The ultimate who's who of 2020 — favorite Houston Innovators Podcast guests of last year. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: With 2020 in the rearview, InnovationMap is looking back on the top stories of the year. With over 60 episodes of the Houston Innovators Podcast and about half of those being recorded in 2020, here are the top episides from the year.

Chris Buckner, co-founder and CEO of Mainline

With sports went offline, esports startup Mainline saw an opportunity for growth during the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo courtesy of Mainline

What happened when collegiate sport stadiums shut down and seasons were postponed? People started to turn to esports to get their competitive fix. And Houston-based esports tournament software company Mainline saw a huge boost to business.

"Everyone is looking for how to get sports, or esports, in front of people because everyone is just missing [sports] so much," Chris Buckner, co-founder and CEO of Mainline, says in a June episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We've been very fortunate to work in the industry we do."

On campuses this past spring, colleges are looking for a way to connect with and engage students, Buckner says. And, Mainline has even been able to attract interest on the professional level.

"Our June will pretty much be the best month of our company, and a lot of that is driven by the fact that everyone is looking for a digital solution rather than an in-person solution," Buckner says.

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Fiona Mack, head of JLABS @ TMC

Fiona Mack joined JLABS @ TMC as head of the incubator. Photo courtesy of JLABS

Last year, JLABS @ TMC — a local health tech startup incubator under the Johnson & Johnson arm — welcomed Fiona Mack as the new head of the program. On her plate was assessing the needs of the incubator's 49 member companies in the portfolio and understanding the needs of the Texas innovation ecosystem.

"As I learn more about the history of life science sector in Texas, over the past 20 years there has been an impetuous to build up this critical mass of companies here to really make it a strong hub that competes with the energy sector to make it a pillar of the economy here," Mack says in a November episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

One of the things that's top of mind for Mack is a focus on diversity — both from an entrepreneurship and a representation standpoint.

"From a research perspective, there's a strong effect of having a lack of diversity in a lot of the metrics we're looking at," she shares.

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Joe Alapat, CEO of Liongard

Joe Alapat is the CEO of Houston-based Liongard, which just raised a $17 million series B round. Courtesy of Liongard

Despite a pandemic that at least in some ways negatively affected venture capital investment, a Houston software startup managed to persevere with a $17 million series B. Liongard's CEO Joe Alapat, who co-founded the company with COO Vincent Tran in 2015, says in a May episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast that the round was the result of ongoing relationships with advisers and investors that meant a successful round — even in light of a pandemic.

In the episode, Alapat also shares his advice for Houston startups looking to tap into the Houston innovation ecosystem — something he's watched grow over the past five years. Now, he says, when it comes to new startups in Houston, "the waves are hitting the shore."

"Houston has always been an entrepreneurial city, and this is just that next stage," Alapat says on the episode. "For me, it's the technology side that excites me even more to see technology companies really succeeding."

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Megan Eddings and Amanda Cotler of Accel Lifestyle

Megan Eddings and Amanda Cotler of Accel Lifestyle joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to share how they made the pivot from making T-shirts to face masks. Photos courtesy

For years, Megan Eddings, founder and CEO of Accel Lifestyle, worked on perfecting the perfect antibacterial fabric for an anti-stink athletic clothing line, but it only took her a few weeks to pivot toward using the material to make masks.

On a May episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Eddings and Amanda Cotler, director of operations, shared the story of how this pivot came to be and how they saw the Center for Disease Control was recommending wearing bandanas and cloth when face masks weren't available, they had an epiphany.

"Megan and I read that and immediately hopped on a call with our team," Cotler says. "We had a realization with our antibacterial fabric that a face mask made from it would be so much cleaner."

Within 24 hours, the duo had a sample in their hands, and they had 14,000 yards of their Prema fabric being shipped from California to Houston, where they had managed to find 60 local sewers ready to start making the masks.

Now, with the Houston workforce making moves to return to the workplace, Eddings says she's seen an increased interest in corporations wanting custom masks with the company logo on it for their employees.

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Durg Kumar and Allen Bryant,  partners at Knightsgate Ventures

Houston-founded venture capital firm heads into second fund focused on social impact Durg Kumar (left) and Allen Bryant, partners at Knightsgate Ventures, join the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss their second fund. Photos courtesy

Durg Kumar founded Knightsgate Ventures in order to find and fund startups with a social impact and a profitable business strategy. The Houston-based firm was founded in Houston and has since expanded to add a New York partner, Allen Bryant, to the operation. The duo joined the Houston Innovators Podcast in November.

"For a very long time, there was a perceived trade off between social returns and financial returns," Bryant says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "What we are seeing now is that's really not the case. You actually have businesses that are bringing impactful change and those businesses are propelled by that."

The VC's first fund invested in six startups — including Houston-based Voyager — and is now heading into its second fund. Kumar says the first fund's success was in part due to his network. Now heading into the second go around, Knightsgate's network has grown with the addition of Bryant.

The end of the year, Kumar and Bryant were focused on helping their portfolio startups focus on the next year.

"Now's a good time to retrench and focus on building product," Kumar says, "so that in 2021 when travel restrictions ease, then you've got your refined product to go out and take it to the customers."

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Joy M. Hutton, local leader of the Grow with Google in Houston

Joy M. Hutton leads the Grow with Google in Houston. Photo courtesy of Google

In November, when Google announced it was expanding its Grow with Google Digital Coach program to Houston, Joy M. Hutton was named the local leader. The entrepreneur and business consultant is hoping to help provide important business resources to entrepreneurs just like herself.

"In Houston, you have a lot of different resources that weren't available to startups before just within the past few years, and I think that's huge," Hutton says in a December episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Being more inclusive with people who need the resources who haven't traditionally had access to those resources is a big initiative. I personally am proud to be a part of that."

Hutton specifically calls out resources like MassChallenge and Founder's Institute — both of which she serves as a mentor for — as well as DivInc, gBeta, and of course the Grow with Google program. To get involved, Houston entrepreneurs can head online to learn more and keep an eye out for monthly classes online — and hopefully, in the future, in person events as well.

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Kyle Judah, executive director of Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Kyle Judah joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his new role. Photo courtesy of Lilie

When Kyle Judah accepted his position as executive director at Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, he had spent less than 48 hours in the city of Houston. In fact, his first two months in the role have been spent completely remote and out of town.

Still, his limited in-person interaction with the city and with Rice made an impact.

"One of the things I found so exciting about what's going on in Houston right now that, quite frankly, was incredibly attractive about the opportunity to come and join Lilie and Rice was that Houston has these big pillar companies in energy and health care and all these critical areas that the world, the economy, and the society needs," Judah says in a September episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "That's all in Houston right now."

Judah and Lilie's goal is to help identify the innovation happening on campus at Rice and bring it to the world. And, he says, Rice as a whole has a huge place in the greater Houston innovation ecosystem. The challenge is identifying what industries Houston and Rice have an opportunity to disrupt.

"We can't just copy and paste what works for the Bay Area or what works for Boston," he says. "We have to figure out what is going to be the authentic right sort of centers of excellence for Rice and for Houston — areas like energy, health care, space. It just so happens that these areas that Houston and Rice have historically done better at than anyone else — those happen to be the most grand challenges for all of humanity."

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Joy M. Hutton of Joy of Consulting, Michael T. Suffredini of Axiom Space, and Kim Raath of Topl. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In the last weekly roundup of Houston innovators of 2020, I'm introducing you to three innovators across the city — the new local leader of a new Google program, the CEO of a space tech company, and a startup founder with fresh funds.

Joy M. Hutton, local leader of Grow with Google's Digital Coach program

Joy M. Hutton leads the Grow with Google in Houston. Photo courtesy of Google

Joy M. Hutton is a serial entrepreneur and has just signed on to help guide other startup founders as the local leader of the Grow with Google Digital Coach program in Houston. Just like any other entrepreneur this year, Hutton, who was planning to launch her company On the Go Glam in March, was challenged to pivot her own startup amid COVID-19 and its accompanying obstacles.

On this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Hutton shares how the pandemic caused her to rethink the timeline on some of the features she had in mind for the company.

"The pandemic was kind of a good thing, because it allowed me to take a step back and add additional services for men," Hutton says, adding that expanding into offering barbershop services was always a plan, but the new need pushed her to quickly pivot. Read more and stream the episode.

Michael T. Suffredini, president and CEO of Axiom Space

Michael T. Suffredini co-founded Houston-based Axiom Space. Photo via AxiomSpace.com

A veteran of the space business, Michael T. Suffredini now leads Axiom Space, which just announced a partnership with the Houston Spaceport. Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that Axiom Space will construct a 14-acre headquarters.

The headquarters "will be the world's first free-flying internationally available private space station that will serve as humanity's central hub for research, manufacturing, and commerce," Turner said.

The partnership is expected to bring more than 1,000 high-paying jobs, from engineers to scientists, mathematicians, and machinists. Read more.

Kim Raath, CEO of Topl

Kim Raath is ending her year with news of a VC deal. Courtesy of Topl

Unfortunately, the pandemic has had its detrimental effect on venture capital — especially when it comes to female-founded companies. Crunchbase reported a 27 percent decrease in funding for female-founded companies.

In light of this statistic, Kim Raath, CEO and co-founder of Houston-based Topl, is feeling pretty proud of leading her company to closing a $3 million round with support from investors both locally and across the country.

"We're grateful to have closed an oversubscribed venture round during a pandemic, especially given the unfortunate truth that many women-led startups are getting much less investment during this time," says Kim Raath, CEO of Topl, in a press release. "Bringing transparency to causes dedicated to environmental and social good has never been more important. We are building a modern blockchain for a world where purpose and profit go hand in hand." Read more.

Joy M. Hutton leads the Grow with Google in Houston. Photo courtesy of Google

Houston innovator to help minority entrepreneurs get access to resources she wished she had

Houston Innovators Podcast episode 63

Joy M. Hutton is used to wearing multiple hats. A consultant for nonprofits and small businesses at her own firm, Joy of Consulting, and the founder of On the Go Glam, an on-demand beauty platform, Hutton recently added another hat into rotation.

In November, when Google announced it was expanding its Grow with Google Digital Coach program to Houston, Hutton was named the local leader. Now, she's hoping to help provide important business resources to entrepreneurs just like herself.

"In Houston, you have a lot of different resources that weren't available to startups before just within the past few years, and I think that's huge," Hutton says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Being more inclusive with people who need the resources who haven't traditionally had access to those resources is a big initiative. I personally am proud to be a part of that."

Hutton specifically calls out resources like MassChallenge and Founder's Institute — both of which she serves as a mentor for — as well as DivInc, gBeta, and of course the Grow with Google program. To get involved, Houston entrepreneurs can head online to learn more and keep an eye out for monthly classes online — and hopefully, in the future, in person events as well.

Just like any other entrepreneur this year, Hutton was challenged to pivot her own startup amid COVID-19 and its accompanying challenges. On the podcast, Hutton shares how the pandemic caused her to rethink the timeline on some of the features she had in mind for the company.

Originally expecting to launch at SXSW in March, On the Go Glam was focused on providing a tech platform for on-demand makeup and hair service for women. But with barber shops being closed, Hutton saw an opportunity to pivot to provide at-home services for men too.

"The pandemic was kind of a good thing, because it allowed me to take a step back and add those additional services for men," Hutton says, adding that expanding into this part of the beauty industry was always a plan, but the new need pushed her to quickly pivot to provide this service.

Hutton shares more about the new program and her observations on how Houston has evolved as a startup ecosystem in the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


This week's innovators to know roundup includes Youngro Lee of NextSeed, Joy M. Hutton of Google's Digital Coaches, and Aaron Knape of sEATz. Photos courtesy

3​ Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In today's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators across industries — from sports tech to startup mentorship.

Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed

Youngro Lee NextSeed

With the acquisition, Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed, has been named the COO of Republic. Courtesy of NextSeed

Youngro Lee has a new title thanks to an acquisition. Republic, a growing New York-based private investment platform, has acquired Houston-based NextSeed, according to announcements from both companies. With the acquisition, Lee now also serves as COO of Republic.

It's a pivotal moment for the private investment community as just two weeks ago the SEC announced changes to Regulation Crowdfunding that included raising the fundraising caps from $1.07 million to $5 million. Between the new regulations and the new Republic deal, investing on NextSeed's platform will grow in scale.

"Now, by partnering with Republic, we believe that we can achieve so much more together for our entire business and investor community," NextSeed's executive team says in an email to investors. "We have known and worked with the Republic team for over four years, as both firms tried to strengthen and grow this industry since the very beginning of this movement." Read more.

Joy M. Hutton, Grow with Google Digital Coach for Houston

Joy M. Hutton will lead Grow with Google in Houston. Photo courtesy

A new Google initiative is expanding its Texas presence this month, and Houston entrepreneur Joy M. Hutton, founder of Joy of Consulting, will serve as the Grow with Google Digital Coach for Houston.

"The Grow with Google team is making an effort to close the gap in resources that Black and LatinX small business owners have not generally had access to — in Houston and beyond," Hutton says in the release. "I live and breathe entrepreneurship, so I'm honored to participate in the Google Digital Coaches program and excited to work with Houston entrepreneurs who are traditionally underrepresented." Read more.

Aaron Knape, co-founder and CEO of sEATz

Houston-based sEATz has raised funding to help scale to the demands as fans safely return to stadiums. Photo courtesy of sEATz

When COVID-19 hit, Aaron Knape and his team at sEATz had to think long and hard about how their tech platform for in-stadium food and merchandise delivery would survive. However, what seemed like an insurmountable challenge became sEATz's biggest opportunity.

"We really started seeing how integral our platform was going to be for the safe return for sports and entertainment," says Aaron Knape, CEO and co-founder of sEATz."When we started getting that momentum and traction with our clients, our investor base and perspective investor base got really excited."

And those excited investors allowed the startup to raise a second seed round of venture capital to the tune of $1.6 million. Read more.

The Grow with Google Digital Coaches program has expanded to Houston. Photo via Unsplash

Google launches new program to serve Houston's minority small business owners

new to hou

A new Google initiative is expanding its Texas presence this month. The Grow with Google's Digital Coaches program, which has already launched in Austin, has expanded to the Bayou City — making the Lone Star State the only state to have two locations of this entrepreneur-centric tool.

The program aims to provide digital skills training and coaching to Black and LatinX small business owners and create economic opportunity. Houston is one of eight new cities the program has recently expanded into.

"Houston has a vibrant and growing Black and LatinX small business community," says Lucy Pinto, Google's Digital Coach program manager, in a news release. "The Digital Coaches program will provide business owners in these communities with ongoing workshops and hands-on coaching sessions focused on techniques and digital tools to reach new customers, thrive online and grow."

Houston entrepreneur Joy M. Hutton, founder of Joy of Consulting, will serve as the Grow with Google Digital Coach for Houston. Hutton also runs a restaurant-focused consulting business called The Restaurant Girl and founded go GLAM, a beauty on demand platform.

"The Grow with Google team is making an effort to close the gap in resources that Black and LatinX small business owners have not generally had access to — in Houston and beyond," Hutton says in the release. "I live and breathe entrepreneurship, so I'm honored to participate in the Google Digital Coaches program and excited to work with Houston entrepreneurs who are traditionally underrepresented."

Joy M. Hutton will lead Grow with Google in Houston. Photo courtesy

According to the release, the program is expanding with inclusion in mind. This year, the program will grow to 20 mentors.

"As the representative of Houston's 18th District, a diverse and historic district, I know firsthand the importance and positive impact that investing in diverse communities and their residents can have on the entire population," says Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee in the release. "As Houston continues to prosper and grow, it is critical that we continue to invest in our minority-owned and small businesses to ensure an even brighter economic future for our city."

The program's first free workshop is called Connect with Customers and Manage Your Business Remotely and will be held virtually tomorrow, Friday, November 20, at 5:30 p.m. Moving forward, Grow with Google workshops will be hosted by Hutton on a regular basis, including the following sessions:

    • Dec. 3 at 5 p.m. CDT - Get Your Local Business on Google Search and Maps
    • Dec. 10 at 5 p.m. CDT - Reach Customers Online with Google
    • Dec. 17 at 5 p.m. CDT - Digital Skills for Everyday Tasks

    Both Google as well as local leadership are excited for the opportunities this program will provide Houstonians.

    "As a 'majority-minority' city that is the fourth-largest in the U.S., it is critical that our Black and LatinX business owners have the tools and knowledge to reach new customers, grow their businesses and help continue to make Houston a prosperous, skilled and inclusive city," Mayor Sylvester Turner says in the release. "The city of Houston is appreciative for the opportunity to provide invaluable resources and opportunities to our city's Black and LatinX small business owners."

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    Houston cleantech company sees shining success with gold hydrogen

    bling, bling

    Houston-based cleantech startup Cemvita Factory is kicking things into high gear with its Gold Hydrogen product.

    After successfully completing a pilot test of Gold Hydrogen in the oil-rich Permian Basin of West Texas, Cemvita has raised an undisclosed amount of funding through its new Gold H2 LLC spin-out. The lead investors are Georgia-based equipment manufacturer Chart Industries and 8090 Industries, an investment consortium with offices in New York City and Los Angeles.

    Gold Hydrogen provides carbon-neutral hydrogen obtained from depleted oil and gas wells. This is achieved through bioengineering subsurface microbes in the wells to consume carbon and generate clean hydrogen.

    Cemvita says it set up Gold H2 to commercialize the business via licensing, joint ventures, and outright ownership of hydrogen assets.

    “We have incredible conviction in next-generation clean hydrogen production methods that leverage the vast and sprawling existing infrastructure and know-how of the oil and gas industry,” Rayyan Islam, co-founder and general partner of 8090 Industries, says in a news release.

    Traditional methods of producing hydrogen without greenhouse gas emissions include electrolysis powered by renewable sources like wind, solar or water, according to Cemvita. However, production of green hydrogen through normal avenues eats up a lot of energy and money, the startup says.

    By contrast, Cemvita relies on depleted oil and gas wells to cheaply produce carbon-free hydrogen.

    “The commercialization and economics of the hydrogen economy will require technologies that produce the hydrogen molecule at a meaningful scale with no carbon emissions. Gold H2 is leading the charge … ,” says Jill Evanko, president and CEO of Chart Industries.

    Investors in Cemvita include Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, an investment arm of Houston-based Occidental Petroleum, as well as BHP Group, Mitsubishi, and United Airlines Ventures.

    Oxy Low Carbon Ventures and United Airlines Ventures are financing Cemvita’s work on sustainable jet fuel. United Airlines operates a hub at George Bush Intercontinental Airport Houston.

    Founded by brother-and-sister team Moji and Tara Karimi in 2017, Cemvita uses synthetic biology to turn carbon dioxide into chemicals and alternative fuels.

    Houston named best city in Texas and No. 11 in U.S. in prestigious report

    best in tx

    At least according to one new report, Houston is not only the Energy Capital of the World but also the livability capital of Texas.

    A new study from Best Cities, powered by Resonance Consultancy, puts Houston at No. 11 among the best cities in the U.S. That’s the top showing among the six Texas cities included in the ranking. Houston appeared at No. 17 on last year’s list.

    “Educated, diverse and hard-working, Houston is America’s stealthy powerhouse on the rise,” Best Cities proclaims.

    Best Cities notes that while Austin grabs much of the best-city attention, “the promise of the Lone Star State drawing Californians and New Yorkers is quietly being fulfilled in Houston.” The website points out that the Houston metro area has gained nearly 300,000 residents in the past year, thanks to both domestic and international migration.

    Here are some of the individual rankings that contribute to Houston’s 11th-place finish:

    • No. 4 for restaurants
    • No. 7 for culture
    • No. 8 for foreign-born population

    “Houston is a diverse and vibrant metro where individuals can start a family, grow their business, attend world-class institutions and universities, or be immersed in the 145 languages that are spoken by our residents,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says in a news release. “The quality of life we have in Houston is second to none, and the data we receive from placements such as … Best Cities further reaffirm the strength and resiliency that has come to define this great city of ours.”

    A few spots behind Houston on the Best Cities list are No. 14 Dallas and No. 15 Austin.

    What lifts Dallas to the No. 14 spot? These are some of the factors cited by Best Cities:

    • Location of more than 10,000 corporate headquarters
    • Strong showing (No. 2) in the airport connectivity category
    • Kudos for the soon-to-be-expanded Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center Dallas
    • Home of the country’s sixth largest LGBTQ+ community
    • Presence of the 28-block, 68-acre Dallas Arts District

    Austin comes in at No. 15, one notch behind Dallas.

    Best Cities praises Austin as “a place that’s incredibly livable. Talk to any entrepreneur leaving Silicon Valley or Seattle and chances are they’ve considered Austin.”

    The website points to a number of Austin’s assets, such as:

    • Growing presence of Fortune 500 headquarters
    • Comparatively low unemployment rate
    • Location of the University of Texas’ flagship campus
    • Status as the Live Music Capital of the World
    • Home of the annual SXSW gathering

    Two other Texas cities make the Best Cities list: No. 34 San Antonio and No. 94 McAllen.

    Best Cities bases its list of the best U.S. cities on Resonance Consultancy’s combination of statistical performance plus qualitative evaluations by locals and visitors. Those figures are grouped into six main categories. This year’s ranking features 100 U.S. cities. To come up with the ranking, Resonance Consultancy assessed all U.S. metro areas with at least 500,000 residents.

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    How a Houston med device startup pivoted to impact global health and diagnostics

    HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 153

    In the span of a couple years, a Houston startup went from innovating a way for patients with degenerative eye diseases to see better to creating a portable and affordable breath-based diagnostics tool worthy of a prestigious grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.

    Steradian Technologies, founded in 2018, set out to create human super-sight via proprietary optics. In early 2020, the company was getting ready to start testing the device and fundraising. Then, the pandemic hit, knocking the company completely off course.

    Co-founder and CEO of the company, Asma Mirza, says on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast that the Steradian co-founders discussed how their optic technology could detect diseases. Something just clicked, and the RUMI device was born.

    "We are from Houston, Texas, which is one of the most diverse and accessible cities in the country, and we were having trouble with basic diagnostic accessibility. It was taking too long, it was complicated, and people were getting sick and didn't know if they were positive or negative," Mirza says on the show. "That's when we pivoted the company and decided we were going to pivot the company and use optics to detect diseases in breath."

    Fast forward two years and the company has been recognized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with a grant to sport the development of the tool — which costs about the same price as a latte to make. The impact for global health is huge, Mirza says, allowing for people to test their breath for diseases from their own homes in the same time it takes to take your temperature.

    "You blow into a cartrige and we're able to take the air from your breath into a liquid sample," Mirza says, explaining how the device uses photons to produce quick results. "It's wild that we still don't have something like that yet."

    She shares more details about the grant and the future applications for the technology — as well as the role Houston and local organizations have had on the company — on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.