Launched in Houston, Umanity's new tool aims to better connect nonprofits with supplies and volunteers amid the COVID-19 crisis. Photos via umanity.io

A Houston startup that has been working in a pilot program capacity with the city of Houston has accelerated the rollout of its platform to help connect and coordinate people's needs to resources in real-time during the coronavirus outbreak.

Umanity, which is a part of the Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator's first cohort, has created a philanthropic supply chain tool that's now available as an app or through desktop. The software can match and map local individual or nonprofit needs to organizations or volunteers, plus provide real-time analytics. During the coronavirus outbreak, they have mobilized its resources connecting supplies with nonprofits and volunteers with safe ways to help organizations that need it most during this crisis.

The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator launched in 2019 to provide technology-driven solutions to Houston's most prevalent challenges. The accelerator is backed by Intel and Microsoft and partnered with the city of Houston and Station Houston.

"Our first cohort focused on transportation, resiliency, and connectivity," says senior director of the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator, Christine Galib. "It was tightening much of the ways in which a vast and expansive city like Houston can come together and feel connected and supported as a city."

These themes are exemplified by Umanity, who is working with several city of Houston officials to direct citizens the resources they need during the crisis, and creating a network of communities to efficiently provide them the resources they need. The centralized platform shows a complete picture of who needs help and who can help all on the same platform while measuring the real-time economic impact of donations and every volunteer hour.

"I started this company because I wanted to transition everyday acts of service into actual data-driven solutions," says Ryan-Alexander Thomas, CEO and founder of Umanity. "My goal is that during the next crisis, for example, hurricane season, if somebody needs something they have access to get it when they need it, not two years later or after the crisis."

The platform has already rolled out in other cities such as Hyattsville, Maryland, to help connect their network of nonprofits with individuals as part of their crisis response as a result of supply shortages due to the coronavirus pandemic.

With the help of their accelerator, Umanity is currently working with a number of the city of Houston's mayor's directors, including education and health leaders to create a broader coalition designed to collaborate and coordinate more efficiently by aggregating information from these sources.

"Having some of the mentors in the accelerator put us in touch with decision-makers in the city has really given us the boost we need to get a chance to show that we can do something good for the people and the community," says Thomas.

Thomas says Umanity is ready to be implemented in a dozen cities in the next few months. Their team is already close to signing partnerships with additional municipalities across the country.

"Our platform is available right now for download and we're growing," says Thomas. "We've tripled the number of organizations in the past week and we are always looking for new nonprofits, churches, and organizations to partner with to help those in need."

At a startup pitch competition, a local nonprofit won free coworking space for a year to continue their impactful work with individuals with special needs. Photo courtesy of Macy's Miracles

Houston nonprofit wins coworking space in Shark Tank-inspired pitch competition

winner, winner

Macy's Miracles, a local nonprofit that helps people with special needs, had a special need of its own: a place to call home. Now, thanks to coworking operator WorkLodge LLC, it has one.

On February 27, representatives of Macy's Miracles and Houston-based WorkLodge held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the nonprofit's first-ever office. The organization (not affiliated with the Macy's department store chain) won the second annual Shark Tank-inspired Ignite by WorkLodge pitch contest, which awards a one-year WorkLodge lease to a local nonprofit. Macy's Miracle now occupies space at WorkLodge's site in The Woodlands.

Previously, leaders of the nonprofit had carried out business at various public places like coffee shops. Today, the nonprofit enjoys a startup-style setting — including access to meeting rooms and common areas — that enables it to operate more like a business and less like an organization on a shoestring budget.

Haley Ahart-Keiffer, founder and president of Macy's Miracles, says the free one-year lease of a four-person office at WorkLodge (valued at $24,000) is "priceless."

For one thing, being located at WorkLodge opens up fundraising opportunities. In the past, Macy's Miracles ran into roadblocks when prospective corporate sponsors inquired about meeting at the nonprofit's office, Ahart-Keiffer says. But the nonprofit had no formal address to give them.

Now that Macy's Miracles is housed at WorkLodge, folks associated with the nonprofit can more professionally host potential corporate donors and can network with Houston businesses, Ahart-Keiffer says.

As a matter of fact, that networking paid off at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, according to Ahart-Keiffer. For instance, it exposed WorkLodge tenants to potential employees — people attending the ceremony who benefit from services delivered by Macy's Miracles. In addition, the event paved the way for meetings with three businesses interested in assisting Macy's Miracles.

Aside from fostering opportunities for networking, the WorkLodge space lets Macy's Miracles more easily conduct mentorship programs and put on events, according to Ahart-Keiffer.

Being based at WorkLodge "has allowed us to really take it to the next level by being able to seek out even larger corporate sponsors and donors to be a part of the mission," she says.

That mission, carried out since the formation of Macy's Miracles in 2018, centers on elevating the education, networking skills, and employability of people with special needs. Aside from boosting the ability to raise more money for that mission, the WorkLodge space introduces high-functioning people with special needs to a work environment, Ahart-Keiffer says.

In a short amount of time, setting up shop at WorkLodge "has changed the trajectory of where we see that we can go now," she says.

Part of the nonprofit's new trajectory is its soon-to-launch Adaptive Center of Excellence, featuring a vocational/trade initiative and an adaptive sports program.

Ahart-Keiffer didn't envision the current scenario when she established Macy's Miracles two years ago. She established the nonprofit as a "grassroots movement" after her daughter Macy Savoy, who is part of the special needs community, faced a less-than-ideal future in the workforce after graduating from high school. Savoy is CEO of the volunteer-run nonprofit.

Mike Thakur, founder and CEO of WorkLodge, says Ignite by WorkLodge is designed to offer free high-quality space so that nonprofits like Macy's Miracles "take their game up a notch and attract some more support." The contest is geared toward smaller nonprofits making a "hands-on, roll-up-your-sleeves" difference in the community, he says.

In addition to Macy's Miracles securing space at WorkLodge's location in The Woodlands, Ignite by WorkLodge recently granted space to a Dallas nonprofit that's now a tenant at the coworking company's location in the Dallas Design District.

WorkLodge currently operates five coworking spaces: two in the Houston area, two in Dallas-Fort Worth, and one in Tampa-St. Petersburg, Florida.

Thakur says one of the reasons Macy's Miracles received the free space at WorkLodge is that it serves both children and adults.

"But I think the main thing was just the fact that they were delivering help in a way that could then create self-sustainability," says Thakur, whose company runs its own nonprofit foundation. "That's a really big deal for us."

It's also, of course, a big deal for Macy's Miracles. The nonprofit's free one-year lease expires around the end of the year, but Ahart-Keiffer says the Macy's Miracles plans to carve out money in its budget to pay for space at WorkLodge. In conjunction with that, Macy's Miracles will teach some of the members of its mentorship program about fundraising and budgeting.

"I don't think it's a place that we'll ever want to leave," Ahart-Keiffer says. "WorkLodge is definitely the perfect spot for us and what we do."

A Houston-based app, SAFE 2 SAVE, rewards drivers for putting their phones away while driving. Pexels

Houston safe driving app backed by Memorial Hermann plans Texas expansion

Put the phones down

Between 2016 and 2017, distracted driving accidents in Harris County rose 62 percent, according to the Texas Department of Transportation, and a local hospital system is stepping up to keep drivers and their passengers out of their emergency rooms.

Memorial Hermann's critical care air transport service Life Flight is partnering with app SAFE 2 SAVE to reward drivers who keep their minds focused and their eyes on the road. The app launched in Houston in January of 2016, and wants to expand to other Texas markets this year.

"Part of our role as trusted providers of high-quality trauma care for our community is to educate and empower people across the region to change behaviors that cause preventable traumas," Tom Flanagan, Memorial Hermann's vice president of Trauma Service Line and System Integration, says in a press release. "We are tapping into the technology that has become such a large part of people's lives and coincidentally, a major part of distracted driving."

The idea for SAFE 2 SAVE began when College Station pastor's wife Marci Corry, who previously worked for Merck — a large pharmaceutical company, met with a college student she was mentoring to discuss how to help the student's peers detach from their phones. They agreed that incentives, particularly food, were the key, and not just for college kids. Corry was inspired by the news of a Chick-fil-A franchise that used a "Cell Phone Coop" challenge to get customers to talk to each other and rewarded them for restricting their cell use with free ice cream at the end of the meal. "Let's do an app version of that!" she remembers saying at the time.

That was October 2016. In that time, the app has blown up to include a fan base of more than 148,000 users. The company has 20 employees, including two based full-time in Houston.

"We're so fortunate we have a product that everyone is interested in," says vice president of operations, Christina Rudolph. "We have such a unique place in the market because everyone likes our app. There aren't a lot of products to change behavior and food is such a motivator."

The sales team at SAFE 2 SAVE works hard to make the rewards appealing to a broad swath of users, not just college students, so while there are discounts at Chick-fil-A and Dave & Buster's, it's far from the whole story. In Houston, food options include free dishes at State Fare and discounts at Cacao & Cardamom, but also 20 percent off at Rooftop Cinema Club or discounted classes at Pure Barre.

For every minute of driving over 10 miles per hour without using their phones, users rack up two points. As long as users set navigation apps and music before they start driving, they can use those, too.

They can also earn more by referring friends. With enough friends on board, it's easy to organize a competition, a great incentive for family and friends to keep each other in check about safe driving.

"To get people to live a life that's less distracted, there's a ripple effect for users," Corry says of the human connection the app helps to foster.

SAFE 2 SAVE launched in Houston in January of 2018. Before that, Corry connected with Memorial Hermann at a Lifesavers National Conference on Highway Safety Priorities.

"They said, 'We want this to stop happening. We don't want these people being pushed through our door on a stretcher and this is epidemic in Houston,'" Corry says.

The sponsorship means that whenever users in Houston open the SAFE 2 SAVE app, they are met with the words, "Is it really worth it? Memorial Hermann Life Flight says no." The hospital logo is accompanied by a photo the user downloads of themselves with a loved one to remind themselves why their behavior matters.

"Our first step is to continue to go deep in Houston. If you can win Houston, you can win anywhere — it's the most distracted city in the nation," Corry says.

Already expanded to San Antonio, the company hopes to expand to Austin and Dallas this year. Once they hit 500,000 users, online brands are likely to join, making it easier to go nationwide. But until then, Houston has some serious work to do.


Marci Corry (left) started SAFE 2 SAVE in January of 2018. Christina Rudolph is the company's vice president of operations.

Nine companies committed to Houston Exponential's first round of funding. Shobeir Ansar/Getty Images

Houston Exponential's ambitious venture fund closes first round with $25 million

Money moves

Houston Exponential closed the first round of funding for its fund of funds with $25 million in commitments from nine companies. The money will go to non-Houston venture capitalists to invest back into Houston startups.

HX Venture Fund's first-round partners include: Insperity, Chevron, Shell, Quanta Services, Westlake Chemical, The Plank Companies, PROS, HEB, and Camden.

Kingwood-based Insperity was the anchor investor, committing to $5 million last October, according to the release. The company also provided an undisclosed amount of resources support the operations of the fund as it launched.

"This is another transformational moment for Houston," says Gina Luna, chair of Houston Exponential, in the release. "From day one at Houston Exponential, we have been executing a plan to accelerate the growth of the ecosystem, including connecting Houston startups with the capital they need to grow their businesses. This is a significant, tangible milestone. Houston's leading companies have stepped up in a big way to make this happen, and this is a clear signal that Houston is committed to success."

Houston-based venture capital firm Mercury Fund's co-founder and managing director, Blair Garrou, chaired the fund's advisory board. He's also a board member for HX.

The fund of funds won't donate to Houston organizations directly, Garrou says in a statement. The fund's organizers had a different approach to growing funds in Houston's startup space.

"The HX Venture Fund will invest in venture capital funds outside of Houston – generating investment and interest in the region while increasing the investable capital available to Houston-based startups," says Garrou. "The HX Venture Fund is built upon a proven model that provides multiple benefits to its investors."

The benefitting venture capital funds haven't yet been named.

HX modeled the fund after the Renaissance Venture Capital Fund in Michigan, from which 10 outside venture capital firms benefitted —Mercury Fund was one of the 10. It was Garrou who led the movement to get Renaissance Fund's CEO and Fund Manager, Chris Rizik, as a part of the HX Venture Fund from the start as a member of the investment committee.

The Michigan fund launched 9 years ago and exceeded all expectations. For ever dollar Rizik and his team invested, $17 came back into the Michigan area, he told the Houston Business Journal. He says Houston has the same potential.

"I've spoken to many cities about Renaissance's fund of funds model and the impact it has had on Michigan," says Rizik in the release. "Houston has leaned into this model and it is impressive what they have been able to accomplish in a short time. It is a testament to the commitment of Houston's business and tech leaders to growing the ecosystem. It's really exciting to see."

In October 2017, Houston Exponential was launched by Mayor Sylvester Turner's Innovation and Technology Task Force in collaboration with the Greater Houston Partnership's Innovation Round Table and the Houston Technology Center. HX's launch included three main goals, according to the release: "make Houston a top 10 innovation ecosystem, generate $2 billion in venture capital annually and create 10,000 new technology jobs a year by 2022."

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Houston startup uses AI and data to predict energy usage across sectors

crystal ball

Among the many complications presented by the coronavirus pandemic is coping with power needs. Movie theaters, malls, schools, and stadiums are among the places where energy use has been uneven at best. And the unevenness promises to continue as a lot of locations turn the lights back on but their operating hours remain in flux.

Houston-based Adapt2 Solutions Inc. believes its software can help energy companies power their way through the pandemic-driven haziness of power demand from commercial and residential customers.

"Today's energy companies need the speed and flexibility that cloud-native technology provides to fully leverage the massive amounts of data available to them," Jason Kram, executive vice president of Adapt2 Solutions, said in a December 2019 release.

Kram says that by capitalizing on artificial intelligence, machine learning, and cloud computing, his company's predictive analytics models forecast unexpected fluctuations in power capacity. Amid the pandemic, this technology enables energy companies to map out demand at a time when they're balancing strained revenue and squeezed spending is paramount, according to Kram.

Armed with this forecast data, Adapt2 Solutions' customers — including utility companies, energy traders, and power generators — can more easily plot power production, sales, and purchases, Kram tells InnovationMap. This data can be applied to conventional power, renewable energy, and battery-stored power.

"In times of disruption, big data can inform decision-making for energy companies to optimize energy-market operations with timely and reliable data," Kram says.

Adapt2 Solutions' load forecasting feature generates the predictive analytics models. This feature is embedded within the company's Adapt2 Bid-to-Bill flagship product, which helps energy companies manage front-office and back-office operations. Its other products are Adapt2 Green, designed for the renewable energy market, and Adapt2 Trade-to-Tag, aimed at improving management of energy trades.

"With Adapt2's AI-enabled solutions, we strive to help more customers focus on their core operations and bring business units together on a single platform to create an integrated approach," Kram says.

The company's customers include Consolidated Edison Inc. (ConEd), Duke Energy Corp., the East Kentucky Electric Cooperative, Exelon Corp., Invenergy LLC, Sempra Energy, the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Tyr Energy LLC, and Vistra Energy Corp.

Adapt2 Solutions employs about 40 people, Kram says, and plans to grow its revenue and headcount by 25 percent to 40 percent this year. He says Adapt2 Solutions has managed to turn a profit even though it hasn't taken any outside funding since Francisco Diaz founded the company in 2008.

In March, Inc. magazine placed Adapt2 Solutions at No. 222 on its inaugural list of the fastest-growing private companies in Texas. The company's revenue shot up 72 percent from 2016 to 2018.

"The growth in our business reflects a growth in our customers' business, further validating that we have taken the right steps to help energy enterprises better respond to market and technology changes," Diaz said in a March release.


Jason Kram is the executive vice president of Adapt2 Solutions. Photo courtesy of Adapt2 Solutions

Here's what challenges — and opportunities — Houston startups are facing amid COVID-19

Houston voices

There are startups struggling to keep their heads above the deluge of a pandemic-induced depression.

Between 2016 and 2018, the global startup economy generated over $3 trillion — a far cry from today's economic value. Today, startups struggle to keep operations running during the pandemic. Web companies throughout Europe have lost close to 400 billion euros during the coronavirus pandemic. Chinese venture capital investing has dipped 50 percent compared to everyone else.

"Startups that are supported by venture capital funds are merely a small part of the startup ecosystem. Startups that don't have venture capital funding, which is the majority of them, stand to lose substantial money during this pandemic-caused shutdown," says Dane Stangler, a business writer for Forbes.

"All across the country, there are startups that, while they may not have hefty venture capital funding, are still significant to the ecosystem because of their job creation," he continues.

These startups face serious setbacks and are expected to see a giant decline of growth during this pandemic. Small businesses are already in a bind because of forced closures and rapidly waning sales.

Far-reaching effects

Startups supported by venture capital have far-reaching effects on the rest of the economy. These high-tech companies generate up to five jobs for every one job they directly create.

"That means that the inevitable economic bodyslam they're about to receive or have already received will be felt by almost every other facet of the job market," explains Stangler.

According to the Startup Genome report, the pandemic will damage startups that were in the process of raising capital and will likely kill the majority of them.

What can be done?

"Federal emergency support for small businesses is certainly the right play here. The deli down the street, the local mechanic, the mom and pop burger joint; they all need help right now," Stangler says.

Tech and science startups need help too — and many of which were in the middle of getting off the ground when the corona crisis crashed the economy.

"Pumping money into them right now is the best thing that can be done to help them in the now."

The low-interest rate climate that has helped boost venture funds has also pushed many startups to survive on debt. We'll have to come to terms with this for now.

"Market momentum isn't necessarily ideal for the time being. Moreover, the "reallocation" forces that you hear entrepreneurs mention a lot has been kiboshed for now," explains Stangler.

Startups struggling to put the pieces of their company back together might see a glimmer of hope on the horizon, though.

Hope is on the horizon

Recessions breed good businesses. Don't believe me? According to the Startup Genome report, over 50 billion dollar tech startups were created during the recession of 2007 to 2009. Fun fact: more than 50 percent of the companies on the Fortune 500 list to date were founded during a recession.

Sure, startups struggling during a national pandemic can paint a demoralizing picture. But there might be some good news peaking through the dark clouds. It's clear that venture capital funding is at a standstill right now. But it could mean that more startups will get funded when things return to somewhat-normal.

The Startup Genome report shows us that during the 2001 and 2009 recessions, the number of companies that were funded by venture capitalists exploded and fast. For example, in the four years after the 2009 recession, the number of venture capital deals spiked by 25 percent every year.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Houston accelerator leader shares how the cohort has seen success through virtual programming

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 34

In January, when Eléonore Cluzel was named the director of gBETA Houston, she had no clue Houston's first cohort of the international, early-stage accelerator would be conducted virtually. Now, five weeks in, the program and its five startups have adapted to provide programming and mentorship online only.

"Going virtual was a really good pivot on our end. I think that the cohort has adjusted very well," Cluzel says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It is tough. They put tremendous effort into it and I'm proud to be working with them."

Last week, gBETA Houston announced the five companies currently in the program. And, Cluzel is already excited about the second cohort, which opens applications after the first cohort's virtual pitch night on June 18. Cluzel says in light of how many applications she got for the first time around, she knows there's a lot of impact gBETA can make in Houston,

"I was really quite surprised — in a good way — how the first application round was really competitive," Cluzel says, "which shows that there is a lot of room to grow for accelerators in town."

Cluzel shares some of the challenges and opportunities gBETA Houston has seen throughout this time, and introduces each of the companies in the cohort, which represents sports tech, consumer tech, and more. Listen to the full interview with Cluzel below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.