Podcast: Here's what innovators think of Houston's innovation ecosystem

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 175

This week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast features five mini interviews with Houston innovators. Photos courtesy

It's the fourth year for Houston Tech Rodeo — a four-day event that takes over Houston's innovation ecosystem — and the programming is in full swing.

The week, put on by Houston Exponential, shines a spotlight on Houston innovators, investors, startup development organizations, and more and invites everyone to the table to learn more about the goings on within Houston's business community and connect with fellow Houstonians.

In honor of the week, today's edition of the Houston Innovators Podcast is a bit different. Rather than sit down with one Houston innovator, I got to chat briefly with five movers and shakers within Houston tech: Damyanna Cooke of Boozed and the Black Founders Network,Joshua Taylor of Capital Factory and the Black Founders Network,LaGina Harris of The US Space,Brandy Guidry of the Pearland Innovation Hub, and Chad Spensky of Allthenticate.

I took the opportunity to ask each of them about how they have engaged with the Houston innovation ecosystem and how they've seen it evolve and grow. Each of them also told me what they thought the city still needed to work on as well as its greatest asset to founders and the greater innovation community.

Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


The Pearland Innovation Hub celebrates its launch this week. Photo via pearlandedc.com

Pearland to open innovation-focused hub to support local entrepreneurs

coming soon

Entrepreneurs in the Pearland area have a new resource to help them grow their businesses.

The Pearland Economic Development Corp. has launched the Pearland Innovation Hub, aimed at connecting small businesses with programs and services that are designed to contribute to their success.

The Pearland Innovation Hub is managed through a partnership between the Pearland Economic Development Corp. and The Cannon, a Houston-area business networking community for entrepreneurs, investors, and corporate innovators. For now, the hub does not officially have a physical space. The hub is welcoming the local community to their launch party Thursday, May 19, at BAKFISH Brewing.

The Cannon hired Brandy Guidry to run the Pearland hub. She has more than 17 years of experience in business operations; engineering; technical marketing; innovation; and strategic planning, project, and program management.

Among the hub’s offerings are business-plan competitions, business coaching, networking, and programs.

Guidry’s office is at the Pearland Chamber of Commerce. “We can have small gatherings here,” she says. “Our focus is to have as many events at local venues to help promote and patronize the local business owners.”

Pearland Mayor Kevin Cole says in a news release that the hub will “serve to establish Pearland as a community known for innovation and entrepreneurship and where emerging companies want to locate.”

“The Pearland Innovation Hub is a groundbreaking initiative to support existing and aspiring small business owners,” Guidry adds.

A launch party for the Pearland Innovation Hub is scheduled for 5 pm May 19 at Pearland’s Bakfish Brewing Co., 1231 Broadway St.

Pearland Prosperity’s Community Strategic Plan recommended establishment of a hub for entrepreneurship and small business assistance. In April 2021, the economic development corporation’s board set in motion the creation of the hub. Seven months later, the Pearland City Council approved a three-year, $927,000 contract with The Cannon to operate the hub.

Members of the hub’s advisory board are:

  • Matt Buchanan, president of the Pearland Economic Development Corp.
  • Mona Chavarria, owner of A&A Cleaning.
  • Bill Jackson, founder and CEO of Base Pair Biotechnologies.
  • Jim Johnson, president and CEO of the Pearland Chamber of Commerce.
  • Randeep Nambiar, a board member of the Pearland Economic Development Corp.
  • HR consultant Ann Strouhal.

During the hub’s first year or two, it’ll be run through the economic development corporation. But the plan is to eventually transition the hub to its own nonprofit organization that will enter a contractual relationship with the economic development corporation.

Other than the Pearland Economic Development Corp. and The Cannon, the hub’s partners include the City of Pearland, the Pearland Chamber of Commerce, and San Jacinto Community College’s Small Business Development Center.

Brandy Guidry is the Pearland Navigator with The Cannon. Photo via pearlandinnovationhub.com

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Houston ecommerce scale-up company acquires Amazon advertising partner

all aboard

A Houston tech company has tapped an Amazon partner in a strategic acquisition and is bringing the company's full team on board.

Cart.com acquired Ohio-based Amify, a company that provides optimization and advertising solutions. The terms of the deal were not disclosed but Cart.com will on board Amify’s entire employee base, including its founder Ethan McAfee, CEO Chris Mehrabi, and COO Christine McCambridge.

As chief delivery officer, Mehrabi will take the helm of Cart.com’s professional services business and McCambridge will lead Cart.com’s marketplace services team as vice president of marketplace services operations.

“I’m happy to welcome the entire Amify team to Cart.com and have industry veterans Chris Mehrabi and Christine McCambridge join our leadership team,” Cart.com Founder and CEO Omair Tariq says in a news release. “Amify has been widely recognized for their expertise and technology and we’re excited to leverage their experience to help our customers maximize their potential across channels.”

Cart.com's membership will have access to Amify's proprietary technology platform, including advertising, creative content, supply chain strategy, and analytics. The company, which was founded in 2011, currently supports over 50 global brands and manages approximately $1 billion in gross merchandise value. According to LinkedIn, Amify has over 50 employees.

“We could not be more excited to join Cart.com and leverage the company’s resources and scale to deliver value to both our customers and employees,” Mehrabi says. “I’m honored to step into the role of Chief Delivery Officer and contribute to Cart.com’s incredible growth story and innovative reputation.”

Founded in Houston in 2020, Cart.com provides comprehensive physical and digital infrastructure for online merchants. The company raised a $60 million series C and grown its customer base to over 6,000 users. After making several acquisitions, the company also operates 14 fulfillment centers nationwide.

Earlier this year, Tariq sat down with the Houston Innovators Podcast to share a bit about how the company is currently in scale-up mode.

Houston health tech innovator collaborates on promising medical device funded by DOD

team work

The United States Department of Defense has awarded a grant that will allow the Texas Heart Institute and Rice University 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 and are a long-term option in end-stage heart failure.

The grant is part of the DOD’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP). It was awarded to Georgia Institute of Technology, one of four collaborators on the project that will be designed and evaluated by the co-investigator Yaxin Wang. Wang is part of O.H. “Bud” Frazier’s team at Texas Heart Institute, where she is director of Innovative Device & Engineering Applications Lab. The other institution working on the new LVAD is North Carolina State University.

The project is funded by a four-year, $7.8 million grant. THI will use about $2.94 million of that to fund its part of the research. As Wang explained to us last year, an LVAD is a minimally invasive device that mechanically pumps a person’s own heart. Frazier claims to have performed more than 900 LVAD implantations, but the devices are far from perfect.

The team working on this new research seeks to minimize near-eventualities like blood clot formation, blood damage, and driveline complications such as infection and limitations in mobility. The four institutions will try to innovate with a device featuring new engineering designs, antithrombotic slippery hydrophilic coatings (SLIC), wireless power transfer systems, and magnetically levitated driving systems.

Wang and her team believe that the non-contact-bearing technology will help to decrease the risk of blood clotting and damage when implanting an LVAD. The IDEA Lab will test the efficacy and safety of the SLIC LVAD developed by the multi-institutional team with a lab-bench-based blood flow loop, but also in preclinical models.

“The Texas Heart Institute continues to be a leading center for innovation in mechanical circulatory support systems,” said Joseph G. Rogers, MD, the president and CEO of THI, in a press release.

“This award will further the development and testing of the SLIC LVAD, a device intended to provide an option for a vulnerable patient population and another tool in the armamentarium of the heart failure teams worldwide.”

If it works as hypothesized, the SLIC LVAD will improve upon current LVAD technology, which will boost quality of life for countless heart patients. But the innovation won’t stop there. Technologies that IDEA Lab is testing include wireless power transfer for medical devices and coatings to reduce blood clotting could find applications in many other technologies that could help patients live longer, healthier lives.

Houston investor on SaaS investing and cracking product-market fit

Houston innovators podcast episode 230

Aziz Gilani's career in tech dates back to when he'd ride his bike from Clear Lake High School to a local tech organization that was digitizing manuals from mission control. After years working on every side of the equation of software technology, he's in the driver's seat at a local venture capital firm deploying funding into innovative software businesses.

As managing director at Mercury, the firm he's been at since 2008, Gilani looks for promising startups within the software-as-a-service space — everything from cloud computing and data science and beyond.

"Once a year at Mercury, we sit down with our partners and talk about the next investment cycle and the focuses we have for what makes companies stand out," Gilani says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The current software investment cycle is very focused on companies that have truly achieved product-market fit and are showing large customer adoption."



An example of this type of company is Houston-based RepeatMD, which raised a $50 million series A round last November. Mercury's Fund V, which closed at an oversubscribed $160 million, contributed to RepeatMD's round.

"While looking at that investment, it really made me re-calibrate a lot of my thoughts in terms what product-market fit meant," Gilani says. "At RepeatMD, we had customers that were so eager for the service that they were literally buying into products while we were still making them."

Gilani says he's focused on finding more of these high-growth companies to add to Mercury's portfolio amidst what, admittedly, has been a tough time for venture capital. But 2024 has been looking better for those fundraising.

"We've some potential for improvement," Gilani says. "But overall, the environment is constrained, interest rates haven't budged, and we've seen some potential for IPO activity."

Gilani shares more insight into his investment thesis, what areas of tech he's been focused on recently, and how Houston has developed as an ecosystem on the podcast.