Ope Amosu, a Rice University MBA grad, practiced a lot of lean startup techniques when starting his restaurant business, ChòpnBlọk. Photo via Instagram

It was one of those toasty, 95-degree evenings in late September in Houston, and we were clinking our craft cocktails to a full house at ChòpnBlọk's latest pop up concept – the fifth restaurant takeover in his series. I don't know what was hotter… outside, the vibe, or the spice in the ata rodo (scotch bonnet) maple syrup our plantain pancakes were lathered in. But one thing is for sure, as he prepares to open a brick and mortar location in 2020, Ope Amosu, a Rice University MBA graduate and the founder of ChòpnBlọk, is proving himself to be a mean, lean (startup) machine.

After getting his MBA from Rice Business in 2014, he began traveling extensively for work and was frustrated with his inability to easily access authentic West African cuisine in Houston and beyond. He was able to conveniently experience other cultures through successful restaurant concepts, but not his own. So in order to see if he had what it take to bring high quality, convenient West African inspired cuisine to Texas, he did what every MBA graduate dreams of: he rolled up his sleeves and secured a part-time job working the line at Chipotle.

Chipotle taught Ope the art of restaurant operations, and he made money learning it. Pulling together his lessons learned, he began building out his business plan. He identified a large West African population in Houston that was being under-served and was confident in his ability to address this market gap with his fast-casual concept. From his time working with various engineering groups, he knew that he needed to test his idea early so he could fail early and fail fast without breaking the bank.

This led to the inception of ChòpnBlọk. Ope knew acquiring a food truck would be too timely and too expensive, so he went a more creative, cost–effective route. He began hosting private dinners where his guests experienced a multi-course dining program rich with West African flavor.

Those full and happy guests unknowingly were participating in a fun focus group. He leveraged these dinners to collect data from each diner. What did they recommend he charge per meal? Did they like what they were eating? What was their current dining out behaviors? After hosting over ten smaller private dinners, he had collected valuable pieces of information that would inform his business plan including:

  1. He had market data from over 200 diners.
  2. He proved that there was an appetite for West African cuisine in Houston. His fears that the common stigmas about African culture would hinder his growth seemed unfounded.
  3. He quickly optimized operational efficiency in feeding his guests.

Having validated customer demand, honed in on customer preferences, and demonstrated that the market opportunity he believed existed could be captured, all without taking on investors, it was time to take the next step. ChòpnBlọk began efforts to scale, finding a way to re-engage customers who were hungry for more.

This is how the pop-up experiences came to life. With his restaurant takeovers, Ope is able to serve well over 100 paying customers per dinner and gain all the operational know-how that goes along with such an affair. In a risk-free environment, he gets to test various creative concepts and fine-tune logistics…all with almost zero overhead and very minimal risk.

You can probably guess what is next. It should come as no surprise that ChòpnBlọk has been approached by funders and developers to launch a brick and mortar location for 2020. With hundreds of paying customers, a net promoter score staying high at 9/10, and an entrepreneur's tenacity like his, I have a feeling ChòpnBlọk will be coming for Chipotle in just a matter of time.

Want to learn more? Visit their website and follow them on Instagram.

------

Caitlin Bolanos is the senior associate director at the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship.

This article originally appeared on Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship's blog.

A new hub on Rice University campus, Houston receives national rankings, and more local innovation news. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Shell commits to $10M carbon initiative with Rice University, Houston startup acquired by Honeywell, and more innovation news

Short Stories

Even toward the end of the year and amid the holiday season, Houston's innovation news can be a lot to keep up with. Here are seven short stories of Houston innovation — from an exit for a Houston startup and a multimillion-dollar clean energy commitment from Shell to new national recognitions for Houston and 2020 plans unveiled for MassChallenge in Houston.

Shell commits $10 million to new Carbon Hub at Rice University

Matteo Pasquali will lead the new hub at Rice University. Courtesy of Rice University

Rice University has introduced its Shell-backed Carbon Hub — a research initiative to innovate zero-emissions technologies. According to a news release, Shell has committed to a $10 million arrangement for the hub.

"Trying to address climate change is like playing whack-a-mole; you think you're making something better, and you realize that made something else get worse," says Carbon Hub director, Matteo Pasquali, in the release. "For example, you make cars more fuel efficient by removing weight, and then realize you've increased CO2 emissions by using more aluminum and carbon fibers. Or you try to fix CO2 into a useful product, and you realize you now need much more energy than you had gotten by making the CO2 in the first place."

The plan is to "fundamentally change how the world uses hydrocarbons," reads the release. Rather than burning hydrocarbons for fuel, creating carbon dioxide, the hydrocarbons "will be split to make clean-burning hydrogen fuel and solid carbon materials that can be used to make buildings, cars, clothing and more."

Through the partnership with Shell — and other potential partners — the hub will help fund and lead $100 million of science and engineering initiatives. The inaugural meeting for the hub is expected to be early next year and will be hosted by The Center for Energy Studies at Rice's Baker Institute for Public Policy.

"Providing energy to the world's population in an economically and environmentally sustainable manner is the global energy challenge," says Ken Medlock, senior director of the Center for Energy Studies, in the release. "In part, this will require new technologies and forward-looking, creative thinking, which is exactly what Carbon Hub offers."

Houston-based Rebellion Photonics acquired by Honeywell

Photo via rebellionphotonics.com

Innovative gas monitoring technology company, Rebellion Photonics, founded by Allison Sawyer and Robert Kester in Houston in 2009, has been acquired by Honeywell for an undisclosed amount.

The business will be rolled into Honeywell's Safety and Productivity Solutions business, as well as through Honeywell's Performance Materials and Technologies business, according to a press release.

"Honeywell is an amazing company and a recognized leader in our industry. We are excited to be part of their world-class family," Kester, who serves as CEO of Rebellion Photonics, says in the release. "Automated visual monitoring is the future of gas leak detection. Combining our products with Honeywell's platform will make this the new industry standard for safety and environmental monitoring globally."

MassChallenge to announce details of its second Houston cohort

Photo courtesy of MassChallenge

MassChallenge Texas has released new details of its second cohort in Houston. The zero equity startup accelerator based in downtown will run its second cohort from June to September of next year. Up to 100 startups will be selected for the Houston program, and another cohort of up to 100 startups will run along the same timeline in Austin.

On the line for prizes this year is six months of free office space, experts and mentors, the MassChallenge curriculum, access to top corporate leaders, as well as cash prizes and in-kind support — valued at over $500,000.

Both Austin and Houston will celebrate the launch of the two programs on January 29 — Houston's event will take place at the Four Seasons Hotel (1300 Lamar St.) from 5:30 to 7:30 pm.

MassChallenge recently announced its new home in The Cannon's Downtown Launch Pad in partnership with Amegy Bank.

Houston named in Inc.'s top 50 cities to start a business

houston skyline

Getty Images

Houston just made it onto the list of the top 50 cities to start a business, according to Surge Cities index, Inc., and Startup Genome. Coming in at No. 45, the Bayou City ranked behind Austin (No. 1) and Dallas (No. 29).

"Houston wants to be known as the Third Coast, a place that is both a business and cultural hub," the blurb on Inc. reads. "A place where people want to be. And this city, one of the most diverse in the country, is well on its way."

The report highlights Houston's historic hold on the oil and gas industry, the Texas Medical Center's established presence, and the space innovation happening at NASA. Roger Griesmeyer, a partner at Hunton Andrews Kurth, says in the article that Houston has low regulations and taxes coupled with "a highly educated populace, great weather, and a bunch of money."

"There's such diversity and a confluence of talent and opportunity in one place," says Griesmeyer in the article. "Houston is selling a lifestyle brand with all the resources to bear."

Houston was ranked highly on three factors:

  • No. 23 for job creation
  • No. 20 for wage growth
  • No. 25 for population growth

Accenture announces finalists for Houston-based competition

Courtesy of Accenture

In February, Accenture's Houston innovation hub will host the fourth annual Accenture HealthTech Innovation Challenge. Eleven companies have been named finalists and are headed to Houston in the new year.

"This annual HealthTech challenges creates an exciting opportunity to connect healthcare incumbents with emerging businesses to drive health system evolution focused on improving the lives of consumers and clinicians by enhancing access, affordability, quality and experience," says Brian Kalis, managing director of digital health and innovation services at Accenture, in the news release. "We are all looking forward to the final round and awards ceremony on February 6, 2020 in Houston when the finalists will present to an exclusive panel of healthcare executive judges."

No Texas companies were selected as finalists. The 11 selected startups are: New York-based Capital Rx, Minneapolis-based Carrot Health, San Francisco-based Cleo, Boston-based DynamiCare Health, San Francisco-based InsightRX, United Kingdom-based Lantum, Washington, D.C.-based Mira, Denver-based Orderly Health, New York City-based Paloma Health, St. Louis-based TCARE, and Seattle-based Xealth.

Houston area ranked the 18th best-paying city for software developers

Chart via heytutor.com

According to a new report from HeyTutor.com, the Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land metroplex is the 18th best-paying city for software developers. The report factored in salary and employment statistics for Houston and other U.S. metropolitan areas using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics.

Houston's mean adjusted software developer salary is $107,672 annually, according to the report. Here are some other interesting statistics regarding the Houston area from the data:

  • Mean software developer salary (adjusted): $107,672
  • Mean software developer salary (unadjusted): $109,503 — compared to $109,914 nationally
  • Mean salary across all occupations (unadjusted): $54,290 — compared to $51,960 nationally
  • Number of software developer jobs: 20,400 — compared to $51,960 nationally
  • Median home price: $205,600 — compared to $226,800 nationally

Business idea competition calls for applications

Photo courtesy of LILIE

The Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship has announced the applications for the 2020 H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge business idea competition, which will take place on March 25. On the line is $60,000 in prize money to the teams, and the applications are open to Rice-affiliated teams until 11:59 pm on January 20.

To apply, click here.

Check out these conferences, pitch competitions, networking, and more. Getty Images

10+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events for October

Where to be

October is another busy one for Houston innovation. Data-focused conferences, a rescheduled grand opening for The Cannon, and so much more.

If you know of innovation-focused events for this month or next, email me at natalie@innovationmap.com with the details and subscribe to our daily newsletter that sends fresh stories straight to your inboxes every morning.

October 2 — Startup Communication: Post Funding Investor Relations with Eric Danziger

Join Eric Danziger, chief revenue officer at Innowatts, on discussing post-funding investor relations. Danziger has been in the cleantech and smart grid industry for the past 10 years, and Innowatts closed its $18.2 million round earlier this year.

Details: The event is from 5:30 to 7 pm on Wednesday, October 2, at Station Houston (1301 Fannin Street, #2440). Learn more.

October 3 — Raising That First Round with Steve Gray, ATX Venture Partners

Where do you start? This workshop will cover the basics of preparation for that first round of capital raising. There is a rhythm to fundraising, but more importantly, the preparation is vital. Every goal to which you aspire must have a plan and fundraising is no different. At this workshop, Steve Gray of ATX Venture Partners will discuss some lessons learned over the years as well as share ideas on what works and what doesn't.

Details: The event is from 5:30 to 7 pm on Thursday, October 3, at Station Houston (1301 Fannin Street, #2440). Learn more.

October 3 — Growth Tour: Houston

Join Alice, Salesforce Essentials, and the Houston small business community for an unforgettable morning of workshops, networking, and real takeaways to help you reach your goals and strengthen your business.

Details: The event is from 8:30 am to 1 pm on Thursday, October 3, at The Space HTX (2005 Commerce St). Learn more.

October 4 — Houston Next: ERG Summit 2019

To reflect Houston's unique position as the most diverse city in the nation, the Greater Houston Partnership is hosting the Houston NEXT: An ERG Summit with a focus on corporate culture and talent. Join business leaders, HR executives, diversity and inclusion officers and ERG leaders for thoughtful conversations on building diverse and inclusive workplaces.

Details: The event is from 10:30 am to 4:30 pm on Friday, October 4, at Marriott Marquis (1777 Walker Street). Learn more.

October 8 — The Dolphin Tank: Houston

The Dolphin Tank is a "friendly-feedback" pitch session for women entrepreneurs. Springboard Enterprises Dolphin Tank® programs are "helpful feedback-driven" pitch sessions for entrepreneurs to receive constructive insights from knowledgeable professionals. Dolphin Tanks aren't about sharks, piranhas, dragons, or competing for the best idea – they're about channeling the expertise of the people in the room.

Details: The event is from 6 to 8 pm on Tuesday, October 8, at Lilie Lab (Rice University).Learn more.

October 9 — Founders Bootcamp: A Roadmap For Your Startup

JLabs is sitting down with local seasoned investors and entrepreneurs to take a deep dive into key topics designed to equip you with a roadmap for elevating your startup, no matter what stage, into a great company and we'll be swapping war stories along the way.

Details: The event is from 11:30 am to 1 pm on Wednesday, October 9, at JLabs @ TMC (2450 Holcombe Blvd.). Learn more.

October 8-16 — Sesh Coworking

Houston's first female-focused coworking popup event is taking over the town with networking, growth opportunities, and more. Day passes start at $25.

Details: The event is from Tuesday, October 8, to Wednesday, October 16, at Sharespace (1120 Naylor St). Learn more.

October 10 — DataCon Houston

This annual data-focused event is a social and networking opportunity combined with educational programming for business technology.

Details: The event is from 8 am to 8 pm on Thursday, October 10, at TopGolf (1030 Memorial Brook Boulevard). Learn more.

October 17 — Lunch & Learn: CPRIT Information Session


Join the CPRIT team at JLABS to learn about CPRIT's grant funding opportunities available to companies that are developing cancer-focused therapeutics, diagnostics/devices, tools and other non-traditional oncology products.

Details: The event is from 11:30 am to 1 pm on Thursday, October 17, at JLabs @ TMC (2450 Holcombe Blvd.). Learn more.

October 17 — Ignite Healthcare's Annual Fire Pitch Event

The Ignite Healthcare Network Fire Pitch Competition is held each year to encourage innovation in emerging women-led healthcare companies. The program provides an opportunity for women entrepreneurs to engage with advisors, potential customers, and investors to accelerate and refine the growth of their companies.

Details: The event is from 5 to 8:30 pm on Thursday, October 17, at JLabs @ TMC (2450 Holcombe Blvd.) Learn more.

October 17 — JLABS x UH: Startup Pains: From Academia to Startup (Med Device)

JLABS and the University of Houston Technology Bridge present a special installment of Startup Pains, a monthly talk given by entrepreneurs who share their journey of launching a company and overcoming unanticipated obstacles in order to find success in their industry.

Details: The event is from 5 to 7 pm on Thursday, October 17, at UH Technology Bridge, Building 4, Floor 2 (5000 Gulf Freewa7).

October 24 — Central Houston's Annual Innovatech Meeting

This year's program advances the conversation on how not only build, but sustain and support successful and robust innovation ecosystems. Attending the event will be a group of nationally known experts in the fields of placemaking, startup incubators, venture capital and entrepreneurship, and guest speakers will include Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris Country Judge Lina Hidalgo, Central Houston's President Bob Eury, and Central Houston's Board Chair, Scott Prochazaka, who is the president and CEO of CenterPoint Energy, will inaugurate the meeting.

Details: The event is from 11:30 am to 1 pm on Thursday, October 24, at Lanier Grand Ballroom at the Hilton Americas (1600 Lamar St.). Learn more.

October 24 — The Cannon Grand Opening

The Cannon, an entrepreneurial hub in West Houston, is celebrating its new digs. Join the party to learn about coworking at The Cannon, to network with Houston's innovation ecosystem, and more. Note: This event was pushed back due to Tropical Storm Imelda's flooding across Houston.

Details: The event is from 4 to 9 pm on Thursday, October 24, at The Cannon (1336 Brittmoore Road). Invite only.

October 27 — Implicit Bias Workshop

Impact Hub Houston and The Cannon believe that equitable organizations and equitable opportunities stem from a community of equity-focused leaders, but that is a mindset that must be developed. Through this workshop, participants will develop a shared language around diversity, equity, and inclusion, and understand the importance of these concepts when creating changing and lasting impact.

Details: The event is from 1 to 5 pm on Sunday, October 27, at The Cannon (1336 Brittmoore Road). Learn more.

October 29 — Houston Startup Happy Hour

Mix and mingle with the city's local entrepreneurs, investors, and more. The event is free to attend, but space is limited. Happy hour specials are available all night for attendees.

Details: The event is from 6 to 9 pm on Tuesday, October 29, at Poitin Bar and Kitchen (2313 Edwards Street). Learn more.

October 31 — State of Texas Medical Center

This luncheon focuses on TMC's role in advancing life sciences. Home to the brightest minds in medicine, TMC nurtures cross-institutional collaboration, creativity and innovation. Houston is not only recognized as a global leader in health care delivery and research, but also as an emerging center for biotech commercialization.

Details: The event is from 10:30 am to 1:30 pm on Thursday, October 31, at Marriott Marquis (1777 Walker Street). Learn more.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Exclusive: Houston logistics SaaS startup raises $2.5M seed round

money moves

A Houston company that's providing software solutions for middle-mile logistics challenges has raised fresh funding.

Velostics Inc., which has an enterprise software-as-a-service model that specializes in automating inbound logistics at industrial facilities — like terminals and warehouses — announced it has raised $2.5 million. The seed round was led by Kansas-based Flyover Capital with participation from Small Ventures USA, Cultivation Capital, Starboard Star, Congress Avenue Ventures and BioUrja Ventures.

Founded by Gaurav Khandewal, Velostics targets the $37 billion inbound logistics management market, a so-called "log jam" for businesses that the company's software strives to make flow a lot more optimally.

“Flyover is incredibly excited to support the Velostics team in their mission to transform inbound logistics,” says Keith Molzer, managing partner at Flyover Capital. “This segment of the supply chain is ripe for better technology to address challenges of congestion, driver labor shortages, and the growing demands of ecommerce. Gaurav and team are an exceptional group of entrepreneurs ready to drive efficiency and a better customer experience at industrial facilities.”

The fresh funding will go toward recruiting top talent for Velostics's team, particularly in its account management, inside sales, and marketing departments, as well as continuing to develop the AI-driven product, which has an impact for both its users and the environment.

“Idling trucks waiting outside facilities emit over 42 million tons of CO2 annually — eight times the US national average. By orchestrating the movement of trucks in and out of facilities, not only do we provide tremendous supply chain benefits, we also help the environment," Khandewal says in the release. "We’re excited to partner with our customers and our investors to solve global congestion.”

Flyover Capital was founded in 2014 and has a keen interest in the Houston market, Dan Kerr, principal at the firm, previously told InnovationMap.

Houston is "one of the cities among those that fall in our region where we plan to spend a significant amount of time," Kerr said in May of last year. "We cover a lot of ground, but there are certain cities were we try to get there quarterly. Houston is definitely one of those places."

In September, Khandewal joined the Houston Innovators Podcast and discussed how he has been a champion of Houston innovation since he started ChaiOne in 2009. He shared how he thinks the city has a great opportunity to be a leader in logistics technology.

"I think that there are some trends in Houston that I'm seeing as a founder, and one of them is logistics," Khandewal says on the show.

Gaurav Khandelwal, CEO and founder of ChaiOne and Velostics Gaurav Khandelwal is the CEO and founder of Velostics. Photo courtesy

Houston VC-backed tech founder on reinventing a sales team and supporting financial independence

Houston innovators podcast episode 112

Four years ago, Samantha Ettus found herself as a keynote speaker in a room with thousands of ambitious and talented women. It was a conference for multi-level marketing sales associates and, as Ettus found out later, most of them — despite their talent and passion — were losing money on whatever product they were selling.

"I realized there was a problem. There obviously was a need — all of these people want to be doing something outside of their families that gives them fulfillment and meaning and has goals associated with it — but they also want to be earning money," Ettus says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "And the first part was being fulfilled — but the second part wasn't."

Ettus created an alternative to check both of those boxes. Park Place Payments is a fintech startup founded in 2018 in California. Houston was one of the initial six test market for the business model, and the company now has over 1,000 account executives across all 50 states. Sales team members are trained for free on how to sell Park Place's payment processor service to local businesses.

Ettus says the payment processor industry is competitive and most small business owners are very disappointed with the customer service they receive. The average business changes payment processors every three years, Ettus says, and Park Place wants to change that.

"Payments is an industry where something always goes wrong," Ettus says. "As a small business owner, if you can't reach someone — that's really important for the livelihood of your business. ... We really think of ourselves as an outsourced payment partner for small businesses."

This past year has been one for growth for Park Place, Ettus says, and earlier this year, she closed on the company's seed round, which was supported by Curate Capital, founded by Houstonian Carrie Colbert. Now the company is focused on its tech team, including hiring a CTO. Early next year, Ettus hopes to close a Series A round, again with support — financially and otherwise — from Colbert.

"I feel so lucky because a lot of people pointed us to traditional Silicon Valley VCs in the beginning, and I had a lot of conversations. I didn't feel some of those firms had the patience to grow with us," Ettus says.

The company has been tied to Houston from its early days, from testing the business in town to a Houston-based early hire, Nancy Decker Lent, who is a founding member of the team and head of product for Park Place.

Ettus shares more on her passion for supporting financial independence for women and how she plans to grow her company on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

New Houston-based specialty pet supply company aims to pamper your pooch

good dog

Considering that Americans will reportedly spend $109.6 billion on pets this year, according to new data, it really pays to be discerning when buying. Now, Houston dog owners can stay local when shopping for their fur babies.

Houstonians Brad Madrid and Bobby Dwyer have launched Fido, a new e-commerce pet wellness brand. Available all over Houston, Texas, and indeed, the nation,

Fido products will initially start with Chill Chews and Clear Ears, both of which are scientifically formulated and aim to provide relief and comfort, per a press release. Products are lab-tested and veterinarian-approved, per the company.

Anxious pups may benefit from Chill Chews, which make training, traveling, and everyday life smoother and are said to help pets relax. The Clear Ears, meanwhile, is composed of natural ingredients such as eucalyptus and aloe and is meant to keep pets’ ears clean and clear of any wax, debris, fungus, and bacteria.

“As a professional dog trainer and breeder, I’ve worked with hundreds of dogs which has allowed me to develop a deep understanding of how dogs think and function,” said Dwyer in a statement. “Through my profession, I’ve discovered a need for products to ensure canines’ health and wellness, and it’s our mission to provide great products to make good boys even better.”

Brad Madrid and Bobby Dwyer have launched Fido, a new e-commerce pet wellness brand. Photo courtesy of Fido

Madrid and Dwyer aren’t just business partners but also brothers-in-law. Bringing science to Fido, Madrid boasts a background in pharmaceuticals, while Dwyer brings canine know-how with his experience as a dog trainer.

Both hope to see their business grow by leaps and bounds. Products are available for purchase on the website and shipping is available nationwide. Plans for products to be sold in local pet stores, as with international shipping available in the future.

If current data is any indication, Madrid and Dwyer are in the right business. A survey of 2,000 dog and cat owners found that 52 percent of respondents said they spend more money on their pets than they do on themselves each year, per GoBankingRates.

------

This article originally ran on CultureMap.