This week's innovators to know roundup includes Youngro Lee of NextSeed, Joy M. Hutton of Google's Digital Coaches, and Aaron Knape of sEATz. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In today's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators across industries — from sports tech to startup mentorship.

Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed

Youngro Lee NextSeed

With the acquisition, Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed, has been named the COO of Republic. Courtesy of NextSeed

Youngro Lee has a new title thanks to an acquisition. Republic, a growing New York-based private investment platform, has acquired Houston-based NextSeed, according to announcements from both companies. With the acquisition, Lee now also serves as COO of Republic.

It's a pivotal moment for the private investment community as just two weeks ago the SEC announced changes to Regulation Crowdfunding that included raising the fundraising caps from $1.07 million to $5 million. Between the new regulations and the new Republic deal, investing on NextSeed's platform will grow in scale.

"Now, by partnering with Republic, we believe that we can achieve so much more together for our entire business and investor community," NextSeed's executive team says in an email to investors. "We have known and worked with the Republic team for over four years, as both firms tried to strengthen and grow this industry since the very beginning of this movement." Read more.

Joy M. Hutton, Grow with Google Digital Coach for Houston

Joy M. Hutton will lead Grow with Google in Houston. Photo courtesy

A new Google initiative is expanding its Texas presence this month, and Houston entrepreneur Joy M. Hutton, founder of Joy of Consulting, will serve as the Grow with Google Digital Coach for Houston.

"The Grow with Google team is making an effort to close the gap in resources that Black and LatinX small business owners have not generally had access to — in Houston and beyond," Hutton says in the release. "I live and breathe entrepreneurship, so I'm honored to participate in the Google Digital Coaches program and excited to work with Houston entrepreneurs who are traditionally underrepresented." Read more.

Aaron Knape, co-founder and CEO of sEATz

Houston-based sEATz has raised funding to help scale to the demands as fans safely return to stadiums. Photo courtesy of sEATz

When COVID-19 hit, Aaron Knape and his team at sEATz had to think long and hard about how their tech platform for in-stadium food and merchandise delivery would survive. However, what seemed like an insurmountable challenge became sEATz's biggest opportunity.

"We really started seeing how integral our platform was going to be for the safe return for sports and entertainment," says Aaron Knape, CEO and co-founder of sEATz."When we started getting that momentum and traction with our clients, our investor base and perspective investor base got really excited."

And those excited investors allowed the startup to raise a second seed round of venture capital to the tune of $1.6 million. Read more.

Houston-based sEATz has raised funding to help scale to the demands as fans safely return to stadiums. Photo courtesy of sEATz

Exclusive: Houston sports tech startup raises $1.6M to make stadiums safer and more socially distant

money moves

When COVID-19 hit and shut down major events including sports and entertainment, a Houston tech startup that created a platform for in-stadium food and merchandise delivery hit a huge obstacle.

However, what seemed like an insurmountable challenge became sEATz's biggest opportunity. As sports management teams start to envision bringing in more fans, they've realized they have to prioritizing limiting crowds and enabling social distancing. SEATz — with its in-seat ordering app and backend software — enables fans to stay seated and avoid lines.

"We really started seeing how integral our platform was going to be for the safe return for sports and entertainment," says Aaron Knape, CEO and co-founder of sEATz."When we started getting that momentum and traction with our clients, our investor base and perspective investor base got really excited."

And those excited investors allowed the startup to raise a second seed round of venture capital to the tune of $1.6 million. In September 2019, sEATz closed a $1.3 million seed round led by Houston-based Valedor Partners. Valedor again led this round, says Knape, and, while the plan was just to raise $1 million, the bar was raised to give the company even more funds to scale.

"We didn't want to just idle through COVID," Knape tells InnovationMap. "We see a tremendous opportunity to grow in the market and to expand the capabilities if the platform."

The funds will go toward marketing opportunities as well as tech development. including integrating with various points of service systems.

"We didn't pivot. We expanded our capabilities," Knape says on how sEATz was always focused on mitigating lines in sports and entertainment settings. "This will in all likelihood will make us a much stronger company coming out of COVID."

sEATz In-seat food delivery is going to be a must as fans return to stadiums safely. Courtesy of sEATz

Houston Exponential has announced the 38 finalists for the inaugural Listies Awards. Photo via Getty Images

Exclusive: HX names finalists for inaugural Houston innovation awards

the listies go to...

Ever wonder what Houston startups and innovators are the best of the best? Here's your chance to figure it out. The inaugural Listies awards program has named its finalists.

The Listies, brought to you by Houston Exponential in partnership with InnovationMap, will name the winning companies and people across 12 awards on November 20 at 3 pm at a virtual event as a part of Impact Hub's annual The Houston Innovation Summit (THIS). Click here to register for the free event.

Nominations were open until Friday, November 6, and then a group of judges made up of members of the Houston innovation ecosystem reviewed the submissions to settle on the finalists. Below, in alphabetical order, the 38 finalists are listed for each category.

DEI champion

  • Heath Butler
  • Maria Maso
  • Grace Rodriguez

Individual contributor

  • Michael Matthews
  • Slawek Omylski
  • Brad True

Mentor of the year

  • Keith Kreuer
  • Wade Pinder
  • Landi Spearman

Outstanding leadership

  • Stephanie Campbell
  • Grace Rodriguez
  • Roberta Schwartz

Corporate innovation

  • Chevron Technology Ventures
  • Houston Methodist
  • Shell Ventures

Investor of the year

  • CSL Capital Management
  • Golden Section VC (GSTVC)
  • Integr8d Capital

SDO superstar

  • MassChallenge Houston
  • Rice Alliance
  • TMCx

Welcome to Houston

  • Greentown Labs
  • TestCard
  • Win-Win

Civic engagement

  • Annapurna
  • Luminare
  • McMac Cx

COVID pivot/phoenix

  • Luminare
  • re:3D
  • sEATz

People choice

  • INK
  • Liongard
  • Luminare
  • re:3D
  • Topl

Soonicorn

  • GoExpedi
  • Liongard
  • Medical Informatics Corp.
From digital carnival tickets to gamification on a revamped app, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is prepared for its 2020 season with new technologies. Photo courtesy of Rodeo Houston

Houston rodeo prepares for 2020 season with new technology on the grounds

rodeo ready

When the 2018 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo opened the gates to its first show of the season with headliner Garth Brooks, the nearly 90-year-old organization had just switched to digital ticketing. Around the time to enter the stadium, the BHP Billiton entrance, which welcomes in 51 percent of rodeo goers each night, was backed up with impatient rodeo fans.

For whatever reason, the roll out of the technology didn't go as planned, says Joel Cowley, CEO of the rodeo. But, after some damage control, the rodeo made some adjustments to the gate and ensured that those inefficient lines never happened again.

It was a lesson to learn for the rodeo, which isn't shying away from any other technology upgrades that will benefit rodeo goers and the organizations staff and volunteers.

"Anytime you do something new, you have to be on guard," Cowley tells InnovationMap. "You have to make sure you are stacked up on capacity — whether that be personnel, scanners, server capacity — because if you're not, it could create a situation from that."

A few months ago, the rodeo announced a slew of c-suite changes to its team following a reorganization led by McKinsey & Co. Among the changes was changing Andy Sloan's responsibilities from chief information officer to chief technology officer.

"As part of that reorganization, there was some focus on improving the technology that we utilize — and that's everything from our customer management system to what the consumer sees," Cowley says. "Andy is a great resource when we're trying to integrate those things."

The study prompted big ideas for new tech-driven initiatives for the rodeo, like a wristband that acts as your ticket but is also synced to your credit card for all purchases on rodeo grounds. But while that's an initiative for the future, 2020 rodeo attendees can expect to see new technologies this season.

Digital carnival packs

This year, the rodeo's carnival has began selling digital carnival ticket packs in an effort to transform the carnival experience to 100 percent digital. To prepare for this transition, the carnival volunteers have received extensive training — especially on how to communicate the process during the sales encounter.

Cowley says he expects to receive some negativity from longtime carnival ticket buyers, but also knows many people will appreciate the upgrade.

"The convenience for the users once they get used to it is going to be really great," Cowley says.

Gamification

Around two years ago, the rodeo conducted a study to understand its market. The study found that there are seven types of consumers for the rodeo. Cowley says they learned that there was a particular consumer type that they realized the rodeo could improve on attracting.

One of the ideas to attract this segment within the market was gamification. Cowley explains that according to the rodeo's survey data, rodeo goers' primary reason for attending is the show is the musical performer. The data also shows that when they get here, they enjoy their overall experience — not just the concert, Cowley says.

"Gamification is something that we are adding this year to engage the younger tech-savvy segment to give them something to do on the grounds," Cowley says.

The new tool, which is available on the rodeo's app, prompts users to check in around the grounds and complete tasks to earn buckles that can be redeemed for prizes.

"We think the more they see of the grounds, the better chance we have of making them lifelong fans," Cowley says.

There's also a new lounge called the Social Spur just north of the stadium where visitors can charge their devices and learn more about the app and the game.

Updated app

When it came to exploring gamification, Cowley says the rodeo looked into its app developer's capacity, as well as other app development companies. This process resulted in a new app provider and an overhaul of the rodeo's mobile app. The app, which syncs to the user's Facebook, is run by Canada-based Greencopper.

"It has been completely rebuilt from the ground up," Coweley says. "I think appearance-wise and functionality-wise — even though there was nothing wrong with the last one — this one is better."

Over the years, the rodeo's app has become more and more key in the rodeo experience. Users can find maps, buy tickets, view schedule information, and even receive up-to-date parking information.

Cowley says connectivity hasn't been a huge issue for the rodeo, but this year they've extended their WiFi service within NRG Stadium to cover just outside the gates so that users with digital tickets on the app can have that access.

In-seat food ordering

Also new for rodeo attendees is sEATz, a Houston-based startup that has developed an app that allows sporting event or concert attendees to order food to their seats. The app — through its partnership with the rodeo's food and beverage provider, Aramark —will be servicing the 100-level seats.

"It's really great to be able to be a part of the rodeo as far as a provider to help enhance that experience in the stadium," says Aaron Knape, CEO and co-founder of sEATz. "It goes back to our model of we want to serve a venue and the fans in that venue — not necessarily a specific sport or concert."

Austin Rolling, Gabriella Rowe, and Aaron Knape are this week's Houston innovators to know. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

In this weekly roundup of Houston innovators, we find an entrepreneur who created the tech solution he wished he'd had as a salesman, an innovation leader with big goals for The Ion, and a startup founder who's in for a very busy March.

Here are this week's Houston innovators to know.

Austin Rolling, CEO and co-founder of Outfield

austin rolling

Photo courtesy of Outfield

As an experienced salesman, Austin Rolling knows the challenges salespeople face on a daily basis. Rolling, who worked in a number of positions in both inside and outside sales with such big name companies as Whirlpool and Beats by Dre. He tells InnovationMap about how he wished he had better tools for communication and keeping organized.

"Fast forward some years later, my co-founder and I decided to work on a solution that could help support outside sales agents and I was able to use my domain expertise as an outside sales rep to ID the realm of solutions for various customer segments," Rolling says.

Rolling runs Outfield, a Houston-based software company gives field reps an intuitive interface to manage their territory and accounts on-the-go as well as instantly communicate with the rest of their team effortlessly across all devices. Click here to read more.

Gabriella Rowe, executive director of The Ion

Courtesy of Station Houston

Now that Station Houston has merged with Capital Factory, Gabriella Rowe, who previously served Station as CEO, has completely transitioned into her role as executive director of The Ion. On last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Rowe discussed the merger and how her goal for The Ion is to make the facility a vehicle for innovation development, but also create a diverse and inclusive environment reflective of Houston's own diversity.

"We're creating an opportunity for Houstonians," Rowe says on the episode, explaining why she's focused on bringing in a wide range of programming and education into The Ion.

In the episode, Rowe also discusses the Ion Smart Cities Accelerators, which has 10 companies from its inaugural cohort in pilot mode across Houston and has launched applications for its second cohort, as well as why she thinks Houston's innovation ecosystem is sure to succeed this time around. Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Aaron Knape, co-founder and CEO of sEATz

Courtesy of sEATz

Like most lifelong Houstonians, Aaron Knape has a long history with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. But this season, he'll be involved in a whole new way. Knape's startup, sEATz, an in-seat delivery app, will be live in certain sections of the rodeo at NRG Stadium.

"It's really great to be able to be a part of the rodeo as far as a provider to help enhance that experience in the stadium," Knape says. "It goes back to our model of we want to serve a venue and the fans in that venue — not necessarily a specific sport or concert."

SEATz had a busy football season, servicing the likes of The Texans, the University of Houston Cougars, and more, but turns out, football is not over. Through its partnership with Delaware North, the food and beverage provider for UH's TDECU Stadium, sEATz has added the XFL's Houston Roughnecks fans to its roster of users. Click here to read more.

A Houston startup just got a huge new client: The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Photo courtesy of sEATz

Houston in-seat ordering app gets rodeo ready, prepares for busy XFL season

dining delivered

A Houston startup isn't afraid to take on the 21-day Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo with its in-seat ordering technology.

Houston-based sEATz, through its partnership with Aramark and NRG Stadium, will be serving up stadium food to rodeo goers this year every single night of the show. Rather than be intimidated the size and scale of Rodeo Houston, sEATz, equipped with a recently upgraded app, is ready for the challenge.

"Twenty-one nights in a row for us is great — that just shows the flexibility and scalability of our model," says CEO and co-founder Aaron Knape.

For those headed out to the rodeo with tickets in the 100s — the lower section — sEATz will have in-seat delivery and pickup lanes. Users can download the app, plug in their seat information, order, pay, and hang tight for a delivery. SEATz will be available every night of the rodeo — from the start of the show to the concert.

The sEATz app has been freshly updated and is ready to rodeo. Photo courtesy of sEATz

Knape and co-founder and COO Marshall Law founded sEATz in 2018 after an idea Law had when he missed a key play at an Astros 2017 World Series game. Now, SEATz is active in 10 different venues and plans to roll out in 15 more this year, Knape says. The app has served fans at football and soccer games — and even delivered during the Rolling Stones concert at NRG Stadium last year.

"It's really great to be able to be a part of the rodeo as far as a provider to help enhance that experience in the stadium," Knape says. "It goes back to our model of we want to serve a venue and the fans in that venue — not necessarily a specific sport or concert."

SEATz had a busy football season, servicing the likes of The Texans, the University of Houston Cougars, and more, but turns out, football is not over. Through its partnership with Delaware North, the food and beverage provider for UH's TDECU Stadium, sEATz has added the XFL's Houston Roughnecks fans to its roster of users.

The team's first game on February 8 had over 17,000 in attendance, according to news reports. The team won 37 to 17 against the Los Angeles Wildcats. The second game for the Roughnecks is on Sunday, February 16, and the league recently announced the final championship game will be hosted in Houston.

"I think those fans came to have a really good time," Knape says of last weekend's game. "We're actually going to be quadrupling staff for Sunday's game."

SEATz, which closed is seed round last fall with $1.3 million raised, plans to raise another round early this year. The company is also actively recruiting teams and venues ahead of the baseball season, Knape says.

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3 takeaways from the Greater Houston Partnership's annual meeting

ICYMI

With 2020 in the rearview, the Greater Houston Partnership is looking into the new year with a new board chair. In the GHP's 2021 Annual Meeting, the organization introduced how important developing the innovation community is in Houston.

In her remarks, this year's Partnership Chair Amy Chronis, who is the Houston managing partner at Deloitte, shared what she hopes to inspire in her tenure. Her statement can be boiled down to three major points.

It's time to modernize Houston's economy

Chronis says it's time to focus on tech and innovation — and that requires support from all aspects of the city.

"Here in Houston, we must be laser-focused on building a strong, diverse, 21st century economy," she says. "Over the past few years, entrepreneurs, investors, academic institutions, local government, and the corporate sector have come together to unite, grow, and promote Houston's startup ecosystem. The progress since 2016 is staggering."

Since 2016, Chronis says, venture capital investment in Houston has increased almost 250 percent to a record $714 million dollars raised in 2020. Additionally, she calls out 30 new startup development organizations that have sprung up around town — like the East End Maker Hub, The Cannon, The Ion, Greentown Labs, and so much more.

Chronis also calls out the importance of educational institutions, such as Rice University and the University of Houston.

It's the industries that drive innovation

There is a growing need to diversify Houston's economy away from just oil and gas, Chronis says it's Houston's core industries — energy, life sciences, aerospace, along with manufacturing and global logistics — that have made transformative steps.

"We've got momentum, but we still need to double down with work to do," Chronis says, identifying energy, life sciences, and aerospace as three pillars to drive success.

Regarding energy, Chronis touts Greentown Labs opening in Houston — but warns it's increasingly important to have big corporations promote the energy transition.

"From the super majors to the service firms and the increasing presence of renewable companies, Houston is at the forefront of driving the Energy 2.0 sector," she says.

When it comes to health care, Chronis remarks on the Texas Medical Center's success with the TMC Innovation Institute and the development of TMC3, a 37-acre research commercialization campus.

"What's special about TMC3 is that it will create collaboration and innovation at scale," she adds. "It will be a catalyst that will advance Houston's position as the Third Coast for Life Sciences."

Lastly, Houston must maintain its moniker as the Space City — and the city has a lot of opportunities to do that with the development of the Houston Spaceport at Ellington Airport and the NASA Johnson Space Center.

"Houston is already home to a rich talent pool of nearly 23,000 aerospace manufacturing professionals and more than 500 aerospace and aviation companies and institutions, but the potential is so much greater," Chronis says.

Houston needs to focus on four areas to "drive a technological renaissance"

Chronis concludes her speech with some calls to action. She first acknowledges that corporations ask themselves about how they are promoting and valuing innovation.

"We must be committed to inspiring, cultivating and rewarding technological innovation," Chronis says. "How is your company partnering with startups, higher education institutions and other stakeholders to drive innovation?"

Next, Chronis calls out Houston's global diversity as a differentiator when it comes to attracting companies to Houston, and she cites HPE as an example.

"We know there are hundreds of tech companies in the Valley, and up and down the West and East coasts that are striving to build global diversity within their companies," she says. "There is no better place than Houston to do this."

Third, Chronis calls for everyone — from corporates to educations — to empower the next generation of innovators.

And, finally, she says it's time to spread the word about Houston.

"We are modern, sophisticated, and at our core, an incredibly global city. Global in a way that sets us apart from most U.S. metros," she says. "So, as we embark on this work to drive Houston's technology renaissance, we must ensure perceptions of Houston are aligned with reality."

Rice University competition to link veterans with NextSeed investors

it's on

Rice University's Business Veterans Association has helped military veteran raise more that $3.5 million in investments over the last seven years through it's annual pitch competition. And this year, the stakes are even higher.

The Veterans Business Battle — held April 23-24 — allows veterans to pitch their early-stage business or existing company to a panel of investors, as well as engage in educational opportunities and networking. Cash prizes are awarded for first, second, and third place pitches, ranging from $5,000 to $15,000

This year the VBB has also partnered with NextSeed Securities. The registered broker dealer and FINRA member will allow vetted startups invited to present at the event to raise capital from investments by the general public.

"Last year's online-only event gave us an opportunity to think of ways to engage new investors and expand our audience. We're excited to increase opportunities for our finalists and grow our network of investors," event co-chair Matt Wilson says in a statement.

Past competitors have run the gamut, including the likes of oil and gas drone operating company Trumbull Unmanned (which was named a Top 25 Veteran-Founded Startup by Forbes) as well as skin care lines, a body armor manufacturer, ready-to-wear boots, and a health-conscious sauces company. Several have gone on to represent small businesses at the White House.

Last year, YouMeMine, Capsulomics Inc, and Feildcraft were named finalists at the virtual event. In 2019, at a in-person competition, Amor Oral, Welcome Connect and FeedMe Fitness took the stage.

Other partners for the 2021 competition include the U.S. Small Business Administration, Bunker Labs, University of St. Thomas, Houston Community College, and Warrior Rising—a nonprofit for veterans and veteran families which will be hosting education, training, and one-on-one mentorships during the event.

To apply, applicants must submit a business plan on the competition website, vetbizbattle.org, by Feb. 5, according to a release. Businesses must have an honorably discharged veteran or active duty founder and equity holder who is running the venture. Finalists will be invited to make their business pitch at Rice University.

Houston health tech founder shares the monumental impact data can have on health care

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 67

Hospitals are processing massive amounts of data on a daily basis — but few are optimizing this information in life-saving capacities. A Houston company is seeking to change that.

InformAI has created several tech products to allow hospitals to tap into their data for game-changing health care.

"The convergence of technology, data, and deep learning has really opened up an avenue to look at large volumes of information and look at patterns that can be helpful in patient diagnosis and treatment planning," says CEO Jim Havelka on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

The InformAI team has developed two platforms that each of the company's tech products works within. One focuses on medical images and looks for subtle patterns of a medical condition, while the other can datamine patient information to identify patient risk predictors.

Currently, InformAI's sinusitis-focused product is undergoing Food and Drug Administration approval. About a quarter of the population has sinus-related issues, and the technology can help treatment and diagnosis, Havelka says.

"The data that we train our algorithms on are equivalent of 30 careers of a typical ear, nose, and throat surgeon. We see 30 times more patients in our training set than an ENT physician would see in a lifetime," Havelka says. "Being able to bring into play the patterns and unique subtleties that this data can bring into the decision making only makes the ENT more productive and more efficient, as well as creates better outcomes for patients."

InformAI has received venture capital support as well as a National Science Foundation award to advance its work. The company hopes to introduce a new round of funding later this year.

Havelka doesn't mince words when it comes to the importance of InformAI being located in Houston. The company's team works out of JLABS @ TMC as well as TMC Innovation Institute.

"Those relationships have been very helpful in getting data to build these particular products," Havelka says. "Just the Texas Medical Center alone has roughly 10 million patient encounters every year. The ability to get access to data and, equally important, the medical experts has been a tremendous benefit to InformAI."

Havelka discusses more about the revolutionary technology InformAI is working on — as well as advice he has for other health tech founders — on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.