Venture Houston brought together key innovators and investors focused on Houston — here's what they said. Photo via Getty Images

Last week, over 2,500 people registered to Venture Houston to talk about startups and venture capital in Houston for two full days.

The two-day conference, which was put on by HXVF, the Houston Angel Network, the Rice Alliance, and Houston Exponential, took place February 4th and 5th and brought together startups, investors, corporations, and anyone who cares to advance the Houston tech ecosystem.

Click here to see what companies won big in the event's startup pitch competition.

Throughout the various panels and keynote addresses, Houston innovation leaders sounded off on what the future of Houston looks like in terms of venture activity. Missed the discussion or just want a refresher on on the highlights? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual conference.

“The way I look at it, Houston has an opportunity to really emerge as one of the leading startup cities in the country.”

Steve Case, chairman and CEO of Revolution Ventures and co-founder of AOL.

He makes a reference to the iconic line "Houston, we have a problem" — which now is defined by a time of opportunity. Case adds that his VC fund, Revolution, which has invested in Houston-based GoodFair, is looking for new investments in Houston.

“We were behind. We were slow to start, but in typical Houston fashion, now we are escalating with real momentum."

Amy Chronis, Houston managing partner of Deloitte and 2021 Greater Houston Partnership board chair.

Chronis notes on the fact that VC activity in Houston is up 250 percent since 2016, and in that time the city has focused on diversifying its business. Now, the city touts its active corporate community, global diversity, and more.

"In Houston, companies and talent are looking at ways to change the world," she adds.

“I see there being a significant amount of seed capital taking off.”

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of the Houston Angel Network and The Artemis Fund.

Campbell calls out new funds to Houston, like Golden Section Ventures and her own fund, Artemis. She adds that with over $700 million invested in Houston deals last year, the city is in a good place, and she is anticipating more angel activity.

"While this is really exciting progress, there's still a lot of work to be done in terms of seed and early-stage funding," she continues.

“I see there being billion-dollar venture funds here in Houston on the life science front over the next decade.”

John "JR" Reale, managing director of Integr8d Capital.

Reale, who's also the executive in residence at TMC Innovation, says he's seen the growth and potential of the life science industry in Houston.

"You can see the intentionality of the infrastructure that's being built that's going to attract diverse founders and all talent," he says.

“What I really see is the trajectory for Houston has been changing over the last couple years.”

Brad Burke, managing director for the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship.

Burke points to three things that have really moved the needle on Houston's progress as an innovative city. The first was the Texas Medical Center establishing its Innovation Institute a few years back, and the next is how Houston's top energy companies are making big moves to support the energy transition. Finally, he says, The Ion, which is set to open this year, is the third reflection point for progress.

“The Houston startup scene is a very special place. It’s a community I actively choose to be a part of, and it activates me every day.”

Rakesh Agrawal, CEO and founder of SnapStream.

“We’ve got a really incredible story to tell.”

Susan Davenport, senior vice president of economic development for the GHP.

Davenport adds that this is exactly what the GHP is doing — making Houston's story known. And she says they have talked to global business leaders and they describe the city as a modern, cosmopolitan, truly global city.

From M&A action to the development of Houston's innovation corridor, these are five Houston innovators to keep an eye on in 2020. Courtesy photos

5 Houston innovators to know in 2020

Who's who

For so many Houston innovators, 2020 will be a year of growth, execution, proof of concept, piloting, pivoting, fundraising, and more.

It's hard to narrow down the list of movers and shakers in Houston innovation, but a few have stood out for making waves in the new year. From M&A action to the development of Houston's innovation corridor, these are five Houston innovators to keep an eye on in 2020.

Rakesh Agrawal, founder and CEO of SnapStream

Photo courtesy of SnapStream

This past year has been good to SnapStream, but it's only the beginning of the company's next growth phase. The software company's technology allows its clients to easily record, search, and share video and broadcast content and has attracted clients from the likes of Saturday Night Live and Last Week Tonight.

In 2019, the company was named the transition partner for Volicon Observer, a company Verizon brought under its umbrella and then changed its mind about, Rakesh Agrawal, CEO of SnapStream, explains on an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Volicon's specialty is in monitoring and compliance, and with that move, SnapStream brought on around 150 new clients. To maintain those clients and grow its services, SnapStream has rolled out a whole new department. The launch of SnapStream Monitoring and Compliance is the next step for SnapStream's takeover of Volicon, according to a news release.

The M&A activity sparked a move to hire and expand the SnapStream team as the division grows throughout 2020.

Allison Thacker, president of the Rice Management Company

Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Houston has its eyes on The Ion, a 270,000-square-foot building innovation center being developed in the former Sears building in Midtown. Behind the project is the Rice Management Company, which is led by Allison Thacker, president of the organization.

The Ion broke ground in May, and also named its operations leader, Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston earlier this year. While the project isn't expected to deliver until 2021, next year will likely entail determining a few key things about The Ion and the surrounding innovation corridor Rice Management and the city will be developing.

The Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement, a newly formed organization, has recently expressed its concerns with the development of the property in the historic Third Ward. The community organization wants Rice Management and all parties involved with the innovation corridor to agree to a Community Benefits Agreement, which would protect local residents and provide positive initiatives for growth. The CBA is expected to be arranged in 2020 as the project moves forward.

Andrew Bruce, founder and CEO of Data Gumbo

Photo courtesy of Data Gumbo

Another Houston company that plans to grow throughout 2020 is Data Gumbo. The blockchain-as-a-service company has raised some significant funds — a $6 million series A round closed in May — and will be putting that money to work by expanding the company's footprint and services.

Earlier this year, the company announced its entrance into the construction industry — Andrew Bruce, CEO of Data Gumbo, says in a recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast that the funds will also take Data Gumbo to new global markets, including the Middle East.

"The whole thing for us is building this blockchain network of interconnected companies," Bruce says. "The more companies that are a part of that network, the more value that network has."

Payal Patel, director of corporate partnerships at Plug and Play Tech Center in Houston

Courtesy of Payal Patel

San Francisco-based Plug and Play Tech Center quickly established its new energy-focused Houston location — from announcing its entrance into the market in June to hiring its director of corporate partnerships, Payal Patel, in September. The first cohort of portfolio companies were named in October, and several new Houston partner corporations have been announced as well.

Next year, the local team is expected to grow and is currently hiring for a few positions, as well as announce its office space in town. Patel, specifically, will spearhead the initiatives to grow the organizations already impressive list of corporate partners.

"[Plug and Play ha] great Fortune 500 corporate partners, they work and know the best tech startups all over the world, and they have a strong investment capability," Patel previously told InnovationMap. "I'm excited that those resources and capabilities are coming to Houston."

Travis Parigi, CEO of LiquidFrameworks

Courtesy of LiquidFrameworks

Travis Parigi has always been the one to write the code for his company's software technology, but now, he's in acquisition mode thanks to new support from private equity. Last January, LiquidFrameworks entered into a partnership with private equity firm, Luminate Capital. The new financial partner has opened doors for Parigi, CEO of LiquidFrameworks, and the company as a whole — including putting merger and acquisition activity on the table.

The company has grown its team and even moved to a bigger space in Greenway Plaza. LiquidFrameworks, which has created a suite of software solutions for upstream and downstream oil and gas companies called FieldFX, is also working on key updates and new features for its software.

This week's innovators to know in Houston all have new and exciting things to announce. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Who are Houston's innovators to know? Well this week, here's who made headlines, from a well-known Houston software entrepreneur and investor rolling out a new line of business for his company to a new podcast network with Houston roots.

Gabriella Rowe, executive director of operations at The Ion

ION Accelerator ribbon cutting event, with Mayor Sylvester Turner and business partners.

Photo by Carter Smith/Station Houston

The entrepreneurial hub dubbed the Ion that's expected to premiere in Houston's innovation district in 2021 has a new operating organization and the Rice Management Company has tapped Station Houston CEO Gabriella Rowe to run it.

"To ensure that The Ion is a catalyst for the continued growth of the innovation ecosystem, we've been collaborating with Gaby and her team as well as civic leaders, Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County commissioners and Midtown Houston," says Allison Thacker, president and chief investment officer of the RMC, in a news release. "We know that under Gaby's leadership The Ion will become an innovation hub for not only all Houstonians, but for anybody looking to thrive and collaborate in an entrepreneur-first, tech-forward environment." Read more.

Rakesh Agrawal, founder and CEO of SnapStream

Photo courtesy of SnapStream

Houston-based SnapStream has expanded its services, and CEO and Co-founder Rakesh Agrawal appears on the third episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his company's growth and the role he plays in the Houston innovation ecosystem.

"A lot of people go to this question of, 'What's wrong with the Houston ecosystem?' If there's anything that's a fundamental characteristic of Houston that we need to change that would really help the startup and innovation ecosystem is that often in Houston, the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing," Agrawal says on the podcast. Read more.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs, co-founder of Lemonada Media

Photo via Twitter

It's safe to say that Stephanie Wittels Wachs didn't have start and run a podcast network in her life's master plan. Nonetheless, the Houstonian can check that box after she launched Lemonada Media with her business partner, Jessica Cordova Kramer. The network is about creating provoking, uncensored content about life and humanity.

"This is everything I've done in my whole life," she tells InnovationMap. "It sort of combines my writing and my education background and my artistic background and some voiceover background and my activism. It's everything." Read more.

Houston-based SnapStream's CEO, Rakesh Agrawal, is the third guest on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Courtesy of SnapStream

Software entrepreneur, investor announces new service and shares why he's bullish on Houston innovation

Houston innovators podcast episode 3

With a couple decades in the Houston innovation ecosystem under his belt, Rakesh Agrawal considers himself an optimist about his city.

Agrawal founded his company SnapStream — a software company that allows its clients to easily record, search, and share video and broadcast content — in 2000 and has gone on to not only grow and expand the company, but also create a portfolio of software startups as an investor.

In the third episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Agrawal shares how he's seen the city's innovation ecosystem evolve to what it is today — admittedly, he has a very positive outlook on the city. However, if he had to identify something Houston needs to work on, its communication.

"A lot of people go to this question of, 'What's wrong with the Houston ecosystem?' If there's anything that's a fundamental characteristic of Houston that we need to change that would really help the startup and innovation ecosystem is that often in Houston, the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing," Agrawal says on the podcast.

Agrawal says that one of the indicators of the city's success in cultivating startups is his own portfolio. About a quarter of the companies he's invested in are based in Houston.

Recently, Agrawal pulled back some of his investing activity to focus on SnapStream. The company was named the transition partner for Volicon Observer, a company Verizon brought under its umbrella and then changed its mind about, Agrawal explains in the episode.

Volicon's specialty is in monitoring and compliance, and with that move, SnapStream brought on around 150 new clients. To maintain those clients and grow its services, SnapStream has rolled out a whole new department. The launch of SnapStream Monitoring and Compliance is the next step for SnapStream's takeover of Volicon, according to a news release.

"The SnapStream Monitoring and Compliance launch builds on our depth of experience and extends SnapStream into an exciting new market," says Agrawal in the release. "The amazing SnapStream team is what differentiates us — from our engineers, who build user experiences that save our users time, to our support team, who deliver on a high standard for responding to customers and resolving issues, to our customer success team, who deliver the best onboarding experience."

Agrawal discusses the transition, his investment activity, and more in the episode. Listen to the podcast below and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.


From making major deals to advancing future innovators, here are three Houston leaders to know this week. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

This week's movers and shakers in Houston innovation are dealmakers and leaders — from securing huge partnerships to influencing the next generation of inventors. These are the three innovators to know in Houston this week.

Rakesh Agrawal, CEO of SnapStream

Courtesy of SnapStream

A Houston tech innovator just made a deal with Verizon. Verizon Digital Media Services announced that SnapStream is the "official transition partner" for a product under Volicon Observer, a company that was acquired by Verizon in 2016. SnapStream's CEO Rakesh Agrawal says in a release that the two entities have similar products, features, and even customers, but have always had a respectful relationship.

"SnapStream is known, among other things, for the great support we provide, and we look forward to providing the same high-quality support to Volicon customers," Agrawal says in the release. "We hope to eventually earn the business of current Volicon customers by converting them into SnapStream customers." Read the full story here.

Enrico Ladendorf, founder and managing partner of Pason Power

Courtesy of Pason Power

Another Houston dealmaker is Enrico Ladendorf, founder and managing partner of Pason Power. In layman's terms, Pason Power offers an array of technologies — including AI, IoT, real-time automation — that support energy storage systems throughout a project's lifecycle. Energy storage systems is a wide umbrella that includes everything from the massive systems used to store renewable energy and biofuels, to household batteries, which store electricity.

"We have intelligent energy management system, which is an intelligent brain that sits inside an energy storage system," says Ladendorf. "We have this intelligent, fully-autonomous system that knows the physical operation of (energy storage and drill rigs), and it makes it brain-dead simple." Read the full story here.

Pam Rosen, general manager of the Shell Eco-marathon

Courtesy of Shell

Houstonian Pam Rosen lead Shell's Eco-marathon, which took place from April 3 to 6. Two student teams represented Houston in the competition — one from Rice University and James E. Taylor High School.

"We really needed to get more young people interested in technology careers," says Pam Rosen, general manager of the Shell Eco-marathon. "It [doesn't] even need to be with Shell. It's more about the method, science, and helping [students[ gravitate toward those opportunities." Read the full story here.

Houston-based SnapStream, led by CEO Rakesh Agrawal, has been selected by Verizon to provide support. Courtesy of SnapStream

Verizon taps Houston tech company for product support

Done deal

A Houston software company that enables TV and broadcast monitoring just snagged a deal with Verizon. The partnership will call for 10 new Houston employees.

Verizon Digital Media Services announced that SnapStream is the "official transition partner" for a product under Volicon Observer, a company that was acquired by Verizon in 2016. SnapStream's CEO Rakesh Agrawal says in a release that the two entities have similar products, features, and even customers, but have always had a respectful relationship.

"SnapStream is known, among other things, for the great support we provide, and we look forward to providing the same high-quality support to Volicon customers," Agrawal says in the release. "We hope to eventually earn the business of current Volicon customers by converting them into SnapStream customers."

SnapStream's technology has been used by hundreds of organizations around the world, the release says, including CBS, MLB Networks, the Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, Samantha Bee, and the U.S. Senate. While SnapStream is a software solution, Volicon is appliance based, and Verizon announced the termination of the company's solutions in January — citing the need "to focus continued development on future solutions that better align with industry trends and market needs."

Now, Volicon customers will be redirected to SnapStream support into 2020 and can transition into SnapStream's model should they like.

"Verizon Digital Media Services is committed to providing high-quality products and services for our customers," says Peter Gallagher, COO of Verizon Digital Media Services, in the release. "The partnership with SnapStream will provide Volicon Observer customers with a dedicated support team at the highest level of commitment to ensure continued success in their business operations."

SnapStream's technology is a TV broadcast monitoring software used by CBS, MLB, The Daily Show, and more.Courtesy of SnapStream

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Photos: Here's a sneak peek at The Ion Houston's construction progress

eye on the ion

The Ion Houston is expected to open its doors this year, and the building's exterior is close to completion. Now, the construction team is focusing on interiors and then tenant build outs.

The 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub owned and managed by Rice Management Co. is slated to be a convening building for startups, corporations, academic partners, investors, and more. The building is organized as follows:

  • The underground Lower Level will act as academic flex space with a few classrooms and open-concept desks for The Ion's accelerators, including: The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, DivInc, the Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator, and the Aerospace Innovation Hub and Accelerator. There will also be an event space and The Ion's own programming.
  • On the first, street-level floor, The Ion's restaurant tenants will reside with access from both the greenspace as well as into the building. The Ion's first three restaurant tenants include: Late August, Common Bond, and STUFF'd Wings.
  • Additionally, the first floor will be home to a venture studio and the prototyping lab. There is additional space available for other tenants.
  • On the second floor, there will be 58,000 square feet of coworking space managed by Common Desk. Note: For floors 2 and up of the Ion, tenants will have access cards that allow them entrance. The first and lower floors will not require access cards.
  • The third floor of the building will house eight to 10 tenants each with 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space. Chevron was announced as the first tenant and will reside on this floor.
  • On the fourth and fifth floors, The Ion will house one to two larger tenants on each level. These levels of the building were added on to the existing structure. The fourth floor features two balconies that tenants will have access to. Microsoft is signed on to have its space on half of the fifth floor.
The Ion is still planning on an open date in late spring or summer. For leasing information, click here. Scroll through the slideshow of construction images and renderings to see the progress of the building.

Exterior nears completion

Photo by Natalie Harms

The building's exterior is almost complete and kept much of the original building's facade. The new materials brought in match the existing color scheme.

Texas winery taps Houston tech company for innovative AR experience

cheers

The Lone Star State is home to a vibrant and innovative wine scene, but, just like most hospitality businesses, winemakers missed the opportunity to engage with their patrons amid the pandemic. With a new idea of how to engage its customers, Messina Hof, an award-winning Texas winery, rolled out a new tech-optimized, at-home experience.

The winery partnered with VISION, a Houston-based production group, to create an augmented reality app. Combining the efforts of Messina Hof's in-house label design team and the animation capabilities of VISION, the app took four months to design.

"It was a labor of love for both parties to be able to experiment with this; it was uncharted territory," says Karen Bonarrigo, owner and chief administrative officer of Messina Hof.

The three wines released — Emblaze (Sweet Red), Vitality (Dry White), and Abounding (Dry Red) — each tells a story through the AR experience.

"We wanted to try not only and push the technology as far as we can push it, but also try to really incorporate some heavy storytelling," says Dan Pratt, VISION Creative Director.

The idea to incorporate technology felt like a natural one to Bonariggo.

"The earth, water, and sunshine all go into developing what the profile is for each wine," explains Bonarrigo.

Each of the three wines have scannable labels that bring up a VR experience for app users. Photo courtesy of Messina Hof

VISION, who worked alongside Messina Hof to develop the project, blended the winery's rich family ties with the Old World history of winemaking.

When customers download the app and hold their camera over the label, a trailing vine emerges onto the screen and wraps around the bottle. As vines grow around each bottle, the three each visually signify a different natural element of winemaking — earth, water and the sun. As a rustic sign emerges, it prompts users to then click for recipe pairing recommendations.

Rather than a single-use experience, Messina Hof and VISION wanted to create an app that users could both engage with and learn from. The AR app allows users to view recipes and browse wines in one place.

"We knew we wanted the app to be functional for people to be able to interact with both when they're doing the AR experience, but then also to be able to continue to come back to it later," shares Bonarrigo. While AR wine labels have emerged in some California vineyards, she says, "it's definitely uncharted territory for the Texas industry."

Overseeing the food and wine pairing at Messina Hof is one of Bonarrigo's passions, so it was a natural choice to include recipes in the app. Messina Hof offers a concept called Vineyard Cuisine, coined from the Bonarrigo family cookbook, and incorporates wine in every meal at the vineyard.

"The idea of tying [the wine] to a recipe gave us the opportunity to be able to share new ways [our customers] could use wines in their everyday cooking," she explains.

She hopes the app's recipe feature will help families connect together.

"So often we get used to sitting down at the table, eating really quickly, and then moving on to the next thing, but there's so much connection that can happen with each other when we can slow down a little bit and have a conversation," she continues.

To Pratt, AR was the perfect way to emphasize and expand on the shared experience of wine.

"We wanted this to be an extension of that experience for people. You know, based on the love of wine and laughter with friends," he says.

For those who can't currently gather in a room together, Bonarrigo has hopes that Messina Hof can bring people together from afar.

"I think now more than ever the ability for our regular customers, even within Texas, to then share those wines with family members or friends that are outside the state seems more intuitive," she explains.

"We are so used to being creatures of habit in sharing our wine face-to-face with people that when we had the unexpected opportunity to not do that, we realized that we still have ways to be able to connect with customers through technology," says Bonarrigo.

She finds the "ease of access of being able to connect with them through the online web store" has kept Messina Hof in touch with customers throughout the pandemic, as well as digital happy hours and tasting events.

Messina Hof Harvest Green Winery & Kitchen, the newest location, opened in February, becoming the Greater Houston-area's largest winery. The space features an expansive tasting room and 83-foot wine bar, full-service restaurant, covered patio, two private tasting rooms, a wine production, barrel room, and wine warehouse.

"We knew that when we launched that location that we wanted to be able to have a series of wines at that location that was special, but also out of the box," says Bonarrigo.

Bonarrigo and her husband Paul have ushered in the expansion of Messina Hof over the last nine years. The family business began in 1977 when Paul's parents, Paul Vincent and Merrill, started an experimental vineyard. Messina Hof has locations in Bryan, Grapevine, Fredericksburg, and Richmond.

"This is our largest winery expansion endeavor that we've done," she says. "We wanted the wines to be extra special."

Similar to Messina Hof, companies across industries are seeking to explore interactive technologies to reach their customer base. "A number of our clients, and also new clients that we may not have been able to reach before, have certainly reached out to us to figure out new ways to reach an audience," shares Pratt.

Winemaking may be an Old World skill, but Messina Hof is excited to bring Texas wine into the future.

"So much of winemaking is science, and so much of it is art. There's always this push and pull as to which is more of a majority in the end product," explains Bonarrigo, who notes that Messina Hof has been using technology to innovate and optimize the growing process. The new AR app is a push toward bringing the experience her family loves into the homes of customers.

"This definitely gives a new talking point to wine," she says.