3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Phillip Yates of Equiliberty, Chris Quintanilla, of Mexcor International, and David Hudson of Circulus. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from diversity and inclusion tech to sustainable plastics — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Phillip Yates, founder of Equiliberty

Phillip Yates joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss two initiatives he's launching to support diverse founders in Houston. Photo courtesy of Equiliberty

Houston is currently celebrating its first Black Entrepreneurship Week, thanks to local entrepreneur and lawyer, Phillip Yates, who founded Equiliberty — a tech company focused on connecting and supporting entrepreneurs of color.

BEW has put on several opportunities — from the Black Market, which will allow people to shop local Black merchants, to a special Giving Tuesday event to support Black-focused nonprofits in Houston. Specifically, Yates wants to target a multi-generational crowd — that's what's goring to drive lasting changes.

"When you have a wealth initiative, you can't just talk to the parents or the youth — you're still going to have a missing link there," Yates says on last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, explaining the week's wealth challenge that will reinforce this idea. Click here to read more.

Chris Quintanilla, chief sales officer at Mexcor International

This Houston company created its own in-house tech infrastructure — led by Chris Quintanilla — to stay competitive within the alcohol distribution industry. Photo courtesy of Mexcor International

When Chris Quintanilla wasn't happy with his company's software, he built it himself. Mexcor International is a Houston-based importer and distributor of wine, spirits, and other types of alcohol. On his own, Quintanilla has developed 46 dashboards that supply details about things such as wine and beer inventory, contacts for account managers, product catalogs, and key performance indicators (KPIs) for the sales team.

Quintanilla says in-house creation of this system aligns with Mexcor International's culture of "wearing multiple hats" to move the business forward, demanding in-house innovation on the tech front.

"If you want to see something happen, you have to grab the bull by the horns and do it yourself," he says. "We are a medium-sized company. We just hired a true IT person in the last two or three years. We don't have million-dollar budgets for big IT departments. We kind of figure it out as we go." Click here to read more.

David Hudson, founder and CEO of Circulus

Houston-based Circulus, which just received a $100 million credit facility, focuses on innovative plastics recycling. Photo via circulus.com

Circulus Holdings secured a $100 million credit facility from Riverstone Credit Partners, which has an office in Houston. This "green" loan is aimed at supporting environmental sustainability.

David Hudson, founder and CEO of Circulus, says in a news release that the credit facility "enables Circulus to rapidly develop a broad network of facilities and further the company's commitment to sustainable manufacturing. We look forward to supporting green-based jobs and preserving our environment for future generations."

Circulus, a portfolio company of Houston-based private equity firm Ara Partners, recently opened its first plastics recycling facility. The 110,000-square-foot plant is in Riverbank, California, near Modesto. It employs 45 people. So far, other Circulus plants, each of which will be larger than the California facility, are planned for Alabama, Oklahoma, the Midwest, and the Northeast. Click here to read more.

Phillip Yates joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss two initiatives he's launching to support diverse founders in Houston. Photo courtesy of Equiliberty

Houston entrepreneur launches diversity-focused fund, programming to address inequality in tech

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 111

Phillip Yates is juggling a lot. The Houston lawyer started Equiliberty, a technology company that's part financial resource and part social network, to help diverse communities create lasting wealth. Now, he's also launching Diversity Fund Houston — a $3 million initiative to support diverse tech founders — ahead of the inaugural Black Entrepreneurship Week, which Yates is hosting in Houston starting Saturday, November 27.

While it is a handful, all three initiatives align with Yates's goal to move the needle on improving equity when it comes to access to capital, finding a community, and creating institutional change. Just like most Black professional, he's faced his share of challenges — but he's persevered thanks to his mentors, family, and supportive network.

"Everytime I failed, there was somebody there that made sure I stayed on track," Yates shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Now Yates, across his efforts, wants to help create this same type of support for others. Equaliberty connects users to a hyper-local network and mentor, as well as relationships to financial institutions and key resources.

"We're doing two things — we're creating a new asset class for banks and financial institutions, but then also we're building a group of wealth creators in the community who will take ownership in the geographical region they live in, which isn't happening," Yates says. "We throw the word 'gentrification' around, but we never attack it at the root problem, and a lot of times it's ownership."

Ultimately, Yates says he wants to help to move the needle on eliminating poverty in the United States — it's not going to happen overnight or with him alone. One huge step toward this goal is raising awareness of the issues, and that's what he hopes to do with Black Entrepreneurship Week.

BEW will feature several opportunities — from the Black Market, which will allow people to shop local Black merchants, to a special Giving Tuesday event to support Black-focused nonprofits in Houston. Specifically, Yates wants to target a multi-generational crowd — that's what's goring to drive lasting changes.

"When you have a wealth initiative, you can't just talk to the parents or the youth — you're still going to have a missing link there," Yates says on the show, explaining the week's wealth challenge that will reinforce this idea.

Access to wealth is a key focus for Yates, who announced the launch of Diversity Fund Houston this week co-founded by emerging fund managers Tiffany Williams, Kiley Summers, and Yates and in partnership with Bank of America, Houston Area Urban League, Hello Alice, Impact Hub Houston, Equiliberty, DivInc., and Prairie View A&M University.

The fund will target early-stage companies founded by diverse entrepreneurs — tapping into an underserved community, not just because it's the right thing to do but because there are real opportunities. And now is the time to make these changes, Yates says.

"The Black American community is at a point where millennials are coming into their own," Yates says explaining how he's at the opportune point in his life. "I'm stable enough and still young enough where I can make these contributions — and the same thing with my co-founders. ... Time is of the essence for our community."

Yates shares more on what to expect at BEW and with the new fund on the podcast. 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 Ryan Sitton of Pinnacle, Julia P. Clarke of Raba Kistner Inc., and Phillip Yates of Equiliberty. 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 data analysis to fintech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Ryan Sitton, CEO of Pinnacle

Ryan Sitton joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his career in data and reliability. Photo courtesy of Ryan Sitton

Data analysis for big industry came first — before the technology that can support this analysis even entered the scene. Ryan Sitton, CEO and founder of Pinnacle, a Houston company that offers its clients streamline data management, joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his passion is using data to drive better decision making to drive more sustainable and reliable operations.

"I was basically doing data analytics in the mid 2000s before it was sexy. I was pulling together data in chemical plants and refineries and trying to predict how these plants would behave with the data I had," Sitton says. "I realized early on how there was so much opportunity here — but we don't have the technologies or the methodology to do it."

But over the years, the technology has caught up and now Sitton is able to provide clients with even more data-driven solutions. Click here to read more.

Julia P. Clarke, senior geotechnical manager in Houston at Raba Kistner Inc.

Julia P. Clarke knows what it's like to be the only woman in a room. Photo courtesy of Raba Kistner

Women in STEM are in Houston, writes Julia P. Clarke, an engineer at a local firm in town, but there's work to be done to making them stay. Supporting women across the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields begins in the classroom, she writes in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"I grew up in Jamaica and then immigrated to the United States. It wasn't until I was recognized by my high school teacher, Mrs. Owens, for my natural ability to excel in subjects like science and math that I fell in love with the basis of engineering," she explains. "Without the mentorship and investment of teachers and professionals throughout my career, I would not be where I am today." Click here to read more.

Phillip Yates, founder of Equiliberty

This founder is bridging the wealth gap for Black Houstonians. Photo courtesy of Equiliberty

Phillip Yates, a Houston-area attorney, envisioned a company that could solve the societal problems that perpetuate poverty. He started Equiliberty, a technology company that's part financial resource and part social network, to help provide underrepresented individuals with educational resources to secure financial success and a space to use their talents to create community-driven wealth.

The platform provides business development services, educational resources, access to capital, and mentorship to help users find financial independence.

"When I created Equiliberty, I envisioned a world where everybody has access to mentors," said Yates in a press release. "I know firsthand the importance of having a supportive network and community dedicated to your success." Click here to read more.

Equiliberty is an app with a mission to create generational and community-driven wealth. Photo via Getty Images

New Houston fintech platform aims to close the wealth gap in Texas

Communities creating wealth

Systemic and institutional racism have been constants in the history of the United States. Despite protests in response to police violence against Black Americans and last summer's skyrocket sales of anti-racism books, awareness of racial history and inequalities are still lacking — especially when it comes to wealth.

Houstonian Phillip Yates is all too familiar with the uneven economic playing field historical injustices and racial inequality has sowed.

Prior to the end of slavery, the Homestead Act of 1862 gave U.S. citizens a huge commodity — land. Nearly 70 years later, banks and mortgage lenders further segregated neighborhoods by refusing loans to creditworthy Black Americans due to their race and neighborhood. And after centuries of economic disparity, the Society for Human Resource Management reports that Black men and women still make less than their white male colleagues.

Yates, a Houston-area attorney, envisioned a company that could solve the societal problems that perpetuate poverty. He started Equiliberty, a technology company that's part financial resource and part social network, to help provide underrepresented individuals with educational resources to secure financial success and a space to use their talents to create community-driven wealth.

The platform provides business development services, educational resources, access to capital, and mentorship to help users find financial independence.

Yates' time as a program coordinator with the Houston Area Urban League Entrepreneurship Center also helped inspire his vision. During his time at the center, he co-created the organization's Small Business Development University.

According to the company's website, Equiliberty's vision is to show "communities of creators and makers how to use their existing resources and talents to grow into thriving businesses, create jobs, develop strong local economies and contribute to global prosperity."

"When I created Equiliberty, I envisioned a world where everybody has access to mentors," said Yates in a press release. "I know firsthand the importance of having a supportive network and community dedicated to your success."

Users can have the opportunity to build connections and find mentors using Equiliberty's in-platform messaging and video chat options, and networking opportunities.

Historic marginalization isn't the only obstacle in the way of wealth equality. Awareness is just as crucial.

A 2019 study found that Americans severely underestimated racial economic equality and thought the 2016 Black-white wealth gap was 80 percent smaller than it was. Recently, the Brookings Institution found that the average white family in America had a net worth of $171,000 — almost 10 times as much as the average Black family's net worth of $17,150 in 2016.

In addition to its launch, the fintech startup kicked off a concurrent campaign, BlkTheGap. The initiative is a call-to-action for community leaders, business owners, government officials, financial institutions and others to close the historic wealth gap in capital markets and support Black communities.

In a press release shared with InnovationMap, Yates states that he's "witnessed far too many people make the sacrifice for a better life only to see their dreams deferred, or in some cases, die at the graveyard, due to lack of access to capital and other resources needed to own financial assets and grow wealth in our economy."

"Where [investment apps] Robinhood, Stash and Acorn have it made it easier for the everyday person to begin investing in stocks, Equiliberty will make it possible for communities to invest in themselves," he said.

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Houston sustainability-focused company raises $50 million to plant new indoor farming facility

seeing green

Houston-based Dream Harvest Farming Co., which specializes in sustainably growing produce, has landed a $50 million investment from Orion Energy Partners to open a 100,000-square-foot indoor farming facility in Houston. The facility will enable the company to dramatically ramp up its operations.

The new facility, which will be built in Southwest Houston, is scheduled for completion in January 2023. Dream Harvest’s existing 7,500-square-foot facility in Southwest Houston supplies 45 Whole Foods stores in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas, as well as Sweetgreen restaurants in Texas.

The company currently employs 25 people. With the addition of the 100,000-square-foot facility, Dream Harvest’s headcount will rise to 65.

Dream Harvest relies on wind-powered, year-round indoor vertical farming to generate 400 times the yield of an outdoor farm while using 95 percent less water and no pesticides.

“Because the vast majority of America’s produce is grown in California and has to be shipped over long distances, most of the country receives produce that is old, has a poor flavor profile, and a short shelf life — a major contributing factor to the more than 30 percent of fresh vegetables being discarded in the U.S. each year,” Dream Harvest says in a December 7 news release.

Zain Shauk, co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest, says his company’s method for growing lettuce, baby greens, kale, mustards, herbs, collards, and cabbage helps cut down on food waste.

“Demand for our produce has far outpaced supply, an encouraging validation of our approach as well as positive news for our planet, which is facing the rising problem of food and resource waste,” Shauk says. “While we have the yields today to support our business, we are pleased to partner with Orion on this financing, which will enable us to greatly expand our production and increase access to our produce for many more consumers.”

Dream Harvest expects to expand distribution to more than 250 retail locations in 2022.

“Orion’s focus on sustainable infrastructure and deep experience in building large industrial facilities will be complementary to Dream Harvest’s impressive track record of being a reliable supplier to high-caliber customers by achieving consistent yields, food safety, and operational efficiencies … ,” says Nazar Massouh, co-managing partner and CEO of Orion Energy Partners, which has offices in Houston and New York City.

Other companies in the Orion Energy Partners portfolio include Houston-based Caliche Development Partners, Tomball-based Python Holdings, The Woodlands-based Evolution Well Services, Houston-based Produced Water Transfer, and Houston-based Tiger Rentals.

Zain Shauk is the co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest. Photo courtesy of Dream Harvest

Exclusive: Houston logistics SaaS startup raises $2.5M seed round

money moves

A Houston company that's providing software solutions for middle-mile logistics challenges has raised fresh funding.

Velostics Inc., which has an enterprise software-as-a-service model that specializes in automating inbound logistics at industrial facilities — like terminals and warehouses — announced it has raised $2.5 million. The seed round was led by Kansas-based Flyover Capital with participation from Small Ventures USA, Cultivation Capital, Starboard Star, Congress Avenue Ventures and BioUrja Ventures.

Founded by Gaurav Khandewal, Velostics targets the $37 billion inbound logistics management market, a so-called "log jam" for businesses that the company's software strives to make flow a lot more optimally.

“Flyover is incredibly excited to support the Velostics team in their mission to transform inbound logistics,” says Keith Molzer, managing partner at Flyover Capital. “This segment of the supply chain is ripe for better technology to address challenges of congestion, driver labor shortages, and the growing demands of ecommerce. Gaurav and team are an exceptional group of entrepreneurs ready to drive efficiency and a better customer experience at industrial facilities.”

The fresh funding will go toward recruiting top talent for Velostics's team, particularly in its account management, inside sales, and marketing departments, as well as continuing to develop the AI-driven product, which has an impact for both its users and the environment.

“Idling trucks waiting outside facilities emit over 42 million tons of CO2 annually — eight times the US national average. By orchestrating the movement of trucks in and out of facilities, not only do we provide tremendous supply chain benefits, we also help the environment," Khandewal says in the release. "We’re excited to partner with our customers and our investors to solve global congestion.”

Flyover Capital was founded in 2014 and has a keen interest in the Houston market, Dan Kerr, principal at the firm, previously told InnovationMap.

Houston is "one of the cities among those that fall in our region where we plan to spend a significant amount of time," Kerr said in May of last year. "We cover a lot of ground, but there are certain cities were we try to get there quarterly. Houston is definitely one of those places."

In September, Khandewal joined the Houston Innovators Podcast and discussed how he has been a champion of Houston innovation since he started ChaiOne in 2009. He shared how he thinks the city has a great opportunity to be a leader in logistics technology.

"I think that there are some trends in Houston that I'm seeing as a founder, and one of them is logistics," Khandewal says on the show.

Gaurav Khandelwal, CEO and founder of ChaiOne and Velostics Gaurav Khandelwal is the CEO and founder of Velostics. Photo courtesy

Houston VC-backed tech founder on reinventing a sales team and supporting financial independence

Houston innovators podcast episode 112

Four years ago, Samantha Ettus found herself as a keynote speaker in a room with thousands of ambitious and talented women. It was a conference for multi-level marketing sales associates and, as Ettus found out later, most of them — despite their talent and passion — were losing money on whatever product they were selling.

"I realized there was a problem. There obviously was a need — all of these people want to be doing something outside of their families that gives them fulfillment and meaning and has goals associated with it — but they also want to be earning money," Ettus says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "And the first part was being fulfilled — but the second part wasn't."

Ettus created an alternative to check both of those boxes. Park Place Payments is a fintech startup founded in 2018 in California. Houston was one of the initial six test market for the business model, and the company now has over 1,000 account executives across all 50 states. Sales team members are trained for free on how to sell Park Place's payment processor service to local businesses.

Ettus says the payment processor industry is competitive and most small business owners are very disappointed with the customer service they receive. The average business changes payment processors every three years, Ettus says, and Park Place wants to change that.

"Payments is an industry where something always goes wrong," Ettus says. "As a small business owner, if you can't reach someone — that's really important for the livelihood of your business. ... We really think of ourselves as an outsourced payment partner for small businesses."

This past year has been one for growth for Park Place, Ettus says, and earlier this year, she closed on the company's seed round, which was supported by Curate Capital, founded by Houstonian Carrie Colbert. Now the company is focused on its tech team, including hiring a CTO. Early next year, Ettus hopes to close a Series A round, again with support — financially and otherwise — from Colbert.

"I feel so lucky because a lot of people pointed us to traditional Silicon Valley VCs in the beginning, and I had a lot of conversations. I didn't feel some of those firms had the patience to grow with us," Ettus says.

The company has been tied to Houston from its early days, from testing the business in town to a Houston-based early hire, Nancy Decker Lent, who is a founding member of the team and head of product for Park Place.

Ettus shares more on her passion for supporting financial independence for women and how she plans to grow her company on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.