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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10+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events for October

WHERE TO BE

From networking meetups to pitch competitions, October is lined with opportunities for Houston innovators.

Here's a roundup of events you won't want to miss out on so mark your calendars and register accordingly.

Note: This post might be updated to add more events.

Additionally, mark your calendars for November 8 for the annual Houston Innovation Awards.

October 6 — Texas Venture Crawl

Head over to the Ion for pre-panel networking, an engaging Ask-Me-Anything (AMA) investor panel, followed by a happy hour for networking. Panelists include Grace Chan, Principal at bp Ventures; Jason Ethier, Founder of Lambda Catalyzer; Alex Gras, Associate at Mercury Fund; and Billy Grandy, Chief Innovation Officer and Managing Partner at Softeq Venture Fund.

This event is Friday, October 6, from 5 to 8 pm at the Ion. Click here to register.

October 7 — Ideation Competition

The Pearland Innovation Hub is hosting it's first Ideation Competition. Participants will get an opportunity to have mentors guide them through Design Thinking and other methodologies to help generate ideas to solve local civic issues.

This event is Saturday, October 7, from 9:30 am to 3 pm at Pearland Innovation Hub. Click here to register.

October 11 — Emerging Tech: Revolutionizing the Industry Panel

From artificial intelligence and blockchain to virtual reality, this panel will explore the impact of these innovations on businesses and society. Whether you are a tech enthusiast, a professional in the industry, or simply curious about the future of technology, this event will have valuable networking opportunities.

This event is Wednesday, October 11, from 1 to 2 pm at HCC West Loop Campus. Click here to register.

October 13 — Web3, Blockchain, & Crypto...Oh My!

Expert speakers will unravel the mysteries of Web3, showcasing its potential to revolutionize industries like finance, gaming, and more. Learn about the power of Blockchain technology and how it ensures transparency, security, and trust in various sectors. Explore the endless possibilities of Cryptocurrencies and their impact on the global economy.

This event is Friday, October 13, at the Cannon. Click here to register.

October 16 — Health & MedTech Mingle

Pumps & Pipes is hosting a night of industry mingles occurring simultaneously at the Ion featuring FinTech, EdTech, Food Tech, and more. This month's featured speaker is Dr. Alan Lumsden, Chair of Cardiovascular Surgery and Chair of the DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center at Houston Methodist.

This event is Monday, October 16, at the Ion. Click here to register.

October 19 — UH Energy Symposium Series - The Future of Mobility Promises & Bottlenecks

The latest installment of UH Energy's Critical Issues in Energy Symposium Series tackles the obstacles facing a transition to a circular economy.

Panelists to include: Dave Mullaney – Principal, Rocky Mountain Institute; Varuna Singh – Deputy District Engineer TxDOT; Erika Myers – Executive Director, CharIN, e.V.; Matt Peterson – President and CEO, Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator; Catherine McCreight – Director of Transportation Planning, TxDOT; Funda Sahin – Associate Professor of Supply Chain Management, University of Houston (Moderator).

This event is Thursday, October 19, at the University of Houston. Click here to register.

October 25 — Houston Startup Ecosystem Summit

The Houston Startup Ecosystem Summit is an opportunity for innovators, entrepreneurs, and tech enthusiasts to come together and push the boundaries of what's possible. This event features a lineup of panelists, diverse breakout session tracks, and a competitive startup pitch showcase.

This event is Wednesday, October 25, at the Cannon. Click here to register.

October 25  — TMC Startup Symposium

The Symposium will include 1:1 time with subject matter experts, industry networking events, educational presentations, and thought leader panel discussions. The following topics will be covered: intellectual property, voice of customer, regulatory reimbursement, clinical commercialization strategy, angel investing, venture capital investing, and serial entrepreneurship. Startup registration is $250 for a ticket.

This event starts Wednesday, October 25, from 8 am to 5 pm at TMCi. Click here to register.

October 26 — Unleash the Power of AI and ChatGPT

Attendees will have the opportunity to interact with a panel of industry experts, and network with like-minded individuals. Whether you're a seasoned professional or just starting your AI journey, this event is designed to inspire and educate. Discover how AI is revolutionizing various industries and learn how to leverage its power to drive innovation in your own projects.

This event is Thursday, October 26, from 6 to 8:30 pm at the Cannon. Click here to register.

October 27 — SHINE: The Conference on Culture

Shine is a half day conference focused on the organizational structures of workplaces. Attendees can expect to hear from a range of speakers who will share their wisdom gained from industries, from breweries to public relations.

This event is Friday, October 27, from 8 am to 1 pm at Stages. Click here to register.

October 30-31 — Fuze

This energy conference is a must-attend event for executives, investors, and founders serious about solving the energy crisis and boosting company efficiency. Featuring keynotes, expert panels, tech showcases, and networking, Fuze has a variety of activities planned for energy industry professionals. Price of admission ranges from $299-$799.

This event starts on Monday, October 30, from 8 am to 7 pm at 713 Music Hall. Click here to register.

Houston school names digital education expert to newly created position

new to rice

Rice University is beefing up its digital education efforts with the hiring of an internationally known expert from Duke University.

Shawn Miller is set to join Rice on November 1 in the newly created position of associate provost for digital learning and strategy. Miller’s hiring culminates a nationwide executive search announced in May 2023 and led by C. Fred Higgs III, vice provost for academic affairs.

Rice explains that Miller “will be the key steward of Rice’s digital strategy — leveraging best practices already in place across the university as well as introducing new approaches and collaborations to be scaled.”

Miller comes to Rice from Duke, a North Carolina school where he most recently has been associate vice provost and chief of staff for learning innovation. Miller previously was Duke’s interim associate vice provost for digital education and innovation. And for six years, he directed Duke Learning Innovation, which he co-designed and launched. He began working for Duke in 2006 as an academic technology consultant.

Shawn Miller is set to join Rice on November 1 in the newly created position of associate provost for digital learning and strategy. Photo courtesy of Rice

Earlier, he led creation of the first learning management system for the University of Texas at El Paso. Miller holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UTEP.

“I’ve spent the better part of my career helping universities transform and change to better serve their students,” Miller says in a Rice news release. “I look forward to leveraging my skills to empower Rice’s community of scholars, researchers, and learners to transform themselves, their communities, and others through education.”

In the news release, Joshua Kim, director of online programs and strategy at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, calls Miller “an internationally recognized leader in the digital learning and online education space.”

“His move to a new leadership role at Rice is a very significant development within our education innovation community,” says Kim.

Miller’s accomplishments at Duke include:

  • Setting up a digital publishing platform for learning
  • Shifting thousands of faculty and students from a legacy learning management system to a new digital system
  • Building a partnership with online education provider Coursera

“Shawn is a national leader in digital innovation and has a deep understanding of digital learning as well as proven experience in building a sustainable, long-term strategy for innovation and developing an integrated approach across the university,” says Amy Dittmar, a Rice provost who is executive vice president for academic affairs.

“I am excited to work with Shawn as he leads Rice to enhance digital education for current students,” Dittmar adds, “and look forward to seeing more professionals in Houston and around the world benefit from a Rice education as a result of his efforts.”

Initiatives spearheaded by Miller and other professionals in digital education have gained traction since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced Rice and other colleges and universities to accelerate their embrace of virtual learning.

“The growing adoption of digital learning technologies continues to push education into uncharted areas,” according to an article published this March in the research journal Sustainability.

“While teachers must rethink what it means to provide a learning experience,” the article goes on to say, “higher education institutions must match their educational technology solutions to students’ demands. Digital learning is far superior to the conventional classroom paradigm in many ways for both teachers and students.”

The value of the global market for digital education is projected to jump from $1.2 billion in 2018 to $77.23 billion by 2028, driven in part by growing interest among colleges and universities in augmented reality (AR).