Fifteen of Houston Innovation Awards finalists share the best advice they've given or received. Photo via Getty Images

The startup journey is a long and winding road, and there's many ways to navigate it. Fifteen of this year's finalists have shared what their most valuable startup advice for their fellow Houston founders.

From the importance of mentorship to tips for female and BIPOC founders, these pearls of wisdom come directly from a selection of finalists across a handful of categories, including DEI Champion, BIPOC-Owned Business, Female-Owned Business, and Mentor of the Year.

Read these excerpts of advice from Houston's innovation community's top startup founders and supporters.

Click here to secure your tickets to the November 8 event where we'll name the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards winners.

"Be comfortable with asking for and accepting help. This journey is a marathon, not a sprint, but helping yourself with supportive people around is critical." — Cameron Carter of Rosarium Health, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"Underrepresented founders often have trouble asking for what they want or deserve. ... Don't be scared to ask for what you want, or what you believe you deserve." — Pedro Silva of Milkify, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"It's not 'fake it' until you make it. It's 'take it' until you make it. Be proud to be you." — Pamela Singh of CaseCTRL, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"When starting a company, remember it’s a game of attrition. The best way to last longer than your nearest neighbor is to find your tribe." — Aaron Fitzgerald of Mars Materials, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"Know your worth and add tax. Choose your partners wisely — at home and work. Invest in the best stock you own: YOU." — Katie Mehnert of ALLY Energy, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"Whatever battle you're fighting now that no one knows about — go ahead and WIN the war." — Shoshi Kaganovsky of Feelit Technologies, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"My advice would be to find truly effective mentors who are willing to open up their network for you. It doesn't matter if the mentors are men or women — what matters is that they genuinely care about your professional success and who you are as a person." — Tatiana Fofanova of Koda Healthcare, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"Remember...There are a BILLION ways to apply sunscreen, but no matter how you apply it, it ALL protects you from the sun. Like sunscreen, there are infinite ways to succeed in the startup world. Trust your gut, stick to your vision, and keep trying until you find what works for you. ... Your purpose and vision should be your North Star, guiding decisions in team-building, coaching, and creating a company culture. Stick to that purpose—it's what will drive you through the rollercoaster of entrepreneurship." — Emily Cisek of The Postage, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"First and foremost, embrace your uniqueness. As a woman of color, you bring a distinctive perspective to the table. Your background is not just a part of who you are; it's a strength that sets you apart in a male-dominated industry. ... Resilience is your greatest ally. Challenges will arise, and it's okay to acknowledge them. What matters most is how you respond. Each obstacle is an opportunity for growth and learning. ... Lastly, trust yourself. You are not just running a business; you are shaping a narrative of empowerment and change." — Ghazal Qureshi of UpBrainery Technologies, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"Figure out, learn, and understand your mission inside and out and use it to make all your major business (and sometimes personal) decisions." — LaGina R Harris, founder and CEO of The Us Space and Mentor of the Year finalist

"Know your value and continue advocating for inclusion." — Janice Tran of Kanin Energy, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"Be your true, authentic self. There are going to be some people that like what you are doing, and there's going to be some people that don't, but the biggest thing is being true to who you are, and that's always going to flourish more than being who someone else wants you to be." — Muriel Foster, director of gBETA Houston and Mentor of the Year finalist

"Until you hire someone, you are the one wearing the product manager hat. You've got to love the problem more than the solution." — Wade Pinder, founder of Product Houston and Mentor of the Year finalist

"Be the person your younger self needed. Representation really does matter. Be a listening ear, share your lessons, and allow people to blossom under your leadership." — Michelle Ngome, founder and president of the African American Marketing Association and DEI Champion finalist

"Embrace your unique perspective as a source of strength and innovation. ... In Houston's dynamic startup scene, your presence and contributions as a traditionally marginalized founder or investor are essential for driving innovation and diversity. By staying resilient, seeking support, and advocating for inclusivity, you can navigate the entrepreneurial journey and make a lasting impact on both your business and the broader community." — Jessica Adebiyi, diversity and professional development director at Womble Bond Dickinson and DEI Champion finalist

ALLY Energy's sixth annual GRIT Awards, which will honor leaders in the energy industry, will take place on October 26. Photo via ALLY Energy

Houston company names lifetime achievement, finalists for annual energy industry awards

they've got grit

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and three energy executives have been named first-time winners of lifetime achievement awards as part of ALLY Energy’s sixth annual GRIT Awards and Best Energy Workplaces program.

ALLY Energy says the honorees have demonstrated “a distinguished career championing change in energy and climate in the private or public sector in the areas of technology, policy, and workforce.”

As mayor of Houston, Turner has led efforts to use renewable energy throughout the city.

The other winners of lifetime achievement awards are:

  • Elizabeth Gerbel, founder and CEO of Houston-based EAG Services and EAG 1Source, which provide consulting services for the energy industry.
  • Lorenzo Simonelli, CEO of Houston-based oilfield services company Baker Hughes.
  • Kevin Sagara, executive vice president and group president of San Diego-based utility company Sempra. He is chairman of Sempra-owned San Diego Gas & Electric Co. and Southern California Gas Co.

The lifetime achievement honorees will be recognized October 26 during an event at The Bell Tower in Houston. So will the winners in the GRIT Awards and Best Energy Workplaces program. The keynote speaker will be U.S. Department of Energy official Shalanda Baker.

“This year’s GRIT Awards and Best Energy Workplaces finalists are a diverse cohort of game-changing entrepreneurs, gritty leaders, collaborative teams, and companies committed to combating climate change. The energy workforce is doing great things to transform our energy ecosystem, and we’re excited to spotlight exceptional talent and culture,” says Katie Mehnert, founder and CEO of Houston-based ALLY Energy, which provides a workforce development platform for the energy industry.

Among the dozens of award finalists are energy-related organizations or their representatives. These organizations include Baker Hughes, ExxonMobil, Halliburton, Marathon Oil, Rice University, Saudi Aramco, Shell, the University of Houston, Syzygy Plasmonics, and Wood Mackenzie.

A complete list of the finalists is available on the ALLY Energy website.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Thomas Vassiliades of BiVACOR, Katie Mehnert of ALLY Energy, and Don Whaley of OhmConnect Texas. 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 — from health care innovation to energy — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Thomas Vassiliades, CEO of BiVACOR

BiVACOR named Thomas Vassiliades as CEO effective immediately. Photo courtesy of BiVACOR

Thomas Vassiliades has been named CEO of BiVACOR, and he replaces the company's founder, Daniel Timms, in the position. BiVACOR is on track to head toward human clinical trials and commercialization, and Vassiliades is tasked with leading the way.

Vassiliades has over 30 years of experience within the medical device industry as well as cardiothoracic surgery. He was most recently the general manager of the surgery and heart failure business at Abiomed and held several leadership roles at Medtronic. Dr. Vassiliades received his MD from the University of North Carolina, and his MBA was achieved with distinction at Emory University.

“I am excited and honored to join the BiVACOR team, working closely with Daniel and the entire team as we look forward to bringing this life-changing technology to the market,” says Dr. Vassiliades in the release. “Throughout my career, I’ve been guided by the goal of bringing innovative cardiovascular therapies to the market to improve patient care and outcomes – providing solutions for those that don’t have one. BiVACOR is uniquely well-positioned to provide long-term therapy for patients with severe biventricular heart failure.” Click here to read more.

Katie Mehnert, CEO and founder of ALLY Energy

Katie Mehnert joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the future of energy amid a pandemic, climate change, the Great Resignation, and more. Photo via Katie Mehnert

Katie Mehnert started ALLY Energy — originally founded as Pink Petro — to move forward DEI initiatives, and she says she started with building an audience first and foremost, but now the technology part of the platform has fallen into place too. Last summer, ALLY Energy acquired Clean Energy Social, which meant doubling its community while also onboarding new technology. On the episode, Mehnert reveals that this new website and platform is now up and running.

"We launched the integrated product a few weeks back," Mehnert says. "The whole goal was to move away from technology that wasn't serving us."

Now, moving into the new year, Mehnert is building the team the company needs. She says she hopes to grow ALLY from two employees to 10 by the end of the year and is looking for personnel within customer support, product developers, and sales and service. While ALLY is revenue generating, she also hopes to fundraise to further support scaling. Click here to read more.

Don Whaley, president at OhmConnect Texas

Texas is about a month away from the anniversary of Winter Storm Uri — would the state fair better if it saw a repeat in 2022? Photo courtesy

The state of Texas is about a month away from the one year anniversary of Winter Storm Uri — but is the state better prepared this winter season? Don Whaley, president at OhmConnect Texas, looked at where the state is now versus then in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"Governor Abbott has gone on record guaranteeing that the lights will stay on this winter, and I am inclined to agree. With the reinforcement of our fuel systems being mandated by the Railroad Commission, 2023 to 2025 should receive the same guarantee," he writes. "Beyond that, as the demand for electricity in Texas continues to grow, we will need to rely on the initiatives under consideration by the PUCT to attract investment and innovation in new, dispatchable generation and flexible demand solutions to ensure long-term stability in the ERCOT market.

Whaley has worked for over 40 years in the natural gas, electricity, and renewables industries, with specific experience in deregulated markets across the U.S. and Canada. He founded Direct Energy Texas and served as its president during the early years of deregulation. Click here to read more.

Katie Mehnert joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the future of energy amid a pandemic, climate change, the Great Resignation, and more. Photo via Katie Mehnert

Houston DEI-focused startup plans to scale amid rapidly changing energy sector

Houston innovators podcast episode 116

The energy industry — like the rest of the workforce — is facing an unprecedented combo of challenges. First, there's a persistent pandemic that has spurred what's now known as The Great Resignation. Additionally, the sector is addressing climate change and all the challenges that comes with transitioning the entire industry.

As daunting as this plethora of obstacles can seem, Katie Mehnert is confident her business is equip to help energy companies large and small to prepare their workforce. She founded ALLY Energy to be a platform to support diversity, equity, and inclusion within energy companies as they move forward within the sector's transition.

"We need to start working together as allies to drag this new future forward around the energy transition and energy economy," Mehnert says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It is absolutely imperative that the business community, the academic community, and grassroots organizations on the ground are connecting people to these new economic opportunities. The green economy represents a huge shift for Houston.

Mehnert explains how she started ALLY Energy — originally founded as Pink Petro — to move forward DEI initiatives, and she says she started with building an audience first and foremost, but now the technology part of the platform has fallen into place too. Last summer, ALLY Energy acquired Clean Energy Social, which meant doubling its community while also onboarding new technology. On the episode, Mehnert reveals that this new website and platform is now up and running.

"We launched the integrated product a few weeks back," Mehnert says. "The whole goal was to move away from technology that wasn't serving us."

Now, moving into the new year, Mehnert is building the team the company needs. She says she hopes to grow ALLY from two employees to 10 by the end of the year and is looking for personnel within customer support, product developers, and sales and service. While ALLY is revenue generating, she also hopes to fundraise to further support scaling.

Mehnert discusses her plans for 2022 as well as how she's seen the energy industry and innovation ecosystem evolve in Houston and beyond on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Will Womble of Umbrage, Katie Mehnert of ALLY Energy, and James Reinstein of Saranas. 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 — from energy to health care — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Will Womble, CEO of Umbrage

Startup founder on how Houston has evolved as a software hub — and why there's no better place to be

Will Womble joins this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy

Will Womble describes his company, Umbrage, as fiercely loyal to Houston. The business, which publicly launched earlier this year, supports companies large and small with their software design, development, and more. Womble says he saw a void in Houston for this type of company, and he's attempting to fill it.

"What makes us different is speed to market — we're all onshore. We're all Houston-based, with the exception of five of our 40 employees," Womble says. "Houston was our focus and mission."

Womble has seen Houston evolve as an innovation ecosystem over the years, and now the game has changed. Click here to read more.

Katie Mehnert, founder and CEO of ALLY Energy

Katie Mehnert's company, ALLY Energy, has made an acquisition. Photo via Katie Mehnert

ALLY Energy announced it has acquired Clean Energy Social, a jobs and networking community for the clean energy industry. The deal expands ALLY's platform into the solar, wind, power, oil and gas, power and utilities, biofuels, hydrogen, geothermal, carbon capture, and other sectors that make up the energy transition.

"It's time to tackle the enormous challenge of the energy transition by connecting companies and candidates to resources so we can reduce the time and capital it takes to recruit and reskill," says Katie Mehnert, founder and CEO of ALLY Energy, in a news release. "We can speed up decarbonization by centralizing resources into one digital experience. This acquisition is a much-needed human capital investment to advance net-zero goals." Click here to read more.

James Reinstein, president and CEO of Saranas

Saranas closed its series B round this week. Photo via Saranas.com

Saranas Inc. announced that it closed a $12.8 million series B investment led by Wisconsin-based Baird Capital, the venture capital and global private equity arm of Baird, a global company with a location in Houston. Austin-based S3 Ventures also supported the round. The company will use the funds to continue its clinical trials, per a news release.

"We are pleased to announce this round of funding led by Baird Capital," says Saranas President and CEO James Reinstein in the release. "It underscores the importance of real-time monitoring of bleeding complications and our opportunity to accelerate the commercialization of Early Bird. We look forward to expanding our clinical evidence through prospective clinical trials and launching next generation products, including Bird on a Wire, to address a much broader range of endovascular procedures." Click here to read more.

Katie Mehnert's company, ALLY Energy, has made an acquisition. Photo via Katie Mehnert

Houston energy startup makes strategic acquisition, doubles community size

M&A

A Houston startup that's created a diversity, equity, and inclusion platform for the energy industry has announced an acquisition.

ALLY Energy announced it has acquired Clean Energy Social, a jobs and networking community for the clean energy industry. The deal expands ALLY's platform into the solar, wind, power, oil and gas, power and utilities, biofuels, hydrogen, geothermal, carbon capture, and other sectors that make up the energy transition.

"It's time to tackle the enormous challenge of the energy transition by connecting companies and candidates to resources so we can reduce the time and capital it takes to recruit and reskill," says Katie Mehnert, founder and CEO of ALLY Energy, in a news release. "We can speed up decarbonization by centralizing resources into one digital experience. This acquisition is a much-needed human capital investment to advance net-zero goals."

According to the release, ALLY is now the largest integrated energy site for driving inclusion through career resources, content, training, events, networking, and sharing across the entire energy space.

"We are very excited that our efforts will help support ALLY's continued exponential growth," says Jesse Truax of Clean Energy Social in the release. "ALLY's unique position as an energy integrator and source for diverse talent to advance decarbonization, combined with our careers platform and clean energy audience, amplifies the value that we can provide to our customers across the energy industry."

ALLY has recently moved into its new space in Greentown Houston. The startup also named Shanta Eaden, former director of the project management at Weatherford International with a 20-year career in the industry, as COO for the company.

"This acquisition doubles the size of our community and marks the opportunity to build human insights into our product to ensure candidates are well-matched with a company," Eaden says in the statement. "We're excited about the future of our roadmap and look forward to continued growth."

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston-based lunar mission's rocky landing and what it means for America's return to the moon

houston, we have a problem

A private U.S. lunar lander tipped over at touchdown and ended up on its side near the moon’s south pole, hampering communications, company officials said Friday.

Intuitive Machines initially believed its six-footed lander, Odysseus, was upright after Thursday's touchdown. But CEO Steve Altemus said Friday the craft “caught a foot in the surface," falling onto its side and, quite possibly, leaning against a rock. He said it was coming in too fast and may have snapped a leg.

“So far, we have quite a bit of operational capability even though we’re tipped over," he told reporters.

But some antennas were pointed toward the surface, limiting flight controllers' ability to get data down, Altemus said. The antennas were stationed high on the 14-foot (4.3-meter) lander to facilitate communications at the hilly, cratered and shadowed south polar region.

Odysseus — the first U.S. lander in more than 50 years — is thought to be within a few miles (kilometers) of its intended landing site near the Malapert A crater, less than 200 miles (300 kilometers) from the south pole. NASA, the main customer, wanted to get as close as possible to the pole to scout out the area before astronauts show up later this decade.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will attempt to pinpoint the lander's location, as it flies overhead this weekend.

With Thursday’s touchdown, Intuitive Machines became the first private business to pull off a moon landing, a feat previously achieved by only five countries. Japan was the latest country to score a landing, but its lander also ended up on its side last month.

Odysseus' mission was sponsored in large part by NASA, whose experiments were on board. NASA paid $118 million for the delivery under a program meant to jump-start the lunar economy.

One of the NASA experiments was pressed into service when the lander's navigation system did not kick in. Intuitive Machines caught the problem in advance when it tried to use its lasers to improve the lander's orbit. Otherwise, flight controllers would not have discovered the failure until it was too late, just five minutes before touchdown.

“Serendipity is absolutely the right word,” mission director Tim Crain said.

It turns out that a switch was not flipped before flight, preventing the system's activation in space.

Launched last week from Florida, Odysseus took an extra lap around the moon Thursday to allow time for the last-minute switch to NASA's laser system, which saved the day, officials noted.

Another experiment, a cube with four cameras, was supposed to pop off 30 seconds before touchdown to capture pictures of Odysseus’ landing. But Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s EagleCam was deliberately powered off during the final descent because of the navigation switch and stayed attached to the lander.

Embry-Riddle's Troy Henderson said his team will try to release EagleCam in the coming days, so it can photograph the lander from roughly 26 feet (8 meters) away.

"Getting that final picture of the lander on the surface is still an incredibly important task for us,” Henderson told The Associated Press.

Intuitive Machines anticipates just another week of operations on the moon for the solar-powered lander — nine or 10 days at most — before lunar nightfall hits.

The company was the second business to aim for the moon under NASA's commercial lunar services program. Last month, Pittsburgh's Astrobotic Technology gave it a shot, but a fuel leak on the lander cut the mission short and the craft ended up crashing back to Earth.

Until Thursday, the U.S. had not landed on the moon since Apollo 17's Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closed out NASA's famed moon-landing program in December 1972. NASA's new effort to return astronauts to the moon is named Artemis after Apollo's mythological twin sister. The first Artemis crew landing is planned for 2026 at the earliest.

3 female Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

If the energy transition is going to be successful, the energy storage space needs to be equipped to support both the increased volume of energy needed and new energies. And Emma Konet and her software company, Tierra Climate, are targeting one part of the equation: the market.

"To me, it's very clear that we need to build a lot of energy storage in order to transition the grid," Konet says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The problems that I saw were really on the market side of things." Read more.

Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. Photo courtesy of Sage

A Houston geothermal startup has announced the close of its series A round of funding.

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. The proceeds aim to fund its first commercial geopressured geothermal system facility, which will be built in Texas in Q4 of 2024. According to the company, the facility will be the first of its kind.

“The first close of our Series A funding and our commercial facility are significant milestones in our mission to make geopressured geothermal system technologies a reality,” Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems, says. Read more.

Clemmie Martin, chief of staff at The Cannon

With seven locations across the Houston area, The Cannon's digital technology allows its members a streamlined connection. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

After collaborating over the years, The Cannon has acquired a Houston startup's digital platform technology to become a "physical-digital hybrid" community.

Village Insights, a Houston startup, worked with The Cannon to create and launch its digital community platform Cannon Connect. Now, The Cannon has officially acquired the business. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“The integration of a world-class onsite member experience and Cannon Connect’s superior virtual resource network creates a seamless, streamlined environment for member organizations,” Clemmie Martin, The Cannon’s newly appointed chief of staff, says in the release. “Cannon Connect and this acquisition have paved new pathways to access and success for all.” Read more.

Texas organization grants $68.5M to Houston institutions for recruitment, research

Three prominent institutions in Houston will be able to snag a trio of high-profile cancer researchers thanks to $12 million in new funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

The biggest recruitment award — $6 million — went to the University of Texas MD Anderson Center to lure researcher Xiling Shen away from the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation in Los Angeles.

Shen is chief scientific officer at the nonprofit Terasaki Institute. His lab there studies precision medicine, including treatments for cancer, from a “systems biology perspective.”

He also is co-founder and former CEO of Xilis, a Durham, North Carolina-based oncology therapy startup that raised $70 million in series A funding in 2021. Before joining the institute in 2021, the Stanford University graduate was an associate professor at Duke University in Durham.

Shen and Xilis aren’t strangers to MD Anderson.

In 2023, MD Anderson said it planned to use Xilis’ propriety MicroOrganoSphere (MOS) technology for development of novel cancer therapies.

“Our research suggests the MOS platform has the potential to offer new capabilities and to improve the efficiency of developing innovative drugs and cell therapies over current … models, which we hope will bring medicines to patients more quickly,” Shen said in an MD Anderson news release.

Here are the two other Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awards that will bring noted cancer researchers to Houston:

  • $4 million to attract David Sarlah to Rice University from the University of Illinois, where he is an associate professor of chemistry. Sarlah’s work includes applying the principles of chemistry to creation of new cancer therapies.
  • $2 million to lure Vishnu Dileep to the Baylor College of Medicine from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is a postdoctoral fellow. His work includes the study of cancer genomes.

CPRIT also handed out more than $56.5 million in grants and awards to seven institutions in the Houston area. Here’s the rundown:

  • MD Anderson Cancer Center — Nearly $25.6 million
  • Baylor College of Medicine — Nearly $11.5 million
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — More than $6 million
  • Rice University — $4 million
  • University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston — More than $3.5 million
  • Methodist Hospital Research Institute — More than $3.3 million
  • University of Houston — $1.4 million

Dr. Pavan Reddy, a CPRIT scholar who is a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and director of its Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Care Center, says the CPRIT funding “will help our investigators take chances and explore bold ideas to make innovative discoveries.”

The Houston-area funding was part of nearly $99 million in grants and awards that CPRIT recently approved.