3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's Who

These three entrepreneurs didn't see their careers coming. Courtesy photos

The career paths of startup or innovation leaders isn't usually a direct path. All three of this week's innovators to know took a roundabout way to their current gigs, which included a leap of faith or two for each of them. If their winding careers are any indication, they've got more exciting leadership ahead.

Youngro Lee, CEO and co-founder of NextSeed

Courtesy of NextSeed

Starting off on Wall Street as a private equity lawyer, Youngro Lee knows money. And he knew when the Jobs Act went into effect several years ago, there was a huge opportunity for companies to raise money from non-accredited individual investors, rather than just the super wealthy private investors. He left his legal career to leverage this new law to start NextSeed, which is a platform for businesses to raise capital for from anybody. Read more here.

Jane Henry, founder and CEO of SeeHerWork

Courtesy of SeeHerWork

Jane Henry watched as her glove flew right off her hand when she was cleaning up after Hurricane Harvey — her house got three feet of mud, and she got the idea for her company. SeeHerWork goes above and beyond the normal "pink it and shrink it" approach to women's workwear. Henry wants to see female workers with better fitting safety gear. Read more here.

Erik Halvorsen, director of the TMC Innovation Institute

Courtesy of TMC

As a kid, Erik Halvorsen wanted to be a doctor — he even took the MCAT and was on track for med school. He decided to look into other avenues that combined his passion for medicine and his entrepreneurial spirit. As director of TMCx, he helps innovative medical technologies become standard practice in hospitals. Read more here.

Editor's note: Halvorsen reportedly left his position at TMC on December 13, 2018.

SeeHerWork launched its line of female-gear in September. Courtesy of SeeHerWork

Houston company aims to equally equip female workers

If the glove doesn't fit

When Jane Henry was working on her home right after Hurricane Harvey — her house got three feet of mud in it — she went to throw a board into the dumpster, and her glove went with it.

Henry says the industry standard is to recommend small and extra-small sizes for women's workwear, but as a ladies large in athletic gloves, Henry still had a good inch or so of glove at her fingertips in her workwear gloves.

"I went upstairs to my sewing room, and I ripped that glove apart and I resewed it to fit my hand," Henry says.

Other women stopped her in hardware stores to ask her about her shoddily sewn glove, and she realized this was the idea for next company. She incorporated SeeHerWork a few months later in January of 2018, and she launched her line of clothing in September, just a year after she had the idea. Based in Houston, SeeHerWork rents warehouse space in Kingwood and has its corporate office in Midtown.

Doing the legwork
Henry is no stranger to the startup game. She created her own consulting company, Xcution Inc., over 16 years ago, but she downsized the company in 2016 when oil prices took a turn. Instead, she went into Rice University's MBA program, where, ultimately, she created a network of associates that would eventually help SeeHerWork grow.

"I've been a serial entrepreneur — been trying to avoid calling myself that," says Henry. "I have two entrepreneurial parents, and I told myself I'd never be an entrepreneur, yet that's what I keep doing."

Through her business expertise and education, she knew she had to start with a one-page business plan for the company. She then took her idea to over 50 focus groups made up of 10 to 20 female workers, safety managers, and procurement managers across industries — transportation, military oil and gas, engineering, and more.

"The response was eerily similar despite the industry," Henry says.

The focus group participants were tired of the "pink it and shrink it" approach to women's workwear and equipment. They felt like if their supplies don't fit, they don't fit. Mentorship opportunities and performance are then subsequently hindered, creating a spiral effect of deterring women from entering the skilled labor workforce. This is a huge problem, considering there's the recent labor shortage with these types of jobs.

She took this information and her first prototypes to a national pitch competition to great success — and a standing ovation. Henry also connected with the Rice Angel Network, Station Houston, The Cannon, and other local innovation-focused entities.

Roadwork ahead
Henry has big plans for SeeHerWork, and is in talks with a few large entities — like the Houston Airport System, Fluor Corp., and Toyota — that have expressed interest in using her gear for their workforce. Henry also wants to expand her products and reach female workers through retail — online and in store.

"Ultimately, SeeHerWork is the Lululemon of workwear," Henry says.

SeeHerWork is focused on keeping women safe, firstly, but also encouraging more women to enter the skilled labor workforce and then work their way up the ladder.

"I don't want people to think of us as a workwear company," Henry says. "I want them to think of us as an inclusion company. Mostly because just like professional sports team, the first step is the right clothing and equipment and the second step is working to be a team and working together."

At your fingertips

Courtesy of SeeHerWork

SeeHerWork has a full line of products, from gloves and bags to safety vests and long-sleeves shirts. She's launching more products — like coveralls, pants, and footwear — soon.

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Over $1.4M in prizes awarded at Rice University's student startup competition

RBPC 2021

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

Houston health center working with new study that uses app to track long-term COVID-19 effects

pandemic innovation

Aided by technology, medical sleuths at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston are tracking the long-term effects of COVID-19 as part of a national study.

At the heart of the study is an app that allows patients who have shown COVID-19 symptoms and have been tested for COVID-19 to voluntarily share their electronic health records with researchers. The researchers then can monitor long-term symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, depression, and cardiovascular problems.

UTHealth is one of eight U.S. sites for the INSPIRE trial (Innovative Support for Patients with SARS COV-2 Infections Registry). Researchers are recruiting study participants from Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. They want to expand recruitment to urgent care clinics in the Houston area.

Aside from accessing patients' data through the Hugo Health platform, UTHealth researchers will ask participants to fill out brief follow-up surveys every three months over the course of 18 months. The study complies with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the federal law that protects patients' information from being disclosed without their knowledge.

"This is a very novel and important study," Dr. Ryan Huebinger, assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at UTHealth's McGovern Medical School and co-principal investigator of the study, says in a news release.

In a study like this, researchers typically must see a patient in person or at least reach out to them.

"Using this platform is novel because we don't have to schedule additional appointments or ask questions like 'How long were you hospitalized?' – we can automatically see that in their records and survey submissions," Huebinger says.

Mandy Hill, associate professor in the McGovern Medical School's Department of Emergency Medicine and the study's co-principal investigator, says about one-fourth of the people in the study will be local residents who didn't test positive for COVID-19.

"That group will be our control group to be able to compare things like prevalence and risk factors," Huebinger says.

Eligible participants must be at least 18 years old, must have experienced COVID-19 symptoms, and must have been tested for COVID-19 in the past four weeks.

"This is not going to be the last pandemic. The more information we can gather across communities now will give us a leg up when the next pandemic happens," Hill says, "so that we can be more prepared to take steps toward prevention."

Researchers hope to sign up at least 300 study participants in Houston. The entire INSPIRE trial seeks to enroll 4,800 participants nationwide. The study is supposed to end in November 2022.

"There's such great potential for numerous research findings to come out of this study. We could find out if people in Houston are suffering from post-COVID-19 symptoms differently than other parts of the country, whether minorities are more affected by long-hauler symptoms, and if certain interventions work better than others," Hill says.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is financing the study. Aside from UTHealth, academic institutions involved in the research are:

  • University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas
  • Rush University Medical Center in Chicago
  • Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut
  • University of Washington in Seattle
  • Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of California, San Francisco