3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Abbey Donnell of Work & Mother, Blair Garrou of Mercury Fund, and Randa Duncan Williams. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In the first weekly roundup of Houston innovators of 2021, I'm introducing you to three innovators across the city — one of the richest people in Houston, a venture capital expert, and a female founder with big plans for 2021.

Abbey Donnell, founder of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell is looking forward to growing Work & Mother in 2021. Courtesy of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell is making sure that when new moms go back to work in downtown Houston in 2021, they'll have a suite of professional, spa-like rooms to pump in. Work & Mother has recently opened its latest location in Three Allen Center and designed it with comfort and safety in mind.

"Pumping at work has always been incredibly hard for mothers. Now, with the pandemic, there are the added complications of germ spread, closed community spaces, and repurposed wellness rooms, which makes pumping at work nearly impossible. Yet, most employers still have a legal obligation to provide a proper space for nursing mothers," says Abbey Donnell, founder and CEO of Work & Mother, in a news release. Click here to read more.

Blair Garrou, managing director of Mercury Fund

Blair Garrou joined the Houston Innovators Podcast this week. Photo via MercuryFund.com

Despite the rollercoaster of a year 2020 has been for venture capital, Blair Garrou says he's never been busier. One thing he's seen increased is an interest in early stage investing — this, he says, is happening as the pandemic has shown a spotlight on the importance of tech and ramped up digitization in business.

"People are realizing that money is in innovation and tech — especially in software," Garrou says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I can't tell you how many individual investors who call interested in investing in Mercury as a fund or our companies. People are not getting the return they desire from the markets and they are seeing tech companies do great things." Click here to read more and stream the podcast episode.

Randa Duncan Williams, owner of Texas Monthly

One of the four richest people in Houston, Randa Duncan Williams owns Texas Monthly. Photo courtesy of Texas Monthly

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the richest of them all? Nevermind, mirror. Forbes just told us. Houston's Duncan family, with a net worth of $22 billion, who once again appear on the annual Forbes ranking of America's richest families. (The Duncans come in at No. 11 on the Forbes list.)

The four children of pipeline mogul Dan Duncan — Randa Duncan Williams, Milane Frantz, Dannine Duncan Avara, and Scott Duncan — inherited a $10 billion estate from their father when he died in 2010. The net worth of each heir exceeds $5 billion.

Randa enjoys the highest profile among the four Duncan siblings. She is chairwoman of Houston-based Enterprise Products Partners, the pipeline giant founded by her father, and owns Austin-based Texas Monthly magazine. Click here to read more.

Blair Garrou joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss venture capital investing in 2020. Photo via mercuryfund.com

Houston expert shares how COVID-19 has affected venture capital locally and beyond

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 64

Locally, Blair Garrou, managing director at Mercury Fund, was among the first in the Houston innovation ecosystem to recognize what COVID-19 could do to the world of venture capital, innovation, and more.

At a panel for Houston Exponential's Tech Rodeo on March 6, Garrou observed that the pandemic had the potential to affect the venture capital market regarding valuations and investing.

"I never expected what happened, I just expected the markets to correct," says Garrou on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

While the pandemic posed challenges for startups and investors alike, Garrou says he sees some silver linings to how COVID-19 affected tech adoption. Non-tech and innovation companies have lost a lot of value, according to the S&P 500 Index, but tech and innovation companies have doubled their values. Some experts say that the pandemic has pushed user adoption by a decade or more.

"Everyone finally understands that digital transformation and automation are here to stay," Garrou says. "Just look at our backyard and what the oil and gas industry has gone through. ... I don't think anyone could have through through all of this, but it's put tech ecosystems on notice because what's happened since the end of April to December is unprecedented in the tech space."

With so much uncertainty, it's safe to say the volume of venture capital investing is down, but over the past several months, VC activity has returned, Garrou says. Now, Garrou says he sees later stage deals — like series C rounds — are down, but early stage investing is up as individual investors want in on tech.

"People are realizing that money is in innovation and tech — especially in software," Garrou says. "I can't tell you how many individual investors who call interested in investing in Mercury as a fund or our companies. People are not getting the return they desire from the markets and they are seeing tech companies do great things."

Garrou shares more about what all he's keeping a close eye on as we enter a new year, plus what's happening at Mercury Fund in the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Mercury Fund led Topl's $3 million seed round. Photo via Getty Images

Houston blockchain startup closes $3 million seed led by local VC

money moves

A Houston-based blockchain company that focuses on providing companies with ethical and sustainable practices within the supply chain has closed a $3 million round with support from investors both locally and across the country.

Today, Topl announced the closing of its seed round, which was led by Houston-based Mercury Fund with support from Houston-based GOOSE Capital, Chicago-based Chingona Ventures, Dallas-based RevTech Ventures, and New York-based firms Beni Venture Capital, Blue Collective, and Social Impact Capital.

"We're grateful to have closed an oversubscribed venture round during a pandemic, especially given the unfortunate truth that many women-led startups are getting much less investment during this time," says Kim Raath, CEO of Topl, in a press release. "Bringing transparency to causes dedicated to environmental and social good has never been more important. We are building a modern blockchain for a world where purpose and profit go hand in hand."

According to the release, Topl will use the fresh funds to speed up the launch of the company's blockchain-as-a-service solution for early next year.

Earlier this month, Topl announced a partnership with Denver-based TrackX, a software-as-a-service asset management and supply chain solution provider, aimed at combining technology to create a verifiable tracking and tracing solution to equip company supply chains with sustainability, transparency, and efficiency. Ultimately, it's Topl's goal to allow its users the ability to stand out to customers as sustainable and responsible brands — something that's become increasingly more important to consumers.

"A company's social and environmental impact has become a necessary point of differentiation for brands, and Topl has the potential to be the leading player for brands who are serious about [Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance]," says Blair Garrou, managing director of Mercury Fund.

To date, Topl has raised $4.4 million in funding. It's first seed round closed September 2019. For that round, Samantha Lewis, formerly director of GOOSE Capital, was instrumental, according to the release.

"Kim and the Topl team have created a custom-designed method to measure and verify your company's sustainability efforts. We're excited to be part of this intersection of cutting-edge technology and positive impact," Lewis, who's now on the board of the startup, says in the release.

Topl's technology has the ability to affect any industry, and the company has worked with tracing products from diamonds and chocolate to natural resources and even COVID-19 testing.

"Topl's track-and-trace solution appeals to so many core industries: from healthcare to agriculture to energy," says Manolo Sánchez, former chairman and CEO of BBVA Compass and also a member of Topl's board, in the release. "Anyone who needs to ensure transparency, efficiency and sustainability would benefit from their technology."

This week's innovators to know roundup includes Heath Butler and Samantha Lewis of Mercury Fund and Adam Kuspa of the Welch Foundation. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators across the city — each in their own ways financially support the region's top innovators.


Heath Butler and Samantha Lewis of Mercury Fund

Heath Butler has been promoted to managing director of Mercury Fund, and Samantha Lewis joins the firm as principal. Photos courtesy

Houston-based Mercury Fund, which focuses on early-stage startups located in central United States, announced the promotion of Heath Butler to managing director from network partner. Additionally, Samantha Lewis — formerly investment director at Houston-based Goose Capital — is joining the fund as principal.

"Over the past few years, we've continued to build our investment team with top talent from our ecosystem," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release.

"The promotion of Heath and the addition of Samantha will further Mercury's early-stage venture leadership in Middle America, and is illustrative of Mercury's deep commitment to diversity as a core value driver," continues Garrou. Click here to read more.

Adam Kuspa of The Welch Foundation

Adam Kuspa of The Welch Foundation joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the COVID-19 vaccine, materials science, and more. Photo courtesy of The Welch Foundation

It's been an interesting year for Adam Kuspa and the Welch Foundation as — just like any other organization — the pandemic has caused various disruptions for Kuspa and his team. At the same time, COVID-19 has forced an unprecedented public-private response from the medical community, the government, and more.

"I'm very proud of the scientific enterprise in this country and around the world — they way it's been supported, developed, and maintained over the years — to allow for something like this be even contemplated," Kuspa says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Over the last 40 to 50 years, researchers in the fields immunology, vaccine research, protein biochemistry, and more, have seen increased support, Kuspa says, and that's what made a difference in the pandemic and allowed for a vaccine to emerge so quickly. Click here to read more and to listen to the episode.

Heath Butler has been promoted to managing director of Mercury Fund, and Samantha Lewis joins the firm as principal. Photos courtesy

Houston venture capital firm makes strategic hire and promotion

fund news

A Houston-based venture capital firm has made some moves in its personnel. Mercury Fund has made one new hire and one promotion.

Mercury Fund, which focuses on early-stage startups located in central United States, announced the promotion of Heath Butler to managing director from network partner. Additionally, Samantha Lewis — formerly investment director at Houston-based Goose Capital — is joining the fund as principal.

"Over the past few years, we've continued to build our investment team with top talent from our ecosystem," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release.

"The promotion of Heath and the addition of Samantha will further Mercury's early-stage venture leadership in Middle America, and is illustrative of Mercury's deep commitment to diversity as a core value driver," continues Garrou.

Butler joined Mercury over a year ago and has over 20 years of experience in the Houston startup ecosystem. A serial entrepreneur, he recently co-founded Houston-based Urban Capital Network, an angel investment group dedicated to democratizing capital and wealth generation for underrepresented investors. In his new role, he will continue this work to engage underrepresented founders in the community for Mercury Fund.

Meanwhile, Lewis — a Rice University MBA graduate — joins Mercury from a few years serving Goose Capital, a group of high-networth investors and serial entrepreneurs. At Goose, Lewis was responsible for leading deal sourcing, structuring, and portfolio management. Formerly a startup founder herself, Lewis will be responsible for assisting in in the review and diligence of new early-stage investment opportunities and continues to improve and diversify Mercury's deal sourcing processes.

Mercury Fund was founded in 2005 in Houston by Garrou and Dan Watkins. The firm has an office in Ann Harbor, Michigan, and has funded several Houston-founded startups, including Spruce, Ambyint, and more.

Register for some of these informative online events happening throughout the month of December. Getty Images

10+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events online in December ​

where to be

It's the last monthly events roundup for 2020 — and this month, understandably, is a bit slow due to the holidays, but we have a roundup of the must-attend events for December.

From workshops and panels to summits and pitch parties, here are over 10 Houston innovation events you can attend virtually via online meetings. Note: This post will be updated to add more events.

December 1 — National Resilience Town Hall: Year in Review, Year Ahead

The Insurance Information Institute and ResilientH2O Partners, in partnership with the Resilience Accelerator, will hold the final session for 2020 in an ongoing series of thought-leadership among insurance, non-insurance, public sector, and technology senior executives. December's National Townhall will bring five unique perspectives together to discuss lessons-learned from 2020 and predictions for 2021's resilience and risk mitigation "agenda" across residential, commercial, industrial, government operations, infrastructure, facilities, and communities.

The event is on Tuesday, December 1, at 10 am. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

December 1 — Angel Investing 101

Learn about how to make effective angel investment decisions and find out more about the newly launched Chicago Booth Angels Network of Texas. The event's keynote speaker is Ashok Rao, serial entrepreneur and board member of Houston-based GOOSE Capital.

The event is on Tuesday, December 1, from 5 to 6 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

December 1 — The Ion's Industry Day

The goal of the inaugural Industry Day is to introduce and connect minority and women owned businesses (MWBE) with The Ion's Transwestern team. The hour long event is designed to facilitate networking and connect interested businesses with Transwestern, who will run operations for The Ion and catalyze local economic growth. Following the event, interested businesses can set up a walk through of The Ion in mid-December to finalize their bid.

The event is on Tuesday, December 1, from 6 to 7 pm. It's free and can be accessed through Zoom. Click here to register.

December 2 — NASA and Your Small Business: Understanding the NASA Procurement Process

Join The Ion to learn about NASA's commitment to providing access for all categories of small businesses to participate in the procurement process.

The event is on Wednesday, December 2, at noon. It's free and can be accessed through Zoom. Click here to register.

December 3 — Capital Factory's Venture Summit

Capital Factory is calling all investors, accelerator leaders, limited partners, and more to its annual venture summit, which is taking place virtually this year.

The event is on Thursday, December 3, from 9:45 to 2 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

December 3 — Evening of Pediatric Device Innovation

JLABS @ TMC and Southwest National Pediatric Device Innovation Consortium are teaming up for the sixth Annual Evening of Pediatric Device Innovation. The evening of innovation will host top experts from Houston and across the country will discuss their views on the latest in pediatric medical device innovation and updates on bringing a pediatric medical device to market.

The event is on Thursday, December 3, from 3:40 to 5 pm. It's free and can be accessed through Zoom. Click here to register.

December 3 — An Evening With Women in Corporate Innovation

Join General Assembly Houston to hear from inspiring female leaders in corporate innovation who have blazed the path to stand up and stand out. From learnings to failings and their secrets of success, this event is an opportunity to learn from the best — serious wisdom, from seriously cool women, all designed to supercharge you and your organization's success.

The event is on Thursday, December 3, from 5 to 6:30 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

December 7 — Pumps and Pipes 20/20 Vision

The annual Pumps & Pipes event is focused on convergence innovation in the fields of aerospace, energy and medicine: a truly uniquely Houston approach. The day-long summit features an expo and various panels and speakers.

The event is on Monday, December 7, from 8 am to 3 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

December 8 — The Cannon Q4 Pitch Party: Presented by Dell Technologies

Join The Cannon and Dell Technologies in hearing from new companies working in Digital Transformation Tech.

The event is on Tuesday, December 8, at 5:30 pm. It's free and can be accessed via Zoom. Click here to register.

December 8 — How to Start a Startup with Heath Butler of Mercury Fund

The Ion is hosting a startup 101 workshop with Heath Butler from Mercury Fund. 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 on Tuesday, December 8, at 5:30 pm. It's free and can be accessed via Zoom. Click here to register.

    December 10 — Greentown Lab's Energy Bar: Wrapping Up an Unprecedented Year

    Join Greentown Labs virtually for the final edition of the EnergyBar networking event for 2020. Greentown Labs is ready to put a wrap on 2020, an unprecedent year for us all. Between the opening of the new community in Houston and a renewed national policy focus on climate action, the organization is looking ahead to 2021. Entrepreneurs, investors, students, and friends of climatetech are invited to attend, meet colleagues, and engage in a community that is focused on climate action at work.

    The event is on Thursday, December 10, from 3:30 to 6:30 pm. It's free and can be access through Remo. Click here to register.

    December 15 — The State of Space

    The Greater Houston Partnership is hosting its first State of Space event featuring NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine as the keynote speaker. Since his appointment as Administrator in April of 2018, Bridenstine has led NASA in advancing American aeronautic, science, and space exploration objectives.

    The event is on Tuesday, December 15, at noon. It's $35 for GHP members and $60 for nonmembers. Click here to register.

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    Texas named a top state for women-led startups

    this one's for the ladies

    Who runs the world? According to Merchant Maverick's inaugural Best States for "Women-Led Startups'' study, Texas is a great place for women to be in charge.

    The Lone Star state cracked the top 10 on the list, earning a No. 6 spot according to the small business reviews and financial services company, which based the study on eight key statistics about this growing segment of the economy. Colorado (at No. 1), Washington, Virginia, Florida, and Montana were the only states to beat out Texas on the rankings—leading the Merchant Maverick team to conclude that "the part of the country that lies west of the Mississippi is great for startups led by women entrepreneurs."

    Women-led startups in Texas received $365 billion in VC funding in the last five years, the report found. This is the seventh largest total among U.S. states. Too, about 20 percent of Texans are employed at woman-led firms, which is the fifth highest percentage among states. Roughly 35 percent of employers in Texas are led by women.

    A few other key findings that work in female founders' favor: The startup survival rate in Texas is nearly 80 percent. And a lack of state income tax "doesn't hurt either," the report says.

    Still there are shortcomings. On a per capita basis, only 1.27 percent of Texas women run their own business. The average income for self-employed women is also relatively low ranking among states, coming in around $55,907 and landing at 31st among others.

    This is not the first time Texas has been lauded as a land of opportunity for women entrepreneurs. A 2019 study named it the best state for business opportunities for women. Houston too has proven to support success for the demographic. The Bayou City was named in separate studies a best city for female entrepreneurs to start a business and to see it grow.

    Still, as many findings have concluded, the realities of the pandemic loom for all startups and small business owners. The Merchant Maverick study was careful to add: "The pandemic has changed the economic landscape over the past year, and often for the worse.

    "This means that not every metric may be able to accurately gauge how a state might fare amidst the pandemic," the report continues. "To help factor in COVID's impact, we included some metrics that take 2020 into account, but it will be a while until we get a full picture of the pandemic's devastation.""

    New downtown office tower will rise in bustling Discovery Green

    new to hou

    A new office tower will soon loom over the popular Discovery Green as the anchor of a new downtown district. Global development and construction firm, Skanksa, announced the new building at 1550 Lamar St. and its anchor tenant on January 13. The new 28-story, 375,000-square-foot Class-A office structure is dubbed 1550 on the Green, per a Skanska statement.

    Global law firm Norton Rose Fulbright will relocate its Houston office in 2024 and acquire naming rights upon occupancy, according to a press release.

    Bound by La Branch, Lamar, Crawford, and Dallas Streets, 1550 on The Green will feature extra-wide pedestrian zones with a canopy of trees, two tenant outdoor roof terraces, and wide views of the surrounding greenery.

    International design firm BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group led the building's design; it is the company's first foray into Texas. BIG's design promises sustainability, energy efficiency, and an "airy" office environment for tenants, a release describes.

    Some 7,000 square feet of retail space will greet first-floor guests. Michael Hsu Office of Architecture has been tapped to design the interior amenity spaces; those include a fitness center, rooftop event space and terrace, and community spaces.

    The new 1550 on the Green tower is part of a new envisioned district that will be branded as Discovery West. The district will consist of 3.5 acres of mixed-use development boasting restaurants, retail, green space, and "world-class architecture," per a release.

    Working with Central Houston Inc., Discovery Green, Bike Houston, the Kinder Foundation, as well as several brokers, Skanska and design firm of record, BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group, completed the master plan for Discovery West in early 2020.

    Skanska has been noticeably active in the Houston office market, specifically with the development of Bank of America Tower, West Memorial Place I and II, and the future Discovery West. The company is behind the acquisition of a buzzy strip center in Montrose. Skanska also plans to multifamily to its Houston portfolio, the firm notes.

    "As an organization that prides itself on building what matters to our communities, our team, made up of Houstonians, has been working alongside local stakeholders to develop a plan and a building that will transform this side of downtown Houston while still meeting the needs of the city," said Matt Damborsky, executive vice president for Skanska USA commercial development's Houston market, in a statement.

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    This article originally ran on CultureMap.