Choice Hotels has a new partner in Houston-based WizeHire. Photo courtesy of Choice Hotels

A Houston startup has struck a deal with a major new client focused on getting employees back to work at its 6,000 locations worldwide.

Maryland-based international hotelier Choice Hotels International Inc. selected Houston-based WizeHire into its Qualified Vendor program as its only current recruiting solution for the thousands of franchised locations under the Choice Hotels umbrella. WizeHire provides its clients tech-enabled, customized hiring solutions and has a suite of software available for users to utilize.

"We're so excited to support Choice's independently-owned hotels with the most personal and complex part of their businesses—hiring great talent," says Sid Upadhyay, WizeHire's co-founder and CEO, in a press release.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the hospitality industry saw an unemployment rate of 13.5 percent. With travel expected to increase this year, Choice Hotels is looking to provide its franchisees opportunities to efficiently rehire.

"As a long-time Choice Hotels owner and WizeHire customer, I'm thrilled for what this partnership means for growing my business," says Tushar Patel, owner of Quality Inn & Suites Round Rock - Austin North, in the release.

Hospitality represents one of the six industry verticals WizeHire has listed on its website, and the startup provides "job templates created with industry experts, built-in pre-screening tools specifically for hospitality jobs and benchmarks that help identify the soft skills needed for numerous hotel roles," according to the release.

Choice Hotels nationwide will have access to these resources effective immediately, per the release.

"At a time when there is so much uncertainty for many individuals and employers in the hospitality industry, WizeHire has the opportunity to meet hiring needs at this critical moment," says Justin Nimergood, head of franchise sales for WizeHire. "I'm thrilled to be leading that charge."

After a tumultuous year in which hiring across industries essentially came to a halt, WizeHire is seeing immense business growth as companies plan to rehire, says Upadhyay in a recent interview with InnovationMap. The company recently raised a $7.5 million series A round to gear up for this growth.

With all the uncertainty last, Upadhyay says he and his team instead focused on providing resources, such as PPP loan guidance, for small businesses — something the company is focused on continuing.

"We're really going beyond just the hire," Upadhyay says in a recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We're getting to this role where we're going to help you grow your business."

Listen to Upadhyay on the Houston Innovators Podcast:

WizeHire CEO Sid Upadhyay joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share his big plans for his company as it gears up for growth. Photo courtesy of WizeHire

Houston startup plans to expand to revolutionize tech-enabled small business support

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 74

Hiring and recruiting has been a challenging and inefficient process for small businesses — yet it could not be more important as a company with a small, growing team.

"Today, whether you're running a startup for the first or second time, at the end of the day, you're just wearing too many hats," says Sid Upadhyay, co-founder and CEO of WizeHire, on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Recruiting is one of those things where we know talent is the lifeblood of our businesses, but we just don't have the time to think about the process."

Upadhyay says his company, Houston-based WizeHire, lives and breathes for small businesses, and in 2014 the company launched to tap into technology to provide a software service that can streamline a more effective way for startups and small businesses to hire — and hire optimally.

Last month, the company — founded by Upadhyay, Nick Carneiro, and Jay Niblick — closed a $7.5 million series A funding round that was led by Houston-based Mercury Fund and Amplo, which is based just north of Houston in Spring. Additional support came from existing backers Ruchit Shah and RigUp co-founder Sandeep Jain. The fresh funding will go toward expansion — both of its team as well as WizeHire's products.

Upadhyay says the the effects of the pandemic — which includes many businesses ceasing to hire — had profound repercussions on WizeHire.

"We saw half our revenue disappear overnight," Upadhyay says. "As we were going through that up-and-down roller coaster, it was one of the most humbling experience."

Upadhyay says WizeHire has a close relationship with its customers, and they were reaching out asking for guidance from WizeHire during the uncertain times. Upadhyay's team took the opportunity to provide low or no-cost support, especially when it comes to navigating the CARES Act.

"We started to educate our customers about everything from PPP loans to tax credits," Upadhyay says. "We went so far as to connect 300 of our customers to banks — otherwise they wouldn't have been able to get these loans."

These efforts are what led WizeHire to its first venture capital raise. The bootstrapped company has a client base that includes more than 7,000 businesses, and the company recorded $4.7 million in run rate in 2020. Now, in light of the impact WizeHire was able to make with its clients during the pandemic, Upadhyay says the company is going to expand to include other key services, like identifying tax credits.

"We're really going beyond just the hire," Upadhyay says. "We're getting to this role where we're going to help you grow your business."

Upadhyay discusses more about WizeHire's plans for 2021 and the intentionality of the business on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Rachel Moctron of ClassPass, Sid Upadhyay of WizeHire, and Ashley Small of Medley Inc. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three innovators across industries recently making headlines — from fitness tech and software to PR and communications.

Rachel Moncton, vice president of Global Marketing at ClassPass

Rachel Moncton shares why ClassPass tapped Houston as a prime place to expand. Photo courtesy of ClassPass

ClassPass recently announced its entrance into the Houston market, and at the helm of the company's new local presence is Rachel Moncton. In a guest article for InnovationMap, she shares why ClassPass was so interested in Houston. The search actually started four years ago, but the tech company finally landed in Houston for its fourth location.

"In 2017, the ClassPass team spent nine months conducting an intensive nationwide search for a city that matched our mission and values," Moncton writes. "As a brand focused on supporting an active lifestyle, we wanted a city that offered a connection to the outdoors. One of the most important driving factors in our search was finding a city where we could attract incredible talent to our team. Though we settled on Missoula, Houston was high on the list." Click here to read more.

Sid Upadhyay, co-founder and CEO of WizeHire

A Houston startup has closed a $7.5 million round of funding with mostly local investment. Photo courtesy of WizeHire

Sid Upadhyay's startup has something to celebrate. The software company founded in Houston closed a $7.5 million series A round of funding led by two Houston-area venture capital firms — Amplo and Mercury Fund. According to a news release, WizeHire will use the funds to scale their business, which is centered around providing personalized hiring resources to small businesses.

"We're a small business helping small businesses with a team of people looking out for you," says Upadhyay. "Hiring is complex and personal. Our customers see what we do not just as software; they see us as a trusted advisor." Click here to read more.

Ashley Small, founder and CEO of Medley Inc.

From events to online shopping — here are four tech trends to look out for this year according to Ashley Small. Photo courtesy of Medley

For Ashley Small, founder and CEO of Medley Inc., innovation and inclusion go hand in hand. Business leaders need diverse voices at the table to drive new ideas and innovation.

"Innovation is actually impossible without diversity," Small says on the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "A part of this is also being really open minded to the fact that you are going to hear ideas that sound and look different. Be open to that, because that is 100 percent the point."

Small discusses more about how she's honoring Black History Month with her team and the evolution the PR and media industries have seen over the past decade on the episode. Click here to stream the episode and read more.

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2 COVID-19-focused research projects happening in Houston

research roundup

While it might seem like the COVID-19 pandemic has settled down for the time being, there's plenty of innovative research ongoing to create solutions for affordable vaccines and tech-enabled protection against the spread of the virus.

Some of that research is happening right here in Houston. Here are two innovative projects in the works at local institutions.

UH researcher designs app to monitor best times to shop

A UH professor is putting safe shopping at your fingertips. Photo via UH.edu

When is the best time to run an errand in the pandemic era we currently reside? There might be an app for that. Albert Cheng, professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is working on a real-time COVID-19 infection risk assessment and mitigation system. He presented his plans at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference HPC for Urgent Decision Making and will publish the work in IEEE Xplore.

Cheng's work analyzes up-to-date data from multiple open sources to see when is the best time to avoid crowds and accomplish activities outside the home.

"Preliminary work has been performed to determine the usability of a number of COVID-19 data websites and other websites such as grocery stores and restaurants' popular times and traffic," Cheng says in a UH release. "Other data, such as vaccination rates and cultural factors (for example, the percentage of people willing to wear facial coverings or masks in an area), are also used to determine the best grocery store to shop in within a time frame."

To use the app, a user would input their intended destinations and the farthest distance willing to go, as well as the time frame of the trip. The risk assessment and mitigation system, or RT-CIRAM, then "provides as output the target location and the time interval to reach there that would reduce the chance of infections," said Cheng.

There's a lot to it, says Cheng, and the process is highly reliant on technology.

"We are leveraging urgent high-performance cloud computing, coupled with time-critical scheduling and routing techniques, along with our expertise in real-time embedded systems and cyber-physical systems, machine learning, medical devices, real-time knowledge/rule-based decision systems, formal verification, functional reactive systems, virtualization and intrusion detection," says Cheng.

2 Houston hospitals team up with immunotherapy company for new vaccine for Africa

The new vaccine will hopefully help mitigate spread of the disease in Sub-Saharan Africa. Photo via bcm.edu

Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital have teamed up with ImmunityBio Inc. — a clinical-stage immunotherapy company — under a licensing agreement to develop a safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccine.

BCM has licensed out a recombinant protein COVID-19 vaccine candidate that was developed at the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development to ImmunityBio. According to the release, the company engaged in license negotiations with the BCM Ventures team, about the vaccine that could address the current pandemic needs in South Africa.

"We hope that our COVID-19 vaccine for global health might become an important step towards advancing vaccine development capacity in South Africa, and ultimately for all of Sub-Saharan Africa," says Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor and co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

ImmunityBio, which was founded in 2014 by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, is working on innovative immunotherapies that address serious unmet needs in infectious diseases, according to a news release from BCM.

"There is a great need for second-generation vaccines, which are accessible, durable and offer broad protection against the emerging variants," says Soon-Shiong. "ImmunityBio has executed on a heterologous ("mix-and-match") strategy to develop a universal COVID-19 vaccine. To accomplish this, we have embarked upon large-scale good manufacturing practices and development of DNA (adenovirus), RNA (self-amplifying mRNA) and subunit protein (yeast) vaccine platforms. This comprehensive approach will leverage our expertise in these platforms for both infectious disease and cancer therapies."

Elon Musk taps into Texas workforce for out-of-this-world bartender gig

DRINKING ON THE JOB

Can you mix a mean margarita? Are you capable of slinging a superb Aperol spritz? If so, Elon Musk wants you to become a "spaceport mixologist."

Musk's SpaceX, which builds and launches rockets, is hiring a "passionate, experienced" mixologist for its "spaceport" near Brownsville. The ideal candidate possesses at least two years of "superior" mixology experience at resorts, bars, and full-service restaurants, including the ability to pair drinks with themed menus.

Among other duties, the mixologist will prepare drinks, including handcrafted cocktails, and will ensure "consistency and compliance with the restaurant's recipes, portioning, and waste control guidelines."

The new mixologist will concoct alcoholic beverages for SpaceX's launch facility in Boca Chica, a Texas Gulf Coast community about 20 miles east of Brownsville. The job posting indicates the mixologist will work on the culinary team serving the SpaceX workforce.

According to Austin-based job website Indeed, the average mixologist in the U.S. earns $13.53 an hour. The SpaceX job posting doesn't list a salary, but you've got to imagine Musk — by far the richest person in Texas — would fork over more than $13.53 an hour for a spaceport mixologist.

By the way, in case you're not a master mixologist, SpaceX also is looking for a sous chef in Boca Chica. The sous chef will be tasked with cooking up menus that emphasize seasonal items and "creative" options. The chef's duties will include sourcing high-quality ingredients "with a focus on local, sustainable, and organic items."

Musk, who spends much of his time in Austin, is developing what the Bloomberg news service describes as an "empire" in Texas. Aside from the SpaceX facility, Musk-led Tesla is building a vehicle manufacturing plant just east of Austin and is moving its headquarters here. If that weren't enough, the Musk-founded Boring Co., which specializes in developing underground tunnels, lists 20 job openings in Austin on its website. In addition, SpaceX tests rocket engines at a site in McGregor, about 17 miles southwest of Waco.

"Texas has had its share of characters over the years, and many have been larger-than-life, wealthy risk-takers who came from elsewhere," Waco economist Ray Perryman tells Bloomberg. "There's still a wildcatting mentality here, and there's still a mystique about Texas that Elon Musk fits well."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.