This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Peter Rodriguez of Rice University, Kike Oduba of WellnessWits, and Phil Sitter of RepeatMD. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries recently making headlines in Houston across business, software, and digital health.

Peter Rodriguez, dean of Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business

Peter Rodriguez joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the school's growth and development as an innovation leader. Photo courtesy Annie Tao/Rice University

Entrepreneurship doesn't require a MBA from Rice University, but Dean Peter Rodriguez wants to make sure that the students who do pass through the halls of the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business are well prepared for creating a successful company.

"We really want to be the deliverer of the software in people's brain of how to launch great companies and to be trumpeting the opportunities here," he says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Rodriguez joined the school as dean in 2016, and since then he's doubled MBA enrollment, grown the tenure-track faculty by over 40 percent, launched an online graduate degree, created an undergraduate business major, and more.

"When I came here, I thought Rice had the best strategic foundation of any university for a great business school — and a lot of that is being really closely connected to Houston and bringing in innovation," he says on the show. Read more.

Kike Oduba, founder and CEO of WellnessWits

WellnessWits, founded by Kike Oduba to enhance patient-physician interaction, has integrated AI with the help of IBM. Photo via WellnessWits.com

A Houston startup aimed at transforming healthcare with solutions for chronic disease and its prevention has teamed up with IBM technology.

WellnessWits has embedded IBM watsonx Assistant into its app for both iOS and Android. By making generative AI part of the app, WellnessWits now boasts an AI-based chat functionality.

That cutting-edge aspect of the platform allows patients to get information on chronic disease more quickly than ever, even before meeting with their physician. But it helps with that, too, aiding in scheduling appointments more easily with doctors who specialize in a host of chronic maladies.

“I founded WellnessWits as a platform for shared medical appointments where doctors with large patient loads can see them in groups and offer collective shared medical experiences to people suffering from chronic conditions. The goal is to bridge this divide, leveraging the strength of digital communities to enhance the overall well-being and healthcare experiences of individuals everywhere,” WellnessWits Founder and CEO Dr. Kike Oduba, a physician and informatician, writes in a blog post. Read more.

Phil Sitter, founder and CEO of RepeatMD

Fresh off a win at the Houston Innovation Awards, Phil Sitter's RepeatMD has raised funding. Photo via RepeatMD

Just nine months after its seed round, a Houston startup with a software platform for the aesthetic and wellness industry has secured $40 million in venture capital and $10 million in debt facility.

RepeatMD, a SaaS platform, announced today that it's secured $50 million, which includes a $10 million debt facility from Silicon Valley Bank. The round was co-led by Centana Growth Partners and Full In Partners with participation from PROOF and Mercury Fund, which also contributed to the seed round earlier this year.

The mobile ecommerce platform, launched in October 2021 by Phil Sitter, targets practices within the med spa and aesthetics industry. In the United States, the med spa market is slated to hit $19 billion in 2023, according to the company's press release, while the global aesthetics market is forecasted to reach to nearly $332 billion by 2030.

“Even though the aesthetics and wellness industry has continued to innovate a growing range of life-changing treatments, practices continue to face challenges selling treatments and services that are new and unfamiliar to patients,” Sitter, CEO of RepeatMD, says in the release. “Our goal at RepeatMD is to give these practice owners the technology to elevate their patients’ experience. Our platform serves as a med-commerce engine equipped with the same firepower as large retailers to convert sales inside and outside of practice operating hours.” Read more.

WellnessWits, founded by Kike Oduba to enhance patient-physician interaction, has integrated AI with the help of IBM. Photo via WellnessWits.com

Houston health tech startup taps into IBM tech for AI integration

teaming up

A Houston startup aimed at transforming healthcare with solutions for chronic disease and its prevention has teamed up with IBM technology.

WellnessWits has embedded IBM watsonx Assistant into its app for both iOS and Android. By making generative AI part of the app, WellnessWits now boasts an AI-based chat functionality.

That cutting-edge aspect of the platform allows patients to get information on chronic disease more quickly than ever, even before meeting with their physician. But it helps with that, too, aiding in scheduling appointments more easily with doctors who specialize in a host of chronic maladies.

“I founded WellnessWits as a platform for shared medical appointments where doctors with large patient loads can see them in groups and offer collective shared medical experiences to people suffering from chronic conditions. The goal is to bridge this divide, leveraging the strength of digital communities to enhance the overall well-being and healthcare experiences of individuals everywhere,” WellnessWits Founder and CEO Dr. Kike Oduba, a physician and informatician, writes in a blog post.

Oduba founded the company in 2018. In its early years, she participated in IBM’s First AI Cohort for Underrrepresented Founders Program. She believes that by using watsonx Assistant in her technology arsenal, WellnessWits will be a means to “digitize, standardize and automate care plans for patients dealing with chronic diseases.”

Diabetes management is a cornerstone of the company, but Oduba says that WellnessWits is similarly committed to impacting health issues including cancer, chronic pain, mental health, and obesity.

“By partnering with IBM, and academic leaders in institutions like The University of Texas, we aim to extend our reach and impact,” Oduba says.

In addition to the IBM program, Oduba and WellnessWits was selected for MassChallenge's recent cohort.

MassChallenge Startup Stories: WellnessWits Founder's Journey from Struggles to SuccessIn this inspiring 6-minute testimonial, we take you through the remarkable experience of Dr. Oduba, founder and CEO of ...

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Houston ecommerce scale-up company acquires Amazon advertising partner

all aboard

A Houston tech company has tapped an Amazon partner in a strategic acquisition and is bringing the company's full team on board.

Cart.com acquired Ohio-based Amify, a company that provides optimization and advertising solutions. The terms of the deal were not disclosed but Cart.com will on board Amify’s entire employee base, including its founder Ethan McAfee, CEO Chris Mehrabi, and COO Christine McCambridge.

As chief delivery officer, Mehrabi will take the helm of Cart.com’s professional services business and McCambridge will lead Cart.com’s marketplace services team as vice president of marketplace services operations.

“I’m happy to welcome the entire Amify team to Cart.com and have industry veterans Chris Mehrabi and Christine McCambridge join our leadership team,” Cart.com Founder and CEO Omair Tariq says in a news release. “Amify has been widely recognized for their expertise and technology and we’re excited to leverage their experience to help our customers maximize their potential across channels.”

Cart.com's membership will have access to Amify's proprietary technology platform, including advertising, creative content, supply chain strategy, and analytics. The company, which was founded in 2011, currently supports over 50 global brands and manages approximately $1 billion in gross merchandise value. According to LinkedIn, Amify has over 50 employees.

“We could not be more excited to join Cart.com and leverage the company’s resources and scale to deliver value to both our customers and employees,” Mehrabi says. “I’m honored to step into the role of Chief Delivery Officer and contribute to Cart.com’s incredible growth story and innovative reputation.”

Founded in Houston in 2020, Cart.com provides comprehensive physical and digital infrastructure for online merchants. The company raised a $60 million series C and grown its customer base to over 6,000 users. After making several acquisitions, the company also operates 14 fulfillment centers nationwide.

Earlier this year, Tariq sat down with the Houston Innovators Podcast to share a bit about how the company is currently in scale-up mode.

Houston health tech innovator collaborates on promising medical device funded by DOD

team work

The United States Department of Defense has awarded a grant that will allow the Texas Heart Institute and Rice University to continue to break ground on a novel left ventricular assist device (LVAD) that could be an alternative to current devices that prevent heart transplantation and are a long-term option in end-stage heart failure.

The grant is part of the DOD’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP). It was awarded to Georgia Institute of Technology, one of four collaborators on the project that will be designed and evaluated by the co-investigator Yaxin Wang. Wang is part of O.H. “Bud” Frazier’s team at Texas Heart Institute, where she is director of Innovative Device & Engineering Applications Lab. The other institution working on the new LVAD is North Carolina State University.

The project is funded by a four-year, $7.8 million grant. THI will use about $2.94 million of that to fund its part of the research. As Wang explained to us last year, an LVAD is a minimally invasive device that mechanically pumps a person’s own heart. Frazier claims to have performed more than 900 LVAD implantations, but the devices are far from perfect.

The team working on this new research seeks to minimize near-eventualities like blood clot formation, blood damage, and driveline complications such as infection and limitations in mobility. The four institutions will try to innovate with a device featuring new engineering designs, antithrombotic slippery hydrophilic coatings (SLIC), wireless power transfer systems, and magnetically levitated driving systems.

Wang and her team believe that the non-contact-bearing technology will help to decrease the risk of blood clotting and damage when implanting an LVAD. The IDEA Lab will test the efficacy and safety of the SLIC LVAD developed by the multi-institutional team with a lab-bench-based blood flow loop, but also in preclinical models.

“The Texas Heart Institute continues to be a leading center for innovation in mechanical circulatory support systems,” said Joseph G. Rogers, MD, the president and CEO of THI, in a press release.

“This award will further the development and testing of the SLIC LVAD, a device intended to provide an option for a vulnerable patient population and another tool in the armamentarium of the heart failure teams worldwide.”

If it works as hypothesized, the SLIC LVAD will improve upon current LVAD technology, which will boost quality of life for countless heart patients. But the innovation won’t stop there. Technologies that IDEA Lab is testing include wireless power transfer for medical devices and coatings to reduce blood clotting could find applications in many other technologies that could help patients live longer, healthier lives.

Houston investor on SaaS investing and cracking product-market fit

Houston innovators podcast episode 230

Aziz Gilani's career in tech dates back to when he'd ride his bike from Clear Lake High School to a local tech organization that was digitizing manuals from mission control. After years working on every side of the equation of software technology, he's in the driver's seat at a local venture capital firm deploying funding into innovative software businesses.

As managing director at Mercury, the firm he's been at since 2008, Gilani looks for promising startups within the software-as-a-service space — everything from cloud computing and data science and beyond.

"Once a year at Mercury, we sit down with our partners and talk about the next investment cycle and the focuses we have for what makes companies stand out," Gilani says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The current software investment cycle is very focused on companies that have truly achieved product-market fit and are showing large customer adoption."



An example of this type of company is Houston-based RepeatMD, which raised a $50 million series A round last November. Mercury's Fund V, which closed at an oversubscribed $160 million, contributed to RepeatMD's round.

"While looking at that investment, it really made me re-calibrate a lot of my thoughts in terms what product-market fit meant," Gilani says. "At RepeatMD, we had customers that were so eager for the service that they were literally buying into products while we were still making them."

Gilani says he's focused on finding more of these high-growth companies to add to Mercury's portfolio amidst what, admittedly, has been a tough time for venture capital. But 2024 has been looking better for those fundraising.

"We've some potential for improvement," Gilani says. "But overall, the environment is constrained, interest rates haven't budged, and we've seen some potential for IPO activity."

Gilani shares more insight into his investment thesis, what areas of tech he's been focused on recently, and how Houston has developed as an ecosystem on the podcast.