Preventing paper business card waste and hand-to-hand contact, Ncrowd has created a tool to maintain connecting in an evolving networking space. Photo courtesy of Ncrowd

A Houston-based startup is launching this month in order to up the ante for networking at events — whether they are in-person or virtual.

NCrowd allows its users to avoid the hassle and awkwardness in-person networking and takes connecting into the virtual space. The app, available through the App Store and Google Play, is the only networking platform that uses an interactive RSVP list for users to market themselves and network before an event.

"Professional networking has been done the same way for over 60 years," says CEO and co-founder Roland Martinez. "Young professionals do not approach networking as someone did decades ago."

NCrowd users can create their own profile and their very own digital business card that allows for users to enter virtual networking lounges to view attendees that have RSVP'ed to events. The events are easy to find in the app, allowing users to pick and choose what event they would be interested in, exchange digital business cards, view other attendees' profiles, including their social media handles.

"The app is user friendly and helps professionals see who is attending the event before the event happens," says Martinez. "This is pretty valuable for those aiming to make a great first impression."

The platform is especially useful during the COVID pandemic where in-person events are being taken into virtual spaces.

The networking platform makes it easy to stay connected online and all in one app. The digital business cards are archived on the platform providing a digital footprint and allowing users to call, chat, and email other professionals and create connections.

"COVID-19 has changed the way people interact forever," says Martinez. "Networking will be forever changed because now we know it isn't essential to meet face-to-face. NCrowd optimizes virtual events with our platform that allows professionals to connect in an online environment."

NCrowd allows users to connect while keeping social distancing measures that reduce the risk of infection by reducing the need to meet in large gatherings. That's not the only positive side effect, Martinez says that reducing paper waste was a huge motivator during NCrowd's development phase.

"About 10 billion paper cards are printed each year and the vast majority end up getting lost or thrown away a few days later," says Martinez. "It makes a lot more sense to go digital and reduce paper waste to help the planet."

Now that NCrowd has completed its year of beta testing, according to Martinez, he is excited to launch and grow their business. They will test out their platform later this month with a company that will be using telecommunication software and their app to make networking virtually easier.

Ncrowd's co-founders are Craig Sico, Roland Martinez, Larry Olivarez, and Priscilla Olivarez. Photo courtesy of Ncrowd

Houston-based FlightAware, a software company that tracks flights, is growing. Cameron Casey/Pexels

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 data to cut down, among other issues, on problems with flight delays, gate assignments, and flight connections, Baker says. FlightAware pulls data from its network of more than 25,000 receivers on all seven continents.

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.

A Houston mom is working hard on her startup so that next summer, breastfeeding moms can swim in style and worry free. Courtesy of Orolait

New mom-designed swimwear line makes a splash in Houston

mommy made

Houston mom Ana Carolina Rojas Bastidas feels there's been an oversight in the fashion industry when it comes to women who are in the breastfeeding stage of motherhood. With her new swimwear line, she hopes to spark a movement for women's fashion.

Bastidas, founder and CEO of Orolait, launched the swimwear line in September 2018 specifically for breastfeeding individuals. Orolait, which floats the tagline "by a mama for mamas," aims to give breastfeeding individuals back the dignity they deserve with bathing suit options.

"I decided to build this company to challenge and change the way we depict one's breastfeeding journey," Bastidas says on the website. "I stand on the pillars of advocacy, education, and inclusion. You will see the sizing and advertising featuring all shapes, sizes, and shades because each of us is so different and that is what makes us so incredible and I am going to unapologetically celebrate that in the most ethical way I know how."

Bastidas, originally from Bogota, Colombia, has been blogging about postpartum body positivity on her platform PowerToPrevail since 2015, sharing her personal journey with her children.

"I was spending a lot of time by the pool and water parks with my two older children," her website states. "I had a big fear of public breastfeeding, but I had a life to live and memories to make with my kids."

Orolait currently offers four different types of bathing suits, each designed to make breastfeeding easier. The suits range from $36 per piece to $72 for a full suit. The suits are designed manufactured by MIYH Design Services, a local business owned by adjunct Art Institute of Houston professor David Dang.

Bastidas tells InnovationMap that she noticed the need for specifically designed suits after experiencing discomfort herself, explaining that traditional suits were not accommodating for swollen milk ducts with the cut and wiring. Bastidas surveyed mothers across all walks of life to see what they struggled with when finding a bathing suit and found that the list was endless. She tells InnovationMap that they got 100 responses in three days.

Her survey found that moms worried about body image, functionality, confidence, feeling fashionable, and comfort, all when looking for a bikini. It became clear to Bastidas that the current market was not working for moms and causing even more stress.

"Our goal is not to be modest," says Bastidas. "I don't believe in modesty when it comes to breastfeeding, but I do believe that people are at different levels and we need to meet them where they are at."

This past November, Orolait launched their first-ever equity crowdfunding campaign through LetsLaunch, a platform based out of Houston, with a goal of raising $250,000. The company reached 10 percent of its goal within its first few days of going life.

"Our goal is to help women who decide that breastfeeding is a journey that they would like to take, to be able to take that journey," says Bastidas. "There are so many obstacles that are already in our way biologically, that to have a lack of product be the reason why you become so discouraged is unacceptable."

Bastidas tells InnovationMap that her goal for the company is to eventually expand offerings in addition to bathing suits and move into brick and mortar retail spaces. She hopes that Orolait will be a representation of all varieties of breastfeeding journeys.

"We want to make sure we represent those moms who are never represented," says Bastidas.

FanReact is now Truss, and the company will be able to reach a greater audience. Photo by PeopleImages

Exclusive: Houston sports tech company rebrands to attract a wider range of clients

Name change

A Houston company that's specialized in digital sports fan engagement is reinventing itself to grow its client base.

FanReact, which earlier this year spun off its esports business into a new company called Mainline, is now known as Truss. The transition opens doors for the company to reach new clients that aren't in the sports industry — but that maybe want to take a page out of the fan experience's book.

"Our team has done an incredible job creating great digital experiences for our customers in the sports and athletics space," says Patrick Schneidau, CEO of Truss, in a news release. "At the same time, we have heard from organizations outside of sports that they want to create a similar 'fan experience'' for their customers, employees, partners and volunteers by providing content and connections the same way that athletic teams do."

According to Schneidau, there's also some market dissatisfaction that has left Truss with this opportunity for growth.

"Those organizations and their audiences – while not wanting to sacrifice great user experience and engagement – don't trust current options that host their communities at the expense of a loss of privacy," he adds. "All of these organizations focus on the need for a privacy-focused community platform."

The rebranding ties into some technological expansions Truss now has to offer, including branded digital web and mobile experiences, verified user profiles, community-defined moderation standards, and person-to-person and group chats.

"With our new mission to serve people who share a passion for any organization, our customers can now create the same level of engagement already available with your favorite sports team," says Schneidau. "Whether your organization supports critically ill patients, service men and women, university students or people of faith, Truss can create the communication, collaboration and connections that so many organizations desire for their community."

Houston-based iownit.us secured $4.5 million to grow its platform. Getty Images

Houston investment platform completes a $4.5 million Series A round

Money moves

A Houston-based digital investor infrastructure platform closed an investment round of its own. Iownit Capital and Markets Inc. announced that it has closed a $4.5 million Seed round of funding.

The round was lead by a group of private investors who were not identified in the June 26 release. While iownit.us CEO Rashad Kurbanov has been working on the platform for two years, he still awaits regulatory approval.

"This funding shows the demand for a platform like this in the marketplace, and will be crucial in making sure our platform meets regulatory requirements," Kurbanov says in the release. "We're doing everything we can to get this correct from the very start — unlike many firms who say, 'better to ask for forgiveness than permission,' we ask permission first because we don't want to ever be in a position where we're asking for forgiveness."

The primary function of the funds will go to wrapping up this approval process to insure the company has all of its required licenses. After that's all squared away, the remaining funds will go toward business development and marketing initiatives and technological advancements.

Iownit.us uses private blockchain and ledger technology to transact traditional investment deals securely on its digital platform.

"We realized there's a big section of the overall capital market that has not necessarily been touched by technology, and that's the space of private securities," Kurbanov tells InnovationMap in a previous interview.

Kurbanov says the convoluted process of private securities investment has meant that startup companies are much more likely to focus on receiving funding venture firms, because they want to have a one-stop-shopping experience.

When entrepreneurs add in multiple investors, they end up juggling too much of the logistics side of things, rather than running their company. Iownit's platform, enabled by the JOBS Act, plans to simplify this process, which then allows for a diversity of investments in the ecosystem that's in the past been dominated by huge VCs.

"What we do, and where technology helps us, is we can take the entire process of receiving interest from investors, signing the transactions, issuing the subscription agreements, and processing the payments and put that all online," says Kurbanov.

Cryptocurrency doesn't have to be a big, confusing risk with this Houston startup's technology. David McBee/Pexels

Houston startup that simplifies way to analyze cryptocurrency trends plans expansion

equipped for crypto

A new Houston startup is changing the way traders and investors analyze trending cryptocurrency.

Spencer Randall, CryptoEQ's principal and co-founder, says the mission of the company is to simplify ratings and analysis in cryptocurrency. With the company's beta now live, Randall hopes that those not familiar with cryptocurrency will be able to use the platform as a learning tool. The platform takes information on trending cryptocurrency and boils it down into three columns -- rating, technical analysis and trend analysis -- in order for users to know when to buy or sell.

"(It) is very complex," Randall says. "We see the utility and digital assets helping the common person so that they can try and boil down the information."

Randall, whose interest in investing and trading in cryptocurrency began a couple of years ago, became a frequent attendee of Bitcoin meetups in Houston, Austin, and San Antonio. There, he met his co-founders, lead designer Brooks Vaughan, program manager Norman Hamilton, lead analyst Michael Thoma, and lead marketer Joseph Romero.

The co-founders all recognized a need for reliable and trustworthy information in the cryptocurrency space and decided that creating CryptoEQ was the answer. The company hopes to expand its platform by the end of the third quarter this year.

"We really wanted to start building a platform that we would want to use as people organically enthusiastic about the (cryptocurrency) space," Randall says. "We built the platform for use at those meetups. It has a landing page where you can just jump on and get a feel in a matter of seconds of how the market is doing. This beta is intended to be a place where you can come throughout the day to check in on the market and check in on how things are going and learn about where'd you like to go next with crypto."

And while Houston is still an expanding technology hub, Randall thinks the city is an undervalued place to grow a small company like CryptoEQ. He credits innovation hubs like the Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, also known as Lilie, for creating the opportunity for Houstonians to thrive in the startup field.

"Houston is a place where entrepreneurs can actually thrive," Randall said. "You see a lot of people go to Austin because that's where the startup culture is in Texas. As Houston catches up, I think you'll see less of the talent leave."

CryptoEQ offices out of The Cannon, which is opening its 120,000-square-foot entrepreneurial campus this summer.


The CryptoEQ founders met at various Texas Bitcoin meetups. Courtesy of CryptoEQ

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Houston startup raises $10M, A&M names TMC campus, and more innovation news

short stories

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and it's likely some might have fallen through the cracks. From a Texas university naming its burgeoning new campus to a Houston SaaS startup with fresh funds, here are some short stories in Houston innovation.

ThoughtTrace raises $10M series B

ThoughtTrace has received investment from Chevron Technology Ventures. Photo via thoughttrace.com

ThoughtTrace Inc., a Houston-based software-as-a-service startup closed a $10 million series B round led by Canadian venture capital fund McRock Capital with contribution from Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures.

"Chevron Technology Ventures (CTV) pursues externally-developed technologies and new business solutions that have the potential to enhance the way Chevron produces and delivers affordable, reliable and ever-cleaner energy," says Barbara Burger, president of CTV, in a release. "ThoughtTrace fits that mandate with the potential to automate the complex, time-consuming, and document-intensive workflows required for our ongoing business operations."

ThoughtTrace's software quickly analyzes documents and contracts and produces results at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional methods. With the fundraising deal, Scott MacDonald, McRock's co-founder and managing partner, will join ThoughtTrace's Board of Directors.

"We are extraordinarily excited to have both McRock and Chevron join the team. McRock brings a great background in the industrial space, which we see as a great fit. In the case of Chevron, they went from being a new customer in 2019 to an investor in 2020," says Nick Vandivere, ThoughtTrace CEO, in a release.

"With the new capital raise, ThoughtTrace will accelerate its investment in creating AI with unparalleled speed and accuracy, grow strategic partnerships and platform integrations, and add to its existing team of talented professionals, all of which will bring further value to the growing ThoughtTrace customer-base," Vandivere continues.

Texas A&M names its Texas Medical Center campus

The new campus will be called Texas A&M Innovation Plaza. Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University System

After announcing its plans for a $546 million medical complex in Houston's Texas Medical Center in February, Texas A&M University has released the name of the 5-acre campus rising at the intersection of Holcombe Boulevard and Main Street: Texas A&M Innovation Plaza.

The project will be completed in phases. The first phase, which will open later this year, is a renovation of an 18-floor building at 1020 Holcombe Blvd., which will to be the new home for EnMed, a dual degree program that produces both a master's in engineering and a medical degree.

"EnMed is just the first example of innovation that Texas A&M System intends to bring to the Texas A&M Innovation Plaza," says Chancellor John Sharp in a news release. "We are excited to have such a visible location in the Texas Medical Center."

Rice Business Plan Competition lays out virtual plans

The competition must go on. Photo via rbpc.rice.edu

This year's Rice Business Plan Competition, which was planned for March 26 to 28, was canceled due to COVID-19, but the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship has decided to offer up an alternative: A virtual RBPC. Forty two student teams will compete over three virtual events.

  • Elevator Pitch Competition on June 17 (Open to the public): Each team will deliver 60-second pitches.
  • Round 1 on June 18 (Open to startups and judges only ): Each team will deliver 10-minutes to pitch to a panel of judges followed by Q&A.
  • Live finals on June 19 (open to the public): The seven finalists will pitch to the judges, and following a round of questions from judges, the winners and prizes will be announced.

Two health care educational institutions team up for new program

Xavier University and Baylor College of Medicine have launched a collaborative medical track. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Louisiana's Xavier University and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston have joined forces to allow Xavier students a smooth transition into Baylor's graduate programs. Xavier students, including traditionally underrepresented minorities — according to a press release — will have the opportunity to apply for the program in November. Three students will be selected for the program, which facilitates acceptance into the medical school.

"Our commitment at Baylor College of Medicine to diversity and inclusion creates the best environment for success across our mission areas of healthcare, research, education and community outreach," says Dr. Paul Klotman, president, CEO and executive dean of Baylor College of Medicine, in the release. "This important collaboration with Xavier University will strengthen this commitment, and I look forward to welcoming students from this new partnership into the Baylor family."

Klotman continues to express how inclusiveness is a priority for BCM and for this partnership.

"We live in a world where healthcare is changing and evolving," says Dr. Anne McCall, provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs at Xavier, in the release. "This partnership will further equip our students with the diverse tools and training that they'll need to foster equity in the medical field and compete on an international level."

University of Houston begins offering virtual tours for perspective students

Potential UH Cougars can get the 411 on campus via a virtual tour tool. Photo via uh.edu

Before COVID-19 sent everyone home and canceled gatherings, classes, and events across the world, the University of Houston was already working on a way for potential students to tour and learn more about the campus. Now, in light of the pandemic, UH has released this virtual tour offering complete with live interaction from UH student ambassadors.

"I'm really excited about the live component we just added because prospective students can ask questions just like during a face-to-face campus tour and that interaction is invaluable," says Mardell Maxwell, executive director of UH Admissions, in a release. "UH is so committed to access, and we see this as a great opportunity not only for students in Houston and Texas, but for those coming from out of state. We are opening up access to campus across the world."

Anyone can sign up for a tour online through the university's website.

Report recognizes Houston as a top city to launch a career

starting out

First-time job hunters are facing a competitive job market with historic unemployment and an unstable economy amid the coronavirus pandemic. However, Houston, according to a recent report, might give its residents an advantage.

The report, released May 20 by career website LinkedIn, places Houston at No. 10 on a list of the places in the U.S. that are best suited for new college graduates who are diving into the job market. The list comes out as recent grads confront a job market that's "shaping up to become one of the worst in recent memory," according to The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news outlet that covers education.

LinkedIn considered three factors for its ranking: affordable rent, good starting salaries, and job availability. Houston's median rent sits at $1,377 per month (all types and sizes of rental properties), LinkedIn says, while its median annual salary for entry-level "career starter" jobs stands at $69,800.

Two other Texas metros appear in the top 15:

  • No. 13 San Antonio, where the median rent is $1,219 and the entry-level salary is $59,900
  • No. 15 Dallas-Fort Worth, where the median rent is $1,423 and the entry-level salary is $65,300

Austin, consistently touted as a magnet for college grads, failed to make the LinkedIn cut.

"What you [also] won't find on this list are the traditional coastal job magnets — New York, the Washington, D.C. area, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Los Angeles," LinkedIn points out. "Those cities may still offer some of the highest starting salaries, but their sky-high rents mean income doesn't stretch nearly as far."

Among the top occupations in the metro areas on LinkedIn's list are software engineer, registered nurse, teacher, project manager, project engineer, consultant, and analyst.

It might be difficult to find those jobs, though. The Conference Board, a research group that monitors business trends, says the number of new job postings in Texas declined from 255,000 in March to 175,000 in April.

To deal with the current economic realities, some new college grads are making sacrifices. In a survey by Monster.com and Wakefield Research, 55 percent of graduating seniors indicated they'd applied for a job they knew wasn't a good fit, and 52 percent said they would accept a lower salary.

"They're feeling desperate," Vicki Salemi, a career expert at Monster.com, told The Hill news website.

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This article original ran on CultureMap.

Houston expert shares tip for developing a circular economy within your company's tech

Guest column

Many organizations are interested in building a circular economy into their business model but aren't sure what steps to take to achieve this goal. I've worked in the technology industry for over 20 years, helping customers across all industries navigate the processes of buyback, recycling, and repair in order to create sustainable and profitable solutions to reduce e-waste.

The world produces 40 million tons of e-waste annually, and only 20 percent of that is being disposed of properly. A circular economy is a system in which all materials and components are kept at their highest value and where e-waste is essentially designed out of the system.

Building a circular economy for electronics requires attention to detail in the areas of design, buyback, or return systems, advanced recycling and recapturing, durability and repair, and urban mining.

Below, I'll discuss some key building blocks for implementing an effective and efficient circular economy.

Invest in technology that will last

Longevity is essential to maintaining sustainable products, and that is easily achievable through repair and refurbishment services. Upgrading or reworking existing equipment can save you time and money by enhancing its marketability or extending its useful life.

Rework service providers can replace components inside servers or PCs and rebuild them with new parts to meet your requirements. These services can boost your operations' speed or improve your servers' or PCs' performance through upgrading, while also saving your organization money by not having to purchase all-new equipment.

Recover value through the secondary market

When equipment must be replaced or retired, many electronic devices can be remarketed, either as whole products or individual parts. This system not only keeps electronics in use and out of landfills — it can also serve as an additional revenue stream for your organization.

Finding the right IT asset disposition partner is crucial for maximizing your return on investment. It can pay dividends to provide high-exposure opportunities to a vast network of customers through a mix of online sales, e-commerce tools, and inside sales when selling your retired equipment.

Utilize advanced recycling and recapturing programs

Retired electronics that are not remarketable can be collected and have their components reintegrated into new products, creating a closed-loop production system. ITAD partners who are certified to recognized green standards, such as R2 or e-Stewards, can ensure that IT equipment that no longer has value will be responsibly recycled.

No matter what industry you're in, a qualified ITAD partner can help optimize your organization and support your goals. From data centers to server rooms and beyond, sustainable solutions are available to manage the equipment you need to retire in compliance with all regulatory guidelines.

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Ed Wooten is Smith's director of ITAD, or IT asset disposition.