This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Kaitlyn Allen of MendIt, Miguel Calatayud of iwi, and Tatiana Fofanova of Koda Health. 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 sustainability to health tech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Kaitlyn Allen, founder and chief strategy officer of MendIt

MendIt seeks to reduce textile waste by providing an easy-to-use app to make menders and customizers more accessible. Photo courtesy of MendIt

Kaitlyn Allen thought she had a great idea for a company — something that can help people repair clothing conveniently. And all of the pieces of the strategy already existed. There are plenty of seamstressing businesses around town, but not an easy way to navigate them. “

There’s a disconnect. There’s a market of people who potentially want to mend their clothes, but there’s no easy way of finding or accessing that service,” she says. “With this next generation, you need to meet them where they are.”

And where they are, Allen says, is on their phones.

MendIt is completing a pilot program with one mender — Connect Community in Gulfton area — in partnership with St. Luke's Gethsemane on Bellaire in Sharpstown. She also hopes to tap into a local artist who can help with customization — like embroidery, for instance. Click here to read more.

Miguel Calatayud, CEO of iwi

Miguel Calatayud, CEO of iwi, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his sustainable business of farming algae for nutritional products. Photo courtesy of iwi

Miguel Calatayud feels like he has the perfect storm of a product. Not only does his company iwi's nutritional supplement have a sustainability focus, it's also just a very competitive product in the marketplace. The company has created a sustainable suite of products from innovative algae farming in the deserts of Texas and New Mexico. These football field-sized farms operate on desert land using just salt water and sand and produce algae sustainably — all while absorbing CO2.

"We've been growing significantly for one main reason," Calatayud says. "It works."

Calatayud shares more about the impact he's making and why Houston is the ideal market for him to do it in on the Houston Innovators podcast.Click here to read more.

Tatiana Fofanova, co-founder and CEO of Koda Health

Tatiana Fofanova, co-founder and CEO of Koda, closed recent funding for the digital health startup. Image via LinkedIn

Tatiana Fofanova, Koda co-founder and CEO, has something to celebrate. The Houston-based startup announced this month that it raised $3.5 million in its latest seed round. The funding will be used to help the digital advanced care planning company double the size of its team in the next six months.

"Koda Health helps vulnerable people navigate and communicate difficult decisions about their health care journey. So, when hiring, we look for empathetic people who are phenomenal communicators," Tatiana Fofanova, Koda co-founder and CEO, says in a statement.

The Koda team will also use the funds to expand its operations to all 50 states. According to the statement, the team plans to focus on low-resource communities and operating in different languages. Click here to read more.

Miguel Calatayud, CEO of iwi, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his sustainable business of farming algae for nutritional products. Photo courtesy of iwi

How this Houston innovator plans to make a sustainable impact — one algae farm at a time

Houston innovators podcast episode 120

If there's one thing Miguel Calatayud is passionate about it's conscious capitalism — and specifically that his company, iwi, a Houston-based food and nutritional supplement company, is striking the perfect balance between impact and profit.

The company has created a sustainable suite of products from innovative algae farming in the deserts of Texas and New Mexico. These football field-sized farms operate on desert land using just salt water and sand and produce algae sustainably — all while absorbing CO2. Calatayud says the farms even area able to reuse 98 percent of the water involved in the process.

"In the past, you had to choose between making an impact and making a profit," Calatayud says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "In our case, the way we built the company and the business model we put together, it's actually the opposite. The bigger the impact we make, the bigger the business we're creating."

With all this sustainability to boast about, Calatayud says it's not even the best part. Iwi's products, which include Omega-3 supplements, multivitamins, and even a forthcoming protein — all made from the farmed algae, are also very competitive products in the market.

"We've been growing significantly for one main reason," Calatayud says." It works."

"That's what's really driving the growth in the company because once a customer starts taking iwi, they don't go back to whatever they were taking before," Calatayud continues on the show.

Calatayud says iwi is ready to expand more internationally. The company recently closed an $8 million deal — $5.5 million in senior secured term debt and a $2.5 million direct equity investment — with GP Capital Partners, an investor and strategic partner for the company. The influx of funding will help iwi accelerate sales of its existing products and ramp up development, marketing, and growth of new protein-based product, according to the release. Iwi will also enter new international markets.

"What we are going to do with [GP] and other investors that we have is to take this brand to the next level," Calatayud says. "Last year, we grew 91 percent. This year, we are planning to grow around 200 percent."

Calatayud says the pond systems iwi operates are replicable, and as the company grows he could see building these types of algae farms across the world and even in the Middle East, creating jobs and opportunities globally.

Calatayud shares more about the impact he's making and why Houston is the ideal market for him to do it in on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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$100M Houston VC fund launches to back technical founders

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A new venture capital fund has launched with an initial $100 million mission of supporting founders with innovative critical infrastructure solutions.

Fathom Fund, which is looking to build out a portfolio of advanced computing, material science, climate resilience, and aerospace startups, announced they've launched with an initial close of over $100 million. The fund is founded by longtime investors Managing Partners Paul Sheng and Eric Bielke.

"We believe recent technological advances have accelerated the pace of scientific discovery, increasing the pool of technology companies that can produce venture-scale returns," Sheng says in a news release.

According to the fund, it hopes to bridge the gap for early stage capital for physical innovations and "moonshot" projects.

“What’s lacking in venture is rigorous technical diligence at the early stages and a playbook to scale these innovations at the pace necessary to lead industries," Bielke adds. "With this launch, we are looking forward to supporting founders with some of the most disruptive and novel ideas.”

The founder duo will bring each of the career expertise to their future portfolio companies. Sheng spent decades at McKinsey & Co and was the firm's head of the Global Energy & Materials practice. Bielke is a former director at Temasek’s Emerging Technologies Fund.

Houston is the 4th best U.S. city for Black professionals, report finds

Black History Month

In acknowledgement of Black History Month 2024, a new report compiled by Black employees at online rental marketplace Apartment List has ranked Houston the No. 4 best U.S. city for Black professionals.

Apartment List reviewed 76 cities across four major categories to determine the rankings: community and representation; economic opportunity; housing opportunity; and business environment.

Houston earned a score of 63.01 out of a total 100 points, making it the second-highest-ranked city in Texas for Black professionals, behind San Antonio (No. 3).

The city earned top-10 rankings in three out of the four main categories:

  • No. 3 – Business environment
  • No. 4 – Community and representation
  • No. 10 – Economic opportunity
  • No. 21 – Housing opportunity

Houston is commended for its strong Black business environment and economy, but there is some room for improvement when it comes to housing. Similarly to Apartment List's 2022 report – which also placed Houston at No. 4 – a little less than half (44 percent) of all Black Houston households are spending over 30 percent of their income on housing, which has increased two percent since 2019.

Houston has a larger Black population than San Antonio, at 19 percent, but its Black population share is overall lower than other cities in the top 10.

"Furthermore, the community is well-represented in some critical occupations: 20 percent of teachers are Black, as are 21 percent of doctors," the report said. "Houston is also home to the HBCU Texas Southern University, helping a job market when the median Black income is several thousand dollars above average."

Houston also has the highest rate of Black-owned businesses in the entire state, at 18 percent.

"From the Mitochondria Gallery to Ten Skyncare and Wisdom’s Vegan Bakery, Houston has it all!" the report said.

Here's how Houston stacked up in other metrics:

  • Black homeownership: 42 percent
  • Black lawyers: 14 percent
  • Black managers: 14 percent

Elsewhere in Texas
Texas cities dominated the overall top 10. San Antonio ranked just above Houston, with Dallas (No. 6) and Austin (No. 7) not too far behind.

San Antonio came in less than 2.5 points ahead of Houston with a total score of 65.44 points. The report praised San Antonio's scores across its economic opportunity (No. 2), housing opportunity (No. 7), and community and representation (No. 10). The city ranked No. 20 for its Black business environment.

But like Houston, San Antonio also fell behind in its Black homeownership rates, according to the study.

"While the Black homeownership rate is higher than average at 44 percent, the homeownership gap (Black homeownership rate - non-Black homeownership rate) quite low at -19 percent," the report's author wrote. "Perhaps this could be explained by San Antonio’s overall homeownership rate, which is also lower than the state’s average. Additionally, the lower homeownership gap could explain the cost burden rate also being lower than average at 41 percent."

The top 10 cities for Black professionals are:

  • No. 1 – Washington, D.C.
  • No. 2 – Atlanta, Georgia
  • No. 3 – San Antonio, Texas
  • No. 4 – Houston, Texas
  • No. 5 – Palm Bay, Florida
  • No. 6 – Dallas, Texas
  • No. 7 – Austin, Texas
  • No. 8 – Colorado Springs, Colorado
  • No. 9 – Lakeland, Florida
  • No. 10 – Charlotte, North Carolina
The full report and its methodology can be found on apartmentlist.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston expert: Can Houston replicate and surpass the success of Silicon Valley?

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Anyone who knows me knows, as a Houston Startup Founder, I often muse about the still developing potential for startups in Houston, especially considering the amount of industry here, subject matter expertise, capital, and size.

For example, Houston is No. 2 in the country for Fortune 500 Companies — with 26 Bayou City companies on the list — behind only NYC, which has 47 ranked corporations, according to Fortune.

Considering layoffs, fund closings, and down rounds, things aren’t all that peachy in San Francisco for the first time in a long time, and despite being a Berkeley native, I’m rooting for Houston now that I’m a transplant.

Let’s start by looking at some stats.

While we’re not No. 1 in all areas, I believe we have the building blocks to be a major player in startups, and in tech (and not just energy and space tech). How? If the best predictor of future success is history, why not use the template of the GOAT of all startup cities: San Francisco and YCombinator. Sorry fellow founders – you’ve heard me talk about this repeatedly.

YCombinator is considered the GOAT of Startup Accelerators/Incubators based on:

  1. The Startup success rate: I’ve heard it’s as high as 75 percent (vs. the national average of 5 to 10 percent) Arc Search says 50 percent of YC Co’s fail within 12 years – not shabby.
  2. Their startup-to-unicorn ratio: 5 to 7 percent of YC startups become unicorns depending on the source — according to an Arc Search search (if you haven’t tried Arc Search do – super cool).
  3. Their network.

YC also parlayed that success into a "YC Startup School" offering:

  1. Free weekly lessons by YC partners — sometimes featuring unicorn alumni
  2. A document and video Library (YC SAFE, etc)
  3. Startup perks for students (AWS cloud credits, etc.)
  4. YC co-founder matching to help founders meet co-founders

Finally, there’s the over $80 billion in returns, according to Arc search, they’ve generated since their 2005 inception with a total of 4,000 companies in their portfolio at over $600 billion in value. So GOAT? Well just for perspective there were a jaw-dropping 18,000 startups in startup school the year I participated – so GOAT indeed.

So how do they do it? Based on anecdotal evidence, their winning formula is said to be the following well-oiled process:

  1. Bring over 282 startups (the number in last cohort) to San Francisco for 90 days to prototype, refine the product, and land on the go-to-market strategy. This includes a pre-seed YC SAFE investment of a phased $500,000 commitment for a fixed min 7 percent of equity, plus more equity at the next round’s valuation, according to YC.
  2. Over 50 percent of the latest cohort were idea stage and heavily AI focused.
  3. Traction day: inter-portfolio traction the company. YC has over 4,000 portfolio companies who can and do sign up for each other’s companies products because “they’re told to."
  4. Get beta testers and test from YC portfolio companies and YC network.
  5. If they see the traction scales to a massively scalable business, they lead the seed round and get this: schedule and attend the VC meetings with the founders.
  6. They create a "fear of missing out" mentality on Sand Hill Road as they casually mention who they’re meeting with next.
  7. They block competitors in the sector by getting the top VC’s to co-invest with then in the seed so competitors are locked out of the A list VC funding market, who then are up against the most well-funded and buzzed about players in the space.

If what I've seen is true, within a six-month period a startup idea is prototyped, tested, pivoted, launched, tractioned, seeded, and juiced for scale with people who can ‘make’ the company all in their corner, if not already on their board.

So how on earth can Houston best this?

  1. We have a massive amount of businesses — around 200,000 — and people — an estimated 7.3 million and growing.
  2. We have capital in search of an identity beyond oil.
  3. Our Fortune 500 companies that are hiring consultants for things that startups here that can do for free, quicker, and for a fraction of the extended cost.
  4. We have a growing base of tech talent for potential machine learning and artificial intelligence talent
  5. A sudden shot at the increasingly laid off big tech engineers.
  6. We have more accelerators and incubators.

What do we need to pull it off?

  1. An organized well-oiled YC-like process
  2. An inter-Houston traction process
  3. An "Adopt a Startup" program where local companies are willing to beta test and iterate with emerging startup products
  4. We have more accelerators but the cohorts are small — average five to 10 per cohort.
  5. Strategic pre-seed funding, possibly with corporate partners (who can make the company by being a client) and who de-risk the investment.
  6. Companies here to use Houston startup’s products first when they’re launched.
  7. A forum to match companies’ projects or labs groups etc., to startups who can solve them.
  8. A process in place to pull all these pieces together in an organized, structured sequence.

There is one thing missing in the list: there has to be an entity or a person who wants to make this happen. Someone who sees all the pieces, and has the desire, energy and clout to make it happen; and we all know this is the hardest part. And so for now, our hopes of besting YC may be up in the air as well.

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Jo Clark is the founder of Circle.ooo, a Houston-based tech startup that's streamlining events management.