University of Houston's RED Labs and Rice University's OwlSpark, which operate in tandem every summer, have had to re-imagine their accelerator programs in light of COVID-19. Photo courtesy of OwlSpark and RED Labs

It'll be a different kind of summer for two early-stage, university-affiliated accelerator programs that work in tandem to grow a cohort of startups.

University of Houston's RED Labs and Rice University's OwlSpark are re-imagining their programs this summer to make the most out of a virtual accelerator, which begins today, May 21, with 17 teams of startups.

"No doubt that COVID-19 will have a big impact on our program," says Kerri Smith, managing director of OwlSpark. "In the long run, there will always be the likely requirement of human-to-human interaction in the startup world — particular when it comes to generating business, meeting with customers, and securing investments — but from the training aspect, I think we are going to be able to provide something of value."

Smith says she has worked with Kelly McCormick, managing director of RED Labs, in preparing for this virtual programming in order to maintain the same level of support for the startups by using tools like Zoom, Skype, the Google Suite, and more.

McCormick, who is also an instructor at UH, has had the opportunity to test out having guest speakers in her class last semester and found that the virtual aspect was an opportunity to reach speakers that would otherwise be unavailable to come to campus.

"With challenges comes opportunities, and I think we're going to be able to deliver the same impactful content that we want to, just in a different way," McCormick says.

One challenge for the cohort will be conducting the customer engagement part of the experience virtually. Founders, Smith says, will have to focus on online customer discovery. Similarly, the startup pitch training will have to pivot to focus on pitching to a webcam.

"We've worked hard to design an experience around the reality that they are currently navigating, because it's a different reality right now," Smith says.

"Our primary goal is to create a culture of advocacy among our two cohorts, but also to help them develop some personal resiliency," Smith continues. "Challenging times reveal character in people and helping them develop some personal resiliency skills is going to come along with some of the things we are working with this summer."

The two programs were planned to have a new home in The Cannon Tower downtown this summer, which would have allows for face-to-face networking and collaboration. McCormick says they've planned virtual trivia, socials, and lunches to try to recreate the camaraderie of working together in a remote capacity.

"There's potential that we'll have some events in person, but that's really based on the guidance of our universities," McCormick says. "We'd love to have some opportunities in person, but it's really a matter if what's safe, and we're not going to require it."

Also new this year for Class 8 is a pilot program that incorporates startups from another university. Eight of the 17 teams in the cohort are from UH, while the other nine are representing Rice. However, through a partnership with the McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship at Texas A&M University, three of Rice's teams hail from A&M.

"It's an experiment to expand the program by inviting other university teams," Smith says, adding that the partnership also allows the accelerator to tap into A&M's network of advisers. "Depending on the data at the end of the summer and the experience and value add, we'll evaluate whether or not that's something we want to continue doing."

The new virtual nature of the program allows for remote access for those founders based in College Station, as well as the founders who, due to campus shutdowns, were sent home mid semester in light of COVID-19.

The recruiting process was also done virtually, and McCormick says she did see a decrease in applications compared to last year — but the quality of the applicants was strong.

"There were definitely some difficult decisions," McCormick says. "The teams that did apply were a high caliber. They were really dedicated to going through the program — whatever it might looked like."

The program takes place over 12 weeks and concludes with a pitch event called the Bayou City Showcase. At this point, the event, which is usually live-streamed and held in front of an audience, is planned to still take place, however, McCormick and Smith say they aren't sure if there will be a physical event or if it will be online only.

Below is a list of descriptions for the 17 teams and the solutions they are providing.

  • an affordable, portable, imaging system capable of diagnosing diabetic retinopathy for low-resourced and underserved communities
  • an agricultural platform for use in urban settings that enables horticulturists to measure and record plant growth, detect disease, and recommend corrective actions
  • a suite of imaging and software tools that detect bleeding vessels in real-time surgery enabling surgeons to precisely locate and prevent life-threatening hemorrhages
  • an imaging device that enables healthcare professionals performing endovascular procedures to accurately visualize vascular access in a patient
  • a screening device that predicts biological hazards in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics without the use of animal models
  • an exercise platform for use in analyzing, critiquing, and correcting the form of individuals and athletes performing stationary exercises
  • an interactive content platform that uses data analytics to enable creators and viewers to more selectively choose content
  • a non-invasive skincare system that profiles the molecular concentration of the skin and creates customized formulations of products
  • a centralized pharmaceutical resource that enables women to make personalized and more informed decisions in contraceptive care
  • an advanced, improved diagnostic tool for optometrists
  • a user friendly toothbrush that monitors oral health
  • a portable cooling device that provides relief for symptoms of menopause
  • a physical therapy device that aids individuals with arm injuries in recovering their mobility quickly
  • a software that uses existing wifi to detect and alert help when an individual falls in their home
  • an improved air filter that decreases the amount of time users have to change the filter
  • a program that helps individuals invest in dividend producing stocks
  • a device that attaches to wheelchairs and raises the user so they can reach higher surfaces
CALI, a wearable physical therapy device for those with vertigo, pitched at the annual event. Photo via getcalibalance.com

These are the 16 Houston startups coming out of UH's RED Labs and Rice's OwlSpark

Best in class

For the sixth year, the University of Houston and Rice University have joined forces to give their student entrepreneurs a program to thrive in. RED Labs and OwlSpark, the two universities' accelerator programs, just concluded their seventh class with a presentation from the companies.

Over the past 12 weeks, these 16 startups and their teams of entrepreneurs have worked on their company, developing it, learning how to fundraise for it, and engaging with all sorts of other valuable resources and mentors through the program.

"With an emphasis on experimentation and rapid iteration, we teach disciplined startup strategies that help (students) have an eye for reducing risks and increasing odds," says Kerri Smith, managing director of OwlSpark.

This summer's cohort was hosted out of Station Houston this year, but the two universities have worked together since year two of each of their programs.

"We're very proud of our partnership, because in most other cities, two universities like this would probably be rivals, but we're interested in camaraderie and collaboration in this cohort because they are the future generation of entrepreneurs of Houston," says Kelly McCormick, director of RED Labs. "We really think that this sets an example of how working together produces better results than working against each other."

Adren

While the invention of the EpiPen and other compact anaphylaxis solutions have saved lives, the products are still too large to be constantly available to those who need it. Adren's co-founders created a collapsible autoinjector that can be work as a wristband.

"A functioning drug is only one piece of the puzzle," says Jacob, co-founder of Adren. (He didn't state his last name.) "Medication is only effective if it is accessible to the patient."

The company plans to continue on and patent their product with hopes to enter the marketplace by the next few years.

CookLab

Anyone can find a recipe for anything with the tap of a few keys and the click of of few buttons, but once you add in dietary restrictions, things get tricky. Not to mention the fact that so many healthy recipes aren't even that good for you.

The team at CookLab wants to eliminate this unregulated and confusing corner of the internet. CookLab's first product is a web tool that can determine whether or not a recipe is healthy by the user dropping in the URL. This product is in beta right now.

Down the road, CookLab wants to create a tool for users to be able to submit a recipe they want to make, then have CookLab generate a modified version that follows any dietary needs.

INSU

In a state of emergency where electricity is out, the diabetic population is forced to gamble with their lives when it comes to keeping their insulin insulated and cool.

INSU has a solution. The startup has created a battery operated cooler that can keep insulin from spoiling for 30 days. The battery can be charged by wall outlet or even solar panel.

The company plans to market directly to consumers as well as make strategic partnerships with emergency and health organizations.

auggie

Merchandise lines at concerts are quite possibly the single-most buzzkill of any show. In the age of UberEats and order-ahead apps, auggie sees a solution.

While you're at a show, you can easily order your favorite merch items on the app and choose to have it set aside for pickup that day or even get it mailed to you. The app is live on some downloading stores.

LilySpec

The speculum OB/GYNs use on their patients hasn't changed in 150 years, and, while effective, can be uncomfortable to patients during use. But this doesn't have to be the case.

LilySpec is a speculum designed with the patient in mind. The device is silently deployed, silicon coated for comfort, and adjustable for all women.

The LilySpec team will finish its clinical product this year, and the company's medical partners here in Texas will be able to use it on patients.

Myze

How do you staff a team for an unpredictable job? Emergency rooms face this challenge every single shift. Too many staffers makes the establishment bleed money, while too few causes burnout and even sacrifices quality of care.

Myze is developing a software platform that can use artificial intelligence and predictive analytics to help ERs better staff their teams.

CALI

Those suffering from Vertigo feel like the whole world has turned upside down. CALI is a device that helps those people turn it right back around.

The wearable device allows for users to do balance exercises and claim back control of their own situation.

DASH Innovations

For those relying on a catheter, changing it out requires 150 monthly procedures on average. Each one is another opportunity for infection.

DASH Innovations has created UrinControl, a urethral valve for pediatric patients that can be installed once a month and operated with a remote to control the bladder.

Get-A-Grip

Holding onto a cup is something most everyone takes for granted. For arthritis or muscle damage patients, it's a daunting daily task.

Get-A-Grip is designed to distribute the weight of the cup along the grip and make it easier and more comfortable to hold. While originally designed with these patients in mind, the grip comes in four sizes, with the smallest being perfect for babies grabbing at bottles or small children holding cups.

Everest Security

Preparing for and preventing phishing email-originated data breaches is the new normal for companies, but it's impossible to prevent employees from accidentally opening suspicious emails without thinking.

While there are plenty software protection companies out there, Everest Security couples their software solution with education, a core component for the company.

KickedOC

There are 2 million homes supposedly dedicated for off-campus housing for students, but no one-stop shop to find them. KickedOC is attempting to be that one-stop shop and make it easier for students to find their semester homes.

With listings already up in Houston, the startup hopes to expand its platform to College Station and other Texas college towns next.

Mismo Minds

Creating a creative team can be difficult if you don't have the connections already. Mismo Minds is a platform for artists, videographers, directors, etc. to join forces with others who share their creative vision. It's a social networking tool, project management platform, and job board all rolled into one.

Sports Betz

Typically for sports betting, you have two options: Impersonal bets with large pools or friendly wagers that might not ever pay off. Sports Betz is a platform where the competitive gamblers can casually bet with friends and family — but the money is pulled up front.

CIND

Chivalry is not dead, argues CIND, a new dating app. The app allows for potential matches to introduce themselves with a gift — which range from $2 to $100. Though, the recipient doesn't just walk away with the cash. The money actually goes to the recipient's nonprofit of choice. Only after the donation is made can matches start chatting.

CIND (pronounced like "Cindy") is basically digital donation dating, and everyone wins.

PCATCopycat

The Pharmacy College Admission Test isn't easy — and preparation isn't cheap.

PCATCopycat puts the power back into the hands of students. The online course is only $200 — way cheaper and easier for future pharmacists to navigate.

Second Act

Second Act is the startup that isn't. The non-company started the program with the idea of matching retirees with short-term work at various startups with the thought being that they have a lot of experience and a lot of time on their hands. While a great idea in theory, Second Act hit some walls and the company and idea are no more. The team, however, has a bright future in Houston innovation at other startups and companies.

Here's who you need to know this week in Houston innovation. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

This group of innovators to know this week are passionate people. From starting companies to making acquisitions, here's what they are up to and why you need to know their names.

Kelly McCormick, director of RED Labs

Photo courtesy of UH

Kelly McCormick is in the business of making University of Houston's entrepreneurs' dreams into realities. The RED Labs director wrote a guest article for InnovationMap about side hustles — what they are and how to make them worth their while.

"A side hustle has a science to it, and more importantly, it has an art," she writes. Read her full article here.

Randa Duncan Williams, chairman of Enterprise Products Partners LP

Photo courtesy of Texas Monthly

For the second time in three years, Texas Monthly has a new owner. But if Randa Duncan Williams — energy exec and heiress worth over $6 billion — has anything to say about it, she'll be the last new owner of the magazine. Duncan Williams — who acquired the magazine by way of a privately held company, Enterprise Products Company, that's a subsidiary of Enterprise Products Partners, the company her late father founded — says she wants to own the magazine "forever." Read the full story here.

Cody Gremminger, system engineer at Cyber One Solutions

Cody Gremminger

Photo courtesy of Cyber One Solutions

Cody Gremminger is running a booming tech services business with his fiance, Brian Carrico. The company is called Cyber One Solutions and provides management, service and IT support services to the greater Houston area with satellite offices in Austin, Dallas, Lufkin, Brenham, and Beaumont.

While business couldn't be better, the entrepreneur wants to make sure Houston takes this month to remember the losses and challenges that the LGBT community has endured to get where it is today. Read the full story here.

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H-E-B leader gifts $5 million to historic Houston-area university for future students

HEB and PVAMU

The leader of the Lone Star State’s beloved H-E-B has bestowed a monumental gift upon a historic Houston-area university.

On November 17, Prairie View A&M University announced that H-E-B chairman Charles Butt — one of America’s favorite CEOs and member of one of Texas’ richest families — has donated $5 million to create Founders Scholarships for incoming PVAMU students.

“The $5 million gift will provide a permanent endowment to support students today and in the coming years,” a release notes. “Initially generating approximately $200,000 a year for scholarships, the fund will grow significantly in coming years, making even more available to support students.”

The scholarships will be available to students from public high schools in Texas graduating in the top quartile of their class, the release says. They must be incoming first-year students, enrolled in a full-time course load, and as scholarship recipients, they will benefit from “enrichment opportunities unique to their [Founders Scholarships] cohort.”

Scholarship disbursements will begin in fall 2022, a spokesperson confirms; the number of initial scholarships available has not been revealed.

“Charles Butt has been amazingly generous to our university. He has shown time and time again that he genuinely cares about the opportunities afforded to students at PV. We are indebted to him for his grace and his humanity,” says Ruth Simmons, president of PVAMU, in the release.

Prairie View A&M University is the second-oldest public institution of higher learning in the state and is one of Texas’ historically Black universities. It is located approximately 50 miles northwest of Houston and has a current enrollment of more than 8,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston logistics software startup secures $8.4M series A from international investors

money moves

A Houston-based software company that's reducing cost and risk in the marine supply chain has closed its latest round of funding.

Voyager Portal, a software-as-a-service platform closed an $8.4 million series A investment round this week. The round was led by Phaze Ventures, a VC fund based in the Middle East, and included new investors — ScOp Venture Capital, Waybury Capital and Flexport. Additionally, all of Voyager's existing investors contributed to this round.

Voyager has reported significant growth over the past two years since its $1.5 million seed round. Between Q3 2020 to Q3 2021, the company's revenue has increased 13 times and was up 40 percent from Q2 2021. Voyager now manages over $1 billion in freight on the platform, according to a news release.

“Voyager Portal was created to significantly reduce cost, risk, and complexity when transporting bulk materials around the world,” says Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager, in the release. “The last two years have demonstrated just how critical shipping bulk commodities is to global markets – freight rates have increased and port congestion is at an all-time high – accelerating the demand for Voyager’s solution.”

Costello says the fresh funds will be used to support Voyager's continued growth.

“With our Series A funding, we’ll be able to expedite our product roadmap to support an international client base whilst expanding our engineering, development, marketing and sales teams internationally," he adds.

Matthew Costello Voyager Matthew Costello is the CEO and co-founder of Voyager.

Built from the ground up, Voyager's software was created to replace the antiquated and complex legacy systems the market has seen for decades. The platform allows companies to seamlessly collaborate in real time over a single shipment.

“Voyager's implementation has been hugely impressive,” says Adam Panni, operations manager at OMV, a multinational energy company based in Austria, in the release. “The low-code functionality allows almost real-time modifications to the developing workflows and reporting capabilities with no lengthy development and minimal testing prior to implementation. By digitizing data capture across all our physical movements, we are able to analyze our business much better, enabling faster and smarter decisions driven by data. This, in turn, will provide significant, quantifiable cost reductions for our business.”

Abdullah Al-Shaksy, co-founder and CEO of Phaze Ventures says the platform is evolving the industry as a whole at an important moment.

“Voyager is changing the way companies are thinking of their global shipping operations,” he says. “Global supply chains are becoming increasingly complex and strained, and there is an incredible treasure trove of data that organizations are underutilizing in their decision-making process. We believe what Voyager has created for their customers across the globe will revolutionize this space forever.”

Rice research: Revisiting the merits of nondigital data collecting

houston voices

Academics are learning quickly that investigations based on data from online research agencies have their drawbacks. Thousands of such studies are released every year – and if the data is compromised, so too are the studies themselves.

So it’s natural for researchers, and the managers who rely on their findings, to be concerned about potential problems with the samples they’re studying. Among them: participants who aren’t in the lab and researchers who can’t see who is taking their survey, what they are doing while answering questions or even if they are who they claim to be online. In the wake of a 2018 media piece about Amazon’s Mechanical Turks Service, “Bots on Amazon’s MTurk Are Ruining Psychology Studies,” one psychology professor even mused, “I wonder if this is the end of MTurk research?” (It wasn’t).

To tackle this problem, Rice Business professor Mikki Hebl joined colleagues Carlos Moreno and Christy Nittrouer of Rice University along with several other colleagues to highlight the value of other research methods. Four alternatives – field experiments, archival data, observations and big data – represent smart alternatives to overreliance on online surveys. These methods also have the advantage of challenging academics to venture outside of their laboratories and examine real people and real data in the real world.

Field experiments have been around for decades. But their value is hard to overestimate. Unlike online studies, field experiments enhance the role of context, especially in settings that are largely uncontrolled. It’s hard to fake a field experiment in order to create positive results since each one costs a considerable time and money.

And field experiments can yield real-life results with remarkable implications for society at large. Consider one experiment among 56 middle schools in New Jersey, which found that spreading anti-conflict norms was hugely successful in reducing the need for disciplinary action. Such studies have an impact well beyond what could be achieved with a simple online survey.

The best way to get started with a good field experiment, Hebl and her colleagues wrote, is for researchers to think about natural field settings to which they have access, either personally or by leveraging their networks. Then, researchers should think about starting with the variables critical for any given setting and which they would most like to manipulate to observe the outcome. When choosing variables, it’s helpful to start by thinking about what variable might have conditions leading to the greatest degree of behavior change if introduced into the setting.

Archival data is another excellent way to work around the limitations of online surveys, the researchers argue. These data get around some of the critical drawbacks of field research, including problems around how findings apply in a more general way. Archival data, especially in the form of state or national level data sets, provide information and insight into a large, diverse set of samples that are more representative of the general population than online studies.

Archival data can also help answer questions that are either longitudinal or multilevel in nature, which can be particularly tricky or even impossible to capture with data collected by any single research team. As people spend increasing amounts of time on social media, the internet also serves as a source of newer forms of archival data that can lend unique insights into individuals’ thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors over time.

With every passing year, technology becomes increasingly robust and adept at collecting massive amounts of data on an endless variety of human behavior. For the scientists who research social and personality psychology, the term “big data” refers not only to very large sets of data but also to the tools and techniques that are used to analyze it. The three defining properties of Big Data in this context include the speed of data processing and collection, the vast amount of data being analyzed and the sheer variety of data available.

By using big data, social scientists can generate research based on various conditions, as well as collect data in natural settings. Big data also offers the opportunity to consolidate information from huge and highly diverse stores of data. This technology has many applications, including psychological assessments and improving security in airports and other transportation hubs. In future research, Hebl and her team noted, researchers will likely leverage big data and its applications to detect our unconscious emotions.

Big data, archival information and field studies can all be used in conjunction with each other to maximize the fidelity of research. But researchers shouldn’t forget even more old-fashioned techniques, including the oldest: keen observation. With observation, there are often very few, if any, manipulations and the goal is simply to systematically record the way people behave.

Researchers – and the managers who make decisions based on their findings – should consider the advantages of old-style, often underused methodologies, Hebl and her colleagues argue. Moving beyond the college laboratory and digital data survey-collection platforms and into the real world offers some unparalleled advantages to science. For the managers whose stock prices may hinge on this science, it’s worth knowing – and understanding – how your all-important data was gathered.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Mikki Hebl, the Martha and Henry Malcolm Lovett Professor of psychology at Rice University, and Carlos Moreno and Christy Nittrouer, who are graduate students at Rice University. Additional researchers include Ho Kwan Cheung, Eden B. King, and Hannah Markellis of George Mason University.