4 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Jeff James of PickleJar, Madison Long and Simone May of Clutch, and Tarun Girish of Spark Spaces. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to four local startup founders across industries — from electric vehicles to app development— recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Jeff James, co-founder and CEO of PickleJar

Jeff James and his company, PickleJar, are streamlining and strengthening the connection between performer and audience. Photo courtesy of PickleJar

Jeff James had the idea for a platform that allows musicians to engage with their audiences — specifically when it came to receiving tips. Right when he started working on the idea for PickleJar, an app-based, performer-focused platform where fans can conduct cashless tips, the pandemic hit.

"As the pandemic lingered on, we realized the project wasn't just about tipping or on-stage engagement, it's about something greater than that," James says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's all the different ways how artists are being disenfranchised. We really set out on a mission to help artists make more money."

As distracting as the pandemic was at first to PickleJar, which officially launched in May of 2021, the company ended up having a huge opportunity to be a revenue stream for artists when they needed it most. The duo decided they had to build the company — even during the pandemic and uncertain times. Click here to read more and listen to the episode.

Madison Long and Simone May, co-founders of Clutch

Madison Long, left, and Simone May co-founded Clutch to democratize side gig success on college campuses. Photo courtesy of Clutch

Clutch, a digital marketplace startup founded by Simone May and Madison Long, has fresh funding after closing its pre-seed round of funding at $1.2 million. The investment from this round will support Clutch’s national open beta launch of its platform for brands and student creators nationwide and its continued investment in customer and product strategy.

“We are at this inflection point where marketing is changing,” May says in a press release. “We know that the next generation can clearly see that and I think a lot of marketing agencies are starting to catch on.

"We need to be prioritizing the next generation’s opinion because they are driving who is interested in what they buy. This upcoming generation does not want to be sold to and they don’t like inorganic, inauthentic advertisements. That’s why user generated content is so big, it feels authentic.” Click here to continue reading.

Tarun Girish, founder and CEO of Sparks Spaces

Houston-based Spark Spaces is looking to build out luxury spots for electric vehicle charging. Rendering courtesy of Spark Spaces

Tarun Girish wanted to upgrade EV drivers' charging experiences. His idea became Sparks Spaces, a startup formed in 2021 looking to shake up the EV charging game — the company aims to elevate the experience of charging electric vehicles by focusing on the space between car and charger by creating an airport lounge-type space for drivers. These EV lounges would include luxury waiting areas, clean restrooms, high-end food options, and availability to utilize them 24/7.

“We’ve seen a huge issue in the EV charging space where the experience side has been neglected,” says Girish, founder and CEO of Sparks Spaces.

Currently, Sparks Spaces is operating out of The Ion and installed a charging point outside of the building to help collect insights into what drivers are needing and are wanting to learn more about their customer base. Click here to learn more.

Madison Long, left, and Simone May co-founded Clutch to democratize side gig success on college campuses. Photo courtesy of Clutch

Houston-based gig economy startup raises $1.2M, launches beta platform

so clutch

Two Houstonians on a mission to enable safe and equitable entrepreneurship on college campuses have launched a new beta platform and closed pre-seed funding.

Clutch, a digital marketplace startup founded by Simone May and Madison Long, closed its pre-seed round of funding at $1.2 million – led by Precursor Ventures and other partners such as Capital Factory and HearstLab. The investment from this round will support Clutch’s national open beta launch of its platform for brands and student creators nationwide and its continued investment in customer and product strategy.

“We are at this inflection point where marketing is changing,” May says in a press release. “We know that the next generation can clearly see that and I think a lot of marketing agencies are starting to catch on. We need to be prioritizing the next generation’s opinion because they are driving who is interested in what they buy. This upcoming generation does not want to be sold to and they don’t like inorganic, inauthentic advertisements. That’s why user generated content is so big, it feels authentic.”

Originally founded as Campus Concierge before rebranding as Clutch, the company has grown the business to 200 vetted student creators – 75 percent of whom are people of color.

“We have a huge passion for democratizing access to ensure that people who look like us also make money that supports their lifestyle in a meaningful way,” says May, who is also CTO of Clutch.

The company was a member of DivInc's inaugural Houston accelerator cohort in 2021, which May says helped the company develop its pitch deck, financial models and pushed the team to think about what it means to be a startup.

“Madison and Simone have an incredible vision for Clutch that they are bringing to life,” said Preston James, CEO and Founder of DivInc in a statement. “[…] Clutch is a life changer for so many. We’re thrilled to be part of their journey as an investor and partner, and very excited to see their continued growth and success.”

Looking ahead, Clutch wants to grow and enhance the team – wanting to take the platform to the next level by finding new means of selling its services. In addition, it wants to become a place for support and a resource to help the freelance lifestyle – connecting their content creators with a centralized market for retirement funds, investments, health care and all things they may require.

“The next generation is one that craves flexible, empowering and meaningful work that supports their balanced lifestyle,” says Long, who serves as CEO. “We want to be a force for the next generation in the changing landscape of what it means to be successful in your career to something that is dynamic, ever-changing and on your own terms.”

A Houston tech startup launches a crowdfunding campaign — and more local innovation news. Photo courtesy of The Postage

Roundup: Houston startups announce new partnerships, crowdfunding campaigns, and more

Short stories

The Houston innovation ecosystem has been bursting at the seams with news from innovative tech companies and disruptive Houston startups as we fly through the final quarter of 2021.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, a Texas energy tech company gets selected for a prestigious program, a med device company heads to clinical trials, a startup launches a crowdfunding campaign, and more.

The Postage launches crowdfunding campaign

The Postage is looking for financial support with its new campaign. Photo courtesy of The Postage

The Postage, a Houston-based, full-service digital platform to help organize affairs to make after-life planning a smoother process for families, has announced the launch of a crowdfunding campaign through MicroVentures.

"This crowdfunding offering is selling crowd notes to raise maximum offering proceeds of $500,000 with a minimum investment of $100," according to a news release. "We currently anticipate closing this offering on April 4, 2022."

More information on this offering can be found at: https://invest.microventures.com/offerings/the-postage.

Emily Cisek co-founded the company after she experienced an overwhelming experience following a death in her family.

"I just knew there had to be a better way, and that's why I started The Postage," Cisek says on an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "My background had historically been in bringing offline businesses online, and I started doing some research on how I could make this space better. At the time, there really wasn't anything out there."

Texas company selected for Chevron Technology Ventures Catalyst Program

This Texas company has joined CTV's startup program. Photo via Getty Images

SeebeckCell Technologies, while based in Arlington, Texas, is no stranger to the Houston innovation ecosystem. The startup was in the first class of the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator, participated in the MassChallenge Texas Houston cohort, and is a member at Greentown Houston. The company announced earlier this month a new Houston association as it was invited to participate in the Chevron Technology Ventures Catalyst Program to develop further their technology platform designed to recover industrial waste heat energy, increasing energy consumption efficiency, and eliminating battery replacement in IoT applications, according to a news release.

"SeebeckCell is excited to be supported by Chevron, a technology leader in the energy market," says Ali Farzbod, co-founder and CEO of Seebeckcell Technologies, in the release. "This is inspiring hope in the scientific community as we see Chevron continue to back commercializing academically developed technologies that provide potential solutions for addressing climate change. Through collaboration and partnership, we're able to grow our startup and we're grateful for participating in the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator that helped connect us with Chevron."

SeebeckCell Technologies is helping petroleum and gas industries and emerging markets solve energy waste with an innovative liquid based thermoelectric generator.

VenoStent heads to clinical trials

VenoStent

VenoStent has reached the clinical trials stage. Photo via venostent.com

VenoStent Inc. has announced successful enrollment in its initial feasibility clinical trial. The med device startup is a tissue engineering company that's developing smart polymer wraps to transform the efficacy of the vascular surgery industry, which sees five million operations each year.

"We are very pleased to announce that we have successfully enrolled twenty end-stage renal disease patients in our initial feasibility study taking place in Asuncion, Paraguay," says Tim Boire, CEO., in a news release "After years of development, we are confident that our bioabsorbable wrap technology can have a positive impact on the lives of patients that require hemodialysis to sustain life. This is a major milestone toward our mission to improve the quality and length of life for end-stage renal disease patients, as well as others needing vascular surgery."

VenoStent is an alum of TMC Innovation's accelerator and has been named a most promising company by Rice Alliance.

Cart.com announces latest partnership

Cart.com has a new partner, which has increased access to tools for its clients. Photo via cart.com

Houston-based Cart.com, an end-to-end ecommerce services provider and Amazon competitor, has announced yet another new partnership. The company has teamed up with Extend, which provides modern extended warranties and product protection plans. The partnership means that Cart.com merchants have access to a new revenue stream and new ways to increase customer satisfaction by leveraging Extend's platform and technology-enabled proprietary insurance stack.

"Like Cart.com, Extend is fixing the fractured ecommerce ecosystem by providing a truly innovative, effortless, and easy-to-understand service for both merchants and their customers," says Omair Tariq, Cart.com co-founder and CEO, in a news release. "By creating seamless solutions to serve brands, we empower them to focus completely on their customers. The partnership with Extend fits squarely in this view; anyone who has wrangled with extended warranty claims in the past understands the friction involved. Extend is rewriting the rules for product protection and customer service while Cart.com takes care of everything from the factory floor to the customer door. Through this partnership with Extend, we're now seamlessly covering the post-purchase experience too."

Extend launched in 2019 — a time when only the top 1 percent of merchants could offer extended warranties and protection plans to help their customers, according to the release. Now, Extend is valued at $1.6 billion, has raised over $315 million in venture capital, is on track to sell more than three million protection plans in 2021.

"The relationship between an ecommerce company and its customer doesn't end with the sale," says Woodrow Levin, co-founder and CEO of Extend, in the release. "Our technology will allow Cart.com's clients to continue to engage customers after they make a purchase, unlocking opportunities to increase brand loyalty, open new revenue channels, and create lasting customer relationships. Together, we're empowering clients to deliver a better experience for customers and we are excited to continue to build on that vision."

Campus Concierge rebrands to Clutch with revamped website

A Houston startup has just flipped a switch. Image via thatsclutch.com

Campus Concierge is now Clutch, the Houston-based startup announced on its Facebook page last month. The new name also came with a revamped website.

Madison Long and Simone May had the idea for the company when they were undergraduate students at Purdue University and their only option for scoping out basic services — like getting their hair done or hiring a DJ for an event or a photographer for graduation photos — was to ask around among older students. Launched earlier this year, the platform is a marketplace to connect students who have skills or services with potential clients in a safe way. The company, which was a member of DivInc's inaugural Houston accelerator, launched on three college campuses this year — Texas Southern University, Rice University, and Prairie View A&M.

"Building community is so critical given the fact that it's nerve-wracking any time to ask someone for help — especially now that you are coming back to school after a year of being virtual," Long, CEO and co-founder of Clutch, previously told InnovationMap.

The new app is live on three Houston-area college campuses. Photo via campusconciergeapp.com

Houston startup addresses gaps in the gig economy with new app

there's an app for that

Two Houstonians are making student side hustles on college campuses a whole lot safer and easier.

When Madison Long and Simone May were undergraduate students at Purdue University, their only option for scoping out basic services — like getting their hair done or hiring a DJ for an event or a photographer for graduation photos — was to ask around among older students. This planted a seed of a business idea in the two women.

Now, the duo has founded Campus Concierge to provide a platform that acts as a marketplace to connect students who have skills or services with potential clients in a safe way. The company, which was a member of DivInc's inaugural Houston accelerator, launched on three college campuses this year — Texas Southern University, Rice University, and Prairie View A&M.

Campus Concierge timed its arrival to the marketplace with the reopening of college campuses for in-person instruction, knowing there would be a need for connection and access.

"Building community is so critical given the fact that it's nerve-wracking any time to ask someone for help — especially now that you are coming back to school after a year of being virtual," says Long, CEO and co-founder of Campus Concierge.

But prior to launch, all Long and May had was virtual. The duo rolled out a six-week social media campaign, which brought over 2,500 students across six different universities onto the Campus Concierge waitlist before they even stepped foot on a college campus to recruit in person.

Campus Concierge's co-founders Madison Long (right) and Simone May met in college. Photo via campusconciergeapp.com

After initial design and testing, Long and May worked on their product during their time at the DivInc. The accelerator, which was announced to launch in Houston last year, aims to build a more inclusive innovation ecosystem and focuses their work on people-of-color and women-founded businesses. Now, Campus Concierge is looking for investors, and credit DivInc for connecting them with potential VCs, angel groups, and angel investors.

"The institutional investment landscape still does rely on very traditional ways of getting in touch with investors — through intros, warm connections," Long tells InnovationMap. "We've been very lucky to be part of DivInc, who has broken down a lot of those doors and a lot of that ambiguity and created a level of transparency plus formal partnerships with folks like Mercury Fund."

The startup founding experience for Long and May has been a positive experience. Long says Houston's innovation ecosystem has been warm and welcoming.

"It doesn't feel like people are working against you or competing with you," May, the company's CTO, adds. "It feels like everyone is working together, and it is very collaborative."

As Black female founders, Long and May say they are encouraged by the diversity and camaraderie of Houston.

"Coming to a city that is so diverse, we're not the exception to everything," Long says. "There are other founders who look like us who are doing really well that we can lean on as mentors, advisers, and take notes from them. ... There is no other place we would have liked to start this platform."

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Deadline extended: InnovationMap, HX open nominations for new combined awards gala

calling all innovators

Update: The deadline for nominations have been extended to midnight on Sunday, October 2.

InnovationMap is back to honor local startups and innovators — and this time, we've upped the ante.

Houston Exponential and InnovationMap have teamed up to combine their annual awards and event efforts to premiere a brand new program. The Houston Innovation Awards Gala on Wednesday, November 9, at The Ion will be a comprehensive event honoring Houston founders, innovators, investors, and more. InnovationMap and HX, which was acquired earlier this year, are in the same network of ownership.

Nominations are open online until midnight October 2, and nominees will have until October 11 to complete an additional application that will be emailed to nominees directly. A group of industry experts and Houston innovation leaders will review those submissions and determine finalists and winners across 11 categories. The categories for this year's awards are:

  • BIPOC-Owned Business honoring an innovative company founded or co-founded by BIPOC representation
  • Female-Owned Business honoring an innovative company founded or co-founded by a woman
  • Hardtech Business honoring an innovative company developing and commercializing a physical technology across life science, energy, space, and beyond
  • B2B Software Business honoring an innovative company developing and programming a digital solution to impact the business sector
  • Green Impact Business honoring an innovative company providing a solution within renewables, climatetech, clean energy, alternative materials, and beyond
  • Smart City Business honoring an innovative company providing a tech solution within transportation, infrastructure, data, and beyond
  • New to Hou honoring an innovative company, accelerator, or investor that has relocated its primary operations to Houston within the past three years
  • DEI Champion honoring an individual who is leading impactful diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and progress within Houston and their organization
  • Investor of the Year honoring an individual who is leading venture capital or angel investing
  • Mentor of the Year honoring an individual who dedicates their time and expertise to guide and support to budding entrepreneurs
  • People's Choice: Startup of the Year selected via an interactive voting portal during of the event
Nominees can be submitted to multiple categories.

Additionally, the awards gala will honor an innovator who's made a lasting impact on the Houston innovation community. While you may nominate an individual for the Trailblazer Award via the online form, the judging committee will not require applications or nominations for this category and will be considering potential honorees from the ecosystem at large. If you are interested in sponsorship opportunities, please reach out to cbuckner@houstonexponential.org.

Last year, InnovationMap introduced its awards program and named 28 finalists and honored the nine winners on September 8. Click here to see more from last year's event.

Tickets for the November 9 event are available online. Early bird tickets will be $60 per person and startup founders will be able to attend for $25.

Click here to submit a nomination or see form below.


Major corporation opens hub for global decarbonization in Houston

seeing green

Management consulting giant McKinsey & Co. plans to spend $100 million over the next decade to pump up Houston’s decarbonization economy.

McKinsey says the initiative will, among other things, focus on:

  • Promoting innovations like carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) and green hydrogen
  • Revamping business models for carbon-heavy companies
  • Ramping up the community of local startups involved in energy transition
  • Developing talent to work on decarbonization

As part of this program, McKinsey has set up a decarbonization hub in its Houston office, at 609 Main St.

“Decarbonization will lead to a new chapter of economic development, while also addressing a critical problem of climate change,” McKinsey partner Nikhil Ati says.

Global decarbonization efforts over the next three decades will require a $100 trillion investment, according to Utility Dive. Houston, home to 40 percent of publicly traded oil and gas companies, stands to gain a substantial share of that opportunity.

McKinsey’s Houston office has worked for several years on Houston’s energy transition initiatives. For instance, the firm helped produce a study and a whitepaper on energy transition here. The whitepaper outlines Houston’s future as the “epicenter of a global clean hydrogen hub.”

“Texas is the nation’s largest renewable energy producer, home to half of the nation’s hydrogen pipelines, and its companies have unparalleled capabilities in building and operating complex projects,” McKinsey senior partner Filipe Barbosa says. “This is Houston’s moment in time on the global stage.”

McKinsey estimates a Houston-based global hub for clean hydrogen that’s in place by 2050 could generate 180,000 jobs and create an economic impact of $100 billion.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from photonics to robotics — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship

Brad Burke joins this week's Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via alliance.rice.edu

Collaboration has made a world of a difference for growing Houston's innovation ecosystem, according to Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship.

"I think Houston has this culture of collaboration that I suspect that some other major cities don't have in the same way," Burke says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "And while we're a big city, the entrepreneurial ecosystem feels like a small network of a lot of people who work really well together."

Burke has played a major role in the collaboration of Houston for the past 20 years leading the Rice Alliance, which coordinates many event programs and accelerators — including the Rice Business Plan Competition, energy and life science forums, the Clean Energy Accelerator, Owl Spark, Blue Launch, and more. Click here to read more.

Trevor Best, CEO and co-founder of Syzygy Plasmonics

A new partnership for Houston-based Syzygy will generate 1.2 million tons of clean hydrogen each year in South Korea by 2030. Image via Syzygy

Houston-area energy tech startup Syzygy Plasmonics is part of a new partnership that will develop a fully electric chemical reactor for production of clean hydrogen in South Korea.

The reactor will be installed in the second half of 2023 at Lotte Fine Chemical’s facilities in Ulsan, South Korea. Lotte Fine Chemical, Lotte Chemical, and Sumitomo Corporation of Americas are Syzygy’s partners in this venture.

“Simply improving existing tech isn’t enough to reach the world’s decarbonization goals. Stopping climate change will require industries to reimagine what is possible,” Syzygy co-founder and CEO Trevor Best says in a news release. “Our technology expands the accepted paradigms of chemical engineering. We have demonstrated the ability to replace heat from combustion with renewable electricity in the manufacture of foundational chemicals like hydrogen.” Click here to read more.

Nicolaus Radford, CEO and founder of Nauticus Robotics

Houston-based Nauticus Robotics has hit the public market. Image via LinkedIn

Fresh off its September 13 debut as a publicly traded company, Webster-based Nauticus Robotics Inc. is aiming for $90 million in revenue next year as it dives deeper into the ocean economy.

The stock of Nauticus now trades on the NASDAQ market under the ticker symbol KITT. Nauticus went public following its SPAC (special purpose acquisition company) merger with New York City-based CleanTech Acquisition Corp., a “blank check” company that went public in July 2021 through a $150 million IPO. The SPAC deal was valued at $560 million when it was announced in December.

Nauticus continues to be led by CEO Nicolaus Radford and the current executive team.

“The closing of this business combination represents a pivotal milestone in our company’s history as we take public our pursuit of transforming the ocean robotics industry with autonomous systems,” says Radford, who founded what was known as Houston Mechatronics in 2014. “Not only is the ocean a tremendous economic engine, but it is also the epicenter for building a sustainable future.” Click here to read more.