Austin Rolling, Gabriella Rowe, and Aaron Knape are this week's Houston innovators to know. Photos courtesy

In this weekly roundup of Houston innovators, we find an entrepreneur who created the tech solution he wished he'd had as a salesman, an innovation leader with big goals for The Ion, and a startup founder who's in for a very busy March.

Here are this week's Houston innovators to know.

Austin Rolling, CEO and co-founder of Outfield

austin rolling

Photo courtesy of Outfield

As an experienced salesman, Austin Rolling knows the challenges salespeople face on a daily basis. Rolling, who worked in a number of positions in both inside and outside sales with such big name companies as Whirlpool and Beats by Dre. He tells InnovationMap about how he wished he had better tools for communication and keeping organized.

"Fast forward some years later, my co-founder and I decided to work on a solution that could help support outside sales agents and I was able to use my domain expertise as an outside sales rep to ID the realm of solutions for various customer segments," Rolling says.

Rolling runs Outfield, a Houston-based software company gives field reps an intuitive interface to manage their territory and accounts on-the-go as well as instantly communicate with the rest of their team effortlessly across all devices. Click here to read more.

Gabriella Rowe, executive director of The Ion

Courtesy of Station Houston

Now that Station Houston has merged with Capital Factory, Gabriella Rowe, who previously served Station as CEO, has completely transitioned into her role as executive director of The Ion. On last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Rowe discussed the merger and how her goal for The Ion is to make the facility a vehicle for innovation development, but also create a diverse and inclusive environment reflective of Houston's own diversity.

"We're creating an opportunity for Houstonians," Rowe says on the episode, explaining why she's focused on bringing in a wide range of programming and education into The Ion.

In the episode, Rowe also discusses the Ion Smart Cities Accelerators, which has 10 companies from its inaugural cohort in pilot mode across Houston and has launched applications for its second cohort, as well as why she thinks Houston's innovation ecosystem is sure to succeed this time around. Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Aaron Knape, co-founder and CEO of sEATz

Courtesy of sEATz

Like most lifelong Houstonians, Aaron Knape has a long history with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. But this season, he'll be involved in a whole new way. Knape's startup, sEATz, an in-seat delivery app, will be live in certain sections of the rodeo at NRG Stadium.

"It's really great to be able to be a part of the rodeo as far as a provider to help enhance that experience in the stadium," Knape says. "It goes back to our model of we want to serve a venue and the fans in that venue — not necessarily a specific sport or concert."

SEATz had a busy football season, servicing the likes of The Texans, the University of Houston Cougars, and more, but turns out, football is not over. Through its partnership with Delaware North, the food and beverage provider for UH's TDECU Stadium, sEATz has added the XFL's Houston Roughnecks fans to its roster of users. Click here to read more.

Houston-based Outfield, a sales management app, wants to gamify the sales process for its users. Photo via outfieldapp.com

Growing Houston startup is gamifying professional sales with management tools for sellers

Always be gaming

Actor Alec Baldwin's "always be closing" monologue is not only the most popular scene in David Mamet's 1992 film, "Glengarry Glen Ross," it has become the unofficial mantra for sales professionals worldwide.

While that ABC line, the art of persuasion and strong product offerings are necessary pillars in sales, the ability to centralize data and foster accountability, productivity and drive revenue is just as vital. That's where Outfield, a web and mobile-based CRM, comes in. The app specializes in data driven revenue and efficiency solutions for companies with a burgeoning outside sales force.

"Outfield is a software solution designed specifically to support organizations to drive revenue, generate efficiencies and build operational structures via outside sales, field marketing efforts and field merchandising efforts," says Austin Rolling, CEO and co-founder of Outfield.

"For example, the merchandising that seen in a grocery store where sales reps are taking pictures of displays, dropping off marketing collateral, setting up demos and setting up tastings, those are the types of programs where individuals will likely use our software solutions in order to manage their workflow operations," Rolling adds.

How it works

Outfield's selling point revolves around helping organizations discover valuable insights about their market vertical, track and verify their sales team's activity and manage their field operations.

Simply put, it gives field reps an intuitive interface to manage their territory and accounts on-the-go as well as instantly communicate with the rest of their team effortlessly across all devices.

Outfield makes it easier for sales teams to keep track of projects and clients. Photo via outfieldapp.com

"Prior to starting Outfield, I worked in a number of sales positions, both outside and inside sales positions," says Rolling, who worked in sales with such big name companies as Whirlpool and Beats by Dre. "When I was in outside sales, I was always underwhelmed with the amount of support and solutions we were provided while we were out in the field. I always knew there was an opportunity there because the tools that we had were lacking in terms of capabilities.

"Fast forward some years later, my co-founder and I decided to work on a solution that could help support outside sales agents and I was able to use my domain expertise as an outside sales rep to ID the realm of solutions for various customer segments."

Rolling founded Outfield with co-founder Adam Steele in 2015 and operates out of The Cannon, an entrepreneurial co-working space specifically designed to house Houston-based startups and small businesses.

Management tools for sellers

The company began as a solution for a nutraceutical and supplement company called Cellucor.

Cellucor needed an efficient way to manage its legion of outside sales reps, which were servicing stores like Vitamin Shoppe and GNC where they worked with the in-store representatives to promote their brand products.

The company also wanted to track the whereabouts of its sales reps, monitor their touch points in the field and centralize the teams' reports and call forms.

"Sales reps are able to manage their relationships and interactions with their customers through the tool," says Rolling. "We can also integrate with our customers' inside sales tool if they have one. We can send our data over to other systems. It depends on whether or not the system that we are looking to integrate with actually has an open API that we can transmit data from our system to theirs.

"In terms of sales numbers and touch points that you have with customers, there's a report that outside sales reps need to fill out while out in the field. They can record all of the information then sync that data into the cloud, so the sales manager or sales director can see all of that data from the web-based version of Outfield."

Rolling's intimate understanding of the needs of outside sales reps and knowledge of the industry vertical has been immeasurable in growing Outfield's client base, which has expanded to over 200 customers in 75 countries.

Gamifying sales

Over the next five years, the burgeoning startup plans to build on its momentum as a disruptor in the space by incubating and releasing a new suite of products that will ultimately have a number of synergies with Outfield.

The most pressing product is League Play, a built-in game for salespeople within the Outfield CRM platform that allows sales reps the opportunity to compete and collaborate with one another similar to popular video games such as MLB The Show 20 or NBA 2K20.

"League Play essentially allows reps to build reputations of being star performers based on their utilization and activity of their Outfield account," says Rolling. "They're able to leverage that data and this will be good for comparison purposes for upper management. Therefore, if a sales manager or sales director wants to know who their star player is, they can go into League Play see how their sales reps are performing. We designed it to be very reminiscent of sports."

The tool has leaderboards and signature player cards, which is similar to Topps baseball cards. The player cards features the sales reps' profile, including all of the statistics of their individual performance and offer attributes.

"Like Madden, you can go in and see how their ratings are," says Rolling. "This is something that's going to be groundbreaking. This is something that has not been done before. The idea is to be sales as a sport to take advantage of sales reps' competitive nature. It should boost their overall productivity, which managers should be able to reap the benefits of, while reps will be able to build their own brand and personal reputation. It's a great way to boost performance overall."

All sales reps that utilize Outfield will be automatically entered into League Play. While the platform allows sales reps the chance to feel like they're athletes, it also helps them build reputations for themselves as top tier sales professionals and give them more of a vested interest in utilizing the application.

Moving forward, Outfield wants to further permeate the market in its widespread use of advanced analytics with the help of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

"We want to be able to think about KPI's and metrics that can tell the story of outside sales in a very specific way," says Rolling. "We think that we can infuse and generate an appetite for people who want to think more intelligently about their go-to-market activities because one thing we're learning and know for sure is that our customers aren't getting less competitive, they're getting more competitive."

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Houston engineers develop breakthrough device to advance spinal cord treatment

future of health

A team of Rice University engineers has developed an implantable probe over a hundred times smaller than the width of a hair that aims to help develop better treatments for spinal cord disease and injury.

Detailed in a recent study published in Cell Reports, the probe or sensor, known as spinalNET, is used to explore how neurons in the spinal cord process sensation and control movement, according to a statement from Rice. The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health, Rice, the California-based Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and the philanthropic Mary K. Chapman Foundation based in Oklahoma.

The soft and flexible sensor was used to record neuronal activity in freely moving mice with high resolution for multiple days. Historically, tracking this level of activity has been difficult for researchers because the spinal cord and its neurons move so much during normal activity, according to the team.

“We developed a tiny sensor, spinalNET, that records the electrical activity of spinal neurons as the subject performs normal activity without any restraint,” Yu Wu, a research scientist at Rice and lead author of the study said in a statement. “Being able to extract such knowledge is a first but important step to develop cures for millions of people suffering from spinal cord diseases.”

The team says that before now the spinal cord has been considered a "black box." But the device has already helped the team uncover new findings about the body's rhythmic motor patterns, which drive walking, breathing and chewing.

Lan Luan (from left), Yu Wu, and Chong Xie are working on the breakthrough device. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

"Some (spinal neurons) are strongly correlated with leg movement, but surprisingly, a lot of neurons have no obvious correlation with movement,” Wu said in the statement. “This indicates that the spinal circuit controlling rhythmic movement is more complicated than we thought.”

The team said they hope to explore these findings further and aim to use the technology for additional medical purposes.

“In addition to scientific insight, we believe that as the technology evolves, it has great potential as a medical device for people with spinal cord neurological disorders and injury,” Lan Luan, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice and a corresponding author on the study, added in the statement.

Rice researchers have developed several implantable, minimally invasive devices to address health and mental health issues.

In the spring, the university announced that the United States Department of Defense had awarded a four-year, $7.8 million grant to the Texas Heart Institute and a Rice team led by co-investigator Yaxin Wang to continue to break ground on a novel left ventricular assist device (LVAD) that could be an alternative to current devices that prevent heart transplantation.

That same month, the university shared news that Professor Jacob Robinson had published findings on minimally invasive bioelectronics for treating psychiatric conditions. The 9-millimeter device can deliver precise and programmable stimulation to the brain to help treat depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Houston clean hydrogen startup to pilot tech with O&G co.

stay gold

Gold H2, a Houston-based producer of clean hydrogen, is teaming up with a major U.S.-based oil and gas company as the first step in launching a 12-month series of pilot projects.

The tentative agreement with the unnamed oil and gas company kicks off the availability of the startup’s Black 2 Gold microbial technology. The technology underpins the startup’s biotech process for converting crude oil into proprietary Gold Hydrogen.

The cleantech startup plans to sign up several oil and gas companies for the pilot program. Gold H2 says it’s been in discussions with companies in North America, Latin America, India, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

The pilot program is aimed at demonstrating how Gold H2’s technology can transform old oil wells into hydrogen-generating assets. Gold H2, a spinout of Houston-based biotech company Cemvita, says the technology is capable of producing hydrogen that’s cheaper and cleaner than ever before.

“This business model will reshape the traditional oil and gas industry landscape by further accelerating the clean energy transition and creating new economic opportunities in areas that were previously dismissed as unviable,” Gold H2 says in a news release.

The start of the Black 2 Gold demonstrations follows the recent hiring of oil and gas industry veteran Prabhdeep Singh Sekhon as CEO.

“With the proliferation of AI, growth of data centers, and a national boom in industrial manufacturing underway, affordable … carbon-free energy is more paramount than ever,” says Rayyan Islam, co-founder and general partner at venture capital firm 8090 Industries, an investor in Gold H2. “We’re investing in Gold H2, as we know they’ll play a pivotal role in unleashing a new dawn for energy abundance in partnership with the oil industry.”

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes an e-commerce startup founder, an industrial biologist, and a cellular scientist.

Omair Tariq, co-founder and CEO of Cart.com

Omair Tariq of Cart.com joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share his confidence in Houston as the right place to scale his unicorn. Photo via Cart.com

Houston-based Cart.com, which operates a multichannel commerce platform, has secured $105 million in debt refinancing from investment manager BlackRock.

The debt refinancing follows a recent $25 million series C extension round, bringing Cart.com’s series C total to $85 million. The scaleup’s valuation now stands at $1.2 billion, making it one of the few $1 billion-plus “unicorns” in the Houston area.

Cart.com was co-founded by CEO Omair Tariq in October 2020. Read more.

Nádia Skorupa Parachin, vice president of industrial biotechnology at Cemvita

Nádia Skorupa Parachin joined Cemvita as vice president of industrial biotechnology. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Houston-based biotech company Cemvita recently tapped two executives to help commercialize its sustainable fuel made from carbon waste.

Nádia Skorupa Parachin came aboard as vice president of industrial biotechnology, and Phil Garcia was promoted to vice president of commercialization.

Parachin most recently oversaw several projects at Boston-based biotech company Ginkjo Bioworks. She previously co-founded Brazilian biotech startup Integra Bioprocessos. Read more.

Han Xiao, associate professor of chemistry at Rice University

The funds were awarded to Han Xiao, a chemist at Rice University.

A Rice University chemist has landed a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Health for his work that aims to reprogram the genetic code and explore the role certain cells play in causing diseases like cancer and neurological disorders.

The funds were awarded to Han Xiao, the Norman Hackerman-Welch Young Investigator, associate professor of chemistry, from the NIH's Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) program, which supports medically focused laboratories. Xiao will use the five-year grant to advance his work on noncanonical amino acids.

“This innovative approach could revolutionize how we understand and control cellular functions,” Xiao said in the statement. Read more.