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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

Philanthropic supply chain tool connects Houstonians with resources during coronavirus crisis

oh the umanity

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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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Space City News: Houston Spaceport receives grant, unicorn hires architecture firm

rocketing roundup

The Space City is starting 2022 off strong with news launching out of the Houston Spaceport — a TK-acre space in TK Houston.

The two big headlines include a unicorn company releasing the latest details of its earthbound project and fresh funds from the state to support the space ecosystem in Texas.

Governor Abbott doles out $10M in spaceport grants

Texas has launched fresh funding into two spaceport projects. Image via fly2houston.com

Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott announced $10 million in funding to two Texas spaceports as a part of the state's Spaceport Trust Fund. The Houston Spaceport Development Corp. received $5 million and the Cameron County Spaceport Development Corp. received $5 million.

The fund is administered by the Governor's Office of Economic Development and Tourism and was created to support the development of spaceport infrastructure, create quality jobs, and attract continuing investments that will strengthen the economic future of the state, according to a news release.

"For decades, Texas has been a trailblazer in space technology and we are proud to help cultivate more innovation and development in this growing industry in Cameron and Harris County," says Abbott in the release. "This investment in the Cameron County and Houston Spaceport Development Corporations will create even more economic opportunities for Texans across the state and continue our legacy as a leader in space technology."

Axiom Space hires Dallas-based architecture and engineering firm

Axiom Space has made progress on developing its 14-acre headquarters. Image via axiomspace.com

Houston-based unicorn Axiom Space has announced that it awarded Dallas-based Jacobs the architecture and engineering phase one design contract. The firm will be working on the 100,000-square-foot facility planned for the 400-acre Houston Spaceport at Ellington Airport.

Axiom Space's plans are ro build the first commercial space station that will provide a central hub for research, to support microgravity experiments, manufacturing, and commerce in low Earth orbit missions, according to a news release.

"This is an exciting and historic moment for Axiom and the greater Houston area," says Axiom CTO Matt Ondler in the release. "For the first time, spacecraft will be built and outfitted right here in Houston, Texas. This facility will provide us with the infrastructure necessary to scale up operations and bring more aerospace jobs to the area. With this new facility, we are not only building next generation spacecraft, but also solidifying Houston as the U.S. commercial industry's gateway to space."

Axiom Space, which raised $130M in venture capital last year, is building out its 14-acre headquarters to accommodate the creation of more than 1,000 high-paying jobs, from engineers to scientists, mathematicians, and machinists.

"Houston is a city built on innovation and is becoming a next-generation tech hub in the United States," says Ron Williams, senior vice president at Jacobs. "Privately funded infrastructure will drive U.S. leadership in space. Jacobs is committed to providing integrated solutions to accelerate the future of commercial space operations."

Houston food charity scores prestigious Amazon tech grant

high tech gift

One of Houston’s most cherished food charities has been recognized for its tech prowess. Houston Food Bank has been awarded the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Imagine Grant.

The endowment honors “the vision and work of nonprofit organizations as they seek to improve their communities and the world with the help of cloud technology,” per a press release.

Specifically, the food bank was recognized in the Go Further, Faster category for the launching of a cloud-native digital logistics platform to better serve vulnerable populations facing food insecurity (that insecurity was greatly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the food bank notes.

Each winner in this category receives up to $150,000 in unrestricted funding, up to $100,000 in AWS Promotional Credit, and essential engagement with AWS technical specialists.

The challenges of COVID and the pandemic forced the food bank to get creative — and it responded. The food bank began delivering meals in March 2020 as part of its COVID-19 response through partnerships with volunteers, staff, corporate donors, and organizations such as CrowdSource Rescue, Task Rabbit, and Amazon.

This pilot has been a success: to date, more than 2.3 million meals have been delivered to those in need, the food bank notes in press materials.

Tech-wise, the food bank’s Home Delivery Platform operates using a cloud-native serverless architecture which includes heavy use of AWS services (AWS Lambda, Amazon DynamoDB, Amazon API Gateway, AWS Amplify, and more), with a mobile web responsive front-end written in React/Typescript.

The client side is split across four responsive web applications, each with a different function: Home Delivery management, pantry management, client orders, and driver deliveries. All of these apps utilize shared components and APIs that communicate with each other based on the different user personas.

Pariveda Solutions serves as the technology partner for the implementation of this platform. The project is a capability expansion on top of an existing manual process to deliver food to clients.

Houston Food Bank applied for the Imagine Grant in order to enhance their process digitally, connect submitted orders to the client’s nearest pantry, and manage delivery operations more effectively, with an emphasis on time management and delivery logistics, the organization notes in a release.

“With the success of our home delivery operations, Houston Food Bank’s goal now is to scale operations to expand home delivery for greater reach and impact,” said HFB president/CEO Brian Greene in a statement. “Additionally, with the proposed improvements, we hope to shift to utilizing volunteers for this important service instead of third-party delivery providers, and to deliver food using the client choice model, where clients may select foods based on personal preference, cultural and dietary needs. We are thankful to AWS and Pariveda Solutions for providing their support and expertise as we continue to find new ways to solve the age-old problem of hunger and work towards our ultimate vision of a world that no longer needs food banks.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

New Ion exec focuses on building density, bridging the gaps within Houston innovation

houston innovator podcast episode 117

After years of being in the works, The Ion Houston opened last year — but not in the way it was always hoping to. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the 300,000-square-foot space in the renovated historic Sears building in Midtown slowly opened its doors to the Houston innovation community and brought back in-person programming as safely as it could.

Despite the challenges the pandemic posed, The Ion, which is owned and operated by Rice Management Company, had a lot to show for 2021 — 95 events on and offline, new coworking space opened, corporate partners built out their offices, and more. And, among the additions to The Ion, was Joey Sanchez, who previously served as director of corporate engagement at Houston Exponential. Sanchez has been in his new role as senior director of ecosystem at The Ion for about three months now.

"I'm focusing specifically on the communities of entrepreneurs, startups, investors — and trying to bridge connections among them," Sanchez says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "This is the biggest challenge in Houston and we want to flip that with density. Density is really the key to solving connections."

Sanchez says The Ion, and the surrounding Innovation District, is building out to be that convening space for this density of innovation and tech activity.

This month, The Ion is set to deliver on a few of the amenities that have been in the works. First, the investor studio, a place for venture capital investors to meet with local businesses, will open next week. Later this month a high-tech prototyping lab will be unveiled as well as Common Bond, which Sanchez describes as a must-visit coffee shop for Houston's innovators.

"That's going to be the hottest coffee shop in Houston to run into a co-founder, tech talent, an investor — it really is exciting," Sanchez says. "Bridging these connections has been made easier now that I have a home that's as large as this."

Sanchez is familiar with connecting over coffee. He launched a weekly coffee meet up for Houston innovators. He hosts Cup of Joey every Friday morning at Finn Hall in downtown Houston to give everyone in Houston — new or old to the tech ecosystem — a chance to connect. He says he's excited to keep this up throughout 2022 too.

As for taking initial steps into Houston innovation, Sanchez advises attending any of the 400 to 500 events — virtual and in person — that happen in Houston.

"Just show up," Sanchez says. "It's so underrated, and through a pandemic it was obviously tough to do, but just showing up is the first step."

Sanchez shares more about what gets him so excited about Houston innovation on the show. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes