This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Veronica Wu of First Bight Ventures, Kate Evinger of Pokatok, and Jill Chapman of Insperity. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from synthetic biology to sportstech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures

Photo courtesy of First Bight Ventures

Veronica Wu saw the potential in Houston for a vibrant synthetic biology hub that can propel one of the most exciting field of technology into the future. So, she founded First Bight Ventures to invest in synthetic biology startups in hopes to attract them to Houston.

“We have a moment in time where we can make Houston the global epicenter of synthetic biology and the bio economy," Wu says to a group of stakeholders last week at First Bight's Rocketing into the Bioeconomy event. "Whether its energy, semiconductor, space exploration, or winning the World Series — Houstonians lead. It’s in our DNA. While others look to the stars, we launch people into space.”

At First Bight's event, Wu introduced the company's new team members. Click here to read more.

Kate Evinger, director of Pokatok Labs

Photo courtesy of gBETA

Pokatok Labs — a scale-up program for sportstech startups — is in between its first and second cohorts, and Director Kate Evinger joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to look back at the inaugural class and share what the team is looking for in applications.

"Our mission is to help be a partner with all the exciting things happening in Houston — from the startup entrepreneurship side to the things we're seeing in the sports community — to continue to elevate and uplift the voices here in addition to bringing folks in from all over the world to celebrate the human experience in sports and to continue driving innovation in this space," she says on the show.

Evinger shares more about Pokatok Labs and the potential she sees for Houston to continue evolving as a hub for sports innovation on the podcast. Click here to read more.

Jill Chapman, senior performance consultant with Insperity

Photo courtesy of Insperity

Workplace culture can make or break a company of any size — especially now in this labor market. Making your office environment a place employees feel like they can take paid time off and vacations is key to prevent burnout and turnover. Jill Chapman, senior performance consultant with Insperity, writes in a guest column her tips for fostering this type of environment.

"As small business owners continue to navigate the labor shortage, savvy leaders recognize the significance of retaining existing employees, so it behooves them to encourage PTO usage to foster a highly engaged and energized workforce," she writes. Click here to read more.

Kate Evinger joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Pokatok Labs, a sportstech program in its first year. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston sportstech-focused lab wraps up inaugural cohort, opens apps for fall

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Houston is having a moment when it comes to sports. Fresh off the announcement of Houston being selected as a FIFA World Cup host in 2026 and just a year away from hosting another NCAA Final Four, the city is also home to a growing sportstech hub.

And one new Houston company, Pokatok, is hoping it can help support the local sports innovation community. Pokatok, which is part of the same business family as InnovationMap and Gow Media, was founded to create momentum in local sportstech activity, Kate Evinger says on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast.

"Our mission is to help be a partner with all the exciting things happening in Houston — from the startup entrepreneurship side to the things we're seeing in the sports community — to continue to elevate and uplift the voices here in addition to bringing folks in from all over the world to celebrate the human experience in sports and to continue driving innovation in this space," she says on the show.

One of the ways the company is spurring sports innovation is through Pokatok Labs, a scale-up program for seed and series A startups in the sportstech space. Evinger, who leads the program as director, says the inaugural cohort has wrapped up — and the team is already accepting applications for the fall program, which will run September 20 through November 18.

"We are looking for anything and everything under the sun within sportstech — even if you're the founder of a company that may have ties to sports but you're not sure, we're happy to have that conversation," Evinger says. "It could be nutrition, health and wellness, athlete performance, fan engagement, or smart venue."

Evinger shares more about Pokatok Labs and the potential she sees for Houston to continue evolving as a hub for sports innovation on the podcast.

Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Here's what companies are in the latest cohort for gBETA. Photo courtesy of gBETA

Early-stage accelerator announces 5 startups to its fall 2021 Houston cohort

ready to grow

An early-stage accelerator has picked its latest cohort of five Houston companies.

The Fall 2020 cohort of gBETA Houston includes:

  • AllIDoIsCook is founded by Tobi Smith and focused on exposing the world to Africa's cuisine by manufacturing gourmet food products delivered directly to customer doors and available at grocers. Since launching, AllIDoIsCook has built out a manufacturing facility, shipped over 8,000 boxes and generated $1.1 million in revenue all without outside funding.
  • Chasing Watts makes it easy for cyclists to coordinate or find rides with fellow riders in their area with its web-based and native application. The company has over 3,000 users and grew 135 percent from Q2 to Q3 in new ride views.
  • DanceKard, founded by Erica Sinner, is a new dating platform that connects individuals and groups with one another by bringing the date to the forefront of the conversation and making scheduling faster and easier with special promotions featuring local establishments. Since launching in August of 2021, DanceKard has over 170 users on the platform.
  • Dollarito is a digital lending platform that helps the low-income Hispanic population with no credit history or low FICO score access fair credit. Founded by Carmen Roman, Dollarito applies AI into banking, transactional and behavioral data to evaluate the repayment capability more accurately than using FICO scores. The company has1,000 users on their waitlist and plans to beta test with 100 or more customers in early 2022.
  • SeekerPitch, founded by Samantha Hepler, operates with the idea that jobseekers' past job titles and resumes are not always indicative of their true capabilities. Launched last month, SeekerPitch empowers companies to see who jobseekers are as people, and get to know them through comprehensive profiles and virtual speed interviews, and the company already has 215 jobseekers and 20 companies on the platform, with one pilot at University of Houston and three more in the pipeline.

The companies kicked off their cohort in person on October 18, and the program concludes on December 14 with the gBETA Houston Fall 2021 Pitch Night. At this event, each company will present their five-minute pitch to an audience of mentors, investors, and community members.

"The five founding teams selected for our gBETA Houston Fall 2021 cohort are tackling unique problems they have each experienced personally, from finding access to cultural foods, fitness communities and authentic dating experiences to challenges with non-inclusive financing and hiring practices," says Kate Evinger, director of gBETA Houston, in the release. "The grit and passion these individuals bring to their roles as founders will undoubtedly have a tremendous impact in the Houston community and beyond."

The accelerator has supported 15 Houston startups since it launched in Houston in early 2020. The program, which is free and hosted out of the Downtown Launchpad, is under the umbrella of Madison, Wisconsin-based international accelerator, gener8tor.

"Downtown Launchpad is an innovation hub like no other, and I am so proud of what it is already and what it will become," says Robert Pieroni, director of economic development at Central Houston Inc., in the release. "The five startups selected for the gBETA Houston Fall 2021 cohort are exploring new challenges that can become high-impact Houston businesses."

gBETA announced its plan to launch in Houston in September 2019. The program's inaugural cohort premiered in May and conducted the first program this summer completely virtually. The second cohort took place last fall, and the third ran earlier this year.

"These founders are building their companies and benefiting from the resources Downtown Launchpad provides," Pieroni continues, "and the proof is in the data – companies in these programs are creating jobs, growing their revenues and exponentially increasing their funding, which means these small starts up of today, working in Downtown Launchpad, are growing into the successful companies of tomorrow."

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Lawson Gow of The Cannon, Kate Evinger of gBETA, and Michael Lee of Octopus Energy. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — sports tech, energy, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Lawson Gow, founder of The Cannon

Lawson Gow is bullish on Houston becoming a sports tech hub. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

Is Houston the next hub for sports tech innovation? Lawson Gow thinks so.

"Sports tech is a thing we can win at. There's no global hub for sports tech — so Houston can do that," Gow says. "We've always had that in our heads as a direction we want the city to head down, so it just makes it so opportunistic to create a space for that kind of innovation at work for the city."

The founder of Houston coworking company, The Cannon, announced last week plans for a sports tech hub in partnership with Braun Enterprises and Gow Media (InnovationMap's parent company). Click here to read more.

Kate Evinger, director of gBETA Houston

Kate Evinger joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the latest from gBETA Houston. Photo courtesy of gBETA

Most accelerators are focused on growing startups in a specific way toward a specific goal. For gBETA Houston, that goal is toward a new round of funding or another accelerator, says Kate Evinger, director of gBETA Houston on last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"We look at early-stage companies, so those that are pre-seed or seed-stage that are looking for mentorship or support," Evinger says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, "and we help get to that next step whether that's to raise an upcoming round or if they are looking to get into an equity-based accelerator program."

Evinger shares more details on the ongoing cohort on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the show.

Michael Lee, CEO of Octopus Energy US

A $2.23 million deal means a growing presence Texas for Octopus Energy. Photo via LinkedIn

A United Kingdom-founded energy company has expanded yet again in the Texas market. Octopus Energy announced the acquisition of Houston-based Brilliant Energy last week, and it's a huge opportunity for the company says Octopus Energy's United States CEO Michael Lee.

"This is a major moment for us, as we work to bring our 100% renewable energy supply and outstanding technology to more Texans and their homes," he says. Click here to read more.

Kate Evinger joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the latest from gBETA Houston. Photo courtesy of gBETA

New Houston accelerator leader dives into first cohort

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Everything's bigger in Texas, but Kate Evinger is focused on zeroing in on a small group of startups to help them in a Texas-sized way.

As director of gBETA Houston, Evinger says the program, which expanded to Houston in 2019, is geared toward supporting companies as they navigate the initial challenges of starting a company.

"We look at early-stage companies, so those that are pre-seed or seed-stage that are looking for mentorship or support," Evinger says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, "and we help get to that next step whether that's to raise an upcoming round or if they are looking to get into an equity-based accelerator program."

The program runs two 7-week cohorts a year — and only five companies join each round. This tight-knit group is to the cohort's advantage, Evinger says.

"It's a very small group that we bring in, and we do this very purposefully, because we like to use a concierge approach, meaning that we tailor the experience to each of the five company's personal goals," she explains.

This week, gBETA Houston announced the latest cohort's member companies, which includes five Houston-based companies: Veza, Upbrainery, FareUpThere, Custodian Corp., and Clyr.

The program, which is a part of Wisconsin-based gener8tor, began May 6 and concludes July 7 with a pitch day. The local operation is housed out of the Downtown Launchpad alongside Impact Hub Houston and MassChallenge Texas.

"The Downtown Launchpad is a phenomenal space," Evinger says. "It's a really amazing collaborative ecosystem for our companies to be able to leverage."

Evinger shares more about the new cohort growth and gener8tor's other opportunities on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


gBETA Houston, which is based out of Downtown Launchpad, has announced its latest cohort. Photo courtesy of the Downtown Launchpad

Global accelerator announces 5 startups to its Houston cohort

early-stage support

Five Houston companies have been tapped to participate in a Houston-based, early-stage startup accelerator with a national presence.

The accelerator, gBETA, selected the five Houston companies out of over 85 applicants. The cohort represents industries like education, travel, and fintech. The summer program launched on May 6 and will take place over seven weeks before concluding on July 7 at the gBETA Houston Pitch Night.

Here are the five startups selected from Houston:

  • Clyr, led by CEO and Co-founder Jeff Jensen, makes pools smarter and more sustainable through its eco-friendly approach. Clyr connects users with their pools through the first ever solar-powered WiFi-connected Smart Skimmer device and automates pool care using renewable resources. Since launching in 2020, Clyr is located in hundreds of pools across the US and has analyzed over 2 million pool chemistry data points and given over 100,000 recommendations for fixes.
  • Custodian Corp's software-as-a-service platform solves the data management and valuation pain points of venture capital and private equity managers faster and at a fairer price than competitors. Led by CEO Federico Jost, Custodian's main product is the CPMTOOL, a cloud-based solution to collect, aggregate, organize and analyze portfolio company data for monitoring and reporting purposes. Custodian launched in January of 2021, has six pilots to date and has tripled revenue since February of 2021.
  • FareUpThere's travel platform takes the mystery out of booking the perfect flight. Led by CEO and Co-Founder Malcolm Woods, FareUpThere's restaurant-style menu of flight amenities allows passengers to easily customize their perfect flight ranging from exact inches of legroom to whether the flight has Netflix. FareUpThere successfully launched a private beta in December of 2020.
  • UpBrainery, led by CEO and Founder Ghazal Qureshi, created a marketplace provides an AI-driven software platform and research-based, results-driven curriculum to students, parents, teachers and organizations. UpBrainery's journey mapping tool aligns a students educational interests and learning styles with their goals to visualize the steps needed to achieve them. Since launching in March of 2020, UpBrainery has provided over 5,000 students with opportunities for digital learning and customers include Whataburger, Girl Scouts and The Houston Rockets.
  • Veza, Launched in December, connects the world's influencer marketing experts through its professional social network. Veza's network supports both sides of the influencer marketing industry; the businesses searching for talent and the influencers looking for opportunities. Led by CEO Efrain Batista, Veza offers businesses access to the world's first free influencer search and discovery platform.

The program, which has been operating online due to the pandemic, has its local office in the Downtown Launchpad.

"Downtown Launchpad starts at the edge of technology and entrepreneurship, where cutting-edge ideas can quickly be explored, and future technology can become high-impact businesses. It was developed around a framework of resources to help entrepreneurs as they seamlessly navigate through the stages of startup production," says Robert Pieroni, director of Economic Development of Central Houston, in the release.

The free accelerator is a part of Madison, Wisconsin-based gener8tor's suite of accelerators, and announced its plan to launch in Houston in September 2019. The program's inaugural cohort premiered in May and conducted the first program this summer completely virtually. The second cohort took place last fall.

"In order to harness the impact of entrepreneurs and innovators of new technologies, an ecosystem involving many parts is needed," continues Pieroni. "That is why we recruited the nationally acclaimed startup accelerator, gener8tor, to our city. We're thrilled that gener8tor is one of Downtown Launchpad's resident partners and are helping us continue our mission to inspire innovation in the Houston community. I look forward to the impact created by the startups in this year's cohort."

Kate Evinger leads the local program as director. She recently assumed this role, and this will be her first cohort to direct.

"Houston is at a pivotal moment in time with the exciting innovations taking place in the ecosystem," says Evinger in the release. "I'm thrilled to be a part of the Houston community supporting the work of these incredible founders in the gBETA Houston Summer 2021 program."

Stream a recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast where Evinger shares what she's excited about for this cohort:

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Houston space tech company snags $9.5M contract, sets launch date for lunar mission

green light

Business at Houston-based space exploration company Intuitive Machines is taking off on two fronts.

First, Intuitive Machines has landed a nearly $9.5 million Air Force contract to develop technology for NASA’s Gateway project, the first space station that will orbit the moon. Specifically, the technology will support a high-powered nuclear fission system that will supply electricity for satellites, bypassing the need for power from solar, battery, or fuel-cell sources.

“As space exploration ventures become more ambitious and diverse, the need for efficient and reliable power sources in space is paramount,” Pete McGrath, vice president of business development at Intuitive Machines, says in a news release. “Developing the ability to expand power sources beyond solar, which requires heavy battery storage, could remove the burden of constantly worrying about a spacecraft’s arrays relative to the sun, and potentially deliver long-term stability for satellites that would otherwise lose power over time.”

Second, Intuitive Machines has set January window for the launch of its IM-1 lunar mission in conjunction with private aerospace company SpaceX. The liftoff is targeted for a multiday window that opens January 12, 2024.

“There are inherent challenges of lunar missions; schedule changes and mission adjustments are a natural consequence of pioneering lunar exploration,” Steve Altemus, co-founder, president, and CEO of Intuitive Machines, says in a news release. “Receiving a launch window and the required approvals to fly is a remarkable achievement, and the schedule adjustment is a small price to pay for making history.”

The IM-1 mission will be the company’s first attempted lunar landing as part of NASA’s commercial payload initiative.

Intuitive Machines went public earlier this year via SPAC. Co-founder Tim Crain shared a bit of the origin story of the company on a recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.


Houston sustainable chemicals unicorn to build Midwestern biomanufacturing facility

making moves

Solugen has scored a partnership with a global company to build a biomanufacturing facility adjacent to an existing corn complex in Marshall, Minnesota.

Solugen, a Houston company that's designed a process that converts plant-derived substances into essential materials, has announced its newest strategic partnership with sustainable solutions company ADM (NYSE:ADM). The partnership includes plans for Solugen to build a 500,000-square-foot biomanufacturing facility next to an existing ADM facility in the Midwest. The two companies will collaborate on producing biomaterials to replace fossil fuel-based products.

“The strategic partnership with ADM will allow Solugen to bring our chemienzymatic process to a commercial scale and meet existing customer demand for our high-performance, cost-competitive, sustainable products,” Gaurab Chakrabarti, co-founder and CEO of Solugen, says in a news release. “As one of the few scaled-up and de-risked biomanufacturing assets in the country, Solugen’s Bioforge platform is helping bolster domestic capabilities and supply chains that are critical in ensuring the U.S. reaches its ambitious climate targets.”

The company plans to begin on-site construction early next year, with plans to startup in the first half of 2025. The project should create at least 40 permanent jobs and 100 temporary construction positions.

“Sustainability is one of the enduring global trends powering ADM’s growth and underpinning the strategic evolution of our Carbohydrate Solutions business,” Chris Cuddy, president of ADM’s Carbohydrate Solutions business, says in the release. “ADM is one of the largest dextrose producers in the world, and this strategic partnership will allow us to further diversify our product stream as we continue to support plant-based solutions spanning sustainable packaging, pharma, plant health, construction, fermentation, and home and personal care.”

Founded in 2016 by Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt, Solugen's carbon-negative molecule factory, named the Bioforge, uses its chemienzymatic process in converting plant-sourced substances into essential materials that can be used instead of fossil fuels. The manufacturing process is carbon neutral, and Solugen has raised over $600 million from investors that believe in the technology's potential.

“The initial phase of the project will significantly increase Solugen’s manufacturing capacity, which is critical for commercializing our existing line of molecules and kicks off plans for a multi-phase large-scale U.S. Bioforge buildout,” Hunt, CTO of Solugen, says in the release. “The increase in capacity will also free up our Houston operation for research and development efforts into additional molecules and market applications.”

The project should create at least 40 permanent jobs and 100 temporary construction positions.

"As a community with a strong foundation of agriculture and innovation, we look forward to welcoming Solugen to Marshall. This industry-leading facility will serve as a powerful economic driver for the city, creating new jobs and diversifying our industry,” City of Marshall Mayor Bob Byrnes says in the statement. "We are thankful for ADM’s longstanding commitment and impact to Marshall, which has paved the way for this remarkable partnership and continues to further economic growth to our region."

It's the second major company partnership announcement Solugen has made this month, with a new arrangement with Sasol being secured last week.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.