This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Jeff James of PickleJar, Madison Long and Simone May of Clutch, and Tarun Girish of Spark Spaces. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to four local startup founders across industries — from electric vehicles to app development— recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Jeff James, co-founder and CEO of PickleJar

Jeff James and his company, PickleJar, are streamlining and strengthening the connection between performer and audience. Photo courtesy of PickleJar

Jeff James had the idea for a platform that allows musicians to engage with their audiences — specifically when it came to receiving tips. Right when he started working on the idea for PickleJar, an app-based, performer-focused platform where fans can conduct cashless tips, the pandemic hit.

"As the pandemic lingered on, we realized the project wasn't just about tipping or on-stage engagement, it's about something greater than that," James says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's all the different ways how artists are being disenfranchised. We really set out on a mission to help artists make more money."

As distracting as the pandemic was at first to PickleJar, which officially launched in May of 2021, the company ended up having a huge opportunity to be a revenue stream for artists when they needed it most. The duo decided they had to build the company — even during the pandemic and uncertain times. Click here to read more and listen to the episode.

Madison Long and Simone May, co-founders of Clutch

Madison Long, left, and Simone May co-founded Clutch to democratize side gig success on college campuses. Photo courtesy of Clutch

Clutch, a digital marketplace startup founded by Simone May and Madison Long, has fresh funding after closing its pre-seed round of funding at $1.2 million. The investment from this round will support Clutch’s national open beta launch of its platform for brands and student creators nationwide and its continued investment in customer and product strategy.

“We are at this inflection point where marketing is changing,” May says in a press release. “We know that the next generation can clearly see that and I think a lot of marketing agencies are starting to catch on.

"We need to be prioritizing the next generation’s opinion because they are driving who is interested in what they buy. This upcoming generation does not want to be sold to and they don’t like inorganic, inauthentic advertisements. That’s why user generated content is so big, it feels authentic.” Click here to continue reading.

Tarun Girish, founder and CEO of Sparks Spaces

Houston-based Spark Spaces is looking to build out luxury spots for electric vehicle charging. Rendering courtesy of Spark Spaces

Tarun Girish wanted to upgrade EV drivers' charging experiences. His idea became Sparks Spaces, a startup formed in 2021 looking to shake up the EV charging game — the company aims to elevate the experience of charging electric vehicles by focusing on the space between car and charger by creating an airport lounge-type space for drivers. These EV lounges would include luxury waiting areas, clean restrooms, high-end food options, and availability to utilize them 24/7.

“We’ve seen a huge issue in the EV charging space where the experience side has been neglected,” says Girish, founder and CEO of Sparks Spaces.

Currently, Sparks Spaces is operating out of The Ion and installed a charging point outside of the building to help collect insights into what drivers are needing and are wanting to learn more about their customer base. Click here to learn more.

Jeff James and his company, PickleJar, are streamlining and strengthening the connection between performer and audience. Photo courtesy of PickleJar

This Houston innovator is making sure musicians are getting paid

houston innovators podcast episode 146

One night a few years ago, Jeff James found himself at a bar with a live musician serenading the crowd. And, living in an increasingly cashless society, he didn't have an easy way to show his appreciation by way of a tip.

He turned to Kristian Barowsky, a business colleague — the two were working on a project, and together they spitballed an idea for a cashless way to better engage with performing artists.

"The idea stuck with us, and, even though we were working on other projects, we decided that this really was an issue — the way that artists make money," James says on the Houston Innovators Podcast "It's such an ecosystem of scepticism, and everyone has their fingers in the pockets of these musicians."

James and Barowsky started working on the idea that would become PickleJar, an app-based, performer-focused platform where fans can conduct cashless tips — and they can be sure the artist is getting 100 percent of that money.

The duo wrote their first line of code two months before the pandemic hit and all of live music performances were postponed or streamed.

"As the pandemic lingered on, we realized the project wasn't just about tipping or on-stage engagement, it's about something greater than that," James says. "It's all the different ways how artists are being disenfranchised. We really set out on a mission to help artists make more money."

Now, PickleJar is a comprehensive engagement platform where artists can receive song requests and tips, but also sell tickets and merchandise and even crowdfund their next album.

As distracting as the pandemic was at first to PickleJar, which officially launched in May of 2021, the company ended up having a huge opportunity to be a revenue stream for artists when they needed it most. The duo decided they had to build the company — even during the pandemic and uncertain times.

"We decided that if we weren't going to solve this problem, then who was?" James says. "The negative impact the pandemic was having on artists — we had to be there waiting for them as we come out of the pandemic."

Over a year in now, PickleJar has over 2,500 artists on the platform who have generated over $1 million in income.

James shares more about the future of Pickle Jar on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

A Houston entrepreneur has created a platform that puts artists first. Photo courtesy of PickleJar

New Houston-based app tips the scales in favor of musicians and fans

tuned in to tips

Like so many business owners, Jeff James' inspiration for his innovative new music app PickleJar, came out of sheer necessity. Sitting in a bar in the buzzy Broadway district in Nashville, Tennessee, James, a serial entrepreneur, realized there had to be a better way to tip performing musicians.

"This young girl comes through the crowd carrying a Yeti bucket asking for 20 dollars for the band," James tells CultureMap. With no cash on hand, James donated via Square. "Sixty dollars later, I had so many questions: would she remember my name? Would she remember my songs? There's gotta be a better way to do this."

James, a former radio DJ and record label veteran, started scribbling his idea for a musician tipping app on a napkin. Two years later, PickleJar was sparked, James says, because "every musician we spoke to hates the way they're paid on these apps like Venmo and Facebook."

Pushing an "artist first," mission statement, PickleJar ensures that every musician utilizing the app keeps 100 percent of the money — something unheard of when James started the process two years ago. Fans donate to musicians on the app, and in turn, get five times that tip in proprietary digital currency called Pick Coins.

"If you tip 100 dollars to a musician, you get 500 Pick Coins," explains James, "that goes to buying tickets, merch, or VIP experiences on our app." Another artist-first perk: The artist also gets 500 Pick Coins in that scenario.

With its own e-commerce platform, PickleJar allows fans to use these Pick Coins for experiences, and musicians to use them for much-needed equipment. PickleJar has partnered with Austin-based Strait Music Company, which will provide musicians with instruments and gear. Musicians can create their own wish lists so that fans can directly contribute to the desired gear.

Fittingly, the company has partnered with local venues for themed nights. Buzzy bar McIntyre's Downtown will feature a tip-worthy Texas artist every Wednesday night in its PickLounge.

PickleJar also allows musicians to livestream. "On Facebook Live, data shows that only about eight to 10 percent of an artist's audience know they're live. On top of that, Facebook takes 30 to 40 percent of the tips." With PickleJar, 100 percent of an artists fans will be notified when the artists in livestreaming.

Fans can even donate directly to a musician's nonprofit of choice, something happening now during Hurricane Ida relief efforts. Numerous artists on PickleJar are raising funds for Ida assistance, James notes. "We really believe that a 'gratitude economy' is emerging," he says. "We wanted to create the easiest way possible for fans to say thank you."

That thank-you option also means fans can send direct messages, notes, and even pictures on the app, which, James acknowledges with a chuckle, could get very interesting.

Another musician-first nuance not found on other apps: PickleJar allows for "smart" splits, so that musicians are appropriately compensated for their specific contribution. An artist who wrote songs and drove the van to a gig, for example, can be funneled a higher percentage of tips than bandmates who contributed less.

James and his Houston-based tech team are also working on a TV channel on streaming devices, dubbed PickleJar Plus.

While one might be tempted to assume PickleJar is meant for those gig-to-gig, struggling musicians, James assures that the app is meant for every level, which he breaks down accordingly:

  • "Never-evers": These folks will never get signed, but use the app to get better
  • "Got talent, not signed": Artists can use PickleJar to build audiences and crowdfund
  • "I'm signed/labeled": Here, signed artists curate setlists which can be monetized via tips
  • "Idols": These artists are already brands. "Kenny Chesney can use this to make sure every dollar goes to a nonprofit," says James. Chesney's team can watch a meter, and when donations hit a specific dollar amount, Chesney can reward fans with their favorite song."

If all this seems to point to James one day managing and representing artists, James says that idea is not entirely off. PickleJar could one day be the world's biggest independent record label, he acknowledges, by the way it allows indies to promote themselves.

"We were in a meeting and the guy says, 'you're gonna change the entertainment world forever,'" James, recalls. "We hope so. We just want to build a relationship with artists — and put them first."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.