3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Joy M. Hutton of Joy of Consulting, Michael T. Suffredini of Axiom Space, and Kim Raath of Topl. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In the last weekly roundup of Houston innovators of 2020, I'm introducing you to three innovators across the city — the new local leader of a new Google program, the CEO of a space tech company, and a startup founder with fresh funds.

Joy M. Hutton, local leader of Grow with Google's Digital Coach program

Joy M. Hutton leads the Grow with Google in Houston. Photo courtesy of Google

Joy M. Hutton is a serial entrepreneur and has just signed on to help guide other startup founders as the local leader of the Grow with Google Digital Coach program in Houston. Just like any other entrepreneur this year, Hutton, who was planning to launch her company On the Go Glam in March, was challenged to pivot her own startup amid COVID-19 and its accompanying obstacles.

On this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Hutton shares how the pandemic caused her to rethink the timeline on some of the features she had in mind for the company.

"The pandemic was kind of a good thing, because it allowed me to take a step back and add additional services for men," Hutton says, adding that expanding into offering barbershop services was always a plan, but the new need pushed her to quickly pivot. Read more and stream the episode.

Michael T. Suffredini, president and CEO of Axiom Space

Michael T. Suffredini co-founded Houston-based Axiom Space. Photo via AxiomSpace.com

A veteran of the space business, Michael T. Suffredini now leads Axiom Space, which just announced a partnership with the Houston Spaceport. Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that Axiom Space will construct a 14-acre headquarters.

The headquarters "will be the world's first free-flying internationally available private space station that will serve as humanity's central hub for research, manufacturing, and commerce," Turner said.

The partnership is expected to bring more than 1,000 high-paying jobs, from engineers to scientists, mathematicians, and machinists. Read more.

Kim Raath, CEO of Topl

Kim Raath is ending her year with news of a VC deal. Courtesy of Topl

Unfortunately, the pandemic has had its detrimental effect on venture capital — especially when it comes to female-founded companies. Crunchbase reported a 27 percent decrease in funding for female-founded companies.

In light of this statistic, Kim Raath, CEO and co-founder of Houston-based Topl, is feeling pretty proud of leading her company to closing a $3 million round with support from investors both locally and across the country.

"We're grateful to have closed an oversubscribed venture round during a pandemic, especially given the unfortunate truth that many women-led startups are getting much less investment during this time," says Kim Raath, CEO of Topl, in a press release. "Bringing transparency to causes dedicated to environmental and social good has never been more important. We are building a modern blockchain for a world where purpose and profit go hand in hand." Read more.

This week's innovators to know roundup includes Kirsten Siebach of Rice University, Mike Francis of NanoTech Inc., and Kim Raath of Topl. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In today's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators across industries — from space exploration to materials science.

Kirsten Siebach, assistant professor at Rice University

It's Kirsten Siebach's second Mars rover mission to work on. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Kirsten Siebach is getting ready for her Mars mission — one that keeps her firmly planted on Earth, but will allow her to search for ancient microbial life on the Red Planet nonetheless. The Rice University professor has again been selected by NASA to join a research team overseeing a rover that is currently en route to Mars.

"Because there is only one rover, the whole team at NASA has to agree about what to look at, or analyze, or where to drive on any given day," Siebach says in the release. "None of the rovers' actions are unilateral decisions. But it is a privilege to be part of the discussion and to get to argue for observations of rocks that will be important to our understanding of Mars for decades." Read more.

Mike Francis, co-founder of NanoTech Inc.

Mike Francis, co-founder of NanoTech, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his plans to fireproof California. Photo courtesy of NanoTech

Mike Francis wants to fireproof the state of California. It's a lofty goal, but he has the means. His company, NanoTech Inc., has an innovative product that can insulate and fireproof materials, and, buoyed by a $5 million seed round, he's well on his way to being able to slowly but surely fireproof existing infrastructure in the West Coast.

"We're working with all of the major players in the state of California to not only fireproof the utility infrastructure, but eventually homes and businesses," Francis says on last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our goal, if we're looking into the future, is to fireproof that state — and we're working with the right people and companies to make it happen." Read more and listen to the podcast.

Kim Raath, CEO of Topl

More and more consumers are expecting transparency from companies, and this Houston startup is on a mission to use blockchain to make businesses more transparent. Courtesy of Topl

Nowadays, consumers care about where their products come from — and if they exist due to a humanitarian or sustainable supply chain — and the onus is on businesses to increase transparency. That's where Topl, a Houston-based blockchain company, and its new partner Trackz, a Denver-based supply chain software company, come in.

"Topl and TrackX's solution will be a great option for companies having to comply with new regulations and compliance mandates," says Kim Raath, CEO of Topl. "Further, our joint solution allows users to visualize their supply chain data, monitor suppliers, and easily report the progress of ESG initiatives to all stakeholders."

More and more consumers are expecting transparency from companies, and this Houston startup is on a mission to use blockchain to make businesses more transparent. Getty Images

Houston blockchain startup to collaborate to increase supply chain transparency

impact shopping

More than two-thirds of the country's consumers have been reported saying that a business's social reputation will influence their buying decisions. A Houston blockchain startup has teamed up with another company to increase transparency.

Topl and Denver-based TrackX, a software-as-a-service asset management and supply chain solution provider, have entered into a partnership aimed at combining technology to create a verifiable tracking and tracing solution to equip company supply chains with sustainability, transparency, and efficiency.

According to Topl CEO, Kim Raath, the FDA announced new requirements in September, and the new rule requires full traceability in several agri-food products.

"This new rule will force many agri-food brands to take a deep look across their supply chains and find a way to track and trace their products," says Raath in a press release. "Topl and TrackX's solution will be a great option for these companies having to comply with new regulations and compliance mandates. Further, our joint solution allows users to visualize their supply chain data, monitor suppliers, and easily report the progress of ESG initiatives to all stakeholders."

Kim Raath is the CEO of Topl. Photo courtesy of Topl

Together with Topl's purpose-built blockchain technology and TrackX's core enterprise asset management and supply chain optimization capabilities, companies can securely share verified event data to lower costs and increase transparency.

"Our clients have a unique opportunity to turn supply chain optimization into a competitive advantage," says Tim Harvie, TrackX CEO, in the release. "TrackX already automates supply chain execution and analytics for many leading brands and retailers.

"Tight integration with Topl's blockchain will now provide the 'proof' to all supply chain stakeholders that certain events have occurred," he continues. "In partnership with Topl, our enterprise customers will have the tracing, tracking, visibility and accountability they need to meet their digital supply chain and ESG initiatives."

Houston-based Topl has joined forces with an Austin company to safely track COVID-19 test kit results. Photo via Getty Images

Houston blockchain startup partners with software company for COVID-19 test kit tracking

pandemic innovating

A Houston-based blockchain network developer has established a partnership with an Austin-based developer to track and trace COVID-19 test kits.

Topl and Media Sourcery Inc. announced this week that they are teaming up to jointly develop and launch various blockchain-powered platforms. The first of the projects will use Topl's impact-focused blockchain with MSI's workflow automation and security tools in a health care application involved in tracking test kits for COVID-19.

With a goal of increasing transparency while maintaining security, Topl and MSI's test kit tracking process can provide results to those who need them while remaining HIPAA compliant and secure.

"Identity solutions are extremely important to the blockchain community," says Kim Raath, CEO of Topl, in a press release. "Blockchain technology is uniquely suited to prove identity and make authorizations more secure. This is something that will be particularly useful in healthcare applications, as we can be guaranteed that patient data and medical information remains private, secured, and tracked, as opposed to some current methods that are not able match patient identities with patient procedures and treatments."

Two health care companies are already involved in the project. California-based Achieve Health Management will be the distributor of the kits and Osang Healthcare, the first South Korean firm to receive FDA approval for COVID-19 test kit distribution in the United States, will be the test kit manufacturer.

"The transparency of having a shared public ledger for the transport, storage, and handling events of the GeneFinder COVID-19 Plus RealAmp Tests will provide unprecedented assurance to our labs, customers and test populations," says Stacy Chick, chief commercial officer for Achieve Health Management, in the release. "This application will also help ensure our end-to-end process provides proper test kit handling and storage in temperature-controlled environments for optimal test performance".

Topl and MSI have plans for other COVID-related projects, including tracking vaccines as they continue to be developed and eventually distributed.

"The technology under our non-repudiation patent provides a layer of certified trust," says Larry Ketchersid, CEO of MSI, in the release. "Combining that solution with the immutability and shared public ledger provided by the Topl blockchain-as-a-service solution will give our customers the highest level of transparency, visibility and trust."

Kim Raath, CEO of Topl, and Leslie Goldman, general partner at The Artemis Fund, identified three challenges that female entrepreneurs face while going through the fundraising process. Photos courtesy

2 female Houston entrepreneurs discuss challenges women face during fundraising

women in VC

It's estimated that women make up only around 10 percent of decision makers in venture capital firms in the United States, and women-led companies only receive of a fraction of venture capital invested. And, stats aside, female entrepreneurs continue to face obstacles in the process that their male counterparts don't always share.

Kim Raath — co-founder and CEO of Topl, a Houston-based blockchain startup — and Leslie Goldman — general partner and co-founder of The Artemis Fund — discussed some of these obstacles at a virtual fireside chat for Dallas Startup Week. Here are the three challenges women face during fundraising, as Raath and Goldman discussed.

Balancing being realist with optimism

It's almost a chiche at this point — yet it still holds a great deal of truth — that women tend to be more honest than men when it comes to applying for jobs, for instance. Goldman says she's seen it plenty of times, especially when she was involved in corporate recruiting at one point in her career. Raath and Goldman agreed, women want to check off all the boxes on a requirements list.

"Men would apply if they could check just one box," Goldman says. "Women tend to be more realistic."

This trait, while noble, can be a disadvantage as it translates to the fundraising process.

Navigating unconscious bias

Raath says she's no stranger to discrimination for being a woman. In the chat, she tells a story of when she was a girl and the woman's track event she was supposed to run was canceled. She had her heart set on getting to nationals, so her father lobbied for her to get a chance to run in the boy's race. Eventually, they let her and she came in second place.

She continued to observe moments like this throughout her schooling, especially when she started studying male-dominated studies like economics and statistics — Raath now has a master's and a Ph.D from Rice University. When recently raising money for Topl's latest round, her observational and statistical mind picked up on something. Raath explains that there are two types of questions a VC might ask you — preventative vs. promotional. An example she gives for each is:

  • Preventative: "How many daily users do you have?"
  • Promotional: "How do you look to acquire users?"

"About three months in, I started realizing that I'm constantly getting these preventative questions. So, I did a little research," Raath says, explaining that she found that women are more likely to get these preventative questions. "Now, every preventative question I got, I started answering with a promotional answer."

It's the same unconscious bias as how a young male entrepreneur might be considered, "young and promising," while a woman with the same resume would be considered, "young and inexperienced."

Creating a supportive network

Raath and Goldman discussed the importance of women surrounding themselves with supportive networks made up of both women and men. On one hand, it's key to have fellow female entrepreneurs or investors who have been in your shoes before or whom you can give advice to — Raath says she created "woke woman wine nights" with her interns this summer.

On the other hand, having men in your network who can act as advocates — like Raath's father was as well as her male co-founders whom she says are great supporters — is crucial too.

"I have been surrounded by some amazing male counterparts," Raath says. "That's the other side of this is finding male champions."

Three Houston innovators to know this week include Kim Raath of Topl, Gaurav Khandelwal of ChaiOne, and Nobel Prize winner Jim Allison. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

This week's Houston innovators to know include a blockchain expert with insight on how COVID-19 is affecting supply chain, a Houston tech leader with a logistics software solution, and a streamable story on cancer treatment innovation.

Kim Raath, CEO and co-founder of Topl

Photo courtesy of Topl

Amid the negativity the COVID-19 news, one Houston startup had an exciting announcement. It reworked its C-suite and Kim Raath, who just finished Ph.D in statistics and a Master's in economics at Rice University, has transitioned into the CEO role. Raath and her co-founders, James Aman and Chris Georgen, recently convened to re-envision the company's next phase.

"It was definitely a cool experience for us as founders to go through together, but I'm glad that all three of us came out of this excited about what we're doing moving forward," says Raath. Read more.

Gaurav Khandelwal, CEO and founder of ChaiOne

Photo courtesy of ChaiOne

Houston tech company ChaiOne recently announced the soft launch of Velostics, the "slack" for logistics that solve wait times and cash flow challenges in the supply chain and logistics industry. The digital logistics platform is set to aid the struggling supply chain as surging demands stretch suppliers, offering their platform free for 60 days.

"At ChaiOne we have a history of helping Houstonians whenever disaster strikes," says CEO and founder, Gaurav Khandelwal. "We created a disaster connect app during Hurricane Harvey for free that connected people with the resources they need. Velostics by pure happenstance happened to be ready for situations like [the coronavirus] when there's a lot of parties that need to collaborate." Read more.

James Allison, chair of Immunology and executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform at MD Anderson Cancer Center

Jim Allison MD Anderson

Photo courtesy of MD Anderson Cancer Center

In a time when our health care heroes are serving on the front lines of the coronavirus, it's a great reminder of the work they all do round — from the research labs and academic institutions to the patient rooms. Jim Allison, a researcher in immunotherapy for MD Anderson Cancer Center recently took home the Nobel Prize for his work. He went on to be the subject of a documentary that premiered at SXSW last year, and that film will be coming to a TV near you.

Jim Allison: Breakthrough premieres on Independent Lens at 9 pm Monday, April 27, on PBS, PBS.org, and the PBS Video App. Read more.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston-based startup expands hangover product line with new beverage launch

cheers to health

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

Get a glimpse at the schedule and speakers for global healthtech event

Itinerary Time

HealthTech Beyond Borders is coming up August 10-13, 2021, where American healthtech companies can find their perfect match with Chilean collaborators. But what exactly can you expect from the free, virtual event?

Besides answering the question "why Chile?," the seminars will touch on everything from software solutions and medical facility management to healthcare products and services, and even venture capital opportunities.

A curated group of successful Chilean and U.S. healthtech companies are participating, including those that specialize in artificial intelligence, 3-D printing, medical robotics, gene therapies, nanomedicine, neurotechnology, eye care tech, telehealth, imaging diagnostics, wellness and fitness, mental health, and more.

The first day includes such panelists as Matias Gutierrez, CEO of Genosur LLC, and Alberto Rodríguez Navarro from Levita Magnetics.

A discussion on the current healthcare innovation ecosystem in Chile and the region's strengths, as well as developments for key sub-sectors are also on tap.

Day two kicks off with everything you'd want to know about venture capital, and why the U.S. has been the largest for Chilean startups.

Find answers to questions like what do early stage companies need to consider and what steps do they need to take to best prepare themselves to receive funding, as well as what are the important tools for companies to reach VC on each territory?

Day three examines the question "Why the U.S.?" What have Houston, Chicago, and Philadelphia done to become key healthcare hubs in the world, and what role do international partners play in these efforts? Representatives from each city are participating.

Likewise, why do international healthcare companies prioritize your respective markets, and how do these cities support expansion? Learn how the global U.S. private healthcare sector can reach Latin America, and how ProChile — the event's sponsor — can help make these connections.

Registration is now open, so get your free tickets here.

Houston cancer-fighting institution names 10 innovative fellows

curing cancer

A Houston institution has identified 10 researchers moving the needle on curing cancer.

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center named 10 "early career" faculty members to its 2021 class of Andrew Sabin Family Fellows. The fellowship was established by philanthropist Andrew Sabin through a $30 million endowment in 2015 and "encourages creativity, innovation and impactful cancer research at MD Anderson in the areas of basic science, clinical, physician-scientist and population and quantitative science," according to a news release.

Sabin has served as a member of the MD Anderson Cancer Center Board of Visitors since 2005.

"Researchers at MD Anderson are unmatched in their ability to develop bold tactics aimed at tackling cancer," he says in the release. "My hope is that through our support, we can inspire and assist these brilliant minds in their dedicated work to end cancer."

The program will dole out $100,000 to each fellow over two years. Since its inception, the program has selected and supported 52 fellows specializing in cancer research from basic science to translational research to survivorship.

"Our early career researchers are a pivotal part of the innovative discoveries that fuel our mission to end cancer," says President Peter WT Pisters, in the release. "We are extremely grateful for the generosity of the Andrew Sabin Family Foundation in allowing our institution to recruit and retain the highest caliber of young researchers through this fellowship program. Together, we will continue Making Cancer History."

The 2021 class of Sabin Family Fellows includes:

Basic/Translational Scientists

Clinical Researchers

Physician-Scientists

Population/Quantitative Scientists