This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Jeff James of PickleJar, Madison Long and Simone May of Clutch, and Tarun Girish of Spark Spaces. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to four local startup founders across industries — from electric vehicles to app development— recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Jeff James, co-founder and CEO of PickleJar

Jeff James and his company, PickleJar, are streamlining and strengthening the connection between performer and audience. Photo courtesy of PickleJar

Jeff James had the idea for a platform that allows musicians to engage with their audiences — specifically when it came to receiving tips. Right when he started working on the idea for PickleJar, an app-based, performer-focused platform where fans can conduct cashless tips, the pandemic hit.

"As the pandemic lingered on, we realized the project wasn't just about tipping or on-stage engagement, it's about something greater than that," James says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's all the different ways how artists are being disenfranchised. We really set out on a mission to help artists make more money."

As distracting as the pandemic was at first to PickleJar, which officially launched in May of 2021, the company ended up having a huge opportunity to be a revenue stream for artists when they needed it most. The duo decided they had to build the company — even during the pandemic and uncertain times. Click here to read more and listen to the episode.

Madison Long and Simone May, co-founders of Clutch

Madison Long, left, and Simone May co-founded Clutch to democratize side gig success on college campuses. Photo courtesy of Clutch

Clutch, a digital marketplace startup founded by Simone May and Madison Long, has fresh funding after closing its pre-seed round of funding at $1.2 million. The investment from this round will support Clutch’s national open beta launch of its platform for brands and student creators nationwide and its continued investment in customer and product strategy.

“We are at this inflection point where marketing is changing,” May says in a press release. “We know that the next generation can clearly see that and I think a lot of marketing agencies are starting to catch on.

"We need to be prioritizing the next generation’s opinion because they are driving who is interested in what they buy. This upcoming generation does not want to be sold to and they don’t like inorganic, inauthentic advertisements. That’s why user generated content is so big, it feels authentic.” Click here to continue reading.

Tarun Girish, founder and CEO of Sparks Spaces

Houston-based Spark Spaces is looking to build out luxury spots for electric vehicle charging. Rendering courtesy of Spark Spaces

Tarun Girish wanted to upgrade EV drivers' charging experiences. His idea became Sparks Spaces, a startup formed in 2021 looking to shake up the EV charging game — the company aims to elevate the experience of charging electric vehicles by focusing on the space between car and charger by creating an airport lounge-type space for drivers. These EV lounges would include luxury waiting areas, clean restrooms, high-end food options, and availability to utilize them 24/7.

“We’ve seen a huge issue in the EV charging space where the experience side has been neglected,” says Girish, founder and CEO of Sparks Spaces.

Currently, Sparks Spaces is operating out of The Ion and installed a charging point outside of the building to help collect insights into what drivers are needing and are wanting to learn more about their customer base. Click here to learn more.

Jeff James and his company, PickleJar, are streamlining and strengthening the connection between performer and audience. Photo courtesy of PickleJar

This Houston innovator is making sure musicians are getting paid

houston innovators podcast episode 146

One night a few years ago, Jeff James found himself at a bar with a live musician serenading the crowd. And, living in an increasingly cashless society, he didn't have an easy way to show his appreciation by way of a tip.

He turned to Kristian Barowsky, a business colleague — the two were working on a project, and together they spitballed an idea for a cashless way to better engage with performing artists.

"The idea stuck with us, and, even though we were working on other projects, we decided that this really was an issue — the way that artists make money," James says on the Houston Innovators Podcast "It's such an ecosystem of scepticism, and everyone has their fingers in the pockets of these musicians."

James and Barowsky started working on the idea that would become PickleJar, an app-based, performer-focused platform where fans can conduct cashless tips — and they can be sure the artist is getting 100 percent of that money.

The duo wrote their first line of code two months before the pandemic hit and all of live music performances were postponed or streamed.

"As the pandemic lingered on, we realized the project wasn't just about tipping or on-stage engagement, it's about something greater than that," James says. "It's all the different ways how artists are being disenfranchised. We really set out on a mission to help artists make more money."

Now, PickleJar is a comprehensive engagement platform where artists can receive song requests and tips, but also sell tickets and merchandise and even crowdfund their next album.

As distracting as the pandemic was at first to PickleJar, which officially launched in May of 2021, the company ended up having a huge opportunity to be a revenue stream for artists when they needed it most. The duo decided they had to build the company — even during the pandemic and uncertain times.

"We decided that if we weren't going to solve this problem, then who was?" James says. "The negative impact the pandemic was having on artists — we had to be there waiting for them as we come out of the pandemic."

Over a year in now, PickleJar has over 2,500 artists on the platform who have generated over $1 million in income.

James shares more about the future of Pickle Jar on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

A Houston entrepreneur has created a platform that puts artists first. Photo courtesy of PickleJar

New Houston-based app tips the scales in favor of musicians and fans

tuned in to tips

Like so many business owners, Jeff James' inspiration for his innovative new music app PickleJar, came out of sheer necessity. Sitting in a bar in the buzzy Broadway district in Nashville, Tennessee, James, a serial entrepreneur, realized there had to be a better way to tip performing musicians.

"This young girl comes through the crowd carrying a Yeti bucket asking for 20 dollars for the band," James tells CultureMap. With no cash on hand, James donated via Square. "Sixty dollars later, I had so many questions: would she remember my name? Would she remember my songs? There's gotta be a better way to do this."

James, a former radio DJ and record label veteran, started scribbling his idea for a musician tipping app on a napkin. Two years later, PickleJar was sparked, James says, because "every musician we spoke to hates the way they're paid on these apps like Venmo and Facebook."

Pushing an "artist first," mission statement, PickleJar ensures that every musician utilizing the app keeps 100 percent of the money — something unheard of when James started the process two years ago. Fans donate to musicians on the app, and in turn, get five times that tip in proprietary digital currency called Pick Coins.

"If you tip 100 dollars to a musician, you get 500 Pick Coins," explains James, "that goes to buying tickets, merch, or VIP experiences on our app." Another artist-first perk: The artist also gets 500 Pick Coins in that scenario.

With its own e-commerce platform, PickleJar allows fans to use these Pick Coins for experiences, and musicians to use them for much-needed equipment. PickleJar has partnered with Austin-based Strait Music Company, which will provide musicians with instruments and gear. Musicians can create their own wish lists so that fans can directly contribute to the desired gear.

Fittingly, the company has partnered with local venues for themed nights. Buzzy bar McIntyre's Downtown will feature a tip-worthy Texas artist every Wednesday night in its PickLounge.

PickleJar also allows musicians to livestream. "On Facebook Live, data shows that only about eight to 10 percent of an artist's audience know they're live. On top of that, Facebook takes 30 to 40 percent of the tips." With PickleJar, 100 percent of an artists fans will be notified when the artists in livestreaming.

Fans can even donate directly to a musician's nonprofit of choice, something happening now during Hurricane Ida relief efforts. Numerous artists on PickleJar are raising funds for Ida assistance, James notes. "We really believe that a 'gratitude economy' is emerging," he says. "We wanted to create the easiest way possible for fans to say thank you."

That thank-you option also means fans can send direct messages, notes, and even pictures on the app, which, James acknowledges with a chuckle, could get very interesting.

Another musician-first nuance not found on other apps: PickleJar allows for "smart" splits, so that musicians are appropriately compensated for their specific contribution. An artist who wrote songs and drove the van to a gig, for example, can be funneled a higher percentage of tips than bandmates who contributed less.

James and his Houston-based tech team are also working on a TV channel on streaming devices, dubbed PickleJar Plus.

While one might be tempted to assume PickleJar is meant for those gig-to-gig, struggling musicians, James assures that the app is meant for every level, which he breaks down accordingly:

  • "Never-evers": These folks will never get signed, but use the app to get better
  • "Got talent, not signed": Artists can use PickleJar to build audiences and crowdfund
  • "I'm signed/labeled": Here, signed artists curate setlists which can be monetized via tips
  • "Idols": These artists are already brands. "Kenny Chesney can use this to make sure every dollar goes to a nonprofit," says James. Chesney's team can watch a meter, and when donations hit a specific dollar amount, Chesney can reward fans with their favorite song."

If all this seems to point to James one day managing and representing artists, James says that idea is not entirely off. PickleJar could one day be the world's biggest independent record label, he acknowledges, by the way it allows indies to promote themselves.

"We were in a meeting and the guy says, 'you're gonna change the entertainment world forever,'" James, recalls. "We hope so. We just want to build a relationship with artists — and put them first."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Houston organizations launch collaborative center to boost cancer outcomes

new to HOU

Rice University's new Synthesis X Center officially launched last month to bring together experts in cancer care and chemistry.

The center was born out of what started about seven years ago as informal meetings between Rice chemist Han Xiao's research group and others from the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Baylor College of Medicine. The level of collaboration between the two teams has grown significantly over the years, and monthly meetings now draw about 100 participants from across disciplines, fields and Houston-based organizations, according to a statement from Rice.

Researchers at the new SynthX Center will aim to turn fundamental research into clinical applications and make precision adjustments to drug properties and molecules. It will focus on improving cancer outcomes by looking at an array of factors, including prevention and detection, immunotherapies, the use of artificial intelligence to speed drug discovery and development, and several other topics.

"At Rice, we are strong on the fundamental side of research in organic chemistry, chemical biology, bioengineering and nanomaterials,” Xiao says in the statement. “Starting at the laboratory bench, we can synthesize therapeutic molecules and proteins with atom-level precision, offering immense potential for real-world applications at the bedside ... But the clinicians and fundamental researchers don’t have a lot of time to talk and to exchange ideas, so SynthX wants to serve as the bridge and help make these connections.”

SynthX plans to issue its first merit-based seed grants to teams with representatives from Baylor and Rice this month.

With this recognition from Rice, the teams from Xiao's lab and the TMC will also be able to expand and formalize their programs. They will build upon annual retreats, in which investigators can share unpublished findings, and also plan to host a national conference, the first slated for this fall titled "Synthetic Innovations Towards a Cure for Cancer.”

“I am confident that the SynthX Center will be a great resource for both students and faculty who seek to translate discoveries from fundamental chemical research into medical applications that improve people’s lives,” Thomas Killian, dean of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences, says in the release.

Rice announced that it had invested in four other research centers along with SynthX last month. The other centers include the Center for Coastal Futures and Adaptive Resilience, the Center for Environmental Studies, the Center for Latin American and Latinx Studies and the Rice Center for Nanoscale Imaging Sciences.

Earlier this year, Rice also announced its first-ever recipients of its One Small Step Grant program, funded by its Office of Innovation. The program will provide funding to faculty working on "promising projects with commercial potential," according to the website.

Houston physicist scores $15.5M grant for high-energy nuclear physics research

FUTURE OF PHYSICS

A team of Rice University physicists has been awarded a prestigious grant from the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Physics for their work in high-energy nuclear physics and research into a new state of matter.

The five-year $15.5 million grant will go towards Rice physics and astronomy professor Wei Li's discoveries focused on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), a large, general-purpose particle physics detector built on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, a European organization for nuclear research in France and Switzerland. The work is "poised to revolutionize our understanding of fundamental physics," according to a statement from Rice.

Li's team will work to develop an ultra-fast silicon timing detector, known as the endcap timing layer (ETL), that will provide upgrades to the CMS detector. The ETl is expected to have a time resolution of 30 picoseconds per particle, which will allow for more precise time-of-flight particle identification.

The Rice team is collaborating with others from MIT, Oak Ridge National Lab, the University of Illinois Chicago and University of Kansas. Photo via Rice.edu

This will also help boost the performance of the High-Luminosity Large Hadron Collider (HL-LHC), which is scheduled to launch at CERN in 2029, allowing it to operate at about 10 times the luminosity than originally planned. The ETL also has applications for other colliders apart from the LHC, including the DOE’s electron-ion collider at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York.

“The ETL will enable breakthrough science in the area of heavy ion collisions, allowing us to delve into the properties of a remarkable new state of matter called the quark-gluon plasma,” Li explained in a statement. “This, in turn, offers invaluable insights into the strong nuclear force that binds particles at the core of matter.”

The ETL is also expected to aid in other areas of physics, including the search for the Higgs particle and understanding the makeup of dark matter.

Li is joined on this work by co-principal investigator Frank Geurts and researchers Nicole Lewis and Mike Matveev from Rice. The team is collaborating with others from MIT, Oak Ridge National Lab, the University of Illinois Chicago and University of Kansas.

Last year, fellow Rice physicist Qimiao Si, a theoretical quantum physicist, earned the prestigious Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship grant. The five-year fellowship, with up to $3 million in funding, will go towards his work to establish an unconventional approach to create and control topological states of matter, which plays an important role in materials research and quantum computing.

Meanwhile, the DOE recently tapped three Houston universities to compete in its annual startup competition focused on "high-potential energy technologies,” including one team from Rice.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.