Startups all over Houston and across industries are answering the call for tech solutions to COVID-19-caused issues from real estate and mental health to new software and services. Duy Do/Getty Images

From software to new services, several Houston startups are using this time of crisis to roll out new options for people living in the time of the COVID-19 crisis.

Last week, InnovationMap rounded up seven health tech startups providing health care solutions. This week, here are nine more startups that have reacted to the coronavirus with new tech solutions.

GotSpot

Reda Hicks, founder of GotSpot, has launched Rescue Spot to help out Houstonians dealing with the COVID crisis. Courtesy of GotSpot

Reda Hicks founded her company Gotspot — a digital tool that helps connect people with commercial space with people who need it — on the heels of Hurricane Harvey after seeing how hard it was for Houstonians to activate physical spaces in an emergency.

Now, in the face of another — albeit drastically different — situation, Hicks has created Rescue Spot to be that activation portal for specific COVID-19-related crisis needs.

"We are working with local community leaders to try to activate specific kind of space for emergency response," Hicks says in a Facebook interview with Bunker Labs, "so, restaurants turned into community kitchens, cold storage for perishables, storefronts that can be used as drive-by distribution centers, and places for people to house their pets while their owners are feeling overwhelmed and can't take care of their four-legged family members as well."

People with space or in need of a Rescue Spot can list their space or needs online.

SocialMama

Houston-based SocialMama uses its platform to connect mothers based on location, interests, and the things their children have in common. Courtesy of SocialMama

Houston-based SocialMama was founded in May of last year to connect mothers using machine learning that factors in vicinity, children's ages, shared motherly struggles, and more to create a support group digitally and socially. Now, the startup has sped up the release of a new feature so that users have more mental health resources during the pandemic.

Founder and CEO Amanda Ducach created SocialMama's expert program — an update to the app, which has been downloaded by over 15,000 users since launch — to connect moms to professionals specializing in everything from family medicine and mental health to career and personal safety. A portion of these experts join from Gravida, a post partum and return to work resource, according to a news release.

"Knowing someone is on the other side of the screen with a very similar story is truly comforting. The app considers all females, including those planning to become moms, those who are trying to conceive, those who have lost a child, etc. SocialMama is here for our community in a whole new way with the launch of our expert program," says Ducach in the release.

With mothers being tasked with educating and entertaining their children at home during the crisis on top of their regular jobs and duties, many are turning to SocialMama's online forum and app for support, ideas, and solidarity.

Accel Lifestyle

Accel's masks are made out of their specialty anti-bacteria fabric. Photo courtesy of Accel

While you might not usually think an activewear brand has anything to contribute to the fight against the coronavirus, you have to remember that Accel Lifestyle isn't a typical activewear brand. Founder Megan Eddings created the Prema® anti-bacterial fabric for an anti-stink feature in her clothing. That feature has another use: Preventing the spread of the disease.

Accel quickly pivoted her t-shirt-making supply chain to designing and sewing the masks. The reusable, washable masks are available online for individuals to purchase, but one Houston hospital system has made a huge purchase. Houston Methodist ordered 9,000 masks to be made for their hospital staff.

"The fact that a hospital system that is on the forefront of COVID-19 is choosing Accel Lifestyle to create PPE is profound and humbling," Eddings says in a press release. "I truly believe we're all in this together and we all have a role to play during this pandemic. If Accel Lifestyle can help flatten the curve in any way, then we're going to do it."

Predictive Solutions

A Houston startup has created a web tool for tracking the coronavirus. Pexels

Houston-based Predictive Solutions created a web application in March to give the residents of Harris County all the local information on COVID-19 in the palm of their hands — and now the tool has been expanded to the entire state.

The online map identifies nearby testing locations as well as indicates cases that have been self reported in the area. While not trying to be comprehensive, the website is trying to track trends with the disease.

"We developed the app to help streamline communication between the City of Houston, the healthcare community, aid organizations and Harris County residents, while mitigating the logistical nightmare of making sure presumed cases get tested," says Stewart Severino, co-founder and CEO of Predictive Solutions, in a news release. Read more.

Truss

Truss has modified its software to advance communications while hospitals are cracking down on visitors amid the coronavirus outbreak. Getty Images

Houston-based Truss usually focuses on digital community engagement, but Patrick Schneidau, CEO of the company, says he felt called to do something to help families separated due to strict emergency visitation rules at hospitals.

"You read all the stories of loved ones not being able to be together during this time," Schneidau, who is a member of InnovationMap's board, previously told InnovationMap. "That was the area we wanted to focus on."

Schneidau describes the software as a secure portal for small groups to interact via smart devices. Physicians can interface with family members via video chat or recorded messages, as well as answer any questions. Schneidau is looking for health care organizations to work with the technology so that patients and their doctors can have secure access to loved ones. Read more.

ChaiOne

Houston-based ChaiOne has launched a new tool that can help companies track supply chain delays resulting from COVID-19. Photo courtesy of ChaiOne

Houston-based ChaiOne recently announced the soft launch of its new software called Velostics — the "slack" for logistics that solves wait times and cash flow challenges in the supply chain and logistics industry. The digital logistics platform is set to aid the struggling supply chain as surging demands stretch suppliers, offering their platform free for 60 days.

"At ChaiOne we have a history of helping Houstonians whenever disaster strikes," says CEO and founder, Gaurav Khandelwal. "We created a disaster connect app during Hurricane Harvey for free that connected people with the resources they need. Velostics by pure happenstance happened to be ready for situations like [the coronavirus] when there's a lot of parties that need to collaborate."

Velostics results in an improved cash cycle for clients, cutting a 90-day settlement down to one day, along with an overhead reduction that reduces costs and improves output along with error reduction. The digital platform is specially engineered to reduce waste while keeping the supply chain running efficiently. Read more.

Umanity

Launched in Houston, Umanity's new tool aims to better connect nonprofits with supplies and volunteers amid the COVID-19 crisis. Photos via umanity.io

Umanity, which is a part of the Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator's first cohort, has created a philanthropic supply chain tool that's now available as an app or through desktop. The software can match and map local individual or nonprofit needs to organizations or volunteers, plus provide real-time analytics. During the coronavirus outbreak, they have mobilized its resources connecting supplies with nonprofits and volunteers with safe ways to help organizations that need it most during this crisis.

The company, which is working with several city of Houston officials to direct citizens the resources they need during the crisis, is creating a network of communities to efficiently provide them the resources they need. The centralized platform shows a complete picture of who needs help and who can help all on the same platform while measuring the real-time economic impact of donations and every volunteer hour.

"I started this company because I wanted to transition everyday acts of service into actual data-driven solutions," says Ryan-Alexander Thomas, CEO and founder of Umanity. "My goal is that during the next crisis, for example, hurricane season, if somebody needs something they have access to get it when they need it, not two years later or after the crisis." Read more.

Otso

Houston small businesses are struggling to pay their rent with doors closed and operations ceased — but where should the relief come from? Getty Images

When Josh Feinberg had the idea for his newest startup, Otso, he was hoping to remove the pointless burden of cash deposits required for new commercial and retail leases. But as the coronavirus pandemic began enacting stay-at-home mandates that forced small businesses to close their physical spaces, he had another idea.

Otso, with its financial partner Euler Hermes, provides landlords with an alternative to cash security deposits. While he first envisioned this tool for new leases, Feinberg created a system so that local businesses that are struggling to pay their rent can opt into this type of contract through an addendum to the lease. They can get back their cash deposits and use that capital now when times are tough.

"If we can get some liquidity back into the hands of the business, they have some a better chance of survival," Feinberg previously told InnovationMap.

Tenants or landlords can begin the process online. Feinberg recently joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the unprecedented state of commercial real estate and offer his advice for business owners. Click here to listen.

Spruce

Houston-founded Spruce has added some new services to help sanitize multifamily facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Getty Images

Houston-founded, Austin-based Spruce, which has an office locally, has launched a new suite of services for disinfecting common areas — like leasing offices, hallways, mail rooms, etc. — using EPA-compliant chemicals.

"Now, more than ever, it is critical for apartment communities to make sure their common areas are regularly decontaminated and disinfected to help slow the spread of the coronavirus and to prevent as many infections as possible," says Ben Johnson, founder and CEO of Spruce, in a statement.

The services include a weekly disinfectant of high-touch spots — like door handles and elevator buttons — as well as a weekly comprehensive cleaning that involves mopping, surface cleaning, and vacuuming. The startup also offers a bimonthly fogging service that can completely cover both indoor and outdoor areas with disinfectant. This solution can protect surfaces for months, according to the news release.

"This is an unprecedented public health crisis, and we worked closely with our clients to determine the biggest need and hope these services will give apartment communities one more weapon to use in the fight against COVID-19 and will help give both operators and their residents peace of mind," Johnson continues in the release. Read more.

A Houston startup has created a web tool for tracking the coronavirus. Pexels

Houston startup creates COVID-19 tracking tool

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A Houston tech startup has created a web application to give the residents of Harris County all the local information on COVID-19 in the palm of their hand.

Predictive Solutions uses a map tool to indicate the county's nearby testing locations as well as cases that have been self reported in the area through the tool. While not trying to be comprehensive, the website is trying to track trends with the disease.

"We developed the app to help streamline communication between the City of Houston, the healthcare community, aid organizations and Harris County residents, while mitigating the logistical nightmare of making sure presumed cases get tested," says Stewart Severino, co-founder and CEO of Predictive Solutions, in the news release.

While the web app is something consumers can use and report on, it's also something that federal, state and local officials can use as a data solution to predicting the virus' trends.

"By providing a mechanism for the city to monitor testing locations and enabling users to self-report symptoms, Predictive hopes to deliver a platform that can help officials gain a firm handle on the trending virus, allowing for decision-making that's directly informed by data," says Predictive's co-founder and CTO, Theo Patestos, in the release.

The startup is a portfolio company of H Town Incubator, a new coworking space in town that provides its members with services like health care and legal counsel. The app can be accessed online through desktop or mobile.

"This is only a starting point for presenting the data," says Severino, who's also the CEO of H Town Incubator. "We need city and state officials, as well as the public to help make this application useful. The app is only as good as the data it gathers."

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Houston school names digital education expert to newly created position

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Rice University is beefing up its digital education efforts with the hiring of an internationally known expert from Duke University.

Shawn Miller is set to join Rice on November 1 in the newly created position of associate provost for digital learning and strategy. Miller’s hiring culminates a nationwide executive search announced in May 2023 and led by C. Fred Higgs III, vice provost for academic affairs.

Rice explains that Miller “will be the key steward of Rice’s digital strategy — leveraging best practices already in place across the university as well as introducing new approaches and collaborations to be scaled.”

Miller comes to Rice from Duke, a North Carolina school where he most recently has been associate vice provost and chief of staff for learning innovation. Miller previously was Duke’s interim associate vice provost for digital education and innovation. And for six years, he directed Duke Learning Innovation, which he co-designed and launched. He began working for Duke in 2006 as an academic technology consultant.

Shawn Miller is set to join Rice on November 1 in the newly created position of associate provost for digital learning and strategy. Photo courtesy of Rice

Earlier, he led creation of the first learning management system for the University of Texas at El Paso. Miller holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UTEP.

“I’ve spent the better part of my career helping universities transform and change to better serve their students,” Miller says in a Rice news release. “I look forward to leveraging my skills to empower Rice’s community of scholars, researchers, and learners to transform themselves, their communities, and others through education.”

In the news release, Joshua Kim, director of online programs and strategy at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, calls Miller “an internationally recognized leader in the digital learning and online education space.”

“His move to a new leadership role at Rice is a very significant development within our education innovation community,” says Kim.

Miller’s accomplishments at Duke include:

  • Setting up a digital publishing platform for learning
  • Shifting thousands of faculty and students from a legacy learning management system to a new digital system
  • Building a partnership with online education provider Coursera

“Shawn is a national leader in digital innovation and has a deep understanding of digital learning as well as proven experience in building a sustainable, long-term strategy for innovation and developing an integrated approach across the university,” says Amy Dittmar, a Rice provost who is executive vice president for academic affairs.

“I am excited to work with Shawn as he leads Rice to enhance digital education for current students,” Dittmar adds, “and look forward to seeing more professionals in Houston and around the world benefit from a Rice education as a result of his efforts.”

Initiatives spearheaded by Miller and other professionals in digital education have gained traction since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced Rice and other colleges and universities to accelerate their embrace of virtual learning.

“The growing adoption of digital learning technologies continues to push education into uncharted areas,” according to an article published this March in the research journal Sustainability.

“While teachers must rethink what it means to provide a learning experience,” the article goes on to say, “higher education institutions must match their educational technology solutions to students’ demands. Digital learning is far superior to the conventional classroom paradigm in many ways for both teachers and students.”

The value of the global market for digital education is projected to jump from $1.2 billion in 2018 to $77.23 billion by 2028, driven in part by growing interest among colleges and universities in augmented reality (AR).

Houston-based VC secures oversubscribed $160M fund for early-stage startups

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A Houston venture capital firm has announce big news of its latest fund.

Mercury, founded in 2005 to invest in startups not based in major tech hubs on either coast, closed its latest fund, Mercury Fund V, at an oversubscribed amount of $160 million. Originally expected to raise $150 million, Fund V is the largest fund Mercury has raised to date.

“We are pleased by the substantial support we received for Fund V from both new and existing investors and thank them for placing their confidence in Mercury,” Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury Fund, says in a news release. “Their support is testament to the strength of our team, proven investment strategy, and the compelling opportunities for innovation that exist in cities across America.”

The fund's limited partners include new and existing investors, including endowments at universities, foundations, and family offices. Mercury reports that several of these LPs are based in the central region of the United States where Mercury invests. California law firm Gunderson Dettmer was the fund formation counsel for Mercury.

Fresh closed, Fund V has already made investments in several companies, including:

  • Houston-based RepeatMD, a patient engagement and fintech platform for medical professionals with non-insurance reimbursed services and products
  • Houston and Cheyenne Wyoming-based financial infrastructure tech platform Brassica, which raised its $8 million seed round in April
  • Polco, a Madison, Wisconsin-based polling platform for local governments, school districts, law enforcement, and state agencies
  • Chicago-based MSPbots, a AI-powered process automation platform for small and mid-sized managed service providers

Mercury's investment model is described as "operationally-focused," and the firm works to provide its portfolio companies with the resources needed to grow rapidly and sustainably. Since 2013, the fund has contributed to creating more than $9 billion of enterprise value across its portfolio of over 50 companies.

“Over the past few years there has been a tremendous migration of talent, wealth and know-how to non-coastal venture markets and this surge of economic activity has further accelerated the creation of extraordinary new companies and technology," says Garrou. "As the first venture capital firm to have recognized the attractiveness of these incredible regions a dozen years ago, we are excited to continue sourcing new opportunities to back founders and help these cities continue to grow and thrive.”