3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

These three entrepreneurs saw a need in their industries and created their own solutions. Photos courtesy

A true innovator is someone who's able to look past how something has been done for years — decades even — and be creative enough to find a better way to do it.

From redesigning conventional lab space to seeing a niche opportunity for luxury home rentals, these three innovators to know this week have made strides in changing the game.

Caleb Bashor, professor at Rice University

Photo courtesy of Caleb Bashor

Not all labs are created equal — or affordably. Caleb Bashor, a professor at Rice University, along with seven colleagues, created a DIY lab to further research efforts based at the university.

The DIY lab, eVOLVER, comprises three modules: a customizable "smart sleeve" housing and interface for each culture vessel, a fluidic module that controls movement of liquid in and out of each culture vessel, and a modular hardware infrastructure that simplifies high-volume bi-directional data flow by decoupling each parameter into individual microcontrollers.

"The prototype 16-chamber version of eVOLVER described in the new paper cost less than $2,000, cheaper than what a lab might pay for a single continuous culture bioreactor," Bashor says. Read more about the eVOLVER here.

Sébastien Long, founder and CEO of Lodgeur

Photo courtesy of Lodgeur

Sébastien Long ended up in Houston by chance, and the city ended up being a great place to take his luxe apartment rental business plan and turn it into a reality. Houston-based Lodgeur is a rental company that takes the convenience of Airbnb and adds in the luxury experience of a hotel.

Long identified stylish apartment complexes and built his business which now has a couple properties downtown that are attractive to a niche market of clientele.

"We're roughly split between leisure guests and business travelers," Long says. "They want to feel like they're staying in a home away from home." Read more about Lodgeur here.

Gustavo Sanchez, co-founder and CEO of Pandata Tech

Photo courtesy of Pandata Tech

In oil and gas, proper data management can be the difference of millions of dollars in savings. Pandata Tech can run a data quality check for its oil and gas clients — and even engages automation and machine learning for quicker, more thorough results.

Gustavo Sanchez, co-founder and CEO of the company, is looking to bring his data systems into new industries, like health care, where data management can be hectic, overwhelming, and crucial to life-saving opportunities.

"There's so much data, and it's so noisy, that it's hard to know whether the data can be trusted or not," Sanchez says. Read more about Pandata Tech here.

Lodgeur provides its guests with hotel luxury with room to breathe. Courtesy of Lodgeur

Hospitality startup adds a new luxe approach to Houston's apartment rental market

City living

In 2018, Houston set a new tourism record with 22.3 million visitors to the city. That same year, Sébastien Long was finishing his Cambridge thesis on home-sharing companies like Airbnb and falling in love with a classmate. When the couple moved to Houston after graduation, Long brought his ideas with him, and that's how Lodgeur was born.

Lodgeur works as an upscale home-sharing startup that offers luxury apartments in midtown and downtown Houston for nightly rent. It doesn't replace Airbnb; customers can browse through and book the properties through the familiar website. Guests can also book short or extended stays directly with Lodgeur's website.

In short, Long's research found that most Airbnb's have high guest experience ratings, but those user reviews don't work to inspire the 90 percent of Americans who haven't used a homestay service. Those people have worries — mostly about what to expect, about safety, and about having to interact with homeowners. Long believes he can calm those fears by building a trusted brand that customers recognize on Airbnb, and Houston turned out to be the perfect place to do that: his main inspiration, Conrad Hilton, did the same with hotels over the last century.

"Houston has been a city that's been overlooked. Most companies didn't come here first," Long says. "Actually, people are coming to Houston every week of the year, prices don't fluctuate too much, and you're probably going to be running at a high occupancy every week of the year."

So Long drove around the city, looking for apartment buildings he liked and hoped his guests would, too. Having grown up working at the campground-turned-resort started by his parents in the French Mediterranean, he had an eye for what tourists found attractive — buildings with character, high-end aesthetics and clean designs like a hotel, but with modern kitchen appliances and more space.

"We're roughly split between leisure guests and business travelers," Long says. "They want to feel like they're staying in a home away from home."

Getting that experience is about the same price as a hotel. The properties range from $90 per night to a $200 apartment with 50 feet of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking downtown. The apartments have not just attracted outside visitors; people have come from around Houston to stay during home renovations or when their houses have flooded, Long says.

The first guests arrived in mid-April. Long wanted to open by managing just a few properties, to make sure the company could ensure great guest experiences.

Last week, he hired his first full-time employee — an ex-marine who graduated from the University of Houston's Conrad Hilton College of Hospitality — and has contracted a marketing agency to turn up Lodgeur's social media presence. For now, Lodgeur relies on a freelance interior designer to fashion the apartments and a local housekeeping company to keep them clean.

Long — who is a Station Houston and WeWork Labs member — says he is looking to expand, but he wants to do so organically: Many of the owners of properties he's already renting own other apartment complexes, and he plans to work with them to move Lodgeur out of inner Houston, and then to other cities. Lodgeur isn't raising funds yet, but Long says he'll be looking for investors this summer.

Recently, Long stayed at Hilton in Austin — his first time at a hotel since launching Lodgeur. He booked a room with a king-sized bed, but it felt small. Business requires him to carry a tape measure, so he measured the mattress: it was six inches smaller than the mattresses Lodgeur uses. He laughed, thinking of how much more comfortable guests would be in an apartment with bigger beds and more space.

"I don't know how people would go back (to hotels)," he says.

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Houston startup grows C-suite, Deloitte opens awards apps, SDO names leader, and more innovation news

short stories

The Houston innovation ecosystem has been especially busy this year, and for this reason, local startup and tech news may have fallen through some of the cracks.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, local organizations announce new innovators, Deloitte opens apps for its annual tech awards, Houston Tech Rodeo prepares for its annual events, and more.

Early stage accelerator names new Houston leader

Kate Evinger will lead gBETA Houston. Photo via LinkedIn

A Houston early-stage startup accelerator has named its new director. Kate Evinger has joined gener8tor's gBETA Houston as director. She will run the third gBETA cohort in Houston, adding to the 10 alumni from the two cohorts held in 2020.

Evinger has replaced Anu Pansare, who was previously named director in February. Pansare, who replaced the accelerator's inaugural director Eléonore Cluzel, moved on to another opportunity, Evinger says.

Based in Houston's Downtown Launchpad, gBETA's third cohort of early stage startups will soon start its free 7-week program, which is designed to help participating companies gain early customer traction and develop key metrics that will make them more marketable for future investment.

Evinger has been a part of the gener8tor family since 2016 when she joined the team as associate for gBETA Madison. She was promoted to program manager in 2019 when she graduated from Indiana University with degrees in finance, entrepreneurship and corporate innovation, according to a news release.

"Downtown Launchpad's inclusive set of tools, resources and opportunities empower Houston founders to accelerate and scale their businesses to solve humankind's boldest challenges," says Robert Pieroni, director of economic development at Central Houston, in a news release. "Kate Evinger brings experience and valuable insights to the gBETA Houston program and will help us continue to support founders, Houston-based partners and the community."

Houston Tech Rodeo launches registration and names headliner

Master P will be the headlining guest for Houston Tech Rodeo. Photo courtesy of HTR

Houston Tech Rodeo, a week-long collaboration of events hosted by Houston Exponential, has opened registration and announced Percy Miller, also known as musical artist Master P, as the headliner.

Miller, who began his career as an international rap artist, later became a CEO, investor, and founder of Nemesis RR.

"I'll be sharing my journey, my secrets, my success, my feelings, and my rebuilding. Transitioning from international artist to CEO to investing in philanthropy, I want to educate you and give you that gain," says Miller in a news release. "I want to add diversity into technology and the automotive industry."

HTR kicks off May 16 at Saint Arnold Brewing Company with live music, beer, and swag bag pick ups with registration. The week concludes on May 23. Registration is free and available online.

Houston industrial blockchain company expands C-suite

Data Gumbo has a new C-level executive. Photo courtesy of Data Gumbo

Data Gumbo, a Houston-based industrial smart contract network powered by blockchain — announced that it has brought on Robin Macmillan as chief corporate development officer to lead the company's corporate development team.

"The sheer breadth of Macmillan's experience will serve as an invaluable asset to Data Gumbo as we continue to exponentially grow and mature our company into new industrial markets and further solidify our leadership in energy," says Andrew Bruce, CEO and founder of Data Gumbo, in a news release. "Macmillan has the experience to expand Data Gumbo's commercial market penetration to aid companies in undertaking digital transformation with smart contracts to reveal streamlined efficiencies and cost savings, sustainability insights across supply chains and transactional certainty in any commercial relationship."

Macmillan has over 40 years of experience in the energy industry, most recently at National Oilwell Varco and is the vice president of drilling services at the International Association of Drilling Contractors,

"There is tremendous opportunity right now to change how business is executed," says Macmillan in the release. "Data Gumbo is poised to deliver trust through automated, auditable blockchain-backed smart contracts that execute transactions in real-time. I am thrilled to be a part of the Data Gumbo executive team as the company is in a period of hyper growth into new industries, serving as a harbinger for significant digital transformation across commercial relationships and transparent, accurate sustainability impact data."

Deloitte opens annual tech awards nominations

Calling all fast-growing tech companies. Image via Deloitte

Deloitte's Technology Fast 500 awards — which celebrate the fastest growing, most innovative technology, media, telecommunications, life sciences and energy tech companies in the country — has opened applications for its 2021 program.

Applications opened online on April 9 and will remain open until June 29. Winners will be announced on November 15. The program ranks applicants based on percentage of fiscal year revenue growth and the list is compiled from applications. For more information, visit the Technology Fast 500 website.

"Each year, we are excited to see the variety of Houston's Fast 500 applicants, which represent the city's positive momentum in both diversifying its core competencies and highlighting the boom in technology innovations coming to market," says Amy Chronis, vice chair and Houston managing partner at Deloitte LLP. "We look forward to seeing what Houston's innovators will bring in 2021."

Energy incubator announces latest cohort

Fifteen energy startups are joining the Plug and Play family. Gif courtesy of Plug and Play

Plug and Play Tech Center has announced 154 startups into its 2021 summer program — 15 of which were named to the Houston-based Batch 8 Energy Program. During the course of the next three months, these companies will receive access to our corporate, venture capital, and mentor network.

The new energy cohort consists of the following companies:

Texas expert: Energy reliability and climate sustainability are not mutually exclusive

Guest Column

It's no secret that Texas has long been a leader in energy production, but it may surprise you to learn that Texas leads the nation in wind-powered generation, producing 28 percent of all US wind-powered electricity in 2019.

We're not just producing a lot of renewable energy, we're increasingly consuming it.

Contrary to the caricaturistic portrayal of Texans in mainstream culture, a recent study by the University of Houston revealed that 4 out of 5 Texans believe the climate crisis is real.

In an effort to reduce their carbon footprint, more and more households are making the decision to switch to 100 percent renewable energy. And this adoption isn't isolated to core urban areas. We're witnessing a diverse spread in smaller, more rural markets.

These reasons and more are why Bulb, one of Europe's fastest growing company that provides 100 percent renewable energy, chose Texas as its first home in the U.S. Less than a year after launching here, it's safe to say we made the right choice as we're experiencing even faster growth in Texas than we did in our early stages in the United Kingdom.

One of the many reasons Texans have rapidly adopted our simpler, cheaper and greener energy is because they no longer have to choose between being budget and climate conscious. Sadly, the progress the state has made could be knocked back following the recent winter storm.

After the nation witnessed Texas' massive outages during the winter storm, our state leaders understandably feel the pressure to "do something," quickly.

We share our leaders' determination in avoiding another crisis of this magnitude, but we fear that Texas may be heading in the wrong direction. In the mad rush to avoid another catastrophe, some regulators and politicians wrongly and disproportionately blamed renewable energy sources for the outages.

Numerous media outlets and energy experts have overwhelmingly refuted these claims. An AP fact check described the efforts to blame renewable energy sources as "false narratives." And, they're not alone in their conclusion.

According to Reuters' fact check, "These claims are misleading, as they shift blame for the crisis away from what appears, so far, to be the root cause...The state's woes mainly stem from issues surrounding its independent power grid. The cold weather affected all fuel types, not just renewables."

Determining what went wrong isn't a blame game. A proper diagnosis is essential to any problem solving. And a failure to conduct a thorough analysis could have serious consequences. Currently, a number of legislative solutions are floating around the state Capitol that would shift the blame and consequences to renewable energy.

These proposals would increase the financial burden on Texas consumers, many of whom are still recovering from the storm, and hamper new investments in renewable energy. Additionally, and perhaps even more concerning, they don't adequately address the root cause of the winter storm energy crisis, further exposing Texans to another meltdown.

Texas' leadership on renewable energy production is no small feat, and it didn't happen by chance. For two decades, our lawmakers have made strategic decisions that led to the advancement of renewable energy production, and it has paid dividends in terms of jobs, economic growth, energy reliability, sustainability and even the state's reputation.

We are at a critical juncture, but Texas doesn't have to choose between reliability, affordability and sustainability. We can offer reliable energy and green energy, stop another crisis before it happens again and move forward with renewable energy investments.

Continuing to promote policies that pushed Texas to its leadership position will unleash even more investments and innovation, which is good for Texas, good for Texans and good for the planet.

As we observe Earth Day, we would urge our leaders to consider the possibilities. Rather than turn the clock back, let's use this storm as an opportunity to innovate further.

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Vinnie Campo is the general manager for Bulb U.S., a new type of energy company that aims to make energy simpler, cheaper, and greener by providing renewable electricity to its members from Texas wind and solar. He is based in Texas.

Houston-based software startup aims to connect workers with wages in real time

there's an app for that

Could you incur an unexpected $400 expense if it hit your bank account today? According to Jeff Price, founder and CEO of Houston-based Pronto Pay, many hourly workers could not. He's set out to change that.

"When you think about it, payroll hasn't changed in nearly two centuries. As far as we can remember, you get paid weekly or bi-weekly. And that's precisely the point we're trying to solve," Price says.

A recent graduate from Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business, Price founded Pronto Pay in the first quarter of 2021. The software aims to connect hourly works with transparent access to wages earned before pay day without disrupting the employers' books. Currently the company has seven staff members, is actively hiring and is looking to expand outside of Houston soon.

Pronto Pay partners with the employers to seamlessly build out connections with their time and attendance system and payroll processor. After the company signs up, ProntoPay automatically creates an account for each employee, which allows them to view their accrued wages and withdraw their earnings instantly from the app or next-day for automated clearing house payments — all via the Pronto Pay App. When an employee wishes to withdraw funds prior to their normal pay cycle, Pronto Pay applies a small fixed fee — $2.99 — for completing the transaction. .

Come pay day, the employer's system will automatically balance the difference and route the withdrawn money back to Pronto Pay. As Price describes it, Pronto Pay aims to compete "directly with (while severely undercutting the price of) payday and other predatory lenders."

The idea was born out of a series of simple questions Price started to ask himself when he envisioned what his newborn son's first job would be earlier this year.

"My wife and I were having our son and it challenged me to ask questions like, 'Hey, why do we get paid bi-weekly? If I can Venmo 100 bucks in real time, why can't a company do that?'" Price recalls.

Apart from the impact of advanced pay, Price envisions that earned wages access will improve workplace culture and retention, too. Pronto Pay has already on-boarded users in the local staffing and warehousing markets, in the janitorial and security guard fields, and at call centers. As Price describes, Pronto Pay's clients "typically have a lot of hourly employees that struggle with employee retention and keeping folks at the same job for longer than three to 12 months."

"We're hoping that we can permanently change that employee-employer relationship," he adds. "And help those employees."

Jeff Price is the founder and CEO of Pronto Pay.