Fifteen of Houston Innovation Awards finalists share the best advice they've given or received. Photo via Getty Images

The startup journey is a long and winding road, and there's many ways to navigate it. Fifteen of this year's finalists have shared what their most valuable startup advice for their fellow Houston founders.

From the importance of mentorship to tips for female and BIPOC founders, these pearls of wisdom come directly from a selection of finalists across a handful of categories, including DEI Champion, BIPOC-Owned Business, Female-Owned Business, and Mentor of the Year.

Read these excerpts of advice from Houston's innovation community's top startup founders and supporters.

Click here to secure your tickets to the November 8 event where we'll name the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards winners.

"Be comfortable with asking for and accepting help. This journey is a marathon, not a sprint, but helping yourself with supportive people around is critical." — Cameron Carter of Rosarium Health, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"Underrepresented founders often have trouble asking for what they want or deserve. ... Don't be scared to ask for what you want, or what you believe you deserve." — Pedro Silva of Milkify, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"It's not 'fake it' until you make it. It's 'take it' until you make it. Be proud to be you." — Pamela Singh of CaseCTRL, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"When starting a company, remember it’s a game of attrition. The best way to last longer than your nearest neighbor is to find your tribe." — Aaron Fitzgerald of Mars Materials, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"Know your worth and add tax. Choose your partners wisely — at home and work. Invest in the best stock you own: YOU." — Katie Mehnert of ALLY Energy, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"Whatever battle you're fighting now that no one knows about — go ahead and WIN the war." — Shoshi Kaganovsky of Feelit Technologies, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"My advice would be to find truly effective mentors who are willing to open up their network for you. It doesn't matter if the mentors are men or women — what matters is that they genuinely care about your professional success and who you are as a person." — Tatiana Fofanova of Koda Healthcare, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"Remember...There are a BILLION ways to apply sunscreen, but no matter how you apply it, it ALL protects you from the sun. Like sunscreen, there are infinite ways to succeed in the startup world. Trust your gut, stick to your vision, and keep trying until you find what works for you. ... Your purpose and vision should be your North Star, guiding decisions in team-building, coaching, and creating a company culture. Stick to that purpose—it's what will drive you through the rollercoaster of entrepreneurship." — Emily Cisek of The Postage, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"First and foremost, embrace your uniqueness. As a woman of color, you bring a distinctive perspective to the table. Your background is not just a part of who you are; it's a strength that sets you apart in a male-dominated industry. ... Resilience is your greatest ally. Challenges will arise, and it's okay to acknowledge them. What matters most is how you respond. Each obstacle is an opportunity for growth and learning. ... Lastly, trust yourself. You are not just running a business; you are shaping a narrative of empowerment and change." — Ghazal Qureshi of UpBrainery Technologies, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"Figure out, learn, and understand your mission inside and out and use it to make all your major business (and sometimes personal) decisions." — LaGina R Harris, founder and CEO of The Us Space and Mentor of the Year finalist

"Know your value and continue advocating for inclusion." — Janice Tran of Kanin Energy, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"Be your true, authentic self. There are going to be some people that like what you are doing, and there's going to be some people that don't, but the biggest thing is being true to who you are, and that's always going to flourish more than being who someone else wants you to be." — Muriel Foster, director of gBETA Houston and Mentor of the Year finalist

"Until you hire someone, you are the one wearing the product manager hat. You've got to love the problem more than the solution." — Wade Pinder, founder of Product Houston and Mentor of the Year finalist

"Be the person your younger self needed. Representation really does matter. Be a listening ear, share your lessons, and allow people to blossom under your leadership." — Michelle Ngome, founder and president of the African American Marketing Association and DEI Champion finalist

"Embrace your unique perspective as a source of strength and innovation. ... In Houston's dynamic startup scene, your presence and contributions as a traditionally marginalized founder or investor are essential for driving innovation and diversity. By staying resilient, seeking support, and advocating for inclusivity, you can navigate the entrepreneurial journey and make a lasting impact on both your business and the broader community." — Jessica Adebiyi, diversity and professional development director at Womble Bond Dickinson and DEI Champion finalist

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Pedro Silva of Milkify, Anthony Palmiotto of OpenStax, and Brad Deutser of Deutser. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

hou to know

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

Pedro Silva, CEO and co-founder of Milkify

Pedro Silva of Milkify join the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the impact of their successful Shark Tank experience. Photo courtesy of Milkify

While Milkify's founders — husband and wife team Pedro Silva and Berkley Luck — secured partners on a popular business pitch and investment show, the entire experience almost didn't happen.

Silva and Luck, who got her PhD in molecular and biomedical s at Baylor College of Medicine, founded the company to provide breast milk freeze drying as a service to Houston-area families. Now, Milkify has customers across the country, but the duo didn't know if going through the process would be worth the investment and publicity, or if it would just be a distraction.

"The competitor in me wanted to be the first breast milk company to go on the show and to tell our story to the world — to show the world what my wife came up with that we thought was so great," Silva says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It was probably the scariest 45 minutes of my life."Read more.

Anthony Palmiotto, director of higher education at OpenStax

OpenStax, founded out of Rice University, has continued its growth, adding new partners and textbooks. Photo via openstax.org

In an effort to combat the hefty price tag of assigned texts, OpenStax, a nonprofit education startup out of Rice University, which is on a mission to increase educational access for all, seeks to democratize high-quality education by offering free, peer-reviewed, openly licensed textbooks for students and knowledge seekers across the globe.

This month, OpenStax will add to its 57 open education resources, or OER, titles with a full version of John McMurry's popular pre-med textbook, Organic Chemistry, under an open license to honor his late son, Peter, who passed away in 2019 after losing his battle with cystic fibrosis.

“Before the nursing books, we were doing business books,” Anthony Palmiotto, director of higher education at OpenStax, tells InnovationMap. “Murry’s book builds out our science offerings, so we're thinking about the different areas that students take that can be barriers for them to move up in education and succeed. From there, we’ll continue to think about how a free textbook can help students through that process.” Read more.

Brad Deutser, founder and CEO of Deutser

In his new book, Houstonian Brad Deutser explores how increasingly important a sense of belonging is in the workplace. Photo courtesy

Last week, Houstonian and business consultant Brad Deutser published his book, BELONGING RULES: Five Crucial Actions that Build Unity and Foster Performance. In a guest column for InnovationMap, Deutser writes of the importance of belonging in the workplace with his colleague Isabel Bilotta, managing consultant and head of learning and innovation at Deutser's learning initiative.

"Although there are many definitions out there, we define belonging as where we hold space for something of shared importance," the article reads. "It is where we come together on values, purpose, and identity; a space of acceptance where agreement is not required but a shared framework is understood; where there is an invitation into the space; an intentional choice to take part in; something vital to a sense of connection, security, and acceptance." Read more.

Berkley Luck and Pedro Silva, co-founders of Milkify, join the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the impact of their successful Shark Tank experience. Photo courtesy of Milkify

Houston startup founders prepare to scale globally following Shark Tank success

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 205

While Milkify's founders — husband and wife team Pedro Silva and Berkley Luck — secured partners on a popular business pitch and investment show, the entire experience almost didn't happen.

Silva and Luck, who got her PhD in molecular and biomedical s at Baylor College of Medicine, founded the company to provide breast milk freeze drying as a service to Houston-area families. Now, Milkify has customers across the country, but the duo didn't know if going through the process would be worth the investment and publicity, or if it would just be a distraction.

"The competitor in me wanted to be the first breast milk company to go on the show and to tell our story to the world — to show the world what my wife came up with that we thought was so great," Silva says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It was probably the scariest 45 minutes of my life."

But the sharks bit. Milkify's episode aired in April, and two investors — Gwyneth Paltrow and Lori Greiner — agreed to a $400,000 convertible note for 20 percent equity in the company. Paltrow even said on the show that she would have used the service when she was breastfeeding.

"It was empowering," Luck says of getting to wear her white coat on TV and share the story of how she came up with the idea of Milkify. "It was important to me when we went on the show to express that this had a scientific basis, that we didn't start this lightly, and that we've made huge strides in doing this in the absolute safest way possible."

Silva says they can't talk about some of the details of the show or the deal, but since then, Milkify has reached new customers, received additional investment interest, grown its team, and built out its plan to scale, the founders shared on the podcast. The team also shares its big-picture scale plans, which include tapping international partners to potentially take Milkify's tech global.

"Our vision is for every family to have access to breast milk formula, but instead of re-creating breast milk in a lab, we're doing it with mom's own milk," Silva says, mentioning a partnership with a breast milk bank that will convert its operation from freezing to freeze drying donated milk. "We're also working with groups in the UK and Australia to launch similar services using our patented technology."

"By the end of the year, we hope to see some announcements with those partnerships across the globe."

From the beginning, the importance of Milkify's team has been on supporting working parents to give them the best way to care for their families, Silva says. And for Luck — who says she's proud of the integrity Milkify has at its core despite competitors offering lower-quality and, in some cases, dangerous alternatives — she sees a lot of research benefits for the company.

"It's amazing to be at this leading edge, not just of innovation but of research, and to be able to still put out meaningful advances as an industry partner, not just as an academic," Luck says, adding that she hopes to be able to continue to contribute to the ongoing research into breast milk.

Luck and Silva share more about their Shark Tank experience, their co-founder strengths, and the future of Milkify on the podcast. Listen to the interview here — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Houston-based Milkify will pitch their freeze-drying breast milk concept on Shark Tank this Friday. Photo courtesy of Milkify

Houston startup with breast milk freeze-drying tech heads to Shark Tank

coming to a TV near you

A Houston startup is competing in the "Super Bowl of Business," as founder Pedro Silva calls it, and you can watch the action later this week.

Milkify will appear on ABC’s “Shark Tank” this Friday, April 7. Silva, co-founder and CEO, created Milkify along with his wife, Berkley Luck, PhD, in 2019. Today, Luck is a mom, COO, and a molecular biologist, but she had the idea for the company back in grad school. A coworker was struggling with pumping breast milk “lugging the pump back to work,” as Luck puts it.

Luck was studying probiotics at the time and was using a freeze-dryer in her work. The problem inspired her to create a process of freeze-drying breast milk that is now patent pending. The trademarked process is centered around SafeDry, special freeze-drying pouches.

“The breast milk never makes contact with our equipment,” Luck explains. The powdered milk is transferred directly from the bag in which it’s freeze-dried to the final packaging under sterile conditions. The result is not only shelf-stable, but keeps for at least three years, exponentially longer than frozen milk.

Silva admits that when Luck first pitched Milkify to him, he thought it was a crazy idea. “But Berkley is way smarter than I am. There must be something to it,” he realized. At the time, he was working in energy private equity. But he vowed that if they could find a viable path to making Milkify a business, he would join Luck full-time.

Early in the company’s life, the couple purchased a blue van that said “We will freeze-dry your breast milk,” recalls Silva. This grassroots marketing introduced them to a neighbor whose baby refused to drink her frozen milk. “He spat it out, he hated the taste,” Silva says. The pair freeze-dried her milk for the baby and their neighbor soon sent a video of the little one chugging six ounces of her rehydrated milk.

“That was the lightbulb moment,” says Silva. “How often do you get to work on something really meaningful?”

Since its founding, Milkify has freeze-dried and powdered more than half a million ounces of breast milk, all carefully preserved and packaged individually. Last October, Milkify opened what Luck claims is, “The only GMP-certified processing facility in the world right now specifically designed for freeze-drying breast milk.”

The 6,400-square-foot Houston space is a vast improvement from the previous 200-square-foot facility. That was thanks to raising $1.2 million in funds, which has also allowed them to build a larger staff.

“Our entire workforce at this point other than Pedro is moms,” says Luck. Including the couple, they are a team of 10, and just hired two additional members. They are currently looking to hire, says Silva, with roles including both operations and logistics associates. Experience, he says, is less important than conscientiousness and a good attitude, as they will train their new hires in-house.

And Milkify is about to receive more attention than ever with its appearance on “Shark Tank.” “Getting on a national stage to share our story was the main motivation for it,” says Luck. That translates to both education about the potential for freeze-drying breast milk, and about Milkify’s unique model.

“We started this business as a labor of love. It wasn’t just a financial reason,” says Silva. “This can actually help a lot of people. This is a way to spread the word.” And in the process, help countless moms and babies.

Berkley Luck and Pedro Silva — the wife and husband team behind Milkify — appear on Shark Tank this Friday. Photo courtesy of Milkify

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Houston investors back new platform for retail traders looking to follow financial influencers

making a splash

As anyone who witnessed the impact Gamestop's meme stock had on the country already realizes, influential investors can drive momentum within the financial sector. And one company with fresh funding from a Houston firm is betting on that exactly.

CashPool is a new mobile platform that gives everyday investors the opportunity to derive influence from the investment strategies and trades made by trusted and influential stock traders who have built substantial followings on social media platforms. By allowing retail traders the chance to join social media influencers’ various “pools” on its platform, CashPool is primed to change the way the masses acquire wealth.

This is the kind of algorithmic trading aimed at a new generation of investors that gets the attention of early-stage venture capital funds like Houston-based Ten X Labs, a pre-seed angel fund that recently invested in CashPool to help the trading platform continue its mission of transforming the investment landscape.

"We are thrilled to receive funding from Ten X Labs, as it validates our innovative approach to trading and investing," CashPool Founder and CEO Averett Barksdale says in a news release. "This investment will enable us to further enhance our platform, expand our user base and continue to revolutionize the industry. We believe that everyone should have transparent, governed access to profitable trading and investment opportunities, and through CashPool we are making that vision a reality."

Connecting the dots

CashPool is broker agnostic connector, allowing its users to keep their current brokers like Robinhood, Coinbase, Charles Schwab, Acorns, Fidelity, ETRADE, Stash, Sofi and Betterment and creates a seamless investment experience.

“We are that middle piece,” says Barksdale. “So your money stays on whatever brokerage you’ve connected to the platform, and we just execute the trades on your brokerage for you.”

Considering that users’ money remains with their original brokerage, how does CashPool monetize its platform?

“We don’t charge users to execute trades,” says Barksdale. “We charge per pool you join. So, on our platform, strategies are called pools and a user can join as many strategies as they want.”

Financial influencers set the strategies. These are profitable traders who have become influencers on various social media platforms and built-up followings comprised of people who are or are desiring to be retail traders themselves.

“There are a ton of people out there who actually are profitable traders,” says Barksdale. “Same as what we saw happen with GameStop and the whole Reddit situation. That was a financial influencer, right? It just so happens that he had a strategy that he thought would work and it turned out for a while it did work, right?

“We want to not only empower the retail trader, but empower these financial influencers who are profitable as well. Just because it's a whole marketplace out there for it. But a lot of times the retail trader doesn't quite understand who to go with. On our platform, you could see the results of these financial influencers right before your eyes on our platform. So you can see if they're profitable or not, or if someone's just on Instagram or whatever, social media platform posting screenshots but aren’t actually executing those trades.”

Increasing transparency

With trading, past success can be an arbiter for future performance, so with CashPool, users can choose to join the pools of influencers who have documented success as a trader on the platform.

“On our platform you can't hide,” says Barksdale. “We're connected to their brokerage account, so we see what trades they're making in real time. We also see their performance in real time, and we display that on the platform. That's something that you really can't get around. So if someone on Instagram says they traded this stock, then I made X amount of dollars and had this percentage of return, then you go to the platform and look at your pool and see they didn't do that and were lying the whole time, it’s literally just putting everything out there in the open. We have the kind of transparency that doesn't exist currently right now in the space.”

Broadcasting one’s successes is easy, but what about the losses?

“I thought it was going to be a lot more difficult just thinking, do people really want to show what they're doing?” says Barksdale. “But the thing that I've seen is a lot of these traders are a whole lot more competitive. And the traders who are doing it, they're constantly talking out against people who aren't actually doing it in real life.

“A lot of the traders who are actually profitable, they do live trades every day. But how do users if they should pay to get into a specific trader’s live trading session? Like, how do they know they're profitable already?

“On CashPool, users can see an actual influencer's win rate and say, 'Okay, 86 percent of the time they are profitable, and I could see how many trades they've made in total.' From that standpoint, users can make an educated decision on what pools to join and pay for.”

CashPool users can join as many pools as they see fit, but the cost of each pool’s membership may vary due to the popularity or success percentage rate of the financial influencer.

“You can join as many pools as you want, but what we suggest is you start by joining the pools of influencers that you already follow and trust, that you're already following like on Twitter or YouTube or Instagram or whatever it may be,” says Barksdale. “We are suggesting that you follow them first and you join their pools first. What we do is on the monetization side is we allow the creators on our platform who are the influencers to set their own price for their pool.”

Building a secure network

Outside of who or what to follow, information security is likely a concern for potential users. Financial influencers’ trade information is readily available (win percentages and number of trades, not dollar amounts), but users’ won’t be able to see other users’ information on the platform.

“Currently, we have a list of 10 brokerages who are on board, and then we're working to onboard more as we keep going on,” says Barksdale. “So, we have like your Interactive brokerages, and we also have a few other ones that are UK specific and Canada specific. We would love to have every single brokerage on the platform, but unfortunately, there are a couple that are still kind of playing hard to get, so to speak.”

The first rollout of CashPool is set, but version two will likely include content creation from the financial influencers.

Barksdale, who has a background in product development and experience working at companies like Charles Schwab and Fidelity, is mostly excited about the prospect of CashPool unlocking expert financial strategies for everyone, not just the financial advisors behind the closed doors of Wall Street.

“Yes, my philosophy is that financial health and financial growth should be accessible for all,” says Barksdale. “The thing that gets me is it needs to be responsible. So, for example, RobinHood is a platform that doesn't necessarily care if you are making responsible decisions, they just care that you're trading on that platform.

“Our platform is strictly focused on actually being the place where these retail traders can make responsible decisions centered around investing and trading.”

Tech companies contribute to recovery fund for those affected by Houston storm

helping hands

The past month in Houston has been marked by severe flooding and a sudden storm that left nearly a million residents without power. The Houston Disaster Alliance has established the Severe Weather and Derecho Recovery Fund to help those impacted by the weather.

“The Greater Houston Disaster Alliance was formed so that in times of crisis, there is a swift and efficient response to help those severely impacted begin the process of recovery,” said Stephen Maislin, president and CEO, Greater Houston Community Foundation. “When disaster strikes, it requires a collaborative and coordinated response from the nonprofit, for-profit, public sector, and philanthropic community to ensure the most vulnerable in our region get the help they need to start the recovery and rebuilding process.”

At least a million dollars has been donated to the fund, courtesy of $500,000 from the CenterPoint Energy Foundation and another $500,000 from Comcast. With Houston now a federally declared disaster area by President Joe Biden, impacted residents are able to apply for various grants and aid.

Those still struggling from the weather events should call the 211 Texas/United Way HELPLINE. Assistance is available for housing, utilities, food, elder assistance, and other areas. Crisis counseling is also available.

“Outside of times of disaster, we know that 14 percent of households in our region are struggling on income below the federal poverty line and 31 percent of households in our region are working hard but struggling to make ends meet. It’s these neighbors who are disproportionately impacted when disaster strikes,” said Amanda McMillian, president and CEO, United Way of Greater Houston. “This fund allows us to lift up the most vulnerable who have been impacted by recent weather events to ensure they can not only recover from the immediate crisis, but also prepare themselves for future disasters.”

The derecho storm that hit Houston on Thursday, May 16 had wind gusts up to 100mph. Nearly a million people in the Houston area were left without power, and as of Wednesday CenterPoint was still working to restore electricity to more than 60,000 people. Photos showed that the storm toppled massive power pylons, took down trees, and even ripped the sides off buildings. Miniature tornadoes touched down in parts of the city, adding to the devastation.

The Houston Disaster Alliance was launched in 2023 as a joint effort between the Greater Houston Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Houston to help mitigate the damage of weather crises year-round. This has become increasingly necessary as Houston's weather has become more unpredictable than ever.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.