Cloudbreak Enterprises is getting in on the ground level with software startups — quickly helping them take an idea to market. Photo via Getty Images

Lauren Bahorich is in the business of supporting businesses. In February 2020, she launched Cloudbreak Enterprises — B-to-B SaaS-focused, early-stage venture studio — with plans to onboard, invest in, and support around three new scalable companies a year. And, despite launching right ahead of a global pandemic, that's exactly what she did.

Bahorich, who previously worked at Golden Section Ventures, wanted to branch off on her own to create a venture studio to get in on the ground level of startups — to be a co-founder to entrepreneurs and provide a slew of in-house resources and support from development and sales to marketing and administration.

"We start at zero with just an idea, and we partner with out co-founders to build the idea they have and the domain expertise and the industry connections to take that idea and built a product and a company," Bahorich says.

Bahorich adds that there aren't a lot of venture studios in the United States — especially in Houston. While people might be more familiar with the incubator or accelerator-style of support for startups, the venture studio set up is much more intimate.

"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."

Lauren Bahorich founded Cloudbreak Enterprises in February of 2020. Photo courtesy of Cloudbreak

Cloudbreak now has three portfolio companies, and is looking to onboard another three more throughout the rest of the year. Bahorich runs a team of 15 professionals, all focused on supporting the portfolio. While creating the studio amid the chaos of 2020 wasn't the plan, there were some silver linings including being able to start with part-time developers and transition them to full-time employees as the companies grew.

"Within the first month, we were in shutdown here in Houston," Bahorich says. "But it's been a great opportunity for us. Where a lot of companies were pivoting and reassessing, we were actually able to grow because we were just starting at zero ourselves."

Cloudbreak's inaugural companies are in various stages and industries, but the first company to be onboarded a year ago — Relay Construction Solutions, a bid leveling software for the construction industry — joined the venture studio as just an idea and is already close to first revenue and potentially new investors. Cloudbreak is also creating a commercial real estate data management software and an offshore logistics platform. All three fall into a SaaS sweet spot that Bahorich hopes to continue to grow.

"We are looking to replace legacy workflows that are still performed in Excel or by email or phone," Bahorich says. "It's amazing how many opportunities there are that fit into that bucket — these high-dollar, error-prone workflows that are still done like it's 1985."

Given the hands-on support, Bahorich assumed she'd attract mostly first-time entrepreneurs who don't have experience with all the steps needed to launch the business. However, she says she's gotten interest from serial entrepreneurs who recognized how valuable the in-house support can be for expediting the early-stage startup process.

"What I'm realizing is a selling point is our in-house expertise. These founders are looking for technical co-founders," Bahorich says. "We can both provide that role and be capital partners."

Blair Garrou joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss venture capital investing in 2020. Photo via mercuryfund.com

Houston expert shares how COVID-19 has affected venture capital locally and beyond

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 64

Locally, Blair Garrou, managing director at Mercury Fund, was among the first in the Houston innovation ecosystem to recognize what COVID-19 could do to the world of venture capital, innovation, and more.

At a panel for Houston Exponential's Tech Rodeo on March 6, Garrou observed that the pandemic had the potential to affect the venture capital market regarding valuations and investing.

"I never expected what happened, I just expected the markets to correct," says Garrou on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

While the pandemic posed challenges for startups and investors alike, Garrou says he sees some silver linings to how COVID-19 affected tech adoption. Non-tech and innovation companies have lost a lot of value, according to the S&P 500 Index, but tech and innovation companies have doubled their values. Some experts say that the pandemic has pushed user adoption by a decade or more.

"Everyone finally understands that digital transformation and automation are here to stay," Garrou says. "Just look at our backyard and what the oil and gas industry has gone through. ... I don't think anyone could have through through all of this, but it's put tech ecosystems on notice because what's happened since the end of April to December is unprecedented in the tech space."

With so much uncertainty, it's safe to say the volume of venture capital investing is down, but over the past several months, VC activity has returned, Garrou says. Now, Garrou says he sees later stage deals — like series C rounds — are down, but early stage investing is up as individual investors want in on tech.

"People are realizing that money is in innovation and tech — especially in software," Garrou says. "I can't tell you how many individual investors who call interested in investing in Mercury as a fund or our companies. People are not getting the return they desire from the markets and they are seeing tech companies do great things."

Garrou shares more about what all he's keeping a close eye on as we enter a new year, plus what's happening at Mercury Fund in the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


The Business Angel Minority Association launched at a breakfast event during Houston Tech Rodeo. Photo by Nijalon Dunn

Houston investors create angel network focused on minorities

money on minorities

Maria Maso was frustrated with her investment opportunities in Houston. So, she's doing something about it.

Maso has launched the Business Angel Minority Association, or baMa, to gather established or brand new angel investors to move the needle on investments into minority-founded startups. The organization, which launched at a breakfast event at Amegy Bank's Cannon Tower during the Houston Tech Rodeo week, is now seeking investor members.

A native of Barcelona, Maso moved to Houston around seven years ago and started investing in startups a few years later. She tapped into a local organization, but didn't have a positive experience.

"I joined an organization in town, and I started to see deals. But I never made an investment in those deals. I faced two issues: They weren't inclusive enough and no one was telling me how to invest," Maso says.

She joined other angel groups around the world, wrote a lot of checks, and still was frustrated with what was available in Houston. She reached a breaking point in October and her friend and colleague, Juliana Garaizar, told her, "If you don't like it, change it."

So, baMa was born and has launched with lofty goals. Maso, founder and CEO, and Garaizar, president, want to round up 100 investors by the end of 2020. And they want these investors to write checks.

"We are not a networking organization. We are an investment organization. We are expecting at some point that you are writing a check to a startup," Maso tells the crowd. "If we are doing our job properly and we are showing you the right startups, you should be able to make a check at some point."

The organization's members will see deal flow and regular pitches and programming. At the launch event, three Houston companies — Kanthaka, on-demand personal training app, Security Gate, cybersecurity startup, and Pantheon, wellness program app — pitched to the room.

"This is a great opportunity — this is not impact investing or doing the right thing," Garaizar says. "This is actually going to generate money. Investing in diversity gives a 35 percent more ROI to investors."

BaMa already has plans to grow, Maso says. The organization will have a national presence with multiple chapters across the country.

"We are already discussing with Boston, Miami, and Palo Alto," says Maso. "We don't have an agreement yet, but my plan is by the end of the year open the second chapter."

But starting in Houston was intentional. There's so much untapped potential in Houston — money wise and in terms of startups.

"We are in Houston, the most diverse city in the U.S., and still our investment community doesn't look like our entrepreneurship community," Garaizar says. "The only way we are going to bridge this gap is if our investment community starts looking more like the entrepreneurship community."

For Carolyn Rodz, founder of Houston-based Alice and baMa partner, she's tired of hearing about the lack of minority investors and diversity of investments. This organization is about making a move.

"We've had enough talk with all these issues — how do we actually take the actions to move this forward," Rodz says. "I'm tired of hearing the same story year after year, and every time I hear the statistics, I roll my eyes. We know the story. We've heard it. Let's actually do something to change it."

The Bayou City knows energy. Silicon Valley knows tech. But each can't only invest in what they know. Getty Images

Houston and Silicon Valley experts advise investing outside the box

Diversify or die

There's an adage in investing that you should only invest in what you know. Generally speaking, this is a good rule — if you do not understand a company product or have no experience with its industry, then investing in a specific company could be risky. Yet, there are times when it's necessary to get out of your comfort zone and try something new and adventurous. The challenge is determining how to do that.

We are financial advisors from Houston and San Francisco, and we frequently do just that — encourage our clients to explore investments out of their comfort zones.

In Houston, we understand energy. As of 2017, Texas accounted for 37 percent of the nation's crude oil production and 24 percent of its natural gas production. And as of January 2018, Texan oil refineries accounted for 31 percent of the nation's refining capacity — and that is just oil. In 2017, Texas lead the country in wind-generated electricity and generated a quarter of all wind power in the US. It is safe to say, we feel comfortable talking the language and investing in the energy industry. Whether it is machinery fabrication for upstream, construction of pipes for midstream, or refining downstream, some Texans are comfortable investing in these areas.

In San Francisco, we understand tech, whether it involves social media, silicon, or apps. We have five of the top 10 most prominent tech companies in the world. In 2018, the technology industry accounted for around 62 percent of all office leasing activity in San Francisco. The Bay Area also dominates venture capital investment, accounting for 45 percent of all capital investment in the U.S, in large part because of tech startups in the area.

Naturally, we see that some investors in our hometowns feel comfortable investing extensively in these two industries. Sometimes, these investments take the form of venture capital, other times they are individual stocks.

For Houstonians, allocating all of their investments to the energy industry carries too much risk should the energy industry falter. The same is true for San Francisco with venture capital and technology.

Therefore, we encourage investors to diversify their portfolios by placing funds in multiple vehicles and equities with the knowledge that different industries will react differently to market ups and downs. While there is never a guarantee of the outcome, diversification is one of many factors critical to long-term investment success.

For Houstonians and San Franciscans, there are other industries we understand in which we can invest. For example, Houston boasts the largest medical center in the world with roughly 361,000 people employed in the healthcare industry. While San Francisco employs roughly 277,500 in tourism. If you're looking to diversify your portfolio, look around to see the opportunities in which other people are investing. You may be surprised about what you learn, and ultimately how comfortable you can become investing in industries you may be unfamiliar.

We do not recommend ever investing in a product or industry that you have no understanding of at all. However, if you have excitement about an investment opportunity and feel there is potential for growth to your portfolio, your investment may prove fruitful in the future. Still, please seek out a financial advisor to help.

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Joseph Radzwill is senior vice president and financial adviser with the Wealth Management Division of Morgan Stanley in Houston. Victoria Bailey is a financial adviser with the Wealth Management Division of Morgan Stanley in San Francisco.

Tim Kopra spent over 244 days in space, and now he's using his tech background to invest in emerging energy companies. Courtesy of Tim Kopra

Former NASA astronaut is investing in the future of the oil and gas industry

Featured Innovator

When Tim Kopra returned from space in 2009 after he served as flight engineer on NASA's Expedition 20, he was ready to transition into civilian life. The Army vet went to business school, received his MBA in 2013, and started thinking about his next steps here on earth.

That is, until he was called back by NASA to serve as flight engineer then commander of the ISS in Expedition 46/47. He landed in June of 2016 after spending a career total of 244 days in space.

The timing was right this time around for Kopra. A former classmate of his, Ernst Theodor Sack, had worked at a Riverstone Holdings for a decade and had realized the potential for funding smaller, more niche startups. Sack was ready to branch out on his own, and Kopra was looking for his next career opportunity too.

That's how the two partnered up to create Blue Bear Capital, an investment fund that invests in data-driven technology companies in the energy supply chain.

"You can think of it as Silicon Valley tech, IoT, analytics, machine learning, SaaS business models applied to oil and gas, wind, solar, and energy storage," Kopra says.

The energy industry has been known to be slow to adopt new technology, like analytics, machine learning, and the Internet of Things, Kopra says, but Blue Bear's goal is to find the startups creating cutting edge technology and help them gain a footing in the industry.

"In order to adopt new technology, our view is that it has to be able to demonstrate clear value proposition upfront — not something that promises to improve operations down the line. It needs to happen relatively quickly."

Blue Bear capital closed its fund in the fourth quarter of 2018 with a total of eight investments. Kopra spoke with InnovationMap on how he's merged his space career into a tech investment guru.

InnovationMap: What sort of experience do you bring in to your investment responsibilities from your Army and NASA days?

Tim Kopra: On face value, it may sound like an odd match, taking someone with a tech and operational background and putting them in venture, but quite frankly it feels very familiar to me because my career has really been focused on working on complex technology and operations with very small teams. It's not just a theoretical understanding of the technology, but understanding how to use the technology and how it works.

It's something that over time, when you work with different kinds of aircraft or experiments on the Space Station or the space suits we use on space walks or the robotics system we used, you really develop a strong sense of how we as humans are able to work with technology and improve the functions we have in our jobs. That's a valuable aspect I bring to the table.

There's the operational component too. You can have great technology, but if it's not well matched to its job and implementation, it's not going to have the ability to solve the problems it was intended for. Third component is with small teams. I've worked with teams of two to 10 to 30 to several hundred — you recognize the need for people to work more effectively together.

I was on the last couple of astronaut selection committees. Our most recent one was going through 18,300 and select 12. Our job during the last portion of the selection is interviewing the last 50 or so. Those people competing for those spots are rock solid when it comes to their technical background and operational experience. The one thing we were asking ourselves as the interview committee was, "Who'd you want to go camping with?" It's the matter of the kind of people you can spend time with and be effective with. When we look at companies to invest in, we are looking for good small teams like that.

IM: How has Houston's tech ecosystem changed throughout your career?

TK: When we started in January of 2017, we saw one conference every few months that was involved in innovation and new technology and its application in oil and gas. Whereas now, it's pretty much every month that there's a major event about applying new technology in the industry.

IM: So, how has the city been for you as an investor?

TK: Obviously, Houston is the center for traditional energy and oil and gas. One thing that has been notable over our journey is the increased involvement in corporate venture funds. And, then the number of startups — it's a growing number and there's plenty of room for growth when it comes to energy startups. We've definitely seen an improvement in the types of technology provided and the number of startups emerging.

IM: Do you feel like the relationship you have with corporate VCs is competitive or collaborative?

TK: I think that the environment for venture capital in Houston in particular is very collaborative. When it comes to the corporate VCs, we're aligned because often times they are looking for companies farther along and then secondly, we're happy to co-invest with corporate teams. There are plenty of deals to go around, and we think working together we can definitely succeed.

IM: What types of companies are you looking for?

TK: We consider companies that are early revenue companies. We focus on data-driven technology companies, but they need to have recurring commercial revenue, so not just pilots.

IM: What's next for Blue Bear?

TK: We recently closed the fund, and what that means is we need to deploy the capital. We've invested in eight companies and had one exit, which we are excited about.

What we try to do is find the absolute best in class within a sector in which we invest.

IM: What keeps you up at night, as it pertains to your business?

TK: It's a very dynamic world. We have to keep track of macro trends and understand where the market is going. That has everything to do from the price of oil to government incentives to what large companies are investing in. I wouldn't say that it keeps us awake at night, but there's so many facets of the business that can impact what we do — positively and negatively. But we are constantly keeping track of what's going on in the world and what's going on in our sector.

The one thing we are most focused on right now is maintaining deal flow that we've been able to achieve. Going through the thousand or so companies we have over the past couple of years has been an extremely arduous task, but it's necessary for us to be able to understand the market.

We need to be as diligent as we have been over the past couple years. It's a really exciting space to work in, and we just need to maintain that level of excitement.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

For large companies, it's not just about the money. There's more they can offer startups. Getty Images

Here’s how big companies are looking to invest in Houston startups

B2B

As times and technologies change, large companies need to be able to adopt innovative techniques now more than ever. For some companies, that means making a strategic hire, investing in startups, or making acquisitions.

Three panelists with experience in corporate ventures took the stage at the inaugural HX Capital Summit to discuss their best advice for startups looking for investment from large companies.

The panel consisted of Roy Johnston, partner at The League of Worthwhile Ventures; Tom Luby, head of Jlabs; Andrea Course, venture principal at Schlumberger Technical Investments; and moderator Rashad Kurbanov, CEO of Houston-based iownit capital and markets.

The topic of conversation was how corporations work with startups. For Schlumberger, Course says, it's less about acquiring companies and more about investing in technologies those startups are working on.

"When Schlumberger does invest, we like to have a pilot and invest in properties we can grow," Course says. "Our intent is not to go out and buy a startup company, but to grow the technology and then become customers."

Schlumberger has a lot to offer a budding company, namely resources, infrastructure, assets, and a global footprint, Course says.

Previous to his position at The League, Johnston was the director in the venture capital arm of Waste Management, Inc. He says he saw a similar resources-based investment strategy.

"Waste Management might have been more hesitant to write a check, but they were very generous with their assets," Johnston says.

The company could make connections for the startups and provide other support for entrepreneurs in the early stages of starting a company. However, when it came to monetary investments, Johnston says, it was a different story.

"Where I think Waste Management comes in is later on — more of an acquirer than an investor," Johnston says.

When it comes to the types of startups big companies are looking to work with, industry isn't a big issue. Johnson & Johnson, for instance, has an open mind, Luby says.

"It's not an easy fit to say a specific area where J&J fits — if you look at the profile of things we do, we have a no-strings-attached incubation hub next door," he says.

Schlumberger similarly looks outward to spark innovation inward — mostly, Course says, because it's so challenging to think outside the box when you're working everyday inside the box.

"We mostly invest in companies outside of oil and gas, but that we see the potential of bringing used in our industry," Course says.

Houston, has a surplus of diversity — both industry and population, Johnston says. This will be a huge asset of the city, he says, since Houston is on the edge of another revolution for digitization.

"The businesses that are going to be built are going to need people who have a diverse understanding of problems," Johnston says. "That's where I think Houston's diversity is an enormous benefit to us."

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Greentown Labs hires former Houston sustainability exec

new hire

The country's largest climatetech startup incubator has made a strategic new hire.

Lara Cottingham is the new chief of staff for Greentown Labs, a Boston-area company that opened in Houston earlier this year. Cottingham previously served as the city of Houston's chief sustainability officer and the chief of staff for the city's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department for the past seven years. In her new role, Cottingham will oversee the day-to-day operations and communications for Greentown's CEO Emily Reichert, along with key stakeholder engagements and strategic initiatives for the incubator.

"Lara brings a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience to our team from her dynamic leadership role at the City of Houston," says Reichert in a news release. "Her breadth of knowledge in sustainability, climate, and the energy transition, and her expertise in regulatory and stakeholder aspects of the energy industry, will be incredibly valuable to our team and community."

Under her leadership at the city of Houston, Cottingham was the chief author of Houston's Climate Action Plan, an initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Houston, and getting the city to a point where it meets the Paris Agreement goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Cottingham helped the city move to 100 percent renewable electricity, according to the release, and helped turn a 240-acre landfill into the nation's largest urban solar farm.

"In leading the Climate Action Plan, Lara helped spark Houston's leadership in what has become a global energy transition and was a passionate advocate for climate action in Houston," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "While she will be missed, this new role will only strengthen our partnership with Greentown. I look forward to working with Emily, Lara, and the Greentown team to meet our climate goals and make Houston the energy capital of the future."

Before her work at the city, Cottingham worked at Hill+Knowlton Strategies' Houston office range of clients across the energy sector. Earlier in her career, she served as communications director for two congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives. She began her work with the city in 2014.

"In working with Mayor Turner and Climate Mayors across the U.S., I saw how important partnerships are to helping cities decarbonize," says Cottingham in the release. "There is no better partner or place for climate action at work than Greentown Labs. Greentown is 100 percent committed to attracting and nurturing the energy companies of the future and making Houston the energy transition capital of the world. I'm excited to join the team and see how climatetech can help cities reach their climate goals."

Greentown Labs first announced its entrance into the Houston market last summer. The new 40,000-square-foot facility in Midtown across the street from The Ion opened its prototyping and wet lab space, offices, and community gathering areas for about 50 startup companies opened in April. Greentown was founded in 2011 in Somerville, Massachusetts, and has supported more than 400 startups, which have raised more than $1.5 billion in funding.

Houston edtech nonprofit grows its technology with $440K grant from Kinder Foundation

student-focused

As the learning landscape shifted from in-person to virtual, the ability to provide students with necessary support systems and resources became compromised. However, one Houston edtech company worked hard to close that gap.

ProUnitas, a Houston-based nonprofit, partnered with Thoughtworks, a global technology consultancy, to expand its PurpleSENSE platform to mobile. This partnership was ensured through significant private investment, including a one-time gift of $440,000 from the Kinder Foundation.

ProUnitas promises that this expansion will allow student support teams to take the power of PurpleSENSE with them on the go for easier, real-time response using the new PurpleSENSE mobile app.

"A mobile version of PurpleSENSE will empower student support teams to work more rapidly, efficiently and effectively towards their mission and goals," Chris Murphy, CEO of Thoughtworks North America, says in a news release.

Committed to ensuring that no students fall through the cracks, ProUnitas' purpose is focused on providing all students, including those most impoverished, with support services such as food assistance programs, mental health counseling, and after-school clubs.

"Every day many of our students carry the burden of poverty on their shoulders to school, and despite the availability of services, schools do not have the technology infrastructure necessary to connect students to resources in a coordinated way. We want to change this reality," says Adeeb Barqawi, president and CEO of ProUnitas, says in the release.

Engaged in similar work, the Kinder Foundation was a natural partner.

"The Kinder Foundation believes that children cannot succeed if they are juggling significant personal challenges," says Nancy Kinder, president and CEO of the Kinder Foundation, in the release. "As a result of the pandemic, we are seeing mental health and the impact of stress with fresh eyes. Now is the time to support our children and help them thrive and learn. We are proud to help elevate the work of ProUnitas to reach more schools and more students in this critical time of need."

In a press release, ProUnitas states that through these new mobile capabilities, up to 60 percent of administrative work in providing social service options is eliminated. It also shortens the response time for a student to be identified and receive services by 90 percent.

The expansion of PurpleSENSE to mobile is a critical step for ProUnitas to effectively support more schools and students.

Renewables are Houston's next chapter, says this expert

guest column

Houston has long been known as an innovative city — from medicine to technology to creative cuisines (see Viet-Cajun). I am always proud to see how cultures, education, and change come together to build the fabric of our city. As we look forward to a new future, we need to look no further than one of our strongest industries: energy. As many before me, I've sat down to ask: What does that next chapter look like for Houston?

Renewable energy has rapidly grown in Texas and across the country. Emerging technology has furthered this innovation, bringing wind and solar projects that are more powerful and reliable online from the Panhandle to deep in the Rio Grande Valley. As these new projects come online, aging wind facilities built in the early 2000s are beginning to be revitalized, gleaming bright white with newer, longer blades. And, similar to cleaning out your closet of old clothes, the current blades have to go somewhere. Where others see a problem, we saw an opportunity: We've made a business out of recycling them.

At Everpoint, we are demolishing and removing blades all across the US, with projects in North Dakota, Colorado, and even here in another Texas city, Sweetwater. In this rural Texas town, wind investment took Nolan County market value from $607 million in 1998 to $3.2 billion as development peaked in 2009. This growth enabled the school districts, county, and hospital district to expand and upgrade their facilities. As a trailblazer in the industry, we worked closely with the Sweetwater team to handle a smooth transition, allowing their community to look forward to a breezier future.

The industry is quickly innovating to meet the demands of Texas' future, and new opportunities are forming every day, something we're proud to be a part of, especially as a veteran-owned company. We are driven to make the future of energy more transparent and traceable, that's why we partner with firms like Media Sorcery which uses sensors and an ESG based blockchain built by another Houston firm, Topl, to maintain full accountability throughout the decommissioning process.

Beyond our company, the renewable energy industry employs veterans at a higher rate than the national average, with more than 11,000 in the wind industry alone. As a veteran myself it only made since to team with another veteran founded company to pursue this opportunity. I appreciate meeting fellow veterans every day that are applying the skills they learned in the military: a technical knowledge base, teamwork, and discipline.

Across Texas, renewable energy is powering 40,200 well-paying careers that I know are building toward a better, brighter Houston. It's in our blood to continue the Texas legacy of welcoming energy industries, like wind and solar, into our state. I believe in an all-energy approach to the energy transition. Renewable energy is about more than hearts and minds, it's about dollars and cents.

In honor of that, we are celebrating American Clean Power Week this week, October 25-29, and we hope you will join us. Not to celebrate one industry, but to embrace an all of the above, made in Texas energy future — a future that I know we can all be proud of, and where Houston will be the Energy Capital of the Future.

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Kevin Doffing is the chief commercial officer of Everpoint Services.