multiplier effect.

"We have raised a fund of funds with the HX Venture Fund, and we're deploying that capital across probably 10 venture capital funds over time," Wallis explains on the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Each one of those funds, will invest in 15 to 20 underlying private companies. So, at the end of the day, HX Venture Fund 1 will have exposure to 10 VC funds, as an example, and — by virtue of those investments — maybe 300 private companies."

The HX Venture Fund is aiming to raise between $50 million and $70 million for its first fund. Last year, HXVF made six investments, and Wallis says she expects another three to five investments in 2020. Ultimately, Wallis says, HXVF is looking to get a wide range of of firms involved — from early stage to later, growth stages — as well as a diversity in industries of focus.

Beyond the money, HXVF is opening up the discussion on a national scale, with visiting VCs and potential investors.

"We are getting a lot of interest in coastal VCs who want to invest here," Wallis says on the podcast.

Wallis, who is a co-founder of Weathergage Capital, got her MBA at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, but has been in Houston for most of her career — traveling to each coast for business. Wallis shares her expertise, discussing everything from why the IPO process has slowed to what startups need to know about venture capital.

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


As the Houston innovation ecosystem prepares for 2020, InnovationMap's editor looks back on her favorite interviews of this year. Courtesy photos

Editor's picks: 5 best Houston innovation interviews of 2019

2019 in review

Ever since the launch of InnovationMap, the site has featured an innovator weekly. That's over 50 interviews and more than a dozen episodes of the Houston Innovators Podcast, which launched this fall.

As editor of InnovationMap and the host of the Houston Innovators Podcast, I've conducted nearly all of these interviews. And, while parents aren't allowed to pick favorites between their children, I definitely have my favorite interviews. Looking back on this year, I've had the fortune of talking to innovators from all corners of Houston and across industries.

Looking back on 2019, I've plucked out my five favorites, and I thought I'd share why they stood out to me. I'm excited to continue these conversations in 2020 as Houston's innovation ecosystem grows — and as InnovationMap grows with it.

Samantha Lewis, director of The GOOSE Society of Texas

Samantha Lewis

Courtesy of Samantha Lewis

When I think of my favorite conversations I've had this year, Samantha Lewis immediately comes to my mind. If you've ever had the fortune of meeting Sam, you know her as high energy, kind, and full of opinions — all of these qualities make for a great interview, and, in this case, podcast episode.

Samantha's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast was only the second to be released, but, just due to scheduling, was actually the first episode I ever recorded. And, despite it's early release, is still the most listened to of the 13 that now are available. I credit Sam's candor, poise, and insight for that.

In the episode, Samantha and I discuss GOOSE's recent investments, her advice for startups looking for funding, the state of venture capital in Houston — and how it compares to the two coasts, and more. To read more or stream the episode, click here.

Steven Gonzalez, technology transfer strategist at NASA

Courtesy of NASA

This past summer, the Space City celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing — 50 years since "Houston" was uttered from the surface of the moon. July brought many space celebrations as the city, state, and even country looked back on the legacy of the aerospace industry.

I took this anniversary as a chance to dive into the innovation of the industry on InnovationMap with a series of interviews with various space professionals. I spoke with the general manager of Houston's Spaceport, the founder of a Houston-based space startup, and Rice University's Space Institute director, but my favorite discussion I had about space was with Steven Gonzalez, technology transfer strategist at NASA.

Steven was so interesting to talk to because his job really represents the future of space exploration. As space travel shifts into the commercial space rather than just within the government-backed NASA operations, the need for the sharing of technology, research, and ideas is crucial. Through NASA's technology transfer, Steven is helping that effort. To read our full conversation, click here.

Ody De La Paz, founder of Sensytec

Courtesy of Sensytec

Throughout my now near 15 months at InnovationMap, I've had a growing appreciation of the guts and gumption it takes to take the leap and start a company. I love interviewing entrepreneurs — they all have such different perspectives on similar startup challenges. One of my favorite entrepreneur interviews I had this year was with Ody De La Paz, who founded Sensytec.

Ody started his company when he was an undergrad student at the University of Houston. Most college students just trying to get an entry-level job somewhere — anywhere, but Ody would go on to travel the world pitching — and winning — in competitions for Sensytec's technology, which is smart cement that can communicate risks for potential life-threatening damage.

Ody was my first startup founder guest on the Houston Innovators Podcast, and, if we're keeping track, still is the second most listened to episode behind Sam's episode. To read more or stream the episode, click here.

Harvin Moore, president of Houston Exponential

Courtesy of HX

This year, Houston Exponential — the city's nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting innovation in Houston — hired a new president. Harvin Moore joined the team to take HX into its next stage of attracting tech companies into the ecosystem.

Several months into his position, we sat down to discuss how he was doing and what some of his goals were for the organization. I admire Harvin's passion for the city. A serial entrepreneur and investor, he has a great frame of reference for startups, and his first point of action was to listen — to the ecosystem and its members — for what the city really wants and needs from its innovation leadership.

Our conversation was over an hour and bounced from HX and Houston startups to New York's real estate and the profitability of local journalism. Of course, not all that ended up in the article, but I look forward to seeing what all Harvin has up his sleeves for 2020. To read our full conversation, click here.

Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer at Houston Methodist Hospital

Courtesy of Houston Methodist

It's rare that I interview someone for the Featured Innovator section twice. In fact, I've only doubled up three times. Though, I'm sure it will continue to happen as InnovationMap and the Houston Innovators Podcast grows. Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer at Houston Methodist Hospital, was one of my interviews I've doubled up on this year — once for a Q&A and once for the Houston Innovators Podcast.

It's pretty easy to find new things to discuss with Roberta. Houston Methodist seems to constantly be launching new technology pilots within the system — from virtual reality in cancer treatment to telemedicine. Plus, just personally, Roberta is extremely interesting. At 27, she was diagnosed with a vicious strand of breast cancer — despite having no family history of the disease.

After getting through some of her early treatments, she co-founded an organization that helps to connect young women who were similarly diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age. I'm 28, and cannot fathom the cancer battle Roberta survived and the foresight she had to create an organization like she did. To read more on our most recent conversation or stream the episode, click here.

Roberta Schwartz is leading the innovation efforts at Houston Methodist. Courtesy of Houston Methodist

Houston Methodist executive to lead the hospital into the future of health care

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 11

It may come as no surprise to anyone who's met Roberta Schwartz that she's a self starter. Schwartz, who is the executive vice president and chief innovation officer for Houston Methodist, was among the group that organized to create what is now the Center for Innovation within the hospital system.

But one of her earlier moments of innovation leadership came when she was diagnosed with cancer at a young age. She co-founded the Young Survival Coalition to help connect young breast cancer patients like herself.

"I was 27 when I was unexpectedly diagnosed with breast cancer — I have no family history, no cancer in the family. It certainly was a shock to my system," Schwartz says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Once I was diagnosed, and through some of the original surgery and care I had to do, I knew that I wanted to reach out and find a larger community of young women."

Now, in her role at Houston Methodist, Schwartz hopes to help cultivate new avenues of innovation within health care — from wearable technology and virtual reality to a human resources chatbot and a patient messaging platform.

Schwartz discusses these new technologies — as well as a new tech hub the hospital system is working on to demonstrate the future of health care — in the episode. Stream the episode below and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.


Brad Rossacci, creative director for Accenture's Houston innovation hub, talks neuroscience, design, technology, and the upcoming Digital Fight Club on November 20 on this week's episode of the Houston Innovator's Podcast. Photo courtesy of Accenture

In a world full of tech, this Houston innovator prepares to fight for getting humanity back in the picture

Houston Innovators Podcast Episode 7

Brad Rossacci would like you to put your phone down. Humans are addicted, he says, and the very technology we're obsessed with is advancing to a point that we can allow it to do what it does best — but in the background.

"Technology is really catching up to our imaginations," Rossacci says on the podcast, "and we have this amazing opportunity to get our human back."

Rossacci, who is the creative director for Accenture's Houston innovation hub, has taken a winding career path that's been driven by his passions within science, technology, and design. From molding young minds in the classroom to using neuroscience to drive design within an agency, his career has set him up with an interesting perspective.

This perspective might be why Rossacci was asked to be a fighter in the inaugural Digital Fight Club that took place in Dallas a few years ago. The event, which is coming to Houston on November 20, puts two "fighters" on a stage with a referee to discuss various technology topics — cybersecurity, medicine, etc.

"I really fell in love with the approach [the event] takes," Rossacci says. "It takes this format that allows you to share ideas in a very short-form content kind of way."

On the podcast, Rossacci discusses his career and everything you need to know about the upcoming Houston Digital Fight Club, which is presented by Accenture and InnovationMap. Listen to the episode below and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston, wants to set up the city's innovation ecosystem for success. Courtesy of Grace Rodriguez

Innovation leader wants Houston's diverse population to have the same access to entrepreneurial success

Houston innovators podcast episode 6

It's not enough to Grace Rodriguez that Houston's been recognized as the most diverse city in the nation. She wants Houston's innovation ecosystem to have inclusion and opportunities for all.

One of the originals founders of Station Houston, Rodriguez saw that, while Station and others at the time were making huge moves for helping entrepreneurs, there were some that weren't having the same experience.

"Houston is so diverse, and there are so many entrepreneurs that weren't getting access to the same resources," she says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Rodriguez founded Houston's chapter of Impact Hub, a global organization that helps to accelerate nonprofits and startups working to advance the United Nations' sustainable development goals, last year. The organization now works with other entities, like The Cannon Houston, to provide useful and inclusive programming for the entirety of the city's innovation world.

Recently, organization hosted Houston's first Climathon — a hackathon for climate change solutions — and is currently working on programming for the city's upcoming The Houston Innovation Summit, or THIS. The week-long event takes place November 18 to November 24 and engages and activates organizations across the city — such as Bunker Labs, The Cannon, Houston Exponential, and more.

With the growth of startup development organizations and new accelerator programs entering the market, Rodriguez wants now for each organization to come together — like they will be doing for THIS.

"Now I think the conversation needs to be, 'How can all of us play well together?'" Rodriguez says.

On the podcast, Rodriguez discusses her career, the impact of Impact Hub, and more details about THIS. Check it out below and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.


This week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast highlights 11 different entrepreneurs at a live recording at The Cannon Houston's grand opening event. Courtesy of Quy Tran/The Cannon

Meet the innovators working out of The Cannon Houston's brand new space

Houston innovators podcast episode 5

Last week, The Cannon Houston premiered its new digs in West Houston with a grand opening event attended by an incredible group of innovators, entrepreneurs, friends, family, and even puppies.

InnovationMap and the Houston Innovators Podcast had a presence at the festivities as well, which has allowed us to put together a special edition of the podcast. Rather than recording an interview with one entrepreneur in studio, this week's episode features 11 interviews with over a dozen innovators.

Here's who all you'll hear from — in order — in this episode:

  • Werner Winterboer of SapMok, a South African sustainable shoe making company that's looking to expand in Houston.
  • Brad Greer of DrySee, a liquid bandage company that's created a wetness indicator that allows for a patient to know if their bandage has been compromised thus preventing infection risks.
  • Chris Bayardo of Bayardo Safety LLC, a small compliance company that uses tech to optimize the oil and gas industry's compliance issues.
  • Dirk Van Slyke of Statistical Vision, a marketing consultancy that taps into data and metrics to help organizations take their company to the next level.
  • Aaron Knape of sEATz, an app that has perfected the mobile food and drink ordering process in stadiums.
  • Matt and Adam Woods of Skippermyboat, a tourism startup that helps travelers easily connect with boating adventures all over the world.
  • Mike T. Brown of Win-Win, a sports tech company that gamifies the donation process for causes supported by professional athletes.
  • Alex Taghi, Aimee Robert, and Jeffery Abel of Co-Counsel, the coworking concept for lawyers and attorneys.
  • Jeff Miller of Potentia, an education and staffing platform that helps place autistic employees with their right employer.
  • Drew Wadley with MiTyket, which has created a software that can prevent price gouging in the live entertainment industry.
  • Bret Bloch with Four Tower LLC, which provides integrated solutions for projects and operations.

Check out the episode below and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.


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Houston solar energy exec shines light on company growth and IPO

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 15

It was all about the timing for John Berger, founder and CEO of Sunnova, a Houston-based residential solar energy company.

When he founded his company in 2012 in Houston, solar energy wasn't the trendy sustainability option it is today, but Berger saw the potential for technology within the industry. So, with a lot of perseverance and the right team behind him, he scaled Sunnova through nationwide expansion, billions of money raised, and a debut on the stock market last July — something that also happened with great timing.

About 72 hours after Sunnova went public last July, the Federal Reserve System announced it was going to cut rates. Additionally, Sunnova's IPO occurred ahead of WeWork's failed IPO.

"We went public in a market that still isn't back open again, I think, for IPOs," Berger says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We had pretty good timing when we went out the door."

However great the timing was, Sunnova's success is built on the hard work and skills of the company's employees, Berger explains on the podcast, and now running a public company requires a dynamic leader.

"I really look at myself and how I can change myself," Berger says. "I'm a different CEO today than I was 12 months ago, and hopefully I'll be a different CEO in 12 months, because the company demands it."

In the episode, Berger lifts the curtain on Sunnova's IPO, explains where he sees the solar energy industry headed, how battery storage technology has evolved, and why he's not worried about who ends up in the White House. Listen to the full episode below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


California self-driving vehicle startup has all eyes on Houston — here's why

On a roll

Houston — with its sprawl and winding roads broken up across various neighborhoods — is particularly challenging when it comes to self-driving car navigation. And that's exactly why Nuro, a California-based tech startup that's raised over $1 billion in funding, decided to focus on the Bayou City for its autonomous vehicle delivery pilot programs.

"Houston is our first full-scale operations city," Sola Lawal, product operations manager in Houston, tells InnovationMap. "All eyes at Nuro are focused on Houston."

Last year alone, Nuro launched three pilots in six of Houston's ZIP codes from Bellaire to the Heights. The first of which was a partnership with Kroger in March, followed by the announcement of autonomous pizza delivery from Domino's in June. Last month, Nuro announced its latest delivery partner was Walmart.

Lawal explains Houston's appeal to Nuro in a few ways, but the challenging landscape is key. Nuro cars are learning from the narrow, tree-laden streets of West University or the pedestrian-heavy, ditch-lined paths in the Heights.

"There's a ton for us to learn, but it's a great microcosm of the United States in a number of different ways," he says.

In addition to its diversity within its street types, Houston, named the most diverse city in the country, represents an ideal customer base, says Lawal, a Houston native himself. Houstonians are open minded about new experiences.

"If you think and look across Houston, the average commute is over 60 minutes for people to get back and forth," Lawal tells InnovationMap. "As we surveyed across major cities we were interested in, Houston stood out as a place where customers said they don't want go to the grocery store if they don't have to or get in their cars again to pick up their pizza."

The third reason Houston was a great market for Nuro is the amount of regulatory support the state of Texas has — Gov. Greg Abbott announced the launch of the Texas Connected and Autonomous Vehicle task force a year ago — as well as the support at the city level.

"It's been a welcoming environment from the mayor's office down for us to be here," Lawal says.

Since entering the Houston market, Nuro's local operations have grown to over 100 employees. The company still has software operations out of California, and some work being done in Arizona, but the Houston is the largest — and growing as the company seeks new partnerships with more stores with a goal of eliminating errands once and for all.

"The way that we think about this is that this new technology and our mission of accelerating robotics for everyday life, is we will bring the people what they want," Lawal says when asked about what types of stores Nuro is looking to partner with.

Eventually, Lawal says, the plan would be to have every errand be delivery optimized with Nuro technology — from big-box stores like Walmart to your local florist.

"Our goal is to have a platform that retailers can connect to in order to provide easy and inexpensive delivery," he says.

Currently, Nuro's technology is still in learning mode. Nuro's fleet of Prius cars with staff onboard are driving up and down Houston streets mapping and taking notes on a daily basis. The company also has bots, called the R2 fleet, that are designed to be unmanned.

These bots are smaller than normal cars and are completely electric. Rather than being designed to protect passengers inside like traditional automobiles, the R2s are designed to be safe for people outside the vehicle.

"It's a new way of thinking about transportation and what our vehicles can and should do," Lawal says.

2020 is the year of these R2 bots, and some areas can expect to see them in action — specifically focused on Domino's pizza delivery — in just a matter of weeks.

Houston flight-tracking software company grows its local and international presence

taking flight

FlightAware LLC's business success has, for the most part, flown under the radar in Houston.

Many travelers know about the B2C flight-tracking functionality of FlightAware. "That's a very, very competitive space. We play in that space, but it's not our core business," founder and CEO Daniel Baker says.

These days, the privately held Houston company earns most its revenue from the B2B data it provides to airlines and other aviation clients, according to Baker. He declines to reveal revenue figures, but notes that the company — which bills itself as the world's largest flight-tracking and flight data platform — hasn't taken a penny of outside funding since it started in 2005.

Today, FlightAware employs about 110 people, with the majority of them located in Houston, Baker says. The company also maintains offices in Austin, New York City, London, and Singapore.

By the end of 2020, the companywide workforce should exceed 135, as FlightAware aims to add three new hires per month this year in areas such as Internet of Things, data science, sales, and administration, Baker says. Most of the new employees will work in Houston.

Baker says FlightAware takes an aggressive approach to hiring, with the goal of bringing aboard "really awesome people" who share levels of talent, collaboration, and "culture fit" similar to those of current employees.

By the end of 2021, FlightAware likely will run out of room in its 24,000-square-foot office at 11 Greenway Plaza in the Greenway/Upper Kirby area, Baker says. That means FlightAware will need to take about 15,000 additional square feet at 11 Greenway Plaza or relocate to a different building, he says. The company moved into its current home in 2017 from a 14,000-square-foot office at 8 Greenway Plaza.

Baker, who's a private pilot and a board member of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum, launched the company 15 years ago as a way to combine two passions: software development and aviation.

"It was originally a hobby, and it became a business," Baker says. "It's an unlikely story. We're really, really fortunate that the timing was right."

Although FlightAware started off tracking flights in the general aviation space, it has since expanded to supply aviation data to both travelers and businesses. Each month, about 15 million passengers use the FlightAware app, which earns praise from a slew of travel critics.

Among flight-tracking apps, FlightAware "is a bit of a Swiss army knife," Condé Nast Traveler magazine observes. The FlightAware app lets you follow flights in real time, including where an incoming plane is coming from, how close it is to arriving, and what kind of weather it's encountering en route, the magazine notes. In addition, the app can send push notifications about arrivals, departures, gate changes, flight delays, and flight cancellations.

Now, FlightAware relies on the consumer-facing technology "as a stepping stone to have a bigger impact," Baker says. "Every project that we undertake is larger than the last one."

That "bigger impact" involves cranking out data that enables commercial airlines, cargo carriers, business aviation companies, and air traffic controllers to be proactive instead of reactive regarding flight activity, he says.

FlightAware's corporate customers include United Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, business-jet operator NetJets and GPS technology provider Garmin. Baker says a North American airline that he declines to name will soon roll out FlightAware technology to its airport gate agents.

For airlines, FlightAware's software delivers accurate data to help cut down, among other issues, on problems with flight delays, gate assignments, and flight connections, Baker says. FlightAware pulls data from more than 25,000 aircraft surveillance websites covering nearly 200 countries as well as air traffic control systems in more than 45 countries.

While the consumer-oriented features of FlightAware's technology face competition from the likes of FlightStats, FlightView, and The Flight Tracker, the B2B landscape is less populated. Over the years, corporate giants like Airbus, Boeing, and IBM have tackled aviation data on their own but have wound up forging data partnerships with FlightAware, according to Baker."

We see every potential competitor as a future customer," Baker says.