MassChallenge Texas wrapping its inaugural Houston cohort is one of this week's top stories. Courtesy of MassChallenge

Editor's note: It's been a busy week in Houston for innovation. From important innovation events — and there's more to come this month — to a new accelerator entering the Houston market, there's plenty of popular news in innovation.

MassChallenge Texas wraps up inaugural Houston cohort with top 3 startups and a surprise investment

MassChallenge Texas named its top three startups of its inaugural Houston cohort and the Houston Angel Network made an unexpected investment. Courtesy of MassChallenge Texas

A new-to-Houston global accelerator program just concluded its inaugural cohort, naming three top startups and providing a platform for an unexpected prize — an investment.

MassChallenge Texas didn't originally intend to have monetary prizes for this first program, however, thanks to Houston Angel Network, one lucky startup is walking away from the program $40,000 richer.

HAN, one of Houston's oldest and most active group of angel investors, saw pitch decks from most of the companies in the cohort and then invited seven companies to pitch: Ask DOSS, Celise, DoBrain, NeuroRescue, Noleus Technologies, Sensytec, and Swoovy. Continue reading.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

This week's batch of innovators have had to be pretty creative in their industries. Courtesy photos

The ability to innovate lives in one's ability to think outside of the box — no matter the industry. This week's Houston innovators to know have had to get creative and think of new ways of doing things, from retailing to creating greeting cards. Continue reading.

Exclusive: Houston-based stadium ordering app closes near $1.3 million Seed round with plans to scale

Houston-based sEATz has closed a funding round and plans to reach more fans than ever this football season. Courtesy of sEATz

Fans across the country are headed to football stadiums this weekend to cheer on their teams, but only a few will have the luxury of ordering food, beer, and even merchandise from the comfort of their seats.

Houston-based sEATz has created a platform where fans can order just about anything their stadium has from an app. Much like any other ordering app, once the order is placed, a runner will pick up the food and deliver it to the customer for a small fee and a tip.

The startup is now preparing to scale up from seven venues to 10 before the year is over as well as launching a new version of the app thanks to an oversubscribed near $1.3 million Seed round led by Houston-based Valedor Partners. Houston-based Starboard Star Venture Capital also contributed to the round. SEATz has plans to launch its Series A round before the new year. Continue reading.

New Accenture exec aims to put Houston's innovation ecosystem on the map

Thomas Rubenak is senior principal of Accenture Ventures. Courtesy of Accenture

In most industries, there's a disconnect between startups and major corporations. The startups may have solutions for the big companies, but the two entities might not know how to connect with each other. That's something Accenture hopes to help with.

The company created Accenture Ventures to help connect the dots between emerging technology and big business. As the program has expanded, Thomas Rubenak was selected to serve the Southwest region as senior principal.

With a long career of working in tech, research and design, and startups, Rubenak hopes to use his experience to help grow Houston's blossoming innovation ecosystem. Continue reading.

Former Station Houston director joins the Plug and Play team as the program prepares for launch

Payal Patel, former director of business development at Station Houston, has joined Plug and Play as director of corporate partnerships. Courtesy of Payal Patel

Plug and Play Tech Center — a global powerhouse startup accelerator with its headquarters in Silicon Valley — has hired its first boots-on-the-ground team member for its Houston outpost.

Payal Patel, former director of business development at Station Houston, has joined Plug and Play as director of corporate partnerships. Plug and Play already has a handful of corporate partners in Houston, and Patel will be working with those organizations as well as growing the partnerships. These large companies are crucial to Plug and Play's process.

"The way we help startups advance is by helping them get connected to the largest corporations in the world so that they can run pilots with those big companies and eventually get them as customers," Patel tells InnovationMap. Continue reading.

MassChallenge Texas named six companies, which will each pitch at a final competition on September 5. Photo via greenstreetdowntown.com

MassChallenge Texas names top startups from its inaugural Houston cohort to move on to the final round

best in class

MassChallenge Texas revealed the cream of the crop from its first Houston cohort. The top six startups will now be judged in one final pitch competition on September 5.

"Each of the 25 startups in our first cohort have made incredible progress during this short program and are now better prepared to make impact in Houston, Texas, and beyond," says Jon Nordby, managing director of MassChallenge Texas in Houston, in a release. "It is our goal to strengthen the local ecosystem through a collaborative community that will attract innovators from around the world to Houston, and the Lone Star State."

The program, which began on July 26, accelerated 25 early-stage companies from around the world with mentorship, corporate partnerships, curriculum, and more. No equity was taken by the program and it's free for the selected companies to attend.

"It is an honor to support the inaugural MassChallenge Texas accelerator in Houston and the incredible journey these startups have been on," says Elizabeth Killinger, president of Reliant and NRG Retail, in a release. "We're excited to be part of the thriving startup culture in Houston, and we look forward to all that this program will continue to bring to our city."

A panel of judges selected the top six, and now they face off for a set of prizes, which will be revealed at the Houston Finale. According to a spokesperson, the judges ahead of the event will decide on the winning company or companies and delegate prizes as they see fit.

The companies involved with supporting the accelerator include: Southwest Airlines, TMAC, WeWork, Upstream, USAA, BAE Systems, Brex, BHP, Central Houston, City of Houston, Houston Texans, Ingram Micro, Lionstone Investments, Midway, Reliant, San Antonio Spurs, Winstead Attorneys. Event and media partners are Insperity, Mattress Firm, Southwest Research Institute, Juice Consulting and Texas Squared Startup Newsletter.

FloodFrame

Houston-based FloodFrame is a company that provides self-deploying flood protection devices for residential and commercial real estate properties. Read more about the company here.

Mak Studio

Another Houston company — Mak Studio — makes the top startups list. The company provides interior design efforts made easy.

Neuro Rescue Inc.

NeuroRescue Inc. is an Ohio-based company that improves the standard of care used to treat stroke, brain injury, and cardiac arrest to increase neurological outcome by up to forty percent.

Noleus Technologies Inc.

Houston-based Noleus Technologies Inc. — a member of the TMCx07 cohort — has created a solution that reduces swelling in the bowels after operation. The disposable device is inserted into the abdomen at the time of surgery, and folds up like a fan to be removed without another surgery.

Reveal Technologies

Another Houston-based medical device company making it into MC's top 6 companies is Reveal Technologies, which uses a dual camera technology to help the 17 million Americans who suffer from retinal diseases to improve their sight.

Sensytec Inc.

Last but not least is Houston-based Sensytec Inc. The company has a "smart concrete" technology that is making moves in the energy industry.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Houston is still — but most accounts — emerging as a tech and innovation hub, which could seem to mean that the startups that make up the innovation ecosystem reside in early stages of business scale.

However, this week's sampling of Houston innovators to know demonstrate the scope in scale of Houston's companies — from a CEO to a newly public company and recently hired CEO of a rapidly scaling software company to a health tech leader fresh out of the gates.

John Berger, CEO of Sunnova

Photo courtesy of Sunnova

Taking a company public brings on a slew of changes. One that might be overlooked is the change for the leader of that company. John Berger —CEO of Sunnova, a Houston-based solar energy company that went public last summer — joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the changes and where his company is headed.

Transitioning from a private company CEO to a public company CEO has been eye opening, Berger says on the podcast, joking that he now has to watch what he says. But change is ultimately something Berger says he embraces.

"I really look at myself and how I can change myself," Berger says. "I'm a different CEO today than I was 12 months ago, and hopefully I'll be a different CEO in 12 months, because the company demands it." Read more and stream the episode here.

Mary Beth Snodgrass, co-founder of Healthiby

Mary Beth Snodgrass is convinced she can help people make life-enhancing changes that affect health and financial situations because, well, science.

The co-founder of Healthiby created the platform to use financial incentives to drive positive health and wellness decisions. The Houston company is in pilot mode but has plans to expand.

"What we're really focused on this year is, in addition to our incentives, digital content and coach guidance, is making sure that participants are engaging among themselves," Snodgrass tells InnovationMap. "Science shows there are benefits to surrounding yourself with other people who share similar health goals." Read more.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software

Photo courtesy of Quorum

A new CEO is tasked with exponential growth at a Houston-based software company. Gene Austin joined Houston-based Quorum Software last year at a time of rapid M&A activity.

The energy industry software solutions provider, which is a portfolio company of California-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo LLC since 2018, has big plans to continue the exponential growth with more acquisitions that diversify their portfolio of services and a Houston office expansion later this year. According to Austin, he expects this growth spurred by M&A activity to double Quorum's revenue of $200 million in the next 3 to 5 years.

"We are always thinking about how to best serve our customers," Austin says. "We've made millions of dollars of investments in our support organization and cloud team services that are foundational to reinvigorate innovation and help our customers see how the future can unfold for them." Read more.

Houston listed among top cities expected to see office job growth

new hires

Texas cities — including the Houston area — will see a slew of new office jobs this year, according to a new projection.

Commercial real estate services company CBRE predicts Houston will see a 1.9 percent rise in office jobs this year compared to last year. That ranks Houston as the No. 4 spot for anticipated office-job growth in 2020 among U.S. markets with at least 37.5 million square feet of office space. Office jobs include those in the tech, professional services, and legal sectors.

"Tech, talent, and low taxes continue to fuel Texas' rising status as an inevitable, leading force in the U.S. economy," Ian Anderson, Americas head of office research at CBRE, says in the release. "2020 will be another year where companies and people from around the country relocate to the Lone Star State, leaving most of the rest of the country in envy of the growth in Dallas, Houston, and Austin."

Dallas only narrowly outpaced Houston in the ranking coming in at No. 3 with 2.1 percent expected growth. Austin, however, is the big Texas winner with an expected 2.6 percent rise in office jobs this year compared with last year. That puts Austin in first place on the ranking, edging out San Francisco for the top spot in CBRE's forecast, published January 9. The company predicts a 2.5 percent increase in San Francisco office jobs this year versus last year.

Personal finance website WalletHub recently ranked San Francisco and Austin third and fourth, respectively, on its list of the U.S. best cities to find a job.

"It's not surprising that the forecast for Austin is extremely bright, and we expect that technology companies and professional firms will still drive the demand for more [offices]," Troy Holme, executive vice president in the Austin office of CBRE, says in a January 22 release.

In November, Austin's unemployment rate decreased to 2.5 percent from 2.6 percent in October and 2.7 percent in September, according to the Texas Workforce Commission. Austin's jobless rate in November was the third lowest among the state's metro areas; Dallas-Fort Worth's rate was at 3 percent, while Houston's was at 3.6 percent.

CBRE says the growth of office jobs was more robust in the top U.S. markets last year than it is estimating for 2020. Dallas (5.7 percent) leads the 2019 list, followed by San Francisco (5.2 percent), Seattle (4.2 percent), Houston (3.7 percent), and Charlotte, North Carolina (3.6 percent).

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston-based energy logistics software prepares to hire, raise funds as it scales up

now hiring

Many startups turn to offshore outsourcing to fuel their growth. The Now Network, a Houston-based energy tech startup, is doing just the opposite — relying on stateside in-sourcing.

The SaaS company is in the midst of building out its in-house development team, including full stack developers and UX/UI designers. This year, The Now Network plans to add another four to six developers, on top of the six who already are on board. Stacey McCroskey, the company's director of product since September 2019, leads the team.

Previously, the development team consisted of more than a dozen contract workers in Ukraine and India, says Mush Khan, president of The Now Network. Khan assumed the president's role in May 2019.

"We believe that having our own in-house team drives a sense of ownership over the product. We have to eat our own cooking. because what we build, we have to support," Khan says.

Compared with the outsourcing model, the in-house team enables the company to more quickly release higher-quality products and more quickly respond to customers' needs, he says.

"Over the years, The Now Network has seen immense growth, consistently advancing its technology framework to drive faster payments, increased driver retention, an expanded 3PL network, and increased business revenue," Sam Simon, the company's founder, chairman, and CEO, says in a release. "The addition of an in-house development team will only amplify this growth, promoting more opportunities for cross-collaboration and customer feedback, to expand upon and refine existing features."

Members of the in-house development team are working on expansion of The Now Network's last-mile logistics platform for wholesalers, third-party logistics (3PL) carriers, drivers, and users of fuel. Khan says the platform offers "complete visibility and accuracy" throughout the fuel delivery process.

Competition for tech talent in Houston industries like energy and manufacturing is ramping up as the region evolves as "a fast-paced, innovative environment," he says.

"We believe companies like ours offer an opportunity to build a product from the ground up," Khan says, "and in an environment that allows them to express themselves creatively."

In June 2019, staffing firm Robert Half Technology put Houston in fourth place for the anticipated volume of IT hiring in U.S. cities during the second half of the year.

"The technology market in Houston remains strong as more companies are investing in systems upgrades, focusing on security, and taking on digital projects," Robert Vaughn, Robert Half Technology's regional vice president in Houston, said in a release. "The candidate market remains tight, and companies that prolong the interview process or don't make competitive offers tend to have the hardest time staffing open roles."

Today, The Now Network employs 15 people, all but one of whom works in Houston. The company expects to grow its workforce to around 30 by the end of 2020, Khan says. To accommodate the larger headcount, The Now Network is moving this month from WeWork at the Galleria to a 6,000-square-foot office in the Upper Kirby neighborhood.

To help finance its growth, The Now Network will soon launch its first-ever fundraising effort. Khan says the company will seek more than $5 million in investment capital.

Founded in 2015, The Now Network strives to simplify the last mile of the "energy ecosystem," which Khan describes as "slow, opaque, and expensive." Its SaaS platform automates delivery functions in the energy supply chain, doing away with manual labor and tedious paperwork, he says.

Since early 2018, the startup has handled more than 180,000 customer transactions involving over 1.8 billion gallons of fuel.

The Now Network is a portfolio company of Simon Group Holdings, a private equity firm based in Birmingham, Michigan. One of its key areas of focus is the energy sector.

In 2017, The Now Network (previously known as FuelNow Network) entered a strategic partnership with Houston-based Motiva Enterprises LLC, a fuel refiner, distributor, and retailer owned by Saudi Refining Inc. Khan says his company is collaborating with Motiva to roll out The Now Network platform to U.S. fuel wholesalers.

"As of now, Motiva doesn't have a stake in our company," he says.

Motiva owns East Texas' 3,600-acre Port Arthur Refinery, the largest oil refinery in North America, with a daily capacity of more than 600,000 barrels. State-controlled Saudi Aramco — which went public last year in an IPO valued at $2 trillion — owns Saudi Refining.