Meet five of the many Houston innovators that will be out at SXSW Pitch, Houston House, Founded in Texas, and much more this week and into next week. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: It's a special Friday edition of innovators to know this week — well, weekend. SXSW kicks off today and Houstonians will be headed up to Austin for the week or just the weekend. If you're looking out for the best panels and talks to go to, look no further than this guide I created — as well as the five Houston innovators I think you should know who are listed below.

Lara Cottingham, chief of staff for Greentown Labs

Photo via LinkedIn

Calling all energy transition startups, investors, and more. The Greater Houston Partnership is hosting a full day of energy transition discussions at Houston House on Monday, March 14, at the Line Hotel. Lara Cottingham of Greentown Labs will be at the activation site with a must-attend networking hour at 4 pm called Transition on Tap.

Diana Murakhovskaya, co-founder and general partner of The Artemis Fund

Photo via LinkedIn

Who runs the world? Women. And Diana Murakhovskaya knows that based off her work with her Houston-based venture capital fund, The Artemis Fund. Project W, Artemis Fund, HearstLab, and Beam have teamed up at SXSW to present the second Founded in Texas event on Sunday, March 13, at Relay Coworking. Twelve founders selected by application will pitch to investors from across the country . The audience will get a glimpse of the innovation and creativity at work in the growing Texas startup ecosystem.

Pamela Singh, co-founder and CEO of CaseCTRL

Photo courtesy of CaseCTRL

Pamela Singh is the only Houston startup founder to pitch this year at SXSW's pitch competition. Representing her digital health startup, Case CTRL, Singh takes the prestigious stage Saturday, March 12, to compete in the Enterprise & Smart Data Technology category.

Sandy Guitar, managing director of HX Venture Fund

Photo courtesy of Sandy Guitar

The HX Venture Fund is hosting a meetup that all of the Houston startup ecosystem needs to know about. Network with a number of founders from Houston's fastest-growing startups along with several great VCs around the nation to participate in a joint conversation about founding tech startups. The event will take place at 11:30 am to 12:30 pm at Hilton Austin Downtown, Room 408.

Ashley DeWalt, managing director of DivInc

Photo courtesy of DivInc

Ashley DeWalt, managing director of DivInc, is just one of the many Houston innovators featured in Houston House from the GHP. The activation starts Sunday, March 13, at the Line Hotel with a day of programming across industries and topics — from sports tech and diversity (both topics DeWalt specializes in) to health care innovation and space. Catch DeWalt's panel, Game Changers - The Rise of Sports Tech, on Sunday at 11:30 am at Houston House.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Pamela Singh of CaseCTRL, Ahmad Atwan of VC Fuel, and Maggie Segrich of Sesh Coworking. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from health tech to energy venture capital — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Pamela Singh, co-founder and CEO of CaseCTRL

Pamela Singh joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss what's on the horizon for her health tech company. Photo courtesy of CaseCTRL

When COVID-19 shutdown all elective surgeries, Pamela Singh didn't know what would happen to her startup, CaseCTRL, which uses AI to optimize surgery scheduling. But, the back and forth nature of surgeries being allowed then not made for a huge need for CaseCTRL's platform to help medical facilities get back on track.

"COVID has had some sort of silver lining for us," Singh says, explaining that surgical facilities were looking for a way to catch up. "They realized the need for automating and streamlining their practice. And they realized that, instead of spending another four hours coordinating with patients and vendors, they could literally do it with the click of a button."

Singh shares more about her entrepreneurial journey and what's on the horizon for CaseCTRL, as well as her advice for fellow female founders in the podcast. Click here to read more and stream the full interview.

Ahmad Atwan, founder and CEO of VC Fuel

Ahmad Atwan founded VC Fuel in Houston to fund the future of the energy transition. Photo courtesy of VC Fuel

When Ahmad Atwan decided he was going to launch VC Fuel, a venture capital fund focused on early-stage energy transition startups, deciding where to start was easy. While there are similar funds on each of the coasts, Atwan learned that VC Fuel's concept was going to be kind of niche for Houston.

"Houston is the undisputed energy capital of the world," he tells InnovationMap. "So to me, especially when you're looking at energy transition sectors that have to work with the energy industry, it was a no brainer."

Atwan shares more about VC Fuel and the $100 million fund, which he's still raising for while also investing in a few startups at the same time, in an interview with InnovationMap. He also discusses how his expertise as a former founder and former private equity investor with Morgan Stanley and BlackRock makes him an opportune value-add investor. Click here to read more.

Maggie Segrich, co-founder and CFO of Sesh Coworking

Maggie Segrich (right) opened Sesh with Meredith Wheeler in 2020. Photo courtesy of Sesh

Maggie Segrich co-founded Sesh Coworking and the duo opened its first space in early 2020. Now, 18 months later, Sesh is growing. The female-founded, female-focused coworking company has also launched a crowdfunding campaign to support Sesh's growth.

The new coworking space is set to be in Midtown, but Sesh hasn't yet announced the specific location. The plan is to open to members at the beginning of 2022. The move will allow Sesh to offer private offices and dedicated desks, as well as other amenities members are looking for.

"Sesh never set out to be like other coworking spaces," she says. "We are on a mission to create a work space that isn't just four walls and a door. We began in 2017 by building our community first through pop-ups and then with our current space in Montrose. This new space carries on that tradition and mission of putting community first." Click here to read more.

Pamela Singh, co-founder and CEO of CaseCTRL, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss what's on the horizon for her health tech company. Photo courtesy of CaseCTRL

Houston startup with AI-optimized surgical scheduling technology is ready to scale

houston innovators podcast episode 101

With so many moving parts in the health care industry, Pamela Singh says patients can go through all the pre-operation steps up to literally arriving to the hospital, only to find out their surgery has been canceled due to an admin error.

Singh's startup, which she founded with her husband and surgeon Dr. Ashvin Dewan, CaseCTRL is looking to prevent these surgical scheduling inefficiencies. On this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Singh explains how the idea for the company came from an organic need Dr. Dewan saw in his practice.

"We decided there needs to be a better way to help surgeons, schedulers, and patients to have a better experience," Singh, who serves the company as CEO, says on the show. "Surgery is the highest revenue-generating event for any hospital, clinic, or private practice. And your patients are essentially your customers, so you need to give them the best patient experience."

CaseCTRL started with this patient-focused goal, but throughout development, Singh says she realized the overall effect of optimization. Especially, she says, when it came to COVID-19's effect on surgery scheduling. The company got its start amid the pandemic, and wasn't sure how the cancelation of elective surgeries was going to impact the startup's journey. But really, with the backlog of surgeries building up over different periods of stopping and restarting surgeries, a rising need for optimization emerged.

"COVID has had some sort of silver lining for us," Singh says, explaining that surgical facilities were looking for a way to catch up. "They realized the need for automating and streamlining their practice. And they realized that, instead of spending another four hours coordinating with patients and vendors, they could literally do it with the click of a button."

Now, in light of this growing need and awareness, Singh and her team is ready to scale. She says she is working with her team on integration opportunities and building out the tech to make it even more convenient to use.

Currently, the company is in the process of completing its Techstars accelerator and raising pre-seed funding. CaseCTRL was a member of gBETA Houston's second cohort and has pitched at several Houston innovation ecosystem events. Singh was even an inaugural finalist for the 2021 InnovationMap Awards. She says she's been surprised by how supportive Houston has been.

"The community here is diverse and, most importantly, supportive," Singh says, adding that at first they wondered if Houston had too much health care innovation and competition. "We realized the community in Houston ... really wants to see you succeed. The biggest pro is that entrepreneurial spirit here in Houston."

Singh shares more about her entrepreneurial journey and what's on the horizon for CaseCTRL, as well as her advice for fellow female founders in the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


The five finalists in the Top Founder Under 40 category for the inaugural InnovationMap Awards share the challenges they have had to overcome. Photos courtesy

Overheard: Young founders explain the challenges they've faced

Eavesdropping in houston

It's not easy being the youngest person in a room, and that's certainly the case for startup founders looking to make an impact on an industry that's been doing things a certain way since before they were born.

The five finalists of the Top Founder Under 40 category for the InnovationMap Awards presented by Techwave were asked to share their challenges overcame as young founders. Here's what they had to say. Click here to register for the livestream.

"It wasn't until I stood my ground by being persistent, and by not being afraid to hand their responsibilities to someone else, that they finally took me seriously."

Photo courtesy of CaseCTRL

— Pamela Singh of CaseCTRL says. "While working as on a Department of Defense Contract, I was leading a development effort with other older white men who were mostly retired military," she explains."They did not appreciate a young ethnic female giving them orders, and would often ignore my email requests or assigned tasks. At first, I felt defeated, but then I had to remember that although they have a lot of knowledge in general, I was the one with the right knowledge for this specific project."

"Changing the minds of experienced executives, who have worked in the energy industry for decades, was an uphill battle that took time and a considerable amount of effort."

With fresh funds, this Houston entrepreneur plans to scale his industrial e-commerce startup

Photo by Colt Melrose for GoExpedi

— Tim Neal of GoExpedi. "Over the years, I have enjoyed great success in my professional career, but that has not come without a few challenges," Neal says. "I am incredibly grateful for my mentors who believed in my vision despite my age."

"I think my go getter attitude has always helped me out and aid me mature faster."

Photo courtesy of LAMIK Beauty

— Kim Roxie of LAMIK Beauty. "Since I started at such young age at 21, after being labeled 'at risk' in high school, I think I have always been seen as 'too young,'" she says. "However, My life motto is 'qualify yourself!'"

"Once I started just being myself and not carrying the weight of the no's it really improved my productivity, my leadership, and my overall success as a person and as a leader in my business."

Emily Cisek, CEO and co-founder of The Postage

Photo courtesy of The Postage

— Emily Cisek of The Postage. "I think advocating for myself and my business as a younger female founder has been a challenge mostly because as a person you want to please the people around you, investors, whoever, and sometimes no matter what you do, they aren't going to be on the same page and that's OK," she says. "But not carrying that forward is what's important. There's been times I've been told no, when I was trying to be exactly what I thought an investor or business partner wanted to hear."

"Typically, companies that have been around and have older leadership can have an advantage."

Photo via TMC.edu

— Emma Fauss of Medical Informatics Corp. She says she's experienced age discrimination early on within the health care industry.

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Houstonian designs new experiences to encourage innovation in students

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 154

As director of social innovation at Teach For America Houston, it's Sarah Essama's job to come up with new ways for the organization to support both students and teachers. But, as she explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast this week, Essama realized a huge lesson modern students needed was to learn this innovation process themselves.

Part of being an educator is to prepare students for tomorrow, Essama explains, but with rapid technology development and adaption, no one knows what the future will hold for the job market or the world in general. The best way to prepare the future generation of the workforce is to teach them how to innovate, think differently, and adapt to new ways of doing things.

"That's what people are looking for right now — people who can provide out-of-the-box solutions to problems," Essama says on the show.

This line of thinking turned into Essama founding The Dream Lab, powered by Teach for America Houston.

"The Dream Lab is a set of immersive design spaces where young people leverage their imagination and creativity to innovate and solve problems within their community," she explains.

Last month, the new concept rolled out to high school students in partnership with DivInc Houston, a nonprofit focused on social and economic equity in entrepreneurship, and 21 ninth graders spent the day at the Ion for a mini-innovation accelerator and design showcase.

Strategically, Essama tapped into the Houston innovation ecosystem with the intent of showcasing the community.

"Innovation to me is being able to create something that has never been seen or done before — and that has a very important purpose," she says. "Exposing ourselves to innovation and people who think this way — and learning from them —is key to be able to be competitive tomorrow."

Essama says this program is still in the development phase. She's been testing out the concept with fourth graders and now ninth graders. She hopes the full program will be up and running by next fall.

She shares more details about the grant and the future of The Dream Lab on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Houston-based virtual reality startup raises $3.2M in first outside capital round

fresh funding

HTX Labs, a Houston-based company that designs extended reality training for military and business purposes, announced last week that it has raised its first outside capital.

The company has received a $3.2 million investment from Cypress Growth Capital. Founded in 2017, HTX Labs — developer of the EMPACT Immersive Learning Platform — has been granted funding from the Department of Defense as well as grown its client base of commercial Enterprises. The platform uses virtual and extended reality that "enables organizations to rapidly create, deploy, measure, and sustain cost-effective, secure, and centralized immersive training programs, all within engaging, fully interactive virtual environments," per a news release.

“We have been looking to secure outside capital to accelerate the growth of our EMPACT platform and customer base but we hadn’t found the right partner who provided an investment vehicle that matched our needs,“ says HTX Labs CEO Scott Schneider in the release. “We found everything we were looking for in Cypress Growth Capital. They have a non-dilutive funding model that aligns with our capital expectations and have the level of experience that really makes this smart money.

"Cypress has a decade-long track record of success in helping emerging software and services companies achieve scale," he continues. "It is clear that the team’s collective entrepreneurial and operating experience will be of tremendous benefit to us as we focus on expanding our customer base in a very intentional way.”

The fresh funding will go toward growing and scaling the company's operations — both within the current Department of Defense and expansion opportunities into key commercial markets, like heavy industry, manufacturing, and higher education. Additionally, the funding will support increased customer adoption.

“Scott and his team have built an exceptional business that is poised for dramatic growth,” says Cypress Partner Pat McCaffrey in the release. “HTX Labs’ modern, immersive training solution provides clients with a force multiplier for modernizing training and an unmatched ROI.”

Houston's biggest benefactors gift massive $50M to pivotal Rice University institute

big money

Houston’s most generous couple has once again gifted a massive sum to a local institution. Rich and Nancy Kinder’s Kinder Foundation has donated $50 million to Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, the organization announced.

The Kinder's generous grant will assist the institute’s focus on what it dubs “inclusive prosperity” — that is, “ensuring that everyone can contribute to Houston's success and share in its opportunities.”

This new grant follows the approximately $30 million he Kinder Foundation previously gifted Rice’s Kinder Institute and its affiliates to facilitate its headquarters.

“Over the past decade, the Kinder Institute has played an integral role in shaping Houston,” said Rich Kinder, chairman of the Kinder Foundation. “However, we can do more to inform and more directly address the challenges our communities face, particularly in the areas of housing, education, economic mobility, health and population research.”

To that end, the Kinders’ funds will ensure the institute can assist its partners regardless of their ability to pay for research. Funds will also help the institute respond to community research needs quickly during times of crisis — such as a catastrophic storm or pandemic — when funds aren’t readily available.

Kinder Institute director Ruth López Turley calls the grant “a gift to all of Houston,” speaking to the institute’s work to improve lives through data, research, engagement and action.

“Inclusive prosperity doesn’t just happen spontaneously,” she noted in a statement. “It requires an explicit effort informed by research. Lots of organizations are working hard to make things better, but most of them have very limited research capacity, and that’s what the Kinder Institute is primed to do.”

Founded in 2010, the institute has evolved into a leader in research, data, and policy analysis of critical issues such as housing, transportation, and education. The institute also releases the familiar Kinder Houston Area Survey, which charts significant changes in the way area residents perceive and understand Houston’s ongoing challenges and opportunities.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.