Houston founders demystify startup journey on SXSW panel

Houston innovators podcast episode 177

Three Houston startup founders took the stage to talk product/market fit, customer acquisition, funding, and the rest of the startup journey at a panel at SXSW. Photo courtesy of the GHP

Editor's note: On Monday at Houston House, a SXSW activation put on by the Greater Houston Partnership, I moderated a panel called “Demystifying the Startup Journey.” Panelists included three Houston founders: Ted Gutierrez, co-founder and CEO of SecurityGate.io, Simone May, co-founder and CTO of Clutch, and Gaurav Khandelwal, founder and CEO of Velostics. The three entrepreneurs discussed their journeys and the challenges they face — from product/market fit and hiring to fundraising and customer acquisition. Listen to the full conversation on this week’s episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast below. Thank you to SXSW and GHP for the recording.


Madison Long joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Clutch's recent national launch and the role Houston played in the company's success. Photo courtesy of Clutch

Following a pivot, this Houston founder is ready make her mark on the creator economy

houston innovators podcast episode 171

When Madison Long started her company with her co-founder and friend, Simone May, she knew she wanted to do one thing: Provide a platform for young people to have reliable access to payment for their skills and side hustles. Through starting a business, making a name change, launching a beta, going through a pivot, completing an accelerator, and more — that mission hasn't changed. And now, young people across the country can opt into the platform.

Houston-based creator economy platform Clutch celebrated its nationwide launch earlier this month. The platform connects brands to its network of creators for reliable and authentic work — everything from social media management, video creation, video editing, content creation, graphic design projects, and more.

When the company first launched its beta in Houston, the platform (then called Campus Concierge) rolled out at three Houston-area universities: Texas Southern University, Rice University, and Prairie View A&M. The marketplace connected any students with a side hustle to anyone on campus who needed their services.

Long shares on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast that since that initial pilot, they learned they could be doing more for users.

"We recognized a bigger gap in the market," Long says. "Instead of just working with college-age students and finding them side hustles with one another, we pivoted last January to be able to help these young people get part-time, freelance, or remote work in the creator economy for businesses and emerging brands that are looking for these young minds to help with their digital marketing presence."

Once focusing on the gig economy, Clutch changed its focus to the creator economy. The founders launched a new beta after closing $1.2 million in seed funding last year.

"Even though we did have to pivot, we're excited to be at the place now where we do deeply understand how to service both sides of our marketplace — the next-gen creatives and the emerging brands — so that they can really empower each other to meet their goals," Long says on the show.

Clutch, which went through the DivInc Houston accelerator, credits a part of the company's ability to survive the challenges from making pivots on being founded in Houston.

"We attribute a lot of Clutch's success — especially early on — to being located in Houston," Long says, explaining that she moved to Houston from California in 2021 to focus on the company. "It was physically being in the tech ecosystem that was blossoming in the Houston network that allowed us to feel safe making the pivots we were making and get a lot of guidance from mentors we were meeting."

She shares more about what's next for Clutch on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

With Clutch, connecting brands with creators has never been easier and more inclusive. Photo courtesy of Clutch

Houston-based creator economy platform goes live nationally

so clutch

An app that originally launched on Houston college campuses has announced it's now live nationwide.

Clutch founders Madison Long and Simone May set out to make it easier for the younger generation to earn money with their skill sets. After launching a beta at local universities last fall, Clutch's digital marketplace is now live for others to join in.

The platform connects brands to its network of creators for reliable and authentic work — everything from social media management, video creation, video editing, content creation, graphic design projects, and more. With weekly payments to creators and an inclusive platform for users on both sides of the equation, Clutch aims to make digital collaboration easier and more reliable for everyone.

“We’re thrilled to bring our product to market to make sustainable, authentic lifestyles available to everyone through the creator economy," says May, CTO and co-founder of Clutch. "We’re honored to be part of the thriving innovation community here in Houston and get to bring more on-your-own-terms work opportunities to all creators and businesses through our platform.”

In its beta, Clutch facilitated collaborations for over 200 student creators and 50 brands — such as DIGITS and nama. The company is founded with a mission of "democratizing access to information and technology and elevating the next generation for all people," according to a news release from Clutch. In the beta, 75 percent of the creators were people of color and around half of the businesses were owned by women and people of color.

“As a Clutch Creator, I set my own pricing, schedule and services when collaborating on projects for brands,” says Cathy Syfert, a creator through Clutch. “Clutch Creators embrace the benefits of being a brand ambassador as we create content about the products we love, but do it on behalf of the brands to help the brands grow authentically."

The newly launched product has the following features:

  • Creator profile, where users can share their services, pricing, and skills and review inquiries from brands.
  • Curated matching from the Clutch admin team.
  • Collab initiation, where users can accept or reject incoming collab requests with brands.
  • Collab management — communication, timing, review cycles — all within the platform.
  • In-app payments with a weekly amount selected by the creators themselves.
  • Seamless cancellation for both brands and creators.
Clutch raised $1.2 million in seed funding from Precursor Ventures, Capital Factory, HearstLab, and more. Clutch was originally founded as Campus Concierge in 2021 and has gone through the DivInc Houston program at the Ion.

Madison Long, left, and Simone May co-founded Clutch. Photo courtesy of Clutch

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Jeff James of PickleJar, Madison Long and Simone May of Clutch, and Tarun Girish of Spark Spaces. Photos courtesy

4 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to four local startup founders across industries — from electric vehicles to app development— recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Jeff James, co-founder and CEO of PickleJar

Jeff James and his company, PickleJar, are streamlining and strengthening the connection between performer and audience. Photo courtesy of PickleJar

Jeff James had the idea for a platform that allows musicians to engage with their audiences — specifically when it came to receiving tips. Right when he started working on the idea for PickleJar, an app-based, performer-focused platform where fans can conduct cashless tips, the pandemic hit.

"As the pandemic lingered on, we realized the project wasn't just about tipping or on-stage engagement, it's about something greater than that," James says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's all the different ways how artists are being disenfranchised. We really set out on a mission to help artists make more money."

As distracting as the pandemic was at first to PickleJar, which officially launched in May of 2021, the company ended up having a huge opportunity to be a revenue stream for artists when they needed it most. The duo decided they had to build the company — even during the pandemic and uncertain times. Click here to read more and listen to the episode.

Madison Long and Simone May, co-founders of Clutch

Madison Long, left, and Simone May co-founded Clutch to democratize side gig success on college campuses. Photo courtesy of Clutch

Clutch, a digital marketplace startup founded by Simone May and Madison Long, has fresh funding after closing its pre-seed round of funding at $1.2 million. The investment from this round will support Clutch’s national open beta launch of its platform for brands and student creators nationwide and its continued investment in customer and product strategy.

“We are at this inflection point where marketing is changing,” May says in a press release. “We know that the next generation can clearly see that and I think a lot of marketing agencies are starting to catch on.

"We need to be prioritizing the next generation’s opinion because they are driving who is interested in what they buy. This upcoming generation does not want to be sold to and they don’t like inorganic, inauthentic advertisements. That’s why user generated content is so big, it feels authentic.” Click here to continue reading.

Tarun Girish, founder and CEO of Sparks Spaces

Houston-based Spark Spaces is looking to build out luxury spots for electric vehicle charging. Rendering courtesy of Spark Spaces

Tarun Girish wanted to upgrade EV drivers' charging experiences. His idea became Sparks Spaces, a startup formed in 2021 looking to shake up the EV charging game — the company aims to elevate the experience of charging electric vehicles by focusing on the space between car and charger by creating an airport lounge-type space for drivers. These EV lounges would include luxury waiting areas, clean restrooms, high-end food options, and availability to utilize them 24/7.

“We’ve seen a huge issue in the EV charging space where the experience side has been neglected,” says Girish, founder and CEO of Sparks Spaces.

Currently, Sparks Spaces is operating out of The Ion and installed a charging point outside of the building to help collect insights into what drivers are needing and are wanting to learn more about their customer base. Click here to learn more.

Madison Long, left, and Simone May co-founded Clutch to democratize side gig success on college campuses. Photo courtesy of Clutch

Houston-based gig economy startup raises $1.2M, launches beta platform

so clutch

Two Houstonians on a mission to enable safe and equitable entrepreneurship on college campuses have launched a new beta platform and closed pre-seed funding.

Clutch, a digital marketplace startup founded by Simone May and Madison Long, closed its pre-seed round of funding at $1.2 million – led by Precursor Ventures and other partners such as Capital Factory and HearstLab. The investment from this round will support Clutch’s national open beta launch of its platform for brands and student creators nationwide and its continued investment in customer and product strategy.

“We are at this inflection point where marketing is changing,” May says in a press release. “We know that the next generation can clearly see that and I think a lot of marketing agencies are starting to catch on. We need to be prioritizing the next generation’s opinion because they are driving who is interested in what they buy. This upcoming generation does not want to be sold to and they don’t like inorganic, inauthentic advertisements. That’s why user generated content is so big, it feels authentic.”

Originally founded as Campus Concierge before rebranding as Clutch, the company has grown the business to 200 vetted student creators – 75 percent of whom are people of color.

“We have a huge passion for democratizing access to ensure that people who look like us also make money that supports their lifestyle in a meaningful way,” says May, who is also CTO of Clutch.

The company was a member of DivInc's inaugural Houston accelerator cohort in 2021, which May says helped the company develop its pitch deck, financial models and pushed the team to think about what it means to be a startup.

“Madison and Simone have an incredible vision for Clutch that they are bringing to life,” said Preston James, CEO and Founder of DivInc in a statement. “[…] Clutch is a life changer for so many. We’re thrilled to be part of their journey as an investor and partner, and very excited to see their continued growth and success.”

Looking ahead, Clutch wants to grow and enhance the team – wanting to take the platform to the next level by finding new means of selling its services. In addition, it wants to become a place for support and a resource to help the freelance lifestyle – connecting their content creators with a centralized market for retirement funds, investments, health care and all things they may require.

“The next generation is one that craves flexible, empowering and meaningful work that supports their balanced lifestyle,” says Long, who serves as CEO. “We want to be a force for the next generation in the changing landscape of what it means to be successful in your career to something that is dynamic, ever-changing and on your own terms.”

A Houston tech startup launches a crowdfunding campaign — and more local innovation news. Photo courtesy of The Postage

Roundup: Houston startups announce new partnerships, crowdfunding campaigns, and more

Short stories

The Houston innovation ecosystem has been bursting at the seams with news from innovative tech companies and disruptive Houston startups as we fly through the final quarter of 2021.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, a Texas energy tech company gets selected for a prestigious program, a med device company heads to clinical trials, a startup launches a crowdfunding campaign, and more.

The Postage launches crowdfunding campaign

The Postage is looking for financial support with its new campaign. Photo courtesy of The Postage

The Postage, a Houston-based, full-service digital platform to help organize affairs to make after-life planning a smoother process for families, has announced the launch of a crowdfunding campaign through MicroVentures.

"This crowdfunding offering is selling crowd notes to raise maximum offering proceeds of $500,000 with a minimum investment of $100," according to a news release. "We currently anticipate closing this offering on April 4, 2022."

More information on this offering can be found at: https://invest.microventures.com/offerings/the-postage.

Emily Cisek co-founded the company after she experienced an overwhelming experience following a death in her family.

"I just knew there had to be a better way, and that's why I started The Postage," Cisek says on an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "My background had historically been in bringing offline businesses online, and I started doing some research on how I could make this space better. At the time, there really wasn't anything out there."

Texas company selected for Chevron Technology Ventures Catalyst Program

This Texas company has joined CTV's startup program. Photo via Getty Images

SeebeckCell Technologies, while based in Arlington, Texas, is no stranger to the Houston innovation ecosystem. The startup was in the first class of the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator, participated in the MassChallenge Texas Houston cohort, and is a member at Greentown Houston. The company announced earlier this month a new Houston association as it was invited to participate in the Chevron Technology Ventures Catalyst Program to develop further their technology platform designed to recover industrial waste heat energy, increasing energy consumption efficiency, and eliminating battery replacement in IoT applications, according to a news release.

"SeebeckCell is excited to be supported by Chevron, a technology leader in the energy market," says Ali Farzbod, co-founder and CEO of Seebeckcell Technologies, in the release. "This is inspiring hope in the scientific community as we see Chevron continue to back commercializing academically developed technologies that provide potential solutions for addressing climate change. Through collaboration and partnership, we're able to grow our startup and we're grateful for participating in the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator that helped connect us with Chevron."

SeebeckCell Technologies is helping petroleum and gas industries and emerging markets solve energy waste with an innovative liquid based thermoelectric generator.

VenoStent heads to clinical trials

VenoStent

VenoStent has reached the clinical trials stage. Photo via venostent.com

VenoStent Inc. has announced successful enrollment in its initial feasibility clinical trial. The med device startup is a tissue engineering company that's developing smart polymer wraps to transform the efficacy of the vascular surgery industry, which sees five million operations each year.

"We are very pleased to announce that we have successfully enrolled twenty end-stage renal disease patients in our initial feasibility study taking place in Asuncion, Paraguay," says Tim Boire, CEO., in a news release "After years of development, we are confident that our bioabsorbable wrap technology can have a positive impact on the lives of patients that require hemodialysis to sustain life. This is a major milestone toward our mission to improve the quality and length of life for end-stage renal disease patients, as well as others needing vascular surgery."

VenoStent is an alum of TMC Innovation's accelerator and has been named a most promising company by Rice Alliance.

Cart.com announces latest partnership

Cart.com has a new partner, which has increased access to tools for its clients. Photo via cart.com

Houston-based Cart.com, an end-to-end ecommerce services provider and Amazon competitor, has announced yet another new partnership. The company has teamed up with Extend, which provides modern extended warranties and product protection plans. The partnership means that Cart.com merchants have access to a new revenue stream and new ways to increase customer satisfaction by leveraging Extend's platform and technology-enabled proprietary insurance stack.

"Like Cart.com, Extend is fixing the fractured ecommerce ecosystem by providing a truly innovative, effortless, and easy-to-understand service for both merchants and their customers," says Omair Tariq, Cart.com co-founder and CEO, in a news release. "By creating seamless solutions to serve brands, we empower them to focus completely on their customers. The partnership with Extend fits squarely in this view; anyone who has wrangled with extended warranty claims in the past understands the friction involved. Extend is rewriting the rules for product protection and customer service while Cart.com takes care of everything from the factory floor to the customer door. Through this partnership with Extend, we're now seamlessly covering the post-purchase experience too."

Extend launched in 2019 — a time when only the top 1 percent of merchants could offer extended warranties and protection plans to help their customers, according to the release. Now, Extend is valued at $1.6 billion, has raised over $315 million in venture capital, is on track to sell more than three million protection plans in 2021.

"The relationship between an ecommerce company and its customer doesn't end with the sale," says Woodrow Levin, co-founder and CEO of Extend, in the release. "Our technology will allow Cart.com's clients to continue to engage customers after they make a purchase, unlocking opportunities to increase brand loyalty, open new revenue channels, and create lasting customer relationships. Together, we're empowering clients to deliver a better experience for customers and we are excited to continue to build on that vision."

Campus Concierge rebrands to Clutch with revamped website

A Houston startup has just flipped a switch. Image via thatsclutch.com

Campus Concierge is now Clutch, the Houston-based startup announced on its Facebook page last month. The new name also came with a revamped website.

Madison Long and Simone May had the idea for the company when they were undergraduate students at Purdue University and their only option for scoping out basic services — like getting their hair done or hiring a DJ for an event or a photographer for graduation photos — was to ask around among older students. Launched earlier this year, the platform is a marketplace to connect students who have skills or services with potential clients in a safe way. The company, which was a member of DivInc's inaugural Houston accelerator, launched on three college campuses this year — Texas Southern University, Rice University, and Prairie View A&M.

"Building community is so critical given the fact that it's nerve-wracking any time to ask someone for help — especially now that you are coming back to school after a year of being virtual," Long, CEO and co-founder of Clutch, previously told InnovationMap.

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Energy giant announces deal retail company to bring EV tech to Houston malls

coming soon

Two Houston-area malls will be getting bp's electric vehicle charging technology thanks to a new global collaboration.

The global energy company will be bringing its global EV charging business, bp pulse, to 75 shopping facilities across the country thanks to a partnership with Simon Malls. Two malls in town — The Galleria and Katy Mills Mall — soon see bp's EV charging Gigahubs. The company will install and operate the chargers at the two area sites.

The deal aims to deliver over 900 ultra-fast charging bays that will support most make and model of EVs with the first locations opening to the public in early 2026. Other Texas locations include Grapevine Mills in Grapevine, and Austin’s Barton Creek Square.

“We’re pleased to complete this deal with Simon and expand our ultra-fast charging network footprint in the U.S.,” Richard Bartlett, CEO of bp pulse, says in a news release. “The Simon portfolio aligns with bp pulse’s strategy to deploy ultra-fast charging across the West Coast, East Coast, Sun Belt and Great Lakes, and we are thrilled to team up with Simon so that EV drivers have a range of retail offerings at their impressive destinations.”

Last month, bp pulse opened a EV charging station at its North American headquarters in Houston. The company plans to continue deployment of additional charging points at high-demand spots like major metropolitan areas, bp-owned properties, and airports, according to bp.

“As a committed long term infrastructure player with a global network of EV charging solutions, bp pulse intends to continue to seek and build transformative industry collaborations in real estate required to scale our network and match the demand of current and future EV drivers,” Sujay Sharma, CEO bp pulse Americas, adds.

Houston space tech company reaches major milestone for engine technology

fired up

A Houston company that's creating the next generation of space exploration technology is celebrating a new milestone of one of its technologies.

Intuitive Machines reports that its VR900 completed a full-duration hot-fire test, qualifying it for its IM-2 lunar mission. With the qualification, the company says its VR3500, an engine designed for larger cargo class landers, also advances in development.

The engine technology is designed, 3D-printed, and tested all at Intuitive Machines' Houston facility, which opened in the Houston Spaceport last year.

Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus says in a news release that the company's goal was to lead the way in scalable deep space engines as the industry heads toward lunar missions.

“This validated engine design meets current mission demand and paves the way for our VR3500 engine for cargo delivery such as lunar terrain vehicles, human spaceflight cargo resupply, and other infrastructure delivery," Altemus continues. "We believe we’re in a prime position to build on our successful development and apply that technology toward current contracts and future lunar requirements for infrastructure delivery.”

Earlier this year, Intuitive Machines was one of one of three companies selected for a $30 million NASA contract for the initial phase of developing a rover for U.S. astronauts to traverse the moon’s surface.

Another Houston company has seen success with its engine testing. In March, Venus Aerospace announced that it's successfully ran the first long-duration engine test of their Rotating Detonation Rocket Engine in partnership with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

Houston is the most stressed out city in Texas, report finds

deep breaths

Stress is an unavoidable part of life, but a new report by WalletHub shows Houston residents are far more stressed out than any other city in Texas.

Houston ranked No. 18 out of 182 of the largest U.S. cities based on work, financial, family-related, and health and safety stress, according to WalletHub's "Most & Least Stressed Cities in America (2024)" report. 39 relevant metrics were considered in the report, including each city's job security, the share of households behind on bills within the last 12 months, divorce rates, crime rates, among others.

Houston was ranked the most stressed out city in Texas, but it's still far less stressed than many other U.S. cities. Cleveland, Ohio took first place as the most stressed city in America, followed by Detroit, Michigan (No. 2), Baltimore, Maryland (No. 3), Memphis, Tennessee (No. 4), and Gulfport, Mississippi (No. 5).

Out of the four main categories, Houstonians are struggling the most with work-related stress, ranking No. 13 nationally. The report found Houston has the No. 1 highest traffic congestion rate out of all cities in the report. But at least Houston drivers are solidly average, as maintained by a separate Forbes study comparing the worst drivers in America.

Houston workers can rejoice that they live in a city with a generally high level of guaranteed employment, as the city ranked No. 151 in the job security comparison. The city ranked No. 16 nationwide in the metric for the highest average weekly hours worked.

Houston fared best in the financial stress category, coming in at No. 72 nationally, showing that Houstonians aren't as worried about pinching pennies when it comes to maintaining a good quality of life. The city ranked No. 39 in the comparison of highest poverty rates.

Here's how WalletHub quantified Houston's stress levels:

  • No. 17 – Health and safety stress rank (overall)
  • No. 36 – Family stress rank (overall)
  • No. 63 – Unemployment rates
  • No. 81 – Percentage of adults in fair/poor health
  • No. 95 – Divorce rate
  • No. 96 – Percentage of adults with inadequate sleep

WalletHub analyst Cassandra Happe said in the report that living in particularly arduous cities can play a big role in how stressed a person is, especially when considering uncontrollable circumstances like family problems or work-related issues.

"Cities with high crime rates, weak economies, less effective public health and congested transportation systems naturally lead to elevated stress levels for residents," Happe said.

Happe advised that residents considering a move to a place like Houston should consider how the city's quality of life will impact their mental health, not just their financial wellbeing.

Other Texas cities that ranked among the top 100 most stressed cities in the U.S. are:

  • No. 20 – San Antonio
  • No. 38 – Laredo
  • No. 41 – Dallas
  • No. 47 – Corpus Christi
  • No. 61 – El Paso
  • No. 68 – Fort Worth
  • No. 71 – Brownsville
  • No. 75 – Arlington
  • No. 78 – Grand Prairie
  • No. 88 – Garland
The full report and its methodology can be found on wallethub.com

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.