3 Houston innovators to know this week

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This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Sameer Soleja of Molecule, Gabriela Gerhart of The Motherhood center, and 50 Cent. 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 — software, education, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Sameer Soleja, CEO of Molecule

Sameer Soleja, CEO of Molecule, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his startup's recent fundraise — and how he's planning on being at the forefront of the evolving electricity commodities industry. Photo courtesy of Molecule

A 9-year-old software startup has been reinvigorated by fresh funds and a new opportunity to emerge as a leader in enterprise software for commodities — especially for electricity traders. Sameer Soleja, CEO of Molecule, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the company's latest funding round — a $12 million series A.

"The commodities industry is looking really hard at electricity as the growth commodity of the 2020s — renewables and conventionally generated electricity," Soleja says. "Everybody in our client base and in the market is looking at electricity. Well, we happen to have more than have of our customer base be in electricity."

Click here to listen to the podcast and read more.

Gabriela Gerhart, founder of The Motherhood Center

Houston entrepreneur recounts journey from communism to U.S. success in new book

Gabriela Gerhart recounts her journey from communism to American success in her new book. Photo courtesy of Gabriela Gerhart

Gabriela Gerhart remembers that day, back in 1989, when her teacher walked into her classroom in Czechoslovakia and announced that communism was over. Further, she told the group that everything she'd been teaching them was a lie.

Gerhart was stunned.

"It was confusing," she tells CultureMap. "You think to yourself, 'was I fooled? Was I indoctrinated? 'You have to understand, I had no idea there was another world out there."

Gerhart, founder of The Motherhood Center on West Alabama Street unpacks those feelings and others in her new autobiography, After The Fall, a story of growing up in Central Europe under communism and following her own wanderlust to the States, where she fell in love, got married, and built a successful business.

Click here to read more.

Rapper 50 Cent really means business. 50 Cent/Twitter

Rap star and Newstonian 50 Cent is giving back to area schools in need of help. The recently relocated rapper/producer/entrepreneur/rodeo wine bidder is teaming up with the Houston Independent School District and Horizon United Group to bolster entrepreneurship programs at Kashmere, Worthing, and Wheatley high schools.

He has funded the project with a $600,000 donation, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced on May 17.

Dubbed the G-Unity Business Lab, the new program will encourage students to engage in MBA-level lessons that represent the full lifecycle of a product or concept, from idea creation, to market branding, to even running a company, a press release notes.

Click here to read more.

Sameer Soleja, CEO of Molecule, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his startup's recent fundraise — and how he's planning on being at the forefront of the evolving electricity commodities industry. Photo courtesy of Molecule

Houston software startup to use fresh funds to become 'unquestionably the best' for the electricity industry

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 84

Sameer Soleja went to business school and came back into the workforce with a bit of a revelation about software for the commodities industry.

"I realized, 'wait a second, we've been making terrible software and selling it for tens of millions of dollars," Soleja, CEO of Molecule, says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We had to be able to do something better than this — technology is better than this."

Soleja founded Molecule in 2012 to address the problem. The technology isn't unfamiliar to what ardent stock traders have at their fingertips, but before these types of platforms came into the picture, commodities companies didn't have a central platform.

"The way to think about the product is if you have a brokerage account — like Robinhood, or something like that — you see how much stock you have and how much you've made or lost," Soleja says. "For companies that are trading electricity, crude oil, natural gas, and other commodities and agricultural products, they also want to see how much of each thing they have and how much they've made or lost. But they don't just get to log into their brokerage account and figure it out. That's in a lot of different places."

Lately, a couple companies have bought up some of the businesses in this sector, leaving a lot of room open up at the top. Soleja says he saw this as an opportunity and started the arduous fundraising process. Molecule closed its series A round led by Houston-based Mercury Fund this month.

The other opportunity Soleja says he saw was a new market focus on electricity — a subsector Molecule is very good at working with. About half of Molecule's clients are in this field and electricity — as opposed to oil and gas products — is full of data. Where data comes in weekly or even monthly for O&G, fresh data comes in every 15 minutes for Molecule's electrical clients.

"The commodities industry is looking really hard at electricity as the growth commodity of the 2020s — renewables and conventionally generated electricity," Soleja says. "Everybody in our client base and in the market is looking at electricity. Well, we happen to have more than have of our customer base be in electricity."

Therein lies the opportunity for Molecule, which is also interested in deploying its capital is into engineering to both meet the feature gap and exceed in places where the company is already better, Soleja explains.

"We realized, well that's the place we double down because that's where the economy is going and that's what we're good at. Let's become unquestionably the best at it," he says.

The funds will go toward company expansion. Soleja says he plans to add 50 percent to his team within the next 6 to 12 months and potentially be at 30 to 40 people in a year or two from now. Over the past nine years, Molecule has been growing organically without a centralized focus on sales and marketing.

"We are way below the benchmark for what everyone else spends on sales and marketing. So, we're going to fix that," he says.

Soleja shares more about his raise process and shares advice for his fellow startup founders on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Molecule has closed new funding in order to focus on the energy transition. Photo via Getty Images

Houston SaaS startup closes $12M series A funding round with support from local VC

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A Houston startup with a software-as-a-service platform for the energy transition has announced it closed a funding round with participation from a local venture capital.

Molecule closed its $12 million series A, and Houston-based Mercury Fund was among the company's investors. The company has a cloud-based energy trading and risk management solution for the energy industry and supports power, natural gas, crude/refined products, chemicals, agricultural commodities, softs, metals, cryptocurrencies, and more.

"We led the seed round of Molecule upon their formation and are excited to participate in their series A," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release. "Molecule's success in the ETRM/CTRM industry, especially in relation to electricity and renewables, positions them as the company to beat for the energy transition in the 2020s."

The company will use its new funds to further build out its product as well as introduce offerings to manage renewables credits, according to the release.

"In 2020, we realized that electricity — the growth commodity of the 2020s — represented over half of Molecule's customer base, and we decided to double down," says Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule, in the release. "We were also rated the No. 1 SaaS ETRM/CTRM vendor. With this fundraise, we have the fuel to become No. 1 SaaS platform for power and renewables, and then the market leader overall.

"Molecule is ready to power the energy transition," Soleja continues.

Molecule's last round of funding closed in November 2014. The $1.1 million seed round was supported by Mercury Fund and the Houston Angel Network.

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Houston unicorn fintech company launches new B2B education platform

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Houston-based HighRadius — which recently hit $1 billion valuation, reaching unicorn status — has launched a new learning platform.

Highako Academy by HighRadius, launched the platform to help credit and collections teams build certain skills faster. Highako features over 650 expert-led videos, community forums, and resources. The new on-the-job training platform, which announced its launch this week, is used by more than 2,800 companies, according to a press release.

"Our customers have asked us for an online self-service learning platform, and that led us to launch highako.com as a beta platform last year," says HighRadius COO Urvish Vashi in the release. "With 10,000+ users on the platform and a vibrant partner ecosystem consisting of credit groups, collection agencies, attorneys and industry associations, we see this echoing a larger trend of millennials and Gen Z gravitating towards microlearning platforms."

In honor of the launch of Highako Academy, the organization has announced plans for Credit SkillCon '21, a lunch-and-learn event from June 16 to July 20. The 53 live workshops, panel discussions, and on-demand sessions will focus on topics including negotiations, credit risk assessment, bankruptcy litigation, collections strategy and more. .

"We continually hear from members about wanting more and different educational options," says Jon Flora, president and CEO of NACM Business Credit Service. "The last year has changed much about how we answer this call, and now we have a solution. We are the first NACM affiliate to partner with Highako Academy."

HighRadius and its AI-powered SaaS technology, which streamlines accounts-receivable and cash-management processes, are growing fast. The company, which processes over $2.23 trillion in receivables transactions annually, per the release, raised $300 million in March. At the time of that raise, HighRadius, founded in 2006, employed more than 1,000 people around the world — and was hiring.

"Our goal has always been to build a long-lasting business that outlasts all of us," Sashi Narahari, founder and CEO of HighRadius, said in the news release. "I look forward to working with [our] high-quality, long-term investors, who share a common vision of transforming the office of the CFO using a combination of artificial intelligence built on top of connected-finance workspaces and embedded analytics."

Autonomous delivery company joins forces with FedEx for new pilot in Houston

self-driving mail

A tech company with self-driving robots deployed across Houston delivering pizza, groceries, and more has yet again launched a new pilot program — this time focused on parcel delivery.

Nuro and FedEx announced a new partnership to deploy Nuro's technology for last-mile delivery at a large scale with FedEx.

"FedEx was built on innovation, and it continues to be an integral part of our culture and business strategy," says Rebecca Yeung, vice president of advanced technology and innovation at FedEx, in a news release. "We are excited to collaborate with an industry leader like Nuro as we continue to explore the use of autonomous technologies within our operations."

The new pilot, which began in April, according to the release, is the latest in the FedEx portfolio of autonomous same-day and specialty delivery devices. The partnership allows for FedEx to be able to explore various use cases for autonomous vehicle logistics, like multi-stop and appointment-based deliveries. Meanwhile for Nuro, it's the company's first expansion into parcel logistics.

"Working with FedEx—the global leader in logistics—is an incredible opportunity to rethink every aspect of local delivery. This multi-year commitment will allow us to truly collaborate and bring Nuro's powerful technology to more people in new ways, and eventually reach large-scale deployment," says Cosimo Leipold, Nuro's head of partnerships, in the release. "Our collaboration will enable innovative, industry-first product offerings that will better everyday life and help make communities safer and greener."

California-based Nuro has launched a few delivery pilots in Houston over the past few years, including the first Nuro pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched last summer. The most recent pilot program — pizza delivery with Domino's — officially went live in Woodland Heights earlier this year.

Nuro's expansion in Houston has a lot to do with the legislation that's happening at the state level. Last year, Nuro was granted its exemption petition from the United States Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This move is a first for DOT, and it allowed Nuro to roll out its vehicles on public roads without the features of traditional, passenger-carrying vehicles — like side mirrors or windshields, for instance.

The city also just offers a lot of opportunities to try out various neighborhoods and environments.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Nuro Product Operations Manager Sola Lawal says an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Lessons in prototyping: Figuring out the best type of prototype

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As you continue your journey of developing and bringing a new product to the market, you have a series of decisions to make when it comes to prototyping — whether you're going to launch a hardware or a software product, or the combination of both — you need to have a prototype made.

Before you begin, there are a number of things to consider. In an article for InnovationMap last week, I looked at major choice points and their implications that will help you navigate the process in the most efficient way.

After you successfully laid the foundation for the development process and got you CAD models ready, you arrive at the next choice. Prior to making a prototype of your invention you need to decide what type of prototype you're going to build. Whether you're making it yourself or hiring a rapid prototyping company, you need to know the purpose your prototype will fulfil because it will help to select proper methods, techniques, and materials for building. With that in mind, let's go through the types of prototypes and purposes behind building them.

Types of Prototypes

Mockup

This type is usually used as a simple representation of your product idea, to gauge physical dimensions and see its rough look. It's especially useful for making physical models of complex and large products without investing a significant amount from the start. Mockup is perfect for initial market research and various types of early testing.

Proof of concept

This type of prototype is built when you need to validate your idea and prove that it can be realized. It comes in handy when approaching potential partners and investors.

Functional prototype

This kind of prototype is also called a "looks- and works-like" model because it has both technical and visual features of the product presented. It is used for testing product's functionality, conducting consumer surveys, and fundraising campaigns.

Pre-production prototype

This is the most complex type that is made at the latest stage of product development. It's used for ergonomics, manufacturability, and material testing, as well as to minimize risks of defects during manufacturing. This is a model that manufacturers use to produce the final product.

Choosing to Partner with Prototyping Company

It's important to note that prototyping is an iterative process. It is a fusion of art and science that helps you to uncover the full potential of your product, which in turn increases its chances for market success. Therefore, you will likely go through several types of prototypes, with each kind usually requiring a few versions to achieve the parameters you set for the model.

And this process also requires help of a company that builds prototypes or of a professional product development team. You can start looking for the one after you made your first mockup or proof of concept. It is recommended because creating more complex prototypes implies the use of sophisticated equipment, sourcing of materials and components that could be too expensive or complicated to do without an established network of suppliers. Plus, skills and experience play a huge role in creating quality prototypes. Taking all three factors – equipment, experience and skills - into account, it's smart to outsource your prototyping needs to a professional company.

This article is a follow up article to my post from last week. I have also previously contributed to guest columns on the following:

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Onega Ulanova is the founder of OKGlobal.