Tim Neal, CEO of Houston-based GoExpedi, shares how his company plans to scale following its recent series C closing. Photo by Colt Melrose for GoExpedi

Consumers are getting more and more used to picking up their laptops or phones and ordering everyday items in just a few clicks or taps — and seeing those items delivered in just a few days. To Tim Neal, CEO of Houston-based GoExpedi, ordering parts and tools for industrial businesses should be just as easy.

GoExpedi, which just closed a $25 million series C round, has seen rising demand for its e-commerce platform focused on industrial orders, and Neal credits this demand on a change in mindset within the industrial sector. Additionally, he says he's seen clients more and more focused on cutting costs.

Neal shared his company's plans for growth and scale, as well as how fundraising during a pandemic went, in an interview with InnovationMap.

InnovationMap: What’s the challenge GoExpedi was founded to change and what’s the game changing element the company provides the industry?

Tim Neal: We really focus on the industrial MRO space. The mission for us is to make procurement of these goods simple and efficient. That means taking out the human process and the back and forth. It's not too dissimilar to how, if I order from Amazon, I have an expectation when that order arrives. The industry has not historically had that. So, we wanted to take a tech-first approach, really make sure people getting these things, but then also track what they're spending to help them more effectively run their business.

IM: What were the early days like?

TN: We're a bootstrap business. We had a drive our pick up trucks 3,000 miles a week, not taking salaries. There was a uphill battle for sure in the beginning because it was a psychological shift. Again, if you look at Amazon going in the bookseller market, people were used to going in a store and getting books. It's similar. People are used to picking up the phone and getting an order done. So we had to really go through an evolutionary process of educating the user on what is the technology and how the technology is actually make their life easier.

IM: What do you attribute GoExpedi's growth to?

TN: I really think it's the change in psychology. And a lot of it is timing too. The labor pool in the oil and gas space in particular — 50 percent of it turn it over. Now you're no longer having these tradesmen who are 60-plus years old and walking encyclopedias. You have a younger workforce that's used to buying on eCommerce and their daily life. So, it's helping them by technical parts in a not technical way. We just had a pool of clients who were more tech native and who had more familiarity with transacting online.

IM: You recently closed a Series C round — what was it like fundraising during a global pandemic following the fall in oil prices?

TN: It's a little weird, cause I'm used to doing road shows — spending four days in San Francisco or New York meeting a bunch of people, rather than sitting in my office on Zoom. So it was a little weird, in that sense that you didn't shake people's hands.

We were in a fortunate position — it's kind of counterintuitive — but we really decoupled from the COVID-energy side where you've got a double whammy, especially in Houston. COVID put people on a remote basis, and then you've got negative oil for the first time ever. But what that did is it really presented this psychological shift in our end user. Companies reduced their traffic 30-plus percent and had to lay off people. They're focusing on cost saving and how do you grab a hold of your business, especially in this work from home environment. And that really resonates with our value proposition. With that, we were able to get a lot of demand of people wanting to have live analytics at their house and see what the net assets are spending. And then we'd be able to get manager reports on benchmark expenditure. We saw a big push in the market there.

IM: How are you enhancing and expanding your technology or team with the funds?

TN: We're seeing massive amount of market demand — folks really being able to fully capture that and start hiring more talent. But, the big focus for us is twofold. One is on our technologies. We have a tool center that really helps bridge the operational transactions at the field level and the management kind of reporting workflows, so really working on our technology, increasing our machine learning and our AI usage, and building out that team. But then on the supply chain side, because we're getting more demand, we want to focus on increasing the efficiency with adding robotics to make sure we can get even more packages out quicker to the market.

IM: Do you plan on expanding into other industries or markets?

TN: We've gotten a ton of demand, and we've been serving some markets to due to demand. We just hired a strategy team and we're making a really concentrated effort to — probably in Q1 — go after some other adjacent industrial markets, because we have a very similar dynamic that buying in terms of corporate structures, demand drivers and value proposition. That's a big focus for us.

IM: Do you already have plans for another round?

TN: We're still very well capitalized now. We weren't out of money, and we still had a large amount of cash from the last round, so this was more an opportunistic approach because we were seeing good market demand that we raised right now to further capture that. I wouldn't be surprised if, in the next 18 to 24 months, we raise again.

IM: What has it meant for y’all to be based in Houston?

TN: I'm from New Jersey, and I always kind of had a different view of Houston until I actually moved here. But, Houston is going to be the third biggest city. It's got a massive labor pool, great universities, and it should be a great breeding ground for talent. The other thing is that, since we started in 2017, I'm seeing a big shift in Houston as a whole, especially from an innovation standpoint — you have Station Houston, The Cannon, and others. You see more entrepreneurial spirit than you've seen in San Francisco and others.

I think the biggest shift that I've seen even the last three years, and especially now with COVID, is where people coming out of college in Houston want to work. I went to Oregon for college — all my friends are in San Francisco pretty much. When we got out of college, I saw people wanting to work for a startup. But in Houston, it was, "I want to work for Oxy or Shell — a big corporate." But that's shifting. We're getting a lot of younger talent that want to work in a startup. They now see that startups work in Houston and that it's a good career path.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

A new venture capital fund based in Houston and Monterrey, Mexico, has raised $50 million to back mobility startups. Hiroshi Watanabe/Getty Images

New Houston-based fund raises $50 million to back mobility startups

Making money

A new venture capital fund has mobility on the mind — and it's just raised $50 million to support startups working on solutions in the mobility or mobility-related industries.

Proeza Ventures, which is based in Houston and Monterrey, Mexico, reportedly closed its first fund Proeza Ventures I. The fund is backed by Grupo Proeza, a Mexican portfolio management company with two global platforms operating in the mobility and agroindustry sectors, according to the fund's website.

"Our mission is to discover and invest in visionary founders building early stage startups transforming the way in which we think about mobility and with whom we can partner to make a more sustainable world," says Rodolfo Dieck, managing director at Proeza Ventures, in a news release.

With the fund's money, Proenza Ventures will invest in 12 to 15 early or growth-stage startups with solutions or new technology within industrial, smart components, new vehicles, MaaS, and digital data services.

"We expect to be writing first time checks in the range of $500,000 and up to $2 million reserving enough capital to support companies in their development trajectory," says Dieck in the release.

Rodolfo Dieck, managing director, (left) and Enrique Marcelo Zambrano, principal, lead the fund. Photo via proezaventures.com

Grupo Proeza comes with a network of experts. The company owns Metalsa, a structural automotive products supplier and current market leader in frames for light trucks in North America, per the release. The subsidiary has more than 60 years of global manufacturing and operating experience within the industry.

The group will use its platform to benefit startups within its portfolio, which already includes Boston-based Indigo Technologies that's developing an in-wheel e-motor and a California-based micro mobility company that is disrupting the scooter ecosystem.

"We back entrepreneurs with an ambitious vision and the grit and operational skills to execute their business plan and transform the sectors they participate in," says Enrique Marcelo Zambrano, principal at P.V., in the release. "We expect to help them leverage our deep expertise in mobility, our unique platform and network."

Houston-based Hitched has dug up new investment money from a local private equity firm. Pexels

Houston-based digital marketplace for industrial equipment raises $5.5 million series A

money moves

A Houston startup that acts as a digital marketplace for industrial equipment in the oil and gas and construction industries closed a sizeable series A financing round this month.

Hitched Inc. raised $5.5 million in its series A funding led by Houston-based Cottonwood Venture Partners, a growth equity firm that focuses on digital tech solutions in the energy industry.

"It is encouraging to see the support and excitement from CVP," Hitched's Founder and CEO Adam Gilles says in a press release. "With this Series A funding, we plan to continue to shake things up in the oil & gas, construction, and industrial industries."

The company, which was founded in 2018, coordinates the rentals — from hosting and chartering to managing them — all on one centralized platform. Hitched has a catalogue of equipment from generators and cranes to light towers, pumps to forklifts, and the site lists out the cost per day of each piece of machinery.

According to the release, Hitched will use the fresh funds to advance its product development and customer experience as it continues "to reinvent the industrial rental marketplace."

"We're delighted to partner with the Hitched team. The industrial rental segment is incredibly opaque and riddled with inefficiencies," says Ryan Gurney, managing partner of CVP, in the news release. "The Hitched platform provides both a transparent marketplace and an important management tool that allows both the renter and rentee to optimize rental inventory."

Cognite is opening two offices in Texas. Getty Images

European software company plans first U.S. office in Houston

New to town

When considering entering the United States market, Francois Laborie, general manager of Cognite North Americas, of course considered some of the obvious cities for a regional headquarters.

"Initially, when we talked about the US, people assumed Silicon Valley or Boston, because we are a traditional software company," Laborie says. "But we really didn't consider too long because the customers we work with require a pretty deep understanding of industry."

The Norway-based company decided to bet on the energy capital of the world and has announced future offices in Houston as well as Austin — both to open by this summer. This will be Cognite's first expansion outside of Northern Europe. The company makes data software for industrial businesses — oil and gas being a huge focus, as is engineering, equipment manufacturing, shipping, and more.

"The industrial world is very siloed and closed, and we are changing a lot of things in that world," Laborie says. "In the digital world, data and information only becomes valuable as you share it. We are all about liberating data, contextualizing it, and then drawing value out of it."

Laborie says the Houston office will be the company's energy hub — both current and prospective clients of Cognite have pressences in town. Meanwhile, Austin will be the tech hub, since the city has a large tech talent pool. Currently, Austin is on the path to be the U.S. headquarters, but nothing is set in stone at the moment, Laborie says.

Cognite, which expects around 50 employees (both new hires and relocations) split between the two locations, already has strategic Houston partnerships in place. Cognite will operate out of Station Houston and even has an internship program and partnership with Rice University. Overall, Laborie says the reception of the city has been positive.

"Houston went above and beyond," Laborie says. "The relationship with Rice has been very interesting because they are working closely with the Houston municipality to transform this image of Houston to get a stronger driver on innovation with the Innovation District, which spoke very loudly to us."

These partnerships are a crucial party of the company, Laborie says, and Cognite plans to work within Houston's innovation ecosystem to continue to push the envelope on innovative technologies.

"We have partnerships with large corporations, but we also see the importance to work with smaller companies to drive innovation — even if they aren't directly related," Laborie says.

Lori-Lee Emshey's Future Sight AR is revolutionizing antiquated construction tools using augmented reality. Courtesy of Future Sight AR

Houston company has sight set on AR solutions for industrial construction

Visual aid

When Lori-Lee Emshey got her first oil and gas construction job in Australia, she was carrying around a backpack full of papers.

"I was really shocked at how much work they were doing with such little technology," Emshey says. "I thought, 'there's so much room for innovation here.'"

She realized that it wasn't just that site or the company she was working for — this was a problem across the industry. So, she came up with a solution. Houston-based Future Sight AR is an augmented reality technology to more efficient work on industrial construction sites. Workers can use a smart device in the field, point it at a problem on site, log the issue, and see the steps needed to fix it.

Constructing a company
Emshey realized the potential for a company in January 2016. Since then, she's partnered up with her co-founders, Sofia Lazaro and Veena Somareddy, attended accelerators and conferences across the country, completed a proof of concept, until finally incorporated this year.

It was a well-paced start for the company because they got to prove time and time again there was a need for the company. Emshey says she never wanted to start a company just to start a company. They worked tirelessly at the beginning to ensure there was no one out there already doing this in the way they were doing it.

"I feel like a lot of entrepreneurs now become an entrepreneur because it's trendy and cool, and you want to put it in your Instagram bio," she says. "The three of us aren't like that. We did this because we had to. It wasn't going to get done another way, and we couldn't let this giant opportunity float on by."

Once they got a firm footing, one of the challenges they faced was communicating the company's market need and how the technology works to individuals outside the industry. For Emshey, this was particularly annoying.

"I came from a journalism background, and it's storytelling," she says. "I thought, 'I should be able to do this.'"

Something eventually just clicked, and Emshey stopped seeing confused faces in response to her presentation, and she started seeing more head nodding. However, another challenge she says she occasionally faces is how she looks.

"It is tough. I'm pitching this industrial construction startup, and I show up and I'm a 5-foot-5 blond woman," she says. "And some people don't care, and some people would prefer I looked a different way."

Foreseeing the company's future
Raising capital has been the latest focus for Future Sight AR. Aside from some grants and accelerator money, the company hasn't raised much. They've only just started meeting with investors and have a plan to launch a round of fundraising next year. Emshey also says they are looking to partner with three companies to conduct a few pilots early next year.

It's a great time in technology for Future Sight AR as more and more people are using AR and virtual reality. People use AR or VR often — in SnapChat filters or through Pokemon Go!

Emshey says she thinks VR will grow first in gaming, while AR will take off through enterprise.

"Unlike VR when you're completely immersed, in AR, you're seeing your actual environment and one of the places you have to do that is at work," Emshey says.

Whether it's through being acquired or growing the company on its own, Emshey says she wants Future Sight AR to evolve the industry as a whole.

"If we could permanently change the way that we build projects — oil and gas or another industry — and move it toward something more efficient, safer, more productive, and a better experience for workers, and accomplish that in a permanent way in a permanent way, then we're successful," she says. "We really built this for me — I was the worker out in the field trying to do things, and it was unnecessarily difficult."

SeeHerWork launched its line of female-gear in September. Courtesy of SeeHerWork

Houston company aims to equally equip female workers

If the glove doesn't fit

When Jane Henry was working on her home right after Hurricane Harvey — her house got three feet of mud in it — she went to throw a board into the dumpster, and her glove went with it.

Henry says the industry standard is to recommend small and extra-small sizes for women's workwear, but as a ladies large in athletic gloves, Henry still had a good inch or so of glove at her fingertips in her workwear gloves.

"I went upstairs to my sewing room, and I ripped that glove apart and I resewed it to fit my hand," Henry says.

Other women stopped her in hardware stores to ask her about her shoddily sewn glove, and she realized this was the idea for next company. She incorporated SeeHerWork a few months later in January of 2018, and she launched her line of clothing in September, just a year after she had the idea. Based in Houston, SeeHerWork rents warehouse space in Kingwood and has its corporate office in Midtown.

Doing the legwork
Henry is no stranger to the startup game. She created her own consulting company, Xcution Inc., over 16 years ago, but she downsized the company in 2016 when oil prices took a turn. Instead, she went into Rice University's MBA program, where, ultimately, she created a network of associates that would eventually help SeeHerWork grow.

"I've been a serial entrepreneur — been trying to avoid calling myself that," says Henry. "I have two entrepreneurial parents, and I told myself I'd never be an entrepreneur, yet that's what I keep doing."

Through her business expertise and education, she knew she had to start with a one-page business plan for the company. She then took her idea to over 50 focus groups made up of 10 to 20 female workers, safety managers, and procurement managers across industries — transportation, military oil and gas, engineering, and more.

"The response was eerily similar despite the industry," Henry says.

The focus group participants were tired of the "pink it and shrink it" approach to women's workwear and equipment. They felt like if their supplies don't fit, they don't fit. Mentorship opportunities and performance are then subsequently hindered, creating a spiral effect of deterring women from entering the skilled labor workforce. This is a huge problem, considering there's the recent labor shortage with these types of jobs.

She took this information and her first prototypes to a national pitch competition to great success — and a standing ovation. Henry also connected with the Rice Angel Network, Station Houston, The Cannon, and other local innovation-focused entities.

Roadwork ahead
Henry has big plans for SeeHerWork, and is in talks with a few large entities — like the Houston Airport System, Fluor Corp., and Toyota — that have expressed interest in using her gear for their workforce. Henry also wants to expand her products and reach female workers through retail — online and in store.

"Ultimately, SeeHerWork is the Lululemon of workwear," Henry says.

SeeHerWork is focused on keeping women safe, firstly, but also encouraging more women to enter the skilled labor workforce and then work their way up the ladder.

"I don't want people to think of us as a workwear company," Henry says. "I want them to think of us as an inclusion company. Mostly because just like professional sports team, the first step is the right clothing and equipment and the second step is working to be a team and working together."

At your fingertips

Courtesy of SeeHerWork

SeeHerWork has a full line of products, from gloves and bags to safety vests and long-sleeves shirts. She's launching more products — like coveralls, pants, and footwear — soon.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three female innovators across industries recently making headlines — all three focusing on investing in innovation from B2B software to energy tech.

Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury Fund

Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury Fund, joins this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Mercury Fund

When Samantha Lewis started her new principal role at Houston-based Mercury Fund, she hit the ground running. Top priority for Lewis is building out procedure for the venture capital firm as well as finding and investing in game-changing fintech.

"(I'm focused on) the democratization of financial services," Lewis says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Legacy financial institutions have ignored large groups of our population here in America and broader for a very long time. Technology is actually breaking down a lot of those barriers, so there are all these groups that have traditionally been ignored that now technology can reach to help them build wealth." Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures

Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures, spearheaded by Barbara Burger, has announced their latest fund. Courtesy of CTV

Chevron Technology Ventures LLC's recently announced $300 million Future Energy Fund II builds on the success of the first Future Energy Fund, which kicked off in 2018 and invested in more than 10 companies specializing in niches like carbon capture, emerging mobility, and energy storage. The initial fund contained $100 million.

"The new fund will focus on innovation likely to play a critical role in the future energy system in industrial decarbonization, emerging mobility, energy decentralization, and the growing circular carbon economy," Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures says in a February 25 release.

Future Energy Fund II is the eighth venture fund created by Chevron Technology Ventures since its establishment in 1999. Click here to read more.

Lauren Bahorich, CEO and founder of Cloudbreak Enterprises

Cloudbreak Enterprises, founded by Lauren Bahorich is getting in on the ground level with software startups — quickly helping them take an idea to market. Photo courtesy of Cloudbreak

Lauren Bahorich wanted to stand up a venture studio that really focused on growing and scaling B-to-B SaaS-focused, early-stage technology. She founded Cloudbreak Enterprises last year and already has three growing portfolio companies.

"We truly see ourselves as co-founders, so our deals are structured with co-founder equity," Bahorich says, explaining that Cloudbreak is closer to a zero-stage venture capital fund than to any incubator. "We are equally as incentivized as our co-founders to de-risk this riskiest stage of startups because we are so heavily invested and involved with our companies."

This year, Bahorich is focused on onboarding a few new disruptive Houston startups. Click here to read more.

Sustainable plastics manufacturing company expands in Houston and beyond

Growing green

An under-the-radar company in Houston has ramped up its manufacturing capacity as it seeks to seize upon rising interest in sustainable plastics.

Houston-based Inhance Technologies, a sustainable manufacturer that transforms conventional plastics into high-performance materials, has a new site in St. Louis that comprises 75,000 square feet — more than double the size of the company's old facility there. As a result of the expansion, Inhance Technologies' headcount in St. Louis will rise to about 40. The size of the company's entire workforce wasn't available.

"The expansion in St. Louis is a great moment for the company and a sign of the organization's ambition in sustainable solutions for plastics," Patricia van Ee, chief commercial officer at Inhance Technologies, says in a release. "We know consumers are favoring more recyclable plastics, especially in packaging … ."

In January, the company promoted van Ee to her current role. She joined Inhance Technologies in 2019 as senior vice president of sales and marketing.

Patricia van Ee was recently named chief commercial officer at Inhance Technologies. Photo via inhancetechnologies.com

The announcement of van Ee's elevation to chief commercial officer came on the heels of Inhance Technologies occupying its new global headquarters at 22008 N. Berwick Dr. in northwest Houston. The company was founded in 1983, and about 75 people work at the Houston headquarters, which includes a science and technology center. That location is adjacent to one of its Texas manufacturing plants.

Among other products, the new plant in St. Louis makes Enkase, which transforms conventional plastics into fully recyclable packaging, and DuraBloc, which prevents fuel from seeping through plastic tanks on gas-powered equipment like motorcycles and personal watercraft. Customers include original equipment manufacturers, molders, and retailers in sectors such as consumer packaged goods, health care, and transportation.

"With a large expansion of warehouse space, a doubling of our manufacturing capacity, and new rapid-response lead times, our expanded St. Louis operation is equipped to meet new levels of demand as product brands, retailers, and consumers make a conscious choice to [purchase] more sustainable plastics," Michael Koma, chief operating officer at Inhance Technologies, says in a release.

ResearchAndMarkets.com predicts the global market for sustainable plastic packaging will jump from $89 billion in 2020 to $117.3 billion by 2025.

"The sustainable plastic packaging industry has been growing as a result of stringent laws and regulations levied by governments and governing bodies, as well as a shift in consumer preference toward recyclable and eco-friendly packaging materials," the research firm says.

Inhance Technologies' global presence should put it in a good position to capitalize on that market. The Houston and St. Louis sites are among more than 20 Inhance Technologies locations around the world, including offices in Australia, Brazil, Germany, and Mexico.

Los Angeles-based private equity firm Aurora Capital Partners bought Inhance Technologies from New York City-based private equity firm Arsenal Capital Partners in 2018 for an undisclosed amount. Arsenal bought Inhance Technologies from founders Monty Ballard and Bill Brown in 2012.

"Inhance fits seamlessly into our strategy of partnering with a market leader to support their vision and accelerate both organic and acquisition-driven growth," Michael Marino, a partner at Aurora Capital Partners, said in 2018.

A year after its acquisition by Aurora, Inhance Technologies bought Germany's Fluor Technik System for an undisclosed amount.

"Over the course of its history, Inhance has continually sought to expand both its breadth of technical capabilities and its geographical reach," said Andy Thompson, the company's president and CEO.