Houston Exponential has announced the 38 finalists for the inaugural Listies Awards. Photo via Getty Images

Ever wonder what Houston startups and innovators are the best of the best? Here's your chance to figure it out. The inaugural Listies awards program has named its finalists.

The Listies, brought to you by Houston Exponential in partnership with InnovationMap, will name the winning companies and people across 12 awards on November 20 at 3 pm at a virtual event as a part of Impact Hub's annual The Houston Innovation Summit (THIS). Click here to register for the free event.

Nominations were open until Friday, November 6, and then a group of judges made up of members of the Houston innovation ecosystem reviewed the submissions to settle on the finalists. Below, in alphabetical order, the 38 finalists are listed for each category.

DEI champion

  • Heath Butler
  • Maria Maso
  • Grace Rodriguez

Individual contributor

  • Michael Matthews
  • Slawek Omylski
  • Brad True

Mentor of the year

  • Keith Kreuer
  • Wade Pinder
  • Landi Spearman

Outstanding leadership

  • Stephanie Campbell
  • Grace Rodriguez
  • Roberta Schwartz

Corporate innovation

  • Chevron Technology Ventures
  • Houston Methodist
  • Shell Ventures

Investor of the year

  • CSL Capital Management
  • Golden Section VC (GSTVC)
  • Integr8d Capital

SDO superstar

  • MassChallenge Houston
  • Rice Alliance
  • TMCx

Welcome to Houston

  • Greentown Labs
  • TestCard
  • Win-Win

Civic engagement

  • Annapurna
  • Luminare
  • McMac Cx

COVID pivot/phoenix

  • Luminare
  • re:3D
  • sEATz

People choice

  • INK
  • Liongard
  • Luminare
  • re:3D
  • Topl

Soonicorn

  • GoExpedi
  • Liongard
  • Medical Informatics Corp.
Meet this week's Houston innovators to know. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

This week, some key Houston innovators to know include the CEO of a tech company that's demystifying Google's SEO, a local entrepreneur who just raised millions in funding, and the newest addition to the Houston innovation ecosystem.

Michael Umansky, CEO of Edgy Labs

Michael Umansky Ink and Edgy Labs

Courtesy of Edgy Labs

For years, Michael Umansky and the team at Edgy Labs have been figuring out the ins and outs of Google's algorithm for digital marketing purposes. If Edgy knows how Google ranks content, Edgy can provide the most optimized content out there for its clients.

But the Houston SEO experts also realized another group of people they can help: Content creators and writers. So, Edgy Labs created INK — a writing tool to help this group of individuals create the best and most optimized content without having to know anything about SEO.

"We envision a world where the content creators can control their own search destiny," Umansky says. "What we want to do is focus on empowering those writers to really take the power of search back into their own hands without having to be SEO experts." Read more.

Chris Buckner, CEO of Mainline

Courtesy of Mainline

Chris Buckner, CEO of Mainline, closed its series A at $6.8 million. Houston-based Work America Capital led the round, and the esports software startup will use the funds to grow its platform, event management customer base, and marketing efforts, as well as to hire developers, marketing, and sales talent.

"The world of esports and gaming is exploding; however, continuity in tournament organization is lacking, keeping the sport from really taking off in other viable and exciting markets," says Chris Buckner, Mainline CEO, in a news release. "Mainline gives brands the tools they need to run powerful esports programs that will evolve the quickly maturing industry to the benefit of players, students, and the greater esports ecosystem." Read more.

Jon Lambert, CEO of The Cannon Houston

Jon Lambert The Cannon

Courtesy of The Cannon

The Cannon Houston has had a big week — from celebrating its new flagship space to announcing its latest downtown outpost. And now, the coworking and startup hub has announced a new CEO: Jon Lambert.

"Lawson and his team have done an incredible job taking The Cannon vision and making it real. I'm happy to be part of the positive momentum and energy they have created. There has never been a better time for startups to enter the market, but achieving success has never been more challenging. The Cannon is playing a unique role in helping evolving companies navigate and accelerate their way through this journey." Read more.

INK, a digital writing tool, allows writers to see how their content would perform on search engines in real time. Photo courtesy of INK

Houston tech company launches digital product to take the guesswork out of SEO

Meet INK

A Houston company wants to arm content creators and writers with the tools to perfect search engine optimization, and they want to provide these tools for free.

INK, a downloadable writing tool and web app, was created by the brains behind Edgy Labs, a tech company that has been working on dissecting how Google and search engines operate. Edgy's founders — Alexander De Ridder, Michael Umansky, and Gary Haymann — created the content site as a lab to test out their SEO theories and best practices.

"INK is the byproduct of everything we've learned at Edgy Labs that we productized," says Umansky, who serves as CEO. "We think we are on the cusp of leading what we are calling the content performance optimization revolution."

Umansky says that of the 4 million pieces of content created online daily, 94 percent of content gets little to no traffic on Google. And a big reason for content failing is because the writer doesn't fully understand how SEO works — and search engines are always evolving their algorithms.

Despite this huge SEO problem, there weren't any one-stop-shop tools available already.

"What we came to understand was that there's a ton of SEO and CMS products and analytics products, but what there wasn't was a really good way to help writers — who are really the ground zero for where content is created — bridge the gap to understanding what SEO is all about," Umansky says.

INK edgy labs INK allows writers to see in real time how their content would fare on Google. Photo courtesy of INK

The writing tool allows the user to create content right in the app, and as the writer composes, he or she gets real-time feedback on the content. INK will compare the content to potential competitors' content and analyze and score how it expects the published material to perform. All the while, INK has a customizable interface for users. There are light and dark modes, and even features for writers with dyslexia or color blindness.

Umansky says his team has big plans for growing INK and even introducing more tools and products, and INK's evolution will continue as search engines continue updates and algorithm edits.

"As Google changes, we change with it," Umansky says. "I think last year Google changed something like 3,500 times. It's constant."

He also sees INK being able to provide a headline optimization component, as well as tools for tracking engagement. While perfecting SEO is the first step, Umansky says he also wants to provide products that help optimize writing content for a conversion perspective that would be good for landing pages and digital ads.

INK launched online in early October and was ranked as the product of the week on Product Hunt. For now, the app is completely free to download. Umansky does think the first paid version will be live in the first quarter of 2020.

Ultimately, Umansky says, writers shouldn't also have to be SEO specialists — that's INK's team's job. The product they created will allow for easy content management system integration — it already has an extension in WordPress.

"We envision a world where the content creators can control their own search destiny," Umansky says. "What we want to do is focus on empowering those writers to really take the power of search back into their own hands without having to be SEO experts."

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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.”

Houston's biggest benefactors gift massive $50M to pivotal Rice University institute

big money

Houston’s most generous couple has once again gifted a massive sum to a local institution. Rich and Nancy Kinder’s Kinder Foundation has donated $50 million to Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, the organization announced.

The Kinder's generous grant will assist the institute’s focus on what it dubs “inclusive prosperity” — that is, “ensuring that everyone can contribute to Houston's success and share in its opportunities.”

This new grant follows the approximately $30 million he Kinder Foundation previously gifted Rice’s Kinder Institute and its affiliates to facilitate its headquarters.

“Over the past decade, the Kinder Institute has played an integral role in shaping Houston,” said Rich Kinder, chairman of the Kinder Foundation. “However, we can do more to inform and more directly address the challenges our communities face, particularly in the areas of housing, education, economic mobility, health and population research.”

To that end, the Kinders’ funds will ensure the institute can assist its partners regardless of their ability to pay for research. Funds will also help the institute respond to community research needs quickly during times of crisis — such as a catastrophic storm or pandemic — when funds aren’t readily available.

Kinder Institute director Ruth López Turley calls the grant “a gift to all of Houston,” speaking to the institute’s work to improve lives through data, research, engagement and action.

“Inclusive prosperity doesn’t just happen spontaneously,” she noted in a statement. “It requires an explicit effort informed by research. Lots of organizations are working hard to make things better, but most of them have very limited research capacity, and that’s what the Kinder Institute is primed to do.”

Founded in 2010, the institute has evolved into a leader in research, data, and policy analysis of critical issues such as housing, transportation, and education. The institute also releases the familiar Kinder Houston Area Survey, which charts significant changes in the way area residents perceive and understand Houston’s ongoing challenges and opportunities.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Expert: Building Hispanic wealth means investing in Houston

Guest column

Every year at this time ― Hispanic Heritage Month ― we collectively celebrate the economic, cultural, and social contributions of the Hispanic-Latino community to our nation. We honor the work of past generations which have allowed children and future generations to benefit from more opportunities.

As diverse a community as is the world, we strive to build a future where there are no barriers for success, and at Bank of America, we do our part to make an impact by helping build Hispanic-Latino wealth in Houston.

The numbers are clear: The 2020 Census revealed that the Hispanic-Latino population in the United States rose to 62.1 million, making up 18.7 percent of the total U.S. population and accounting for slightly more than half (51.1 percent) of the population growth between 2010 and 2020. Hispanic-Latinos now open more small businesses than any other group in the country and are also the fastest-growing demographic of small business owners across the nation. It is not surprising that Hispanic-Latino economic power continues to rise year after year. According to Nielsen Scarborough, the number of Houston Hispanic businesses have increased 85 percent since 2013.

Investing in business

Investing in Hispanic-Latino wealth means supporting entrepreneurs so they are set up for success. Early-stage funding is critical for the growth of a new business, especially when Hispanic-Latino entrepreneurs are still faced with gaps in financial literacy and business education, funding, and networking opportunities.

According to data from Crunchbase, Latino-founded startups accounted for only 2.1 percent of venture investments in the U.S. last year. This is unjustifiable.

As part of our commitment to advancing racial equality and economic opportunity, we have dedicated $350 million in minority- and women-led companies through capital investment by mission-focused venture funds. Of the funds we have in our portfolio, one in every four are led by Hispanic-Latino managers, providing capital that will help entrepreneurs and small business owners grow their businesses, create jobs, and improve financial stability.

An important element to creating opportunities for Hispanic-Latinos to build wealth, whether as a business owner or an employee, is ensuring that young people recognize higher education as a pathway to achieve success. That means partnering with colleges and universities and investing in job creation, skills-building, and support services for students to do so. Locally, we do this with EMERGE Fellowship and with the University of Houston College of Medicine. When we invest in students, we are investing in future professionals and business leaders who will build Hispanic-Latino wealth and contribute to Houston’s economy and culture. This is something we can celebrate together for years to come.

Investing in sustainable homeownership

Sustainable homeownership provides a lasting investment for future generations and cycles capital into the community. The National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals (NAHREP) recently released data showing an increase in Latino homeownership, from 47.5 percent in 2019 to 48.4 percent in 2021, the highest level since the mid-2000s. Through the Community Homeownership Commitment, which provides low down payment loans and closing cost grants, families can take their savings and turn them into lasting legacies. It is a pillar for families to build wealth.

Here in Houston, we also support organizations that assist with homeownership, like Tejano Center, Avenue CDC, and Houston Habitat for Humanity. Building Hispanic-Latino home equity increases the amount of capital families can use now or in the future helping build our Houston economy.

During the past decade, the rate of Hispanic-Latino economic development has far outpaced rates among non-Hispanics. Supporting and honoring our Hispanic-Latino clients is not just a month-long initiative, it is a long-term, generational investment in America and we are proud to be investing in a stronger economy for Houston now and for years to come.

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Rick Jaramillo is the market executive for Bank of America Houston.