3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

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 hospital joins the metaverse with new platform

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Houston Methodist has launched a platform that is taking medical and scientific experts and students into the metaverse.

The MITIEverse, a new app focused on health care education and training, provides hands-on practice, remote assistance from experienced clinicians, and more. The app — named for the Houston Methodist Institute for Technology, Innovation and Education, aka MITIE — was created in partnership with FundamentalVR and takes users into virtual showcase rooms, surgical simulations, and lectures from Houston Methodist faculty, as well as collaborators from across the world.

“This new app brings the hands-on education and training MITIE is known for to a new virtual audience. It could be a first step toward building out a medical metaverse,” says Stuart Corr, inventor of the MITIEverse and director of innovation systems engineering at Houston Methodist, in a news release.

Image courtesy of Houston Methodist

The hospital system's DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center has created a virtual showcase room on the app, and users can view Houston Methodist faculty performing real surgeries and then interact with 3D human models.

"We view the MITIEverse as a paradigm-shifting platform that will offer new experiences in how we educate, train, and interact with the health community,” says Alan Lumsden, M.D., medical director of Houston Methodist DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center, in the release.

“It essentially democratizes access to health care educators and innovators by breaking down physical barriers. There’s no need to travel thousands of miles to attend a conference when you can patch into the MITIEverse," he continues.

Image courtesy of Houston Methodist

Houston doctors get approval for low-cost COVID vaccine abroad

green light

A Houston-born COVID-19 vaccine has gotten the go-ahead to be produced and distributed in Indonesia.

PT Bio Farma, which oversees government-owned pharmaceutical manufacturers in Indonesia, says it’s prepared to make 20 million doses of the IndoVac COVID-19 vaccine this year and 100 million doses a year by 2024. This comes after the vaccine received authorization from the Indonesian Food and Drug Authority for emergency use in adults.

With more than 275 million residents, Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country.

IndoVac was created by the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and Baylor College of Medicine. Drs. Peter Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi lead the vaccine project. Bio Farma is licensing IndoVac from BCM Ventures, the commercial group at the Baylor College of Medicine.

“Access to vaccines in the developing world is critical to the eradication of this virus,” Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, says in a news release.

Aside from distributing the vaccine in Indonesia, Bio Farma plans to introduce it to various international markets.

“The need for a safe, effective, low-cost vaccine for middle- to low-income countries is central to the world’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Bottazzi, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and associate dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor.

“Without widespread inoculation of populations in the developing world, which must include safe, effective booster doses, additional [COVID-19] variants will develop, hindering the progress achieved by currently available vaccines in the United States and other Western countries.”

Bio Farma says it has completed Phase 1 and Phase 2 clinical trials for IndoVac and is wrapping up a Phase 3 trial.

IndoVac is a version of the patent-free, low-cost Corbevax vaccine, developed in Houston and dubbed “The World’s COVID-19 Vaccine.” The vaccine formula can be licensed by a vaccine producer in any low- or middle-income country, which then can take ownership of it, produce it, name it, and work with government officials to distribute it, Hotez told The Texas Tribune in February.

Among donors that have pitched in money for development of the vaccine are the Houston-based MD Anderson and John S. Dunn foundations, the San Antonio-based Kleberg Foundation, and Austin-based Tito’s Vodka.

“During 2022, we hope to partner with the World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies to vaccinate the world. We believe that global vaccine equity is finally at hand and that it is the only thing that can bring the COVID pandemic to an end,” Hotez and Bottazzi wrote in a December 2021 article for Scientific American.

Houston research: How best to deliver unexpected news as a company

houston voices

According to Forbes, the volume of mergers and acquisitions in 2021 was the highest on record, and 2022 has already seen a number of major consolidation attempts. Microsoft’s acquisition of video game company Activision Blizzard was the biggest gaming industry deal in history, according to Reuters. JetBlue recently won the bid over Frontier Airlines to merge with Spirit Airlines. And, perhaps most notably, Elon Musk recently backed out of an attempt to acquire Twitter.

It can be hard to predict how markets will react to such high-profile deals (and, in Elon Musk and Twitter’s case, whether or not the deal will even pan out). But Rice Business Professor Haiyang Li and Professor Emeritus Robert Hoskisson, along with Jing Jin of the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, have found that companies can take advantage of these deals to buffer the effects of other news.

The researchers looked at 7,575 mergers and acquisitions from 2001 to 2015, with a roughly half-and-half split between positive and negative stock market reactions. They found that when there’s a negative reaction to a deal, companies have two strategies for dealing with it. If it’s a small negative reaction, companies will release positive news announcements in an attempt to soften the blow. But when the reaction is really bad, companies actually tend to announce more negative news afterward. Specifically, companies released 18% less positive news and 52% more negative news after a bad market reaction.

This may seem counterintuitive, but there’s a method to the madness, and it all has to do with managing expectations. If people are lukewarm on a company due to a merger or acquisition, it’s possible to sway public opinion with unrelated good news. When the backlash is severe, though, a little bit of good PR won’t be enough to change people’s minds. In this case, companies release more bad news because it’s one of their best chances to do so without making waves in the future. If people already think poorly of a company due to a recent deal, more bad news isn’t great, but it doesn’t come as a surprise, either. Therefore, it’s easier to ignore.

It might make more sense to just keep quiet if the market reaction to a deal is bad, and this study found that most companies do. However, this only applies when releasing more news would make a mildly bad situation worse. If things are already bad enough that the company can’t recover with good news, it can still make the best out of a bad situation by offloading more bad news when the damage will be minimal. Companies are legally obligated to disclose business-related news or information with shareholders and with the public. If it’s bad news, they like to share it when the public is already upset about a deal, instead of releasing the negative news when there are no other distractions. In this case the additional negative news is likely to get more play in the media when disclosed by itself.

But what happens when people get excited about a merger or acquisition? In these cases, it also depends on how strong the sentiment is. If the public’s reaction is only minimally positive, companies may opt to release more good news in hopes of making the reaction stronger. When the market is already enthusiastic about the deal, though, companies won’t release more positive news. The researchers found that after an especially positive market reaction to a deal, companies indeed released 12% less positive news but 56% more negative news. Also, one could argue that the contrasting negative news makes the good news on the acquisition look even better. This may be important especially if the acquisition is a significant strategic move.

There are several reasons why a company wouldn’t continue to release positive news after a good press day and strong market reaction. First of all, they want to make sure that a rise in market price is attributed to the deal alone, and not any irrelevant news. A positive reaction to a deal also gives companies another opportunity to disclose bad news at a time when it will get less attention. If the bad news does get attention, the chances are better that stakeholders will go easy on them — a little bit of bad press is forgivable when the good news outshines it.

Companies may choose to release no news after a positive reaction to a merger or acquisition, the same way they might opt to stay quiet after backlash. They’re less likely to release positive news when stakeholders are already happy, preferring to save that news for the next time they need it, either to offset a negative reaction or strengthen a weak positive reaction.

Mergers and acquisitions can produce unpredictable market reactions, so it’s important for companies to be prepared for a variety of outcomes. In fact, Jin, Li and Hoskisson found that the steps taken by companies before deals were announced didn’t have much effect on the public’s reaction. They found that it’s more important for companies to make the best out of that reaction, whatever it turns out to be.

The researchers also found that, regardless of whether the market reaction was positive or negative, as long as the reaction was strong, companies could use the opportunity to hide smaller pieces of bad news in the shadow of a headline-making deal. Overall, the magnitude of the reaction mattered more than the type of reaction. People tend to have stronger reactions to unexpected news, though, so companies prefer to release negative news when market expectations are already low.

These findings are relevant beyond merger announcements, of course; they also point to strategies that could be useful in everyday communications. A key takeaway is that negative information is less upsetting when people already expect bad things — or when it comes after much bigger, and much better, news. Bad news is always hard to deliver, but this research gives us a few ways to soften the blow.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Jing Jin, Haiyang Li and Robert Hoskisson.