While each of this week's three innovators has years of experience under their belts, they are each starting something new. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Common ingredients among entrepreneurs is a great idea, plenty of hard work, and a whole lot of luck. And, if they are lucky, they've got some experience under their belts too. These three innovators this week are all in the process of starting something — a venture fund, an app, an investment platform — but lucky for them, they know what they're doing.

Allison Lami Sawyer, partner at The League of Worthwhile Ventures

Courtesy of Allison Lami Sawer

Allison Lami Sawyer's story has stuck with me since I first heard it a few weeks ago. Primarily because she's a fantastic storyteller paired with, well, a great story. She's from Alabama and didn't really meet a female entrepreneur until she was one. She started Rebellion Photonics and ran it for several years before recently leaving to start something new: a seed fund called The League of Worthwhile Ventures. Sawyer isn't afraid to start something new and cherishes her role inspiring or advising other women entrepreneurs by being a role model for innovation — something she didn't have as a kid. Read the full story here.

Chris Staffel, COO at Patients We Share

Courtesy of Chris Staffel

While relatively new to the health care business, Chris Staffel has tons of business experience from both coasts. She brings those skills to Patients We Share, an app aiming to enhance and improve doctor referrals. The idea originated from two doctors here in Houston, but as it started to take off, they invested in business professionals like Staffel to make their dream a reality. Read the full story here.

Rashad Kurbanov, CEO and co-founder of iownit.us

Courtesy of iownit.us

I'm bending the rules a little bit here because, unfortunately, Houston cannot claim Rashad Kurbanov. However, the New Yorker is betting on Houston for his new company, iownit.us. The website is a platform for private securities investors and fund-raising companies to connect and make deals — without any red tape. Kurbanov has years of financial experience, but has never done anything like this before because well, no one has. Read the full story here.

Efficient referrals from doctor to doctor could save a life, so this Houston company is setting out to create a network of medical professionals all accessible in an app. Getty Images

Houston-based company is connecting the dots on patient referrals

Diagnosing doctors

When your doctor recommends that you visit another practitioner, it's only natural that you trust the suggestion. But it's one case in which your physician isn't always an expert. Married doctors Justin Bird, an orthopedic surgeon, and Terri-Ann Samuels, a specialist in female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery, have long noted that patients are often referred incorrectly.

No big deal, right? Just go to another doctor. But not everyone has that luxury. Bird and Samuels never intended to start their own company. But when Bird lost a patient due to faulty referrals, they knew something had to be done.

"He believes that if she hadn't been bounced around from doctor to doctor, they could have saved her life," says Chris E. Staffel, chief operating officer of Patients We Share, the app that the couple created to fix the broken aspect of the health care system.

In 2015, Bird and Samuels began their company when they were shocked to realize that such an app didn't already exist.

"They started working with physicians around the country who said, 'We really, really need this,' and they also invested in it," recounts Staffel. From those friends, they built a physician advisory board of 15 investors.

Prescribing growth
The project was accepted into Johnson & Johnson's incubator, JLABS in 2016, then TMCx's digital startup program in the spring of 2018.

"They started realizing it was gaining momentum and realized they needed to have business people on board," says Staffel.

They hired Michael Antonoff, a Rice University M.B.A., as CEO. He invited former classmate Staffel to join as COO. Having come from a background in oil and gas, Staffel jumped at the chance to try her hand in a different industry.

With new business clout behind PWS, the company is growing quickly. Currently, PWS is entering its next seed round of $2.5 million that will allow the company to pay salaries of new team members and bring some tech development in-house. Until now, the making of the app itself has been outsourced to Mobisoft Infotech, a company based in Houston and India, which has worked on many projects at the Texas Medical Center. Local Black + Grey Studio is responsible for the design.

PWS has been working with both those teams in recent months to get a prototype app ready for launch. Currently, 100 physicians around the country are part of an invite-only pilot program. Soon, Staffel hopes to allow early adopter doctors who haven't been invited to enroll in the program for free. It will likely be in 2020 that patients will start joining the community, too.

How it works
An index of all the providers on the app allows doctors to easily find practitioners in a particular specialty. But there's more to it. Detailed profiles contribute to machine learning that assures the optimal match every time. Patient reviews will also play a role.

Though referrals were the impetus for the creation of PWS, it may be even more important as a communication tool between doctors, fellow clinicians (anyone from nurse practitioners to physical therapists may be invited to join), and patients. Staffel says participants in the pilot program are already using the messaging system to compare notes on cases, even sending photos from surgery to consult on patient issues.

The app's encryption means that it's HIPAA-compliant. Patients provide permission to discuss their cases via the app. And they can be confident of the quality of care they'll receive. Likely, the app will remain largely invite-only, and everyone who joins will share their National Provider Identifier licenses to be vetted against the federal database.

Doctors will communicate directly with patients through the app, but will also share resources digitally. Instead of making copy after copy of information about post-surgical care, for instance, the physician need only press a button to share a link.

Eventually, the goal is for PWS to be used not just nationally, but internationally, not just by individuals, but by whole hospital systems. A world in which doctors can compare notes around globe could be a little safer for us all.

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Houston health and wellness startup uses money as a motivator for lifestyle changes

health is wealth

Everything is different when money is on the line, and a Houston startup is using financial incentives as a motivator for its users to make smart, healthy lifestyle changes to enhance their wellness.

Healthiby, a cost-effective wellness program, is changing the game of health solutions by addressing chronic and pre-chronic conditions through innovative prevention and management methods, all incentivized by both short-term and long-term financial benefits.

"Healthiby incentivizes and empowers people to achieve better health outcomes in a team context," says Mary Beth Snodgrass, managing director and co-founder. "We're different from other wellness solutions because we're focused on changing habits, as well as incentivizing better health outcomes, providing both immediate and long-term rewards."

The company launched in May 2019 and is still in its pilot stage. Snodgrass and co-founder Dr. Tristan Hartzell, a surgeon based in Nebraska, have remained committed to their foundational concept for their startup, which is to empower people on their wellness journeys and spread knowledge about the financial benefits of leading a healthy lifestyle.

Mary Beth Snodgrass (pictured) founded Healthiby with Nebraska-based surgeon Dr. Tristan Hartzell. Photo courtesy of Healthiby.

Healthiby's notion that "health is wealth" relates to the idea that engaging in a healthy lifestyle will ultimately benefit individuals financially long-term, as healthcare costs can be avoided. Essentially, Healthiby qualifies health goals as preventative measures for chronic and pre-chronic diseases. Not only does Healthiby inform its users about the long-term financial benefits of healthy living, the program introduces exciting contests in which users are eligible to win financial rewards if they meet certain health-related criteria.

In time for the start of the new year and the health-related resolutions buzz, Healthiby enacts their user-friendly digital software application, social programs, expert health advice and financial incentives to serve their goal-oriented consumers with an engaging health management regiment that is sure to keep them on track throughout the year.

"What we're really focused on this year is, in addition to our incentives, digital content and coach guidance, is making sure that participants are engaging among themselves," Snodgrass tells InnovationMap. "Science shows there are benefits to surrounding yourself with other people who share similar health goals."

In what the program's founders refer to as a "wellness rewards solution," users are able to tap into the Healthiby digital platform to track their progress, participate in social wellness groups, invest in long-term financial incentives and access digestible, cutting edge wellness literature; all components of Healthiby's "journey goals," the program's building blocks to achieving a healthy lifestyle.

"Our software application manages our contests and our rewards, but we also have a very social component, in which participants are meeting online regularly with a dietician coach," Snodgrass explains. "The reason for this is because when we're talking about chronic and pre-chronic conditions, it's important for people to have a strong understanding of how these issues affect the body and what kinds of lifestyle changes are most effective at helping people better manage or reverse them."

Photo courtesy of Healthiby

For an annual minimum of $8 each month, individual consumers have the opportunity to invest in their own long-term wellness through this interactive, user-friendly health progress program.

"Healthiby is providing a really low cost solution for people to get additional social motivation, information, and incentives so that they can stick with their goals throughout the year," Snodgrass said.

Healthiby is currently available to individual consumers in Texas, but its founders have their sights set on expanding the business and sharing their solutions to companies vested in the importance of healthy living for their employees. For now, Houston's health and wellness consumers just got richer — both physically and financially — when Healthiby opened its digital doors to the city.

Real estate tech company founded by Houstonian launches locally, looks for office space

Homecoming

A New York-based company that uses technology to optimize the commercial real estate leasing process is expanding into Houston — and it's a bit of a homecoming for the company's CEO.

SquareFoot, which was founded by Houston native Jonathan Wasserstrum in 2011, has launched in Houston following the closing of a $16 million series B funding round led by Chicago-based DRW VC. The company uses tech tools — like a space calculator and online listings to help users find the right office space quicker and easier than traditional methods.

The Bayou City's growth in small businesses and startups makes for a great market for SquareFoot.

"Houston, in addition to being a leading market for business, is a city in transition," Wasserstrum says. "We've witnessed a growing trend of smaller companies cropping up, with startups showing that they're here to stay. I want SquareFoot to be a major part of the city's growth and evolution."

The idea for a company, Wasserstrum says, came from a friend in Houston who was struggling to find office space for his small company. Years later, that problem's solution would be SquareFoot.

SquareFoot's Houston operations are up and running online, and the listings and resources will continue to grow. Wasserstrum says the team will also open a physical office in Houston, and the team is currently looking for its own office space in a "highly-desirable" area, Wasserstrum says.

"That will not only make it easier for us to show office spaces to prospective clients, but it also sends the message that we understand these clients better than anyone," he explains. "Where you choose to open your offices is part of the story you're shaping for candidates and clients."

In regards to Houston-based employees, Wasserstrum says he will start with tapping a few Houston real estate experts. He will take the business model that was successful in New York and adapt it for Houston

"It's not only the East and West Coasts where innovation is taking place," Wasserstrum says. "We want to help Houston continue to grow as a stellar place to launch and grow a company."

National expansion is Wasserstrum's big goal, he says, and after settling in Houston, he plans to next enter into Washington, D.C., and a few other major markets.

Wasserstrum explains what the Houston expansion means to him, how tech is changing real estate, and trends he's keeping an eye on.

IM: What does it mean to be expanding in your hometown?

Jonathan Wasserstrum: Houston is where I grew up. My whole life has been shaped by what I saw and learned in Houston. I moved away for college, and have built my career on the East Coast, but Houston will always be a big part of me. My parents still live there so I have good reasons to fly home and to come home again.

As I've built out my company, SquareFoot, since 2012 at our NYC headquarters, I have dreamed of being able to expand our services nationally. We have helped over 1,200 companies find and secure office spaces in major cities. As our executive team considered where to invest in and to expand to next, Houston emerged at the top of the list. We made this decision for professional growth reasons, but that choice has an emotional element for me as well.

Going forward, I should have additional good reasons to fly home and to see my parents more often than I have had the occasion to over recent years. Plus, we save on hotel costs!

IM: What makes Houston a great place to expand into?

JW: From an office space perspective, Houston is an under tapped market. There are countless companies looking for the services we provide, but nobody has yet figured out how to build a company to serve them specifically.

We acquire many of our clients through online search — people looking for office space are literally searching online for solutions. We've seen in recent months and years a surge in searches from Houston, which indicated to us that there was a gap that had developed there. We've long had a digital presence there, thanks to these searches, but now we're increasing our physical presence on the ground. We'll hire a broker and put an office there in the coming months.

IM: What sort of trends are you seeing in office real estate? Are these trends happening in Houston already?

JW: Over the past years, we've seen a sharp increase in demand for flexible solutions. Traditional coworking spaces have worked out for many companies, but it's not for everyone.

At the same time, the long-term leases that are usually required upon signing on for an office space of your own has largely kept growing companies out of the market; it has scared them off. We realized there had to be a middle option so we launched FLEX by SquareFoot last year. Now, for the first time, all companies can find the spaces they want with the terms they want.

We are excited to introduce FLEX to the Houston market and to show companies there that there's more lease flexibility and opportunity available than they might think. Change in commercial real estate happens slowly over a long period of time. Houston has the chance now to be a part of their changing wave.

IM: How is technology changing the industry?

JW: For many decades, commercial real estate operated the exact same way. And it intended to stay that way because nobody had reason to believe anything was broken or wrong. However, there were several inefficiencies that clients just had to deal with because that was the industry standard.

The first one was the lack of transparency of which office spaces were unoccupied or what they'd cost. Brokers would lock up this information and keep clients at a distance, unless they were willing to sign on to work with them. With SquareFoot's online listings platform, we have unlocked that information, have educated countless people, and have made for a more seamless and enjoyable process for our clients as partners in their searches.

The other technological breakthrough we've made is in our mobile app. Still, in 2020, too many clients are taking tours of these offices with pen and paper and occasionally snapping a photo or video to send back to their stakeholders. Our app solved those issues once and for all, enabling better communication back and forth and a better user experience for all. Regardless of which team member goes on the office tour with our broker, everyone is clued in and on the same page.

We want everyone on the greater team to buy into the vision, and to recognize the potential, not just one representative who happened to be on the office tour one afternoon.