Here's your latest roundup of Houston startup and innovation news you may have missed. Photo via Getty Images

We're on the other side of the hill that is Houston's summer, but the Bayou City's still hot — especially in terms of innovation news, and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, a Houston venture capital fund has made its latest investment, Houston startups share big updates, and more.

Rivalry Technology rolls out mobile ordering at hot summer spot

You can now order poolside at this Houston-area resort. Image courtesy of Rivalry Tech

Lounging at Margaritaville Lake Resort at Lake Conroe was just made easier by Rivalry Tech, a Houston-based mobile ordering platform company. Rivalry Tech upgraded poolside ordering with its myEATz. According to a news release, customers can now order food and drinks from the 5 o’Clock Somewhere Bar and Lone Palm Bar via a custom QR code system for each lounge chair and table to increase operational efficiency for the Margaritaville Lake Resort staff.

“We wanted to be sure the rollout of the myEATz mobile ordering platform was helpful to the Margaritaville staff, not a hindrance to their existing process. We created custom QR codes and a color coded map to easily identify where the mobile orders are going,” says Charles Willis, COO of Rivalry Tech, in the release.

Rivalry, which provides mobile ordering at numerous sports stadiums and venues with sEATz, expanded into hospitality this year.

“The Rivalry Tech team helped us to seamlessly implement mobile ordering at Margaritaville Lake Resort. They created the marketing materials, established custom QR codes, uploaded mentors and trained our staff onsite. The whole process has been easy and collaborative,” says Amit Sen, director food and beverage for Margaritaville Lake Resort, in the release.

Mercury Fund invests in ReturnLogic's latest round

Mercury has led the latest fundraising round from a SaaS company. Image via Getty Images

Houston-based venture capital firm Mercury led Phillidelphia-based SaaS company ReturnLogic's $8.5 million series A funding round, which also had participation from Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Fund, White Rose Ventures, and Ben Franklin Technology Partners. The fresh funding will help the company double its workforce, accelerate product development, and expand Application Programming Interface capabilities, according to a news release.

Founded by CEO Peter Sobotta, Return Logic's SaaS platform, which can be plugged into existing e-commerce platforms, helps to enhance management of returns and prevent the challenging financial impacts of returns.

“While retailers have largely mastered forward logistics to get products into customers hands, the returns process remains an under-addressed, resource-draining problem that eats away at brands’ profits,” says Blair Garrou, managing director of Mercury, in a news release. “ReturnLogic is something entirely new to this market and uniquely built on Peter Sobotta’s deep operational experience in reverse logistics and supply chain management.

"While serving in the U.S. Navy, Peter specialized in reverse logistics and gained extensive expertise in ecommerce operations," Garrou continues. "With Peter at the helm, ReturnLogic’s innovative API-first returns solution is well-positioned to tackle the ever-growing operational returns problem facing retailers. We are excited to partner with Peter and his team as they continue to solve this massive problem for online retailers.”

Fluence Analytics named a top advanced manufacturing startup

Fluence Analytics was selected as one of 50 startups recognized. Graphic courtesy

Fluence Analytics, an analytics and process control solutions platform for the polymer and biopharmaceutical industries, was named as a Top 50 global advanced manufacturing startup by CB Insights. The Inaugural list breaks down 16 different cohorts, narrowed down from more than 6,000 companies who either submitted an application or were nominated. Fluence Analytics was one of three companies featured in the R&D Optimization category.

"Our team is very excited that our real-time process analytics, optimization and control products for the polymer and biopharma industries are included among such elite startups," says Jay Manouchehri, CEO of Fluence Analytics, in a statement to InnovationMap. "We wish to thank CB Insights for including Fluence Analytics in its inaugural list of the Top 50 global advanced manufacturing startups, as well as our customers and investors for supporting the development and roll-out of our transformative technology solutions."

Fluence Analytics moved to the Houston area from New Orleans last year. The company's tech platform allows for optimization and control products to polymer and biopharmaceutical customers worldwide.

HTX Labs secures $1.7M contract to expand within United States Air Force

HTX Labs' EMPACT product will be further developed to support the Air Force. Image courtesy of HTX Labs

HTX Labs, a Houston-based company that designs extended reality training for military and business purposes, that it has been awarded a $1.7 million Small Business Innovation Research Phase II Tactical Funding Increase with the US Air Force to enhance and operationalize to its product, EMPACT Immersive Learning Platform, in support of training modernization.

“We are very thankful to AFWERX and AFDT for this great opportunity to play an increasingly important role in helping the USAF accelerate training modernization," says Chris Verret, president HTX Labs, in a news release. "This TACFI award shows continued confidence in HTX Labs, with a strong commitment to accelerate usage and adoption of EMPACT.”

HTX Labs will leverage this contract to expand EMPACT's ability to rapidly create and distribute interactive, immersive training, collaborating closely with Advanced Force Development Technologies, per the release.

OpenStax to publish free edition of updated science textbook

OpenStax is growing its access to free online textbooks. Image via openstax.org

OpenStax, a tech initiative from Rice University that uploads free learning resources, has announced it will publish the 10th edition of an organic chemistry textbook by Cornell University professor emeritus John McMurry.

“This is a watershed moment for OpenStax and the open educational resources (OER) movement,” says Richard Baraniuk, founder and director of OpenStax, in a news release. “This publication will quickly provide a free, openly licensed, high-quality resource to hundreds of thousands of students in the U.S. taking organic chemistry, removing what can be a considerable cost and access barrier.”

Usually a big expense for organic chemistry students, McMurry, with the support of publisher Cengage, made the decision to offer the latest edition online as a tribute to his son, Peter McMurry, who died in 2019 after a long struggle with cystic fibrosis.

“If Peter were still alive, I have no doubt that he would want me to work on this 10th edition with a publisher that made the book free to students,” McMurry says in the release. “To make this possible, I am not receiving any payment for this book, and generous supporters have covered not only the production costs but have also made a donation of $500,000 to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation to help find a cure for this terrible disease.”

Topl's latest fundraising round includes participation from a Houston investor as well as international partners. Image via Getty Images

Houston-founded blockchain startup raises $15M series A to increase international impact

money moves

A blockchain technology company that was founded out of Rice University has closed its latest round of funding.

Founded in 2017, Topl is a blockchain-as-a-service company that's developing a purpose-built blockchain ecosystem to empower impact and sustainability within its userbase of businesses. The company's $15 million series A round was co-led by Houston-based Mercury, Republic Asia, and Malta-based Cryptology Asset Group.

“Topl’s blockchain was purpose built to power the next wave of supply chains and markets, that are more sustainable and inclusive,” says Chris Georgen, founder and managing director of Topl, in a news release. “Every decision we’ve made has been relentlessly focused on this problem and it’s exciting to see this approach yielding results with more than 30 different impact-forward use cases already live or approaching launch. Through this latest fundraise and with the strong network we’ve built, we’re looking to accelerate the growth of our ecosystem and setting a goal of at least 100 applications launched by next year.”

The company, which is now headquartered in Austin but still has a presence in Houston, has raised over $20 million in investment to date. Topl announced its $3 million seed round of funding — also led by Mercury — in 2020.

“Despite broader market dynamics across the Web3 sector, Topl’s strategic and early focus on users allowed the team to build an incredibly strong foundation that can weather cycles by providing an increasingly in-demand service to companies implementing various sustainable initiatives,” says Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury, in the release. “We are excited to support Topl in this pivotal growth period.”

The round included two new international investors in Topl. Republic Asia is a newly launched arm of private investing platform Republic that is focused on fintech and web3 solutions. Houstonian Youngro Lee leads the division as executive vice president at Republic and head of Republic Asia and will join Topl's board to assist with international expansion.

“Sustainability and climate considerations are no longer mere luxuries, but an absolute necessity for companies to contribute to global finance and commerce,” Lee says in the release. “Topl will make it easier than ever for any organization around the world to harness the power of blockchain to track and monetize their positive environmental impact.”

Cryptology, with its European operations, also brings Topl key international presence.

"It's been an honor to see Topl progress from when it first entered Iconic Lab's accelerator program back in 2018 to where it is today," says Patrick Lowry, CEO of Cryptology, in the release. "Cryptology is hyper-focused on driving crypto adoption in an impact-focused, sustainable manner. We are proud to add Topl to our portfolio of companies and excitedly await Topl's network decentralization."

In addition to increasing its international impact, Topl will reportedly continue to build out its blockchain and technology. Per the release, Topl expects to launch a traceability platform for ethically and sustainably sourced products later this year.

Topl, which launched a grant program to fund Web3 startups and developers with inclusive and sustainable solutions, plans to announce its first 20 grant awards early next year. The grant recipients will also receive development, go-to-market, and fundraising support from Topl's team and network.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Kelly Pracht of nVenue, Aimee Gardner of SurgWise, and Kelly Avant of Mercury. Courtesy photos

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 sports tech to venture capital — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Kelly Pracht, CEO and co-founder of nVenue

nVenue's proprietary predictive analytics appear at the bottom right corner of the screen on Apple TV broadcasts. Photo via nvenue.com

Next time you're watching an Astros game on Apple TV, check the bottom right-hand side of the screen. That prediction data comes by way of a Texas startup with deep Houston roots. nVenue, co-founded by Houstonian Kelly Pracht, struck a deal earlier this year that allowed her data-driven sports analytics platform on the screens of baseball viewers this season.

"In under two weeks we structured the deal, convinced them it worked, pulled together every bit of testing we could — by then we only had one week of pre-season games to test — and we pulled it off," Pracht says.

The technology has a lot of potential when it comes to microbetting — a part of sports fandom that's growing by the second. Click here to read more.

Aimee Gardner, CEO and president of SurgWise

SurgeWise is giving surgical teams the right support for hiring. Photo via SurgWise.com

Hiring surgeons is a whole thing — tons of paperwork, inequitable and archaic processes, and lots of medical practitioners' time wasted. Five years ago, Aimee Gardner came up with a solution and founded SurgWise Consulting, where she serves as president and CEO.

"We help provide assessments to help screen competencies and attributes that people care about," Gardner says. "(Those) are really hard to assess, but really differentiate people who really thrive in training in their careers and people who don't."

Now, Gardner is tapping into the last five years of data she's accumulated and has big plans for developing a tech platform for her solution. Click here to read more.

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Mercury Fund

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant's resume might not make sense to you at first. She went from a gender studies major in undergrad, followed by a stint in the Peace Corps, before heading to law school. After moving on to get her MBA over her JD, Avant realized a way she could really make the biggest impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A. Click here to read more.


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Houston cleantech company sees shining success with gold hydrogen

bling, bling

Houston-based cleantech startup Cemvita Factory is kicking things into high gear with its Gold Hydrogen product.

After successfully completing a pilot test of Gold Hydrogen in the oil-rich Permian Basin of West Texas, Cemvita has raised an undisclosed amount of funding through its new Gold H2 LLC spin-out. The lead investors are Georgia-based equipment manufacturer Chart Industries and 8090 Industries, an investment consortium with offices in New York City and Los Angeles.

Gold Hydrogen provides carbon-neutral hydrogen obtained from depleted oil and gas wells. This is achieved through bioengineering subsurface microbes in the wells to consume carbon and generate clean hydrogen.

Cemvita says it set up Gold H2 to commercialize the business via licensing, joint ventures, and outright ownership of hydrogen assets.

“We have incredible conviction in next-generation clean hydrogen production methods that leverage the vast and sprawling existing infrastructure and know-how of the oil and gas industry,” Rayyan Islam, co-founder and general partner of 8090 Industries, says in a news release.

Traditional methods of producing hydrogen without greenhouse gas emissions include electrolysis powered by renewable sources like wind, solar or water, according to Cemvita. However, production of green hydrogen through normal avenues eats up a lot of energy and money, the startup says.

By contrast, Cemvita relies on depleted oil and gas wells to cheaply produce carbon-free hydrogen.

“The commercialization and economics of the hydrogen economy will require technologies that produce the hydrogen molecule at a meaningful scale with no carbon emissions. Gold H2 is leading the charge … ,” says Jill Evanko, president and CEO of Chart Industries.

Investors in Cemvita include Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, an investment arm of Houston-based Occidental Petroleum, as well as BHP Group, Mitsubishi, and United Airlines Ventures.

Oxy Low Carbon Ventures and United Airlines Ventures are financing Cemvita’s work on sustainable jet fuel. United Airlines operates a hub at George Bush Intercontinental Airport Houston.

Founded by brother-and-sister team Moji and Tara Karimi in 2017, Cemvita uses synthetic biology to turn carbon dioxide into chemicals and alternative fuels.

Houston named best city in Texas and No. 11 in U.S. in prestigious report

best in tx

At least according to one new report, Houston is not only the Energy Capital of the World but also the livability capital of Texas.

A new study from Best Cities, powered by Resonance Consultancy, puts Houston at No. 11 among the best cities in the U.S. That’s the top showing among the six Texas cities included in the ranking. Houston appeared at No. 17 on last year’s list.

“Educated, diverse and hard-working, Houston is America’s stealthy powerhouse on the rise,” Best Cities proclaims.

Best Cities notes that while Austin grabs much of the best-city attention, “the promise of the Lone Star State drawing Californians and New Yorkers is quietly being fulfilled in Houston.” The website points out that the Houston metro area has gained nearly 300,000 residents in the past year, thanks to both domestic and international migration.

Here are some of the individual rankings that contribute to Houston’s 11th-place finish:

  • No. 4 for restaurants
  • No. 7 for culture
  • No. 8 for foreign-born population

“Houston is a diverse and vibrant metro where individuals can start a family, grow their business, attend world-class institutions and universities, or be immersed in the 145 languages that are spoken by our residents,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says in a news release. “The quality of life we have in Houston is second to none, and the data we receive from placements such as … Best Cities further reaffirm the strength and resiliency that has come to define this great city of ours.”

A few spots behind Houston on the Best Cities list are No. 14 Dallas and No. 15 Austin.

What lifts Dallas to the No. 14 spot? These are some of the factors cited by Best Cities:

  • Location of more than 10,000 corporate headquarters
  • Strong showing (No. 2) in the airport connectivity category
  • Kudos for the soon-to-be-expanded Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center Dallas
  • Home of the country’s sixth largest LGBTQ+ community
  • Presence of the 28-block, 68-acre Dallas Arts District

Austin comes in at No. 15, one notch behind Dallas.

Best Cities praises Austin as “a place that’s incredibly livable. Talk to any entrepreneur leaving Silicon Valley or Seattle and chances are they’ve considered Austin.”

The website points to a number of Austin’s assets, such as:

  • Growing presence of Fortune 500 headquarters
  • Comparatively low unemployment rate
  • Location of the University of Texas’ flagship campus
  • Status as the Live Music Capital of the World
  • Home of the annual SXSW gathering

Two other Texas cities make the Best Cities list: No. 34 San Antonio and No. 94 McAllen.

Best Cities bases its list of the best U.S. cities on Resonance Consultancy’s combination of statistical performance plus qualitative evaluations by locals and visitors. Those figures are grouped into six main categories. This year’s ranking features 100 U.S. cities. To come up with the ranking, Resonance Consultancy assessed all U.S. metro areas with at least 500,000 residents.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

How a Houston med device startup pivoted to impact global health and diagnostics

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 153

In the span of a couple years, a Houston startup went from innovating a way for patients with degenerative eye diseases to see better to creating a portable and affordable breath-based diagnostics tool worthy of a prestigious grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.

Steradian Technologies, founded in 2018, set out to create human super-sight via proprietary optics. In early 2020, the company was getting ready to start testing the device and fundraising. Then, the pandemic hit, knocking the company completely off course.

Co-founder and CEO of the company, Asma Mirza, says on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast that the Steradian co-founders discussed how their optic technology could detect diseases. Something just clicked, and the RUMI device was born.

"We are from Houston, Texas, which is one of the most diverse and accessible cities in the country, and we were having trouble with basic diagnostic accessibility. It was taking too long, it was complicated, and people were getting sick and didn't know if they were positive or negative," Mirza says on the show. "That's when we pivoted the company and decided we were going to pivot the company and use optics to detect diseases in breath."

Fast forward two years and the company has been recognized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with a grant to sport the development of the tool — which costs about the same price as a latte to make. The impact for global health is huge, Mirza says, allowing for people to test their breath for diseases from their own homes in the same time it takes to take your temperature.

"You blow into a cartrige and we're able to take the air from your breath into a liquid sample," Mirza says, explaining how the device uses photons to produce quick results. "It's wild that we still don't have something like that yet."

She shares more details about the grant and the future applications for the technology — as well as the role Houston and local organizations have had on the company — on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.