Fifteen of Houston Innovation Awards finalists share the best advice they've given or received. Photo via Getty Images

The startup journey is a long and winding road, and there's many ways to navigate it. Fifteen of this year's finalists have shared what their most valuable startup advice for their fellow Houston founders.

From the importance of mentorship to tips for female and BIPOC founders, these pearls of wisdom come directly from a selection of finalists across a handful of categories, including DEI Champion, BIPOC-Owned Business, Female-Owned Business, and Mentor of the Year.

Read these excerpts of advice from Houston's innovation community's top startup founders and supporters.

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"Be comfortable with asking for and accepting help. This journey is a marathon, not a sprint, but helping yourself with supportive people around is critical." — Cameron Carter of Rosarium Health, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"Underrepresented founders often have trouble asking for what they want or deserve. ... Don't be scared to ask for what you want, or what you believe you deserve." — Pedro Silva of Milkify, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"It's not 'fake it' until you make it. It's 'take it' until you make it. Be proud to be you." — Pamela Singh of CaseCTRL, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"When starting a company, remember it’s a game of attrition. The best way to last longer than your nearest neighbor is to find your tribe." — Aaron Fitzgerald of Mars Materials, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"Know your worth and add tax. Choose your partners wisely — at home and work. Invest in the best stock you own: YOU." — Katie Mehnert of ALLY Energy, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"Whatever battle you're fighting now that no one knows about — go ahead and WIN the war." — Shoshi Kaganovsky of Feelit Technologies, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"My advice would be to find truly effective mentors who are willing to open up their network for you. It doesn't matter if the mentors are men or women — what matters is that they genuinely care about your professional success and who you are as a person." — Tatiana Fofanova of Koda Healthcare, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"Remember...There are a BILLION ways to apply sunscreen, but no matter how you apply it, it ALL protects you from the sun. Like sunscreen, there are infinite ways to succeed in the startup world. Trust your gut, stick to your vision, and keep trying until you find what works for you. ... Your purpose and vision should be your North Star, guiding decisions in team-building, coaching, and creating a company culture. Stick to that purpose—it's what will drive you through the rollercoaster of entrepreneurship." — Emily Cisek of The Postage, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"First and foremost, embrace your uniqueness. As a woman of color, you bring a distinctive perspective to the table. Your background is not just a part of who you are; it's a strength that sets you apart in a male-dominated industry. ... Resilience is your greatest ally. Challenges will arise, and it's okay to acknowledge them. What matters most is how you respond. Each obstacle is an opportunity for growth and learning. ... Lastly, trust yourself. You are not just running a business; you are shaping a narrative of empowerment and change." — Ghazal Qureshi of UpBrainery Technologies, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"Figure out, learn, and understand your mission inside and out and use it to make all your major business (and sometimes personal) decisions." — LaGina R Harris, founder and CEO of The Us Space and Mentor of the Year finalist

"Know your value and continue advocating for inclusion." — Janice Tran of Kanin Energy, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"Be your true, authentic self. There are going to be some people that like what you are doing, and there's going to be some people that don't, but the biggest thing is being true to who you are, and that's always going to flourish more than being who someone else wants you to be." — Muriel Foster, director of gBETA Houston and Mentor of the Year finalist

"Until you hire someone, you are the one wearing the product manager hat. You've got to love the problem more than the solution." — Wade Pinder, founder of Product Houston and Mentor of the Year finalist

"Be the person your younger self needed. Representation really does matter. Be a listening ear, share your lessons, and allow people to blossom under your leadership." — Michelle Ngome, founder and president of the African American Marketing Association and DEI Champion finalist

"Embrace your unique perspective as a source of strength and innovation. ... In Houston's dynamic startup scene, your presence and contributions as a traditionally marginalized founder or investor are essential for driving innovation and diversity. By staying resilient, seeking support, and advocating for inclusivity, you can navigate the entrepreneurial journey and make a lasting impact on both your business and the broader community." — Jessica Adebiyi, diversity and professional development director at Womble Bond Dickinson and DEI Champion finalist

It's not been the easiest year to raise funding, but Houston startup founders managed to secure over $160 million in VC or grant funding last quarter. Photo via Getty Images

Amid international VC decline, here's what Houston startups received investment, grant funding last quarter

seeing green

The second quarter of 2023 looked a lot like the first when it came to venture capital funding for Houston companies. The whole country — affected by inflation, geopolitical instability, and other factors — has seen a trying time for investment opportunities.

Houston's performance is far from unique. Globally, VC funding is down — a reported 18 percent from Q1 to Q2, per Crunchbase. Year over year, that's a 49 percent decrease from 2022's Q2.

According to InnovationMap reporting, 10 Houston-based, Houston-founded, or soon-to-be Houston-headquartered companies announced VC or grant funding between April and June. Here's a roundup of these second quarter deals — click on each story to read more.


Houston-founded e-commerce unicorn Cart.com raises $60M series C 

Cart.com has secured its unicorn status at a $1.2B valuation with latest round of venture capital funding. Image via Cart.com

A Houston-founded software company — officially a unicorn company, valued at $1 billion or more — has announced the details of its latest fundraise.

Cart.com, which provides a suite of software solutions for commerce and logistics enablement, closed its $60 million series C equity funding round with a $1.2 billion valuation. Investors in the round included B. Riley Venture Capital, Kingfisher Investment Advisors, Snowflake Ventures, Prosperity7 Ventures, Legacy Knight, and more.

According to a news announcement from the company, Cart.com will use the funding for international expansion, continued product development, and to meet increased client demand. Continue reading.

Houston e-commerce company P97 Networks  raises another $40M round to support growth

P97 Networks has again raised $40 million to support its growth. Photo via Getty Images

For the second time in just over a year, a Houston business that provides mobile commerce and digital marketing to the mobility and fuel industries has raised $40 million.

P97 Networks, which has developed a cloud-based mobile commerce platform that helps brands securely do business with customers, announced that it has closed its series C round at $40 million. The equity financing round was led by Portage and included participation from existing investors. The fresh funding will go to support growth strategy.

"In this highly connected world, retail brands are looking for new ways to increase consumer engagement — the power of network effects in the digital world will be a key contributor to revenue growth and margins," says Donald Frieden, CEO of P97 Networks, in a news release. "With consumers of all ages further adopting mobile payment solutions, we are proud to have built the leading connected commerce and digital marketing platform for the convenience retail, energy marketing, and transportation industry." Continue reading.

Podcast: Houston home tech startup SmartAC.com raises $22M to grow sales

Josh Teekell, founder and CEO of SmartAC.com, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the latest from his company, which just closed its series B. Photo courtesy

A Houston startup that combines unique sensor technology with software analysis has raised its next round of funding to — according to Founder and CEO Josh Teekell — turbocharge its sales.

SmartAC.com launched in 2020, emerging from stealth with $10 million raised in a series A. Over the past almost three years, the company has firmed up its hardware, developed its software, and pivoted slightly from selling directly to consumers to adopting a B2B approach.

Now, Teekell says he's focused on turbocharging sales to these contractors, and he's going to do that with the funding raised in the series B round that closed this month. He says the company will also grow its team that goes out to deploy the technology and train the contractors on the platform.

"This funding really buys us a couple years of runway through the end of next year and allows us to focus on getting to cash flow breakeven, which is right around our wheelhouse of our abilities here in the next 12 months," Teekell says. "In general, we've accomplished everything we'd be able to accomplish on the hardware side, and now it's just about deployment."

The $22 million SmartAC.com has raised came from local investors. Teekell, who hasn't announced the full list of the round's investors, explains that while traditionally startups might have more opportunity on the coasts for raising money, it's not hard to sell Houstonians on the benefits of SmartAC.com's optimized air conditioning. Continue reading.

Houston fintech startup Brassica raises $8M seed round led by Mercury

A Houston fintech startup is aiming to modernize banking and investing — and has received fresh funding to do it. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston startup has raised millions for its fintech platform — and the company didn't have to go very far to find its lead investor.

Brassica Technologies Inc. closed its seed round at $8 million with Houston-based Mercury Fund leading the round. Valor Equity Partners, Long Journey Ventures, NGC Fund, Neowiz, Broadhaven Ventures, Armyn Capital, VC3DAO, Alpha Asset Management (Korea), and other global FinTech investors participated in the round as well.

The startup's platform has "institutional-grade solutions for the new era of private investing and alternative assets," per the release. Serving the alternative assets industry, Brassica's tools can easily integrate with any operating system to provide proprietary technology and unique regulatory licenses. The technology aims to modernize key banking and investing infrastructure to help enterprises safely grow their business and protect their customer assets. Continue reading.

Houston immunotherapy company 7 Hills Pharma to use $13.5M CPRIT grant to further develop cancer treatments

7 Hills Pharma, an innovative immunotherapy company, was awarded a $13.5 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas. Photo via Getty Images

Between Bangalore and Chennai in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, you’ll find the town of Tirupati. It’s home to seven peaks that host a Hindu temple complex devoted to a form of Vishnu, Venkateshvara. It is also the region from which Upendra Marathi originally hails. It’s where his father, and many other family members, attended medical school.

“My father’s first job was to take care of the pilgrims,” recalls Marathi.

It's only natural that his groundbreaking Houston company would be named 7 Hills Pharma.

“That sort of selflessness and giving back, I wanted to embody it in the name of the company,” Marathi says.

Now, 7 Hills Pharma is announcing that last month, it was awarded a $13.5 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). That’s on top of more than $13 million in NIH grants, making the company the second largest recipient of SBIR/STTR grants in Texas. Continue reading.

Seattle biotech co. OncoResponse to move to Houston thanks to $13.3M grant from CPRIT

OncoResponse in partnership with MD Anderson Cancer Center received a portion of $73 million the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas has doled out this spring. Photo via oncoresponse.com

A biotech company has landed a more than $13 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

The nearly $13.3 million grant given to OncoResponse — which is relocating from Seattle to Houston, according to CPRIT's news release — will help the company develop fully human monoclonal antibodies for treatment of cancer that otherwise would not respond to immunotherapy. OncoResponse already has a partnership with MD Anderson Cancer Center, which is one of the company’s investors.

“We are thrilled to receive this recognition from CPRIT in supporting the potential of our immunotherapy candidate OR502. We greatly appreciate the additional support from our investors as we continue to make significant progress with our drug development efforts advancing immunotherapies derived from clues of Elite Responders,” says Clifford Stocks, CEO of OncoResponse, in a news release. Continue reading.

Houston biotech startup CellChorus secures $2.3M SBIR grant

CellChorus, a biotech startup operating out of the University of Houston Technology Bridge, has secured fresh funding. Photo via Getty Images

They say it’s all in the timing. For CellChorus, it’s all in the TIMING. That’s Time-lapse Imaging Microscopy In Nanowell Grids. TIMING is a visual AI program that evaluates cell activation, killing and movement, which allows scientists to better understand how cells function.

The technology is important to the development of novel therapies in the realms of oncology, infectious diseases, and countless other disorders and diseases. By allowing scientists to observe those maladies at their roots, it will enable them to create, and ultimately deliver new medications and other therapies faster, at lower cost, and with a higher success rate.

CellChorus is a spinoff of the Single Cell Lab at the University of Houston. Part of UH’s Technology Bridge, CEO Daniel Meyer connected with co-founder and leader of Single Cell Lab, Navin Varadarajan, through co-founder Laurence Cooper.

“The company had been established, but there were limited operations,” recalls Meyer during a phone call with InnovationMap.

That was the fall of 2020. Now, the team has just announced a $2.3 million SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) Fast-Track grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Continue reading.

Health tech startup Rosarium Health raises $1.7M, plans Houston HQ

Rosarium Health, a member of the Texas Medical Center's 2023 Accelerator for HealthTech cohort, has raised pre-seed funding. Photo courtesy of TMC

A health tech startup that just collected $1.7 million in pre-seed funding aims to eventually plant its headquarters in Houston.

The startup, Rosarium Health, currently has no headquarters; its 10 employees work remotely from various locations. However, co-founder and CEO Cameron Carter — who lives in the Denver area — says the company is eyeing a future headquarters in Houston.

“We believe Houston is the best city to launch a health care startup, given the Texas Medical Center, diverse talent across health and technology, affordable living, and a city with supportive and progressive communities,” Carter tells InnovationMap. “We feel Houston offers meaningful attributes that can enable a high-growth startup to succeed and for its employees to feel safe.” Continue reading.

Houston-based workforce solutions platform Innovapptive closes series B round

A Houston SaaS company has announced a fresh round of funding. Photo via Innovapptive.com

A Houston software-as-a-service company has closed an undisclosed amount of funding in a series B round.

Innovapptive Inc., which has its global headquarters in Greenway Plaza, has announced it's closed a series B investment round led by Austin-based Vista Equity Partners with support from existing investor Tiger Global Management. The fresh funding will be deployed to "accelerate product innovation and reach new regional markets," according to the company.

“We look forward to this next phase of growth as we continue to define the emerging connected worker software category,” says Sundeep Ravande, founder and CEO of Innovapptive, in the news release. “Vista has significant experience scaling enterprise software businesses and emerging technologies." Continue reading.

Venus Aerospace, a Houston startup with hypersonic engine tech, adds new investor

This Houston company is one step closer to enabling high-speed global travel. Photo courtesy of Venus Aerospace

A Houston-based company that's developing an engine that'll enable one-hour global transportation has announced its latest investor.

Venus Aerospace released the news that Silicon Valley venture capital firm, Airbus Ventures, has joined its team of investors. The supersonic combustion engine technology — more akin to a rocket's engine than an airplane's — is revolutionary because allows for travel at a higher elevation. Jet engines rely on air outside of the aircraft to combust, and rocket engines work with a system that supplies air internally.

“Venus has developed the world’s first liquid-propellant rotating detonation rocket engine (RDRE) with a double-digit percentage increase in efficiency over standard regular engines, making the hypersonic economy possible,” says Sassie Duggleby, CEO and co-founder of Venus, in a news release. “We’re delighted to bring Airbus Ventures into the Venus family and look forward to growing our collaboration as we harness the future of hypersonic flight.” Continue reading.

Rosarium Health, a member of the Texas Medical Center's 2023 Accelerator for HealthTech cohort, has raised pre-seed funding. Photo courtesy of TMC

Health tech startup raises $1.7M, plans Houston HQ

eyes on hou

A health tech startup that just collected $1.7 million in pre-seed funding aims to eventually plant its headquarters in Houston.

The startup, Rosarium Health, currently has no headquarters; its 10 employees work remotely from various locations. However, co-founder and CEO Cameron Carter — who lives in the Denver area — says the company is eyeing a future headquarters in Houston.

“We believe Houston is the best city to launch a health care startup, given the Texas Medical Center, diverse talent across health and technology, affordable living, and a city with supportive and progressive communities,” Carter tells InnovationMap. “We feel Houston offers meaningful attributes that can enable a high-growth startup to succeed and for its employees to feel safe.”

Rosarium, founded in 2021 as Rose Health, is a 2023 participant in the Texas Medical Center’s Accelerator for HealthTech program. Last year, the company received $60,000 as a winner in the National Institute on Aging’s Healthy Aging Start-Up Challenge and Bootcamp, designed to foster diversity and innovation.

Rosarium’s AI-powered platform connects home contractors and occupational therapists with clients to carry out accessibility projects in households occupied by seniors and people with disabilities. The startup launched its offering in the Houston area with a focus on multigenerational households.

“Our homes are our sanctuaries, but for people with mobility issues, inaccessible spaces can cause frustration, unsafe living conditions, and a loss of dignity,” Carter says in a news release. “Interest in creating accessible living spaces is growing among everyday people, service providers, and professional investors.”

Carter says the $1.7 million in new funding will enable his company to add employees as it seeks to broaden its reach in Texas and expand to other states. The money also will help efforts to recruit bilingual and trilingual contractors.

Primetime Partners and Rock Health Capital led the round, with participation from Tundra Ventures, Flare Capital Partners, Sequential Ventures, Groundbreak Ventures, and several angel investors.

“We will begin developing our enterprise product with a goal to partner with health plans and accountable care organizations in 2024,” he says.

Carter has worked in the health care industry since 2014. Joseph Akoni, Rosarium’s co-founder and chief product officer, has a background in product management.

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$1M donation to Rice establishes pioneering neuro-policy center in Houston

brainy support

A big donation to Rice University will soon help researchers better understand the workings of the human brain.

Harry Yan and Weiman Gao have bestowed $1 million on the Baker Institute of Public Policy to establish the interdisciplinary Neuro-Policy Program.

Neuro-policy is a newer field that explores how brain health and function can help to fuel economic growth.

“The Neuro-Policy Program is at the forefront of pioneering data analysis, empirical research and policy application,” says Harris Eyre, the lead for the program, as well as a senior fellow in brain health at the Baker Institute, in a news release. “Investing in evidence-based strategies for prevention, diagnosis and treatment can reduce brain and mental health disparities, optimize cognitive development and performance and foster innovation to build more resilient communities.”

Eyre describes the collective value of the human brain as “brain capital.” That’s because brains that are suffering from any number of neurodegenerative or mental health disorders (including depression, anxiety, brain injury and Alzheimer’s disease) have actually taken a toll on the U.S. economy, Eyre explains.

The Neuro-Policy Program seeks to improve brain performance, and consequently enhance economic growth, national security, and our overall standing as a nation of healthy brains. The program’s primary projects include establishing a task force to advise Texas “brain and mind” legislative efforts as well as a Texas Brain Capital Dashboard, collaborating on Texas Forward (Texas Brain Health Plan) with the UT Dallas Center for BrainHealth, thereby working toward U.S. brain capital policy and investment advances. These projects are expected to yield deliverables as early as 2026.

“The Neuro-Policy Program aims to leverage the university’s proximity to the Texas Medical Center and the institute’s strong connections to state and federal policymakers. This is an important yet underrepresented area of research that Houston is poised to lead,” says David Satterfield, the director of the Baker Institute.

Yan and Gao said in a press release that they were inspired to gift the grant funds to Eyre and his research after attending a March 28 Baker Institute event on brain health that featured U.S. Rep. Morgan Luttrell, a co-chair of the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus.

"We are honored to support Dr. Harris Eyre and the Neuro-Policy program he leads. Dr. Eyre’s work has greatly impressed us, highlighting the critical importance of brain health in our society today,” say Yan and Gao. “We hope our contribution can inspire further support and advocacy in the field, helping individuals lead healthier lives through a comprehensive approach to prevention.”

Houston HR software startup rolls out platform at local hospital system

tapping into tech

More than 14,000 nurses at one of the largest nonprofit health care providers in Texas have access to a new skills and competency management software.

Kahuna Workforce Solutions has officially deployed its platform at Memorial Hermann Health System, consisting of 17 hospitals and more than 250 care delivery sites. The platform will streamline onboarding processes and increase transparency and accessibility for staff.

“Kahuna will enhance our clinical competency experience and fully aligns with our nursing strategy to optimize our processes, prioritize innovation and safety, and excel as a top provider of care and clinical advancement for clinicians,” Bryan Sisk, senior vice president and chief nursing executive for Memorial Hermann, says in a news release.

“Memorial Hermann is committed to the Houston community and helping to develop the next generation of nurses,” Sisk continues. “The Kahuna platform will help improve the transparency, autonomy and efficiency of our competency management and development processes for our nurses to better support them in their roles, while also ensuring we provide high-quality care for our patients.”

The rollout comes six months after the software-as-a-service company raised a $21 million series B round of funding.

“We are thrilled to work with Memorial Hermann as they enrich all aspects of their clinical competency management practices with Kahuna’s skills management software,” adds Jai Shah, CEO of Kahuna Workforce Solutions. “This collaboration unites two Houston-based organizations and demonstrates a joint commitment to enhancing the standard of health care through digitized competency management in our Houston community and far beyond.”

Houston geothermal company grows Google partnership to provide power to Nevada

feeling lucky

Houston-based Fervo Energy’s geothermal energy soon will help power the world’s most popular website.

Through a first-of-its-kind proposal, Las Vegas-based public utility NV Energy would supply 115 megawatts of geothermal power generated by Fervo for Google’s two data centers in Nevada. Financial terms weren’t disclosed.

In 2021, Google teamed up with Fervo to develop a pilot project for geothermal power in Nevada. Two years later, electricity from this project started flowing into the Nevada grid serving the two Google data centers. Google spent $600 million to build each of the centers, which are in Henderson, a Las Vegas suburb, and Storey County, which is east of Reno.

The proposed agreement with NV Energy would bring about 25 times more geothermal power capacity to the Nevada grid, Google says, and enable more around-the-clock clean power for the search engine company’s Nevada data centers.

A data center gobbles up 10 to 50 times the energy per square foot of floor space that a typical office building does, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

“NV Energy and Google’s partnership to develop new solutions to bring clean … energy technology — like enhanced geothermal — onto Nevada’s grid at this scale is remarkable. This innovative proposal will not be paid for by NV Energy’s other customers but will help ensure all our customers benefit from cleaner, greener energy resources,” Doug Cannon, president and CEO of NV Energy, says in a Google blog post.

Utility regulators still must sign off on the proposal.

“If approved, it provides a blueprint for other utilities and large customers in Nevada to accelerate clean energy goals,” Cannon says.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.