The four finalists in the BIPOC-Founded Business category for the inaugural InnovationMap Awards share their best advice for their fellow founders. Photos courtesy
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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

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 — 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

money moves

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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2 Houston suburbs roll onto top-15 spots on U-Haul’s list of growing cities

on the move

More movers hauled their belongings to Texas than any other state last year. And those headed to the Greater Houston area were mostly pointed toward Missouri City and Conroe, according to a new study.

In its recently released annual growth report, U-Haul ranks Missouri City and Conroe at No. 13 and No. 19, respectively among U.S. cities with the most inbound moves via U-Haul trucks in 2022. Richardson was the only other Texas cities to make the list coming in at No. 15.

Texas ranks No. 1 overall as the state with the most in-bound moves using U-Haul trucks. This is the second year in a row and the fifth year since 2016 that Texas has earned the distinction.

“The 2022 trends in migration followed very similar patterns to 2021 with Texas, Florida, the Carolinas and the Southwest continuing to see solid growth,” U-Haul international president John Taylor says in a news release. “We still have areas with strong demand for one-way rentals. While overall migration in 2021 was record-breaking, we continue to experience significant customer demand to move out of some geographic areas to destinations at the top of our growth list.”

U-Haul determines the top 25 cities by analyzing more than 2 million one-way U-Haul transactions over the calendar year. Then the company calculated the net gain of one-way U-Haul trucks entering a specific area versus departing from that area. The top U-Haul growth states are determined the same way.

The studies note that U-Haul migration trends do not directly correlate to population or economic growth — but they are an “effective gauge” of how well cities and states are attracting and maintaining residents.

Missouri City is known for its convenient location only minutes from downtown Houston. The city’s proximity to major freeways, rail lines, the Port of Houston, and Bush and Hobby Airports links its businesses with customers “around the nation and the world,” per its website.

The No. 19-ranked city of Conroe is “the perfect blend of starry nights and city lights,” according to the Visit Conroe website. Conroe offers plenty of outdoor activities, as it is bordered by Lake Conroe, Sam Houston National Forest and W. Goodrich Jones State Forest. But it also has a busy downtown area with breweries, theaters, shopping and live music.

To view U-Haul’s full growth cities report, click here.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston-based creator economy platform goes live nationally

so clutch

An app that originally launched on Houston college campuses has announced it's now live nationwide.

Clutch founders Madison Long and Simone May set out to make it easier for the younger generation to earn money with their skill sets. After launching a beta at local universities last fall, Clutch's digital marketplace is now live for others to join in.

The platform connects brands to its network of creators for reliable and authentic work — everything from social media management, video creation, video editing, content creation, graphic design projects, and more. With weekly payments to creators and an inclusive platform for users on both sides of the equation, Clutch aims to make digital collaboration easier and more reliable for everyone.

“We’re thrilled to bring our product to market to make sustainable, authentic lifestyles available to everyone through the creator economy," says May, CTO and co-founder of Clutch. "We’re honored to be part of the thriving innovation community here in Houston and get to bring more on-your-own-terms work opportunities to all creators and businesses through our platform.”

In its beta, Clutch facilitated collaborations for over 200 student creators and 50 brands — such as DIGITS and nama. The company is founded with a mission of "democratizing access to information and technology and elevating the next generation for all people," according to a news release from Clutch. In the beta, 75 percent of the creators were people of color and around half of the businesses were owned by women and people of color.

“As a Clutch Creator, I set my own pricing, schedule and services when collaborating on projects for brands,” says Cathy Syfert, a creator through Clutch. “Clutch Creators embrace the benefits of being a brand ambassador as we create content about the products we love, but do it on behalf of the brands to help the brands grow authentically."

The newly launched product has the following features:

  • Creator profile, where users can share their services, pricing, and skills and review inquiries from brands.
  • Curated matching from the Clutch admin team.
  • Collab initiation, where users can accept or reject incoming collab requests with brands.
  • Collab management — communication, timing, review cycles — all within the platform.
  • In-app payments with a weekly amount selected by the creators themselves.
  • Seamless cancellation for both brands and creators.
Clutch raised $1.2 million in seed funding from Precursor Ventures, Capital Factory, HearstLab, and more. Clutch was originally founded as Campus Concierge in 2021 and has gone through the DivInc Houston program at the Ion.

Madison Long, left, and Simone May co-founded Clutch. Photo courtesy of Clutch

Houston expert: Space tourism is the future — do we have the workforce to run it?

guest column

Throughout history, humans have always been fascinated in exploring and traveling around the world, taking them to many exotic places far and away. On the same token, ever since the dimension of space travel has been inaugurated with multiple private companies launching rockets into space, it has become an agenda to make space travel public and accessible to all. We believe that space travel is the next frontier for tourism just like for our forefathers world travel to faraway places was the next frontier, for recreational and adventure purposes.

In a world racing on technology, we can picture flying cars, invisible doors, and international cuisine in space. With this rapid expansion of the land, the idea of space tourism has stirred the space industry to think about running businesses, start trade, and set up universalization beyond the ring of the earth. It is no longer science fiction but our immediate future. However, the true question remains. Who will be responsible for all of it? Are we training the right workforce that is needed to build and run all of this?

Space tourism is an exciting idea in theory, traveling to extra-terrestrial destinations, exploring new planets, all by being in an anti-gravitational environment. Through these diminishing borders and rapid advancements soon we'll be living the space life, all the virtual, metaverse gigs coming to reality. But before that let's explore space tourism and how the solar system will welcome humans.

What is Space tourism?

Ever since 1967, Apollo opened the getaway of space travel and the technological intervention spun to rise. Just like nomad tourism, space tourism is human space travel for commercializing interstellar for leisure or pleasurable adventures of the unknown. Space has different levels of horizons, according to research, orbital space has high speeds of 17,400 mph to allow the rocket to orbit around the Earth without falling onto the land. While lunar space tourism goes into subcortical flights and brings people back at a slower speed.

Studies have shown that in the upcoming years, commercial space exploration will hike up the economical database, by generating more than expected revenue. On these grounds, space tourism won't be limited to suborbital flights but rather take onto orbital flights, this revolutionary expenditure will change the future.

Everything aligns when the right team works together endlessly to reach the stars. The space exploration will only take place with enthusiastic and empowered individuals catering towards their roles.

Astronomers, space scientists, meteorologists, plasma physicists, aerospace engineers, avionics technicians, technical writers, space producers, and more will work in the field to make this space dream come true.

The attraction of Space exploration

Curiosity is the gateway to the seven wonders of the world. Humans are born with novelty-seeking, the drive to explore the unknown and push boundaries. This exploration has benefited society in a million ways, from making bulbs to jets.

The attraction towards exploring the space stems from the same desire for novelty seeking. We want to answer the most difficult questions about the universe, is there only darkness beyond that sky? Can we live on another planet if ours die? To address the challenges of space and the world, we have created new technologies, industries, and a union worldwide. This shows how vital space exploration is to humans. Many astronauts dwell on the idea of seeing the iconic thin blue outline of our planet, the quintessential experience makes the astronaut go back and back. However, are we entering this dimension with the right skills? Is our future workforce ready to take need the best

Who will lead the path?

The main question that still goes unanswered is who will run space tourism. When it comes to the future, there are infinite options. One decision and you will fly into an endless sky.

This expenditure has opened multiple career opportunities for the future workforce to take on for diversification and exploration of space. Currently, we cannot predict how people will find meaning and improve their lives through space tourism, but it will be a soul-awakening experience. According to experts, travelers would prefer a livelihood in space for which companies are working day and night to figure out accommodation and properties. The ideas include having space hotels, offices, research labs, and tents for operations.

Lastly, space tourism is just a start, we are moving into a dimensional field of physics and astronomy to create new opportunities and ground-breaking inventions to explore the untouchable. The new era of more refined and thoroughly accessed careers are on the rise, let's see how the world evolves in the next 10 years.

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Ghazal Qureshi is the founder and CEO of UpBrainery, a Houston-based immersive educational technology platform that taps into neuroscience research-based programs to provide adaptive learning and individualized pathways for students at home or in the classroom.