Houston sportstech startup scales, plans expansion into health care

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 109

Aaron Knape joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share how he's taking the sEATz platform into a new vertical. Photo courtesy of sEATz

When sEATz launched, the startup was looking to provide a way for sports fans to order their beer and hotdog to their seat without having to miss a moment of a game. Over the years, the Houston company has expanded its technology to be a reliable platform for mobile order management in stadiums and arenas — and now Aaron Knape, co-founder and CEO, knows the technology can do so much more.

"We started this company with a focus on mobile ordering for sports and entertainment venues," Knape says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We've always known we wanted to get into other industry verticals, and one that stuck out, primarily because it's such a big deal in Houston, is the health care industry."

Knape says he and his co-founder, Marshall Law, let this idea be known to their vendor partners, and eventually sEATz got the right connection to a health care campus to try out a new product: MyEatz.

"What we're building now is a mobile ordering platform for these large health care campuses," Knape says, explaining that the campuses have thousands of employees with limited space and time for dining. "We're starting on our first pilots in the health care industry where we provide that mobile ordering platform and back-end support with our partner Aramark."

Among the first groups to pilot the new product is Houston Methodist, Knape says. The pilots should launch this quarter — either this month or next.

"This could be a much bigger market than sports and entertainment," Knape says. "Sports will continue to be our core market, but this will be a little less seasonal."

And, in light of the last 18 months, less averse to the effects of a shutdown of sports and entertainment. However, the sEATz team entered the COVID-19 pandemic with uncertainty — like most of the world — but the team was able to market sEATz mobile ordering platform as something crucial to bringing back fans in stadiums.

"Our goal was to go out and market ourselves and push the branding of 'we facilitate social distancing, mitigate crowds, and get rid of lines,'" Knape says on the show. "That really resonated with a lot of our clientbase."

Remarkably, sEATz even raised fresh funding amid the pandemic. In November of 2020, the startup closed an oversubscribed $1.6 million seed round led by Valedor Partners. Knape says he's currently focused on the company's to support scaling and growing the team by six or so new employees over the next few months.

"I tell the team that we're kind of coming out of stealth mode — I know we're not in a true stealth mode, but we haven't spent a lot of money on sales and marketing," Knape says. "Now it's time to start putting that emphasis on who we are, that we're here, and we're ready to take over."

Knape shares more on how sEATz is growing and the potential for Houston to build a sportstech niche within the innovation ecosystem on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Houston-based Roovy Technologies has created a mobile app where people can control their dining experience completely from their phones. Photo via roovy.io

Growing Houston startup is digitizing the dining experience

Digital dinner

Imagine going into a popular restaurant, sitting down at an open table and controlling the entire dining experience from a smartphone.

That's food, drinks, and even dessert all ordered and paid for on a phone.

Prolific Houston-area restaurateur Ken Bridge had the vision to converge dining with technology by creating a digital solution to combat chronic wait times in restaurants.

That vision became the Roovy Technologies mobile app, a platform designed to create the ultimate convenience for gastronauts everywhere.

"Roovy was birthed out of frustration," says Bridge, the serial entrepreneur behind the Delicious Concepts restaurant group. "Years ago, we would typically have lines out the door, so I thought to myself, that with technology, there should be a way for a guest to come in and manage their experience entirely from their phone.

"I felt like guests could go in, get sat at a table and order their food from their phone and pay from their phone and call it a day. That's how the idea of Roovy was conceived."

Three years ago, after putting mock pages together, Bridge started attending South by Southwest Interactive in Austin for research and inspiration. That led to commissioning a local boutique development agency in Houston to build out Roovy's Minimum Viable Product or road map before creating a fully functional platform.

"Roovy is a platform that allows the user to order and pay entirely from their phone," says Bridge. "We will soon be the first company to have all three categories of this type of app: dine-in, take out and delivery."

Bridge deployed Roovy in his Japanese concept restaurant, Blackbird Izakaya, at 1221 W. 11th St. in the Heights several months ago to test out the app before rolling it out to several other restaurants.

"It's a work in progress like everything else," says Bridge, who hopes for Roovy to be deployed in 20 restaurants very soon, then 40. "Everyday we're going to have issues that we need to resolve. But for now, we'll build it, we'll test it, we'll learn and we'll continue to go back and work out the kinks and keep pushing forward from there."

Convenience — on both sides of the transaction

For users, the value proposition is to be able to order and pay from their phone.

"Even a really good server can be impeding at the same time, over-qualifying or checking too much on a table that it becomes a distraction," says Bridge. "With Roovy, when the user is ready to order they can. It's convenience-based technology."

For operators, it streamlines the entire process, up to and including payment.

"We built this as a native solution, so restaurants can technically operate their entire restaurant on one single iPad, while cutting out all hardware," says Bridge.

The restaurant's menu is fully interactive and constantly updated in the app.

When a user places an order, they can add notes to alert the kitchen or bar with their allergies or substitutions and the kitchen or bar receives the notice on the Kitchen Display Side.

That order is then colored and timed, depending on the restaurant's flow and the user then receives a page when the order is ready.

"When restaurant's not packed, they can prepare orders in four minutes, but when packed, it may take eight minutes," says Bridge. "So through the machine learning, they can input a flow time, but then the system intuitively will become more and more intelligent based on the number of tickets and how frequently the operator is stocking and selling a particular item."

Bridge funded Roovy with his own money, so running the cloud-based platform in his own restaurants provided another distinct advantage for his startup's bottom line. And, with operators running the Roovy platform, it has officially entered post-revenue valuation. Roovy's revenue, like other payments facilitators, comes from its restaurant clients.

With the method of payment tied into the app, users pay from their phone and Roovy processes that payment transaction between the user, operator and bank tied to that payment method for a processing fee, much like a point-of-sale provider would with traditional POS devices.

Increasing opportunities for sales

What separates Roovy from other processors, though, is more than just the disruption of bulky hardware, printers and other equipment that can be very expensive for the operator.

It's the ability to maximize sales through convenience.

Case in point: in a busy restaurant, customers who have finished their meal, but possibly have cravings for another drink or a dessert might choose to eschew the urge based on the availability of their wait staff or the line at the bar.

But with Roovy, they could simply add the additional food item or drink to their cart, and have it at their table in no time.

"A lot of restaurants are not taking advantage of opportunities to maximize their sales," says Bridge. "If the per person average for a particular restaurant is $20, the likelihood that there are customers that want one more beer but don't want to go through the motions of ordering it based on service not being around is high. They're going to just leave and the restaurant just missed out on a potential $6.

"That would have been a 30 percent increase in sales," Bridge continues. "So, because of Roovy's ease of use, restaurants can increase their per person revenue and we guarantee an increase of 19 or 20 percent for operators that use our platform."

An additional revenue stream for Roovy centers on its pinpointed marketing campaigns designed to push promotions to its users based on user data and analytics.

"We can help operators run promotions for our users that can be very specific to the demographic of their choice," says Bridge. "They can be very direct and specific push notifications that go out to users based on location, vicinity or proximity, for example. We could also push notifications to a restaurant's repeat customers."

More features to come

For users that want take out, Roovy will be working with predictive arrival technology to estimate better execution times for orders so that they will be as fresh as possible for customer pickup.

Roovy will also be adding "Roovy Coin," a loyalty and rewards programs, as well as a social component for those users that like to share their experience with their friends.

"Beyond this super unique emerging technology, we are building heavily on the sociability aspects of it," says Bridge. "For example, users will be able to check in with friends, plan potential meetups, share video clips with their friends and the community on the platform and be able to review restaurants.

"I kid about this all the time, but most of us remember two things: the first kiss we had and the first time we used Uber. We'll never forget that. Our goal is to come in with that same kind of impact and convince users and operators that Roovy is not just a great technology, it's the inevitable technology that will be adopted on mass levels."

Houston-based Grab makes it so you're waiting in one less line at the airport. Getty Images

Houston-based travel software company closes multimillion-dollar Series A and plans growth

Just plane convenient

When you fly, you can definitely rely on the fact that you're going to encounter two things: long airport walks and even longer airport lines. This Houston startup is ensuring that you have less of both of those.

Grab is a mobile software company that's designed an app where travelers can see what eateries they are going to pass in their airport visit and order their meal from their phone. The company has also expanded on their technology to include restaurant kiosks and mobile ordering from the table.

Grab was founded by Mark Bergsrud, who worked in senior leadership roles for almost 20 years at Continental Airlines and then United Airlines, following the merger. For Bergsrud, Grab feels like another major mobile game changer the industry experienced.

"I spent many years thinking about the travel experience and how to make it better and faster," Bergsrud says. "This feels like how mobile check in felt. There was a problem customers didn't know they had — check in wasn't that difficult anyway, but to be able to have that control, people love it."

Grab launched in the Atlanta airport in 2015 and now has a presence in 37 airports around the world, including Dallas and Austin though, ironically, not yet either of Houston's airports. Expansion is in the works, says Bergsrud.

"Our strategy is to build a ubiquitous network of partners, marketplace, and restaurants at all major airports," he says.

Also included in Grab's growth plans is to white label the software to include it in existing travel apps, like airline apps. Grab is already integrated into the American Airlines app.

"We don't want customers to have to work hard to figure out they can take advantage of this," Bergsrud says.

Grab, which has grown to a team of 20 people based in Headquarters in EaDo, has new resources to continue its growth. London-based Collinson Group was the sole contributor to Grab's multimillion-dollar Series A round, which closed last week. Along with financial support, the company, which is best known for its Priority Pass lounge membership program, also offers a huge network of partners and years of travel experience.

"We've called ourselves a startup for a long time, and now we think of ourselves as more of a scale-up company," Bergsrud says. "Now it's about having the money to scale faster."

As for where Grab will be scaling, Bergsrud says they are focused on the top 30 airports based on enplanements — including Hobby Airport and George Bush Intercontinental Airport — as well as creating more partnerships with airlines.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston neighbor clocks as one of the best U.S. cities for remote workers

working from home

Working remotely is increasingly part of the modern lifestyle, and a new report cements a Houston neighbor as one of the top places for remote workers.

Apartment search website RentCafe ranks Conroe No. 15 in its Top 50 Cities for Remote Workers, released in November.

The study looked at 150 U.S. cities, comparing them across five main categories: leisure, affordability, comfort, rental demand, and remote work readiness. Scores were based on 19 metrics, from cost of living, availability of apartments with short-term leases, and rental demand to coworking spaces, percentage of remote workers, and internet speed.

"With remote work migration on the rise, we uncovered the most desirable cities to move to across the nation if you work remotely," the website says. It suggests that remote workers on the move "look toward the South and Southeast, where we identified several cities that offer the perfect balance between comfort, value, leisure and remote work-readiness."

Conroe ranks best for:

  • Number of high-end units
  • Share of new apartments
  • Number of apartments with access to sports amenities

Three other Texas cities join Conroe in the top 15. College Station (No. 9) makes the cut for remote workers due to its high availability of short-term rentals, large population of rentals, and access to sports amenities.

In the Austin metro area, both Austin (No. 13) and Round Rock (No. 11) appear, thanks in part to access to internet connection, average download speed, and the number of remote workers.

Lower on the list, but still in the top 50, are: Plano (No. 23), Lubbock (No. 27), Houston (No. 35), Amarillo (No. 36), San Antonio (No. 41), Dallas (No. 42), and Fort Worth (No. 46).The top city for remote workers, according to RentCafe, is Greenville, South Carolina.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Walmart, Houston startup team up to bring small biz products to shelves

holiday shopping teamwork

Thanks to a pop-up shop marketplace platform, small businesses will now have the opportunity to have their goods displayed in one of the country’s largest national retail stores.

Through a strategic partnership between Houston-based Popable and Walmart, local businesses to set up shop for short-term leasing and bring brand new eyes to their products.

“Supporting small businesses has always been a priority for Walmart,” says Darryl Spinks, senior director of retail services for Walmart, in a news release. “We are proud to work with Popable to offer local brands an opportunity to grow inside our stores. This is a great example of our focus on offering services unique to the neighborhoods we serve through our store of the community initiative.”

Popable has assisted brands secure qualified spaces, get education and resources, and build community, and connections that are vital to helping small businesses expand their visibility in the marketplace. The platform simultaneously helps retail landlords find qualified retailers from a directory of tens of thousands of brands to fill vacancies and drive traffic to their shopping centers.

For those small businesses interested, they can be paired with their local participating Walmart to connect and enter into an agreeable temporary leasing agreement by signing up on the platform’s official website. The businesses will set up right in front of the store generally where the customer service areas and salons tend to be. While the partnership isn’t aimed to be a pilot program, Popable will be giving Walmart the chance to infuse some local flavor into the stores from the community.

With the holidays around the corner, and small businesses looking to gain back revenues lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, the opportunity to display and sell their products at Walmart can be highly beneficial to recoup profits, and unload new and extra products to a larger audience.

“Going into the holidays the timing is pretty good for a lot of brands looking to move some access inventory that they have loaded up from last year, but this (hopefully with Walmart) will be a year-round thing,” says Popable CEO and co-founder Scott Blair. “The pop-up opportunities we’ve been seeing with brands doing reach outs so far, a lot of them are looking for stuff into January and February too.”

Scott Blair, CEO and co-founder of Popable, says he hopes to continue the partnership with Walmart. Photo courtesy of Popable