3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Meet this week's Houston innovators to know. Courtesy photos

This week, some key Houston innovators to know include the CEO of a tech company that's demystifying Google's SEO, a local entrepreneur who just raised millions in funding, and the newest addition to the Houston innovation ecosystem.

Michael Umansky, CEO of Edgy Labs

Michael Umansky Ink and Edgy Labs

Courtesy of Edgy Labs

For years, Michael Umansky and the team at Edgy Labs have been figuring out the ins and outs of Google's algorithm for digital marketing purposes. If Edgy knows how Google ranks content, Edgy can provide the most optimized content out there for its clients.

But the Houston SEO experts also realized another group of people they can help: Content creators and writers. So, Edgy Labs created INK — a writing tool to help this group of individuals create the best and most optimized content without having to know anything about SEO.

"We envision a world where the content creators can control their own search destiny," Umansky says. "What we want to do is focus on empowering those writers to really take the power of search back into their own hands without having to be SEO experts." Read more.

Chris Buckner, CEO of Mainline

Courtesy of Mainline

Chris Buckner, CEO of Mainline, closed its series A at $6.8 million. Houston-based Work America Capital led the round, and the esports software startup will use the funds to grow its platform, event management customer base, and marketing efforts, as well as to hire developers, marketing, and sales talent.

"The world of esports and gaming is exploding; however, continuity in tournament organization is lacking, keeping the sport from really taking off in other viable and exciting markets," says Chris Buckner, Mainline CEO, in a news release. "Mainline gives brands the tools they need to run powerful esports programs that will evolve the quickly maturing industry to the benefit of players, students, and the greater esports ecosystem." Read more.

Jon Lambert, CEO of The Cannon Houston

Jon Lambert The Cannon

Courtesy of The Cannon

The Cannon Houston has had a big week — from celebrating its new flagship space to announcing its latest downtown outpost. And now, the coworking and startup hub has announced a new CEO: Jon Lambert.

"Lawson and his team have done an incredible job taking The Cannon vision and making it real. I'm happy to be part of the positive momentum and energy they have created. There has never been a better time for startups to enter the market, but achieving success has never been more challenging. The Cannon is playing a unique role in helping evolving companies navigate and accelerate their way through this journey." Read more.

INK, a digital writing tool, allows writers to see how their content would perform on search engines in real time. Photo courtesy of INK

Houston tech company launches digital product to take the guesswork out of SEO

Meet INK

A Houston company wants to arm content creators and writers with the tools to perfect search engine optimization, and they want to provide these tools for free.

INK, a downloadable writing tool and web app, was created by the brains behind Edgy Labs, a tech company that has been working on dissecting how Google and search engines operate. Edgy's founders — Alexander De Ridder, Michael Umansky, and Gary Haymann — created the content site as a lab to test out their SEO theories and best practices.

"INK is the byproduct of everything we've learned at Edgy Labs that we productized," says Umansky, who serves as CEO. "We think we are on the cusp of leading what we are calling the content performance optimization revolution."

Umansky says that of the 4 million pieces of content created online daily, 94 percent of content gets little to no traffic on Google. And a big reason for content failing is because the writer doesn't fully understand how SEO works — and search engines are always evolving their algorithms.

Despite this huge SEO problem, there weren't any one-stop-shop tools available already.

"What we came to understand was that there's a ton of SEO and CMS products and analytics products, but what there wasn't was a really good way to help writers — who are really the ground zero for where content is created — bridge the gap to understanding what SEO is all about," Umansky says.

INK edgy labs INK allows writers to see in real time how their content would fare on Google. Photo courtesy of INK

The writing tool allows the user to create content right in the app, and as the writer composes, he or she gets real-time feedback on the content. INK will compare the content to potential competitors' content and analyze and score how it expects the published material to perform. All the while, INK has a customizable interface for users. There are light and dark modes, and even features for writers with dyslexia or color blindness.

Umansky says his team has big plans for growing INK and even introducing more tools and products, and INK's evolution will continue as search engines continue updates and algorithm edits.

"As Google changes, we change with it," Umansky says. "I think last year Google changed something like 3,500 times. It's constant."

He also sees INK being able to provide a headline optimization component, as well as tools for tracking engagement. While perfecting SEO is the first step, Umansky says he also wants to provide products that help optimize writing content for a conversion perspective that would be good for landing pages and digital ads.

INK launched online in early October and was ranked as the product of the week on Product Hunt. For now, the app is completely free to download. Umansky does think the first paid version will be live in the first quarter of 2020.

Ultimately, Umansky says, writers shouldn't also have to be SEO specialists — that's INK's team's job. The product they created will allow for easy content management system integration — it already has an extension in WordPress.

"We envision a world where the content creators can control their own search destiny," Umansky says. "What we want to do is focus on empowering those writers to really take the power of search back into their own hands without having to be SEO experts."

Houston-based Edgy Labs is working on AI technology to constantly stay ahead of search engine technology. Pexels

How this Houston company is staying one step ahead of Google

SEO pros

Where's the best place to hide a dead body? According to Alexander De Ridder and other search optimization experts, it's on the second page of Google where no one ever goes.

Jokes aside, search engine optimization has become a serious business as people have pivoted from making their own decisions based on knowledge acquired or resources available to trusting entities to decide for them, De Ridder explains.

"More and more of our lives are governed by decisions we are outsourcing," De Ridder says. "For example, maybe you jumped in the car this week and you entered a destination. The GPS told you where to turn — you don't question that."

While convenient, the challenge this new normal presents companies is how to make clear to the internet that that their information is worthy of being on the first page of search results. De Ridder co-founded Houston-based Edgy Labs with Michael Umansky and Gary Haymann to figure out for themselves how this "black box" decision making works — and where it's going.

"Our take was let's build a laboratory to understand how that rank or AI works and build our own platform around it and get better insights on how that black box thinks," Umansky, who is CEO of the company, says.

Edgy Labs has two sides to it. At its core, the company is a blog covering trends and research in science and technology that acts as an SEO-testing platform, or lab. Once the team has the developed technology, it's able to provide its best practices and tools to clients.

"We think about innovation in a practical way as something that you need to live out the truth yourself, before you go out and apply it to other people," explains De Ridder, who also serves as CTO of the company.

The SEO business is projected to be an $80 billion industry by 2020, Umansky says, and its evolving from text focused to including voice and video in the search process. When Edgy Labs launched, the focus was on creating content that was primed to be picked up by Google. Through this process, the company grabbed the attention of some large Fortune 100 accounts.

"What we saw was if we applied these same techniques to a large brand, there was a massive uptake in success for the content and the site itself," Umansky says. "What that's led us to want to do is take the power of the technology and put it back in the hands of content creators."

Edgy Labs has found that the key to SEO and marketing online is to be content focused and put the users — and the information they are seeking — first.

"What's been really great is I think we've tried to turn the process upside down and make sure the client is creating content that's data driven insights — not just taking marketing slogans and terms and dropping it in the content, which was the norm," says Haymann, who leads the client-facing business.

Just like any technology, search is constantly evolving. Search engines used to scan the internet to suggest articles to answer your questions. Now, Google is taking information from those articles and regurgitating it for you, rather than sending you to a third-party website. A casualty of that is web traffic for the site that has that information.

This shift is a result of voice searching growth. One in five searches is done via voice search — think: Alexa or Siri — and 40 percent of adults use voice search daily, De Ridder says. With this type of search process, there can only be one response — not pages of results, like web searching. De Ridder says that because of this growth in audio searching, videos will become a more favorable search result.

Another growing digital trend, De Ridder says, is progressive web app pages becoming more useful in search than native apps. These PWAs act and feel like mobile apps, but without requiring the user to download anything. Where this trend metabolized is when the ".app" domains were released. Edgy Labs relaunched its webpage to being a mobile friendly progressive app page and has seen more engagement from its users — longer time on site, lower bounce rates, higher conversion rates.

"As websites want to survive and remain relevant, it will be about providing good information so that they can optimize themselves for voice search, video, and also have amazing experiences of native app-like quality," De Ridder says.

While SEO technology and practices evolve, Edgy Labs hopes to stay at the forefront of the industry.

"It's kind of like we're at the top of the mountain, and the mountain is always getting taller and taller. To stay on the cutting edge, you always have to keep climbing and climbing," De Ridder says. "But, if you're up there, you've got a beautiful view, and that allows you to look into the world and see the opportunity that's associated with that change."


Alexander De Ridder (left), Michael Umansky (center) and Gary Haymann founded Edgy Labs in 2016. Courtesy of Edgy Labs

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Houston ranks among fastest growing tech hubs amid the pandemic, report finds

When Americans think of tech hubs, Silicon Valley or even Austin may initially come to mind. However, Houston appears to be making a play for tech-hub status.

Citing data from career platform LinkedIn, the Axios news website reports that Houston has seen a healthy influx of tech workers since the start of the pandemic. In fact, Houston ranks second among 14 major U.S. labor markets for the number of relocating software and IT workers between March 2020 and February 2021 compared with the same period a year earlier.

Miami grabs the No. 1 spot for the gain in software and IT workers (up 15.4 percent) between the two periods, with Houston in second place (10.4 percent) and Dallas-Fort Worth in third place (8.6 percent), according to the LinkedIn data.

"Young engineers and recent college graduates see Miami, Houston, and Philadelphia — not San Francisco, New York, or Seattle — as the hot new places to jumpstart a technology or creative economy career," Axios notes.

At the bottom of the barrel sits the San Francisco Bay Area, which suffered a loss of 34.8 percent when comparing the arrival and departure of software and IT workers. Interestingly, Austin experienced a loss of 8 percent in this category.

The shift from traditional tech hub to emerging tech hub is likely to continue as employers and employees alike further embrace remote work. A survey commissioned in April by the nonprofit One America Works found 47% of tech workers had moved during the pandemic. In addition, 3 in 10 tech workers anticipate living somewhere different than they did during the pandemic.

The CompTIA tech trade group says the Houston metro area is home to 243,908 tech workers. The Houston area's tech workforce grew 12.3 percent from 2010 to 2019, according to the group.

"Houston has been a center for world-changing innovations in energy, life sciences and aerospace for over a century. With science and engineering breakthroughs ingrained in the fabric of Houston's economy, the region has become a thriving hub of digital technology talent and companies thanks to our access to customers and expertise," says a report released in March by the Greater Houston Partnership.

One employer taking advantage of that talent is Bill.com. In 2019, the digital payments company opened a Houston outpost — the company's first office outside Silicon Valley.

"Though the city's technology industry is still developing, it offers a breath of fresh air compared to overcrowded late-stage tech markets like Austin and Denver. Ultimately, the breadth and depth of Houston's talent pool and the neighboring educational pipelines made it an ideal location for a second home," Vinay Pai, senior vice president of engineering at Palo Alto, California-based Bill.com and a Rice University graduate, wrote in April 2020 on LinkedIn.

Energy giant makes Houston sole headquarters in massive move

HQ move

Power player NRG Energy is laser focused on Houston. The Bayou City will be the energy giant's new sole headquarters; the company will no longer split between Houston and Princeton, New Jersey.

The move to a single headquarters simplifies business operations, as a large number of the company's employees and customers reside in Texas, the company noted in a press release and report.

The company, having recently acquired Direct Energy, will maintain regional offices in the markets that it serves and "evaluate real estate needs and consolidate as appropriate," the report adds.

Mayor Sylvester Turner welcomed the news in a statement, relaying that he and his team have had "substantive conversations" with NRG president and CEO Mauricio Gutierrez. "I believe the decision is confirmation that Houston is a smart city for business," said Turner.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also chimed in, adding in part:

With this move, NRG joins 50 other Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Texas, including 22 in the Houston area alone. America's leading businesses continue to invest in Texas — and grow jobs in Texas — because of our welcoming business climate, low taxes, reasonable regulations, and our young, growing, and skilled workforce.
I thank NRG Energy for designating Texas — the energy capital of the world — as their corporate headquarters, and I look forward to our continued partnership as we ensure a more prosperous future for all who call the Lone Star State home.

Turner noted that more than a year ago, the City of Houston committed to purchasing 100 percent renewable energy through a renewed partnership with NRG Energy as the City's retail electric provider. "The plan is helping us build a more sustainable future, save over $9 million on our electric bill, and reduce emissions," he said.

NRG Energy boasts some 3,000 employees in Houston alone. In its report, the company reported a net loss of $83 million due the impact of Winter Storm Uri.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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 — tech, health care, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Emily Cisek, founder of The Postage

The Postage — a Houston-based company that's streamlining afterlife planning — has rolled out a new app. Photo courtesy of The Postage

Emily Cisek had a mission when she founded The Postage. She wanted to make afterlife planning simpler — and she's taken one giant step toward that goal with the company's new app.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple."

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app. Click here to read more.

Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima Clinical Research

Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima Clinical Research, say his company transform from uncertainty to almost uncontrollable growth in just 12 months. He shares what happened on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Proxima

After a huge dip in business due to the pandemic, a Houston company focused on supporting innovative life science companies saw 12 months of unprecedented growth. Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima Clinical Research, says that's not only a good sign for the future of his business — but also of the future of Houston's life science sector.

"We're a good barometer for what's happening not only locally but across the country," Coker says. "As Proxima has grown, it's really show how the Houston life science market is growing."

Coker shares more about Proxima's growth and Houston's potential of being a major life science hub on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Sylvia Kampshoff, founder of Kanthaka

Sylvia Kampshoff has launched Kanthaka's first crowdfunding campaign. Photo courtesy of Kanthaka

Sylvia Kampshoff has lofty goals for her company Kanthaka, a platform for connecting users to personal trainers across over a dozen cities. With the launch of a new $1 million crowdfunding raise, Kampshoff is one step closer to growing her business according to these goals.

"Our vision is to become Amazon for health & fitness and the go-to provider to live a longer, happier and healthier life," Kampshoff says. "We couldn't be more excited about this journey." Click here to read more.