HTX Labs will supply immersive training technology and content to the Air Force and its Space Force military partner. Graphic courtesy of HTX Labs

HTX Labs has won a three-year, $90 million contract to provide immersive training capabilities for the Air Force and Space Force.

Under the new contract, which is set to end in September 2026, HTX Labs will supply immersive training technology and content to the Air Force and its Space Force military partner. The Houston company says the contract culminates more than five years of collaboration with the Air Force.

HTX Labs’ EMPACT cloud-based immersive training platform enables instructors and curriculum developers to create immersive lessons within EMPACT’s digital classrooms. HTX Labs says the Air Force and Space Force will retain full ownership of digital assets that are produced and will allow in-house updates of training materials.

EMPACT’s training lessons can be consumed on tablets, laptops, and virtual reality (VR) headsets.

“HTX Labs is honored to have the confidence of the Air Force per this contract that allows us to continue our collaboration with Airmen and Guardians to deliver immersive training capabilities for the warfighter,” Scott Schneider, CEO and head of growth for HTX Labs, says in a news release.

The ties between HTX Labs and the Air Force are strong.

In May, HTX Labs said it had been awarded a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract for the Tech Training Transformation Cloud project at the Air Force. The project will let airmen access, create, share, and deliver government-owned digital assets, models, simulations, and content for technical training.

Two months later, HTX Labs said retired Air Force Gen. Craig “Pulse” Wills had joined the company as a strategic adviser. During his Air Force tenure, Wills oversaw a makeover of flight training, including the introduction of extended reality (XR) training and adult learning programs.

“HTX Labs was one of the early pioneers of our Pilot Training Next effort, and they’re dedicated to meeting the needs of our warfighters,” says Wills. “Our young military members are the treasure of this nation. We owe them the very best training and tools available to make them lethal, proficient, and prepared to defend this nation and our way of life.”

Founded in 2017, HTX Labs received $3.2 million in royalty-based equity funding last year from Dallas-based Cypress Growth Capital.

Here are three of the latest updates on new hires and promotions from these Houston organizations. Photos courtesy

3 Houston organizations announce strategic appointments

short stories

It's been a busy year so far for Houston organizations — three of which have made new appointments to their leadership.

In this round up of movers and shakers in Houston innovation, a venture capital firm names its newest principal, an astronaut gets a leadership role here at ground control, and a VR studio snags a leader to steer its growth.

Joe Acaba, chief of NASA's Astronaut Office at Johnson Space Center

Joe Acaba was promoted to a new role and will be responsible for crew assignments for future spaceflight missions. Photo via NASA

NASA tapped Joe Acaba as its chief of the Astronaut Office based in Johnson Space Center in Houston. He's served on multiple spaceflights and is a former U.S. Marine and former educator. According to NASA, he's the first person of Hispanic heritage selected to lead the office.

Acaba replaces Drew Feustel, who spent two years as deputy chief and has been acting chief of the office since NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman left the post late last year.

"Joe is an experienced space flyer and a proven leader, and he will undoubtedly inspire the next generation of NASA astronauts," says NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a news release. " As we build on the International Space Station’s unparalleled success in low-Earth orbit with our eyes on the Moon and then Mars, Joe will play an integral role in ensuring our NASA astronauts are prepared for the challenges ahead."

Acaba, who spent a total of 306 days in space, has already supported the astronaut office in a few of roles, including director of operations in Russia and chief of the Vehicle Integration Test Office. In this new role, he will be oversee astronaut resources and operations and help develop astronaut flight crew operation concepts. Additionally, Acaba will make crew assignments for future spaceflight missions, including astronauts assigned to fly on Artemis missions.

“Our Johnson Space Center team congratulates Joe Acaba on his selection to chief of the Astronaut Office. We wish him well as he takes on this new and exciting leadership role,” says NASA Johnson Space Center Director Vanessa Wyche.

Samantha Lewis, partner at Mercury Fund

Samantha Lewis was promoted to partner at Mercury Fund. Photo courtesy of Mercury Fund

Samantha Lewis was promoted to partner from principal at Houston-based venture capital firm Mercury, per her LinkedIn. She previously was the investment director of investor network GOOSE Capital before joining the Mercury team just over two years ago.

Last year, Lewis — who also served on the board of two Houston-founded startups, Syzygy and Topl — was named a member of the Class 27 of the Kauffman Fellows Program, a group of global innovation investors.

Lewis is focused on what she calls the "power theme" at Mercury, which includes fintech, blockchain, web3, and more. She told InnovationMap on a recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast that these industries have been hit in particular within market uncertainty.

Bob Kleinhample, senior vice president of growth at HTX Labs

Bob Kleinhample joins HTX Labs at a time of strategic growth. Photo courtesy of HTX Labs

Virtual reality studio HTX Labs has named Bob Kleinhample as the company’s senior vice president of growth. He has more than 15 years leading business efforts in the tech space. A 20-year Army veteran, Kleinhample will oversee all aspects of HTX Labs' growth — including business development, product strategy, and marketing.

“Bob brings the right balance of market knowledge and product strategy, in combination with the commitment to bring immersive training and simulation to the warfighter, to really drive our EMPACT offering into the market,” says Scott Schneider, CEO and co-founder of HTX Labs. "We’re very excited to be adding this incredibly important role to our organization and having Bob lead these efforts as we expand the usage and adoption of EMPACT across the Department of Defense."

The appointment comes after the startup raised $3.2 million in its first outside capital round.

“Last year we secured funding from Cypress Growth Capital for the sole purpose of accelerating the growth of our EMPACT platform and our customer base, and we immediately began a search for the right person to lead these growth efforts," Schneider continues. "After performing an extensive search, we are fortunate to have connected with Bob Kleinhample who is coming on board to lead our company’s growth efforts“.

Here are the 10 Houston startups that closed venture capital investment in the fourth quarter of last year. Photo via Getty Images

10 Houston startups start 2023 with fresh venture capital funding

money moves

Houston startups saw a busy last quarter when it came to funding in 2022. From seed to series C, 10 Houston startups wrapped up the year with investment round closings.

In case you missed some of these headlines, InnovationMap has rounded up these 10 deals based on previous reporting. Scroll through to see which Houston startups are catching the eyes — and cashing the checks — of investors.

Houston-based virtual reality startup raises $3.2M in first outside capital round

VR training startup, HTX Labs, has raised funding from an outside investor for the first time. Courtesy of HTX Labs

HTX Labs, a Houston-based company that designs extended reality training for military and business purposes, announced last week that it has raised its first outside capital.

The company has received a $3.2 million investment from Cypress Growth Capital. Founded in 2017, HTX Labs — developer of the EMPACT Immersive Learning Platform — has been granted funding from the Department of Defense as well as grown its client base of commercial Enterprises. The platform uses virtual and extended reality that "enables organizations to rapidly create, deploy, measure, and sustain cost-effective, secure, and centralized immersive training programs, all within engaging, fully interactive virtual environments," per a news release.

“We have been looking to secure outside capital to accelerate the growth of our EMPACT platform and customer base but we hadn’t found the right partner who provided an investment vehicle that matched our needs,“ says HTX Labs CEO Scott Schneider in the release. “We found everything we were looking for in Cypress Growth Capital. They have a non-dilutive funding model that aligns with our capital expectations and have the level of experience that really makes this smart money." Read more.

Houston-based travel tech startup raises nearly $1M to continue expansion

A Houston company has raised additional funding as it grows its encrypted lodging booking platform. Photo via Gustavo Fring/Pexels

A travel booking technology company that's looking to alleviate some of the stresses of finding and making hotel reservations has raised additional seed funding.

Houston-based Pinktada has raised additional funding to the tune of $975,000. Ireland-based Selenean Capital contributed to the seed funding round, joining the company's previous investor True Global Ventures 4 Plus, which has invested $2 million to date. According to Crunchbase data, the latest investment brings the company's total to $3.9 million.

“Selenean Capital’s approach to partnership is identifying real world future needs and then working relentlessly to achieve those goals," says Davin Browne, Selenean’s CEO, in a news release. "Pinktada encapsulates this perfectly with a transformational approach to the hotel booking model built around a brilliant team. We look forward to the partnership and journey with them." Read more.

Houston microgrid tech company announces $150 investment

Houston-based VoltaGrid provides small-scale, self-contained microgrids that can operate independently of major power grids or in tandem with other microgrids. Photo via voltagrid.com

VoltaGrid, a Bellaire-based startup that specializes in distributed power generation via microgrids, has hauled in $150 million in equity funding.

Founded in 2020, VoltaGrid provides small-scale, self-contained microgrids that can operate independently of major power grids or in tandem with other microgrids. VoltaGrid’s product consists of natural gas engines, portable energy storage, natural gas processing and grid power connectivity.

Investors in the $150 million round include the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPP Investments), Longbow Capital, Walter Ventures, and Pilot Company (operator of more than 800 retail and fueling locations in the U.S. and Canada). The $150 million round comes less than a year after VoltaGrid announced a $100 million round featuring the same investors.Read more.

Houston SaaS company raises $15M series B, announces latest release

Houston-based GoCo.io has raised fresh funding and launched the latest version of its platform. Courtesy of GoCo

A Houston startup that is optimizing human resource operations for small businesses has raised fresh funding from an Austin-based venture capital investor.

GoCo.io raised $15 million in September in a funding round led by ATX Venture Partners. Founded in 2015, the company has raised $27.5 million to date, including its $7 million series A in 2019.

The fresh funding will be used to continue expanding on the company's software services operations and upgrades to its product, which is is modernizing HR, benefits, and payroll.

“We believe that GoCo is the company best positioned to provide HR departments at SMBs with the most flexible employee management software,” says Chris Shonk, general partner at ATX Venture Partners, in a news release. “In a crowded marketplace, GoCo clearly rises to the top with its ease-of-use, flexibility and unparalleled customization. Read more.

Houston tech startup raises $3.5M following industry expansion

Rivalry Tech's co-founders — Marshall Law and Aaron Knape — share news of the company's latest round of investment. Photo courtesy of Rivalry Tech

A Houston-based company that optimizes mobile ordering for large venues has closed its latest round of funding.

Rivalry Tech, originally founded as sEATz and tackling mobile ordering in sports venues, has raised $3.5 million following expanding with a new product, myEATz, that targets the health care, leisure, and business industries. The round was led by Houston-based Sightcast, with participation from Houston-based Softeq Venture Studio, Rice University’s Valhalla Investment Group, and more.

“Sightcast Capital Partners looks to invest in strong, founder-led companies that bring a forward-thinking solution to everyday problems," says Neal Simpson, managing partner of Sightcast Capital Partners, in a news release. "In Rivalry Tech, we saw a team that recognized an opportunity to streamline the way in which food and beverage transactions occur in the healthcare, leisure, sports, and entertainment markets. Their two-sided approach of using technology as a tool to increase vendor profitability and also positively influence consumer experience is what immediately attracted us to this opportunity." Read more.

Houston unicorn chemicals company raises $200M series D

Solugen closed its series D funding round at $200 million. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based Solugen has announced its latest round of investment to the tune of $200 million. The company, which reached unicorn status after its $357 million series C round last year, uses its patented Bioforge processes to produce "green" chemicals from bio-based feedstocks.

"Solugen is reimagining the chemistry of everyday life with enzymes found in nature. We make chemicals better, faster, cheaper, and without fossil fuels from right here in Houston, Texas. Whether you care about the climate, local competitiveness, or just plain old profits, we have good news: it's working," the company states in its news release. Read more.

Houston company closes $76M series C round to fuel its mission of reducing carbon emissions

Syzygy Plasmonics has raised a series C round of funding. Photo courtesy of Syzygy

A Houston-based company that is electrifying chemical manufacturing has closed its largest round of funding to date.

Syzygy Plasmonics closed a $76 million series C financing round led by New York-based Carbon Direct Capital. The round included participation from Aramco Ventures, Chevron Technology Ventures, LOTTE CHEMICAL, and Toyota Ventures. The company's existing investors joining the round included EVOK Innovations, The Engine, Equinor Ventures, Goose Capital, Horizons Ventures, Pan American Energy, and Sumitomo Corporation of Americas. According to a news release, Carbon Direct Capital will join Syzygy's board and serve as the series C director.

"We were very attracted to the multiple use cases for the Syzygy reactor and the lifetime-value of each Syzygy customer," says Jonathan Goldberg, Carbon Direct Capital's CEO, in the release. "Emissions from hydrogen production total more than 900 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Syzygy's photocatalysis technology is a key solution to decarbonize hydrogen production as well as other critical industries." Read more.

Houston SaaS startup raises $6M seed

Houston-based SynMax has closed its first round of funding. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston-based satellite data analytics company is celebrating an oversubscribed round of recent funding.

SynMax announced this week that it closed its seed round at $6 million with an oversubscription of $2 million. The startup is providing geospatial intelligence software as a service to customers within the energy and maritime industries. The technology combines earth observation imagery and key data sources for predictive analytics and artificial intelligence.

The company reports that all of the investment came from SynMax customers. The round was led by Houston-based Skylar Capital, an investment management firm focused on the natural gas market. Read more.

Houston health tech startup secures $27M in financing

A Houston startup that created a remote monitoring and care platform has raised millions in financing. Image via michealthcare.com

A virtual health care and analytics provider startup has closed its latest round of funding for a total of $27 million in financing.

Medical Informatics Corp. closed a $17 million series B co-led by Maryland-based Catalio Capital Management and California-based Intel Capital. The financing also includes an additional $10 million in debt led by Catalio through Catalio’s structured equity strategy, according to a news release.

“We are excited to have had this round co-led by Catalio and Intel Capital," says Emma Fauss, CEO and co-founder of MIC, in the release. "Catalio brings significant financial and technical resources, while Intel Capital possesses strong operational and industry experience, and we look forward to continuing to leverage both firms’ expertise as we continue to scale.” Read more.

Houston sportstech platform raises $1.3M seed round

This Houston startup has fresh funding to build out its data intelligence platform. Photo via aim7.com

How many times have you forced yourself to do an arduous workout when you just weren’t feeling it? Despite what some trainers will tell you, you probably didn’t feel any better after. Sports scientist Dr. Erik Korem could have told you that, but more importantly, so could his creation, AIM7.

Marketed as “the fastest, easiest way to change your habits and improve your health,” Korem just raised a $1.3 million seed round that will bring his ambitious app to consumers in its beta form early next month.

The data intelligence platform would know that on a day that you’re stressed, that Peloton tabata ride might not be in your best interest. How? “The data from your Apple Watch or your Fitbit is just data. ‘I walked 7000 steps or I slept 8 hours,’” explains Korem. “We are the recommendation engine that makes this usable for you.” Read more.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Sarah Essama of Teach for America Houston, Scott Schneider of HTX Labs, and Drs. Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez. Photos courtesy

4 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 four local innovators across industries — from health tech to software — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Sarah Essama, director of social innovation at Teach For America Houston

Sarah Essama of Teach For America Houston shares how she innovated a new way for students themselves to learn how to innovate. Photo courtesy of Sarah Essama

As director of social innovation at Teach For America Houston, it's Sarah Essama's job to come up with new ways for the organization to support both students and teachers. But, as she explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast this week, Essama realized a huge lesson modern students needed was to learn this innovation process themselves.

This line of thinking turned into Essama founding The Dream Lab, powered by Teach for America Houston.

"The Dream Lab is a set of immersive design spaces where young people leverage their imagination and creativity to innovate and solve problems within their community," she explains.

Last month, the new concept rolled out to high school students in partnership with DivInc Houston, a nonprofit focused on social and economic equity in entrepreneurship, and 21 ninth graders spent the day at the Ion for a mini-innovation accelerator and design showcase. Click here to read more.

Scott Schneider, CEO and founder of HTX Labs

Scott Schneider of HTX Labs has something to celebrate. Photo via htxlabs.com

A Houston-based virtual reality training provider has closed its first round of funding. HTX Labs announced last month that it has received a $3.2 million investment from Cypress Growth Capital.

“We have been looking to secure outside capital to accelerate the growth of our EMPACT platform and customer base but we hadn’t found the right partner who provided an investment vehicle that matched our needs,“ says HTX Labs CEO Scott Schneider in the release. “We found everything we were looking for in Cypress Growth Capital. They have a non-dilutive funding model that aligns with our capital expectations and have the level of experience that really makes this smart money.

The fresh funding will go toward growing and scaling the company's operations — both within the current Department of Defense and expansion opportunities into key commercial markets, like heavy industry, manufacturing, and higher education. Additionally, the funding will support increased customer adoption. Click here to read more.

​Drs. Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez 

Two Houston health care innovators got the green light to distribute their low-cost COVID-19 vaccine in Indonesia. Photo courtesy of TMC

After months of development and testing, the Houston-born COVID-19 vaccine has gotten the go-ahead to be produced and distributed in Indonesia.

IndoVac was created by the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and Baylor College of Medicine. Drs. Peter Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi lead the vaccine project. Bio Farma is licensing IndoVac from BCM Ventures, the commercial group at the Baylor College of Medicine.

“Access to vaccines in the developing world is critical to the eradication of this virus,” Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, says in a news release. Click here to read more.

VR training startup, HTX Labs, has raised funding from an outside investor for the first time. Courtesy of HTX Labs

Houston-based virtual reality startup raises $3.2M in first outside capital round

fresh funding

HTX Labs, a Houston-based company that designs extended reality training for military and business purposes, announced last week that it has raised its first outside capital.

The company has received a $3.2 million investment from Cypress Growth Capital. Founded in 2017, HTX Labs — developer of the EMPACT Immersive Learning Platform — has been granted funding from the Department of Defense as well as grown its client base of commercial Enterprises. The platform uses virtual and extended reality that "enables organizations to rapidly create, deploy, measure, and sustain cost-effective, secure, and centralized immersive training programs, all within engaging, fully interactive virtual environments," per a news release.

“We have been looking to secure outside capital to accelerate the growth of our EMPACT platform and customer base but we hadn’t found the right partner who provided an investment vehicle that matched our needs,“ says HTX Labs CEO Scott Schneider in the release. “We found everything we were looking for in Cypress Growth Capital. They have a non-dilutive funding model that aligns with our capital expectations and have the level of experience that really makes this smart money.

"Cypress has a decade-long track record of success in helping emerging software and services companies achieve scale," he continues. "It is clear that the team’s collective entrepreneurial and operating experience will be of tremendous benefit to us as we focus on expanding our customer base in a very intentional way.”

The fresh funding will go toward growing and scaling the company's operations — both within the current Department of Defense and expansion opportunities into key commercial markets, like heavy industry, manufacturing, and higher education. Additionally, the funding will support increased customer adoption.

“Scott and his team have built an exceptional business that is poised for dramatic growth,” says Cypress Partner Pat McCaffrey in the release. “HTX Labs’ modern, immersive training solution provides clients with a force multiplier for modernizing training and an unmatched ROI.”

Here's your latest roundup of Houston startup and innovation news you may have missed. Photo via Getty Images

Mobile ordering rolls out at resort, Houston VC's latest investment, and more local innovation news

short stories

We're on the other side of the hill that is Houston's summer, but the Bayou City's still hot — especially in terms of innovation news, and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, a Houston venture capital fund has made its latest investment, Houston startups share big updates, and more.

Rivalry Technology rolls out mobile ordering at hot summer spot

You can now order poolside at this Houston-area resort. Image courtesy of Rivalry Tech

Lounging at Margaritaville Lake Resort at Lake Conroe was just made easier by Rivalry Tech, a Houston-based mobile ordering platform company. Rivalry Tech upgraded poolside ordering with its myEATz. According to a news release, customers can now order food and drinks from the 5 o’Clock Somewhere Bar and Lone Palm Bar via a custom QR code system for each lounge chair and table to increase operational efficiency for the Margaritaville Lake Resort staff.

“We wanted to be sure the rollout of the myEATz mobile ordering platform was helpful to the Margaritaville staff, not a hindrance to their existing process. We created custom QR codes and a color coded map to easily identify where the mobile orders are going,” says Charles Willis, COO of Rivalry Tech, in the release.

Rivalry, which provides mobile ordering at numerous sports stadiums and venues with sEATz, expanded into hospitality this year.

“The Rivalry Tech team helped us to seamlessly implement mobile ordering at Margaritaville Lake Resort. They created the marketing materials, established custom QR codes, uploaded mentors and trained our staff onsite. The whole process has been easy and collaborative,” says Amit Sen, director food and beverage for Margaritaville Lake Resort, in the release.

Mercury Fund invests in ReturnLogic's latest round

Mercury has led the latest fundraising round from a SaaS company. Image via Getty Images

Houston-based venture capital firm Mercury led Phillidelphia-based SaaS company ReturnLogic's $8.5 million series A funding round, which also had participation from Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Fund, White Rose Ventures, and Ben Franklin Technology Partners. The fresh funding will help the company double its workforce, accelerate product development, and expand Application Programming Interface capabilities, according to a news release.

Founded by CEO Peter Sobotta, Return Logic's SaaS platform, which can be plugged into existing e-commerce platforms, helps to enhance management of returns and prevent the challenging financial impacts of returns.

“While retailers have largely mastered forward logistics to get products into customers hands, the returns process remains an under-addressed, resource-draining problem that eats away at brands’ profits,” says Blair Garrou, managing director of Mercury, in a news release. “ReturnLogic is something entirely new to this market and uniquely built on Peter Sobotta’s deep operational experience in reverse logistics and supply chain management.

"While serving in the U.S. Navy, Peter specialized in reverse logistics and gained extensive expertise in ecommerce operations," Garrou continues. "With Peter at the helm, ReturnLogic’s innovative API-first returns solution is well-positioned to tackle the ever-growing operational returns problem facing retailers. We are excited to partner with Peter and his team as they continue to solve this massive problem for online retailers.”

Fluence Analytics named a top advanced manufacturing startup

Fluence Analytics was selected as one of 50 startups recognized. Graphic courtesy

Fluence Analytics, an analytics and process control solutions platform for the polymer and biopharmaceutical industries, was named as a Top 50 global advanced manufacturing startup by CB Insights. The Inaugural list breaks down 16 different cohorts, narrowed down from more than 6,000 companies who either submitted an application or were nominated. Fluence Analytics was one of three companies featured in the R&D Optimization category.

"Our team is very excited that our real-time process analytics, optimization and control products for the polymer and biopharma industries are included among such elite startups," says Jay Manouchehri, CEO of Fluence Analytics, in a statement to InnovationMap. "We wish to thank CB Insights for including Fluence Analytics in its inaugural list of the Top 50 global advanced manufacturing startups, as well as our customers and investors for supporting the development and roll-out of our transformative technology solutions."

Fluence Analytics moved to the Houston area from New Orleans last year. The company's tech platform allows for optimization and control products to polymer and biopharmaceutical customers worldwide.

HTX Labs secures $1.7M contract to expand within United States Air Force

HTX Labs' EMPACT product will be further developed to support the Air Force. Image courtesy of HTX Labs

HTX Labs, a Houston-based company that designs extended reality training for military and business purposes, that it has been awarded a $1.7 million Small Business Innovation Research Phase II Tactical Funding Increase with the US Air Force to enhance and operationalize to its product, EMPACT Immersive Learning Platform, in support of training modernization.

“We are very thankful to AFWERX and AFDT for this great opportunity to play an increasingly important role in helping the USAF accelerate training modernization," says Chris Verret, president HTX Labs, in a news release. "This TACFI award shows continued confidence in HTX Labs, with a strong commitment to accelerate usage and adoption of EMPACT.”

HTX Labs will leverage this contract to expand EMPACT's ability to rapidly create and distribute interactive, immersive training, collaborating closely with Advanced Force Development Technologies, per the release.

OpenStax to publish free edition of updated science textbook

OpenStax is growing its access to free online textbooks. Image via openstax.org

OpenStax, a tech initiative from Rice University that uploads free learning resources, has announced it will publish the 10th edition of an organic chemistry textbook by Cornell University professor emeritus John McMurry.

“This is a watershed moment for OpenStax and the open educational resources (OER) movement,” says Richard Baraniuk, founder and director of OpenStax, in a news release. “This publication will quickly provide a free, openly licensed, high-quality resource to hundreds of thousands of students in the U.S. taking organic chemistry, removing what can be a considerable cost and access barrier.”

Usually a big expense for organic chemistry students, McMurry, with the support of publisher Cengage, made the decision to offer the latest edition online as a tribute to his son, Peter McMurry, who died in 2019 after a long struggle with cystic fibrosis.

“If Peter were still alive, I have no doubt that he would want me to work on this 10th edition with a publisher that made the book free to students,” McMurry says in the release. “To make this possible, I am not receiving any payment for this book, and generous supporters have covered not only the production costs but have also made a donation of $500,000 to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation to help find a cure for this terrible disease.”

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Houston tech platform raises series C round backed by Mastercard

money moves

Hello Alice, a fintech platform that supports 1.5 million small businesses across the country, has announced its series C round.

The amount raised was not disclosed, but Hello Alice reported that the fresh funding has brought the company's valuation to $130 million. Alexandria, Virginia-based QED Investors led the round, and investors included Mastercard, Backstage Capital, Guy Fieri, Golden Seeds, Harbert Growth Partners Fund, How Women Invest I, LP, Lovell Limited Partnership, Tyler “Ninja” and Jessica Blevins, and Tamera Mowry and Adam Housley, per a news release from the company.

“We are thrilled to hit the milestone of 1.5 million small businesses utilizing Hello Alice to elevate the American dream. There are more entrepreneurs launching this year than in the history of our country, and we will continue to ensure they get the capital needed to grow,” Elizabeth Gore and Carolyn Rodz, co-founders of Hello Alice, say in a news release. “In closing our Series C, we welcome Mastercard to our family of investors and continue to be grateful to QED, How Women Invest, and our advocates such as Guy Fieri.”

The funding will go toward expanding capital offerings and AI-driven tools for its small business membership.

“Our team focuses on finding and investing in companies that are obsessed with reducing friction and providing superior financial services solutions to their customers,” QED Investors Co-Founder Frank Rotman says in the release. “Hello Alice has proven time and time again that they are on the leading edge of providing equitable access to capital and banking services to the small business ecosystem."

Hello Alice, which closed its series B in 2021 at $21 million, has collaborated with Mastercard prior to the series C, offering small business owners the Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard in 2022 and a free financial wellness tool, Business Health Score, last year. Mastercard also teamed up with other partners for the the Equitable Access Fund in 2023.

“With Hello Alice, we’re investing to provide support to small business owners as they look to access capital, helping to address one of the most cited business challenges they face,” Ginger Siegel, Mastercard's North America Small Business Lead, adds. “By working together to simplify access to the products and services they need when building and growing their business, we’re helping make a meaningful impact on the individuals who run their businesses, the customers they serve, and our communities and economy at large.”

While Hello Alice's founders' mission is to help small businesses, their own company was threatened by a lawsuit from America First Legal. The organization, founded by former Trump Administration adviser Stephen Miller and features a handful of other former White House officials on its board, is suing Hello Alice and its partner, Progressive Insurance. The lawsuit alleges that their program to award10 $25,000 grants to Black-owned small businesses constitutes racial discrimination. Gore calls the lawsuit frivolous in an interview on the Houston Innovators Podcast. The legal battle is ongoing.

Inspired by the lawsuit, Hello Alice launched the Elevate the American Dream, a grant program that's highlighting small businesses living out their American dreams. The first 14 grants have already been distributed, and Hello Alice plans to award more grants over the next several weeks, putting their grant funding at over $40 million.


NASA awards $30M to Houston space tech company to develop lunar rover

moon rider

Houston-based space technology company Intuitive Machines has landed a $30 million NASA contract for the initial phase of developing a rover for U.S. astronauts to traverse the moon’s surface.

Intuitive Machines is one of three companies chosen by NASA to perform preliminary work on building a lunar terrain vehicle that would enable astronauts to travel on the moon’s surface so they can conduct scientific research and prepare for human missions to Mars.

The two other companies are Golden, Colorado-based Lunar Outpost and Hawthorne, California-based Astrolab.

NASA plans to initially use the vehicle for its Artemis V lunar mission, which aims to put two astronauts on the moon. It would be the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972 that astronauts would step foot on the lunar surface.

The Artemis V mission, tentatively set for 2029, will be the fifth mission under NASA’s Artemis program.

“This vehicle will greatly increase our astronauts’ ability to explore and conduct science on the lunar surface while also serving as a science platform between crewed missions,” says Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Intuitive Machines says the $30 million NASA contract represents its entrance into human spaceflight operations for the space agency’s $4.6 billion moon rover project. The vehicle — which Intuitive Machines has dubbed the Moon Reusable Autonomous Crewed Exploration Rover (RACER) — will be based on the company’s lunar lander.

“Our global team is on a path to provide essential lunar infrastructure services to NASA in a project that would allow [us] to retain ownership of the vehicle for commercial utilization during periods of non-NASA activity over approximately 10 years of lunar surface activity,” says exploration,” says Steve Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Machines.

Intuitive Machines’ partners on the RACER project include AVL, Boeing, Michelin, and Northrop Grumman.

Intuitive Machines plans to bid on the second phase of the rover project after finishing its first-phase feasibility study. The second phase will involve developing, delivering, and operating the rover.

In February, Intuitive Machines became the first private company to land a spacecraft on the moon with no crewmembers aboard. NASA was the key customer for that mission.

Houston expert: How to avoid 'ghost hiring' while attracting top talent

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One of the latest HR terms grabbing attention today is “ghost hiring.” This is a practice where businesses post positions online, even interviewing candidates, with no intention to fill them. In fact, the role may already have been filled or it may not exist.

Usually, an applicant applies for the job, yet never hears back. However, they may be contacted by the recruiter, only to learn the offer is revoked or a recruiter ghosts them after a first-round interview.

Applicants who are scouring job sites for the ideal position can become discouraged by ghost hiring. Employers do not usually have any ill intentions of posting ghost jobs and talking with candidates. Employers may have innocently forgotten to take down the listing after filling the position.

Some employers may leave positions up to expand their talent pool. While others who are open to hiring new employees, even if they do not match the role, may practice ghost hiring when they want a pool of applicants to quickly pull from when the need arises. Finally, some employers post job roles to make it look like the company is experiencing growth.

When employers participate in ghost hiring practices, job candidates can become frustrated, hurting the employer brand and, thus, future recruiting efforts. Even with the tight labor market and employee turnover, it is best not to have an evergreen posting if there is no intention to hire respondents.

There are several ways employers can engage candidates and, likewise, build a talent pool without misleading job seekers.

Network

A recruiter at their core is a professional networker. This is a skill that many have honed through the years, and it continues to evolve through social media channels. While many recruiters lean on social media, you should not discount meeting people face-to-face. There is power in promoting your organization at professional meetings, alumni groups and civic organizations. Through these avenues, many potential candidates will elect for you to keep them in mind for future opportunities.

Employee Referrals

When recruiters want to deepen their talent pool, they cannot discount the employee referral. Simply letting employees know and clearly stating the exploratory nature of the conversation can lead to stellar results. Employees understand the organization, its culture and expectations, so they are more likely to refer the company to someone who would be a good fit and reflect highly on them.

Alternative Candidates

In recent years, organizations and recruiters are more dialed into skills-first recruiting practices. Creating job postings that emphasize the skill sets needed rather than the years of experience, specific college degree or previous job titles, can yield a crop of candidates who may be more agile and innovative than others. Fostering relationships with people who fit unique skills needed within the organization can help you develop a deeper bench of candidates.

Contingent Workforce

Part-time workers, freelancers, and independent contractors are a great way to build connections and the talent pool. These workers and their skills are known entities, plus they know the organization, which makes them valuable candidates for open roles. If their expertise is needed on a regular basis, it is easier to have open conversations about a potential expansion of their duties or offer full-time work.

Internal Talent

Human resources and recruiters need to work with managers and leadership to intimately know what kind of talent lies within their own organization. Current employees may have the strengths, skills, and capabilities to fill new positions or roles. Through conversations with employees and their managers, you can identify who can flex different skills, but even more importantly, the ambition to grow within the company.

In every instance, it is crucial for recruiters and hiring managers to be transparent in their intentions. Communicating within your network that you are always looking for great talent to fill future roles sets the tone. When communicating with candidates, whether there is a pressing job opportunity or not, be clear from the onset regarding your intentions for hire. With a transparent approach to hiring and candidate development, you will keep the employer brand intact and maintain recruiting power.

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Jaune Little is a director of recruiting services with Insperity.