MassChallenge Houston's 2020 cohort has been selected. Photo courtesy of MassChallenge Texas

After launching in Houston with a smaller cohort last year, MassChallenge Texas has announced its latest, full-scale cohort and is kicking off virtual programming this month.

"Today's world is up against new challenges that require creative solutions to help us get back to speed as quickly and as efficiently as possible," says Jon Nordby, MassChallenge Texas in Houston's managing director in a news release. "The incoming cohort is uniquely positioned to make an impact because of their ability to act swiftly and adapt to new market needs. These founders will go on to create the impact and the jobs that will underpin the recovery of our economy for years to come."

The program begins this June 22 and concludes in October. According to the news release, the accelerator will operate as a hybrid — combining virtual and in-person programming. The startups will pitch virtually at the MassChallenge Virtual Startup Showcase on July 16 and 17, as well as at the conclusion of the program at the the MassChallenge Texas in Houston 2020 Awards.

The cohort represents 12 countries and 13 states — with over a third being female founded. The program is also introducing two new tracks: Sports tech, which was announced in April, and space commercialization. Some startups from this cohort will also be participating in the tracks, but MCTX hasn't identified the new tracks' cohorts yet.

Here are the members of the 2020 MassChallenge Texas Houston cohort and where they are based.

Energy and clean tech

General and retail

Health care and life science

Technology

Social impact

A new accelerator program is looking for startups that are using technology to enhance the sports industry. Getty Images

International accelerator launches sports tech program in Houston

on the right track

MassChallenge, an international accelerator with headquarters in Boston, is seeking startups with tech solutions in sports and athletics.

The MassChallenge SportsTech track is made possible with the organization's partnership with St. Louis, Missouri-based Stadia Ventures, an early stage investment and innovation hub focusing on sports and esports.

"Our goal with the MassChallenge SportsTech track is to provide a conduit for that knowledge to orient itself to the most promising sportstech startups from across the world," says Jon Nordby, who leads MassChallenge Texas in Houston.

The program is an additional track to MassChallenge's seed stage accelerator, which accepts innovative startups that have raised less than $1 million in funding and generated less than $2 million in revenue. Houston's program launched just over a year ago.

InnovationMap asked Nordby a few questions about what startups can expect from the program and why Texas

InnovationMap: Why is Texas a market for sports tech?

Jon Nordby: We have the great fortune of living in a part of the country where sports are not a hobby — they are a way of life. There are 10 professional sports teams across the Texas Triangle covering every major league sport. More importantly, the Texas business community has for decades worked at the intersection of industry and technology and there is a huge knowledge base here that can use the sportstech industry as a vehicle to have a major impact on the world.

The inventions, product, and discoveries being made on the field today will make their way to commercial markets within the next five years or so. These discoveries are possible only if these startups have access to experts in health, materials, analytics, and communications — all of which Texas has in droves.

IM: What type of startups is the program for?

JN: For the SportsTech Track we are looking for companies that fit that criteria and have a product, service, or offering for the sports world. This could include anything to help humans perform better in a competitive environment (field, arena or online) or teams and leagues to better support their players and fans.

The seed stage accelerator is open to all early-stage startups from any industry. MassChallenge defines early stage as young companies whose founders are building creative and disruptive solutions to meet a market need. They have raised less than $1 million in funding and generated less than $2 million in revenue.

IM: What does the partnership with Stadia Ventures bring to the table?

JN: Stadia Ventures is a premier force in the sportstech industry with their startup accelerator and investment fund. Together we are creating a pipeline of support for startups from seed stage, through scale-up, and beyond. Stadia's elite network of more than 200 professional sports and esports executives paired with MassChallenge's global startup programs and curriculum will offer benefits to entrepreneurs from all industries.

IM: How will this program differ from MassChallenge's industry agnostic programming?

JN: The SportsTech track is in addition to the core MassChallenge program. Startups invited to participate in the SportsTech track will have access to additional industry-specific programming, events, and dedicated experts. These startups are eligible to compete for the equity-free cash awards and receive all other benefits and access associated with being a MassChallenge finalist.

IM: What are you looking for in mentors?

JN: MassChallenge experts are the foundation for all MassChallenge accelerators. They serve as our judges, mentors, and curriculum facilitators, interfacing directly with the startups and helping them identify scalable solutions for their businesses. Experts come from a variety of backgrounds including business executives, industry experts, subject matter experts, local political leaders, lawyers, engineers and beyond. All of them share one common thread: they want to help create the future. Anyone interested in applying to be a MassChallenge expert and supporting the startups in this year's cohorts can apply online.

As the city grows, Houston faces more and more challenges from transportation and infrastructure to gentrification and climate change. Getty Images

Overheard: Expert panel weighs in on the future of Houston — from mobility to climate change

Eavesdropping in houston

As technology and infrastructure evolves, Houston is growing and evolving with it — in both good ways and bad.

On October 30, Gensler hosted its annual Evolution Houston forum that brings together various personalities and industries to discuss the future of the city of Houston. The panelists discussed gentrification, climate change, mobility, smart cities, and so many other hot topics Houstonians hear or think about on a regular basis.

Missed the event? Here are some powerful quotes from the discussion.

“I like to think of Houston as an adolescent city, struggling for its identity.”

Peter Merwin, design principal at Gensler, who adds, "If you look at places like New York, London, Paris — those are all luxury cities. They are fully formed, and a consequence of that is that they become unaffordable. It's something that we have to be careful about in Houston."

“One of the things that has been echoed by many of the artists and many of the poor people over the last few years is, [people] ‘want the culture but they don’t want us.’ It’s very reflective when you go [into the communities.]”

Kam Franklin, activist and singer-songwriter of The Suffers. Franklin described how she would move from the various neighborhoods she's lived in after they've grown in culture. She would see such a huge increase in her rent as people were more willing to pay the premium to live in these newly desirable neighborhoods because of the culture, but its pricing out the original inhabitants. Franklin added, "I'm not going to tell any of y'all where I moved."

“We have to continue to support the diversification of mobility options.”

Abbey Roberson, vice president of planning at the Texas Medical Center. Roberson says transportation is something she particularly focuses on considering how many people filter in and out of the TMC on a daily basis. The medical center wouldn't be able to support the traffic with out various modes of transportation — busses, light rails, etc. Roberson adds that this translates to the rest of the city. "We can't just be doing one thing or the other."

“We’re creating this great culture of trail activation.”

Steve Radom, founder & managing principal at Radom Capital LLC, which developed Heights Mercantile off a bike path and is now building out The MKT, which is also along the same bike path. Radom notes that the city has seen a 300 percent year over year in walkability and a 70 percent increase in bike traffic.

“Climate change is not something the city of Houston can change alone.”

Lara Cottingham, chief of staff & chief sustainability officer at the city of Houston. The city's climate action plan is a result of the devastating floods has seen almost annually. The plan is still being drafted but a version is expected to be released before the end of the year. Every city is facing sustainability challenges, and partnerships are what's going to drive change. "In Houston success means partnership," Cottingham adds.

“How do you talk about a city this big and diverse — every neighborhood has its own identity.”

Jon Nordby, managing director of MassChallenge in Houston, discussed how Houston functions differently from other cities in that it its various neighborhoods — the Heights, Montrose, downtown — are different from each other.

NASA technology is up for grabs and InnovationMap has a new podcast — here are some innovators to know this week. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Another Monday means another weekly roundup of who's who in Houston innovation.

This week, we have our first Houston Innovators Podcast guest to feature, as well as a NASA expert who wants to loan you space technology.

Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge Texas

Courtesy of MassChallenge

On our first episode of the new Houston Innovators Podcast, we discuss Houston accelerators with Jon Nordby, managing director for MassChallenge Texas. The first Houston program launched this year, and, as the organization looks toward its next cohort, the Houston innovation ecosystem is evolving in front of our eyes.

To read more about Nordby and MassChallenge, click here to read the story and listen to the podcast.

Sara Kelly, founder of Rigby

Courtesy of Rigby

Sara Kelly thinks you shouldn't have to get married or buy a house to have a nice dish set. She created Rigby, a Houston-based direct-to-consumer tableware company that is flipping the script on dishes.

"The reaction to the brand and the product has been great," says Kelly. "It's been so exciting for me to see that. At this point, we're focused on organic growth since we're so new."

Click here to read more about Rigby.

Steven Gonzalez, technology transfer strategist at NASA

Courtesy of NASA

Steven Gonzalez's job is to move NASA technology out into the world. The Johnson Space Center has hundreds of technology applications and IPs, and so much more can be done with those ideas here on earth. In a guest column for InnovationMap, Gonzalez writes of the NASA Johnson Space Center Technology Transfer and Commercialization Office, which will loan technology licenses to startups for free for three years.

"New technologies have been researched, developed, and proven on the ground — as well as above the earth on the International Space Station — in fields including medical, communications, agriculture, manufacturing, materials, structures, and much more," he writes. "At NASA's JSC, we are proud of the exceptional innovators who continue to develop technologies that advance the space program and technology for society on our home planet, and we love to share our knowledge."

Click here to read more about the program.

Jon Nordby, Houston's MassChallenge Texas managing director, is the guest on the first episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Courtesy of MassChallenge

Houston's MassChallenge leader talks Texas growth and what makes the accelerator different

Houston Innovator's Podcast Episode 1

Jon Nordby has watched the city of Houston as it pivoted from innovation being a distant idea to a growing ecosystem of many moving parts and major players — all the while becoming one himself.

Nordby worked his way from advising startups and shaping the innovation coming into Houston at the Greater houston Partnership and then at Houston Exponential to now serving as the local leader for MassChallenge Texas in Houston. In fact, Nordby was a part of the team that brought MassChallenge to Houston in the first place. When he was the director of strategy at HX, the organization was discussing MCTX's Houston program.

"I guess I did a good enough job there that they invited me to be a part of the program when it launched," Nordby says on the podcast.

Nordby also discusses the program and how the inaugural cohort met — and even exceeded — his expectations in the first episode of InnovationMap's new Houston Innovators Podcast. The cohort was a shortened, smaller program, but it surprised everyone at the grand finale of the program when the Houston Angel Network gave out an investment to Houston-based Sensytec. Nordby says that's the first time a MassChallenge cohort anywhere had that opportunity.

In the podcast, Nordby shares what the next cohort will look like, and even shared how there will be two new categories within the program. MCTX will be looking for startups in the sports tech and aerospace industries and will provide special mentorship and programming for those startups. He also mentions that MCTX is gearing up for growth for its office space to be able to accomodate 100 participants in a future cohort.

Check out the podcast below for more details of MCTX's plans to expand, Nordby's take on Houston innovation, and why he's pretty glad he didn't move to Austin a few years ago.


MassChallenge Texas named its top three startups of its inaugural Houston cohort and the Houston Angel Network made an unexpected investment. Courtesy of MassChallenge Texas

MassChallenge Texas wraps up inaugural Houston cohort with top 3 startups and a surprise investment

Cha-ching

A new-to-Houston global accelerator program just concluded its inaugural cohort, naming three top startups and providing a platform for an unexpected prize — an investment.

MassChallenge Texas didn't originally intend to have monetary prizes for this first program, however, thanks to Houston Angel Network, one lucky startup is walking away from the program $40,000 richer.

HAN, one of Houston's oldest and most active group of angel investors, saw pitch decks from most of the companies in the cohort and then invited seven companies to pitch: Ask DOSS, Celise, DoBrain, NeuroRescue, Noleus Technologies, Sensytec, and Swoovy.

At the September 5 startup showcase event, HAN named Houston-based Sensytec as the winner of the $40,000 investment prize.

The night's other big winners were MassChallenge's top three startups, program: NeuroRescue, Noleus Technologies, and Sensytec, which were selected from the top six startups that were announced a couple weeks in advance.

HAN engaged with the MassChallenge group in a few ways — like mentorship or presenting — but managing director Stephanie Campbell says she knew she wanted to discuss investment opportunities from the very beginning.

"I just think it's really important that when a new group like MassChallenge or any other accelerator come into town that we find ways to fold them into our community and help them be successful," she tells InnovationMap.

All of this year's cohort will receive 18 months of free coworking space — six months at MassChallenge, six months at The Cannon, and six months at Station Houston — and the top three startups will receive automatic entry into another MassChallenge cohort. Because no one won a cash prize from MassChallenge directly, all of the startups are eligible to reapply for another program.

"We wanted to make sure that the companies that went through the shortened version of the program this year have the ability to apply next year to any other program," MassChallenge Texas' Houston managing director, Jon Nordby, says.

Next time around, MassChallenge Texas will likely have a longer program with money on the table. That money would be provided by the organization's corporate partners. The city of Houston has put forth $2.5 million to be dealt out over five years, and Houston-based Reliant Energy has become a central partner to MassChallenge.

"We believe in supporting organizations that are pushing the boundaries and really making an impact in the community as well as the economy and the industry," says Elizabeth Killinger, president at NRG Retail and Reliant.

Killinger says next year she expects Reliant to be just as if not more involved with the process. Campbell too says HAN is interested in continuing its work with MassChallenge, and even sees it setting an example for other angel investors to get involved too.

"We're just planting the seed for the next cohort," Campbell says.

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Houston energy tech investment group rebrands to address sustainability

Seeing green

As the pandemic took its hold on the economy and the energy industry's commodity crisis did its damage, Patrick Lewis understandably assumed that maybe sustainability initiatives might be on the back burner for his network of energy companies.

"We thought we would hear that sustainability in this environment may have slipped down the priority list, but it was the exact opposite," Lewis says. "Pretty consistently across all the operators, sustainability, reducing emissions, and greenhouse gases — those are all even more important today."

This confirmation that the energy industry is committed to innovative sustainability projects led Lewis to rebrand his energy tech investment group from BBL Ventures to Sustainability Ventures Group, or SVG. The investment team focuses on reverse engineering the startup innovation process by sourcing the concerns and goals of the energy companies, then finding solutions from the startup world through reverse pitch competitions and challenges.

"We're not fundamentally changing our business model or investment strategy, but we just wanted to make sure our messaging was crystal clear," Lewis tells InnovationMap.

Lewis says he and his team really thought through the definition of sustainability, and he specifies that, "we're not doing this to go chase solar or wind power — those are on the table — but we think there are two primary opportunities: Digital transformation and emerging technologies in the existing fossil fuel industry," Lewis says.

He adds that oil and gas is going to be around for a long time still, and he cites that by 2040, it's predicted that 40 percent of energy will still come from fossil fuels. It's the big energy companies and providers — which he's working with — that have the power to move the needle on these changes.

"We think there's a real opportunity to pursue efficiencies and reduce emissions and footprint in that existing traditional oil and gas sector," he says.

Earlier this year, Lewis was addressing these concerns by working on standing up a group of industry experts for regular meetings to discuss innovation needs. What started as a call with a handful of people, now hosts 40 people across 14 energy operator and major tech platforms.

"The whole purpose of this group is to share best practices, collaborate on common pain points, risk manage pilots," Lewis says. "We continue to build that group — it's going to be a nonprofit governed by a steering committee."

While SVG has held off on its reverse pitch events, the organization along with the University of Houston Center for Carbon Management submitted a proposal to host the National Science Foundation's Convergence Acceleratoronvergence Accelerator virtual conference at the end of September.

"The goal is to bring together multidisciplinary stakeholders — industry, nonprofit, academics, NGOs, public policy experts — to solve big problems," Lewis says. "Sustainability is a problem they really want to address."

Rice University's data-focused lab presents unique opportunity for startups and small businesses

data to knowlege

A data-focused lab a Rice University is training the next generation of data scientists. However, the students at the Rice D2K Lab are doing more than just learning about the significance of data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence — they're working as data scientists now.

Businesses — large and small — can come into the lab and have Rice students and staff work on data projects in both short-term and long-term capacity. One semester, a group of students worked with 311 call data for the city of Houston so that officials can figure out what parts of town were in the most need of support, says Jennifer Sanders, program administrator at the Rice D2K lab.

"They were able to show on a Houston map the areas where most of these 311 calls were coming from," Sanders tells InnovationMap. "That allowed the city to focus on those areas."

Lately, the lab has been focused on a several COVID-19 Houston Response Projects, which addressed issues ranging from homelessness in the time of a pandemic, ventilator distribution, and more. One team even made a recommendation to the city after a data project determined that adding five ambulances to southwest neighborhoods served by the Houston Fire Department Emergency Medical Services program would optimize response times.

The lab has two avenues to help businesses: a semester-long capstone course and a clinic for one-time sessions. This upcoming semester, the capstone course has 60 students signed up to work on 10 to 12 projects from corporate sponsors. These lab members — which support the program monetarily — are selected based on their fit within the program.

The D2K Consulting Clinic also offers free one-hour sessions on campus. At the clinic, students look at the data and assess the possibilities and advise on how to use that data for business gain or growth.

"The consulting clinic can be a starting point if a business is not sure what to do with their data," says Shanna Jin, communications and marketing specialist at the D2K Lab.

The clinic also presents a special opportunity for small businesses and startups, a niche Sanders says they haven't tapped into enough yet. She says most of the companies they've worked with are larger organizations, usually in the energy industry.

"We really want to broaden the scope to smaller startups, tech companies, and nonprofits," Sanders says. "We really don't have to limit ourselves. I would really love to expand our reach."

Membership dues for companies, which provides a more structured, long-term access to data consulting, range from $25,000 to $75,000 a year. However, Sanders says the lab is willing to work with startups on a cost that's more accessible.

Ultimately, the goal of the program is to connect the dots for businesses that have data and don't know how to use it.

"To realize the potential of big data, we need people — people who can transform data to knowledge," says the lab's founder, Genevera Allen, in a promotional video. "That's what we're doing with the Rice D2K Lab."