The city's top power players within Houston's energy innovation ecosystem joined virtual SXSW to discuss Houston's life science innovation scene and developing an inclusive ecosystem. Photos courtesy

Overheard: Houston's innovation leaders weigh in on the city's developing ecosystem at SXSW

EAVESDROPPING ONLINE

Another day of SXSW 2021 has concluded, and just like the first day, Houston innovators logged on to discuss technology and innovation that's taking off in town.

The second of the two days of programming focused on the development of the Houston innovation ecosystem — including how the city is factoring in diversity and inclusion into development — with interviews hosted by me, Natalie Harms, editor of InnovationMap. Missed out on the fun? Catch up with a few overheard moments from Houston House or stream the full interviews below.

"“We have to be true to ourselves of what works for Houston. Making sure the DEI is interwoven and in our DNA of our ecosystem so that we don’t make the same mistakes as other cities." — Ashley DeWalt, managing director of DivInc Houston

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

Houston has an advantage in developing its innovation ecosystem because it can do so by learning from established ecosystems on the coasts. Locally, that means making diversity and inclusion a top priority. At a virtual SXSW Houston House panel, Ashley DeWalt, managing director of DivInc Houston, and Jan Odegard, interim executive director of The Ion, discuss the importance of prioritizing inclusion in developing Houston's innovation ecosystem. Click here to watch the full interview.

“This pandemic has really highlighted a lot of the health care disparities that are present within our systems. … Houston is in a unique position to address that.” — Fiona Mack, head of JLABS @ TMC

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

The Texas Medical Center is the largest medical center in the world with over 10 million patients coming in annually — and JLABS @ TMC is right in the middle of that. With this access to patients and clinical trials, Houston has a lot of potential to attract new innovative companies solving the world's biggest health care problems. At a virtual SXSW Houston House HOU Talk, Fiona Mack, head of JLABS @TMC, discusses the momentum behind health tech innovation in Houston. Click here to watch the full interview.

“Whatever the training is, you have to actually create bias disruptors and points of friction and processes that change behavior. If we don’t have a way to implement what we learn, it doesn’t really change culture.” — LaTanya Flix, senior vice president at the GHP

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, corporations of all shapes and sizes were inspired to look inward to address inequity within their workforce — from training to shifts in workplace culture. At a virtual SXSW Houston House HOU Talk, LaTanya Flix, senior vice president of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) at the Greater Houston Partnership, shares how she's on a mission to spread mindful DEI initiatives across all of the GHP's member organizations. Click here to watch the full interview.

“I see a world where I’m sitting in a boardroom, and I’m not the only woman anymore.” — Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury Fund

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

Women in venture capital are used to being the only women in the room and are fighting for that not to be the case for future generations. At a virtual SXSW Houston House panel, Sandy Guitar, managing director of the HX Venture Fund moderates a discussion with fellow women in VC, Paige Pitcher, director of innovation at Hines, and Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury Fund. Click here to watch the full interview.

“There’s an incredible number of innovations that have popped up in Houston, but a lot of them have been centered around solving engineering-type problems at industrial scale — and that still exists, but doesn’t get as much coverage as consumer-facing technologies.” — Josh Pherigo, director of research and data analytics at GHP

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

When tracking any sort of progress or growth, business look to their numbers and data. Houston's innovation system is no different. At a virtual SXSW Houston House HOU Talk, Josh Pherigo, director of research and data analytics at the Greater Houston Partnership, dives in deep with the facts and figures of Houston's burgeoning innovation ecosystem by following the venture dollars coming into local startups. Click here to watch the full interview.

“If you look at the density in Houston, being the energy capital of the United States, there are probably few places in the world where you can walk 15 minutes in either direction and talk to about 100 companies that would potentially be customers.” — Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager Portal

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

A good startup idea comes from necessity and a way to apply technology to solve problems and shorten business delivery times, and the maritime shipping industry has a lot of opportunities for these types of innovations. At a virtual SXSW Houston House HOU Talk, Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager Portal, sets sail on a conversation about the maritime shipping industry — and how it was ripe with disruption. Click here to watch the full interview.

“You have institutions of exception in Houston where innovation flows from. The question isn’t that it’s not there, it’s how have we been tapping it.” — David Schubert, president of Magnolia Tejas Corp.

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

Houston has a burgeoning life science innovation scene — but what's that next step for its development? At a virtual SXSW Houston House HOU Talk, David Schubert, president of Magnolia Tejas Corp. discusses the potential of Houston's world-class oncologists and biotech innovators have to make the city a hub for cancer innovation. Click here to watch the full interview.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Samantha Lewis of Mercury Fund, Barbara Burger of Chevron, and Lauren Bahorich of Cloudbreak Ventures. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three female innovators across industries recently making headlines — all three focusing on investing in innovation from B2B software to energy tech.

Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury Fund

Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury Fund, joins this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Mercury Fund

When Samantha Lewis started her new principal role at Houston-based Mercury Fund, she hit the ground running. Top priority for Lewis is building out procedure for the venture capital firm as well as finding and investing in game-changing fintech.

"(I'm focused on) the democratization of financial services," Lewis says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Legacy financial institutions have ignored large groups of our population here in America and broader for a very long time. Technology is actually breaking down a lot of those barriers, so there are all these groups that have traditionally been ignored that now technology can reach to help them build wealth." Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures

Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures, spearheaded by Barbara Burger, has announced their latest fund. Courtesy of CTV

Chevron Technology Ventures LLC's recently announced $300 million Future Energy Fund II builds on the success of the first Future Energy Fund, which kicked off in 2018 and invested in more than 10 companies specializing in niches like carbon capture, emerging mobility, and energy storage. The initial fund contained $100 million.

"The new fund will focus on innovation likely to play a critical role in the future energy system in industrial decarbonization, emerging mobility, energy decentralization, and the growing circular carbon economy," Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures says in a February 25 release.

Future Energy Fund II is the eighth venture fund created by Chevron Technology Ventures since its establishment in 1999. Click here to read more.

Lauren Bahorich, CEO and founder of Cloudbreak Enterprises

Cloudbreak Enterprises, founded by Lauren Bahorich is getting in on the ground level with software startups — quickly helping them take an idea to market. Photo courtesy of Cloudbreak

Lauren Bahorich wanted to stand up a venture studio that really focused on growing and scaling B-to-B SaaS-focused, early-stage technology. She founded Cloudbreak Enterprises last year and already has three growing portfolio companies.

"We truly see ourselves as co-founders, so our deals are structured with co-founder equity," Bahorich says, explaining that Cloudbreak is closer to a zero-stage venture capital fund than to any incubator. "We are equally as incentivized as our co-founders to de-risk this riskiest stage of startups because we are so heavily invested and involved with our companies."

This year, Bahorich is focused on onboarding a few new disruptive Houston startups. Click here to read more.

Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury Fund, joins this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Mercury Fund

Houston venture capitalist says it's time for more women in VC

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 73

In all the turmoil of 2020, Samantha Lewis had at least one silver lining. The former director of Goose Capital transitioned into her new position as principal at Mercury Fund.

However fortunate she feels to have her new position, she shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast this week that there's not nearly enough of women like her in venture capital.

"The bottom line is there has to be more women with check-writing abilities," Lewis says on the show. "And when there is more women with check-writing abilities, more women will get funded."

Joining the podcast at the start of Women's History Month, Lewis says that the pandemic disproportionately affected women's careers across the board — but when it comes to VC, the solution is growing the female representation at firms.

"It is up to the people in VC hiring or the institutional investors who are giving money to funds to make sure there's a woman on the investment team," she says — adding that just one isn't enough.

In her role at Mercury, Lewis is helping build up the fund's processes — something she specialized in at Goose. She's also focused on building up the portfolio around a specific theme.

"One of the things specifically that Mercury brought me over to focus on from an investment perspective is something we're calling our 'power theme,'" Lewis says. "Think about it as giving people the power to make decisions that are authentic to their values around sustainability and impact."

There have been significant changes in consumer values driven by millennials, and businesses are prioritizing sustainability and transparency in order to keep up. Lewis discusses how Houston-based Topl, which is one of Mercury's portfolio companies, has a major role to play in this space.

Another key area of interest for Lewis is fintech.

"The other piece of the theme is thinking about the democratization of financial services," Lewis says. "Legacy financial institutions have ignored large groups of our population here in America and broader for a very long time. Technology is actually breaking down a lot of those barriers, so there are all these groups that have traditionally been ignored that now technology can reach to help them build wealth."

Lewis discusses more about how Mercury Fund is at an inflection point and how the Houston innovation ecosystem is developing with intention on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.



Mercury Fund led Topl's $3 million seed round. Photo via Getty Images

Houston blockchain startup closes $3 million seed led by local VC

money moves

A Houston-based blockchain company that focuses on providing companies with ethical and sustainable practices within the supply chain has closed a $3 million round with support from investors both locally and across the country.

Today, Topl announced the closing of its seed round, which was led by Houston-based Mercury Fund with support from Houston-based GOOSE Capital, Chicago-based Chingona Ventures, Dallas-based RevTech Ventures, and New York-based firms Beni Venture Capital, Blue Collective, and Social Impact Capital.

"We're grateful to have closed an oversubscribed venture round during a pandemic, especially given the unfortunate truth that many women-led startups are getting much less investment during this time," says Kim Raath, CEO of Topl, in a press release. "Bringing transparency to causes dedicated to environmental and social good has never been more important. We are building a modern blockchain for a world where purpose and profit go hand in hand."

According to the release, Topl will use the fresh funds to speed up the launch of the company's blockchain-as-a-service solution for early next year.

Earlier this month, Topl announced a partnership with Denver-based TrackX, a software-as-a-service asset management and supply chain solution provider, aimed at combining technology to create a verifiable tracking and tracing solution to equip company supply chains with sustainability, transparency, and efficiency. Ultimately, it's Topl's goal to allow its users the ability to stand out to customers as sustainable and responsible brands — something that's become increasingly more important to consumers.

"A company's social and environmental impact has become a necessary point of differentiation for brands, and Topl has the potential to be the leading player for brands who are serious about [Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance]," says Blair Garrou, managing director of Mercury Fund.

To date, Topl has raised $4.4 million in funding. It's first seed round closed September 2019. For that round, Samantha Lewis, formerly director of GOOSE Capital, was instrumental, according to the release.

"Kim and the Topl team have created a custom-designed method to measure and verify your company's sustainability efforts. We're excited to be part of this intersection of cutting-edge technology and positive impact," Lewis, who's now on the board of the startup, says in the release.

Topl's technology has the ability to affect any industry, and the company has worked with tracing products from diamonds and chocolate to natural resources and even COVID-19 testing.

"Topl's track-and-trace solution appeals to so many core industries: from healthcare to agriculture to energy," says Manolo Sánchez, former chairman and CEO of BBVA Compass and also a member of Topl's board, in the release. "Anyone who needs to ensure transparency, efficiency and sustainability would benefit from their technology."

This week's innovators to know roundup includes Heath Butler and Samantha Lewis of Mercury Fund and Adam Kuspa of the Welch Foundation. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators across the city — each in their own ways financially support the region's top innovators.


Heath Butler and Samantha Lewis of Mercury Fund

Heath Butler has been promoted to managing director of Mercury Fund, and Samantha Lewis joins the firm as principal. Photos courtesy

Houston-based Mercury Fund, which focuses on early-stage startups located in central United States, announced the promotion of Heath Butler to managing director from network partner. Additionally, Samantha Lewis — formerly investment director at Houston-based Goose Capital — is joining the fund as principal.

"Over the past few years, we've continued to build our investment team with top talent from our ecosystem," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release.

"The promotion of Heath and the addition of Samantha will further Mercury's early-stage venture leadership in Middle America, and is illustrative of Mercury's deep commitment to diversity as a core value driver," continues Garrou. Click here to read more.

Adam Kuspa of The Welch Foundation

Adam Kuspa of The Welch Foundation joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the COVID-19 vaccine, materials science, and more. Photo courtesy of The Welch Foundation

It's been an interesting year for Adam Kuspa and the Welch Foundation as — just like any other organization — the pandemic has caused various disruptions for Kuspa and his team. At the same time, COVID-19 has forced an unprecedented public-private response from the medical community, the government, and more.

"I'm very proud of the scientific enterprise in this country and around the world — they way it's been supported, developed, and maintained over the years — to allow for something like this be even contemplated," Kuspa says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Over the last 40 to 50 years, researchers in the fields immunology, vaccine research, protein biochemistry, and more, have seen increased support, Kuspa says, and that's what made a difference in the pandemic and allowed for a vaccine to emerge so quickly. Click here to read more and to listen to the episode.

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Houston startup secures big contract, coworking company acquired, and more local innovation news

short stories

Houston is starting 2022 strong in terms of innovation news, and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, the Bayou City is ranked based on its opportunities for STEM jobs, a Houston blockchain startup scores a major contract, Rice University opens applications for its veteran-owned busineess competition, and more.

Data Gumbo announces contract with Equinor

After a successful pilot, Equinor has signed off on a contract with Data Gumbo.. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

Houston-based Data Gumbo, an industrial blockchain-software-as-a-service company, announced that it has signed a contract with Equinor. The global energy company's venture arm, Equinor Ventures, supported the startup's $7.7 million series B round, which closed last year.

The company's technology features smart contract automation and execution, which reduces contract leakage, frees up working capital, enables real-time cash and financial management, and delivers provenance with unprecedented speed, accuracy, visibility and transparency, per the release.

“Equinor is an industry trailblazer, demonstrating the true value of our international smart contract network to improve and automate manual processes, and bring trust to all parties,” says Andrew Bruce, founder and CEO of Data Gumbo, in a news release. “Smart contracts are playing a critical role in driving the energy industry forward. Our work with Equinor clearly demonstrates the benefits that supermajors and their supply chain customers, partners and vendors experience by automating commercial transactions. We are proud to continue our work with Equinor to help them realize the savings, efficiencies and new levels of transparency available through our smart contract network.”

Equinor opted into a pilot with the company a few years ago.

“Since piloting Data Gumbo’s smart contracts for offshore drilling services in 2019, we have worked with the company to continually refine and improve use cases. We now have the potential to expand Data Gumbo’s smart contract network to enable transactional certainty across our portfolio from the Norwegian Continental Shelf to our Brazilian operated assets and beyond,” says Erik Kirkemo, senior vice president at Equinor. “GumboNet reduces inefficiencies and processing time around contract execution in complex supply chains, which is a problem in the broader industry, and we look forward to realizing the streamlined process and cost savings of its rapidly expanding smart contract network.”

WeWork acquires Dallas coworking brand with 6 Houston locations

Common Desk, which has six locations in Houston including in The Ion, has been acquired. Photo courtesy of Common Desk

Dallas-based Common Desk, which has six locations in Houston, announced its acquisition by WeWork. The company's office spaces will be branded as “Common Desk, a WeWork Company,” according to a news release.

“Similar to WeWork, Common Desk is a company built on the concept of bringing people together to have their best day at work," says Nick Clark, CEO at Common Desk, in the release. "With the added support from WeWork, Common Desk will be able to not only leverage WeWork’s decade of experience in member services to improve the experience of our own members but also leverage WeWork’s impressive client roster to further build out our member base.”

Here are the six Common Desk spaces in Houston:

Here's how Houston ranks as a metro for STEM jobs

Source: WalletHub

When it comes to the best cities for jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math, Houston ranks in the middle of the pack. The greater Houston area ranked at No. 37 among the 100 largest metros across 19 key metrics on the list compiled by personal finance website, WalletHub. Here's how Houston fared on the report's metrics:

  • No. 36 – percent of Workforce in STEM
  • No. 74 – STEM Employment Growth
  • No. 43 – Math Performance
  • No. 16 – Quality of Engineering Universities
  • No. 2 – Annual Median Wage for STEM Workers (Adjusted for Cost of Living)
  • No. 90 – Median Wage Growth for STEM Workers
  • No. 75 – Job Openings for STEM Graduates per Capita
  • No. 88 – Unemployment Rate for Adults with at Least a Bachelor’s Degree

Elsewhere in Texas, Austin ranked at No. 2 overall, and Dallas just outranked Houston coming in at No. 34. San Antonio, El Paso, and McAllen ranked No. 51, No. 65, and No. 88, respectively.

Rice University calls for contestants for its 8th annual startup pitch competition for veterans

Calling all veteran and active duty startup founders and business owners. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University is now accepting applications from Houston veterans for its annual business competition. To apply for the 2022 Veterans Business Battle, honorably discharged veterans or active duty founders can head online to learn more and submit their business plan by Feb. 15.

“We’re looking forward to giving veterans the opportunity not just to share their ideas and get financing, but learn from other past winners the lessons about entrepreneurship they’ve lived through while growing their businesses,” event co-chair Reid Schrodel says in a news release.

Over the past few years, finalists have received more than $4 million of investments through the program. This year's monetary prizes add up to $30,000 — $15,000 prize for first place, $10,000 for second place, and $5,000 for third place.

Finalists will be invited to make their business pitch April 22 and 23 at Rice University. Click here to register for the event.

City of Houston receives grant to stimulate STEM opportunities

Houston's youth population is getting a leg up on STEM opportunities. Photo via Getty Images

Thanks to a $150,000 grant from the National League of Cities, the city of Houston has been awarded a chance to provide quality education and career opportunities to at-risk young adults and students. The city is one of five cities also selected to receive specialized assistance from NLC’s staff and other national experts.

“This award is a big win for young people. They will benefit from significant career development opportunities made possible by this grant,” says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a news release. “These are children who would otherwise go without, now having experiences and connections they never thought possible. I commend the National League of Cities for their continued commitment to the future leaders of this country.”

According to the release, the grant money will support the Hire Houston Youth program by connecting diverse opportunity youth to the unique STEM and technology-focused workforce development.

"Our youth deserve educational opportunities that connect them to the local workforce and career exploration, so they can make informed choices about their future career path in Houston’s dynamic economy. Houston youth will only further the amazing things they will accomplish, thanks to this grant," says Olivera Jankovska, director of the Mayor's Office of Education.

Houston software startup raises $12.5M series B

money moves

Houston-based Codenotary, whose technology helps secure software supply chains, has raised $12.5 million in a series B round. Investors in the round include Swiss venture capital firm Bluwat and French venture capital firm Elaia.

The $12.5 million round follows a series A round that was announced in 2020, with total funding now at $18 million.

Codenotary, formely known as vChain, says the fresh round of money will be used to accelerate product development, and expand marketing and sales worldwide. Today, the startup has 100-plus customers, including some of the world’s largest banks.

Codenotary’s co-founders are CEO Moshe Bar and CTO Dennis Zimmer. They started the company in 2018.

Bar co-founded Qumranet, which developed the Linux KVM hypervisor. A hypervisor creates and runs virtual machines. Software provider Red Hat purchased Qumranet in 2008 for $127 million. Before that, he founded hypervisor company XenSource, which cloud computing company Citrix Systems bought in 2007 for $500 million.

“Codenotary offers a solution which allows organizations to quickly identify and track all components in their DevOps cycle and therefore restore trust and integrity in all their myriad applications,” Pascal Blum, senior partner at Bluwat, says in a news release.

The SolarWinds software supply chain hack in 2020 and the more recent emergence of Log4j vulnerabilities have brought the dangers of software lifecycle attacks to the forefront, Bar says. Now, he says, more and more companies are looking for ways to prove the legitimacy of the software that they produce.

Codenotary is the primary contributor to immudb, the an open-source, enterprise-class database with data immutability, or stability, designed to meet the demands of highly used applications.

Dallas-based ridesharing app gears up for expansion across Houston and beyond

HOUSTON INNOVATOR PODCAST EPISODE 118

Before he started his current job, Winston Wright would have thought a startup attempting to compete with the likes of Uber and Lyft was going to fight an uphill battle. Now, he sees how much opportunity there is in the rideshare market.

Wright is the Houston general manager for Alto, a Dallas-based company that's grown its driving service platform into five markets — first from Dallas into Houston and then to Los Angeles, Miami, and, most recently, Washington D.C. Alto's whole goal is to provide reliability and improve user experience.

"We're elevating ridesharing," Wright says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "With Alto, you get a consistent, safe experience with. a high level of hospitality. And that's a key differentiator for us in the market, and we're able to replicate that time and time again."

Wright, whose background is in sales and operations in hospitality, says his vision for alto in Houston is to expand the service — which operates in the central and western parts of the city — throughout the greater Houston area.

"The vision I have for this market is that, as we move forward and continue to expand, that we're covering all of Houston," he says.

This will mean expanding the company's physical presence too. Alto recently announced its larger space in Dallas, and now the Houston operations facility will grow its footprint too.

Wright says he's also focused on growing his team. Over the past two years, pandemic notwithstanding, the company has maintained hiring growth. Alto's drivers are hired as actual employees, not contractors, so they have access to benefits and paid time off.

The company, which raised $45 million in its last round of investment, is expanding next to the Silicon Valley area, followed by three to five more markets in 2022. Then, by the end of 2023, it's Alto's mission to have a completely electronic fleet of vehicles.

"Our goal is to have over 3,000 EV cars and be the first company with a 100 percent electric fleet by 2023," Wright says.

Wright shares more on Alto's future in Texas and beyond, as well as what's challenging him most as he grows the team locally. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.