Support Houston startups by shopping local this holiday season. Photos courtesy

The holidays are fully upon us, and in the spirit of giving, why not give a little business to local startups as you shop for friends and family this year?

Browse this year's roundup of Houston startup-created gift ideas below, and then click here to check out last year's gift ideas too for eight more options for you.

Low-carb treats from ChipMonk Baking

Give the gift of healthy desserts with ChipMonk Baking. Photo via chipmonkbaking.com

Houstonians David Downing and Jose Hernandez were tired of having such limited options when it came to finding healthy dessert alternatives. So, they founded ChipMonk Baking, a local, mail-order bakery that creates treats using monk fruit and allulose, a low-calorie (0.4 calories per gram) rare sugar that's found naturally in foods such as raisins, dried figs, and kiwi. Hernandez began developing ChipMonk's recipes to satisfy his taste for cookies after being diagnosed with type-2 diabetes.

An online business, ChipMonk offers every snacks from cookies and bites to mixes and sweeteners. There are also a few bundles to choose from as well as a free, downloadable holiday cookbook

Skin-healthy athletic wear from Élastique

Emeline Kuhner-Stout, founder of Élastique Athletics, wanted to create a product that was easy to wear and benefitted lymphatic health. Photo courtesy of Élastique Athletics

Moms know how to make the most of their time, and that's exactly how Emeline Kuhner-Stout came across the idea for Élastique Athletics, a clothing line that promotes skin health and reduces cellulite.

"We did some research, and found that the best way to improve the appearance of your skin and move those fluids — because the cause [of cellulite] is really about those fluids that get trapped under your skin and cause a lot more negative effects other than skin appearance," Kuhner-Stout previously told InnovationMap.

She learned that exercise is the best move for improving lymphatic drainage, and another option is to do it manually through massaging and with compression. After around five years of research and development, Kuhner-Stout was able to release her first product for Élastique Athletics — a pair of leggings that have MicroPerle™ micro-massage beads in the compression leggings to massage the skin when worn.

Now, Élastique has three "wellnesswear" products available online.

Support local with Sesh Coworking

Sesh's gift sets are available for pick-up or delivery. Photo via girlsesh.com

Sesh Coworking is a space founded for women, by women, and that focus extends to the company's in-store and online market. Located in Montrose, Sesh opened its doors in February and was founded by Maggie Segrich and Meredith Wheeler to fill a need in the coworking sector.

"We as women show up in our work lives as a whole person. We don't compartmentalize and forget about all the other things happening in our lives," Wheeler previously told InnovationMap. "We wanted a space that reflected that and embraced it."

While the market supports local female-owned business year round, Sesh has some special items for the holidays. The company has produced a 2020 Holiday Haute List to help users find the perfect gift as well as some gift bundles for the working women of the world. These sets and more are available on Sesh's online store.

Stylish sanitizers from Cobalt

Cobalt's gift set comes with a bottle of each of the company's three FDA-approved cleaning products. Photo via cobaltclean.com

This year's pandemic inspired new products and companies aplenty, and one of them here in Houston is Cobalt founded by Houstonians Molly Voorhees and Christina Milligan. Their hand sanitizing and surface cleaning products blend the importance of cleanliness and safety with the added value of accessibility and a refined appearance.

As working parents of young children, the two women wanted to create a line of sanitizing products that boosted their confidence in the safety of their environments amid a pandemic and that they'd be proud to pull out of their purse on short notice.

"Cleaning products are in your bathroom or are in an ugly looking bottle or the back of our restaurant in massive chemical containers. There is really nothing for the on-the-go market," Voorhees says.

The company sells six FDA-approved sanitizers, sprays, keychains, and to-go kits that eliminate 99.9 percent of bacteria and viruses in easy to access, personal-sized, contemporary bottles, ranging from $14 to $30. The products are designed to be free of harsh, alcoholic odors and come in scents like peppermint and bubble gum.

The gift set, which is available online for $50, includes a bottle of hand sanitizer, surface spray, and mask refresher.

Humidity-conscious women's workwear from Cotidie

Cotidié's fabrics are lightweight and moisture wicking — similar to exercise clothing — making the pieces conducive to the Houston heat and humidity. Lauren Marek/Cotidié

Other than during Houston's brief winter, rocking a professional wardrobe is tough in humidity that is so iconic to Houston. Local entrepreneur Kristina Haag founded Cotidié to design clothes with this struggle in mind.

"With Cotidié, it is all about the functionality of the clothing," Haag previously told InnovationMap. "It is more traditional items, but the use of technical fabrics is our differentiating factor."

The online retailer, which launched in June 2019, offers dresses, jackets, pants, skirts, and tops, ranging between $60 and $200 in price. The fabrics, sourced from Italy and Taiwan, provide breathable comfort, along with an elastic, structured fit for a more tailored look. All items are moisture wicking and machine washable.

"Everything we use on the line is athletic technical fabric that you would typically find in workout attire, but I've repurposed these fabrics to use in a contemporary womenswear line," Haag tells InnovationMap. "I wanted to create a more foundational capsule clothing collection that women can draw their own inspiration from."

The full collection is available online, as are gift cards.

Bonus: 8 more gift ideas from Houston startups

From after-alcohol relief to a smart pillbox, these Houston-founded companies have innovative holiday gifts to offer. Images via Instagram

Here are eight more ideas for gifts made by Houston startups. Click here,

Women in the work place have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. Houston experts discuss the effect in a guest column and a panel hosted by Sesh Coworking on Oct. 14. Photo via Pexels

Houston experts discuss the toll the pandemic has taken on women in the workplace

guest column

The shutdown of our economy, schools and childcare systems has created a wildfire that is raging across our nation, disproportionately impacting women, radically shifting social values, and compromising our nation's post-pandemic recovery.

While women have made great gains in the last few decades towards gender equality, the pandemic has exacerbated some of the larger remaining issues — time spent in unpaid work or "invisible labor," political under-representation, violence against women, limited access to capital and the gender pay gap) — and, according to a recent analysis by McKinsey, without serious intervention, is at risk of wiping $1 trillion off global GDP by 2030.

While everyone has suffered during the pandemic, women have found themselves under disproportionate pressure — women's jobs have become more vulnerable (women are 1.8 times more likely to lose their jobs than men), female dominated industries (restaurants, child-care, leisure and hospitality, health care, and education) have been hardest hit, and women of color in particular are more likely to be laid off or furloughed (leanin.org - women in workplace study).

These inequities, coupled with the increased stress and labor of child-care while "working from home" have placed an overwhelming strain on the working parents, and in particular mothers, of America. The mental and emotional health loads of working parents have been pushed to their limits and with that working families are re-prioritizing their values and spending habits faster than ever before.

Is it any surprise that during the pandemic the need for families to quickly adapt to the new economy plus the inequity of women's wages versus men is driving more and more women to sacrifice their careers and dreams to ease the increased burdens the pandemic has inflamed?

Leanin.org and McKinsey's Women in the Workplace study polled over 40,000 employees across 317 companies between May and Aug 2020, and found that more than 1 in 4 women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce entirely, according Leanin.org and McKinsey.

Labor Department statistics show that this inclination is already in action: In August and September 1.1 million people left the workforce, and of that 800,000 were women. According to a recent analysis by the National Women's Law Center of those 800,000 women — 324,000 were Latinas and 58,000 were Black women. Now compare that to the 216,000 men who left the job market during August and September.

This exodus of women leaving the workforce has broad reaching and long-lasting effects on not just female-owned businesses and women in the workplace – it is an issue that impacts every person at every level of business. Women's rise in participation in the labor force is not just good for women, it is good for business: directly impacting our GDP and a rise in wages for everyone, not just women.

A decline of women in the labor force, on teams, in leadership positions and in decision-making roles compromises not just our economy's recovery and productivity, but also the innovation and effectiveness in industry, competitiveness on a global scale, aspirations of future generations of women, and society as a whole.

If "women hold up half the sky" you could certainly argue that the sky is now falling. So, the question is – what can we do about it? And that is a question we intend to tackle in depth on Wednesday, October 14, at 1 pm in a virtual town hall with inspiring women who are already paving the road to our recovery: Elizabeth Gore of Hello Alice, Cate Luzio of Luminary; Cathy Mchorse of United Way of Greater Austin; Lucie Green of Light Years. Click here to register.

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Maggie Segrich is co-founder and CFO of Sesh Coworking and Courtney Sikes Longmore is the founder at Pure Palate. The two female innovators will be on the panel of the online event.

Houston-based Sesh Coworking has launched an online platform so that members can work alongside each other. Photo via seshcoworking.com

Houston coworking company launches online portal to connect members working from home

coworking from home

As the COVID-19 pandemic continued to enforce working from home and social distancing earlier this summer, a Houston coworking company knew they needed to find a way to reach professionals and entrepreneurs digitally.

Sesh Coworking launched its Inner Circle membership this week to be a one-stop shop for business, connection, support, and more for members. Last month, Meredith Wheeler and Maggie Segrich began working on the virtual space after discovering the need for this virtual space from their network.

"We talked to a lot of people," Wheeler tells InnovationMap. "We were constantly asking people, 'what do you need right now?' And the resounding answer was for community and connection."

While Sesh reopened its physical space in Montrose on June 1, not all members were comfortable — or even able — to return to Sesh in person. So, the idea was to bring Sesh's culture and mission to them by taking the company's existing member portal and upgrading it with features like video conferencing, chatrooms, and more.

"It's almost kind of like a new age version of AIM chat. You could see who's online and you can chat with them," Segrich says. "You can work alongside with people."

With these new tech capabilities, Sesh can continue some of its events — like coffee and coworking and other networking and social events — virtually. Segrich and Wheeler also say they will be able to create accountability groups since some members have said that this new way of working makes it hard to focus and get stuff done.

The platform will also enable educational and training-based events, and Sesh has already created a kind of catalogue for resources and materials that come out of these events so that all members can have access to that information, not just the ones that were able to log on for the event.

"With business right now, and Maggie and I are feeling this constantly, it's like everyday is a new pivot — a new turn, twist, or adaptation that we're having to create," Wheeler says. "Sometimes, you know what you need to do and you don't know how to do it, but you need to figure it out fast. So, hopefully by having these resources at the tips of their fingers, our members can make those turns quicker."

A major perk for Sesh and its founders is that, now that they have everything set up and launched, their reach expands much further than their Sesh Loft in Montrose.

"This is not just limited to Houston. This can go, and we hope it goes, nationwide. We've had folks from all over the country on our digital events," Wheeler says. "This could be the silver lining from everything that's happening in 2020 — that our authentic digital connection has a much farther way to travel."

The first 30 members of Sesh Inner Circle can get a monthly membership rate of just $5.99. After that, it's $14.99 a month to sign up. Existing members to the physical space have access to the virtual platform, and virtual members can access special rates on booking space in the Sesh Loft. The launch of Inner Circle has also corresponded with the expansion of Sesh's store of locally sourced products. The store is available at the Sesh Loft or online.

Connect online

Photo via seshcoworking.com

The member portal lets Sesh coworkers have a one-stop shop for virtual and in-person engagement.

Houston small businesses are struggling to pay their rent with doors closed and operations ceased — but where should the relief come from? Getty Images

Houston small businesses and landlords grapple with rent relief options during COVID-19 crisis

late fee

It's not too huge of an assumption to make that many Houston startups and small businesses failed to pay their rents in full yesterday. Since the city's stay-at-home mandate on March 24 — and even preceding that — most businesses have seen a slowdown of revenue as a result of COVID-19-caused business disruptions.

Business owners are frantically looking in their leases and searching online to see what rights they have and what sort of protection they have in such an unprecedented time.

"People are confused. They don't know what to do, and finding information is hard," says Meredith Wheeler, co-founder and chief creative officer of Sesh Coworking, which opened earlier this year.

Wheeler and Sesh's co-founder, Maggie Segrich, have created a petition to get on the radar of local elected officials to challenge them to pass legislation to protect small businesses in this time.

"At the end of the day, it would be so wonderful and idealistic to say that we could rely on the niceties and the moral compasses of our landlords, but it's probably not true for everyone and so that's why we need legislation to dictate what is right," Wheeler says.

But landlords are also in unchartered territory, says Josh Feinberg, who has worked in Houston as a commercial real estate broker and co-founded CRE tech platform, Tenavox.

"There's this idea that there's this acrimony between tenant and landlord, and I think, as a former broker, we're set up that way to get our side the best deal. But in reality, that's just not true," Feinberg says. "The majority of commercial real estate is owned by regular people — not usually some faceless, gigantic corporation."

And they have a piper to pay too, Feinberg adds. Ninety percent of CRE is owned by debt, he says. If the government steps in anywhere, it should be on the lender level, as well as creating some sort of tax relief.

"If there's any relief here, it's going to have to come from lenders, and I think you'd hear that from owners and brokers," Feinberg says.

In somewhat convenient timing, Tenavox has recently co-founded a new company that provides a bit of a solution for small businesses. Otso provides landlords with an alternative to cash security deposits. Traditionally, deposits are held onto by landlords — they aren't legally allowed to spend it unless the tenant defaults.

"In general, I think cash deposits are wasteful," Feinberg says. "It's critical capital that the business can hire with, invest, and use."

Tenavox teamed up with Euler Hermes, a 135-year-old credit insurance company, to create Otso, and the credit company backs the lease performance of each tenant that is approved by Otso. The transaction calls for a fee added to the rent, but no large cash deposit would be required.

The tool can be used on new leases, and, in light of the current situation, Otso can also be used to create an addendum in existing leases so that the tenant can get back their deposit and use it in this time of crisis. Either landlord or tenant can apply online and hear back that same day — Feinberg says he's focused on a speedy response to help get this deposit money back to the tenant.

"If we can get some liquidity back into the hands of the business, they have some a better chance of survival," Feinberg says.

Other than looking into Otso, Feinberg has some other recommendations for small business owners. He says they should be applying for relief from the Small Business Administration, which has more money to dole out than they have ever had. And, as it pertains to working with their landlords, communication is key. Show financials and specific information — like what March 2019 looks like compared to 2020 — so that landlords can take that to their lenders.

"An unprecedented crisis is going to require unprecedented solutions," Feinberg says.

Houston is hosting a bit of a tech takeover week during the first week of March. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

These are the events to attend each day during the Houston Tech Rodeo

Where to be

Houston Exponential has tapped into the Houston innovation ecosystem to coordinate a week of events to speak to the city's startups, investors, and startup development organizations.

The week, called the Houston Tech Rodeo, will take place March 2 to 6 — in coordination with the start of the Houston Livestock Show And Rodeo — all across town. From panels and meetups to office hours and pitch events, there's a lot to navigate in the inaugural week. For a complete list of Tech Rodeo events (most of which are free and all over town), head to the website.

Here are the events you should make sure not to miss. Each featured event is free and open to the public.

Monday: Houston Tech Rodeo Kickoff Event

Launching the week is a happy hour event with a networking opportunity and a panel brought to you by InnovationMap, KPMG, and Houston Exponential. The event is on Monday, March 2, from 4 to 6:30 pm at Karbach Brewing Co. (2032 Karbach St.). After a short introduction from KPMG and HX, Blair Garrou, managing director at Mercury Fund; Leslie Goldman, general partner at The Artemis Fund; and Samantha Lewis, director of GOOSE, will discuss the VC culture in Houston vs. the world. Click here to register.

Tuesday: The Founders Round Up at The Cannon

Why attend one event when you can attend a day full of constructive events geared at entrepreneurs? From 9 am to 5 pm on Tuesday, March 3, at The Cannon, catch workshops and panels ranging from startup failure reasons to revenue tips. From 3 to 5 pm, there's a lean startup meet-up workshop to attend. Click here to register.

Additional events:

  • HX will also be hosting its "Conventional Financing for your Tech Business" workshop at 9 am at their office (410 Pierce St.) to help startups navigate their financial options. Click here to register.
  • DivInc. will be hosting an evening event to address "Diversity's Impact on Innovation" at The Ion (1301 Fannin St. Suite 2100). This event runs from 5:30 to 9 pm. Click here to register.

Wednesday: Jason Calacanis Founder Office Hours

Seven Houston entrepreneurs will join investor Jason Calacanis onstage for office hours — but with an audience. The event, which is on Wednesday, March 4, from 9:30 to 11 am with networking to follow, is at Rice University - McNair Hall McNair Hall, Loop Road Shell Auditorium. Click here to register.

Additional event: The University of Houston's Office of Research is hosting a "Women in Science and Beyond" panel of successful female scientists. The event will take place at 5 pm at UH Technology Bridge Innovation Center, Building 4 (5000 Gulf Freeway). Click here to register.

Thursday: Reverse Pitch, Accelerators and Funds with the Ask

The tables have turned. Rather than Houston entrepreneurs pitching, accelerators and startup development organizations are taking the stage to pitch their programs to potential startup members. The event, which is at 9 am at Sesh Coworking (1210 West Clay St. #Suite 18) on Thursday, March 5, will be hosted by Brittany Barreto of Capital Factory. Click here to register.

Additional events:

  • Learn from the leading ladies of Houston innovation in The Ion's EmpowerHER event at 11 am at 1301 Fannin St. Suite 2100. Click here to register.
  • Wrap up your day with a networking opportunity from MassChallenge Texas at the C. Baldwin, Curio Collection by Hilton (400 Dallas Street). Click here to register.

Friday: BAMA Houston Launch Event

Celebrate the launch of the Business Angel Minority Association — a new organization looking to increase investments for minority-run startups. The networking and pitch event is on Friday, March 6, from 8 to 10 am at The Cannon Tower - Amegy Conference Center (1810 Main St, Suite 1300). Click here to register.

Additional event: Wrap up your week with networking hosted by HX. The event is from 5 to 7 pm at Saint Arnold Brewing Company (2000 Lyons Ave.) Click here to register.

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Houston company receives FDA approval for tech that uses sound to blast away cellulite

Zip zap

Soliton, a Houston-based technology company, is using audio pulses to make waves in the med-aesthetic industry.

The company, which is licensed from the University of Texas on behalf of MD Anderson, announced that it had received FDA approval earlier this month for its novel and proprietary technology that can reduce the appearance of cellulite.

MIT engineer and doctor Christopher Capelli first developed the basis of the tool while he led the Office of Technology Based Ventures at M.D. Anderson.

Capelli uncovered that he could remove tattoos more effectively by treating the skin with up to 100 waves per second (about five to 10 times greater than other devices on the market), giving birth to the company's proprietary Rapid Acoustic Pulse (RAP) platform.

In 2012 he formed Soliton with co-founder and entrepreneur Walter Klemp, who also founded Houston-based Moleculin, and later brought on Brad Hauser as CEO. By 2019, the company had received FDA approval for using the technology for tattoo removal.

"The original indication was tattoo removal, which is what Chris envisioned," Hauser says. "The sound wave can increase in speed whenever it hits a stiffer or denser material. And tattoo ink is denser, stiffer than the surrounding dermis. That allows a shearing effect of the sound wave to disrupt that tattoo ink and help clear tattoos."

According to Hauser, the team then turned to a second application for the technology in the short-term improvement in the appearance of cellulite. With the use of the technology, patients can undergo a relatively pain-free, 40- to 60-minute non-invasive session with no recovery time.

Brad Hauser is the CEO of Soliton. Photo courtesy of Soliton

"It works similarly in the fibrous septa, which are the tethered bands that create the dimples and cellulite and the uneven skin. Those are stiffer than the surrounding fat cells in the subcutaneous tissue," Hauser says. "That allows the technology to disrupt those fibrous septa and loosen and release the dimples."

In 2021 the company plans to commercialize their product and get it into the hands of dermatologists, plastic surgeons, and other medical professionals for 25 key accounts—potentially including ones Houston—with a plan for a national rollout in 2022.

And they don't plan to stop there.

The company has already announced a partnership for a proof-of-concept study with the U.S. Navy in which Soliton will aim to use its technology to reduce the visibility of fibrotic scars, and more importantly work to increase mobility or playability of scars.

"Often the scar ends up causing restrictions in motion and discomfort with pressure of even clothing and certainly with sleeping," Hauser says. "We believe based on the reduction in volume and the increase in playability that we saw in our original proof-of-concept study that we will be able to bring benefits to these military patients."

Work on the study is slated to begin in the first half of this year.

In the meantime, the company is making headway with treatment of liver fibrosis, announcing just this week that it's pre-clinical study in animals demonstrated positive results and a reduction in effects by 42 percent seven days after the completion of carbon tetrachloride (CCL4) induction. The RAP technology was also named the best new technology by the Aesthetic Industry Association earlier this month.

"It's really targeting collagen fiber and fibroblasts on a cellular level" Hauser says. "Which we think has numerous potential uses in the future."

UH launches online MBA, plus six new digital degree programs

online ed

The University of Houston's C. T. Bauer College of Business announced this month that it will begin offering fully online Master of Business Administration and Bachelor of Business Administration programs in the upcoming fall semester.

The new offerings are part of the college's 2020-2025 Strategic Plan that focuses on becoming a leader in digital learning and affordable education options.

In addition to the online BBA and MBA degrees, Bauer is launching five other fully online business-minded graduate programs:

  • Online Master of Science in Business Analytics
  • Online Master of Science in Finance
  • Online Master of Science in Management & Leadership
  • Online Master of Science in Management Information Systems
  • Online Master of Science in Supply Chain Management

Over the summer, Paul Pavlou, dean of the Bauer School and Cullen Distinguished Chair Professor, told InnovationMap that enrollment in the Bauer College had increased by about 70 percent, as the school focused on accessibility and affordability amid the pandemic and record job losses.

According to Pavlou, these new degree programs will be an extension of that effort.

"Given the recent developments due to COVID-19, and the broader challenges for higher education, it has become imperative to enhance our ability to leverage technology to offer courses remotely," he says in a statement.

The seven programs will cost between 15 to 20 percent less than traditional degree programs at the university, according to UH. The new programs will charge in-state tuition for all students, regardless of residency, and online students will not pay additional fees.

"These new offerings demonstrate our dedication to providing students financially accessible programs that emphasize innovation, technology, and experiential learning," says Paula Myrick Short, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at UH. "Student success is our top priority, and as the need for flexible instruction and course delivery increases, we will meet that need."

The Bauer School has long been touted as one of the top schools for entrepreneurship in the country. In late 2020, UH announced that it received a $13 million donation from the Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Family Foundation to go toward Bauer's well-known programs, as part of the school's $1.2 billion "Here We Go" initiative.

Expert says Houston is the prime spot for creating and testing game-changing resilience solutions

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 72

The city of Houston, along the rest of the Lone Star State, has been hit from every direction — pandemics, hurricanes, winter storms, and more.

"We're just whipsawed," says Richard Seline, co-founder at the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub Collaboratory. "We've gone from back-to-back storms and hurricanes to COVID to snow and ice and its impact on energy. People are just exhausted."

Now, Seline says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, this exhaustion is festering into frustration and anger — and calling for change. The things that need to change, Seline says, includes growing investment and innovation in resilience solutions.

"As a fourth generation Houstonian, it's just so hard to see my hometown get hit persistently with a lot of these weather and other type of disasters," Seline says.

These unprecedented disasters — which are of course occurring beyond Houston and Texas — have also sparked a growing interest in change for insurance companies that have lost a trillion dollars on the United States Gulf Coast over the past seven years, Seline says. Something has got to change regarding preparation and damage mitigation.

Creating conversations about change is exactly what Seline and the Resilience Innovation Hub, which is based out of The Cannon Tower in downtown Houston, is focused on. Following all these catastrophic events, the industry is overwhelmed with data — and now is the time to put it to use on innovation and tech solutions.

"We are drowning in data and hungry for intelligence — actionable intelligence," Seline says, adding that now innovators and entrepreneurs are taking on this data and creating solutions.

The challenge then becomes convincing decision makers to pivot from what they know and are comfortable with to what they don't know and what they aren't comfortable with.

And, Seline says on the show, that needs to happen across the board — from public and private companies to government entities and nonprofits both locally and beyond.

"I think that it's time to flip this on its head and say to the world, 'we got it.,'" Seline says. "Because we know these challenges, we are opening the world to the best ideas to be piloted and demonstrated. All I ask is that we get elective and appointed officials who are open to ideas and solutions. That's how innovation occurs."

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