3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Dan Purvis of Velentium, Tony Sanchez of OneNexus Environmental, and Kevin Doffing of Energy Capital of the Future. Courtesy photos
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This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Spencer Randall of CryptoEQ, Andy Grolnick of Graylog, and Imran Alibhai of Tvardi. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from software to cryptocurrency — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Spencer Randall, co-founder and principal at CryptoEQ

Spencer Randall, principal and co-founder of CryptoEQ, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how his company has grown alongside the cryptocurrency industry. Photo courtesy of CryptoEQ

It's an interesting time for cryptocurrency and no one knows that better than Spencer Randall, principal and co-founder of Houston-based CryptoEQ, a company that's built a platform for resources and information for everyone interested in cryptocurrency and digital assets.

"CryptoEQ is really built to be the North Star for digital asset research and information. We provide market insights for both newcomers and folks that are already well-versed in cryptocurrency and digital assets," Randall says on this week's of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The idea of the company is to help shepherd folks along and guide them on their crypto journey."

Recently the company entered into a partnership with The Cannon, an entrepreneurial hub with locations across Houston, to provide a one-of-a-kind crypto starter pack to help onboard innovators to the cryptosphere worldwide. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Andy Grolnick, CEO of Graylog

A Houston company that's created a centralized log management solution has closed a new round in funding. Photo courtesy of Graylog

Houston-based Graylog closed its $18 million growth equity round led by new investors Harbert Growth Partners and Piper Sandler Merchant Banking, as well as existing investors Houston-based Mercury Fund and Integr8d Capital.

"This investment will enable us to accelerate our global go-to-market strategies and enhancements to the award-winning solutions we deliver for IT, DevOps, and Security teams," says Andy Grolnick, CEO of Graylog, in a press release. "We're excited to have the support of new and existing investor partners to help us realize our potential." Click here to read more.

Imran Alibhai, CEO at Tvardi

Tvardi Therapeutics Inc. has fresh funds to support its drug's advancement in clinical trials. Photo courtesy of Tvardi

Houston-based, cancer-fighting company Tvardi Therapeutics Inc. closed its $74 million series B funding round led by new investors New York-based Slate Path Capital, Florida-based Palkon Capital, Denver-based ArrowMark Partners, and New York-based 683 Capital, with continued support and participation by existing investors, including Houston-based Sporos Bioventures.

"We are thrilled to move out of stealth mode and partner with this lineup of long-term institutional investors," says Imran Alibhai, CEO at Tvardi. "With this financing we are positioned to advance the clinical development of our small molecule inhibitors of STAT3 into mid-stage trials as well as grow our team." Click here to read more.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Kristen Phillips of Golden Section Studios, David Aaronson of REVS, and Carolyn Rodz of Hello Alice. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from startup and small business support to electric vehicles — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Kristen Phillips, director of Golden Sections Studios

Kristen Phillips joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss a new B2B volunteer platform. Photo courtesy of GSS

For years, Golden Section Technology — and its accompanying venture arm — has worked to develop SaaS technology and has created a large network of experts and mentors. Now, the group has created a venture studio to support SaaS startups with this vast network, says Kristen Phillips, director of Golden Section Studios.

Additionally, Phillips says her team has a lot of lessons learned to share with the companies they will support.

"When you're dealing with early-stage companies, a lot of it just boils down to product-market fit and making sure you're able to develop a technology that's scalable that works with your customers as you scale," Phillips says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It sounds simple, but it's not easily mastered." Click here to read more.

David Aaronson, CEO and co-founder of REVS

In the coming weeks, REVS plans to set up EV charging stations at properties in Texas and California. Photo courtesy of REVS

Electric Vehicles are growing in popularity, and it's time for the infrastructure to catch up. Houston-based Refuel Electric Vehicle Solutions (REVS), has plans to roll out its offering — consulting, installation, and management services for electric vehicle (EV) charging stations — to multifamily and commercial real estate properties across the U.S. Those properties include apartment complexes, office buildings, hotels, and shopping centers.

As EVs "become more prevalent, it is imperative that commercial real estate and multifamily owners and operators realize that their assets will provide the future infrastructure for charging these vehicles," CEO and Co-founder David Aaronson says.

In the coming weeks, REVS — which Aaronson co-founded with his son, Mike — plans to set up EV charging stations at properties in Texas and California. Click here to read more.

Carolyn Rodz, CEO of Hello Alice

Carolyn Rodz, and her California-based co-founder Elizabeth Gore, recently raised funds to continue to grow Hello Alice, which supports startups and small businesses. Photos via helloalice.com

Machine learning-enabled small business support company Hello Alice, founded in Houston with a presence in California, has closed its $21 million series B raise. The funds come at a pivotal time for the company, which worked hard during the pandemic to support struggling business and now aims to support entrepreneurs of all backgrounds as the world re-emerges out of the COVID-19 era.

"We are thrilled to have a cap table as diverse as the business owners we serve," says Carolyn Rodz, co-founder and CEO of Hello Alice, in the release. "Our investors are leaders from the Black, Hispanic, LGBTQ+, Women, and US Veteran communities. As a Latina founder and fellow small business owner, I want to ensure that as our company grows, we are fueling future diversity in capital and breaking through ceilings for the benefit of our community."

The round, according to a press release, will be used to refine the predictive capabilities on its platform, launch a mobile application, and more. Click here to read more.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Emily Reiser of Texas Medical Center Innovation, Atul Varadhachary of Fannin Innovation Studio, and Vicki Knott of Crux OCM. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to two local innovators, as well as one honorary Houstonian, across industries — energy, health care, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Emily Reiser, senior manager for innovation community and engagement for Texas Medical Center Innovation

Emily Reiser joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the latest at TMC Innovation. Photo courtesy of TMC Innovation

Over her past few years at Texas Medical Center Innovation, Emily Reiser has worked with over 1,000 startups. So, it's safe to say she knows what a good pitch looks like and what health tech startups need as far a support from mentors and experts goes.

She shares some of her advice and observations on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. She also explains how TMC Innovation is uniquely positioned to advance the best and brightest in life science innovation.

"When we think about how a startup is going to be successful, we think about how they are going to build new partnerships. But we also think about all the people they're going to need to activate and bring them to the next level," Reiser says. "What we do is curate a community of high-value resources that can help these companies elevate to that next level." Click here to read more.

Atul Varadhachary, managing partner of Houston's Fannin Innovation Studio

Atul Varadhachary, managing partner of Fannin Innovation Studio, says that now is the time to invest in life sciences. Photo via fannininnovation.com

Fannin Innovation Studio is hard at work finding, supporting, and accelerating life science innovations, but, according to Managing Partner Atul Varadhachary, the organization can be doing so much more — if only the budget allowed.

Varadhachary makes a case for tripling or even quadrupling the number of participants in Fannin's federally accredited fellowship program. He says this one relatively small investment could push Houston closer to Boston in the life sciences stratosphere.

"I can think of nothing that could give a bigger return on investment for the city," Varadhachary says of expanding Fannin's fellowship program. Click here to read more.

Vicki Knott, co-founder and CEO of Crux OCM

A Canadian software company is expanding its presence in Houston to meet the needs of its clients. Photo courtesy of Crux OCM

For six months of the year, Vicki Knott plans to take up residence in Houston. As the co-founder and CEO of Calgary-based Crux OCM, Knott saw a big opportunity to expand her control room operations automation software business — especially when she nabbed Houston-based Phillips 66 as a client.

Calgary and Houston have a lot in common, Knott says, and she sees a very natural connection to the two regions. Knott plans to work six months of the year in Houston with the local office.

"A lot of the companies that head offices in Houston, they have head offices in Calgary," she says. "If a startup in Houston is getting traction, I think there's a natural movement to start in the Calgary market and vice versa." Click here to read more.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Andrew Bruce of Data Gumbo, Jan E. Odegard of The Ion, and David Leebron of Rice University. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

WHO'S WHO

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — blockchain, education, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Andrew Bruce, CEO of Data Gumbo

In a guest column for InnovationMap, Andrew Bruce advocates for securing your network. Photo courtesy of Data Gumbo

Securing your network is extremely important, writes Andrew Bruce in a guest column for InnovationMap. In fact, it could be the difference of success and failure for startup founders.

"Innovation isn't born in a vacuum nor is the adoption of a new technology. Often the broader path to tech disruption is through groundwork and that's a system best laid by a well-connected network," he writes.

Bruce shares his tips in the article. Click here to read more.

Jan E. Odegard, executive director of The Ion

Jan E. Odegard got to drop the "interim" in his title. Photo courtesy of The Ion

Jan E. Odegard isn't a native Houstonian, but his passion for making Houston a destination city — especially when it comes to innovation — is unparalleled. And for the past year and some change, he's used that passion to drive his leadership as interim executive director of The Ion. As of this month, Odegard got to drop the temporary title ahead of the building's grand opening.

Odegard joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the title change and what has motivated him in his position from day one.

"We have been speaking for the last two years, 'let's build on Houston's DNA,'" he says, "well, we've built this building on the DNA. We are truly trying to amplify the connectivity to the history but serving it for the next 40 to 50 years." Click here to read more.

David Leebron, outgoing president at Rice University

David Leebron's tenure is one of the longest in Rice history. Photo courtesy of Rice University

All good things must come to an end, and Rice University president David Leebron, that time has come after 17 years of service. He has overseen exponential growth of the school's facilities, research initiatives, and student body.

Leebron and the university announced on May 26 that he is leaving his position at the end of the next academic year. His official departure from the presidency will be effective on June 30, 2022, per a press release.

"Ping and I are so grateful for the opportunity we have had at Rice," Leebron noted in a statement. "This is a truly remarkable and dedicated community and it has been a privilege to be part of it." Click here to read more.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Sameer Soleja of Molecule, Gabriela Gerhart of The Motherhood center, and 50 Cent. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — software, education, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Sameer Soleja, CEO of Molecule

Sameer Soleja, CEO of Molecule, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his startup's recent fundraise — and how he's planning on being at the forefront of the evolving electricity commodities industry. Photo courtesy of Molecule

A 9-year-old software startup has been reinvigorated by fresh funds and a new opportunity to emerge as a leader in enterprise software for commodities — especially for electricity traders. Sameer Soleja, CEO of Molecule, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the company's latest funding round — a $12 million series A.

"The commodities industry is looking really hard at electricity as the growth commodity of the 2020s — renewables and conventionally generated electricity," Soleja says. "Everybody in our client base and in the market is looking at electricity. Well, we happen to have more than have of our customer base be in electricity."

Click here to listen to the podcast and read more.

Gabriela Gerhart, founder of The Motherhood Center

Houston entrepreneur recounts journey from communism to U.S. success in new book

Gabriela Gerhart recounts her journey from communism to American success in her new book. Photo courtesy of Gabriela Gerhart

Gabriela Gerhart remembers that day, back in 1989, when her teacher walked into her classroom in Czechoslovakia and announced that communism was over. Further, she told the group that everything she'd been teaching them was a lie.

Gerhart was stunned.

"It was confusing," she tells CultureMap. "You think to yourself, 'was I fooled? Was I indoctrinated? 'You have to understand, I had no idea there was another world out there."

Gerhart, founder of The Motherhood Center on West Alabama Street unpacks those feelings and others in her new autobiography, After The Fall, a story of growing up in Central Europe under communism and following her own wanderlust to the States, where she fell in love, got married, and built a successful business.

Click here to read more.

Rapper 50 Cent really means business. 50 Cent/Twitter

Rap star and Newstonian 50 Cent is giving back to area schools in need of help. The recently relocated rapper/producer/entrepreneur/rodeo wine bidder is teaming up with the Houston Independent School District and Horizon United Group to bolster entrepreneurship programs at Kashmere, Worthing, and Wheatley high schools.

He has funded the project with a $600,000 donation, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced on May 17.

Dubbed the G-Unity Business Lab, the new program will encourage students to engage in MBA-level lessons that represent the full lifecycle of a product or concept, from idea creation, to market branding, to even running a company, a press release notes.

Click here to read more.

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Houston-based startup expands hangover product line with new beverage launch

cheers to health

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

Get a glimpse at the schedule and speakers for global healthtech event

Itinerary Time

HealthTech Beyond Borders is coming up August 10-13, 2021, where American healthtech companies can find their perfect match with Chilean collaborators. But what exactly can you expect from the free, virtual event?

Besides answering the question "why Chile?," the seminars will touch on everything from software solutions and medical facility management to healthcare products and services, and even venture capital opportunities.

A curated group of successful Chilean and U.S. healthtech companies are participating, including those that specialize in artificial intelligence, 3-D printing, medical robotics, gene therapies, nanomedicine, neurotechnology, eye care tech, telehealth, imaging diagnostics, wellness and fitness, mental health, and more.

The first day includes such panelists as Matias Gutierrez, CEO of Genosur LLC, and Alberto Rodríguez Navarro from Levita Magnetics.

A discussion on the current healthcare innovation ecosystem in Chile and the region's strengths, as well as developments for key sub-sectors are also on tap.

Day two kicks off with everything you'd want to know about venture capital, and why the U.S. has been the largest for Chilean startups.

Find answers to questions like what do early stage companies need to consider and what steps do they need to take to best prepare themselves to receive funding, as well as what are the important tools for companies to reach VC on each territory?

Day three examines the question "Why the U.S.?" What have Houston, Chicago, and Philadelphia done to become key healthcare hubs in the world, and what role do international partners play in these efforts? Representatives from each city are participating.

Likewise, why do international healthcare companies prioritize your respective markets, and how do these cities support expansion? Learn how the global U.S. private healthcare sector can reach Latin America, and how ProChile — the event's sponsor — can help make these connections.

Registration is now open, so get your free tickets here.

Houston cancer-fighting institution names 10 innovative fellows

curing cancer

A Houston institution has identified 10 researchers moving the needle on curing cancer.

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center named 10 "early career" faculty members to its 2021 class of Andrew Sabin Family Fellows. The fellowship was established by philanthropist Andrew Sabin through a $30 million endowment in 2015 and "encourages creativity, innovation and impactful cancer research at MD Anderson in the areas of basic science, clinical, physician-scientist and population and quantitative science," according to a news release.

Sabin has served as a member of the MD Anderson Cancer Center Board of Visitors since 2005.

"Researchers at MD Anderson are unmatched in their ability to develop bold tactics aimed at tackling cancer," he says in the release. "My hope is that through our support, we can inspire and assist these brilliant minds in their dedicated work to end cancer."

The program will dole out $100,000 to each fellow over two years. Since its inception, the program has selected and supported 52 fellows specializing in cancer research from basic science to translational research to survivorship.

"Our early career researchers are a pivotal part of the innovative discoveries that fuel our mission to end cancer," says President Peter WT Pisters, in the release. "We are extremely grateful for the generosity of the Andrew Sabin Family Foundation in allowing our institution to recruit and retain the highest caliber of young researchers through this fellowship program. Together, we will continue Making Cancer History."

The 2021 class of Sabin Family Fellows includes:

Basic/Translational Scientists

Clinical Researchers

Physician-Scientists

Population/Quantitative Scientists