UH's Cristina Rivera Garza is a 2020 MacArthur Fellowship winner. Photo courtesy of John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

A prolific fiction writer and award-winning University of Houston academic has just received a major accolade. Distinguished professor Cristina Rivera Garza has been awarded a 2020 MacArthur Fellowship — dubbed more casually as a "genius" grant of a hefty $625,000 — the university announced.

The grant is a no-strings-attached gift "to extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential," according to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which awards the grants each year. Rivera Garza is one of just 21 nationwide individuals to receive the fellowship grant.

Rivera Garza is founder and director of the UH doctoral program in Hispanic Studies with a concentration in creative writing in Spanish.

"This is an incredible — and quite unexpected — honor. I am suddenly short of words," said Rivera Garza in a statement. Amusingly, Rivera Garza told Andrew Dansby of the Houston Chronicle that she didn't take the MacArthur call at first Tuesday morning because she didn't recognize the number. She received an email asking for information about another candidate. "So I finally answered, and they delivered the news. It was quite a shock," she said.

She joins Rick Lowe, a UH professor of art who earned the fellowship in 2014, as the two MacArthur Fellows on faculty at UH. MacArthur Fellowships are among the most prestigious and generous awards given to those who have demonstrated extraordinary talent and dedication in academia, writing, music, film, and other creative fields, UH notes.

The majority of Rivera Garza's creative works are in Spanish but were written in the United States, where she has lived for more than 30 years. She earned her doctorate in Latin American history from the University of Houston in 1995 and was awarded an honorary degree from UH in 2012, according to UH. Rivera Garza joined the University of Houston faculty in 2016 and founded UH's Spanish-language creative writing concentration in 2017. She leads the program as its director.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Houston SaaS startup closes $12M series A funding round with support from local VC

money moves

A Houston startup with a software-as-a-service platform for the energy transition has announced it closed a funding round with participation from a local venture capital.

Molecule closed its $12 million series A, and Houston-based Mercury Fund was among the company's investors. The company has a cloud-based energy trading and risk management solution for the energy industry and supports power, natural gas, crude/refined products, chemicals, agricultural commodities, softs, metals, cryptocurrencies, and more.

"We led the seed round of Molecule upon their formation and are excited to participate in their series A," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release. "Molecule's success in the ETRM/CTRM industry, especially in relation to electricity and renewables, positions them as the company to beat for the energy transition in the 2020s."

The company will use its new funds to further build out its product as well as introduce offerings to manage renewables credits, according to the release.

"In 2020, we realized that electricity — the growth commodity of the 2020s — represented over half of Molecule's customer base, and we decided to double down," says Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule, in the release. "We were also rated the No. 1 SaaS ETRM/CTRM vendor. With this fundraise, we have the fuel to become No. 1 SaaS platform for power and renewables, and then the market leader overall.

"Molecule is ready to power the energy transition," Soleja continues.

Molecule's last round of funding closed in November 2014. The $1.1 million seed round was supported by Mercury Fund and the Houston Angel Network.

Houston-based afterlife planning startup launches new app

there's an app for that

The passing of a loved one is followed with grief — and paperwork. A Houston company that's simplifying the process of afterlife planning and decision making is making things even easier with a new smartphone app.

The Postage, a digital platform meant to ease with affair planning, recently launched a mobile app to make the service more accessible following a particularly deadly year. The United States recorded 3.2 million fatalities — the most deaths in its history, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After losing three family members back-to-back, Emily Cisek dealt first hand with the difficulty of wrapping up a loved one's life. She saw how afterlife planning interrupted her family's grieving and caused deep frustration. Soon, she began to envision a solution to help people have a plan and walk through the process of losing someone.

The Postage, which launched in September, provides a platform for people to plan their affairs and leave behind wishes for loved ones. The website includes document storage and organization, password management, funeral and last wishes planning, and the option to create afterlife messages to posthumously share with loved ones.

"Right now, as it stands ahead of this app, end-of-life planning is really challenging. It's this daunting thing you have to sit down and do at your computer," says Cisek. Not only is it "daunting," but it's time-consuming. According to The Postage, families can expect to spend nearly 500 hours on completing end-of-life details if there is no planning done in advance.

With more than 74 percent of The Postage's web traffic coming from mobile users, an app was a natural progression. In fact, Entrepreneur reports the average person will spend nine years on their mobile device. Cisek wanted to meet users where they are at with a user-friendly app that includes the same features as the desktop website.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple," she continued.

Cisek and her team focused on providing a "seamless experience" within the app, which took approximately four months to build, which mirrors the desktop platform.

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app.

After snapping a picture, "the next step inherently is sharing it with your loved ones," says Cisek. Photos, family recipes and videos can easily be shared securely with loved ones who accept your invitation to The Postage so "that legacy continues on," she says.

Since The Postage's fall launch, the company has grown a steady base of paid subscribers with plans to expand.

"We're really starting to change the way people plan for the future," says Cisek.