4 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

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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Houstonian designs new experiences to encourage innovation in students

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 154

As director of social innovation at Teach For America Houston, it's Sarah Essama's job to come up with new ways for the organization to support both students and teachers. But, as she explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast this week, Essama realized a huge lesson modern students needed was to learn this innovation process themselves.

Part of being an educator is to prepare students for tomorrow, Essama explains, but with rapid technology development and adaption, no one knows what the future will hold for the job market or the world in general. The best way to prepare the future generation of the workforce is to teach them how to innovate, think differently, and adapt to new ways of doing things.

"That's what people are looking for right now — people who can provide out-of-the-box solutions to problems," Essama says on the show.

This line of thinking turned into Essama founding The Dream Lab, powered by Teach for America Houston.

"The Dream Lab is a set of immersive design spaces where young people leverage their imagination and creativity to innovate and solve problems within their community," she explains.

Last month, the new concept rolled out to high school students in partnership with DivInc Houston, a nonprofit focused on social and economic equity in entrepreneurship, and 21 ninth graders spent the day at the Ion for a mini-innovation accelerator and design showcase.

Strategically, Essama tapped into the Houston innovation ecosystem with the intent of showcasing the community.

"Innovation to me is being able to create something that has never been seen or done before — and that has a very important purpose," she says. "Exposing ourselves to innovation and people who think this way — and learning from them —is key to be able to be competitive tomorrow."

Essama says this program is still in the development phase. She's been testing out the concept with fourth graders and now ninth graders. She hopes the full program will be up and running by next fall.

She shares more details about the grant and the future of The Dream Lab on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Houston-based virtual reality startup raises $3.2M in first outside capital round

fresh funding

HTX Labs, a Houston-based company that designs extended reality training for military and business purposes, announced last week that it has raised its first outside capital.

The company has received a $3.2 million investment from Cypress Growth Capital. Founded in 2017, HTX Labs — developer of the EMPACT Immersive Learning Platform — has been granted funding from the Department of Defense as well as grown its client base of commercial Enterprises. The platform uses virtual and extended reality that "enables organizations to rapidly create, deploy, measure, and sustain cost-effective, secure, and centralized immersive training programs, all within engaging, fully interactive virtual environments," per a news release.

“We have been looking to secure outside capital to accelerate the growth of our EMPACT platform and customer base but we hadn’t found the right partner who provided an investment vehicle that matched our needs,“ says HTX Labs CEO Scott Schneider in the release. “We found everything we were looking for in Cypress Growth Capital. They have a non-dilutive funding model that aligns with our capital expectations and have the level of experience that really makes this smart money.

"Cypress has a decade-long track record of success in helping emerging software and services companies achieve scale," he continues. "It is clear that the team’s collective entrepreneurial and operating experience will be of tremendous benefit to us as we focus on expanding our customer base in a very intentional way.”

The fresh funding will go toward growing and scaling the company's operations — both within the current Department of Defense and expansion opportunities into key commercial markets, like heavy industry, manufacturing, and higher education. Additionally, the funding will support increased customer adoption.

“Scott and his team have built an exceptional business that is poised for dramatic growth,” says Cypress Partner Pat McCaffrey in the release. “HTX Labs’ modern, immersive training solution provides clients with a force multiplier for modernizing training and an unmatched ROI.”

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

big money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.