Reda Hicks (left) of GotSpot Inc, Ghazal Qureshi (center) of Idea Lab Kids, and Abbey Donnell of Work & Mother are this week's innovators to know. Courtesy photos

Another Monday means another set of innovators to know. This one focuses on a few female startup leaders changing the game in the commercial real estate and education industries.

Reda Hicks, founder and CEO of GotSpot Inc.

Reda Hicks create GotSpot — a digital tool that helps connect people with commercial space with people who need it. Courtesy of GotSpot

Turns out, Hurricane Harvey was the big push Reda Hicks needed to create her startup, GotSpot Inc., the Airbnb of commercial real estate.

"It was really Harvey and having so many people desperate to find space for emergency purposes that made me realize there are so many contexts in which people need space right away for something specific," she says. "Certainly the primary user is the entrepreneur trying to grow their business, but there are so many other reasons why a community would need better access to the space it already has."

Hicks, a lawyer by trade, now juggles startup life, being a wife and mom, and her full-time legal career. Read the rest of the story here.

Ghazal Qureshi, founder of Idea Lab Kids

Ghazal Qureshi wanted to engage her own kids in educational activities. Now, her programing has expanded worldwide. Courtesy of Idea Lab Kids

At first, Ghazal Qureshi just wanted to find her kids a quality after school educational program. When she couldn't, she decided to make something herself. Now, it's a franchised company with locations worldwide.

"From the beginning, we were never restricted by trying to make money. It was a passion project only," Qureshi says.

IDEA Lab Kids, an education program focused on STEAM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math, has 18 locations in Houston, and, two years ago, she expanded the brand into a franchise business — the Idea Lab International Franchise Company. Read the rest of the story here.

Abbey Donnell, founder of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell's startup, Work & Mother, provides a new way for new moms to pump breast milk during the workday. Courtesy of Work & Mother

When Abbey Donnell heard horror stories from some friends who recently returned to work after giving birth, she had an idea. What if new moms had a stylish, spa-like lactation experience during the workday that was less inconvenient and, well, awkward.

"There were constant stories about [women] being told the use the IT closet, or the conference room, or the bathroom or their cars," Donnell says. "Some of them were pretty big oil and gas firms companies that should've had the resources and space to do better than that."

Donnell founded Work & Mother, a boutique pumping and wellness center, and opened the first location in downtown Houston in 2017 and is planning its second downtown location. Read the rest of the story here.

Ghazal Qureshi wanted to engage her own kids in educational activities. Now, her programing has expanded worldwide. Courtesy of Idea Lab Kids

Houston entrepreneur expands her passion project to international franchise business

After school program

Ghazal Qureshi was looking for a way to engage her children in after school education. After failing to find anything that existed, she started brainstorming a new, engaging education model.

"From the beginning, we were never restricted by trying to make money. It was a passion project only," Qureshi says.

Qureshi turned her passion project into IDEA Lab Kids, an education program focused on STEAM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. She opened 18 locations in Houston, and, two years ago, she expanded the brand into a franchise business — the Idea Lab International Franchise Company. Now the company has locations across the United States and around the world.

The passion she had at Idea Lab's start has become an essential part of each franchise location, and Qureshi is seeking out franchise partners just as passionate to "take our idea far and wide," she says

"We are educating the future innovators and entrepreneurs of tomorrow," Qureshi says.

Front of class
Idea Lab locations around the country are engaging children from pre-k through high school in hands-on projects that reflect their own interests. Qureshi's goal is to take learning beyond the classroom.

"Anytime kids are out of school, Idea Lab is in session," says Qureshi.

Qureshi recalls that when fidget spinners were dubbed a distraction in traditional schools, children in Idea Labs were studying how the toy's motor operates, and were actually creating their own spinners using 3-D printers.

"Idea Lab picks up the slack in areas that traditional schools are unequipped to excel," explains Qureshi.

Small class sizes, and an array of technology and materials give children attending their after-school programs, weekend workshops, summer camps, or birthday parties the opportunity to use technologies that they may not otherwise be exposed to.

"You'll never see our kids just listening to lectures; it's all project-based," she says. "We are training them for the skills they will need for their jobs in the next 5, 10, 15 years."

Getting the ball rolling
Qureshi began Idea Lab in Houston seven years ago, inspired by the challenge of raising her own children with quality STEAM education.

"My background is in IT," she explains, "but I felt like I was really missing out on being part of my children's lives, so I decided to leave corporate life. I put my energy into my kids and finding the best educational opportunities for them. But I realized there was a void."

With the need to build and create inherent in her personality, Qureshi quickly saw her new company begin to grow.

Qureshi's oldest son, now headed for college, is a big part of her personal success story with her Idea Lab program. She saw his creativity and motivation for learning blossom throughout his years of Idea Lab classes such as coding movie production, or robotics. Qureshi is excited that Idea Lab still provides the same educational boost to thousands of children that she saw so profoundly impact her son.

Especially after her experience in starting her own business, Qureshi wants to encourage future entrepreneurs through Idea Lab's entrepreneurship program. Projects that children develop within this program embody all aspects of the blended learning STEAM model, plus a good measure of critical thinking and creativity. Children may build their own restaurant, and as founders, managers, and chefs, they must create menus and pricing, recipes with units of measure, 3-D printed objects such as spoons, and navigate other realities of owning a small business. Equally as important, children must learn to collaborate toward common goals, and utilize each other's strengths.

Ready for graduation
The company is actively looking for expansion opportunities and prospective franchisees.

"The ideal franchisee," Qureshi says, "is someone who 'gets' the void in the education, understands the education industry, or has kids for whom they haven't been able to find great programs for."

Thus far, Idea Lab has 52 assigned territories in the United States, six in Canada, one opening soon in Ecuador, and talks are beginning with other country partners. Although for Qureshi, founding Idea Lab from the ground up required countless hours of dedication.,

"When you buy a franchise, everything is all worked out for you, all the hardship has been taken out of it, as someone has already done the trial and error," Qureshi says.

Idea Lab provides materials and models for everything from tested and vetted curriculum to implementation of their programs, making it as easy as possible to hit the ground running.

As Idea Lab keeps its finger on the pulse of the next wave of innovation to motivate children, and grow their business, they are looking for partners who are interested in helping to provide a creative education to the community.

As Qureshi always tells parents, "with a little bit of a push, you'll be surprised by how many new things kids can learn through their own exploration, if given the opportunity."

Three female-founded companies pitched to potential investors at The Cannon. Here's why they are ones to watch. Courtesy photos

3 female Houston startup founders to watch in 2019

Leading ladies

The Lone Star State has been deemed a great place for female entrepreneurs to get their feet wet, and Houston's ecosystem is full of these leading ladies. At a pitch party at The Cannon, a coworking space in West Houston, over 100 guests, including Cannon Ventures investors and Cannon members, gathered to hear three of these female founders pitch their companies.

From DNA dating and smart pillboxes to an educational franchise company, these three female-led institutions are ones to watch this year. Here's why.

X&Y Technologies

Brittany Barreto wants X&Y Technologies to be known for its science-based dating expertise. Karla Martin/Pheramor

Now is the time to have a DNA-based technology company, says Brittany Barreto, CEO and co-founder of X&Y Technologies. She launched her genetics-based data app over two years ago, and now she's expanding the brand to include a couples compatibility test and B-to-B software-as-a-service feature, so that other dating apps can utilize her technology.

"Our traction with the dating app was a fantastic way to prove that we are the thought leaders, we have the infrastructure, and we have the algorithm and we've proven that the market is ready to buy a DNA kit to find love," she says in her pitch.

With fundraising plans in 2019, Barreto hopes to launch the expanded company, and says she has already seen a lot of interest in both of the new DNA-based products. Read more about Pheramor's national growth, the X&Y expansion, and how Barreto got her start.

IDEA Lab Kids

Ghazal Qureshi pitched her education franchise company, IDEA Lab Kids, and discussed her plans to double its presence in 2019. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Six years ago, when Ghazal Qureshi wanted an after school program for her kid and their diverse interests, she created it. Now, the interactive programming that focuses on the science, technology, engineering, arts and math activities for kids is a growing franchise opportunity. After launching the franchise model in February 2017, IDEA Lab Kids already has 10 locations, with seven coming on board within the next few months — including a location in Ecuador.

"In 2019, we're looking to double the number of campuses," Qureshi says in her pitch.

What makes IDEA Lab different from its competitors, she says, is the interactive and diversified curriculum that engages all children.

"We know that kids have limited attention spans theses days," Qureshi says. "New technologies and methods are needed every day in order to grasp that attention span, and that is what we are really good at. At any given day, there are drones flying, augmented reality, cooking classes, and more are happening under the roof of an IDEA Lab campus."

In addition to expanding its presence, Qurshi has worked to roll our new products, such as a coding club, updated website registration tools

EllieGrid

Regina Vatterott is thinking outside the pillbox with her startup, EllieGrid. Courtesy of EllieGrid

When she was in college, Regina Vatterott fainted on her way to lunch. She had lapsed on taking her medicine and vitamins, which caused an imbalance in her health. She was using a traditional pillbox that was tacky and a pain to organize and starting thinking about a product that was more stylish and used smart technology. She and her cofounders created EllieGrid, a sleek pillbox that syncs to your phone to send you messages when its time to take your meds and allows for an easier organization process.

EllieGrid's reception has been great, and the company is expanding to provide users new tools and technology. For instance, EllieGrid is starting to learn more about when its users take its medicine, which can translate to partnerships with insurence companies that currently pay pharmacies to check in with patients who haven't picked up their medicine.

"For us, Ellie is just the start," Vatterott says in an interview with InnovationMap. "We want to develop more health and wellness accessories that are traditionally known to be medical devices."

Large companies are taking interest in the Houston-based startup. Over the past three weeks, Best Buy, Walmart, CVS Health, and Pelion all reached out and expressed interest in the company, some actually placing orders and setting up trials.

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Overheard: Fintech company with Houston ties sees opportunity for growth in new work-from-home age

Eavesdropping in Houston

From esports to telemedicine, some technologies are having a major moment during the COVID-19 crisis. As many businesses are operating remotely with work-from-home policies in place indefinitely, payments automation is another technology that's seen an opportunity amid the pandemic.

AvidXchange, which has invoice and payment processes automation software for mid-market businesses, is one of the companies in this payment automation space that's seen growth in spite of the economic downturn caused by the virus. The Charlotte, North Carolina-based company was founded in 2000 and went on to acquire Houston-founded Strongroom Solutions Inc. in 2015.

Since the acquisition, AvidXchange has quadrupled its presence in Houston and does a good deal of business locally. Equipping companies with tools for remote work is crucial — now and especially in light of Houston's propensity for challenges. Tyler Gill, vice president of sales for AvidXchange based in the Houston office and former CEO of Strongroom, joined Houston Exponential on a virtual panel to discuss this topic.

"We've had a history of disasters in Houston. Any time we can help businesses move to a more cloud-based infrastructure is going to be better," Gill says on the livestream. "I think working from home is maybe the new normal for a lot of employees — so how do we enable this?"

Gill and his colleague, Chris Elmore, senior sales performance director at AvidXchange, joined Joey Sanchez of HX for the talk about the acquisition, the pandemic, and growth for the company. If you missed it or don't have time to stream the whole conversation, here are some impactful moments of the chat.

“Economic downturns have a tendency to put a very bright light on a feature set or a product or a service that’s underperforming."

— Elmore says on how the pandemic affects innovation and startups. "My hope is that entrepreneurs will see this as a real time to get focused on their business — what's working well and what's not working well — and my hope is that they'll say, 'I need to fix that,' not 'I wish this was better,'" he says.

“For a young entrepreneur looking to build a business, make sure you’re looking for the people who are germane to your business.”

— Gill says about starting his business in Houston. At first, he was trying to find investors in oil and gas, but he found more success working with companies with a background in finance technology. "Houston has a history and density in fintech — I just had to find it."

“The fact that Strongroom owned the automated payment process in HOA that made them so attractive to AvidXchange because we didn’t.”

— Elmore says on the 2015 acquisition. He explains that AvidXchange had set up a presence in multifamily and commercial real estate, while Strongroom had a hold on homeowner's association, or HOA, business. The two companies competed for a while, and if Strongroom hadn't had their HOA specialty that made the company ideal for acquisition, Elmore says the two companies would still be competing today.

“When Strongroom was added to AvidXchange, our culture improved. By the way, we went from 40 employees to 1,000 within 14 months, and Strongroom was right at the beginning of that.”

— Elmore says on growth following the acquisition. The company now has 1,500 employees across seven offices and just closed a $128 million round of fundraising in April.

“Customers don’t care how big you get or how much money you raise from investors. They care about if your service is still doing the things they need to operate their business.”

— Gill says, reminding entrepreneurs to always prioritize and be focused on the client experience — through mergers or acquisitions, fundraising rounds, growth, etc.

“When you replace human interaction with technology, what you have to do, is to now move that person on to something more impactful and more important for the business. I don’t like tech for tech’s sake.”

— Elmore says on the importance of automation. "When you automate something, the output of automation is time," he adds.

“Houston couldn’t be a better place to build a business — I found great investors and employees here. It’s a city that’s used to risk. But it’s got to be you, the entrepreneur, that’s got something festering — that’s how you know it’s a great idea.”

— Gill says on inspiring future innovators. "What kept me motivated was I wanted to win. I felt like we had a great product, and we had a big market to serve. … I wanted to build something lasting and build a great team."

“We continue to be a great Houston story — some of my angel investors in Houston are still benefiting."

— Gill says on AvidXchange's presence in Houston. He adds that he's proud of how his former Strongroom team members have risen through the ranks of the company following the acquisition and that he sees the company, which is still privately held, moving toward IPO.

Houston startup teams up with Austin company on medical device amid COVID-19 crisis

texans teaming up

Two Texas companies with NASA roots are joining forces on a technology that can be used to monitor vital signs of seniors or others that are at-risk of contracting COVID-19.

Houston-based Galen Data Inc., which has developed a cloud platform for medical devices, and Austin-based Advanced TeleSensors Inc., the creator of the Cardi/o touchless monitor. Together, the two health tech companies are collaborating to take ATS's device and adding Galen Data's cloud technology.

"We wish we had found Galen Data sooner. We had been building our own cloud for six months, thinking a custom solution would best meet our needs," says Sajol Ghoshal, CEO and president of ATS, in a news release. "Getting up-and-running with them was very easy, and it allowed us to focus on our core competency — which is data-signal processing."

ATS's technology uses radio frequency in its remote, touchless monitoring. The company's founders developed the core technology at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. Initially, the technology was intended for assisted living facilities. Now, amid the COVID-19 crisis, monitoring isolated seniors or at-risk patients is even more relevant.

Galen Data, which launched in 2016, also has NASA roots as the founders met as software contractors working on NASA's safety systems. The company has developed and marketed its cloud-based platform for connecting medical devices to the internet, including pacemakers and glucose monitors.

Chris DuPont, co-founder and CEO, has led the company to meet compliance standards set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA), cybersecurity organizations, and others.

"We knew that our platform would be a great fit for Cardi/o," Chris DuPont, CEO of Galen Data, says. "Speed was critical, accentuated by the COVID-19 crisis. We were well positioned to address ATS' needs, and help those at-risk in the process."

Sajol Ghoshal (left), CEO and president of ATS, and Chris Dupont, (CEO of Galen Data), are bringing together their technologies. Photos courtesy

These are the risks and rewards of prototyping, according to Houston expert

Guest column

We live in a digital world. Music, movies, and even family photos have become primarily digital. Computer software offers us a range of comfort and efficiency and has become part of our daily routine. So, why would anyone want to build a career around physical product development?

Simple, almost every software product or next big thing relies on a well-executed physical product development project. Apps need a place to run, games need a console to be played, and pictures need a camera to be taken.

Physical product development means dreaming of something that does not yet exist and solves an existing problem. It means taking an intangible idea and making it into a physical item that people can see, touch, and use.

The journey from ideation to creation, and then manufacturing can be difficult, but rewarding. By understanding the process, you'll find that not only is your inspiration worth pursuing, but it may be one of the most fulfilling things you will ever do.

From inspiration to perspiration

Every product development project begins with a vision, the identification of a problem and a solution for that problem. That initial spark of inspiration is what drives the entire project.

Look for a problem that hasn't been solved and solve that problem, or try the reverse. Think of a product idea, and then work backwards to find the need. Regardless, one cannot be successful without the other.

Projects require this problem, or need, because it embodies the product's target market. A product idea without a well-defined need has no reason to exist, and if it did, it would be downright perplexing.

Once you identify your need and idea, start your research.

Test the validity of your idea. How much of a market exists for your problem-solving miracle? Send out surveys, look at various markets, conduct data analyses, and generally, do everything in your power to ensure that your product should be made.

Then, start making something.

From concept to reality

The design, prototype and manufacturing stages are what bring your inspiration closer to reality. Turning it into a concrete product means letting go, and that can be scary.

Initial concept designs can be done in a variety of different ways. Detailed sketches and blueprints could be drawn up, or CAD drawings can be created. This concept design can help you explain your idea to others, including partners and investors. What works even better, though, are prototypes.

A prototype is a preliminary model of your product that can help you determine the feasibility of different aspects of your design. You can make a functional prototype, which acts as a proof-of-concept for your idea, or you may create aesthetic prototypes that will test the look and feel of your product.

Once you nail down the ideal appearance and physicality of your product, you will need to combine the two disciplines as seamlessly as possible. This performance prototype will effectively demo your final product.

Finally, you can prepare your product for production. Designing for manufacturability (DFM) means ensuring that your product can be made efficiently and cost-effectively. DFM allows you to mistake-proof your product by choosing the best manufacturing materials and methods, while keeping in mind the appropriate regulations for your desired market.

From nothing into something

The product development process often changes. Trends like crowdsourcing and innovative fast-to-market solutions constantly upend the process and make it new again. Some automakers, for example, want to innovate the design process using existing customer data — similar to how companies like Microsoft and Apple create iterative versions of their software product development projects.

Getting your product to market can be tough, but certain approaches can ease the burden. Create a simpler product. Fail fast and fail cheap with lean development, meaning limit your risk to maximize your return. Also, never underestimate the importance of customer feedback and intellectual property protection throughout the process.

With that said, invest in yourself and your inspiration, and you will avoid that nagging what if-mentality that drives regret. Great reward always requires risk, but there are also ways to invest smarter. Use available resources and give your dream the best chance for success.

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Onega Ulanova is the founder of OKGlobal.