3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Kathryn Worsham Humphries of All You Need Method, Heath Butler of Mercury Fund, and Serafina Lalany of HX. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three innovators who have tons to share — from recent venture capital data and observations to public relations and marketing tips for startups.

Kathryn Worsham Humphries, co-founder of All You Need Method

What does your company plan on bringing into the new year — and how do you plan to communicate your efforts? Photo courtesy of All You Need Method

It's a new year — and it's time for a new marketing and public relations plan for your startup. Thankfully, that's exactly what Houstonian Kathryn Worsham Humphries and her Los Angeles-based business partner Carla M. Nikitaidis specialize in with their new company, All You Need Method. The duo penned a guest column for InnovationMap last week with tips for refocusing on your target audience and prioritizing authenticity.

"Remember, these challenging times will pass," they write. "There is massive opportunity for the businesses and brands who are willing to reflect, pivot, and plan for a brighter future." Read more.

Heath Butler, network partner at Mercury Fund

Mercury Fund's Heath Butler joins the Houston Innovators Podcast this week to discuss Houston, venture capital, and more. Photo via mercuryfund.com

After 14 years at human resources company Insperity, Heath Butler has a specialty when it comes to thinking about the future of work. Butler was recently promoted within Mercury and the the move represents another aspect the firm is focusing on — something Butler discusses on last week's Houston Innovators Podcast episode.

"The world continues to be shaped by how the workforce and the workplace — and the actual work gets — done, and that couldn't have been put to the forefront more than during COVID," Butler says. "The promotion really reflects my focus on building out a very broad and deep theme for the firm around the future of work." Read more and stream the episode.

Serafina Lalany, chief of staff at Houston Exponential

HX has released a report on Houston venture capital. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Serafina Lalany and her team at Houston Exponential have crunched the numbers again to look at what sort of venture capital deals Houston startups brought in last year.

According to her report based on Pitch Book data, the Bayou City dredged up $715 million across 117 VC deals in 2020 — a year marked by challenges and opportunities from the pandemic and the oil price drop.

In the report, Lalany found that 2020 VC trends in Houston included fewer, larger deals and a rise in angel investment. Read more.

2020 brought over $700 million in venture funding deals into Houston, and startups saw larger deals in the first half of the year with a growing interest in angel activity. Image via Getty Images

Report: 2020 brought fewer, larger VC deals for Houston — but angel investment is on the rise

venture capital update

Houston startup's venture capital deals continue to grow in 2020, according to a new report from Houston Exponential. Last year, VC dollars were up, while deal count was down, representing more mature deals coming into the ecosystem — but the second half of the year was defined by a growth in angel investment interest.

The report by Serafina Lalany, chief of staff for HX, found that the Bayou City brought saw $715 million across 117 VC deals, according to Pitch Book data. It's the fourth year Houston has seen VC growth, and last year the city reported over $563 million across 168 deals.

"Houston has put concerted efforts into building its innovation ecosystem," says Harvin Moore, president of HX, in a release, "and 2020's record-breaking results show we are seeing not only resilience in the tech sector, but a significant increase in the rate of formation and success of growth-stage companies, which have an outsized effect on our local economy in terms of high paying job potential and Houston's increasing attractiveness as a great place to work."

Last August, HX published a report on the first half of the year and that study found that Houston — facing the challenges of both the pandemic and the oil price drop — managed to see a 7 percent increase in funding compared to the national average of 2.5 percent. With the second half of the year, the city's VC increase from last year was over 25 percent and up 252 percent since 2014.

The other difference between the first and second halves of the year for Houston VC was the stages of the deals made. Most of Houston's larger deals took place in the first and second quarters — and even the beginning of Q3 — of 2020:

But the second half of the year seemed like Houston's earlier stage VC activity returned, and Blair Garrou, managing partner at Houston-based Mercury Fund, confirmed this to InnovationMap on the Houston Innovator's Podcast in December.

"Seed rounds have definitely bounced back. We're seeing a lot of seed activity, because there's been a lot of seed funds raised," Garrou said on the podcast, adding that he's observed an increase in angel investment interest. "People are realizing that money is in innovation and tech — especially in software."

In her report, Lalany found that in Houston, angel investments are out-pacing seed, creating a "competitive environment."

"The addition of multi-stage and nontraditional investment firms into the arena has created upward pressure in deal valuations and sizes. The average seed round in 2015 was $1 million, whereas today it's double that," the report reads. "With these firms turning inward to focus on protecting their current investments at the start of the pandemic, the propensity for smaller, more riskier investments have declined."

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of the Houston Angel Network, said she's seen a rise in new membership for the organization. Last August, she was on track to get to 150 members — up from just 60 in 2018.

"Despite COVID, we've continued to grow," Campbell told InnovationMap, adding that she's heard investors express that they have more time now to dive in. "People are very much still interested in learning about deploying their capital into early-stage venture. They're looking for a network of like-minded individuals."

In contrast to this early stage activity, the VC activity that was still occurring was defined by larger deals. With VC essentially halting in March and April — especially in cities like Houston, Garrou adds — it makes sense that investors wanted more "sure things" and would invest more funds into companies they already know, versus being able to source new deals in person.

"When you go to later stages, there are a lot fewer deals going on," Garrou continues on the podcast. "Now, there may be larger investments being made, but I think they are into fewer companies, and I think that's just due to the the pandemic and the ability just to not be able to do face-to-face."

As Houston moves through 2021, the city is poised well for more growth and a continued diversification from just oil and gas, as Moore says in the release.

"Houston Exponential was created four years ago by civic and business leaders to deal with an existential problem: our dependence on the energy and medical sector without a thriving startup culture to lead us towards a future that will look very different from the past," he says. "COVID and the de-carbonization movement have made that need much more urgent — it's both a huge challenge and an enormous opportunity."

This week's innovators to know includes Kenneth Liao of Baylor St. Luke's, Serafina Lalany of Houston Exponential, and Nick Cardwell of McCord. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In today's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators across industries — from robotics in health care to smart city technology — all making headlines in Houston this week.

Kenneth Liao, chief of cardiothoracic transplantation and mechanical circulatory support at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center,

Houston cardiac surgeon outpaces much of the country in game-changing robotics

Dr. Kenneth Liao, chief of cardiothoracic transplantation and mechanical circulatory support at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center, is one of around 50 surgeons in the country considered experts of this new surgery robotics tool. Photo courtesy of Baylor St. Luke's

Dr. Kenneth Liao is the only cardiatric surgeon in Houston — and one of only around 50 in the world — who uses a specific robot to conduct heart surgeries. The robot, known as the da Vinci, was first designed to assist in battlefield procedures.

Now on its fourth generation, the robot allows surgeons like Liao to treat heart diseases and conditions that typically would require open heart surgery through a one-to-two inch incision near the ribs. In many surgeries, it also allows surgeons to keep a patient's heart beating, lowering the risk of stroke.

"It's a totally game changing component to conventional surgery," Liao says. Read more.

Serafina Lalany, chief of staff at Houston Exponential 

Serafina Lalany joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the Listies. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Houston tech companies deserve a shoutout, and, after mulling it over for quite a while, Serafina Lalany and her team at Houston Exponential are making it happen with The Listies, a new awards program.

"The idea for The Listies has been in the back of our minds for a long time," says Lalany, chief of staff at HX, on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There has always been a need in the ecosystem to celebrate the wins and vibrant culture we have here. This is an opportunity to pay homage to that."

The nomination deadline has been extended for the awards. Nominate a worthy startup, person, investor or corporate by Friday, November 6. Click here to submit. And, click here to stream the episode and read more.

Nick Cardwell, vice president of digital innovation at McCord

A new executive hire for McCord is going to focus on bringing smart city technology to Generation Park. Rendering courtesy of McCord

At 4,200 acres, the Generation Park master-planned development is evolving into its own ecosystem of sorts — one that has a huge opportunity for tech and smart city initiatives. Houston-based real estate developer, McCord, has hired Nick Cardwell as vice president of digital innovation. In the newly created role, Cardwell will be tasked with bringing data-driven solutions, digital transformation, and other smart city innovation to Generation Park.

"McCord's vision for Generation Park is the future of commercial development, pushing digital innovation into the forefront and leveraging cutting-edge technologies throughout their portfolio. I am beyond thrilled to join the McCord team and help make that vision a reality," says Cardwell, in the release. "Through the use of experiences, data, and collaborations, we will accelerate learnings and, in turn, advance resources that will truly improve people's lives." Read more.

Houston Exponential's Harvin Moore and Serafina Lalany join this week's Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss The Listies. Photos courtesy

New awards to 'pay homage' to Houston's tech scene

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 55

The deadline for nominations has been extended to November 6. The original story below has been edited to reflect the extension.

With so much of 2020 going wrong, a new awards program is hoping to shine a spotlight on Houston tech startups and other major innovation players who are doing things right.

The Listies nominations are open online until this Friday, November 6, and are being hosted by Houston Exponential in partnership with InnovationMap.

"The idea for The Listies has been in the back of our minds for a long time," says Serafina Lalany, chief of staff at HX, on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There has always been a need in the ecosystem to celebrate the wins and vibrant culture we have here. This is an opportunity to pay homage to that."

The 12 awards will recognize growing startups, individuals, mentors, corporations, investors, and more. Award eligibility requires nominees to have an account on HX's new platform, the HTX TechList, which is free to use and is intended to be a virtual meeting place and resource for Houston innovation.

The honorees will be awarded at a virtual event ceremony at 3 pm on Friday, November 30. The event is hoping to duplicate the engagement the organization saw at its HTX TechList launch in August, which had over 1,000 registrants and a message from Mayor Sylvester Turner.

"This ecosystem really eats up events — even if they are virtual," says Harvin Moore, president of HX, on the podcast. "This will be another opportunity for the organizations and all the people in the ecosystem to get together. ... It's also an opportunity to continue to develop what's happening in Houston."

The event is gathering tech and innovation influencers to promote and play a role in the event — from judges to award presenters. The program is also seeking sponsors to be included in the event as well.

"HX's true strength is bringing people together around a common mission, and this is very true to that," Lalany says.

Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


This week's Houston innovators to know include Yared Akalou of Alcove Group, Serafina Lalany,of Houston Exponential, and Patrick Lewis of Sustainability Ventures Group. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: This week's group of Houston innovators you need to know might be pretty familiar to you, however each of them have a new endeavor they are excited to launch — from an energy investment group with a new name to new virtual platforms to benefit entrepreneurs.

Yared Akalou, founder-and-CEO of Alcove Group

Yared Akalou founded IAmOther50 to capture the brand of the freelancer along with their personality and experience. Photo courtesy of Alcove

Yared Akalou describes himself as a designer-focused entrepreneur. As founder-and-CEO of Alcove Group, his latest venture, IAmOther50, is a platform for creatives and freelancers to connect to work. This innovation he's focused on is in light of the growth in jobs that are freelance and remote.

"I am really on a mission," Akalou tells InnovationMap. "I have been talking about the future of work for over a decade now. The paradigm will change to viewing work as a service, so it is important to tell a freelancer's story through a more engaging and novel way." Read more.

Serafina Lalany, chief of staff at Houston Exponential

Serafina Lalany joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the HTX TechList, which launches this week. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Serafina Lalany is pinpoint focused on creating resources for Houston innovators through her work at Houston Exponential. Most recently, that's meant creating and launching the HTX TechList, which went live last week. For her, one of the most important benefits the platform will afford the city is access to data about the ecosystem.

"We needed a centralized datasource classifying startups, investors, startup development organizations, and corporate innovators," she says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There was not any good resource on the internet that was verified, centralized, and adhered to a data standard." Read more and stream the episode.

Patrick Lewis, managing partner of Sustainability Ventures Group

Houston-based Sustainability Ventures Group is focused on connecting energy companies to innovative, sustainable solutions. Photo courtesy of SVG

As Patrick Lewis started to get a feel for what his network within the energy industry was looking for amid the pandemic, he thought some of the sustainability-focused ventures might be on the back burner.

"We thought we would hear that sustainability in this environment may have slipped down the priority list, but it was the exact opposite," Lewis says. "Pretty consistently across all the operators, sustainability, reducing emissions, and greenhouse gases — those are all even more important today."

This confirmation that the energy industry is committed to innovative sustainability projects led Lewis to rebrand his energy tech investment group from BBL Ventures to Sustainability Ventures Group, or SVG. The investment team focuses on reverse engineering the startup innovation process by sourcing the concerns and goals of the energy companies, then finding solutions from the startup world through reverse pitch competitions and challenges. Read more.

The HTX TechList is officially launched, and the Houston Exponential team is calling for everyone to register on the site. Screenshot via htxtechlist.com

The HTX TechList has launched — here's why you should get involved

Logging on

Houston Exponential has hit launch on the HTX TechList, and now startups, investors, entrepreneurial hubs, and corporations can officially opt into the data-focused and networking-enabled platform.

The HTX TechList went live yesterday, August 13, at a virtual event hosted by HX. (Note: InnovationMap was the media partner for the event.) The platform acts as a one-stop shop for Houston's innovation ecosystem. Mayor Sylvester Turner joined the stream to explain the role the platform will play in connecting the various players within the industry.

"The HTX TechList is our city's leading resource for in-depth information about Houston startups, investors, hubs, and corporations," Mayor Turner said at the event. "Within the Houston region, the HTX TechList will build the connections and density that were never before possible in such a huge spread-out city."

Another benefit to the new platform, as HX Chief of Staff Serafina Lalany says, is the data it is going to be able to provide about the ecosystem.

"We needed a centralized datasource classifying startups, investors, startup development organizations, and corporate innovators," she says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There was not any good resource on the internet that was verified, centralized, and adhered to a data standard."

The platform, which has derived from an initiative from Startup Nation Central in Israel, has already proven its usefulness abroad and has over 70,000 monthly users. In a panel at the event, Eran Levy of Enel Innovation Hub Israel described how the tool has benefitted him and his work in scouting startups.

"The ability to have a tool to map, in our case, 8,000 startups, when we look for specific categories or a specific tech area, it helps us a lot," he says. "It saves a lot of time and effort, and, more importantly, it makes it much more effective because I reach out to the right startups."

On the panel, Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures and chair of Houston Exponential, echoed the opportunity for connectivity the platform will enable — but in a specific way for her organization as an investor.

"I view the TechList as the tool that's going to enable a couple of things. One is the scouts to access even more opportunities, but I think the other piece is also for co-investors in startups to be able to find us," she says, adding that while CTV has been around for a couple decades, visibility is always something they'd like to improve on.

Now that the platform is launched, anyone can join to make a profile on the site. Startups, investors, hubs, and corporations can also launch profiles that will be vetted by HX's data team.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

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