Here's who's making the call for the inaugural InnovationMap Awards. Photos courtesy

It's been two weeks since InnovationMap announced its inaugural awards program presented by Techwave — and the ecosystem is already buzzing with excitement to find out the top innovative companies in town.

The InnovationMap Awards will honor Houston's innovators and their breakthrough technologies across industries. The program and hybrid event — which will take place September 8 — will shine a spotlight on the movers and shakers within Houston's burgeoning innovation community. Nominations are open for the awards now — and the deadline to submit your nomination is July 23.

Click here to nominate a deserving company.

But who will decide this year's finalists and winners for the event? A cohort of eight of the best innovation leaders in the Bayou City. Introducing: The 2021 InnovationMap Awards judges:

Juliana Garaizar, head of Greentown Houston and vice president of Greentown Labs

Courtesy photo

A longtime angel investor and Houston innovation leader, Juliana Garaizar is no stranger to the local ecosystem. Prior to her current role leading Greentown Labs in Houston, she served as director of the Texas Medical Center's Venture Fund and managing director at the Houston Angel Network. She's also involved with Houston-based Business Angel Minority Association, or baMa, and has worked with Portfolia for over five years.

Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge

Photo courtesy of MassChallenge

​A leader in Houston innovation for several years now, Jon Nordby oversees Boston-based MassChallenge's entire Texas operation. MassChallenge's global accelerator program supports an annual cohort of startups across industries. Prior to his current role, he served as director of strategy at Houston Exponential and vice president of talent and innovation at the Greater Houston Partnership.

Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston

Photo courtesy of Impact Hub Houston

Grace Rodriguez has dedicated herself to helping do-gooders do greater, as her LinkedIn page proudly boasts, and for the past three years, she's been doing that by leading Impact Hub Houston, a locally rooted, globally connected 501c3 nonprofit that champions inclusive, impact-driven innovation. She also co-founded Station Houston in 2016.

Emily Reiser, senior manager of innovation community engagement at the Texas Medical Center

Photo courtesy of TMC Innovation

Emily Reiser is like a switchboard operator for TMC Innovation, where she's worked with health tech startups since 2019. She supports clinicians, innovators, corporate partners, and business advisers who are dedicated to advancing healthcare innovation all while providing a common ground for collaboration, connection, and innovation.

Serafina Lalany, vice president of operations at Houston Exponential

Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Serafina Lalany leads operations at Houston Exponential, the city's nonprofit focused on accelerating the development of Houston's innovation economy. She's also a board member of Diversity Fund Houston — a micro venture fund created to invest in minority tech founders during the "friends and family round."

Alex Gras, managing director at The Cannon

Photo via LinkedIn

After spending eight years in oil and gas, Alex Gras took his management skills to The Cannon Houston — a network of entrepreneurial hubs across Houston. The Cannon is the InnovationMap Awards venue for the September 8 event.

Rajasekhar Gummadapu, CEO of Techwave

Photo courtesy

Raj Gummadapu is the co-founder of Techwave, the award program's presenting sponsor. An accountant by trade, he has about 17 years of experience with combination of working with "big 5" consulting companies and various midsize to Fortune 100 companies across different industries on various strategic initiatives and global process and systems transformations.

Natalie Harms, editor of InnovationMap

Photo courtesy

Natalie Harms has been at the helm of InnovationMap — Houston's voice for Innovation — since its inception in October 2018. She oversees all editorial operations of the site and hosts its weekly podcast, the Houston Innovators Podcast.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

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.