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

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

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

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

Samantha Lewis, director of The GOOSE Society of Texas

Samantha Lewis

Courtesy of Samantha Lewis

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

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

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

Steven Gonzalez, technology transfer strategist at NASA

Courtesy of NASA

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

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

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

Ody De La Paz, founder of Sensytec

Courtesy of Sensytec

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

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

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

Harvin Moore, president of Houston Exponential

Courtesy of HX

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Houston Methodist

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

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

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

Jon Nordby, Houston's MassChallenge Texas managing director, is the guest on the first episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Courtesy of MassChallenge

Houston's MassChallenge leader talks Texas growth and what makes the accelerator different

Houston Innovator's Podcast Episode 1

Jon Nordby has watched the city of Houston as it pivoted from innovation being a distant idea to a growing ecosystem of many moving parts and major players — all the while becoming one himself.

Nordby worked his way from advising startups and shaping the innovation coming into Houston at the Greater houston Partnership and then at Houston Exponential to now serving as the local leader for MassChallenge Texas in Houston. In fact, Nordby was a part of the team that brought MassChallenge to Houston in the first place. When he was the director of strategy at HX, the organization was discussing MCTX's Houston program.

"I guess I did a good enough job there that they invited me to be a part of the program when it launched," Nordby says on the podcast.

Nordby also discusses the program and how the inaugural cohort met — and even exceeded — his expectations in the first episode of InnovationMap's new Houston Innovators Podcast. The cohort was a shortened, smaller program, but it surprised everyone at the grand finale of the program when the Houston Angel Network gave out an investment to Houston-based Sensytec. Nordby says that's the first time a MassChallenge cohort anywhere had that opportunity.

In the podcast, Nordby shares what the next cohort will look like, and even shared how there will be two new categories within the program. MCTX will be looking for startups in the sports tech and aerospace industries and will provide special mentorship and programming for those startups. He also mentions that MCTX is gearing up for growth for its office space to be able to accomodate 100 participants in a future cohort.

Check out the podcast below for more details of MCTX's plans to expand, Nordby's take on Houston innovation, and why he's pretty glad he didn't move to Austin a few years ago.


Three non-Houston investors discussed the strengths and weaknesses of Houston's innovation ecosystem. Getty Images

3 observations about Houston's innovation ecosystem from out-of-town venture capitalists

Zooming out

You'll go cross-eyed looking at the same puzzle for too long, and sometimes it's better to take a step back and introduce some fresh perspectives and ideas from someone not so connected to the matter at hand.

At the second annual HX Capital Summit hosted by Houston Exponential at Rice University, HX gathered three out-of-town venture capital experts to discuss Houston's innovation ecosystem with Sandy Wallis, managing director at the HX Venture Fund. The fund-of-funds focuses on connecting non-local investors to Houston in order to bring new venture opportunities to town. On the panel, the experts discussed their observations about the Bayou City, which can be summed up as follows.

Community engagement and corporate interest are good signs for Houston 

Right off the bat, the panelists agreed that its much more encouraging visiting Houston nowadays than it was in the recent past. Clint Korver, managing director at San Francisco-based Ulu Ventures, has only recently played witness to the city, thanks to his firm's work with HX and the fund of funds.

"I'm just getting to know the Houston community," Korver says. "I'm really intrigued by how much community support there is."

Korver says that, not unlike Houston startups, Bay Area companies find it a challenge getting a foot in the door at major corporations. However, he's observed that Houston-based corporates want a seat at the table of Houston innovation.

"All the corporate attention that's being integrated here is super intriguing," Korver says. "That's our startups' hardest problems."

The other panelists, who are much closer to Houston, echoed Kover's interest in the role corporations play. Venu Shamapant, founding partner at Austin-based LiveOak Venture Partners, and Thomas Ball, founder and managing director at Austin-based Next Coast Ventures, have witnessed Houston evolve into what it is today over the past decade or so.

"We've both been coming to Houston over the past 20 years and been investing in startups, and it's been a dramatically different scene even in just the past five years," Shamapant says.

Houston's ecosystem is going to take time

While the panelists remarked on the evolution the city has and the support that large corporations seem to be willing to provide, Houston has other assets that's setting it up for success. The panelists mention a solid pool for talent, impressive educational institutions, and more.

"When I look at Houston, I think it has every ingredient for success, which is why I want to spend time here," Ball says.

Sure, as Ball says, Houston has the ingredients, but what it now needs is the time to cook.

"To me, it's more of just time that it's going to take. We can't bake this Houston cake by turning the thermostat up to 900 degrees in an hour. It's going to take three hours at 300," Ball says, adding that he doesn't know very much about baking. "It will take time. This won't be an overnight success. We're here for the long haul."

Houston has some challenges yet to overcome 

Wrapping up the panel, an audience member asked about the changes Houston still needs to make to really get to the point it needs to be at.

For Korver, the answer was pretty simple. Houston needs a big exit.

"There's this incredible amount of momentum that comes along with a successful company that takes a hold of everyone — the rising tide floats all boats thing," Korver says.

For Ball, particularly comparing Houston to other major innovation-focused cities, the issue is that Houston is so spread out.

"To me the one thing I struggle with in Houston is what I would call a density problem," Ball says. "I think you need density here and you need to concentrate your resources in certain places in this city."

At Houston Exponential's second annual HX Capital Summit, four Houston entrepreneurs turned investors discussed their lessons learned. Getty Images

Here's what startups can learn from Houston exits

Success stories

One way to evaluate a city's innovation ecosystem is by the number of successful exits they've had. From startups being acquired by big companies to bringing in a private equity partner, exits can put a city on the map.

Houston has quite a few exits under its belt, and some of those entrepreneurs have stayed in town to fund future success stories. At Houston Exponential's second annual HX Capital Summit, four entrepreneurs discussed their exits, providing key lessons learned for entrepreneurs.

Houston has some perks. 

One thing moderator Samantha Lewis, director at the GOOSE Society of Texas, asked each panelist was what made each entrepreneur start their companies in Houston — and furthermore, what made them stay here after their successful exit.

Panelist Ashok Gowda co-founded and served as COO at Visualase Inc., a real-time tissue monitoring system that exited to Medtronic for over $100 million. He now leads Biotex, a Houston-based medical technology investment firm and accelerator, as president and CEO.

For Gowda, Houston was obviously a key market for med tech, but it provided something even more once he reached the commercialization phase of a product.

"From a commercial standpoint, once the technology became commercial, it was an ideal location," Gowda says. "We were traveling all across the US, and it was a nice hub. We're right in the center of the country, and you can get to either coast very quickly."

The panel also agreed that the quality of life in Houston played a major role in settling down.

You might need to rethink your executive team. 

The panel full of venture capitalists of course touched on the ability to fundraise in Houston, as each panelist had been on both sides of the table. For Gowda, it's pretty simple.

"If you're struggling to raise money, you either have a bad idea or the wrong team," he says, adding that if you really believe in your idea, take a good hard look at who's at the leadership level of your team.

Talent is still a challenge in Houston.

Of course, if you do identify a problem within your team, finding the right leader for your technology might be difficult in Houston.

Keith Kreuer, who was also on the panel, is principal at RedHouse Associates, a group of angel investors that invest like a find would, but without having a fund. Between Kreuer and his team, they were involved in 10 startups before forming the investment group.

"We could find developer and sales talent here, but to get to that higher executive talent, we had to go out to other places," Kreuer says.

However, not all of the panelists agreed that talent was a major challenge they faced. Some noted that they got lucky with the talent they found.

Don Kendall, CEO of Kenmont Capital Partners, came to Houston to run a power company and family office. He turned $100,000 into $1.6 billion and now is a member of GOOSE.

"We had no problem getting the engineering talent," Kendall says. "We really found Houston to be a good environment, and it's only just continued to improve."

Playing to Houston's strengths might be key to success.

For Gray Hall, managing director at Austin-based BuildGroup, which focuses on writing big checks to a small amount of software startups, he knew how to play to his company's and Houston's strengths.

Hall previously served as CEO of AlertLogic, which had a private equity exit in 2013, and Hall stayed on until 2018 as the company continued to grow. He also co-founded Veracenter, which had a strategic exit after growing to $80 million in annual revenue.

"The common theme across both companies and why we were able to grow is real simple: Customer and people," Hall says.

Houston might be one of the country's best kept secrets when it comes to midmarket activity, Hall notes — midmarket companies being defined as those with $50 million to $1 billion in revenue.

"What Houston doesn't get enough credit for is the midmarket in Houston, which I think is tremendous," Hall says. "It's as strong as anywhere else in the country."

AlertLogic was able to tap into this midmarket to quickly grow its client base.

Something else that differentiates Houston from other cities is its culture, which is less focused on the glitz and glam and more focused on hard work.

"Engage with people that have a credible story and a credible plan to solve a problem," he says.

Houston is growing. 

One thing each of the entrepreneurs agreed on is that the city is only growing its resources and quality of startups.

"I see Houston as sort of a startup in the startup world," Kreuer says. "And, what we're trying to do is grow and catch up to the West Coast and the East Coast, but I think Texas as a whole is going to be pretty powerful, and Houston is going to be a central part of that mainly because we have the markets here, and the people in the area and the talent to do that."

As Houston's success stories become more frequent, this provides an avenue for more entrepreneurs turned investors.

"When you've done it before, you've learned the lessons, and you feel like you can do it again and again," Gowda says. "That's what we're trying to do. You see all the possibilities here."

This week's batch of innovators have had to be pretty creative in their industries. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

The ability to innovate lives in one's ability to think outside of the box — no matter the industry. This week's Houston innovators to know have had to get creative and think of new ways of doing things, from retailing to creating greeting cards.

Harvin Moore, president of Houston Exponential

Harvin Moore, who has a 20-year career in tech and innovation, has been named as president of Houston Exponential. Courtesy of HX

Harvin Moore has been a banker, an educator, an elected official, and more — but his newest title is president of Houston Exponential, which suits him just fine.

Now, under his new role, he's leading the nonprofit that's focused on connecting, promoting, and attracting within Houston's innovation ecosystem.

"There's no question that five years from now, or 10 years from now, Houston will be a very large and continually rapidly growing tech economy," Moore tells InnovationMap. "The question is just how fast it is going to get here." Read more.

Alex Kurkowski, founder of Tellinga

Alex Kurkowski wanted to tell a better story. Courtesy of Tellinga

Alex Kurkowski has a problem with traditional greeting cards.

"They're templated. They're frozen, stagnant, fixed in what they are," Kurkowski says. "They suck."

The Rice University MBA grad decided he would do something about it. He created his business, Tellinga — short for "telling a story" — to create a new avenue for people to communicate a message to their loved ones. Kurkowski has big plans for his company and the platform he's creating. Read more.

Steve Scala, executive vice president of corporate development for DiCentral

Steve Scala joined DiCentral in 2014 to focus on growing the company worldwide. Courtesy of DiCentral

Something's brewing in retail — and it's scaring the industry. Steve Scala writes in a guest column for InnovationMap that dropshipping — the process of shipping products direct from vendors to customers, cutting out warehouses and storage facilities — is only going to gain traction in the industry.

"The study found that approximately 88 percent of retailers see dropship as inevitable to long-term success," Scala writes. "According to 87 percent of those retailers surveyed also experienced an increase in revenue as a result of dropshipping. Customer service also benefitted from dropship, with 84 percent of retailers noting improvements to customer service after adopting the dropshipping fulfillment model." Read more.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston Rockets, BBVA launch annual startup competition

game on

It's game on for Houston startups looking to compete in the Launchpad contest backed by BBVA USA and the Houston Rockets.

Houston startups have until February 28 to submit their companies for the competition. Judges from BBVA and the Rockets will select four by late March, and fans will vote on their favorite company. The winner will be presented with a $10,000 check at a Rockets game in late April. The winning startup will also receive consultations with Rockets and BBVA USA executives.

It's the fourth time BBVA has sought out entrepreneurs, but last year the organization revamped the program to focus on technology-driven startups.

"Over the past three years, we have been proud to partner with BBVA to highlight small businesses in Houston and their contribution to our economy," says Rockets Chief Revenue Officer Gretchen Sheirr. "Entering its fourth year, the Launchpad contest seeks nominees focused on using best in class digital strategies to enhance their small business. We look forward to reviewing submissions and honoring the great work that is being done by these businesses in our community.

BBVA's new Houston CEO Dillan Knudson, who was promoted to his new position in November, is excited for his inaugural involvement in the contest.

"It's extremely exciting to collaborate with the Rockets for the first time, and for such a great initiative that helps Houston's thriving small business scene," says Knudson. "Part of my new role is to create opportunities and financial freedom for Houston's communities through the bank's ample resources, and to do that in collaboration with a staple organization of this city is an honor."

Houston-based Hamper, which makes dry cleaning convenient, won the Rockets and BBVA Compass' LaunchPad competition. Courtesy of Hamper

Last year, Launchpad's winner was Hamper. Hamper's co-founder and CEO Safir Ali started his company to use technology to optimize the dry cleaning business and compares Hamper to the "Red Box of dry cleaning." The win was big for Hamper's future.

"It was an absolute pleasure to be recognized by BBVA and the Houston Rockets as the winner of the 2019 Launchpad Contest," says Ali in the release. "It was a very exciting moment for Hamper, and we are very grateful to have the opportunity to be recognized in our community. Many thanks to both BBVA and the Houston Rockets for empowering Houston businesses and giving them such a great platform to be recognized for their efforts, and for playing an active role in empowering entrepreneurship in Houston."

Texas named second-best state for black entrepreneurs

Black history month

In honor of Black History Month, a study was conducted to see which states have the best environment for black entrepreneurs — and Texas rose to the top.

The Lone Star State was ranked No. 2 in the inaugural FitSmallBusiness study, only behind Georgia. Florida, California, and North Carolina rounded out the top five, in that order. The ranking factored in metrics such as start-up growth, cost-of-living, black business success, and social equality.

"Entrepreneurship is the backbone of the American economy and minority-owned businesses are no exception to that fact," says FitSmallBusiness's special projects editor, Michael De Medeiros, in the news release. "With this being the inaugural study, our goal was to focus on the data that paints an overall picture of what the African American entrepreneur faces in the business world."

Breaking down the metrics for the state, Texas ranked No. 4 for three metrics —black business success, startup climate and financial health. However, when it came to social and financial equality — which factored in education, health, mortality rate, etc. — the state ranked No. 17.

The study used reputable reports from the United States Census Bureau, WalletHub, U.S. News & World Report, and more. From these reports, the study found that black-owned firms have grown 34 percent from 2007 to 2012, to now over 2.6 million companies. The top 100 black-owned companies generated $30 billion in 2018, but only 1 percent of venture-backed startup founders were black.

In addition to these metrics, the study also polled over 1,300 U.S. citizens regarding their own experience with black entrepreneurship. When asked about opportunities for black entrepreneurs compared to recent history, over 21 percent of respondents said it was about the same; however, more than half responded that there were somewhat or much more opportunities than before.

"While we weren't surprised by certain findings, some of the state rankings told an interesting story of the unique journeys that African American entrepreneurs have to traverse," De Medeiros continues in the release. "Ultimately, we hope that our continuing work to identify the best states for minority entrepreneurship will lead to new businesses outside of just the most prosperous areas of the U.S."

Austin-based Capital Factory — a startup development and investment organization — in partnership with DivInc, has launched its second annual startup pitch competition for black founders. The application is live now, and the deadline is March 20. Five startups will be invited to pitch on April 14th at Capital Factory's Black in Tech Summit, and one will walk away with a $100,000 investment.

Houston energy tech entrepreneur plans for growth following $15M series B raise

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 19

After years of having to educate potential customers about the game-changing technology that artificial intelligence can be, Alex Robart, CEO of Ambyint, says it's a different story nowadays.

"We're seeing our customers spend a little more time understanding AI," Robart says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "More and more boards of mid-sized [exploration and production companies] are challenging their executive teams to do something with AI."

Ambyint, a Calgary-based energy tech startup with its sales and executive teams based in Houston, uses AI to optimize well operations — Robart describes it as a Nest thermostat but for oil rigs. On average, 80 percent of wells aren't optimized — they are either running too fast and not getting enough out of the ground or running too slow and wasting energy, Robart says.

Recently, Ambyint closed its series B investment round at $15 million led by Houston-based Cottonwood Venture Partners led the round with contribution from Houston-based Mercury Fund. Robart says these funds will go to growing their technology to work on a greater variety of wells as well as hire people in both the Canada and Houston offices.

Robart runs Ambyint with his twin brother Chris, who serves as president of the company. The pair have long careers as serial entrepreneurs and even run an energy tech investment company, called Unconventional Capital. Between the two shared companies, the brothers have their own niches.

"We've been really thoughtful about ensuring that we take on different portfolios — we don't really own things jointly. That's been really helpful for us to carve out our own spheres that we own," Robart says."Chris has really become our lead customer-facing person on all things new products."