A new report finds that the Lone Star State isn't prime for innovation jobs — and more Houston innovation news. Photo via Getty Images

Houston's summer has been heating up 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, Houston investors were tapped for impressive roles, a local hospital system has invested in the city's diversity and inclusion, and more.

Houston Methodist awards more than $4.6 million for 2022 DEI Grant program

Ryane Jackson, vice-president, community benefits at Houston Methodist, oversees the grant program. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

Houston Methodist announced grants to 59 Houston-area nonprofit organizations totalling more than $4.6 million thanks to the Houston Methodist Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Grant Program. The program supports "community initiatives focused on addressing the social determinants of health that lead to health inequities within racial, ethnic and social minorities, including women, people experiencing homelessness, older adults, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants and more," per a news release.

It's the second year for the DEI Grant Program, and the latest donations will support more than 100,000 people in the Houston area through 29 healthy neighborhood programs, 16 economic empowerment programs, and 17 educational empowerment programs.

“It’s incredibly encouraging to see so many local non-profit organizations working to close the health and social disparity gaps that exist among minority groups in the Houston area,” says Ryane Jackson, vice-president, community benefits at Houston Methodist, in the release. “The goal of the Houston Methodist DEI grant program is to enact meaningful change. For us, that change entails working together with local charity agencies in our collective pursuit to build a healthier Houston that reaffirms the value and worth of everyone. Entering our second year of funding, we’re pleased to support even more local organizations this year who are critical in shaping our community.”

The program has two types of grant funding — the Social Equity Grant for health equity programs targeting racial and ethnic minorities, and the DEI Grant, which provides resources for operating growing agencies serving broader minority communities.

Some examples of the grants are:

  • DEI Grant to the The Montrose Center, which empowers the LGBTQ+ community and their families to live healthier, more fulfilling lives. DEI grant funds will benefit LGBTQ+ seniors and African American seniors from Third Ward in need of affordable and affirmative housing and will enable the hiring of a case manager to support the initiative.
  • DEI Grant tp the Santa Maria Hostel, which offers a comprehensive continuum of care for women and their families including residential detoxification, substance use disorder treatment for women, and emergency and transitional housing. DEI Grant funding will support the Recovery Support Services Program that assists formerly incarcerated women with housing and economic stability through salary support for Peer Recovery Coaches. This agency is the only recovery agency that allows women to keep their children with them while going through the program.
  • Social Equity Grant to Boat People SOS - Houston, a nonprofit social and legal services provider whose purpose is to empower, organize, and equip immigrant communities in their pursuit of liberty and dignity. The Houston Methodist Social Equity grant funding will support their senior services program designed to address social support needs and provide resources to Vietnamese seniors.

2 Mercury investors named to prestigious programs

Samantha Lewis and Aziz Gilani of Mercury have each received exciting appointments. Photos via Mercury

Houston-based venture capital firm has two employees to celebrate. Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury, was announced as a member of the Class 27 of the Kauffman Fellows Program, a group of global innovation investors, just after Aziz Gilani, managing director at the firm, was appointed to the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a Federal advisory committee that advises the United States Secretary of Commerce.

For Lewis, the appointment enrolls her in the two-year program, which is described as "a United Nations of venture investing," in a news release. She joins a network of 765 fellows — including 59 in the current cohort — spanning six continents and representing over 670 VC firms around the globe.

At NACIE, Gilani was one of 32 leaders appointed by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo last month. The group, according to a news release, will be tasked with "developing a National Entrepreneurship Strategy that strengthens America’s ability to compete and win as the world’s leading startup nation and as the world’s leading innovator in critical emerging technologies."

Texas ranks as middle of the pack when it comes to innovative states

Texas ranks in the lower half of the nation when it comes to innovation jobs. Chart via Smartest Dollar

The Lone Star State was named the 30th most innovative state, according to a new report from Smartest Dollar. The report evaluated data from 350 metros and all 50 states and sought to identify the locations with the most innovative workers. Researchers calculated a composite innovation index for each location and ranked states accordingly.

Here is a summary of the data for Texas, according to the report:

  • Composite innovation index: 59.30
  • Share of workers in the most innovative jobs: 2.6 percent
  • Total workers in the most innovative jobs: 322,910
  • Average annual wage for all workers: $54,230
  • Average annual wage for workers in the most innovative jobs: $77,098

Here are the statistics for the entire United States:

  • Composite innovation index: 59.53
  • Share of workers in the most innovative jobs: 3.1 percent
  • Total workers in the most innovative jobs: 4,428,790
  • Average annual wage for all workers: $58,260
  • Average annual wage for workers in the most innovative jobs: $86,562

Applications are open for pitch competition

A new pitch competition is looking for finalists. Photo via Getty Images

Applications are now open for the Black Girl Ventures x Omaze Houston pitch competition. The deadline to submit is July 1.

This fall, seven finalists will pitch their businesses to a panel of judges, and the first place winner will win $10,000. Second and third place winners will receive $6,000 and $2,000, respectively. Capital One will match funds, effectively doubling the prize money for the top three finalists.

Eligibility includes Black and Brown woman-identifying founders with revenue-generating (under $1 million) businesses. Founders can submit their applications online. Finalists will be notified on July 18.

Black Girl Ventures has been active in Houston since 2020. According to the organization, the region has six Change Agents, or fellows, who work to strengthen and expand the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Houston startup joins national 5G accelerator cohort

Houston startup joins a cohort of companies changing the future of 5G. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston company has been named to a new 5G-focused accelerator program. The gBETA 5G Technology Spring 2022 cohort includes Houston-based Ohana. Using advertising revenue, the company brings free access to information and connectivity to the world and is planning to roll out a 5G smartphone and data plan free to users across the globe later this year.

gBETA, which has an industry agnostic cohort ongoing in Houston, also has this 5G-focuset version that follows a similar structure. The five companies will go through the free, seven-week accelerator — that kicked off May 5 — and receive intensive and individualized coaching and access to gener8tor’s national network of mentors, customers, corporate partners, and investors.

The program will culminate with the gener8tor Showcase Day in the fall, which will highlight each of the five companies.

“We’re so fortunate to have such a diverse set of founders from across the country, with expertise across the internet technology and communications continuum,” says Doug Applegate, gBETA director for the 5G Technology program. “They highlight the capabilities and possibilities of what 5G Technology can bring to the world, and we’re excited to see how the companies grow.”

The other companies include Chicago-based Socian Technologies, Fishers, Indiana-based Qumulex Boston-based Mentore, and Dallas-based Taubyte.

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

Houston innovator joins VC world to increase her social impact

Q&A

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger 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.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

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.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Growing Houston-based WizeHire tripled its headcount last year and plans to grow even more as it scales up. Photo courtesy of WizeHire

Houston startup raises $30M series B, plans to expand its offerings to customers

money moves

A Houston software company has closed its latest funding round to the tune of $30 million.

WizeHire, a tech-enabled hiring solution for small businesses, announced the closing of its series B round, bringing its total funding to $37.5 million and its valuation to $250 million, according to the news release. The round was led by Tiger Global with participation from prior Houston-based investors Amplo and Mercury.

The pandemic has greatly impacted businesses ability to hire new employees. Founded in 2014, WizeHire launched a free version of its optimized hiring solution at the height of COVID-19. The company also helped small businesses find and apply for refundable tax credits and Payment Protection Program loans to keep their doors open.

“The pandemic was an incredibly tough time for Main Street, and we were right there with them," says Sid Upadhyay, CEO of WizeHire, in the release. "We’re constantly amazed by the depth of our clients’ trust in us and in response, have stepped up to serve them as a trusted advisor in their business growth. We plan to build a marketplace for small businesses to have access to the resources they need to succeed.”

Now, WizeHire is scaling its abilities to provide more resources to its customers, including offerings like tax, payroll, and insurance advice. The company also recently launched a mobile app for business owners to managing hiring on the go. Additionally, WizeHire has plans to expand into new industries — like automotive, hospitality, insurance, and home services — and add features like recommended background checks, and legally-approved offer letters, per the release.

"WizeHire has created a solution that serves and anticipates the most important needs of Main Street businesses with a focus on hiring skilled workers," Sam Harland, partner at Tiger Global, says in the release. "Rapid adoption of the WizeHire platform by small businesses illustrates the market’s potential, and we are excited to partner with Sid and the WizeHire team.”

The company, which raised its series A a little over a year ago, now has more than 15,000 employers use the platform — and 90 percent of those businesses plan to return for future hiring needs, the release states. Last year, WizeHire doubled its customer base and internally tripled its headcount. The business has plans to continue growing its team this year.

Urban Capital Network have launched a fund-of-funds to allow investors to tap into later-stage startups at a much lower barrier of entry. Images via urbancapitalnetwork.com

Houston group launches equitable fund of funds to increase impact at a lower barrier of entry

more access to funding

Early stage investing has always been a tried and true way for investors to get in on the ground floor of a tech company for a smaller financial commitment — but it's risky. Urban Capital Network has created an alternative.

UCN was founded to democratize investment opportunities and help investors of color find investment opportunities all while cutting their teeth as novice investors. Lenny Saizan, co-founder of UCN, says that its Horizon Fund II allows for UCN investors to get involved in venture-backed companies at a much lower price tag.

Saizan explains that UCN members are in that lower tier of accredited investors who don't necessarily have $250,000 or $1 million to invest in a fund — but they have $15,000 to $25,000 to invest.

"We allow more people to participate in venture funds or venture-backed opportunities," Saizan tells InnovationMap. "Instead of going into one deal at a very early stage, you’re getting in a later stage where the deal is more de-risked and you have a better chance of returns."

As members start to see returns on these premium investment opportunities, Saizan says, UCN encourages their investors to look at earlier stage within their own communities.

“We recognized that there was still an issue with minority founders getting funded as well,” Saizan says of UCN's mission as a whole. “We thought the best approach would be to create wealth and income within the communities that those founders would be reaching out to.”

Horizon Fund II will deploy capital in up to five funds — each with 15 to 30 portfolio companies. The first two investment opportunities have already been secured: Pegasus Tech Ventures's Pre-IPO Fund and Mercury Fund V, a Houston VC firm. In two years, UCN has seen five exits across its six funds. It's the group's second fund of funds — the first was an investment in Mercury Fund IV.

Eric Tait, co-founder at UCN, says they are looking for variety in the funds they invest in and are targeting top-tier, and highly rated VC firms all over the country that UCN's leadership has connections with.

“We’re relatively agnostic in terms of industry,” Tait says. “We do try to have a portfolio allocation that will create a return threshold that is varied.”

Typically, Tait explains, investing in a VC fund won't garner returns for seven to 10 years. However, UCN specifically targeted Pegasus's Pre-IPO Fund because ROI is expected between years two and four.

Tait says one of the things of focus for UCN this year is to grow the network's reach.

“A big goal for us is to tap into more institutional investors — like family offices, and things of that nature,” Tait says. “What we’ve realized is what we’ve been able to do for individual investors has been locked down, and we can do the same thing on a smaller scale for institutional dollars who are interested in these opportunities but don’t want to put in $1 million.”

Saizan says his team is also looking to give members a tech upgrade when it comes to accessing information and deals on UCN's platform. Additionally, he wants to focus on strengthening the group's network of VCs and how UCN interacts with them. He says firms reach out with interest all the time, and he wants to streamline that process using technology.

“We really want to formalize our network,” Saizan says. “We’re bringing diverse deal flow, diverse investors, diverse talent, and a diverse perspective. So, a lot of times VCs tap us when they are looking for an opportunity — or maybe they have an opportunity and want to know what we think.”

Buildforce is an app that can connect contractors with construction experts. Photo courtesy of Buildforce

Houston construction tech company raises $4M round

money moves

A locally founded company that's focusing on changing the construction labor game has raised a round of institutional funding.

Buildforce, which splits its headquarters between Houston and Austin, closed its latest round of funding at $4 million. The round was led by Maryland-based TDF Ventures, with participation from existing investor Houston-based Mercury Fund and Austin-based S3 Ventures.

The company uses construction staffing and management software to more efficiently connect contractors to skilled workers across trades — electrical, mechanical, plumbing, flooring, concrete, painting, and more.

"Contractors depend on skilled and reliable tradespeople to meet project timelines," says Moody Heard, co-founder and CEO of Buildforce, in a news release. "Our key insight is that by optimizing the user experience for skilled tradespeople seeking higher pay and job security, we are able to help meet contractors' needs. We're thrilled to have become the partner of choice for the top contractors in our current markets looking to connect with this workforce."

The new funds will support the startup as it scales, grows revenue, develops its product, and more.

"The US has millions of unfilled openings for skilled tradespeople, yet consistent work remains out-of-reach for many construction professionals," says Will Rayner, principal at TDF Ventures, in the release. "Buildforce's exponential growth in 2021 is a testament to the company's ability to connect supply and demand in this difficult labor market at scale."

The company closed an earlier round of funding in April. That round was led by Mercury.

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7+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events in July

where to be

Houstonians are transitioning into a new summer month, and the city's business community is mixing in networking and conference events with family vacations and time off. Here's a rundown of what all to throw on your calendar for July when it comes to innovation-related events.

This article will be updated as more business and tech events are announced.

July 10 — Have a Nice Day Market at the Ion

Stop by for a one-of-a-kind vendor market - #HaveANiceDayHTX - taking place at the Ion, Houston's newest urban district and collaborative space that is designed to provide the city a place where entrepreneurial, corporate, and academic communities can come together. Free to attend and free parking onsite.

Have a Nice Day is a creative collective with a goal of celebrating BIPOC makers, creators, and causes.

The event is Sunday, July 10, 4 to 8 pm, at The Ion. Click here to register.

July 12 — One Houston Together Webinar Series

In the first installment of the Partnership's One Houston Together webinar series, we will discuss supplier diversity an often underutilized resource for business. What is it and why is it important? How can supplier diversity have long-term impact on your business, help strengthen your supply chain, and make a positive community impact?

The event is Tuesday, July 12, noon to 1 pm, online. Click here to register.

July 14 — Investor Speaker Series: Both Sides of the Coin

In the next installment of Greentown Labs' Investor Speaker Series, sit down with two Greentown founders and their investors as they talk about their experiences working together before, during, and after an equity investment was made in the company. Attendees will get a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most important relationships in a startup’s journey and what best practices both founders and investors can follow to keep things moving smoothly.

The event is Thursday, July 14, 1 to 2:30 pm, online. Click here to register.

July 15 — SBA Funding Fair

Mark Winchester, the Deputy District Director for the Houston District Office of the U.S. Small Business Administration, will give a short intro of the programs the mentors will discuss. There will be three government guaranteed loan mentors and two to three mentors co-mentoring with remote SBIR experts.

The event is Friday, July 15, 10:30 am to 1 pm, at The Cannon - West Houston. Click here to register.

July 16 — Bots and Bytes: Family STEAM Day

Join the Ion for a hands-on learning experience to learn about tech and robotics and gain insight into the professional skills and concepts needed to excel in a robotics or tech career. This event will be tailored for 9-14-year-olds for a fun STEM experience.

The event is Saturday, July 16, 10 am to 1 pm, at The Ion. Click here to register.

July 19 — How to Start a Startup

You have an idea...now what? Before you start looking for funding, it's important to make sure that your idea is both viable and valuable -- if it doesn't have a sound model and a market willing to pay for it, investors won't be interested anyway.

The event is Tuesday, July 19, 5:30 to 7:30 pm, at The Ion. Click here to register.

July 20 — Perfecting Your Pitch

Join the Ion for their series with DeckLaunch and Fresh Tech Solutionz as they discuss the importance and value of your pitch deck when reaching your target audience.

The event is Wednesday, July 20, 5:30 to 6:30 pm, at The Ion. Click here to register.

July 21 — Transition On Tap: Investor Readiness with Vinson & Elkins LLP

Attorneys from Greentown Labs’ Gigawatt Partner Vinson & Elkins LLP, a leading fund- and company-side advisor for clean energy financing, will present an overview of legal considerations in cleantech investing, geared especially toward early-stage companies and investors. The presentation will cover the types of investors and deals in the cleantech space and also provide background on negotiating valuation, term sheets, and preparing for diligence.

The event is Thursday, July 21, 5 to 7 pm, at Greentown Houston. Click here to register.

July 28 — The Cannon Community 2nd Annual Town Hall Event

Partner of The Cannon, Baker Tilly, has played an integral part in the success of Cannon member companies. Join the Cannon community for The Cannon's 5-year anniversary celebration!

The event is Thursday, July 28, 4 to 7 pm, at The Cannon - West Houston. Click here to register.

Texas-based dating app sponsors 50 female athletes to honor 50 years of Title IX

teaming up

Bumble is causing a buzz once again, this time for collegiate women athletes. Founded by recent Texas Business Hall of Fame inductee Whitney Wolfe Herd, the Austin-based and female-first dating and social networking app this week announced a new sponsorship for 50 collegiate women athletes with NIL (name, image, and likeness) deals in honor of the 50th anniversary of Title IX.

Established in 1972, the federal law prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or other education program or activity that receives federal money. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, the number of women in collegiate athletics has increased significantly since Title IX, from 15 percent to 44 percent.

That said, equity continues to lag in many ways, specifically for BIPOC women who make up only 14 percent of college athletes. The findings also share that men have approximately 60,000 more collegiate sports opportunities than women, despite the fact that women make up a larger portion of the collegiate population.

With this in mind, Bumble’s new sponsorship seeks to support “a wealth of overlooked women athletes around the country,” according to the beehive’s official 50for50 program page.

“We're embarking on a yearlong sponsorship of 50 remarkable women, with equal pay amounts across all 50 NIL (name, image, and likeness) contracts,” says the website. “The inaugural class of athletes are a small representation of the talented women around the country who diligently — and often without recognition — put in the work on a daily basis.”

To celebrate the launch of the program, Bumble partnered with motion graphic artist Marlene “Motion Mami” Marmolejos to create a custom video and digital trading cards that each athlete will post on their personal social media announcing their sponsorship.

“These sponsorships are an exciting step in empowering and spotlighting a diverse range of some of the most remarkable collegiate women athletes from across the country. Athletes who work just as hard as their male counterparts, and should be seen and heard,” says Christina Hardy, Bumble’s director of talent and influencer, in a separate release. “In honor of the 50th anniversary of Title IX, we are so proud to stand alongside these women and are looking forward to celebrating their many achievements throughout the year.”

“Partnering with Bumble and announcing this campaign on the anniversary of Title IX is very special,” said Alexis Ellis, a track and field athlete. “I am grateful for the progress that has been made for women in sports, and am proud to be part of Bumble’s ’50for50’ to help continue moving the needle and striving for more. I look forward to standing alongside so many incredible athletes for this campaign throughout the year.”

“I am so grateful to team up with Bumble and stand alongside these incredible athletes on this monumental anniversary,” said Haleigh Bryant a gymnast. “Many women continue to be overlooked in the world of sports, and I am excited to be part of something that celebrates, and shines a light on, the hard work, tenacity, and accomplishments of so many great athletes.”

Last year, the NCAA announced an interim policy that all current and incoming student athletes could profit off their name, image, and likeness, according to the law of the state where the school is located, for the first time in collegiate history.

The 50for50 initiative adds to Bumble’s previous multi-year investments in sports. In 2019, Bumble also launched a multi-year partnership with global esports organization Gen.G to create Team Bumble, the all-women professional esports team.

To see the 50for50 athletes, visit the official landing page.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.