3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Phillip Yates of Equiliberty, Chris Quintanilla, of Mexcor International, and David Hudson of Circulus. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from diversity and inclusion tech to sustainable plastics — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Phillip Yates, founder of Equiliberty

Phillip Yates joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss two initiatives he's launching to support diverse founders in Houston. Photo courtesy of Equiliberty

Houston is currently celebrating its first Black Entrepreneurship Week, thanks to local entrepreneur and lawyer, Phillip Yates, who founded Equiliberty — a tech company focused on connecting and supporting entrepreneurs of color.

BEW has put on several opportunities — from the Black Market, which will allow people to shop local Black merchants, to a special Giving Tuesday event to support Black-focused nonprofits in Houston. Specifically, Yates wants to target a multi-generational crowd — that's what's goring to drive lasting changes.

"When you have a wealth initiative, you can't just talk to the parents or the youth — you're still going to have a missing link there," Yates says on last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, explaining the week's wealth challenge that will reinforce this idea. Click here to read more.

Chris Quintanilla, chief sales officer at Mexcor International

This Houston company created its own in-house tech infrastructure — led by Chris Quintanilla — to stay competitive within the alcohol distribution industry. Photo courtesy of Mexcor International

When Chris Quintanilla wasn't happy with his company's software, he built it himself. Mexcor International is a Houston-based importer and distributor of wine, spirits, and other types of alcohol. On his own, Quintanilla has developed 46 dashboards that supply details about things such as wine and beer inventory, contacts for account managers, product catalogs, and key performance indicators (KPIs) for the sales team.

Quintanilla says in-house creation of this system aligns with Mexcor International's culture of "wearing multiple hats" to move the business forward, demanding in-house innovation on the tech front.

"If you want to see something happen, you have to grab the bull by the horns and do it yourself," he says. "We are a medium-sized company. We just hired a true IT person in the last two or three years. We don't have million-dollar budgets for big IT departments. We kind of figure it out as we go." Click here to read more.

David Hudson, founder and CEO of Circulus

Houston-based Circulus, which just received a $100 million credit facility, focuses on innovative plastics recycling. Photo via circulus.com

Circulus Holdings secured a $100 million credit facility from Riverstone Credit Partners, which has an office in Houston. This "green" loan is aimed at supporting environmental sustainability.

David Hudson, founder and CEO of Circulus, says in a news release that the credit facility "enables Circulus to rapidly develop a broad network of facilities and further the company's commitment to sustainable manufacturing. We look forward to supporting green-based jobs and preserving our environment for future generations."

Circulus, a portfolio company of Houston-based private equity firm Ara Partners, recently opened its first plastics recycling facility. The 110,000-square-foot plant is in Riverbank, California, near Modesto. It employs 45 people. So far, other Circulus plants, each of which will be larger than the California facility, are planned for Alabama, Oklahoma, the Midwest, and the Northeast. Click here to read more.

This Houston company created its own in-house tech infrastructure — led by Chris Quintanilla — to stay competitive within the alcohol distribution industry. Photo courtesy of Mexcor International

How this Houston-based alcohol importer, distributor uses tech to stay ahead of the curve

boozy innovation

You might say that Mexcor International, a Houston-based importer and distributor of wine, spirits, and other types of alcohol, relies on a single bottle of vodka rather than a case of vodka when it comes to its tech capabilities.

The annual tech budget for the 300-employee company, founded in 1989, falls well below $500,000. Mexcor International's annual revenue hovers around $300 million.

"We do have a decent size tech budget, but it's tiny in comparison to large distributors with multimillion-dollar tech budgets," says Chris Quintanilla, chief sales officer at Mexcor International.

The company leans on an IT director, an IT specialist, and an IT support company to handle tech needs. In other words, Mexcor International's in-house tech resources are minimal.

So, when the company's sales and administration sales team needed to step up its tech game, Quintanilla created a cloud-based software system combining customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) functions to churn out real-time reporting on inventory, deliveries, and other business matters. He took on the project equipped with IT knowledge he picked up online and at a three-day training session in Colorado, coupled with some simple tech tinkering.

On his own, Quintanilla has developed 46 dashboards that supply details about things such as wine and beer inventory, contacts for account managers, product catalogs, and key performance indicators (KPIs) for the sales team. About 230 employees, or roughly three-fourths of the company's workforce, can access these dashboards. Information on these dashboards can help employees answer myriad questions, such as "Which delivery trucks are arriving today?" or "What percentage of orders are being picked up tonight?"

Quintanilla says one of the key benefits of the dashboards is the ability to see how soon the company will run out of various products at its Texas, California, Florida, and Louisiana warehouses. This functionality enables the company to swiftly head off shortages. It has come in especially handy amid ongoing supply chain snags triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, he says.

The dashboards also let Mexcor International track which customers' sales have risen or fallen compared with the same time a month or a year ago. With this information at their fingertips, salespeople can chat with customers about whether, for instance, they might like to substitute a brand of poorly selling tequila for another brand of tequila, according to Quintanilla.

In short, the innovation spearheaded by Quintanilla has helped propel Mexcor International well beyond the old days of pen and paper, photocopies, and faxes.

So, why are companies like Quintanilla's turning to in-house capabilities to push past the pen-and-paper approach?

"Companies that develop their own technology have more control over their strategic direction and can better respond to the needs of the market. This can mean a significant competitive advantage when a company develops a compulsory technology before the competition," technology and innovation strategist Evans Baiya wrote for AllBusiness.com.

In a 2020 survey by Boston Consulting Group, 46 percent of corporate executives around the world planned to invest more in their in-house tech capabilities.

"Every enterprise must re-evaluate the capabilities that it can develop in-house with the talent it has and determine which ones to procure from service providers," the consulting giant says. "By building capabilities in-house, companies can reduce the risk of their transformation projects stalling and turn to service providers in areas where they suffer from talent gaps."

At Mexcor International, Quintanilla has stepped in to fill much of the company's gap in tech talent.

Mexcor International established the new cloud-based CRM and ERP system in 2019. It replaced a clunky network-based setup hampered by unwieldy financial, sales, delivery, and routing modules.

"It was just so slow. You could not get the information you needed, and the network was always down," says Quintanilla, adding that the company's network-based system had sustained ransomware and malware attacks.

With the cloud-based system now in place, Mexcor International employees can perform an array of tasks via laptop, desktop, tablet, or smartphone, he says.

Quintanilla says in-house creation of this system aligns with Mexcor International's culture of "wearing multiple hats" to move the business forward, demanding in-house innovation on the tech front.

"If you want to see something happen, you have to grab the bull by the horns and do it yourself," he says. "We are a medium-sized company. We just hired a true IT person in the last two or three years. We don't have million-dollar budgets for big IT departments. We kind of figure it out as we go."

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Houston sustainability-focused company raises $50 million to plant new indoor farming facility

seeing green

Houston-based Dream Harvest Farming Co., which specializes in sustainably growing produce, has landed a $50 million investment from Orion Energy Partners to open a 100,000-square-foot indoor farming facility in Houston. The facility will enable the company to dramatically ramp up its operations.

The new facility, which will be built in Southwest Houston, is scheduled for completion in January 2023. Dream Harvest’s existing 7,500-square-foot facility in Southwest Houston supplies 45 Whole Foods stores in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas, as well as Sweetgreen restaurants in Texas.

The company currently employs 25 people. With the addition of the 100,000-square-foot facility, Dream Harvest’s headcount will rise to 65.

Dream Harvest relies on wind-powered, year-round indoor vertical farming to generate 400 times the yield of an outdoor farm while using 95 percent less water and no pesticides.

“Because the vast majority of America’s produce is grown in California and has to be shipped over long distances, most of the country receives produce that is old, has a poor flavor profile, and a short shelf life — a major contributing factor to the more than 30 percent of fresh vegetables being discarded in the U.S. each year,” Dream Harvest says in a December 7 news release.

Zain Shauk, co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest, says his company’s method for growing lettuce, baby greens, kale, mustards, herbs, collards, and cabbage helps cut down on food waste.

“Demand for our produce has far outpaced supply, an encouraging validation of our approach as well as positive news for our planet, which is facing the rising problem of food and resource waste,” Shauk says. “While we have the yields today to support our business, we are pleased to partner with Orion on this financing, which will enable us to greatly expand our production and increase access to our produce for many more consumers.”

Dream Harvest expects to expand distribution to more than 250 retail locations in 2022.

“Orion’s focus on sustainable infrastructure and deep experience in building large industrial facilities will be complementary to Dream Harvest’s impressive track record of being a reliable supplier to high-caliber customers by achieving consistent yields, food safety, and operational efficiencies … ,” says Nazar Massouh, co-managing partner and CEO of Orion Energy Partners, which has offices in Houston and New York City.

Other companies in the Orion Energy Partners portfolio include Houston-based Caliche Development Partners, Tomball-based Python Holdings, The Woodlands-based Evolution Well Services, Houston-based Produced Water Transfer, and Houston-based Tiger Rentals.

Zain Shauk is the co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest. Photo courtesy of Dream Harvest

Exclusive: Houston logistics SaaS startup raises $2.5M seed round

money moves

A Houston company that's providing software solutions for middle-mile logistics challenges has raised fresh funding.

Velostics Inc., which has an enterprise software-as-a-service model that specializes in automating inbound logistics at industrial facilities — like terminals and warehouses — announced it has raised $2.5 million. The seed round was led by Kansas-based Flyover Capital with participation from Small Ventures USA, Cultivation Capital, Starboard Star, Congress Avenue Ventures and BioUrja Ventures.

Founded by Gaurav Khandewal, Velostics targets the $37 billion inbound logistics management market, a so-called "log jam" for businesses that the company's software strives to make flow a lot more optimally.

“Flyover is incredibly excited to support the Velostics team in their mission to transform inbound logistics,” says Keith Molzer, managing partner at Flyover Capital. “This segment of the supply chain is ripe for better technology to address challenges of congestion, driver labor shortages, and the growing demands of ecommerce. Gaurav and team are an exceptional group of entrepreneurs ready to drive efficiency and a better customer experience at industrial facilities.”

The fresh funding will go toward recruiting top talent for Velostics's team, particularly in its account management, inside sales, and marketing departments, as well as continuing to develop the AI-driven product, which has an impact for both its users and the environment.

“Idling trucks waiting outside facilities emit over 42 million tons of CO2 annually — eight times the US national average. By orchestrating the movement of trucks in and out of facilities, not only do we provide tremendous supply chain benefits, we also help the environment," Khandewal says in the release. "We’re excited to partner with our customers and our investors to solve global congestion.”

Flyover Capital was founded in 2014 and has a keen interest in the Houston market, Dan Kerr, principal at the firm, previously told InnovationMap.

Houston is "one of the cities among those that fall in our region where we plan to spend a significant amount of time," Kerr said in May of last year. "We cover a lot of ground, but there are certain cities were we try to get there quarterly. Houston is definitely one of those places."

In September, Khandewal joined the Houston Innovators Podcast and discussed how he has been a champion of Houston innovation since he started ChaiOne in 2009. He shared how he thinks the city has a great opportunity to be a leader in logistics technology.

"I think that there are some trends in Houston that I'm seeing as a founder, and one of them is logistics," Khandewal says on the show.

Gaurav Khandelwal, CEO and founder of ChaiOne and Velostics Gaurav Khandelwal is the CEO and founder of Velostics. Photo courtesy

Houston VC-backed tech founder on reinventing a sales team and supporting financial independence

Houston innovators podcast episode 112

Four years ago, Samantha Ettus found herself as a keynote speaker in a room with thousands of ambitious and talented women. It was a conference for multi-level marketing sales associates and, as Ettus found out later, most of them — despite their talent and passion — were losing money on whatever product they were selling.

"I realized there was a problem. There obviously was a need — all of these people want to be doing something outside of their families that gives them fulfillment and meaning and has goals associated with it — but they also want to be earning money," Ettus says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "And the first part was being fulfilled — but the second part wasn't."

Ettus created an alternative to check both of those boxes. Park Place Payments is a fintech startup founded in 2018 in California. Houston was one of the initial six test market for the business model, and the company now has over 1,000 account executives across all 50 states. Sales team members are trained for free on how to sell Park Place's payment processor service to local businesses.

Ettus says the payment processor industry is competitive and most small business owners are very disappointed with the customer service they receive. The average business changes payment processors every three years, Ettus says, and Park Place wants to change that.

"Payments is an industry where something always goes wrong," Ettus says. "As a small business owner, if you can't reach someone — that's really important for the livelihood of your business. ... We really think of ourselves as an outsourced payment partner for small businesses."

This past year has been one for growth for Park Place, Ettus says, and earlier this year, she closed on the company's seed round, which was supported by Curate Capital, founded by Houstonian Carrie Colbert. Now the company is focused on its tech team, including hiring a CTO. Early next year, Ettus hopes to close a Series A round, again with support — financially and otherwise — from Colbert.

"I feel so lucky because a lot of people pointed us to traditional Silicon Valley VCs in the beginning, and I had a lot of conversations. I didn't feel some of those firms had the patience to grow with us," Ettus says.

The company has been tied to Houston from its early days, from testing the business in town to a Houston-based early hire, Nancy Decker Lent, who is a founding member of the team and head of product for Park Place.

Ettus shares more on her passion for supporting financial independence for women and how she plans to grow her company on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.