4 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Kevin Coker of Proxima CRO, Gaurab Chakrabarti of Solugen, and Phil Sitter and Chris Chomenko of RepeatMD. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to four local innovators across industries — from marketing tech to synthetic biology — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Kevin Coker, CEO and co-founder of Proxima CRO, and Gaurab Chakrabarti, CEO and co-founder of Solugen

First Bight VC named two Houstonians to its board. Photos courtesy

First Bight Ventures, a new VC firm focused exclusively on early-stage synthetic biology startups founded by Veronica Wu in January, has named two new board members: Gaurab Chakrabarti, co-founder and CEO of Solugen, and Kevin Cocker, co-founder and CEO of Proxima CRO.

"We are excited to announce the addition of Dr. Gaurab Chakrabarti and Kevin Cocker," Wu says in a press release. "These two advisors are experts in their respective fields of medicine and biotechnology. They are proven leaders of Houston-based companies, which is key to our overall growth strategy, as we seek to establish Houston as a geographic center for innovation in Synthetic Biology." Click here to read more.

RepeatMD's CEO Phil Sitter and Vice President of Sales Chris Chomenko

RepeatMD's CEO Phil Sitter and Vice President of Sales Chris Chomenko join the Houston Innovators Podcast to explain how they are revolutionizing the aesthetics industry. Photos courtesy

Houston restaurateur pivoted his restaurant marketing business amid the pandemic — to a growing industry: aesthetics. Phil Sitter took the idea and tech he created with VIPInsiders to launch RepeatMD, a customizable marketing and fintech platform focused on the aesthetics industry, which includes plastic surgeons, dermatologists, etc.

Sitter, who serves as the company's CEO, says once he dived into learning about the industry, he found out these types of business are seeing incredible growth following the pandemic.

"They call it the 'Zoom boom' — everyone saw themselves on Zoom daily and decided to invest in themselves and their facial treatments." says Chris Chomenko, vice president of sales for the company, on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"And they had the time," Sitter adds. "When you think about aesthetic procedures — whether its invasive or non-invasive, it takes time for recovery." Click here to read more.

RepeatMD's CEO Phil Sitter and Vice President of Sales Chris Chomenko join the Houston Innovators Podcast to explain how they are revolutionizing the aesthetics industry. Photos courtesy

Houston innovators find 'perfect storm' for fintech and marketing platform

Houston innovators podcast episode 129

Phil Sitter saw fast growth and adoption from his restaurant rewards platform he founded in 2019, but when the pandemic hit, he had to go back to the drawing board to find a growing industry that needed to be disrupted by his technology. And he did.

Sitter, a Houston restaurateur, originally founded VIPInsiders to help his restaurants — and later, licensing the technology out, other Houston eateries too — reward loyal patrons who continue to come in. However, in 2020, Sitter considered a pivot.

"We realized the restaurant industry may never be the same, and we asked ourselves who could be an ideal client," Sitter says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

This pivot ended up creating RepeatMD, a customizable marketing and fintech platform focused on the aesthetics industry, which includes plastic surgeons, dermatologists, etc.

Sitter, who serves as the company's CEO, says once he dived into learning about the industry, he found out these types of business are seeing incredible growth following the pandemic.

"They call it the 'Zoom boom' — everyone saw themselves on Zoom daily and decided to invest in themselves and their facial treatments." says Chris Chomenko, vice president of sales for the company.

"And they had the time," Sitter adds. "When you think about aesthetic procedures — whether its invasive or non-invasive, it takes time for recovery."

After initially branching out into the field, Sitter says they are now onboarding up to 200 new locations a month, providing med spas around the world the ability to reward returning customers, as well as inform them on the breadth of options the facility offers. RepeatMD has expanded its team to 50 people and is eyeing seed funding this summer.

"Some things had to work out perfectly in order," Chomenko says, "for this perfect storm of perfect timing. Whenever you talk about entrepreneurs and how much of it was luck and how much of it is hard work, we really have attribute a lot of our success to being there with the right idea, in the right place, at the right time."

Sitter and Chomenko share more about the future of RepeatMD on the podcast episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Philipp Sitter of RepeatMD, Abbey Donnell of Work & Mother, and Chris Howard of Softeq. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from health tech to software— recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Philipp Sitter, founder of RepeatMD

RepeatMD offers its clients rewards-based software and is expanding with a new fintech tool. Photo via LinkedIn

Ever the entrepreneur, Philipp Sitter saw an opportunity to equip health service professionals with marketing tools. RepeatMD, founded in December 2020, specializes in white-label rewards apps for plastic surgeons, medical spas, dermatologists, and similar businesses. Now, it's expanding into the "buy now, pay later" fintech realm through a new deal with BTL Industries, a Marlborough, Massachusetts-based provider of body-sculpting equipment.

Through these services, Sitter sees his company being a one-stop-shop for this type of tech.

"We see us becoming ubiquitous in the industry, where anybody that's a dermatologist, a plastic surgeon, or a medical spa has [our app]," Sitter says. Click here to read more.

Abbey Donnell, founder and CEO of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell, founder of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell created a service before employers even knew they needed it. Courtesy of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell knows she's doing something different. Her company, Work & Mother, builds out and runs lactation suites as an amenity to office buildings.

"We're in a strange niche of the industry. We don't really fall completely into a real estate bucket and we don't fall completely into a tech bucket," Donnell says. "It makes finding investors who really understand what we're doing a little bit trickier."

Despite these challenges, the company has grown and is even eyeing a national expansion. Click here to read more.

Chris Howard, CEO and founder of Softeq

A Houston software company has announced the five early-stage startups it will be supporting through its new venture studio. Photo courtesy of Softeq

A lasting tech ecosystem requires successful tech entrepreneurs to give back to the next generation of new businesses. Chris Howard knows that, and it's why his company, Softeq Development Corporation, announced its inaugural cohort for the Softeq Venture Studio. The program, which will be offered quarterly for four to six startups each cohort, is geared at helping its resident startups quickly develop their technology and build their businesses.

"Historically, most tech startups had a founder with development skills. However, we're now seeing more and more business people, doctors, and other professionals start companies, and they need a strong engineering partner to develop their products," says Christopher A. Howard, Softeq founder and CEO, in a news release.

"We take it several steps further with the Venture Studio providing technology business consulting, development services, and much-needed cash. We're a vested partner, so we also help secure follow-on funding for continued growth," he continues. Click here to read more.

RepeatMD offers its clients rewards-based software and is expanding with a new fintech tool. Photo via Getty Images

Fast-growing Houston software startup expands with fintech model

innovative marketing

A less than one-year-old B2B software startup in Houston is beefing up its offerings with a new feature that thrusts it into the rapidly growing fintech space.

RepeatMD, founded in December 2020, specializes in white-label rewards apps for plastic surgeons, medical spas, dermatologists, and similar businesses. Now, it's expanding into the "buy now, pay later" fintech realm through a new deal with BTL Industries, a Marlborough, Massachusetts-based provider of body-sculpting equipment.

RepeatMD's new Medical Gym function enables customers treated with BTL equipment to finance add-on enhancement and maintenance packages through "buy now, pay later" (BNPL) arrangements. BNPL is a booming sector. The size of the global BNPL market approached $90.7 billion in 2020 and is projected to come close to $4 trillion by 2030, according to Allied Market Research.

RepeatMD essentially layers the Medical Gym's BNPL functionality on top of the rewards feature of its apps.

Chris Chomenko, vice president of sales at RepeatMD, says the startup already had been working on a BNPL offering when BTL approached the RepeatMD team about creating a BNPL product. RepeatMD and BTL share many of the same clients.

"We are rolling out with them nationally at a breakneck speed because the demand they have from their client base is so high," Chomenko says. "It's kind of forcing us to do in three months what we planned on doing in three years."

While the concept of a rewards app or a BNPL program is not unique, their pairing is, according to Chomenko. Sitter calls the marriage of the two a "game changer" — a game changer that eventually should extend well beyond BTL's clients.

RepeatMD founder and CEO Philipp Sitter says the Medical Gym feature lets customers break up the cost of, say, a $5,000 treatment into management monthly payments. The results of a survey of RepeatMD app users found that the guilt of putting down a wad of cash on aesthetics services was the No. 2 barrier cited in terms of spending money on treatments.

"What we'll be working on is being a full, proper fintech play, where we have that buy now, pay later functionality, and doctors can get paid in advance for treatments. But that is a large endeavor that will take us all of a year to [complete]," Chomenko says.

RepeatMD counts more than 600 practices in North America as customers. The startup envisions that figure rising to 1,000 by the end of this year. In tandem with that growth, RepeatMD foresees revenue climbing to eight figures (at least $10 million) by the end of 2022 and its valuation growing to nine figures (at least $100 million) by then.

Today, RepeatMD employs about 30 people. Sitter says the headcount should reach 75 to 100 by the end of next year.

Sitter is self-funding RepeatMD with proceeds from other business ventures, including Houston-based food and beverage loyalty and rewards platform VIPinsiders and Houston-based brunch and lunch restaurant EggHaus Gourmet. However, RepeatMD plans to raise outside capital in the first quarter of 2022.

The company sets up each client with an exclusive private-label app. RepeatMD says businesses using its app have seen an average sales increase of $313,000 and an average of 51 new referrals within the first 90 days of adopting the app.

Sitter says the RepeatMD rewards app provides a "gateway" for businesses to drum up repeat business and sell more services, much like the Starbucks rewards app incentivizes customers to try different food and beverage products.

"We see us becoming ubiquitous in the industry, where anybody that's a dermatologist, a plastic surgeon, or a medical spa has [our app]," Sitter says.

"We look at mobile app experience as something that's coming for all the local businesses. We're just the frontrunners in bringing it to the masses," he adds.

Philipp Sitter is the founder of RepeatMD. Photo via LinkedIIn

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Houston college system plans to open $30M resiliency-focused center

to the rescue

Houston’s initiative to protect the city from catastrophes is getting a big boost from Houston Community College.

The college is developing the Resilience Center of Excellence to aid the city’s resilience campaign. At the heart of this project is the 65,000-square-foot, $30 million Resiliency Operations Center, which will be built on a five-acre site HCC’s Northeast campus. The complex is scheduled to open in 2024.

HCC estimates the operations center will train about 3,000 to 4,000 local first responders, including police officers and firefighters, during the first three years of operation. They’ll be instructed to prepare for, manage, and respond to weather, health and manmade hazards such as hurricanes, floods, fires, chemical spills, and winter freezes.

According to The Texas Tribune, the operations center will include flood-simulation features like a 39-foot-wide swift water rescue channel, a 15-foot-deep dive area, and a 100-foot-long “rocky gorge” of boulders.

The college says the first-in-the-nation Resilience Center of Excellence will enable residents, employers, civic organizations, neighborhoods, and small businesses to obtain education and certification aimed at improving resilience efforts.

“Our objective is to protect the well-being of our citizens and our communities and increase economic stability,” Cesar Maldonado, chancellor of HCC, said when the project was announced.

Among the programs under the Resiliency Center of Excellence umbrella will be non-credit courses focusing on public safety and rescue, disaster management, medical triage, and debris removal.

Meanwhile, the basic Resilience 101 program will be available to businesses and community organizations, and the emergency response program is geared toward individuals, families, and neighborhoods.

HCC’s initiative meshes with the City of Houston’s Resilient Houston, a strategy launched in 2020 that’s designed to protect Houston against disasters. As part of this strategy, the city has hired a chief resilience and sustainability officer, Priya Zachariah.

“Every action we take and investment we make should continue to improve our collective ability to withstand the unexpected shocks and disruptions when they arrive — from hurricanes to global pandemics, to extreme heat or extreme cold,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said last year. “The time is now to stop doing things the way we’ve always done them because the threats are too unpredictable.”

In an InnovationMap guest column published in February 2021, Richard Seline, co-founder of the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub, wrote that the focus of resilience initiatives should be pre-disaster risk mitigation.

“There is still work to be done from a legislative and governmental perspective, but more and more innovators — especially in Houston — are proving to be essential in creating a better future for the next historic disaster we will face,” Seline wrote.

Houston startup equips medical teams with data-driven hiring tool

staffing up

A surgeon spends over a decade in school and residency perfecting their medical skills, but that education doesn't usually include human resources training. Yet, when it comes to placing candidates into surgical programs, the hiring responsibilities fell on the shoulders of surgeons.

Aimee Gardner, who has her PhD in organized psychology, saw this inefficiency first hand.

"I worked in a large surgery department in Dallas right out of graduate school and quickly learned how folks are selected into residency and fellowship programs and all the time that goes into it — time spent by physicians reviewing piles and piles of like paper applications and spending lots and lots and of hours interviewing like hundreds of candidates," Gardner tells InnovationMap. "I was just really shocked by the inefficiencies from just a business and workforce perspective."

And things have only gotten worse. There are more applicants hitting the scene every year and they are applying to more hospitals and programs. Future surgeons used to apply for 20 or so programs — now it’s more like 65 on average. According to her research, Gardner says reviewing these applications cost lots of time and money, specifically $100,000 to fill five spots annually just up to the interviewing phase of the process.

Five years ago, Gardner came up with a solution to this “application fever,” as she describes, and all the inefficiencies, and founded SurgWise Consulting, where she serves as president and CEO.

"We help provide assessments to help screen competencies and attributes that people care about," Gardner says. "(Those) are really hard to assess, but really differentiate people who really thrive in training in their careers and people who don't."

Aimee Gardner is the CEO and president of Houston-based SurgWise. Photo via surgwise.com

These are the non-technical skills, like the professionalism, interpersonal skills, and communication. While SurgWise began as a service-oriented consulting company, the company is now ready to tap technology to expand upon its solution. The work started out of Houston Methodist, and SurgWise is still working with surgery teams there. She says they've accumulated tons of data that can be leveraged and streamlined.

"We're now pivoting from a very intimate client approach to a more scalable offering. Every year we assess essentially around 80 percent of all the people applying to be future surgeons — those in pediatric surgery, vascular surgery, and more,” Gardner says. “We’ve used kind of the last five years of data and experiences to create a more scalable, easy-to-integrate, and off-the-shelf solution.”

Gardner says her solution is critical for providing more equity in the hiring process.

“One of our goals was to create more equitable opportunities and platforms to assess folks because many of the traditional tools and processes that most people use in this space have lots of opportunity for bias and a high potential for disadvantaging individuals from underrepresented groups," she says. "For example, letters of recommendation are often a very insider status. If you went to some Ivy League or your parents were in health care and they know someone, you have that step up from a networking and socioeconomic status standpoint."

Personal statements and test scores are also inequitable, because they tend to be better submissions if people have money for coaching.

SurgWise hopes to lower the number of programs future surgeons apply to too to further streamline the process. She hopes to do this through an app and web tool that can matchmake people to the right program.

“Our ultimate goal is to create a platform for applicants to obtain a lot more information about the various places to which they apply to empower them to make more informed decisions, so that they don't have to apply to a hundred places," Gardner says. "We want to essentially create a match-style app that allows them to input some data and tell us 'here's what I'm looking for here are my career goals and any preferences I have.'”

While that tool is down the road, Gardner says SurgWise is full speed ahead toward launching the data-driven hiring platform. The bootstrapped company hopes to raise early venture funding this summer in order to hire and grow its team.

“As we continue to consider this app that I talked about and some of the other opportunities to scale to other specialties we're gonna start looking for a series A funding later this summer.”