Four Houston entrepreneurs have teamed up to create a program based on each of their expertise that provides a launch pad for aspiring startup founders. Getty Images

For some aspiring startup founders, the biggest thing holding them back is not knowing where to start. A group of former founders and mentors are teaming up to create that first step.

"A few months ago it struck me that maybe there was a gap in the market between the aspiring entrepreneur," says Steve Jennis, "and the accelerator or incubator program."

Jennis, who's a founder, consultant, and mentor in Houston, tapped a few of his fellow founder-mentors to create Founder's Compass, an online masterclass for people who have a business idea but don't know what to do next. Along with Jennis, founder of JCG and PrismTech, the program was created by Brittany Barreto, founder of Pheramor and Femtech Focus; Leela Madan, founder of Madan Law; and Catherine Brown, founder of ExtraBold Sales.

"We thought that the four of us could put together a masterclass comprising of four modules — each module relates to the skill set that we are individually bringing," Jennis tells InnovationMap. "All together, we're representing a framework for new entrepreneurs to get a kickstart to their business and help them with the next step of their journey — whatever that may be."

The four modules will be presented in virtual, interactive classes lasting three hours each and offered in two different ways each month. Students can register for a two-day option — six hours on a Friday followed by another six hours on a Saturday — or a four-week option — three hours on a weeknight once a week for four weeks.

The four modules will cover the following:

  • Validating your business concept and MVP product-market fit (led by Jennis)
  • Customer development, feedback, and target market definition (led Brown)
  • Protecting your intellectual property and managing your business risk (led by Madan)
  • Engaging with the innovation ecosystem and preparing to fundraise (led by Barreto)
Jennis says the program is not intended to be competitive with accelerators, rather Founder's Compass can act as a feeder into these programs. This is why, Jennis says, the masterclass is set up to be relatively cheap at $100 an hour — or $1,200 for the full program.
"We wanted something that was much more convenient, readily available, and easily affordable, so that's why we settled on the two-day or four-evening format to give people something that they didn't have to think about for months," Jennis says. "We saw an opportunity here — not just to be another accelerator — but to be something for people in the game."

Registration for Founder's Compass is open now for September and October, and participants who sign up before August 1 will receive half off — making the course just $600.

This week's set of who's who include a startup founder trying to change the world, a passionate PhD with a story of failure to tell, and a biomedical engineer enhancing health tech in Houston. Courtesy photos

3 Houston female innovators to know this week

who's who

Another set of female innovation leaders are making headlines as we move into another week of innovators to know.

This week's set of who's who include a startup founder trying to change the world, a passionate PhD with a story of failure to tell, and a biomedical engineer enhancing health tech in Houston.

Ana Carolina Rojas Bastidas, founder of Orolait

orolait

A Houston mom is working hard on her startup so that next summer, breastfeeding moms can swim in style and worry free. Courtesy of Orolait

On the surface, it may seem that Houston mom Ana Carolina Rojas Bastidas has a passion for fashion, as she's created and is fundraising for a new-mom specific line of swimwear. But really, she's on a mission to give breastfeeding women back their dignity with her startup, Orolait.

"I decided to build this company to challenge and change the way we depict one's breastfeeding journey," Bastidas says on the website. "I stand on the pillars of advocacy, education, and inclusion. You will see the sizing and advertising featuring all shapes, sizes, and shades because each of us is so different and that is what makes us so incredible and I am going to unapologetically celebrate that in the most ethical way I know how." Read the story.

Brittany Barreto, venture associate at Capital Factory

Brittany Barreto

Brittany Barreto founded the first nationwide DNA-based dating app, and she shares her story of its unexpected, and unavoidable, downfall. Photo courtesy of Pheramor

After dedicating three long years to her startup that began as an idea in college, Brittney Barreto is saying goodbye to Pheramor. Barreto explains how her DNA-based dating app got pulled from the Apple app store following policy changes, and how it left her with no choice but to shutter the operation.

Now, Barreto has big plans for funding femtech, and is learning a lot in her new role at Capital Factory. She's already able to do more for other founders and create a bigger impact.

"I realized that over the past two years, I had already been ad hoc coaching and mentoring founders and loving it," Barreto says. "Now, I was doing it and getting paid for it, on a bigger scale, and with more resources. I knew it was the journey I wanted to continue down." Read the full story.

Emily Reiser, senior manager of innovation community engagement at TMC

Emily Reiser

From robots and accelerator programs to her favorite health tech startups, Emily Reiser of the TMC Innovation Institute joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Emily Reiser

Emily Reiser has known for most of her life that she's wanted to work in health tech — in some capacity. On the Houston Innovators Podcast, she explains how she combined her early interest in health care with her affinity with engineering inspired by her parents.

Now, she continues to check both those boxes at the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute, which has evolved a ton over the past year.

"In 2019, we had a lot of big changes around our team and our leadership," she says on the podcast. "That enabled us to take a bigger breath and a bigger pause to say, 'How are we really doing? And how could we be doing better?'" Read the full story and stream the podcast.

Brittany Barreto founded the first nationwide DNA-based dating app, and she shares her story of its unexpected, and unavoidable, downfall. Photo courtesy of Pheramor

Exclusive: Promising Houston-born DNA dating startup shuts down; founder shares story

The Fall of Pheramor

When Brittany Baretto was 18 years old and sitting in an undergraduate genetics seminar, she raised her hand. She asked, to her professor's point, if particular DNA trait differences between two people can result in attraction, could she, based on that logic, make a DNA-based dating tool. With that question, she set in motion a series of events.

These events included teaming up with Bin Huang to start a dating app, called Pheramor, that factored in user DNA; raising millions for the company; hiring a team from across the country; and signing up users in all 50 states. Though, Pheramor's hockey stick growth came to a sudden stop this year when Apple pulled the app from its store, and there was nothing the founders or their investors could do about it.

"They are gatekeepers in innovation," Barreto learned the hard way.

InnovationMap recently spoke with Barreto to discuss the rise and fall of Pheramor and lessons learned.

Launching the first nationwide DNA-based dating app

Barreto mulled over the idea for the company through college and through her genetics PhD program before starting the company in 2017.

"I actually formed the C-Corp the same month that Accenture put out its report on Houston needing more attention on its startups and innovation," she says. "I didn't know about that report. I was really lucky with Pheramor to ride the wave of Houston growing its startup community."

She went on to fundraise $1.3 million, and, at its height, Pheramor had 10 employees working out of WeWork in the Galleria. Pheramor was the first nationwide DNA-based dating app, and for that she will always be proud, Barreto says.

"We were growing something not necessarily unicorn status growth, but we were doing something really different," she says. "And we knew we were growing something valuable. At our peak, we had 250 downloads a day."

Venture capitalists were taking note, Barreto says, and she was on her way to closing another round — this time for $2.2 million.

Getting the call

In March, Barreto and Huang attended Enventure's bioventure pitch event, where, just three years prior, the duo had pitched and won thousands of dollars. It was a real turning point, Barreto remembers.

Earlier that day, they had seen some issues with Apple's app store and filed a service request. As she left the event, Barreto's phone rang, and it was an Apple representative explaining that the Pheramor app had been pulled from the store. New rules for the App Store had been set in place — rules that forbid dating apps from procuring DNA samples from users.

Once the DNA element was removed from the app, Pheramor would be allowed back on, Barreto was told.

"That was our differentiator," she says. "That was the thing that made us Pheramor."

For the next three weeks, Barreto called every app reviewer at Apple and challenged each "no" she got.

"I had that internal founder drive. I was like, 'No, I just need to talk to someone. I'm going to hustle around this.'"

Her request went to the very top, before receiving one final, inarguable "No."

Barreto knows why Apple instituted the new policy — biohackers are the newest cyber threat in the world. But she was being dragged through the ringer while watching her startup slowly slip away, and the anonymous Apple employees on the other end of the phone had no sympathy for her inner turmoil.

"It felt like they just kept reading a script," she says, adding that it was the most painful experience for her. "The insensitivity of the app review people was salt in the wound."

Throwing a Hail Mary

The Pheramor app was still live on Google, Barreto says, but with only 10 percent of the market, and data showing that Android users are historically non-buyers, she knew she had to pivot.

Huang and his team turned around an idea for a couples' compatibility test based on DNA, and WeHaveChemistry.com was born. Barreto tapped an acclaimed relationship expert, Laura Berman, as a strategic adviser. She made a deal with her board — if they could sell 100 of these kits in 60 days, they'll make new goals and keep the testing live.

Barreto says they sold some, but ultimately in June, after not meeting that goal, she suggested to the board the company should sell its assets, if possible, to help pay back her investors.

While the investors of Pheramor's $2.2 million round had pulled out at this point, Pheramor still had $100,000 in the bank. Barreto says she budgeted about $30,000 to legally close the company. At this point, she had laid off her staff, and it was down to the co-founders. Both got new jobs — Huang is now the head data scientist at Houston-based BrainCheck, and Barreto joined Capital Factory as its Houston-based venture associate.

Since Barreto was actively trying to sell the assets, she kept quiet about Pheramor's downfall. While she had some interest, ultimately, people told her the technology was too complicated or that they wouldn't buy unless Barreto came with the company.

"I realized that over the past two years, I had already been ad hoc coaching and mentoring founders and loving it," Barreto says. "Now, I was doing it and getting paid for it, on a bigger scale, and with more resources. I knew it was the journey I wanted to continue down."

Lessons thoroughly learned

Barreto's past six months have been a rollercoaster, to say the least. Losing Pheramor felt like an identity crisis for her.

"I was very personally involved with the brand," she says. "So when Pheramor was gone, it was like, 'Who am I?'"

She had to keep most of her inner turmoil hidden from the startup community, especially since she was trying to sell Pheramor's assets. She battled an eating disorder and lost chunks of her hair, all the while she felt like she had to keep a smile on her face.

"As a female founder, I felt so much pressure to win. It felt like stakes were higher for me," Barreto says. "I felt really nervous to let my insides show."

She did find a few entrepreneurs that helped to guide her with their own perspective and careers, and Barreto says she leaned on her lawyer, Nicole Moss, a Houston-area startup lawyer, to help talk her through things. One surprising confidant was one of her investors, Jack Gill.

Barreto remembers meeting with Gill and thinking she was about to have to apologize for losing a ton of his money, but instead, he hugged her and congratulated on her first failure — that Pheramor's demise made her a real entrepreneur.

"His pride was a big turning point for me. I realized, 'Wow, this is really a jumping off point,'" she says.

This, of course, was directly contrasted by other investor's extreme disappointment. In the end, Barreto paid back investors by about 5 percent. She also realized the difference of working with investors who are new to the process.

"I learned a lesson of taking money from people who are not experienced investors will cause you headaches along the way," she says.

What's next? Funding femtech.

These investor lessons learned are especially important to Barreto, who wants her next startup to be a venture fund focused on empowering the marginalized entrepreneurs — female founders, the LGBT community, minorities, etc.

"I want to be someone of influence for social good," she says. "This crazy idea I had for a dating app was just a way to propel me to becoming that person. I felt like it did that."

Flipping to the other side of the investor table is appealing to Barreto, because she feels like she's able to make more of an impact.

"What I learned from Pheramor is I put all my eggs in one basket, and something happened and all my eggs broke," she says. "As a VC, you put your eggs in lots of baskets. If I want to make big change, I can probably do that more effectively if I'm empowering 20 different companies instead of doing only one thing."

Her idea is to raise a femtech fund that invests in startups and entrepreneurs with products or services within women's health.

"For me, as long as you're working on a technology that improves women's health and wellness, I want to invest in you," she says.

It's taken her a long time to get to this point, but ultimately, Barreto has realized that she did everything she could do, and she's better for this journey — no matter how rough it is. More importantly to Barreto, she sees this as an opportunity to share her story of failure — though, she wishes there were a better word for it — so that other entrepreneurs don't feel so alone in the process. She hopes that Pheramor's legacy can fill that need.

"We need to get comfortable with failure and support each other in the journey," she says.

This week's innovators to know are all tech entrepreneurs with big ideas. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

From the science of love to confusing cryptocurrency, this week's Houston innovators to know are dabbling in some interesting industries to say the least.

Corey Allen, founder of Ecotone and treasurer of the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber

Corey Allen had entrepreneurialism in his blood — but it wasn't until he got involved with the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber that he got the courage to break out on his own. Courtesy of Corey Allen

This week's Pride Month feature is Corey Allen, who has an amazing storing into entrepreneurialism. He found confidence and encouragement from joining the LGBT chamber and started his own business. Now, he helps lead the organization as treasurer. Click here to read his Q&A with InnovationMap.

Brittany Barreto, CEO and co-founder of WeHaveChemistry

Brittany Barreto has expanded her DNA dating technology to a compatibility company named We Have Chemistry. Courtesy of WeHaveChemistry

As Brittany Barreto was working to use science to find singles love, she fielded many requests from couples who wanted in on the DNA compatibility tool she created. The requests kept coming in and now, Barreto has pivoted her dating app, Pheramor, to a new compatibility concept called WeHaveChemistry. Click here to read the full story.

Spencer Randall, principal and co-founder of CryptoEQ

Cryptocurrency doesn't have to be a big, confusing risk with this Houston startup's technology. Courtesy of CryptoEQ

Spencer Randall, through his new company CryptoEQ, wants to simplify ratings and analysis in cryptocurrency, which historically has been confusing and approachable to most. With the company's beta now live, Randall hopes that those not familiar with cryptocurrency will be able to use the platform as a learning tool. The platform takes information on trending cryptocurrency and boils it down into three columns — rating, technical analysis and trend analysis — in order for users to know when to buy or sell. Read the full story here.

Brittany Barreto has expanded her DNA dating technology to a compatibility company named We Have Chemistry. Courtesy of WeHaveChemistry

Houston entrepreneur pivots from DNA dating to a compatibility program for couples

The science of love

As Brittany Barreto was developing and promoting her DNA-based dating app, Pheramor, that can establish compatibility in prospective couples using a certain string of genetics, she made some couples very jealous. While not single, they wanted to know the compatibility they have with their partner.

"For every single we connected with through Pheramor, there were at least three couples that wanted to complete the DNA swab to find out their compatibility," she says in a news release.

Now, Barreto and her team, which now includes acclaimed relationship expert Laura Berman, have developed WeHaveChemistry, a series of tests and DNA analysis that can give couples a look at their compatibility. And, WeHaveChemistry has taken it a step further to include more than just DNA in the report.

"The team is very excited about WeHaveChemistry," says Barreto in the release. "We've done our research and carefully crafted two reports: the socioemotional analysis and the DNA report. All couples will receive both reports to analyze their physical and emotional chemistry—which we refer to as their 'Love Alchemy."

The results aren't categorized as good or bad, and there's no score determined for couples — the findings are meant to be used to enhance the relationship and as a guide for navigating the trials and tribulations that often come with monogamy.

"The most important way for couples to ensure that their relationship stays strong is to both play to their strengths and to be honest and curious about their areas for growth," says Berman in the release. "We all have areas where we need to stretch a little, both as partners and as people, and couples can apply the findings of the SEA to their relationships and begin growing right away. In addition, the SEA identifies where we are strongest, what we should celebrate and honor, and the areas which we can rely on as a firm foundation when times get tough."

The process goes as follows:

  • Couples complete the DNA kit.
  • Each person takes the socioemotional analysis quiz, which analyzes emotional intimacy, physical connection, purpose, and future vision. The quiz will identify the person's strengths.
  • Each person receive their DNA report, which assesses sexual chemistry based on genetics.
  • The two aspects — the DNA report and the quiz results — are combined to predict and guide chemistry.

The way genetics affects attraction is completely subconscious and instinctual, dating back to primitive times.

"The science behind attraction based on your DNA is that people are attracted to one another when their immune systems are different — opposites attract is biologically true," Barreto says in a previous InnovationMap article. "When we were cavewomen and cavemen, we didn't know who was our uncle and who was our cousin, so we used our nose to figure out who is genetically diverse compared to us. If you're genetically diverse, then you're probably not my relative, and therefore we'd have healthier children."

Of course, nowadays, there are many more factors that go into compatibility and both Pheramor and WeHaveChemistry have included that in their assessments.

Swabbing for love

Courtesy of WeHaveChemistry

The DNA kit has swabs and information for two people and is sent through the mail.




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Early-stage accelerator returns to Houston, announces finalists

prepare for take-off

CodeLaunch, a traveling seed-stage accelerator, is returning to Houston for its latest cohort.

The startup competition sponsored by software development company Improving will have its ultimate showdown on February 28. The final competition pairs six startups with six startup consulting companies.

Jason W. Taylor, CodeLaunch president and founder, says CodeLaunch isn’t your typical startup showcase, as it incorporates music acts, comedy, and crowd networking. Mirroring the set-up of a TV show, the six finalists all present their working products in front of an audience amid these performances.

“I would describe CodeLaunch as the next generation of venture-tainment in North America and the greatest startup show on earth,” Taylor explains.

The 2024 Houston CodeLaunch participant startups — and their mentor partners — are as follows:

Prior to pitch day, all six teams will receive hands-on instruction from CodeLaunch mentors on how to construct their pitches and free professional software development from their partners. Taylor says the strong relationships between CodeLaunch and these developers played a major role in setting the competition in Houston.

“We love Houston and we’re back for a third year in a row because the Houston startup ecosystem works together better than other major startup ecosystems I’ve seen,” Taylor says. “We have some great software development partners in Houston that are building code for those startups.”

Last year, Houston-based startup Energy360, with the mentorship and help of Honeycomb Software, took home the Championship belt and a $100,000 investment offer from Cyrannus VC fund for their energy management system Matt Bonasera, Energy360’s enterprise architect, says he is grateful for the entrepreneurial community CodeLaunch provides, in particular the team’s mentor Oleg Lysiak, Honeycomb VP of Partnerships and Business Development.

“I happened along this great community of people who are really passionate about supporting each other,” Bonasera says.

Lysiak agrees that CodeLaunch is an ideal opportunity for young entrepreneurs looking to hone their skills and expand their product capabilities. Lysiak says he is looking forward to defending Honeycomb’s title as top consultant development team.

“My whole philosophy is to connect people and have different collisions and collaborations,” Lysiak says.

Houston startup completes testing, prepares biosimilar insulin drug for clinical trials

next steps

A Houston biotech startup is one step closer to releasing its marquee drug for the global insulin market, which is projected to break the $90 billion threshold by 2029.

rBIO says it recently completed testing of the properties of R-biolin, an insulin drug that’s biologically identical to Novo Nordisk’s Novolin drug. The patent for Novolin about two decades ago. In March 2023, the Dutch drugmaker announced it was slashing the list price of Novolin by 65 percent to $48.20 per vial and $91.09 per FlexPen.

Executives at rBIO are now pursuing a partnership with a contract research organization to manage clinical trials of R-biolin. If those trials go well, R-biolin will seek approval to supply its insulin therapy to diabetes patients around the world.

Washington University in St. Louis is rBIO’s academic partner for the R-biolin project.

The rBIO platform produces insulin at greater yields that traditional manufacturing techniques do. The company is striving to drive down the cost of insulin by 30 percent.

About 38 million Americans have diabetes, with the vast majority being treated for type 2 diabetes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many people with diabetes must take insulin to control their blood sugar levels.

Research company iHealthcareAnalyst predicts the global market for insulin will surpass the $90 billion mark in 2029.

“There has been a lot of talk in the media about reducing the cost of insulin for diabetic patients, but what is often overlooked is that the domestic demand for insulin will soon outpace the supply, leading to a new host of issues,” Cameron Owen, co-founder and CEO of rBIO, says in a news release.

“We’re dedicated to addressing the growing demand for accessible insulin therapies, and … we’re thrilled to announce the viability of our highly scalable manufacturing process.”

Professionals from the University of California San Diego and Johns Hopkins University established rBIO in 2020. The startup moved its headquarters from San Diego to Houston in 2022.

CEO Cameron Owen and Chief Scientific Officer Deenadayalan Bakthavatsalam work on insulin purification in the Houston lab. Photo courtesy

How AI is changing product management and what you need to know

guest column

For the past 14 months, everyone has been talking about ways artificial intelligence is changing the world, and product management is not an exception. The challenge, as with every new technology, is not only adopting it but understanding what old habits, workflows, and processes are affected by it.

Product managers — as well as startup founders leading a product function — more than any other role, face a challenge of bringing new life-changing products to market that may or may not be received well by their users. A product manager’s goal is complex — bring value, stay ahead of the competition, be innovative. Yet, the "behind the scenes" grind requires endless decision making and trade offs to inspire stakeholders to move forward and deliver.

As we dive into 2024, it is obvious that AI tools do not only transform the way we work but also help product managers create products that exceed customer expectation and drive businesses forward.

Market research and trends analysis

As product managers, we process enormous amounts of market data — from reviewing global and industry trend analysis, to social media posts, predictions, competition, and company goals. AI, however, can now replace hours, if not days, of analyzing massive amounts of data in an instant, revealing market trends, anticipating needs, and foreseeing what's coming next. As a result, it is easier to make effective product decisions and identify new market opportunities.

Competitive analysis

Constantly following competitors, reviewing their new releases, product updates, or monitoring reviews to identify competitor strengths and weaknesses is an overwhelming and time consuming task. With AI, you can quickly analyze competitors’ products, pricing, promotions, and feedback. You can easily compare multiple attributes, including metrics, and identify gaps and areas for improvement — all the insights that are otherwise much harder to reveal quickly and efficiently.

Customer and product discovery

Of course, the most intuitive use case that comes to mind is the adoption of AI in product and customer discovery. For example:

  • Use AI for customer segmentation and persona creation to help visualize personas, prioritize user motivations and expectations, and uncover hidden behavior and needs. You can then create and simplify customer questionnaires for interviews and user groups and target customers more accurately.
  • Analyze quantitative and qualitative data from surveys, support tickets, reviews, and in-person interviews to identify pain points and unmet user needs and help prioritize features for future updates and releases.

Roadmap and sprint management

AI provides value in simplifying roadmap planning and sprint management. Resource optimization is often a gruesome task and AI can help with feature prioritization and resource allocation. It helps teams focus on critical work and increase their productivity. You can even analyze and manage dependencies and improve results across multiple sprints months in advance.

Prototyping and mockup generation

There is no product manager’s routine without multiple mockups, wireframes, and prototypes that explain concepts and collect feedback among stakeholders. AI has become a critical tool in simplifying this process and bringing ideas to life from concept to visualization.

Today, you can use textual or voice descriptions to instantly create multiple visuals with slight variations, run A/B tests and gather valuable feedback at the earliest stage of a product life cycle.

Job search and job interviews

Consider it as a bonus but one of the less obvious but crucial advantages of AI is using it in job search. With the vulnerable and unstable job market, especially for product roles, AI is a valuable assistant. From getting the latest news and updates on a company you want to join, to summarizing insights on the executive team, or company goals, compiling lists of interview questions, and running mock interviews, AI has become a non-judgmental assistant in a distressing and often discouraging job search process.

Use AI to draft cold emails to recruiters and hiring managers, compare your skills to open positions’ requirements, identify gaps, and outline ideas for test assignments.

We already know that AI is not a hype; it is here to stay. However, remember that customers do not consume AI, they consume your product for its value. Customers care whether your product gets their need, solves their problem, and makes their lives easier. The goal of a product manager is to create magic combining human brain capabilities and latest technology. And the best result is with a human at the core of any product.

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Natasha Gorodetsky is the founder and CEO of Product Pursuits, a Houston company that helps early stage and venture-backed startups build products and create impact.