COVID-19 might have thrown a wrench in this health tech startup's fundraising plans, but it found a way to close an oversubscribed round anyways. Photo via Getty Images

When I wrote about fundraising early this year, I knew that I would be raising a round shortly, but had no idea I would be doing it in a changed COVID-19 world. I have experienced two unexpected recessions as an entrepreneur — in 2001 and 2008 — and each time causing huge struggles for entrepreneurs to raise funds. That is when I developed the mindset of acting like a desert rat, surviving with little help, learning to tap into the resources around you to survive and even thrive. Little did I know what was coming in March when the COVID-19 shutdown started.

Solenic Medical Inc. is a medical device company developing an innovative non-invasive treatment for infected metallic implants in the body. Using technology invented at the University of Texas Southwestern, Solenic will leverage the unique properties of alternating magnetic fields generated from external coils to eradicate biofilm on the surface of medical implants.

This non-invasive treatment addresses a major complication of various surgeries, such as knee and hip replacements, as well as in trauma related implants such as plates and rods. There are certainly challenges to fundraising for medical device companies, but each technology arena has its own challenges that I won't go into here.

The Solenic Medical team knew we needed to raise a round early this year, building upon the progress achieved since our founding investment in early 2019. The question was what type and size a round to raise.

We knew we were close to taking some valuable steps, but needed a just a little more time and funding to get there, at which point we figured we would be able to step up our valuation greatly. We decided on a modest $500,000 convertible note round, to help us accomplish at least a portion of the following items:

  • Recruit a reputable outside board member
  • Complete a planned large animal study stepping up from previous mice studies
  • Complete submission of a Breakthrough Device application to the FDA
  • Close our $1.3 million NIH grant and/or other non-dilutive funding
  • Fine tune simulation approaches to optimize the transducer design
  • File new intellectual property

We knew that some combination of these would occur in the succeeding months and would make it easier for Solenic to raise further funds.

The first domino was the on-boarding of an experienced technology executive from Virginia to join our board. The large animal study was delayed when the COVID-19 shutdown started, but our Breakthrough application and the grant application review started as the team went into virtual work mode. Progress was made on the simulations and drafting our next patent. The dominos were starting to fall in spite of the shutdown.

My philosophy was to treat the round as five different type of efforts, in pretty much five equal portions.

  • The first 20 percent in a round is always the hardest, even in closely held friends and family round. The first check regardless of size is always hard as often investors very interested in the round will wait for others to move first.
  • The second 20 percent is not much easier, still requiring a leap of faith by the investor.
  • The magic starts happening at 40 percent, where momentum picks up as you approach halfway and beyond.
  • At 60 percent you reach real momentum, where those investors who may have been waiting to move for a while now start moving.
  • At 80 percent you pick up investors who move quickly worried about missing out before the round closes.
  • With luck, you get enough momentum to oversubscribe the round and have to make the call to go beyond your target funds. For a quick hint on where I standard at that point, there's a saying that you never turn down money.

It was strange picking up the fundraising activity via zoom meetings, and it got off to a slow start as the initial circumstances of the new COVID-19 world settled in. Following my own advice from the January article, I started strategizing my communications, who might be the first check and first movers in first 20 percent, then the next 20 percent and so forth. For a friends and family round you start with your board as champions for the round, founders and management. No one is likely to be more committed and likely to get things started generally, much less in unusual financial times like a pandemic shutdown.

With an institutional co-founder like VIC Technology Venture Development and a passionate board we were able to jumpstart the round the round with $110,000 in commitments. This was quickly followed $100,000 from friends and family of board or management team members. Note that "quickly" in a pandemic was three months that in normal times might have taken only a month or so. Now that we had crossed that magic 40 percent hurdle, things started picking up speed, where members of the VIC Investor Network added individual investments totaling $140,000 to pass the next hurdle of 60 percent within another six weeks of individual presentations and discussions.

Momentum accelerated with friends and family and management team members stepping up to get us to 80 percent within few weeks. At the time of this article we are over-subscribed with more decisions to come. That is a great problem to have as things really picked up speed recently.

Though the final tally is to be determined the mix for this friends and family round looks to be pretty typical to past experiences

  • Board & Management – 27 percent
  • Family – 27 percent
  • Friends – 22 percent
  • Others – 25 percent

Because of the shutdown, this pandemic round has been unusual and at times frustrating, with some highly vocal and interested prospects going strangely silent as soon as the shutdown started, while others moved more slowly than originally expected. Regardless of how things transpired, it turned out largely familiar. As usual, the people you know the best and that know and trust you the most are the ones that are mostly likely come through for you. Building your network to increase the size of that pool is what you do far before a round starts.

Later rounds will be quite different, but the same 20 percent momentum stages will apply. It's a matter of building and nurturing a network of prospects in advance. Larger rounds involve an "institutional" friends and family network that you have known for a while. That work begins long before you start developing them as prospect for an open investment round. By the time this article is published, we expect to have the final funds of this round in the bank but have already started building relationships for the next round. It never stops, but in some ways that is the fun part of it to meet new people to share your startup's story.

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James Y. Lancaster is the Texas branch manager for Arkansas-based VIC Technology Venture Development and interim CEO for Solenic Medical. Lancaster, who lives in College Station, oversees business there, in Dallas, and in Houston.

This week's Houston innovators to know roundup includes Harvin Moore, James Lancaster, and Joshua Baer. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Today starts the Houston Tech Rodeo — a week full of innovation-focused events — and its sure to corral entrepreneurs and investors across the city spur discussions of innovation and technology.

This week's Houston innovators to know includes the man at the helm of the organization behind the Tech Rodeo, plus two investors that are making moves in Houston as well as statewide.

Harvin Moore, president of Houston Exponential

Courtesy of HX

Houston Exponential has helped to coordinate over 30 innovation-focused events for the inaugural Houston Tech Rodeo, which will take place March 2 to 6 — in coordination with the start of the Houston Livestock Show And Rodeo — and will feature panels about diversity, reverse pitch events with startups and accelerators, on-stage office hours, and more.

"Really one of the things that makes a tech ecosystem like Houston really work and purr is when people get together, and people are able to bump into each other and bounce ideas off each other. Businesses do well, ideas thrive, and things happen," Harvin Moore, president of HX, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We basically saw this as an opportunity to let the startup development organizations in town schedule their events around a particular week that really look good on a calendar."

Click here to read more and stream the episode.

James Y. Lancaster, Texas branch manager for Arkansas-based VIC Technology Venture Development

Courtesy of VIC

James Lancaster, Texas branch manager for Arkansas-based VIC Technology Venture Development, knows most startups fail for one of three reasons — no market need, running out of money, and not having a strong team. In his most recent guest article for InnovationMap, Lancaster dives into this third reason with key things founders must think about to give their startup the best shot at success.

"Like market need, evaluating the management team is on virtually every venture capitalist's list of what they look for in their target investments and you need to get it right," Lancaster says.

Click here to read more.

Joshua Baer, founder and CEO of Capital Factory

Courtesy of Capital Factory

While not technically a Houstonian, this Austinite gets an honorary title for his work here. Austin-based accelerator and investment organization Capital Factory recently merged with Station Houston, and CEO and Founder Joshua Baer says it's just the beginning of his focus on Houston startups.

"In total right now, we have 40 companies ever that have joined our accelerator from Houston, which is still a pretty significant number," he tells InnovationMap. "This year, we expect more than 40 companies to join the accelerator from Houston."

Click here to read more.Click here to read more.

Teamwork can make the dream work, but lack of a solid team can be a startup's downfall. Pexels

Here's what Houston startups need to keep in mind when building their teams

Guest column

The top two reasons for startup failure are no market need and running out of money, respectively. But the third reason for failure is not having the right team in place. Like market need, evaluating the management team is on virtually every venture capitalist's list of what they look for in their target investments and you need to get it right.

It is well known that new technologies have a limited window of opportunity to succeed and there are rarely second chances, whether choosing the right strategy, market, customers, partners, or raising rounds of financing. If a particular window is missed a chance to pivot may be available, but that typically requires a good, experienced and nimble team that is right for the overall opportunity.

Luck and timing are factors largely out of your control in a startup, but good-to-great teams are capable of dealing with fast changing conditions or lessons learned along the way.

There's not one "right team"

It is easy to say you need the right team, but the same team is not the right team for every startup. Any team needs some basic skills, and of course have the ability to deliver a solution to meet its customer's needs.

In addition to a diverse technical team, a startup needs different skill sets, including various business, professional and soft skills. It is obvious that software is different than medical devices, but within "software" there are a wide variety of skills needed from user interface to security and everything in between. Within medical devices, the variety ranges beyond technology from working with the FDA to medical reimbursement.

Similarities between standard business processes like customer billing, collections and capital asset management often do not vary much across some otherwise pretty diverse businesses. On top of that, the needs of the team change over time as startups progress from concept, to prototype development to launch and through growth phases.

Having experience with many different startups, I have had some recurring team members with whom I worked with again in my next venture. I have also experienced significant turnover of individuals and growth within individuals that where ready for a new challenge to keep them motivated. The right team varies from venture to venture.

Know your industry

One lesson is to have a few cornerstone roles in the organization. First learned in my consulting days, a talented team member might serve in a kind of cornerstone role where you know that job is "solved" and you will not have to worry about it. You then complement and build around him, adding more experience in a complementary role if the first individual has raw talent and enthusiasm. You would add young talent with plenty of room for growth around an experienced individual that has the ability to mentor those around them. No one way exists to create a good team, other than the best practice of mixing experience, talent and diversity in creative ways based on who based on availability.

However, patterns should be identified and assessed to complement customers when deep engagement is a key part of your model or with partners, distributors, channels, or other strategic parts of your extended business model. Some customers will accept less experienced staff; others will not. Some markets can be targeted successfully by inexperienced sales or customer service representatives, while others require field experience or at a minimum extensive targeted training.

Finding support

Beyond patterns, consider some other best practices that are appropriate for various markets; for example, the risk incurred by having an inexperienced FDA process lead in an FDA regulated product. Having little real experience with FDIC, SEC or similar relevant federal or state agencies creates a lot of risk in FinTech companies. In any startup, some areas can be easily contracted out while others need to be core internal strengths, even if developed over time.

That last word is key, the "time" component of startups. Early stages of a startup have parallels to my consulting days. It is a project that is managed like any other project, balancing the big three assets: resources, money and time. Any project is a balancing act of acquiring and managing those three assets, at least when you take out administrative details like payroll and the like. The next stage is more operational in nature, whether stabilizing operations or managing for growth, but it is common for a startup to have two or more CEOs between founding and exit as needs change.

Since VIC primarily is focused on university technology startups, the inventor is often a university researcher with decades of experience in the field of the invention. We follow a best practice of bringing in one of our senior team members as CEO, an experienced business savvy entrepreneur who complements the inventor well in those early technology de-risking phases.

We support those key team members with a shared service team to handle finance, accounting, legal, websites and more, outsourcing specific areas of expertise like intellectual property in a given technical area. We then fill out gaps with select hires. Over time, we work ourselves out of a job when the technology has progressed to a point that different skills are needed, such as handing off to a growth-stage CEO.

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James Y. Lancaster is the Texas branch manager for Arkansas-based VIC Technology Venture Development. Lancaster, who lives in College Station, oversees business there, in Dallas, and in Houston.

This week's innovators to know are focused on bringing startup programming and venture capital to Houston. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This past week has been full of exciting innovation news in Houston — from big fundraising round closings to a new unicorn coming out of the Bayou City.

Houston innovators to know this week include a new program director for Houston's newest startup accelerator, a venture capital fund leader, and more.

Eléonore Cluzel, program director of gBETA Houston program as director

Courtesy of gBETA Houston

Houston's newest accelerator program, gBETA, named its new local leader. Eléonore Cluzel will lead the gBETA Houston program as director, and will be the point person for the program in the region for the two annual cohorts. Previously, Cluzel worked for Business France mentoring French startups and small businesses. In her new position, she says she's excited to support founders across all industries and foster innovation.

"We're adding another resource for local founders to grow their startups and to raise money, and not have to move to Silicon Valley to do it," she says. "We will also serve as a connector, introducing founders to mentors and investors within the community and across gener8tor broader network." Click here to read more.

Sandy Wallis, managing director of the HX Venture Fund

Courtesy of Sandy Wallis

After 20 years in the venture capital world, Sandy Guitar Wallis has seen the evolution of investing — on both coasts and here in Houston as well. Now, as managing director of the HX Venture Fund, Wallis leads the fund of funds that's investing in VCs around the country in order to bring investment to Houston.

"We have raised a fund of funds with the HX Venture Fund, and we're deploying that capital across probably 10 venture capital funds over time," Wallis explains on the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Each one of those funds, will invest in 15 to 20 underlying private companies. So, at the end of the day, HX Venture Fund 1 will have exposure to 10 VC funds, as an example, and — by virtue of those investments — maybe 300 private companies." Click here to read more.

James Y. Lancaster, Texas branch manager for Arkansas-based VIC Technology Venture Development

Photo courtesy of VIC

Startups fail — and there are a number of reasons why that is. James Y. Lancaster, who serves as Texas branch manager for Arkansas-based VIC Technology Venture Development, writes in a guest column for InnovationMap about the second most common reason for startup failure: funding.

"A key part of the startup CEO's job is to understand how much total cash remains on hand and whether it is enough to carry the startup towards a milestone that can lead to successful financing as well as a positive cash flow," Lancaster writes. "Just as important is how to allocate their time and efforts to the fundraising process along the way." Click here to read more.

The second most common reason for startup failure is running out of funds. A Texas expert has tips for avoiding that downfall. Getty Images

Failing to fundraise can be the downfall of Houston startups — here's what you need to know

Guest column

Startups are pulling outsized financing rounds and debt acquisitions at an unprecedented rate despite the high 80 percent failure rate of startups overall. Among the three primary reasons why startups tend to fail, running out of cash falls in the number two spot on the list at 29 percent — following no market need.

But startups need to recognize that their time and a strategic fundraising effort are tied together as critical resources to allocate properly to drive their fundraising efforts.

Despite a multitude of ideas and approaches in the pursuit of the very elusive product-market fit and monetization, the majority of startups fail to raise funds or run out of cash after initial fundraising success. For the startup to be successful, it is imperative that funds, finances, and related resources are allocated productively and precisely.

A key part of the startup CEO's job is to understand how much total cash remains on hand and whether it is enough to carry the startup towards a milestone that can lead to successful financing as well as a positive cash flow. Just as important is how to allocate their time and efforts to the fundraising process along the way.

A constant battle

For starters, valuations of a startup do not change linearly over time. Simply because it was twelve months since raising a series A round does not mean that it will be easier to raise more money or be ready for a step-up in valuation. To reach an increase in valuation, a company must achieve certain key milestones that are relevant to showing progress to market and in most investors eye's progress towards monetization.

It is important to understand what potential investors think is worthy of a step up, but generally valuation is pretty flat in between inflection points where key milestones are reached that earn a big increase.

Active vs. passive investment pursuits

Given that it often takes six to nine months and two-thirds of a CEO's time during a major round of fundraising, optimally you should align progress points into major milestones where efforts can be concentrated for fundraising success approaching the inflection points. That does not mean that the CEO can ignore fundraising in between those major milestones, but should think about waves of active and passive fundraising activities.

Active fundraising is obvious, which is the typical efforts to craft a pitch, meet with investors, nurture investor prospects into lead and following investor types. Most of the effort should be put into the early investors that will lead the round as the first checks are always the hardest.

From my experience rounds develop their own momentum when reaching about 40 percent of their target and even more when reaching 60 percent as long as the prospective investor pool is large enough. However, the CEO cannot ignore the company's progress while the raise is actively underway, as they will typically meet with prospective investors multiple times who will want to hear about progress each time.

Passive fundraising is less obvious, which happens in the gaps in between active fundraising where one round closes and before the next round starts. The primary passive activity is general investor networking, where the CEO should be out expanding their network, meeting new prospects and trying to identify the mostly likely early investors or best fit for the company.

I'm not suggesting this is really a passive activity, as it takes a lot of work. But this should be an ongoing between rounds. This passive effort gives the CEO a chance to put most of their emphasis on the progress of the company to the next milestones, but avoids a cold start to the next fundraising round.

Regardless, there are two best practices in this passive mode. First, use networking techniques to identify good prospective investors for your company and two to work on getting referrals to investors well before an actual fundraising round is open. Getting a referral is obviously to your advantage, because it takes you out of cold-calling mode that has a low success rate.

Meeting an investor while you are not fundraising takes the pressure off both the CEO and investor and gives them a chance to get to know each other personally. Again, many will not be your round leaders or champions to other investors, but this lower pressure effort gives investors a chance to listen and reach out to potential experts in their networks to validate the problem and your solution.

With the relationship established and your solution validation received, moving to an active discussion about investment comes more naturally as well as targeting of the best lead investor candidates leading to due diligence, negotiation and closing the funds.

Within a technology development firm like my firm, VIC, we have the benefit of "always-on" VIC Investor Network that we are constantly working to refresh and expand. Because of our large portfolio, seventeen companies at the time of writing this, there is a good chance that almost any life science investor can find something that suits their interest, experience, or passions.

Each member of the firm can allocate their time between active and passive efforts for the companies they are most closely involved with while still providing a wide portfolio of other companies that might be of interest to a prospective investor. Even with a portfolio of companies, the same concepts of active and passive efforts apply.

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James Y. Lancaster is the Texas branch manager for Arkansas-based VIC Technology Venture Development. Lancaster, who lives in College Station, oversees business there, in Dallas, and in Houston.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston startup secures big contract, coworking company acquired, and more local innovation news

short stories

Houston is starting 2022 strong in terms of innovation news, and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, the Bayou City is ranked based on its opportunities for STEM jobs, a Houston blockchain startup scores a major contract, Rice University opens applications for its veteran-owned busineess competition, and more.

Data Gumbo announces contract with Equinor

After a successful pilot, Equinor has signed off on a contract with Data Gumbo.. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

Houston-based Data Gumbo, an industrial blockchain-software-as-a-service company, announced that it has signed a contract with Equinor. The global energy company's venture arm, Equinor Ventures, supported the startup's $7.7 million series B round, which closed last year.

The company's technology features smart contract automation and execution, which reduces contract leakage, frees up working capital, enables real-time cash and financial management, and delivers provenance with unprecedented speed, accuracy, visibility and transparency, per the release.

“Equinor is an industry trailblazer, demonstrating the true value of our international smart contract network to improve and automate manual processes, and bring trust to all parties,” says Andrew Bruce, founder and CEO of Data Gumbo, in a news release. “Smart contracts are playing a critical role in driving the energy industry forward. Our work with Equinor clearly demonstrates the benefits that supermajors and their supply chain customers, partners and vendors experience by automating commercial transactions. We are proud to continue our work with Equinor to help them realize the savings, efficiencies and new levels of transparency available through our smart contract network.”

Equinor opted into a pilot with the company a few years ago.

“Since piloting Data Gumbo’s smart contracts for offshore drilling services in 2019, we have worked with the company to continually refine and improve use cases. We now have the potential to expand Data Gumbo’s smart contract network to enable transactional certainty across our portfolio from the Norwegian Continental Shelf to our Brazilian operated assets and beyond,” says Erik Kirkemo, senior vice president at Equinor. “GumboNet reduces inefficiencies and processing time around contract execution in complex supply chains, which is a problem in the broader industry, and we look forward to realizing the streamlined process and cost savings of its rapidly expanding smart contract network.”

WeWork acquires Dallas coworking brand with 6 Houston locations

Common Desk, which has six locations in Houston including in The Ion, has been acquired. Photo courtesy of Common Desk

Dallas-based Common Desk, which has six locations in Houston, announced its acquisition by WeWork. The company's office spaces will be branded as “Common Desk, a WeWork Company,” according to a news release.

“Similar to WeWork, Common Desk is a company built on the concept of bringing people together to have their best day at work," says Nick Clark, CEO at Common Desk, in the release. "With the added support from WeWork, Common Desk will be able to not only leverage WeWork’s decade of experience in member services to improve the experience of our own members but also leverage WeWork’s impressive client roster to further build out our member base.”

Here are the six Common Desk spaces in Houston:

Here's how Houston ranks as a metro for STEM jobs

Source: WalletHub

When it comes to the best cities for jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math, Houston ranks in the middle of the pack. The greater Houston area ranked at No. 37 among the 100 largest metros across 19 key metrics on the list compiled by personal finance website, WalletHub. Here's how Houston fared on the report's metrics:

  • No. 36 – percent of Workforce in STEM
  • No. 74 – STEM Employment Growth
  • No. 43 – Math Performance
  • No. 16 – Quality of Engineering Universities
  • No. 2 – Annual Median Wage for STEM Workers (Adjusted for Cost of Living)
  • No. 90 – Median Wage Growth for STEM Workers
  • No. 75 – Job Openings for STEM Graduates per Capita
  • No. 88 – Unemployment Rate for Adults with at Least a Bachelor’s Degree

Elsewhere in Texas, Austin ranked at No. 2 overall, and Dallas just outranked Houston coming in at No. 34. San Antonio, El Paso, and McAllen ranked No. 51, No. 65, and No. 88, respectively.

Rice University calls for contestants for its 8th annual startup pitch competition for veterans

Calling all veteran and active duty startup founders and business owners. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University is now accepting applications from Houston veterans for its annual business competition. To apply for the 2022 Veterans Business Battle, honorably discharged veterans or active duty founders can head online to learn more and submit their business plan by Feb. 15.

“We’re looking forward to giving veterans the opportunity not just to share their ideas and get financing, but learn from other past winners the lessons about entrepreneurship they’ve lived through while growing their businesses,” event co-chair Reid Schrodel says in a news release.

Over the past few years, finalists have received more than $4 million of investments through the program. This year's monetary prizes add up to $30,000 — $15,000 prize for first place, $10,000 for second place, and $5,000 for third place.

Finalists will be invited to make their business pitch April 22 and 23 at Rice University. Click here to register for the event.

City of Houston receives grant to stimulate STEM opportunities

Houston's youth population is getting a leg up on STEM opportunities. Photo via Getty Images

Thanks to a $150,000 grant from the National League of Cities, the city of Houston has been awarded a chance to provide quality education and career opportunities to at-risk young adults and students. The city is one of five cities also selected to receive specialized assistance from NLC’s staff and other national experts.

“This award is a big win for young people. They will benefit from significant career development opportunities made possible by this grant,” says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a news release. “These are children who would otherwise go without, now having experiences and connections they never thought possible. I commend the National League of Cities for their continued commitment to the future leaders of this country.”

According to the release, the grant money will support the Hire Houston Youth program by connecting diverse opportunity youth to the unique STEM and technology-focused workforce development.

"Our youth deserve educational opportunities that connect them to the local workforce and career exploration, so they can make informed choices about their future career path in Houston’s dynamic economy. Houston youth will only further the amazing things they will accomplish, thanks to this grant," says Olivera Jankovska, director of the Mayor's Office of Education.

Houston software startup raises $12.5M series B

money moves

Houston-based Codenotary, whose technology helps secure software supply chains, has raised $12.5 million in a series B round. Investors in the round include Swiss venture capital firm Bluwat and French venture capital firm Elaia.

The $12.5 million round follows a series A round that was announced in 2020, with total funding now at $18 million.

Codenotary, formely known as vChain, says the fresh round of money will be used to accelerate product development, and expand marketing and sales worldwide. Today, the startup has 100-plus customers, including some of the world’s largest banks.

Codenotary’s co-founders are CEO Moshe Bar and CTO Dennis Zimmer. They started the company in 2018.

Bar co-founded Qumranet, which developed the Linux KVM hypervisor. A hypervisor creates and runs virtual machines. Software provider Red Hat purchased Qumranet in 2008 for $127 million. Before that, he founded hypervisor company XenSource, which cloud computing company Citrix Systems bought in 2007 for $500 million.

“Codenotary offers a solution which allows organizations to quickly identify and track all components in their DevOps cycle and therefore restore trust and integrity in all their myriad applications,” Pascal Blum, senior partner at Bluwat, says in a news release.

The SolarWinds software supply chain hack in 2020 and the more recent emergence of Log4j vulnerabilities have brought the dangers of software lifecycle attacks to the forefront, Bar says. Now, he says, more and more companies are looking for ways to prove the legitimacy of the software that they produce.

Codenotary is the primary contributor to immudb, the an open-source, enterprise-class database with data immutability, or stability, designed to meet the demands of highly used applications.

Dallas-based ridesharing app gears up for expansion across Houston and beyond

HOUSTON INNOVATOR PODCAST EPISODE 118

Before he started his current job, Winston Wright would have thought a startup attempting to compete with the likes of Uber and Lyft was going to fight an uphill battle. Now, he sees how much opportunity there is in the rideshare market.

Wright is the Houston general manager for Alto, a Dallas-based company that's grown its driving service platform into five markets — first from Dallas into Houston and then to Los Angeles, Miami, and, most recently, Washington D.C. Alto's whole goal is to provide reliability and improve user experience.

"We're elevating ridesharing," Wright says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "With Alto, you get a consistent, safe experience with. a high level of hospitality. And that's a key differentiator for us in the market, and we're able to replicate that time and time again."

Wright, whose background is in sales and operations in hospitality, says his vision for alto in Houston is to expand the service — which operates in the central and western parts of the city — throughout the greater Houston area.

"The vision I have for this market is that, as we move forward and continue to expand, that we're covering all of Houston," he says.

This will mean expanding the company's physical presence too. Alto recently announced its larger space in Dallas, and now the Houston operations facility will grow its footprint too.

Wright says he's also focused on growing his team. Over the past two years, pandemic notwithstanding, the company has maintained hiring growth. Alto's drivers are hired as actual employees, not contractors, so they have access to benefits and paid time off.

The company, which raised $45 million in its last round of investment, is expanding next to the Silicon Valley area, followed by three to five more markets in 2022. Then, by the end of 2023, it's Alto's mission to have a completely electronic fleet of vehicles.

"Our goal is to have over 3,000 EV cars and be the first company with a 100 percent electric fleet by 2023," Wright says.

Wright shares more on Alto's future in Texas and beyond, as well as what's challenging him most as he grows the team locally. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.