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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3 takeaways from the Greater Houston Partnership's annual meeting

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With 2020 in the rearview, the Greater Houston Partnership is looking into the new year with a new board chair. In the GHP's 2021 Annual Meeting, the organization introduced how important developing the innovation community is in Houston.

In her remarks, this year's Partnership Chair Amy Chronis, who is the Houston managing partner at Deloitte, shared what she hopes to inspire in her tenure. Her statement can be boiled down to three major points.

It's time to modernize Houston's economy

Chronis says it's time to focus on tech and innovation — and that requires support from all aspects of the city.

"Here in Houston, we must be laser-focused on building a strong, diverse, 21st century economy," she says. "Over the past few years, entrepreneurs, investors, academic institutions, local government, and the corporate sector have come together to unite, grow, and promote Houston's startup ecosystem. The progress since 2016 is staggering."

Since 2016, Chronis says, venture capital investment in Houston has increased almost 250 percent to a record $714 million dollars raised in 2020. Additionally, she calls out 30 new startup development organizations that have sprung up around town — like the East End Maker Hub, The Cannon, The Ion, Greentown Labs, and so much more.

Chronis also calls out the importance of educational institutions, such as Rice University and the University of Houston.

It's the industries that drive innovation

There is a growing need to diversify Houston's economy away from just oil and gas, Chronis says it's Houston's core industries — energy, life sciences, aerospace, along with manufacturing and global logistics — that have made transformative steps.

"We've got momentum, but we still need to double down with work to do," Chronis says, identifying energy, life sciences, and aerospace as three pillars to drive success.

Regarding energy, Chronis touts Greentown Labs opening in Houston — but warns it's increasingly important to have big corporations promote the energy transition.

"From the super majors to the service firms and the increasing presence of renewable companies, Houston is at the forefront of driving the Energy 2.0 sector," she says.

When it comes to health care, Chronis remarks on the Texas Medical Center's success with the TMC Innovation Institute and the development of TMC3, a 37-acre research commercialization campus.

"What's special about TMC3 is that it will create collaboration and innovation at scale," she adds. "It will be a catalyst that will advance Houston's position as the Third Coast for Life Sciences."

Lastly, Houston must maintain its moniker as the Space City — and the city has a lot of opportunities to do that with the development of the Houston Spaceport at Ellington Airport and the NASA Johnson Space Center.

"Houston is already home to a rich talent pool of nearly 23,000 aerospace manufacturing professionals and more than 500 aerospace and aviation companies and institutions, but the potential is so much greater," Chronis says.

Houston needs to focus on four areas to "drive a technological renaissance"

Chronis concludes her speech with some calls to action. She first acknowledges that corporations ask themselves about how they are promoting and valuing innovation.

"We must be committed to inspiring, cultivating and rewarding technological innovation," Chronis says. "How is your company partnering with startups, higher education institutions and other stakeholders to drive innovation?"

Next, Chronis calls out Houston's global diversity as a differentiator when it comes to attracting companies to Houston, and she cites HPE as an example.

"We know there are hundreds of tech companies in the Valley, and up and down the West and East coasts that are striving to build global diversity within their companies," she says. "There is no better place than Houston to do this."

Third, Chronis calls for everyone — from corporates to educations — to empower the next generation of innovators.

And, finally, she says it's time to spread the word about Houston.

"We are modern, sophisticated, and at our core, an incredibly global city. Global in a way that sets us apart from most U.S. metros," she says. "So, as we embark on this work to drive Houston's technology renaissance, we must ensure perceptions of Houston are aligned with reality."

Rice University competition to link veterans with NextSeed investors

it's on

Rice University's Business Veterans Association has helped military veteran raise more that $3.5 million in investments over the last seven years through it's annual pitch competition. And this year, the stakes are even higher.

The Veterans Business Battle — held April 23-24 — allows veterans to pitch their early-stage business or existing company to a panel of investors, as well as engage in educational opportunities and networking. Cash prizes are awarded for first, second, and third place pitches, ranging from $5,000 to $15,000

This year the VBB has also partnered with NextSeed Securities. The registered broker dealer and FINRA member will allow vetted startups invited to present at the event to raise capital from investments by the general public.

"Last year's online-only event gave us an opportunity to think of ways to engage new investors and expand our audience. We're excited to increase opportunities for our finalists and grow our network of investors," event co-chair Matt Wilson says in a statement.

Past competitors have run the gamut, including the likes of oil and gas drone operating company Trumbull Unmanned (which was named a Top 25 Veteran-Founded Startup by Forbes) as well as skin care lines, a body armor manufacturer, ready-to-wear boots, and a health-conscious sauces company. Several have gone on to represent small businesses at the White House.

Last year, YouMeMine, Capsulomics Inc, and Feildcraft were named finalists at the virtual event. In 2019, at a in-person competition, Amor Oral, Welcome Connect and FeedMe Fitness took the stage.

Other partners for the 2021 competition include the U.S. Small Business Administration, Bunker Labs, University of St. Thomas, Houston Community College, and Warrior Rising—a nonprofit for veterans and veteran families which will be hosting education, training, and one-on-one mentorships during the event.

To apply, applicants must submit a business plan on the competition website, vetbizbattle.org, by Feb. 5, according to a release. Businesses must have an honorably discharged veteran or active duty founder and equity holder who is running the venture. Finalists will be invited to make their business pitch at Rice University.

Houston health tech founder shares the monumental impact data can have on health care

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 67

Hospitals are processing massive amounts of data on a daily basis — but few are optimizing this information in life-saving capacities. A Houston company is seeking to change that.

InformAI has created several tech products to allow hospitals to tap into their data for game-changing health care.

"The convergence of technology, data, and deep learning has really opened up an avenue to look at large volumes of information and look at patterns that can be helpful in patient diagnosis and treatment planning," says CEO Jim Havelka on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

The InformAI team has developed two platforms that each of the company's tech products works within. One focuses on medical images and looks for subtle patterns of a medical condition, while the other can datamine patient information to identify patient risk predictors.

Currently, InformAI's sinusitis-focused product is undergoing Food and Drug Administration approval. About a quarter of the population has sinus-related issues, and the technology can help treatment and diagnosis, Havelka says.

"The data that we train our algorithms on are equivalent of 30 careers of a typical ear, nose, and throat surgeon. We see 30 times more patients in our training set than an ENT physician would see in a lifetime," Havelka says. "Being able to bring into play the patterns and unique subtleties that this data can bring into the decision making only makes the ENT more productive and more efficient, as well as creates better outcomes for patients."

InformAI has received venture capital support as well as a National Science Foundation award to advance its work. The company hopes to introduce a new round of funding later this year.

Havelka doesn't mince words when it comes to the importance of InformAI being located in Houston. The company's team works out of JLABS @ TMC as well as TMC Innovation Institute.

"Those relationships have been very helpful in getting data to build these particular products," Havelka says. "Just the Texas Medical Center alone has roughly 10 million patient encounters every year. The ability to get access to data and, equally important, the medical experts has been a tremendous benefit to InformAI."

Havelka discusses more about the revolutionary technology InformAI is working on — as well as advice he has for other health tech founders — on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.