3 Houston innovators to know this week

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This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Amanda Ducach of SocialMama, Sam Newman of Little Red Box Grocery, and Gina Luna of GP Capital Partners. Courtesy photos

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


Amanda Ducach, founder and CEO of SocialMama

Amanda Ducach, founder of SocialMama, is gearing up for a total rebrand and new product launch. Photo courtesy of SocialMama

For years, Amanda Ducach has been collecting data from the users of her social networking app, SocialMama. Now that data is fueling the AI of the new platform and a whole new phase of the company.

"When you have a compatibility-friendship-based product, you have crazy amounts of data. We could have went and sold that — like an unethical company and like a lot of companies we've unfortunately seen do recently. Instead, we used the data to improve our product to create positive health outcomes for our users," Ducach says.

Ducach share more of what she's working on ahead of the launch of the new platform and what it's been like starting and running a consumer-focused app in Houston on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Sam Newman, founder of Little Red Box Grocery

Equitable access to services is integral to the vitality of all communities. Photo courtesy

In a recent guest column for InnovationMap, Sam Newman, founder of Little Red Box Grocery, writes of how around 40 million Americans, including five million Texans, live in food deserts. Startups have an opportunity for impact.

"Equitable access to services is integral to the vitality of all communities. Good food, secure housing – it doesn’t just nourish bodies and minds, it can spur new investment into our neighborhoods and prove once and for all that manmade deserts of any kind do not have to exist if we let imagination and innovation prevail. If there was ever a time to prioritize access – and action – it is now," he writes. Click here to read more.

Gina Luna, partner at GP Capital Partners

GP Capital Partners is a part of a new initiative to provide training and job placement for future cybersecurity professionals. Photo courtesy

Houston-based private credit and equity investment firm GP Capital Partners has teamed up with LP First Capital, a private equity firm with offices in Austin and New York, to form National Cyber Group. The new entity, headquartered in Washington, D.C., will provide foundational IT certification training, job placement resources, and more, according to a news release.

Gina Luna, managing partner of GP Capital Partners, says this is a huge opportunity for Houston, as the city's tech jobs continue to grow, and the city continues to be a major hub for tech talent.

"There are many Houston companies that need well-trained, qualified cybersecurity analysts and many hard-working Houstonians that would find a career in cybersecurity an attractive path to better opportunity for themselves and their families. National Cyber Group can provide both, which is certainly good for Houston," she says. Click here to read more.

Equitable access to services is integral to the vitality of all communities. Photo by Erik Scheel/Pexels

Founder: Inflation is creating a barrier to healthy food access, affordable housing for Houstonians

guest column

Approximately 40 million Americans, including five million Texans, live in food deserts. These are communities with low access to fresh and healthy foods and high access to unhealthy alternatives, where a trip to the grocery store is oftentimes a tradeoff between convenience, cost, and choice. Everyone deserves (indeed, needs) good food access, yet current market offerings are not designed to satisfy demand.

And food is but one part of a tapestry of disparity – which includes among other things health and wellness services, digital connectivity, debt and access to credit, and housing insecurity – that disproportionately impacts historically marginalized communities and leaves residents vulnerable to greater risks. These issues, long-standing though they are, have become more acute with inflation, as the cost of everything goes up and wages lag.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the price of food that people eat at home rose 10 percent in the last year. At the same time, the cost of rent in Houston also increased 10 percent last year - Houston now ranks in the top 50 most expensive cities in America for renters. Across Texas, rents are up 30 percent in Austin, 11 percent in San Antonio, and 17 percent in Dallas-Fort Worth last year. When tenants face a rent increase it hampers their ability to move, because even if they are working, it can be a challenge to pay the lump sum of a new first month’s rent plus a security deposit. This is a huge barrier for our neighbors living paycheck to paycheck.

Whether it’s rent or the price of eggs, families are being squeezed, and in order to bridge this widening chasm – the Market Gap and Equity Gap – we need to embrace fresh solutions for all who live in service deserts. Fortunately, new organizations are coming to the fore in a targeted and meaningful way:

Tech start-ups such as Providers and Forage are empowering low-income households with greater access and insight on how and where to use food stamps.

At the community level, New York-based Wellfare is leveraging density and community knowledge to run a direct-to-door food subscription model for low-income households. And here in Houston, my organization, Little Red Box Grocery, will soon be launching a reimagined community store, designed to bring the benefits of good food access + health to Houston’s Food Deserts.

Yet when it comes to the wellspring of uncertainty, so much flows downstream from unstable housing it is hard to overstate its importance on family stability. If a landlord increases the rent, some renters can certainly move, but others have no choice but to pay up as they cannot afford the upfront costs required to find alternative housing. And the more one spends on housing, the less there is for life’s other many necessities… including food.

Fresh food access and housing insecurity are intertwined challenges that we must meet head on. Fortunately, companies like Rhino are helping solve one of renters’ biggest financial hurdles – the up-front cash required for a security deposit – with security deposit insurance. This gives renters a low-rate policy as affordable as $5 per month for an apartment renting for $1,000 per month. Some property owners in Texas are already accepting it as an alternative way to secure an apartment.

The benefits of this kind of arrangement are easy to see. People can put money that would otherwise be locked away in a security deposit into savings, pay down debt, buy groceries for their family in a manner that improves home and community health and well-being. One could even start a business, or pursue a degree. The point is that it frees up home economics to be used in a manner most efficient for that family.

And services such as this should help level the playing field. In a recently released survey of renters, renters of color were more likely to pay a security deposit than white renters and they paid $150 more on average in the security deposit than white renters. Renters of color also submitted more applications and paid higher application fees than white renters.

Equitable access to services is integral to the vitality of all communities. Good food, secure housing – it doesn’t just nourish bodies and minds, it can spur new investment into our neighborhoods and prove once and for all that manmade deserts of any kind do not have to exist if we let imagination and innovation prevail. If there was ever a time to prioritize access – and action – it is now.

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Sam Newman is the founder of Houston-based Little Red Box Grocery bringing the benefits of good food access to Houston’s Second Ward.

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Houston SaaS startup raises $10M to keep up with customer growth

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A Houston software company has announced its latest funding.

Liongard, an IT software provider, has raised an additional $10 million led by Updata Partners with contribution from TDF Ventures — both existing investors in the company. The funding, according to a news release, will go toward providing the best customer service for Liongard's growing customer base.

The technology is providing managed service providers, or MSPs, improved visibility across the IT stack and an optimized user experience.

“Since working with our first MSP partners, we’ve seen time and again the power of visibility into IT data, reducing the time they spend researching customer issues and allowing them to respond faster than their peers,” says Joe Alapat, CEO and co-founder of Liongard, in the release. “This investment enables us to continue to achieve our vision of delivering visibility into each element of the IT stack.”

The company has about 2,000 partners in support of more than 60,000 end customers. And has been recognized as a top employer by Forbes and Inc. magazine earlier this year.

“We are excited to deepen our commitment with Liongard,“ says Carter Griffin, general partner at Updata, in the release. “With its leading data platform for MSPs we expect continued fast-paced growth.”

Liongard's last funding round was in May of 2020 and was a $17 million series B round. Both Updata Partners and TDF ventures were involved in that round. The company's total funding now sits at over $30 million.

Rice University rises to No. 1 spot in new ranking of best college investments

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By one measure, earning a degree at Rice University is the smartest move in the Lone Star State.

In its eighth annual ranking of colleges and university that give students the best return on their educational investment, personal finance website SmartAsset places Rice at No. 1 in Texas and No. 10 in the U.S. It’s the only Texas school to break into the national top 10.

To determine the best-value colleges and universities in each state, SmartAsset crunched data in these categories: scholarships and grants, starting salary for new graduates, tuition, living costs, and retention rate.

While the tuition ($47,350) and student living costs ($17,800) at Rice are the highest among the top 10 Texas schools on the list, the average amount of scholarships and grants ($43,615), average starting salary ($77,900), and retention rate (97 percent) also are among the highest.

According to Rice, tuition, fees, on-campus room and board, books, and personal expenses for the 2022-23 academic year add up to $74,110. That figure, which excludes financial aid, applies to a full-time, degree-seeking student living on campus.

“Rice University is consistently ranked as a best value in higher education and is one of America’s leading teaching and research universities,” the school’s Office of Financial Aid says. “By attending Rice, you will not only receive a superior education at a reasonable cost, you also will benefit from having a Rice degree long after graduation.”

Three other schools in or near the Houston metro area appear on SmartAsset’s list of the biggest-bang-for-your-buck schools in Texas:

  • Prairie View A&M University, No. 4. The university posted the lowest retention rate (74 percent) among the 10 schools. The remaining figures sit roughly in the middle of the pack.
  • University of Houston, No. 5. The university’s tuition ($8,913) was the lowest in the top 10, as was the average amount of scholarships and grants ($6,544).
  • Texas A&M University-College Station, No. 6. The university’s living costs are the second highest among the top 10 ($17,636), while its average starting salary for new grads lands at No. 3 ($64,400).

Other schools in the state’s top 10 are:

  • University of Texas at Austin, No. 2.
  • University of Texas at Dallas (Richardson), No. 3.
  • Texas Tech University in Lubbock, No. 7.
  • LeTourneau University in Longview, No. 8.
  • University of North Texas in Denton, No. 9.
  • Texas State University in San Marcos, No. 10.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston expert addresses the growing labor shortage within health care

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Long before COVID-19 became a part of our new normal, the concerns around shortages in health care staffing were present.

To put this in real terms, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the latest projection of employment through the end of this decade is an increase of nearly 12 million jobs. A fourth of those — 3.3 million to be exact — are expected to go towards health care and social assistance roles.

Before the pandemic, the concerns centered around managing a growing retired population and a slowing in higher education nurse enrollment. Then amid the growing shortage concerns surrounding the support for aging baby boomers, we were all thrusted into a pandemic.

The stressors on health care professional staffing have doubled down and what the increased shortage has shown us is the need to intervene and change the traditional hiring practices. Speed to place a nurse on assignment doesn’t just ensure productivity — it is a matter of life or death.

Over the past several years, the evolution of technology has drastically changed how health care facilities operate and interact with their employees as well as patients. There was a point in time where the structure in health care staffing was rigid without flexibility or varieties of employment type. Conversations around travel positions, per diem, and permanent are all now commonplace as the recent shortages caused us to normalize the discussion around role type and use of technology to influence speed to hire.

This whole evolution was put to test when April 2020 came, and the initial brunt of the pandemic was in full swing. The entire world was in panic mode. During these quarantine times, we were in a state of a health care emergency with thousands of patients seeking health care. Unfortunately, hospitals could not keep up with this demand with their existing nurse professionals, and became severely overloaded and dangerous. Due to this the United States saw unprecedented labor shortages, impacting a large number of nurses and health care workers as it pertains to both their physical and mental health.

What we are seeing now is a period classified as the “The Great Rethinking,” where nurses and health care workers alike are speaking up for what they believe in and deserve. Salary transparency and flexibility are just the tip of the iceberg for this movement.

SkillGigs is unique in that we are giving the power back to registered nurses and health care professionals, while meeting the demand created by the pandemic. Our team has been fortunate to be a catalyst to direct the change in the future of work, and we look forward to continuing to innovate.

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Bryan Groom is the division president of health care at Houston-based SkillGigs.