Houston innovators find 'perfect storm' for fintech and marketing platform

Houston innovators podcast episode 129

RepeatMD's CEO Phil Sitter and Vice President of Sales Chris Chomenko join the Houston Innovators Podcast to explain how they are revolutionizing the aesthetics industry. Photos courtesy

Phil Sitter saw fast growth and adoption from his restaurant rewards platform he founded in 2019, but when the pandemic hit, he had to go back to the drawing board to find a growing industry that needed to be disrupted by his technology. And he did.

Sitter, a Houston restaurateur, originally founded VIPInsiders to help his restaurants — and later, licensing the technology out, other Houston eateries too — reward loyal patrons who continue to come in. However, in 2020, Sitter considered a pivot.

"We realized the restaurant industry may never be the same, and we asked ourselves who could be an ideal client," Sitter says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

This pivot ended up creating RepeatMD, a customizable marketing and fintech platform focused on the aesthetics industry, which includes plastic surgeons, dermatologists, etc.

Sitter, who serves as the company's CEO, says once he dived into learning about the industry, he found out these types of business are seeing incredible growth following the pandemic.

"They call it the 'Zoom boom' — everyone saw themselves on Zoom daily and decided to invest in themselves and their facial treatments." says Chris Chomenko, vice president of sales for the company.

"And they had the time," Sitter adds. "When you think about aesthetic procedures — whether its invasive or non-invasive, it takes time for recovery."

After initially branching out into the field, Sitter says they are now onboarding up to 200 new locations a month, providing med spas around the world the ability to reward returning customers, as well as inform them on the breadth of options the facility offers. RepeatMD has expanded its team to 50 people and is eyeing seed funding this summer.

"Some things had to work out perfectly in order," Chomenko says, "for this perfect storm of perfect timing. Whenever you talk about entrepreneurs and how much of it was luck and how much of it is hard work, we really have attribute a lot of our success to being there with the right idea, in the right place, at the right time."

Sitter and Chomenko share more about the future of RepeatMD on the podcast episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Philipp Sitter of RepeatMD, Abbey Donnell of Work & Mother, and Chris Howard of Softeq. 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 software— recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Philipp Sitter, founder of RepeatMD

RepeatMD offers its clients rewards-based software and is expanding with a new fintech tool. Photo via LinkedIn

Ever the entrepreneur, Philipp Sitter saw an opportunity to equip health service professionals with marketing tools. RepeatMD, founded in December 2020, specializes in white-label rewards apps for plastic surgeons, medical spas, dermatologists, and similar businesses. Now, it's expanding into the "buy now, pay later" fintech realm through a new deal with BTL Industries, a Marlborough, Massachusetts-based provider of body-sculpting equipment.

Through these services, Sitter sees his company being a one-stop-shop for this type of tech.

"We see us becoming ubiquitous in the industry, where anybody that's a dermatologist, a plastic surgeon, or a medical spa has [our app]," Sitter says. Click here to read more.

Abbey Donnell, founder and CEO of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell, founder of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell created a service before employers even knew they needed it. Courtesy of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell knows she's doing something different. Her company, Work & Mother, builds out and runs lactation suites as an amenity to office buildings.

"We're in a strange niche of the industry. We don't really fall completely into a real estate bucket and we don't fall completely into a tech bucket," Donnell says. "It makes finding investors who really understand what we're doing a little bit trickier."

Despite these challenges, the company has grown and is even eyeing a national expansion. Click here to read more.

Chris Howard, CEO and founder of Softeq

A Houston software company has announced the five early-stage startups it will be supporting through its new venture studio. Photo courtesy of Softeq

A lasting tech ecosystem requires successful tech entrepreneurs to give back to the next generation of new businesses. Chris Howard knows that, and it's why his company, Softeq Development Corporation, announced its inaugural cohort for the Softeq Venture Studio. The program, which will be offered quarterly for four to six startups each cohort, is geared at helping its resident startups quickly develop their technology and build their businesses.

"Historically, most tech startups had a founder with development skills. However, we're now seeing more and more business people, doctors, and other professionals start companies, and they need a strong engineering partner to develop their products," says Christopher A. Howard, Softeq founder and CEO, in a news release.

"We take it several steps further with the Venture Studio providing technology business consulting, development services, and much-needed cash. We're a vested partner, so we also help secure follow-on funding for continued growth," he continues. Click here to read more.

RepeatMD offers its clients rewards-based software and is expanding with a new fintech tool. Photo via Getty Images

Fast-growing Houston software startup expands with fintech model

innovative marketing

A less than one-year-old B2B software startup in Houston is beefing up its offerings with a new feature that thrusts it into the rapidly growing fintech space.

RepeatMD, founded in December 2020, specializes in white-label rewards apps for plastic surgeons, medical spas, dermatologists, and similar businesses. Now, it's expanding into the "buy now, pay later" fintech realm through a new deal with BTL Industries, a Marlborough, Massachusetts-based provider of body-sculpting equipment.

RepeatMD's new Medical Gym function enables customers treated with BTL equipment to finance add-on enhancement and maintenance packages through "buy now, pay later" (BNPL) arrangements. BNPL is a booming sector. The size of the global BNPL market approached $90.7 billion in 2020 and is projected to come close to $4 trillion by 2030, according to Allied Market Research.

RepeatMD essentially layers the Medical Gym's BNPL functionality on top of the rewards feature of its apps.

Chris Chomenko, vice president of sales at RepeatMD, says the startup already had been working on a BNPL offering when BTL approached the RepeatMD team about creating a BNPL product. RepeatMD and BTL share many of the same clients.

"We are rolling out with them nationally at a breakneck speed because the demand they have from their client base is so high," Chomenko says. "It's kind of forcing us to do in three months what we planned on doing in three years."

While the concept of a rewards app or a BNPL program is not unique, their pairing is, according to Chomenko. Sitter calls the marriage of the two a "game changer" — a game changer that eventually should extend well beyond BTL's clients.

RepeatMD founder and CEO Philipp Sitter says the Medical Gym feature lets customers break up the cost of, say, a $5,000 treatment into management monthly payments. The results of a survey of RepeatMD app users found that the guilt of putting down a wad of cash on aesthetics services was the No. 2 barrier cited in terms of spending money on treatments.

"What we'll be working on is being a full, proper fintech play, where we have that buy now, pay later functionality, and doctors can get paid in advance for treatments. But that is a large endeavor that will take us all of a year to [complete]," Chomenko says.

RepeatMD counts more than 600 practices in North America as customers. The startup envisions that figure rising to 1,000 by the end of this year. In tandem with that growth, RepeatMD foresees revenue climbing to eight figures (at least $10 million) by the end of 2022 and its valuation growing to nine figures (at least $100 million) by then.

Today, RepeatMD employs about 30 people. Sitter says the headcount should reach 75 to 100 by the end of next year.

Sitter is self-funding RepeatMD with proceeds from other business ventures, including Houston-based food and beverage loyalty and rewards platform VIPinsiders and Houston-based brunch and lunch restaurant EggHaus Gourmet. However, RepeatMD plans to raise outside capital in the first quarter of 2022.

The company sets up each client with an exclusive private-label app. RepeatMD says businesses using its app have seen an average sales increase of $313,000 and an average of 51 new referrals within the first 90 days of adopting the app.

Sitter says the RepeatMD rewards app provides a "gateway" for businesses to drum up repeat business and sell more services, much like the Starbucks rewards app incentivizes customers to try different food and beverage products.

"We see us becoming ubiquitous in the industry, where anybody that's a dermatologist, a plastic surgeon, or a medical spa has [our app]," Sitter says.

"We look at mobile app experience as something that's coming for all the local businesses. We're just the frontrunners in bringing it to the masses," he adds.

Philipp Sitter is the founder of RepeatMD. Photo via LinkedIIn

This week's innovators to know in Houston includes Ayse McCracken of Ignite Healthcare Network, Philipp Sitter of VIPinsiders, and Diane Yoo of Medingenii. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In today's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators — from health care investing to marketing technology — all making headlines in Houston this week.

Ayse McCracken, founder and board chair of Ignite Healthcare Network

Ayse McCracken joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss women in health care and Ignite Madness. Photo courtesy of Ignite

When the pandemic hit and shut down businesses across the world, Ayse McCracken knew immediately what group of people were likely going to be the most affected: Women in health care. It just so happens that her nonprofit organization, Ignite Healthcare Network, exists to serve this same group of people, so she got to work on creating online events that were intentional and meaningful.

"With COVID, it has only escalated the importance of our work, so we've elevated our voices through our webinar series," McCracken says on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast.

This week, Ignite's virtual startup competition concludes with the finals. She shares more about the program and Ignite's mission on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Philipp Sitter, founder of VIPinsiders

Restaurateur Philipp Sitter launched VIPinsiders last year. Photo courtesy of VIPinsiders

Restaurants have undoubtedly suffered due to loss of business during the shutdown, but they face an uphill battle back to normalcy, and restaurateur Philipp Sitter knew his tech tool could help. He created VIPinsiders as a marketing tool to reach customers in a data-driven way.

"The restaurant gets to know me [the customer], it understands how often I visit, it also gets to reward my visitation," explains Sitter. "Most importantly, it reminds me to come back when I haven't visited in a while."

Data recorded by VIPinsiders shows that 48 percent of users visit restaurants with the platform "more often" in the first 90 days. Click here to read more.

Diane Yoo, managing partner at Medingenii

Diane Yoo, who was hospitalized due to COVID-19 earlier this year, created a VC fund that's investing in health tech solutions for the disease. Photo courtesy of Medingenii

Just a few weeks after being hospitalized from COVID-19, Diane Yoo was investing in a medical device startup that could have made a world of difference to her recovery. After closing its initial fund, Medingenii invested in several Houston health startups including Vitls, a wearable device that can track and send vitals remotely.

"The pandemic has really validated some of the business models we're invested in," she tells InnovationMap.

Now, fueled by her first round of success and eager to advance other life-changing technologies, Yoo is looking toward a second fund. Click here to read more.

A Houston restaurateur and tech founder is giving the food and restaurant business a new marketing opportunity with VIPinsiders. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Houston entrepreneur's mobile platform brings gains to small restaurant chains

tapping into tech

Food is the way to a Houstonian's heart. With critically-acclaimed cuisine and an abundance of diversity, Houston is the South's culinary pride. COVID-19 has now stirred uncertainty in a once definitive piece of the city's culture, and restaurateurs are looking for solutions. For Philipp Sitter, CEO of VIPinsiders, artificial intelligence is a step in the right direction.

Sitter holds many titles: CEO of KB Restaurant Group, President of EggHaus and King's Bierhaus — and now, tech founder. In 2019 he launched VIPinsiders, "a rewards program that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to understand the customer on an individual journey," he explains.

"I was born into the restaurant industry," says Sitter, as he remarks on immigrating from Vienna as a child and opening the first King's Biergarten in Pearland in 2011. As a fifth-generation restaurateur, he is familiar with "the love and pain of the industry." When he took on the challenge of marketing his family's "obscure German restaurant behind a car wash in Pearland," he became "obsessed" with the trade.

Philipp Sitter launched VIPinsiders last year. Photo courtesy of VIPinsiders

After building excitement around EggHaus, the Instagrammable haven that's attracted both breakfast lovers and influencers, Sitter wanted to find a way to build the same buzz at his other restaurants using technology.

Going mobile

From Starbucks Rewards' gold stars to Chick-Fil-A One, reward programs have been tested and utilized by the Goliaths of the restaurant industry for years.

When looking at the cost of building a mobile app like Starbucks, he determined it to be impossible.

"We're talking about millions that go into developing technology. What restaurant is going to be able to afford something like that?" he asked.

The plan soon crystallized: Sitter decided to create a mobile platform that uses AI to personalize unique offers and experiences for customers while taking the responsibility from the shoulders of restaurant owners with smaller, multi-unit concepts. By developing and scaling the mobile platform by providing its services to other businesses, "then it would all of the sudden become affordable for everybody," he realized.

Deciding to create a mobile platform was the easy part.

"I wasn't born with the emotion of fear in business," shares Sitter, who has dabbled in obscure endeavors from washing cars to flipping classic cars on eBay.

After formulating the VIPinsiders concept, he hired a team of developers to "use the psychology of everything I've learned in marketing and put it into a technology platform," he explains.

The user experience

Each client gets a tailor-made approach, ensuring the rewards and loyalty features are made to fit the restaurant. The VIPinsiders staff builds custom mobile platforms for its small and medium-sized restaurant chain clients that utilize the restaurant's branding, menus and events for $299 per month.

"We got through a discovery call in which our team will actually build the rewards journey for them and show it to the business owner for approval," explains Sitter, "We don't want to give the owners and managers a homework assignment."

Once the platform is approved, Sitter's team trains restaurant owners. In-house copywriters and designers then develop print material for the restaurant to cross-promote the rewards program.

According to VIPinsiders' internal data, 95 percent of users find the app "easy to use." Using QR technology, customers can sign up by scanning a QR code rather than downloading an app.

"The restaurant gets to know me [the customer], it understands how often I visit, it also gets to reward my visitation," explains Sitter. Rather than a one-size-fits-all reward program, the platform is meant to showcase different menu items and offerings.

"Most importantly, it reminds me to come back when I haven't visited in a while."

Data recorded by VIPinsiders shows that 48 percent of users visit restaurants with the platform "more often" in the first 90 days.

Text message marketing 

When stay-at-home orders first took effect in Harris County, many business owners could not update their business hours or post new content on the Google My Business platform due to the site's halted review process during COVID-19.

The issue left business owners with one less form of contact, creating a vulnerability in customer communication. Social media marketing doesn't quite come to the rescue either, with Facebook's algorithm showing an average of 5.5 percent of a brand's following will see its post.

To Sitter, text messaging is "the next frontier."

Due to COVID-19, VIPinsiders recently ran a promotion to provide free platform use and unlimited text capabilities for a limited time to restaurants. "We've gotten a lot of incredible emails and feedback saying thank you for letting us use this and helping us [get] back our business," says Sitter.

"It's time for all of us to take our power back, to own our customer [data] and be able to talk with them directly and not have to pay the middleman [like social media companies] and really have the relationship that customer opted in for," says Sitter.

As one of the first mobile platforms approved by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, restaurant clients can extend happy hour offerings and provide customers with free alcoholic beverages.

At King's Bierhaus, Sitter was able to deploy an alcohol-to-go offer via text message that resulted in $40,000 of bottled King's Whiskey sold.

"I was able to sell that because I was able to text my customers directly," Sitter says.

Clients outside of Sitter's own properties also see growth. Ninety-three percent of restaurants using the VIPinsiders platform reported an increase in sales.

"I would absolutely recommend other operators to sign up for VIPinsiders because it has increased our sales, our guests love it, and the support we get from them makes it effortless," explains Usman Dhanani, President of Operations for Cyclone Anaya's Tex-Mex Kitchen, in a VIPinsiders testimonial video.

El Toro, a Mexican restaurant chain with six Texas locations, generated an estimated additional $735,000 in sales with a total of more than 35,000 additional customer visits, according to VIPinsiders data.

"The biggest brands in the world and celebrities lead a charge into marketing initiatives," says Sitter, "A company like ours will bring that to small businesses and make it affordable for them so they can compete at the highest level."

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Houston college system plans to open $30M resiliency-focused center

to the rescue

Houston’s initiative to protect the city from catastrophes is getting a big boost from Houston Community College.

The college is developing the Resilience Center of Excellence to aid the city’s resilience campaign. At the heart of this project is the 65,000-square-foot, $30 million Resiliency Operations Center, which will be built on a five-acre site HCC’s Northeast campus. The complex is scheduled to open in 2024.

HCC estimates the operations center will train about 3,000 to 4,000 local first responders, including police officers and firefighters, during the first three years of operation. They’ll be instructed to prepare for, manage, and respond to weather, health and manmade hazards such as hurricanes, floods, fires, chemical spills, and winter freezes.

According to The Texas Tribune, the operations center will include flood-simulation features like a 39-foot-wide swift water rescue channel, a 15-foot-deep dive area, and a 100-foot-long “rocky gorge” of boulders.

The college says the first-in-the-nation Resilience Center of Excellence will enable residents, employers, civic organizations, neighborhoods, and small businesses to obtain education and certification aimed at improving resilience efforts.

“Our objective is to protect the well-being of our citizens and our communities and increase economic stability,” Cesar Maldonado, chancellor of HCC, said when the project was announced.

Among the programs under the Resiliency Center of Excellence umbrella will be non-credit courses focusing on public safety and rescue, disaster management, medical triage, and debris removal.

Meanwhile, the basic Resilience 101 program will be available to businesses and community organizations, and the emergency response program is geared toward individuals, families, and neighborhoods.

HCC’s initiative meshes with the City of Houston’s Resilient Houston, a strategy launched in 2020 that’s designed to protect Houston against disasters. As part of this strategy, the city has hired a chief resilience and sustainability officer, Priya Zachariah.

“Every action we take and investment we make should continue to improve our collective ability to withstand the unexpected shocks and disruptions when they arrive — from hurricanes to global pandemics, to extreme heat or extreme cold,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said last year. “The time is now to stop doing things the way we’ve always done them because the threats are too unpredictable.”

In an InnovationMap guest column published in February 2021, Richard Seline, co-founder of the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub, wrote that the focus of resilience initiatives should be pre-disaster risk mitigation.

“There is still work to be done from a legislative and governmental perspective, but more and more innovators — especially in Houston — are proving to be essential in creating a better future for the next historic disaster we will face,” Seline wrote.

Houston startup equips medical teams with data-driven hiring tool

staffing up

A surgeon spends over a decade in school and residency perfecting their medical skills, but that education doesn't usually include human resources training. Yet, when it comes to placing candidates into surgical programs, the hiring responsibilities fell on the shoulders of surgeons.

Aimee Gardner, who has her PhD in organized psychology, saw this inefficiency first hand.

"I worked in a large surgery department in Dallas right out of graduate school and quickly learned how folks are selected into residency and fellowship programs and all the time that goes into it — time spent by physicians reviewing piles and piles of like paper applications and spending lots and lots and of hours interviewing like hundreds of candidates," Gardner tells InnovationMap. "I was just really shocked by the inefficiencies from just a business and workforce perspective."

And things have only gotten worse. There are more applicants hitting the scene every year and they are applying to more hospitals and programs. Future surgeons used to apply for 20 or so programs — now it’s more like 65 on average. According to her research, Gardner says reviewing these applications cost lots of time and money, specifically $100,000 to fill five spots annually just up to the interviewing phase of the process.

Five years ago, Gardner came up with a solution to this “application fever,” as she describes, and all the inefficiencies, and founded SurgWise Consulting, where she serves as president and CEO.

"We help provide assessments to help screen competencies and attributes that people care about," Gardner says. "(Those) are really hard to assess, but really differentiate people who really thrive in training in their careers and people who don't."

Aimee Gardner is the CEO and president of Houston-based SurgWise. Photo via surgwise.com

These are the non-technical skills, like the professionalism, interpersonal skills, and communication. While SurgWise began as a service-oriented consulting company, the company is now ready to tap technology to expand upon its solution. The work started out of Houston Methodist, and SurgWise is still working with surgery teams there. She says they've accumulated tons of data that can be leveraged and streamlined.

"We're now pivoting from a very intimate client approach to a more scalable offering. Every year we assess essentially around 80 percent of all the people applying to be future surgeons — those in pediatric surgery, vascular surgery, and more,” Gardner says. “We’ve used kind of the last five years of data and experiences to create a more scalable, easy-to-integrate, and off-the-shelf solution.”

Gardner says her solution is critical for providing more equity in the hiring process.

“One of our goals was to create more equitable opportunities and platforms to assess folks because many of the traditional tools and processes that most people use in this space have lots of opportunity for bias and a high potential for disadvantaging individuals from underrepresented groups," she says. "For example, letters of recommendation are often a very insider status. If you went to some Ivy League or your parents were in health care and they know someone, you have that step up from a networking and socioeconomic status standpoint."

Personal statements and test scores are also inequitable, because they tend to be better submissions if people have money for coaching.

SurgWise hopes to lower the number of programs future surgeons apply to too to further streamline the process. She hopes to do this through an app and web tool that can matchmake people to the right program.

“Our ultimate goal is to create a platform for applicants to obtain a lot more information about the various places to which they apply to empower them to make more informed decisions, so that they don't have to apply to a hundred places," Gardner says. "We want to essentially create a match-style app that allows them to input some data and tell us 'here's what I'm looking for here are my career goals and any preferences I have.'”

While that tool is down the road, Gardner says SurgWise is full speed ahead toward launching the data-driven hiring platform. The bootstrapped company hopes to raise early venture funding this summer in order to hire and grow its team.

“As we continue to consider this app that I talked about and some of the other opportunities to scale to other specialties we're gonna start looking for a series A funding later this summer.”