Human-tissue printing technology, blockchain networks, health care solutions, game-changing software — all this innovation and more is coming out of Houston startups. Courtesy photos

Thousands of startups call Houston home. According to the Greater Houston Partnership's data, the Houston area added 11,700 firms between 2013 to 2018. And, if you consider Crunchbase's tally, at the end of 2018, Houston had over 1,400 tech startups on the investment tracking website's radar.

This past year, InnovationMap featured profiles on dozens of these Houston startups — from blockchain and software companies to startups with solutions in health care and oil and gas. Here are 10 that stood out throughout 2019.

Topl — a blockchain startup connecting every step of the way

Houston-based Topl can track almost anything using its blockchain technology. Getty Images

For Topl, 2019 was a year of laying the groundwork. In a January 2019 article on InnovationMap, Kim Raath, president of the Houston-based blockchain company, explained that Topl's mission originated out of the fact that 60 percent of the world lives on $10 a day — and it's in the poorest regions of the world where it's the hardest to get funding for a new business.

Raath says that in her experience backpacking and volunteering all around the world she learned that banks are too overwhelmed to evaluate these potential businesses. Topl has created a technology where banks can easily generate a report on these entrepreneurs that evaluates and makes a loan or investment recommendation on the business.

"We are a generation that wants a story," she says. "We want an origin, and don't want to be fooled. And, because you might be able to reduce the cost by having this transparency, you might be able to bring down the cost on both sides."

Later that year, the company closed a 20 percent oversubscribed $700,000 seed round. With the money, Topl will be able to grow its platforms, provide better product features, and increase marketing efforts. Topl's customers are drawn to the technology because of the business efficiency the blockchain adds to their supply chain, but they are also excited about how having this technology differentiates them from their competition. Raath says she's interested in growing Topl's ability to do joint marketing campaigns with their customers.

Incentifind — finding green incentives for commercial and residential building

Natalie Goodman founded Incentifind, which connects home builders and commercial developers with green incentives. Courtesy of Incentifind

When asked about the origin story of IncentiFind — a Houston-based startup that connects real estate developers and home builders with green construction incentives — founder Natalie Goodman doesn't mince words.

"We're a complete accident," Goodman tells InnovationMap in an interview in March. "I'm an architect. We didn't set out to have a startup."

IncentiFind's mission is to increase the amount of green developments and construction projects in the U.S. The company is equipped with a massive database of green incentives that are offered by utility, county, city, state and federal agencies. Many home builders or commercial developers don't take advantage of green incentives because they're simply not aware of them, Goodman says. Commercial developers can expect to spend around $1,500 with IncentiFind, while homeowners can expect to spend between $50 and $150.

Lazarus 3D — 3D printed organs to better train surgeons

Lazarus 3D is using 3D printing to help advance surgeons' skills. Photo via laz3d.com

It's pretty standard for surgeons in training to practice complicated surgeries on produce — slicing bananas open and sewing grapes back together. But for a pair of Baylor College of Medicine-educated doctors, that didn't seem like sufficient prep for working with living bodies; fruit surgery was not fruitful enough. In 2014, Drs. Jacques Zaneveld and Smriti Agrawal Zaneveld founded Lazarus3D to build a better training model — and layer by layer, they created models of abs and ribs and even hearts with a 3D printer.

"We adapted pre-existing 3D printing technology in a novel proprietary way that allows us to, overnight, build soft, silicone or hydrogel models of human anatomy," Jacques, who serves as CEO, tells InnovationMap in July. "They can be treated just like real tissue."

This year, the company grew to seven people and aims to expand even more to add to its sales and manufacturing teams. Having been funded mostly by friends and family investors, Lazarus3D plans enter its first equity round to raise $6 million, InnovationMap reported last summer.

Mental Health Match — connecting people to the right therapists

Ryan Schwartz realized online dating was easier than finding a therapist. He created a tool to change that. Courtesy of Mental Health Match

Nearly five years ago, Ryan Schwartz sat in a coffee shop in crisis mode. His mother had just died suddenly and he was struggling to find an appropriate therapist. Across the table, his friend sat making a profile on a dating app. Quickly, her endeavor was complete and she was ready to swipe right, but Schwartz was still on the hunt for mental help.

"In two minutes she could have a profile matching her with a partner potentially for the rest of her life and I was sitting there for hours and hours trying to find a therapist," he told InnovationMap in June. "I thought it should be easier to find a therapist than a life partner. That's what sent me on my journey."

That journey reached a watershed last month when Schwartz launched Mental Health Match, a website designed to pair patients with their ideal therapist. The idea gained traction as Schwartz described it to people he met and found that many said they had experienced similar difficulties in finding the right practitioner for their needs.

Grab — making ordering food at the airport easier

Houston-based Grab makes it so you're waiting in one less line at the airport. Getty Images

Most airport lines are unavoidable, but a Houston startup has cut out at least some of those lines with its mobile ordering app. Houston-based software company Grab was founded by Mark Bergsrud in 2015, who worked in senior leadership roles for almost 20 years at Continental Airlines and then United Airlines, following the merger. For Bergsrud, Grab feels like another major mobile game changer the industry experienced.

"I spent many years thinking about the travel experience and how to make it better and faster," Bergsrud told InnovationMap in July. "This feels like how mobile check in felt. There was a problem customers didn't know they had — check in wasn't that difficult anyway, but to be able to have that control, people love it."

Grab now has a presence in over 37 airports around the world, including Dallas and Austin though, ironically, not yet either of Houston's airports. Expansion is in the works for Grab, which closed a multimillion-dollar Series A round this year — London-based Collinson Group was the sole contributor.

NurseDash — An app that connects nurses to shifts

Houston-based NurseDash is the Uber of staffing nursing shifts in medical facilities. Photo via nursedash.com

Across the country, medical facilities are short on nurses. Agencies play a role in matchmaking nurses to open shifts, but agencies charge a high percentage for placement and lack transparency, says Andy Chen, former CFO for Nobilis Health Corporation. That's why he and Jakob Kohl created their app, NurseDash in 2017. The project manager for the app is in New York, but official headquarters in Houston's Galleria area, where a staff of five works with the team spread out around the world.

Since its debut, NurseDash has attracted 40 facilities in Houston, InnovationMap reported in May, including hospitals, surgery centers, and senior living, and about 400 nurses. Chen says he isn't sure just what to call his technology yet, but compares it to the ride hailing of Uber or Lyft and calls it "a virtual bulletin board."

Syzygy — hydrogen cells battery to minimize natural gas

Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics, walked away from EarthX $100,000 richer. Photo via LinkedIn

A Houston technology company is doing something that, for many decades, wasn't thought to be possible. Syzygy Plasmonics is creating a hydrogen fuel cell technology that produces a cheaper source of energy that releases fewer carbon emissions. The hydrogen-fueled technology originated out of research done over two decades by two Rice University professors, Naomi Halas and Peter Nordlander.

Syzygy's technology, CEO Trevor Best told InnovationMap in August, is structured more like a battery than that of a combustion engine. Inside the technology, there are cells, lights, and mirrors making as bright as possible, which then spurs a reaction that creates energy. It has the potential to be cheaper — it's made with cheaper materials — and, of course, cleaner than traditional fueling technology with fewer carbon emissions released.

This new photocatalytic chemical reactor has the potential to shake up the industrial gas, chemical, and energy industries — something that hasn't gone unnoticed by investors. Syzygy just closed a $5.8 million Series A round, and the funds will allow for Syzygy to continue to develop its technology and grow its team. Best tells InnovationMap that he expects to launch a full-size pilot by the end of 2020 and is already in talks with potential clients who are interested in the technology for industrial purposes.

Volumetric — 3D printed human tissue

Houston researchers are commercializing their organ 3D printing technology. Jordan Miller/Rice University

There may come a time when you or someone you love is in need of a new pair of lungs. Or perhaps it's a liver. It's not a scenario anyone dreams of, but thanks to Houston company Volumetric, you may never end up on a waiting list. Instead, that organ is made to order and 3D printed using a mix of medical plastics and human cells.

And this possibility isn't necessarily in the distant future. On the cover of the May 3 issue of the journal Science, is a contraption that looks a bit like a futuristic beehive. It's a working air sac complete with blood vessels, the beginnings of a technology that is perhaps only a decade from being implanted in humans. And it was crafted on a 3D printer in Jordan Miller's lab at Rice University. Miller and his bioengineering graduate student Bagrat Grigoryan are primed to profit from their inventions.

In 2018, they started Volumetric Inc., a company that sells both the hydrogel solutions used for printing organs like theirs and the printers themselves. Touring Miller's lab in the Houston Medical Center is a visual timeline of his team's progress designing printers. The version being manufactured is a slick little number, small enough to fit under chemical exhaust hoods, but fitted with everything necessary to print living tissues. It's made and sold in cooperation with CellInk, a larger bioprinting company.

"Our technology is based on projection," Miller told InnovationMap in May. Specifically, it's stereolithography, a type of 3D printing that produces the finished product layer-by-layer. Shining colored light of the right intensity turns the polymers into a solid gel.

Voyager — Email-less communication tool for maritime shipping

Voyager, a Houston SaaS company, has received fresh funds to develop its bulk shipping software. Tom Fisk/Pexels

Houston software startup Voyager is making waves in its quest to improve efficiency — and stem billions of dollars in losses — in the maritime bulk-shipping business. Now, it's got some fresh capital to help it achieve that mission.

InnovationMap reported in August that Houston-based Voyager revealed it secured $1.5 million in seed funding from four investors from around the world: Austin-based ATX Venture Partners, Houston- and California-based Blue Bear Capital, New York City-based GreenHawk Capital, and Oman-based Phaze Ventures. Previous investors include Boulder, Colorado-based Techstars and Spring-based Knightsgate Ventures.

With its software-as-a-service offering, Voyager aims to modernize the workflows of operators in the maritime bulk-commodities industry. The company says its technology will become more vital as autonomous shipping and internet- and Internet of Things-enabled cargo vessels grow in popularity. Voyager's technology enables all communication tied to a shipment to be handled via its web dashboard and app, essentially creating a one-stop shop for people who need to track messages about maritime bulk shipments.

"With Voyager, what it allows companies to do is essentially have all of those counter parties working together in a shared environment to manage the voyage together — entirely email free," Matthew Costello, CEO, tells InnovationMap in December.

Galen Data — cloud-based platform for connecting medical devices to the internet

Houston-based Galen Data is growing its clientbase and just formed two new partnerships with medical device companies. Photo via galendata.com

Educated as an engineer, Chris DuPont has stepped outside his professional comfort zone to generate funding for his Houston-based startup, Galen Data Inc. DuPont's pool of technical contacts in Houston is "wide and deep," he says, but his pool of financial contacts had been shallow.

Overcoming obstacles in Houston's business waters, DuPont has raised two rounds of angel funding — he declines to say how much — that have enabled Galen Data to develop and market its cloud-based platform for connecting medical devices to the internet, including pacemakers and glucose monitors. DuPont is the startup's co-founder and CEO.

Galen Data's patent-pending technology lets medical device manufacturers tailor the cloud-based software to their unique needs. DuPont says his company's software is geared toward medical devices that are outside, not inside, hospitals and other healthcare facilities. He declines to divulge how many customers the startup has.

Hatched within Houston-based Tietronix Software Inc., DuPont's previous employer, Galen Data launched in 2016 but didn't roll out its first product until 2018. Galen Data's emergence comes as the market for internet-connected mobile health apps keeps growing. One forecast envisions the global space for mobile health exceeding $94 billion by 2023.

"We want to be at the forefront of that technology curve," DuPont tells InnovationMap in May. "We might be six months early, we might be a year early, but it's starting to happen."

Matthew Costello, Kristina Haag, and Greg Wright are this week's Houston innovators to know. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

It's the penultimate Monday of 2019, which means it's also the penultimate roundup of Houston innovators to know this week.

Today's featured innovators include an entrepreneur revolutionizing the maritime shipping industry, a fashion designer striving for comfort in Houston's long summers, and a startup advocate shining a spotlight on cybersecurity.

Matthew Costello, co-founder and CEO of Voyager

Matthew Costello Voyager

Houston-based Voyager, co-founded by Matthew Costello, has created a software solution for inefficient communication practices of the maritime shipping industry. Photo courtesy of Voyager

While in business school, Matthew Costello could not kick the thought of all the inefficiencies within the maritime shipping industry. He asked a friend, Bret Smart, to help him look into some of the logistical communications issues within the industry. The two co-founders of Houston-based Voyager started asking some questions for all the different parties involved in shipping across seas.

"The data we got back was pretty alarming," Costello says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It basically showed that whoever you speak to in the maritime industry, people are spending about 40 percent of their day on what we would consider low-value, low-complexity tasks." Read more and stream the podcast here.

Kristina Haag, founder of Cotidíe

Kristina Haag worked a corporate job that required her to run around Houston. She thought of her new fashion line out of wanting stylish clothes conducive to Houston's climate. Lauren Marek/Cotidié

Houston is a humid subtropical climate — the majority of the year brings hot and sticky weather. Local entrepreneur Kristina Haag found herself struggling to find traditional clothing that is comfortable in the Texas heat, so she created it herself.

"With Cotidié, it is all about the functionality of the clothing," says Haag, founder of the clothing line Cotidié. "It is more traditional items, but the use of technical fabrics is our differentiating factor."

The online retailer, which launched in June 2019, offers pieces specifically tailored for women who are up against Houston's hot and muggy climate. Read more here.

Greg Wright, founder of Hatch Pitch

Houston-based Hatch Pitch will host two competitions in spring of 2020 — one marks the return of the competition to the Bayou City. Photo courtesy of Hatch Pitch

For eight years, Greg Wright has been organizing a SXSW pitch competition in Austin for startups from around the world that are using technology to improve life. In 2020, Wright is bringing Houston-based Hatch Pitch back into the Bayou City — a goal he's had for a while — for a new cybersecurity-focused event.

"Many people know us as being associated with Austin and SXSW, but not many people know us as being based in Houston," Wright tells InnovationMap. "There's been a big push to bring Hatch back to Houston, and what we've been struggling with is finding the right vehicle."

After Hatch Pitch Summit returns to Austin for its ninth year on March 16, Cyber Hatch will be hosted by the annual Houston Cyber Summit on April 28. Read more here.

Voyager, a Houston SaaS company, has received fresh funds to develop its bulk shipping software. Tom Fisk/Pexels

Houston software startup closes $1.5 million round as it grows to make bulk shipping more efficient

all aboard

Houston software startup Voyager is making waves in its quest to improve efficiency — and stem billions of dollars in losses — in the maritime bulk-shipping business. Now, it's got some fresh capital to help it achieve that mission.

On August 21, Voyager revealed it secured $1.5 million in seed funding from four investors from around the world: Austin-based ATX Venture Partners, Houston- and California-based Blue Bear Capital, New York City-based GreenHawk Capital, and Oman-based Phaze Ventures. Previous investors include Boulder, Colorado-based Techstars and Spring-based Knightsgate Ventures.

With its software-as-a-service offering, Voyager aims to modernize the workflows of operators in the maritime bulk-commodities industry. The company says its technology will become more vital as autonomous shipping and internet- and Internet of Things-enabled cargo vessels grow in popularity.

Voyager's technology enables all communication tied to a shipment to be handled via its web dashboard and app, essentially creating a one-stop shop for people who need to track messages about maritime bulk shipments.

"Shipping bulk commodities like crude oil, gas, and petrochemicals is still a highly manual and complex process, with $360 billion in ocean freight managed globally by email, phone, fax, and text in a high-volume, fast-paced environment," Matthew Costello, co-founder and CEO of Voyager, says in a release. "Data is decentralized and unstructured, and the process is rife with inefficiencies, lost opportunities, costly human errors and, overarchingly, billions in losses."

One shipment alone generates more than 4,000 emails and hundreds of documents, with at least 10 companies collaborating across several time zones, according to Voyager.

Voyager says the $1.5 million in funding will go toward:

  • Expanding its line of SaaS products.
  • Attracting more customers. This includes a foray into the oil and gas sector.
  • Enlarging its engineering, development, marketing, and sales teams. Voyager currently employs seven people at the company's new office in downtown Houston. Plans call for a 10-member workforce by the end of 2019 and a 20-member workforce by the end of 2020.

Costello and Bret Smart, Voyager's chief operating officer, launched the company in 2018. Both are veterans of the maritime industry, where they conducted a study that found roughly 40 percent of workers' time was spent on simple, low-value tasks like manual data entry. With that research in hand, Costello and Smart — who worked together at Stolt-Nielsen, a London-based provider of liquids transportation and storage that has a Houston office — came up with the Voyager software.

Among Voyager's customers are brokerage, terminal, and agency businesses, as well as ship owners and commodity producers. The company says one of its customers has realized more than $4 million in annual bottom-line savings by switching to Voyager, with another customer pegging its annual savings at $1.5 million.

"As industries move away from email to digital-based communication, Voyager will become a critical system of engagement," Costello says.

Down the road — or, in this case, the shipping channel — Voyager plans to supplement its cloud-based offerings with capabilities like machine learning and analytics.

"Opportunities for innovation in maritime abound, as the need for technological advancements exist in one of the world's biggest industries. Voyager is poised to be the leader in maritime operations," says Chris Shonk, managing partner of ATX Venture Partners.

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Chevron's Houston-based venture group taps two companies for its startup-focused program

energy tech

Chevron's corporate venture arm that invests into energy tech innovation and supports startups within the industry has tapped two companies for its Chevron Technology Ventures Catalyst Program.

Entech Solutions and mIQroTech have both recently been named new partners in the program, which allows the startups support and guidance during growth and acceleration from Chevron and its network.

Norway-based Entech Solutions AS has developed itsSuperstage Pinpoint Stimulation to address high intensity stimulation in increasingly long horizontal wells, according to a press release. The product aims to improve production performance and lower costs.

"Collaboration with Chevron will allow us to demonstrate Superstage efficiencies in a variety of basins worldwide," says Anthony Kent, co-inventor of Superstage and Entech's General Manager for North America, in the release.

"Working with a leading global operator gives us access to expertise needed to standardize this robust and versatile hardware technology," he continues.

Meanwhile, Tampa, Florida-based mIQroTech is addressing pipeline leak concerns within the energy industry by using artificial intelligence and internet of things. The startup joined the Catalyst Program in July.

"Our goal is to deliver a transformative change to the global oil and gas industry," says founder and chief executive officer, Meade Lewis, in a press release.

"Better data, analytics, and intelligence will add efficiencies to pipeline operations and empower more informed and faster decision-making. We appreciate that Chevron recognizes our potential to deliver solutions to enable safer delivery of oil and gas," Lewis continues.

The company, which has received investments from Plug and Play, Ocean Capital, Republic, and Harvard Business School Alumni Angels, and more, will focus on growing its team and customer base.

Chevron also recently contributed to Houston-based ThoughtTrace's $10 million series B round in May and signed on as a partner for the Houston expansion of cleantech accelerator Greentown Labs.

Houston entrepreneur creates a new digital platform to help connect freelancers to clients

calling all creatives

By 2027, freelancers will account for the majority of the American workforce — and Houston is already well represented by the freelance space.

According to a recent study, Houston is home to 117,260 skilled freelancers who generated more than $4.1 billion in revenue in 2018. This burgeoning environment for freelancers presents many opportunities for innovations in the tech world, as one Houston entrepreneur has already discovered.

Yared Akalou, founder-and-CEO of Alcove Group and self-described designer-focused entrepreneur, released his third innovation catering to freelancers of the Houston area. His digital solutions platform, IAmOther50, assists freelancers with securing new clients by sharing their personal stories rather than just submitting their professional experience, it uses videos and articles to promote the work of a freelancer and connect them to their next client.

"I am really on a mission," Akalou tells InnovationMap. "I have been talking about the future of work for over a decade now. The paradigm will change to viewing work as a service, so it is important to tell a freelancer's story through a more engaging and novel way."

At first glance, the digital platform seems like a departure for Akalou who in 2017 founded Alcove, a portable laptop case that serves as a private workspace for freelancers to use amid coffee shops or coworking spaces. However, IAmOther50 serves as a distinctly separate yet integral part of his innovation landscape.

"These projects have been a combination of my focus and research," says Akalou. "My new platform works hand in hand with Alcove, supporting the mission to help people stay productive from anywhere."

The digital platform serves to capture the brand of the freelancer along with their personality and experience. It lives at the intersection of popular social media platforms and professional platforms such as LinkedIn, except just for freelancers in the Houston area. Currently, any freelancing professional in the Houston area can join for free by filling out a survey that customizes their goals for their profile.

"IAmOther50 provides information in a contextual way," says Akalou. "We have this guiding principle of delivering value even before the prospective client contacts the freelancer for an interview or potential position. It's about going beyond just a resume of what you've done and showcasing how you add value right now."

Akalou, who is also one of the mentors in The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, is focused on elevating the professional profiles of many freelancers, including those outside the Houston area. He is aiming to grow the platform to a self-service platform that can connect freelancers to clients all over the biggest metropolitan areas soon.


AI-optimized teams are a game changer for energy companies, this Houston expert says

guest column

The speed and scale of change in the business world had been on a fast track, with technology enabling bigger and bolder advances within shorter time frames.

Enter 2020: a global pandemic struck, and here in the Gulf Coast region, we were also hit by an energy industry downturn. The effects of both these crises have touched nearly every sector and revealed the factors that are essential to effectively managing through economic recovery. In a time of extreme challenges, two areas — human talent and technology — are now more important and intertwined than ever.

Earlier this year, Deloitte released its 2020 Global Human Capital Trends report, "The social enterprise at work: Paradox as a path forward," which addresses the intricacies of this issue. The survey was conducted before the pandemic took hold only to see its findings on the future of work play out in real time as companies respond to COVID-19 and the economic toll it's taking.

The rise of the superteam

Despite some dramatic predictions about machines replacing humans, many organizations, including oil and gas companies, are looking to integrate artificial intelligence into teams of people. These "superteams" of human talent and AI may enable organizations to reinvent themselves to create new value and meaning. For organizations that still view AI mainly as an automation tool to reduce costs, connecting AI initiatives with efforts to craft more effective teams is a first step toward enabling humans and machines to work together in new, more productive ways.

In the report, 60 percent of respondents said their organizations are currently using AI to assist, rather than to replace, workers. An additional 58 percent explained that they are using it to improve consistency and quality because superteams can allow organizations to both transform the nature of their output and create worker capacity. Furthermore, 66 percent of respondents believed that the number of jobs would either stay the same or increase as a result of AI's use in the next three years.

Drilling down on the energy sector

As the oil and gas industry reels from the dual effects of a global health crisis and oil price shocks, most organizations are focused on recovery, but forward-looking companies are devising strategies for better integrating technology into their operations.

The value of superteams is clear: they offer the promise of enabling organizations to reinvent themselves while giving employees the potential to further their careers by learning sought-after skills. It's no surprise, then, that many oil and gas companies are rethinking how the future of work may play out within their operations. For example, as outlined in Deloitte's Tech Trends 2020 report, a growing cohort of AI-powered solutions is increasing the need for technology that understands and responds to humans. This might take shape via a field worker being equipped with digital tools to provide real-time support for maintenance and upgrades. Augmented reality applications could offer the employee context-based instructions and the ability to connect with remote workers for live support.

This is just one example of how superteams can transform the sector; there are many other ways that humans and technology can work together to drive organizational value.

Working together to shape the new normal

As the future of work rapidly evolves amidst the world's "new normal," business leaders are wrestling with an increasing range of challenges. These challenges are especially pronounced at the intersection between humans and technology, where new questions have risen about the impact of emerging technologies on workers and society. Organizations that tackle these issues head-on – changing their perspectives to consider not only "could we" but also "how should we" – will be well-positioned to make the bold choices that drive organizational value.


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Amy Chronis is the Houston managing partner at Deloitte.