Through the Houston-based Muvve app, fitness fans can meet each other on the app or at curated events around town. Courtesy of Muvve

When Avi Ravishankar decided to train for a marathon in high school, he wanted to find a training buddy. He got lucky, and one found him: his classmate, Julian Se, took on the task.

"Julian decided he was going to train with me — he's a strong personality," Ravishankar says. "We started training, and to this day, we just became best friends from there."

Usually, finding fitness friends and training buddies isn't that easy — especially in a huge, spread out city of Houston. Ravishankar and Se turned their friendship into a business partnership to solve this problem. Houston-based Muvve is a mobile app that's mission is to connect fellow fitness enthusiasts across the city. The two came up with the idea as a way to merge their passions.

"The only idea we had was we wanted to have a startup with running," Ravishankar, co-founder of Muvve, says. "We loved running and tech, so we just wanted to find a way to bridge the gap there."

Ravishankar, a Rice University alumnus, says he took his idea to Owl Spark, an early stage accelerator on campus, and they just started asking people about their pain points when it came to working out.

"The big two things that we found were accountability and motivation," he says. "Out of 100 people, I would say all 100 people said that."

Ravishankar, who worked for six years in engineering at Oxy, says that these pain points are actually pretty inherent to individual sports.

"Intrinsic motivation is hard to find, especially in individual sports, like running, cycling, or yoga," he says. "Whereas, in team sports, like basketball or volleyball, you have the team to train with and motivate you."

The app, which launched in May of 2018, acts like a network for fitness lovers — just like a dating app would connect potential romantic partners. Dating apps, actually, were a big influence on Ravishankar, he says.

"I fell in love with dating apps. It was this mind-blowing idea for me of how many people you can connect with — even if it's not for dating," he says. "The amount of people I have met just through technology always blows my mind. There's so much power in it."

Through his experience as an instructor at Black Swan Yoga, Ravishankar also realized boutique fitness studios needed a place to market their events to a wider audience. This gave Ravishankar an idea of a way to bridge the gap between different fitness studios around town via the app.

"For us the goal is to have all of these events and activities to go and meet like-minded people," he says.

Muvve's goal is to have these managed market events that are curated to ensure quality, rather than the hit or miss aspect of existing platforms.

"For me the curation aspect makes for a better experience," Ravishankar says.

Now, Muvve is focused on growing its user base from 4,500 to 10,000 users by summer. Simultaneously, the company is hoping to launch its first seed round of funding, and then using its funds and its network to launch into Austin by summer.

Ravishankar says finding potential investors has been the most challenging aspect.

"There's no money in Houston for a fitness tech startup," he says. "That space isn't really respected. For me, it's kind of a trickling effect. If there's no money in it, there's no one really to help you because they don't have a vested interest."

While funding has been daunting, Ravishankar says he's had some success in hiring out his team of developers, despite the uphill battle of hiring tech talent in Houston.

"There's hidden talent, but it's not obvious talent," Ravishankar says. "I think that people get discouraged by hiring in Houston because of that."


Muvve is harnessing the power of social media and digital networks to bridge the gap between fitness lovers across the city. Courtesy of Muvve

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Photos: Here's a sneak peek at The Ion Houston's construction progress

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The Ion Houston is expected to open its doors this year, and the building's exterior is close to completion. Now, the construction team is focusing on interiors and then tenant build outs.

The 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub owned and managed by Rice Management Co. is slated to be a convening building for startups, corporations, academic partners, investors, and more. The building is organized as follows:

  • The underground Lower Level will act as academic flex space with a few classrooms and open-concept desks for The Ion's accelerators, including: The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, DivInc, the Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator, and the Aerospace Innovation Hub and Accelerator. There will also be an event space and The Ion's own programming.
  • On the first, street-level floor, The Ion's restaurant tenants will reside with access from both the greenspace as well as into the building. The Ion's first three restaurant tenants include: Late August, Common Bond, and STUFF'd Wings.
  • Additionally, the first floor will be home to a venture studio and the prototyping lab. There is additional space available for other tenants.
  • On the second floor, there will be 58,000 square feet of coworking space managed by Common Desk. Note: For floors 2 and up of the Ion, tenants will have access cards that allow them entrance. The first and lower floors will not require access cards.
  • The third floor of the building will house eight to 10 tenants each with 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space. Chevron was announced as the first tenant and will reside on this floor.
  • On the fourth and fifth floors, The Ion will house one to two larger tenants on each level. These levels of the building were added on to the existing structure. The fourth floor features two balconies that tenants will have access to. Microsoft is signed on to have its space on half of the fifth floor.
The Ion is still planning on an open date in late spring or summer. For leasing information, click here. Scroll through the slideshow of construction images and renderings to see the progress of the building.

Exterior nears completion

Photo by Natalie Harms

The building's exterior is almost complete and kept much of the original building's facade. The new materials brought in match the existing color scheme.

Texas winery taps Houston tech company for innovative AR experience

cheers

The Lone Star State is home to a vibrant and innovative wine scene, but, just like most hospitality businesses, winemakers missed the opportunity to engage with their patrons amid the pandemic. With a new idea of how to engage its customers, Messina Hof, an award-winning Texas winery, rolled out a new tech-optimized, at-home experience.

The winery partnered with VISION, a Houston-based production group, to create an augmented reality app. Combining the efforts of Messina Hof's in-house label design team and the animation capabilities of VISION, the app took four months to design.

"It was a labor of love for both parties to be able to experiment with this; it was uncharted territory," says Karen Bonarrigo, owner and chief administrative officer of Messina Hof.

The three wines released — Emblaze (Sweet Red), Vitality (Dry White), and Abounding (Dry Red) — each tells a story through the AR experience.

"We wanted to try not only and push the technology as far as we can push it, but also try to really incorporate some heavy storytelling," says Dan Pratt, VISION Creative Director.

The idea to incorporate technology felt like a natural one to Bonariggo.

"The earth, water, and sunshine all go into developing what the profile is for each wine," explains Bonarrigo.

Each of the three wines have scannable labels that bring up a VR experience for app users. Photo courtesy of Messina Hof

VISION, who worked alongside Messina Hof to develop the project, blended the winery's rich family ties with the Old World history of winemaking.

When customers download the app and hold their camera over the label, a trailing vine emerges onto the screen and wraps around the bottle. As vines grow around each bottle, the three each visually signify a different natural element of winemaking — earth, water and the sun. As a rustic sign emerges, it prompts users to then click for recipe pairing recommendations.

Rather than a single-use experience, Messina Hof and VISION wanted to create an app that users could both engage with and learn from. The AR app allows users to view recipes and browse wines in one place.

"We knew we wanted the app to be functional for people to be able to interact with both when they're doing the AR experience, but then also to be able to continue to come back to it later," shares Bonarrigo. While AR wine labels have emerged in some California vineyards, she says, "it's definitely uncharted territory for the Texas industry."

Overseeing the food and wine pairing at Messina Hof is one of Bonarrigo's passions, so it was a natural choice to include recipes in the app. Messina Hof offers a concept called Vineyard Cuisine, coined from the Bonarrigo family cookbook, and incorporates wine in every meal at the vineyard.

"The idea of tying [the wine] to a recipe gave us the opportunity to be able to share new ways [our customers] could use wines in their everyday cooking," she explains.

She hopes the app's recipe feature will help families connect together.

"So often we get used to sitting down at the table, eating really quickly, and then moving on to the next thing, but there's so much connection that can happen with each other when we can slow down a little bit and have a conversation," she continues.

To Pratt, AR was the perfect way to emphasize and expand on the shared experience of wine.

"We wanted this to be an extension of that experience for people. You know, based on the love of wine and laughter with friends," he says.

For those who can't currently gather in a room together, Bonarrigo has hopes that Messina Hof can bring people together from afar.

"I think now more than ever the ability for our regular customers, even within Texas, to then share those wines with family members or friends that are outside the state seems more intuitive," she explains.

"We are so used to being creatures of habit in sharing our wine face-to-face with people that when we had the unexpected opportunity to not do that, we realized that we still have ways to be able to connect with customers through technology," says Bonarrigo.

She finds the "ease of access of being able to connect with them through the online web store" has kept Messina Hof in touch with customers throughout the pandemic, as well as digital happy hours and tasting events.

Messina Hof Harvest Green Winery & Kitchen, the newest location, opened in February, becoming the Greater Houston-area's largest winery. The space features an expansive tasting room and 83-foot wine bar, full-service restaurant, covered patio, two private tasting rooms, a wine production, barrel room, and wine warehouse.

"We knew that when we launched that location that we wanted to be able to have a series of wines at that location that was special, but also out of the box," says Bonarrigo.

Bonarrigo and her husband Paul have ushered in the expansion of Messina Hof over the last nine years. The family business began in 1977 when Paul's parents, Paul Vincent and Merrill, started an experimental vineyard. Messina Hof has locations in Bryan, Grapevine, Fredericksburg, and Richmond.

"This is our largest winery expansion endeavor that we've done," she says. "We wanted the wines to be extra special."

Similar to Messina Hof, companies across industries are seeking to explore interactive technologies to reach their customer base. "A number of our clients, and also new clients that we may not have been able to reach before, have certainly reached out to us to figure out new ways to reach an audience," shares Pratt.

Winemaking may be an Old World skill, but Messina Hof is excited to bring Texas wine into the future.

"So much of winemaking is science, and so much of it is art. There's always this push and pull as to which is more of a majority in the end product," explains Bonarrigo, who notes that Messina Hof has been using technology to innovate and optimize the growing process. The new AR app is a push toward bringing the experience her family loves into the homes of customers.

"This definitely gives a new talking point to wine," she says.