A new digital platform for home purchases and mortgages has expanded in the Lone Star Stat. Photo via Getty Images

Tomo Networks, a fintech startup that operates a digital platform for home purchases and mortgages, has expanded its offerings statewide after launching in the summer of 2021 in Houston and Dallas.

Founded in October 2020 by former Zillow Group executives Greg Schwartz and Carey Armstrong, Tomo launched over the summer with a $70 million seed funding round led by Ribbit Capital. DST Global, NFX, SVB Capital, and Zigg Capital participated in the seed round.

“Tomo’s cutting-edge platform is unlike anything else available to homebuyers,” Nick Huber, a partner at Ribbit Capital, says in a news release. “The real estate market has not been skewed toward the buyer in quite some time, and we saw a huge opportunity to get behind a company that will do just that.”

A recent analysis of the Houston home market by Skylar Olsen, principal economist at Tomo, shows Bayou City remains among the most affordable U.S. markets and continues to provide homeownership opportunities.

According to the Tomo analysis, the gap in Houston between millennials’ share of the population and their share of total housing value has improved, shrinking from 9.7 percentage points to 9 percentage points in 20 years. “Millennials make up the largest generation of Houston’s total population,” the analysis says.

In November, the median price of a home in the Houston area rose 16.3 percent to tie the record high of $314,000 set in June, the Houston Association of Realtors says.

Tomo, based in Stamford, Connecticut, bills itself as “the first platform in the real estate space that is specifically focused on the buyer experience.” The company believes its digitally oriented approach holds strong appeal for millennials and other young homebuyers.

Tomo guarantees an on-time closing and a price match, meaning that if you find a better deal, the company will match it. Tomo says it cuts the time for mortgage preapproval by as much as 55 percent.

The company initially launched in Houston and Dallas as well as Seattle. Aside from its headquarters in Connecticut, Tomo maintains offices in Austin and Seattle. In Dallas, the startup recently rolled its first-ever ad campaign.

“In today’s housing market, buying is not an enjoyable experience; it has become competitive, stressful, and confusing, and too many people are coming away from it empty-handed. As single-family homes become commoditized by investors, the American dream is moving further and further out of reach. We are going to change that,” says Schwartz, CEO of Tomo.

A Houston real estate expert has launched a new resource for first-time homebuyers as rates of house sales soars. Getty Images

Houston-area online resource launches to help new homebuyers purchase a home

Rentsucks

Between the expiration of a federal evictions moratorium and the coronavirus crisis, the housing market in Houston has launched into uncharted territory — jumping in June after two straight months of decline.

Houstonian and broker-and-owner of RE/MAX Top Realty, Freddy Rodriguez, launched an online resource and consulting website called Rentsucks.com to demystify the home buying process for first-time buyers who perhaps are not sure of where to start. The online resource educates and guides new buyers into a plan that works for them.

"I've been on both sides of the homebuying transaction with my experience in the mortgage industry and as a real estate agent," says Rodriguez. "I want to be a trusted resource for people who have dreams of owning their own home and need guidance and advice."

Potential buyers can use the tool to assess their options with the help of experts provided by the online consulting service. Renksucks.com touts a free no-obligation consultation that matches them with a loan officer and a local realtor, guiding them through the process from start to finish.

Rodriguez says that his inspiration for the project ignited after seeing the instability of the last few months as Houstonians struggle financially to make ends meet and pay rent.

"I saw how tough the situation is for some people, losing their jobs and not being able to pay their rent," says Rodriguez. "When I heard that I thought, 'rent sucks,' if someone has ownership of a home, they could use their equity to refinance and pull out some cash in case they need it but when you're renting you can't do that."

According to Rodriguez, most first-time buyers think you need to 20 percent downpayment to buy a home, but that's not always the case, with many first-time homebuyers eligible to pay just 3 percent of downpayment.

"I want to be able to provide brand new buyers with help on financial issues," says Rodriguez. "I want to be able to provide them with the best experts and connections using our network to link them with a realtor in their local market that has a proven track record of looking out for the best interest of buyers."

To start the process, potential buyers can apply online through the website where they will be matched with local homebuying experts with the goal to guide them into the best way of achieving their dream of a home purchase.

Rentsucks.com will also help them save money and cut down on closing costs, through a credit from the lender and a closing contribution from the realtor.

"Everyone needs a roof over their head," says Rodriguez. "While you can't change your financial situation drastically, you can build credit and make a plan to get where you want to be in a few years. Rentsucks.com is going to save you a lot of time by providing you correct information and advice, even if the best deal is with another lender or realtor."

For better or for worse, COVID-19 has increased the need for technology in real estate. Getty Images

Houston expert: How COVID-19 fast-tracked real estate technology

Guest column

COVID-19 has impacted every facet of our lives, and the housing market is no exception. The majority of real estate, for better or worse, relies on in-person interactions.

Things like wet signatures, home tours, inspections, and appraisals all require physical attendance — making it difficult to create digital alternatives.

Although many of these disruptions are a hindrance this unique time also presents an opportunity for the real estate industry to showcase its ability to grow and adapt to the digital age.

Technology's grand entrance into real estate

As a people-first business, real estate has always been based on relationships and face to face interactions which make transactions amid a pandemic excruciatingly difficult. Although technology and real estate are not completely foreign with companies such as Zillow and OpenDoor having established their niche, many of the more traditional real estate companies had yet to fully embrace the reality of technology's arrival. The thought was a real estate transaction must be sealed with a handshake, a wet signature, and a bottle of champagne.

Upon the onset of COVID-19, many quickly realized that technology was no longer an option but in order to endure this crisis adoption of disruptive innovations was a necessity. Moreover, with millennial homebuyers being the most active clientele the industry needed to meet them where they are — online.

Although there is nothing like the personal touch of a guided tour, home showings had to adjust to adapt to COVID-19 by embracing and utilizing 21st century technology. This was achieved through videos, high quality images, and innovative staging posted online for potential buyers to take 360-degree tours. Rather than sacrificing nuances such as a well-staged home, which has shown to have the potential to increase a home's sale price by up to 6 percent, real estate agents crafted innovative ways to digitally put a home's possibilities on display for buyers to see.

Another impediment created by COVID-19 was the way people close. Many documents require wet signatures. Fortunately, remote closing technology has improved over the last decade and COVID-19 increased the adoption rate of these platforms by individual states and lending institutions at a much quicker rate than would have been otherwise.

Some examples of these useful tools are remote online notarizations (RONS), mobile closings, and electronic signatures. While these tools are extremely helpful there is still much in the way of mass adoption before the industry can be as nimble and adaptive to not experience large stalls in the face of this sort of unprecedented pandemic. In time, as we dive deeper into the digital age, it would seem that these options would become more widely accepted throughout the industry.

The dangers of tech and real estate

As new digital adaptations increase, so do the risks. Although the introduction of new technology has enabled the industry to continue operating, it also increases the already prevalent risk of cyber security threats.

Phishing attempts and cyber-attacks are on the rise. Hackers are trying to capitalize on increased exposure from employees connecting on home devices. Simply educating employees and clients of the dangers associated is the first line of defense. Internally and throughout the industry, we have seen companies who are committed to ensuring each transaction is done safely and securely through VPNs, and other programs that guarantee the protected transfer of funds.

As a company, we have made cyber security a top priority by requiring multi-factor authentications, third party wire verification services through a company named CertifID and implementing consistent training on how to spot malicious phishing attempts.

What's next for the Houston housing market?

Consumer confidence is key to the success of the housing market. As Houston's economy begins to reopen, we have seen a substantial increase in transactions being finalized and consummated through closings. Both refinances and purchase transactions are on the uptick at the moment and that is encouraging. However, as new waves of the virus roll in there is always the chance that business slows, and the idea of buying a house fades.

As we wait for consumer behaviors to stabilize to the new normal, savvy buyers and borrowers have the opportunity to capitalize on a unique opportunity by taking advantage of low mortgage rates for increased buying power or to lower payments on existing mortgages. Transactions beget transactions and the more movement there is the better for the industry.

Lastly, as with all disruption comes opportunity and opportunity abounds because of COVID-19. With so many companies being forced to adopt new ways of operating due to the pandemic the real estate industry has a chance to adopt a more advanced foundation based on available technology which will help insulate it from future disruptions. With some innovation, a simpler, more efficient overall experience can be created for customers.

------

Eric Fontanot is president of Patten Title a full-service closing company with locations in Houston, Austin, and Dallas. Patten Title's technology-enabled team of title and escrow professionals continue to provide real title solutions for customers in Texas.

SquareFoot — a real estate tech company with Houston roots — is entering the Houston market. Getty Images

Real estate tech company founded by Houstonian launches locally, looks for office space

Homecoming

A New York-based company that uses technology to optimize the commercial real estate leasing process is expanding into Houston — and it's a bit of a homecoming for the company's CEO.

SquareFoot, which was founded by Houston native Jonathan Wasserstrum in 2011, has launched in Houston following the closing of a $16 million series B funding round led by Chicago-based DRW VC. The company uses tech tools — like a space calculator and online listings to help users find the right office space quicker and easier than traditional methods.

The Bayou City's growth in small businesses and startups makes for a great market for SquareFoot.

"Houston, in addition to being a leading market for business, is a city in transition," Wasserstrum says. "We've witnessed a growing trend of smaller companies cropping up, with startups showing that they're here to stay. I want SquareFoot to be a major part of the city's growth and evolution."

The idea for a company, Wasserstrum says, came from a friend in Houston who was struggling to find office space for his small company. Years later, that problem's solution would be SquareFoot.

SquareFoot's Houston operations are up and running online, and the listings and resources will continue to grow. Wasserstrum says the team will also open a physical office in Houston, and the team is currently looking for its own office space in a "highly-desirable" area, Wasserstrum says.

"That will not only make it easier for us to show office spaces to prospective clients, but it also sends the message that we understand these clients better than anyone," he explains. "Where you choose to open your offices is part of the story you're shaping for candidates and clients."

In regards to Houston-based employees, Wasserstrum says he will start with tapping a few Houston real estate experts. He will take the business model that was successful in New York and adapt it for Houston

"It's not only the East and West Coasts where innovation is taking place," Wasserstrum says. "We want to help Houston continue to grow as a stellar place to launch and grow a company."

National expansion is Wasserstrum's big goal, he says, and after settling in Houston, he plans to next enter into Washington, D.C., and a few other major markets.

Wasserstrum explains what the Houston expansion means to him, how tech is changing real estate, and trends he's keeping an eye on.

IM: What does it mean to be expanding in your hometown?

Jonathan Wasserstrum: Houston is where I grew up. My whole life has been shaped by what I saw and learned in Houston. I moved away for college, and have built my career on the East Coast, but Houston will always be a big part of me. My parents still live there so I have good reasons to fly home and to come home again.

As I've built out my company, SquareFoot, since 2012 at our NYC headquarters, I have dreamed of being able to expand our services nationally. We have helped over 1,200 companies find and secure office spaces in major cities. As our executive team considered where to invest in and to expand to next, Houston emerged at the top of the list. We made this decision for professional growth reasons, but that choice has an emotional element for me as well.

Going forward, I should have additional good reasons to fly home and to see my parents more often than I have had the occasion to over recent years. Plus, we save on hotel costs!

IM: What makes Houston a great place to expand into?

JW: From an office space perspective, Houston is an under tapped market. There are countless companies looking for the services we provide, but nobody has yet figured out how to build a company to serve them specifically.

We acquire many of our clients through online search — people looking for office space are literally searching online for solutions. We've seen in recent months and years a surge in searches from Houston, which indicated to us that there was a gap that had developed there. We've long had a digital presence there, thanks to these searches, but now we're increasing our physical presence on the ground. We'll hire a broker and put an office there in the coming months.

IM: What sort of trends are you seeing in office real estate? Are these trends happening in Houston already?

JW: Over the past years, we've seen a sharp increase in demand for flexible solutions. Traditional coworking spaces have worked out for many companies, but it's not for everyone.

At the same time, the long-term leases that are usually required upon signing on for an office space of your own has largely kept growing companies out of the market; it has scared them off. We realized there had to be a middle option so we launched FLEX by SquareFoot last year. Now, for the first time, all companies can find the spaces they want with the terms they want.

We are excited to introduce FLEX to the Houston market and to show companies there that there's more lease flexibility and opportunity available than they might think. Change in commercial real estate happens slowly over a long period of time. Houston has the chance now to be a part of their changing wave.

IM: How is technology changing the industry?

JW: For many decades, commercial real estate operated the exact same way. And it intended to stay that way because nobody had reason to believe anything was broken or wrong. However, there were several inefficiencies that clients just had to deal with because that was the industry standard.

The first one was the lack of transparency of which office spaces were unoccupied or what they'd cost. Brokers would lock up this information and keep clients at a distance, unless they were willing to sign on to work with them. With SquareFoot's online listings platform, we have unlocked that information, have educated countless people, and have made for a more seamless and enjoyable process for our clients as partners in their searches.

The other technological breakthrough we've made is in our mobile app. Still, in 2020, too many clients are taking tours of these offices with pen and paper and occasionally snapping a photo or video to send back to their stakeholders. Our app solved those issues once and for all, enabling better communication back and forth and a better user experience for all. Regardless of which team member goes on the office tour with our broker, everyone is clued in and on the same page.

We want everyone on the greater team to buy into the vision, and to recognize the potential, not just one representative who happened to be on the office tour one afternoon.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.