Houston-based GoCo.io has raised fresh funding and launched the latest version of its platform. Courtesy of GoCo

A Houston startup that is optimizing human resource operations for small businesses has raised fresh funding from an Austin-based venture capital investor.

GoCo.io raised $15 million in September in a funding round led by ATX Venture Partners. Founded in 2015, the company has raised $27.5 million to date, including its $7 million series A in 2019.

The fresh funding will be used to continue expanding on the company's software services operations and upgrades to its product, which is is modernizing HR, benefits, and payroll.

“We believe that GoCo is the company best positioned to provide HR departments at SMBs with the most flexible employee management software,” says Chris Shonk, general partner at ATX Venture Partners, in a news release. “In a crowded marketplace, GoCo clearly rises to the top with its ease-of-use, flexibility and unparalleled customization.

"We’re excited to be a part of GoCo’s journey, and we look forward to supporting their continued innovation as they solve new and existing challenges HR departments face,” he continues.

Last month, the company launched its latest version of the platform, which included new features, enhanced user experience, and increased integrations. Over the past two years, the company has doubled its team to keep up with its customer growth and product development.

“GoCo is the trusted HR software SMBs rely on and we’re thrilled to reach an exciting funding milestone,” says Nir Leibovich, CEO of GoCo, in the release. “This new investment will enable us to provide additional leap-frog HR technology solutions that ensure every organization’s success by eliminating manual HR tasks. SMBs are facing significant challenges right now and GoCo has grown rapidly because we are able to not only meet but exceed HR departments’ needs and expectations.

"GoCo looks forward to expanding upon providing an outstanding customer experience through this new phase of growth as we launch our newest value-added product this fall,” he continues.

Umbrage, a Houston-based developer of enterprise software, has closed its seed funding. Photo via umbrage.com

Houston digital studio closes $2M seed round with local investment

money moves

A software startup in Houston has leveled up thanks to new funding. Houston-based digital studio Umbrage has reportedly raised $2 million.

Founded in 2019 by Will Womble, Umbrage creates custom software solutions for companies within digitally transforming industries, such as oil and gas, healthcare, and supply chain.

"Umbrage is a new way that enterprises can overcome the inherent challenges of building and scaling digital solutions," Womble, who also serves as CEO, says in a news release. "Umbrage partners with internal technology teams to create scalable products that directly impact business' success. And by training our clients to effectively scale and improve these custom-built solutions, we're setting up our customers for long-term, sustainable success."

The round was led by Rice Investment Group — which, according to the release, has been a client of Umbrage as well as an investor.

"We've utilized Umbrage's custom solutions in our portfolio companies with great success and we can attest to the customer value proposition," says Danny Rice, a Partner of Rice Investment Group. "We're thrilled to support Umbrage's growth and enable forward-thinking businesses to unlock the business potential that digital solutions from Umbrage can deliver."

According to the release, Umbrage was able to be cash-flow-positive within weeks of starting and has already grown its team to nearly 40 employees. Clients include Cold Bore Technologies, Sumitomo Corp., and cpap.com.

"Umbrage brings a product-first mindset that continues to influence our organization far beyond what is expected from a software vendor," says Edwin Suarez, vice president and chief digital officer at SC Global Tubular Solutions. "Our team has been challenged with digital business models from ideation through product development and partnering with Umbrage helps us focus on long-term strategy while ensuring delivery on our immediate needs."

DocJuris has raised its first round of venture funding to grow its team to keep up with demand for its legal software platform. Image courtesy of DocJuris

Houston B2B software company raises $3.2M in seed funding to grow team and product

money moves

A Houston-based software-as-a-service company that is revolutionizing the contract process has closed a round of funding this week.

DocJuris, founded in 2018, raised $3.2 million in seed funding led by New York-based RTP Seed with additional support from Houston-based Seed Round Capital, California-based Watertower Ventures, Maryland-based Crossbeam, and Remote First Capital.

It's the startup's first round of venture funding and Henal Patel, CEO of DocJuris, says he was looking for funds as well as support from investors who had experience with software and could open doors to new clients for the legal software.

"Our platform is designed to empower legal, sales, and procurement teams and corporations to negotiate and close contracts with greater speed and precision," Patel says. "The underlying mission is to solve the last-mile of contracting."

Henal Patel is CEO of DocJuris. Photo courtesy of DocJuris

The need for funding came at a time of growth, Patel says, as DocJuris was seeing more and more opportunities in light of the pandemic.

"As work has gone more remote, there's a greater need for teams to be able to collaborate on their contracts — instead of sending Word documents over email," he tells InnovationMap.

Within the contract optimization space, Patel says he sees a lot of opportunities for enhancing the experience for lawyers, business owners, contractors, and anyone who has to spend any amount of time on legal papers.

"One of our visions is to — in addition to providing the tactical tools we do to day — revisualize the way that people read contracts," Patel says. "Our platform enables the ability to improve the lives of the people who have to stare at contracts all day."

DocJuris is already hiring for a few positions across sales, customer service, and marketing, and Patel says he will continue to grow his remote team locally.

"We've been remote since before it was cool," Patel says, adding that all but one of his employees is based in Houston. "But we've been locally concentrated in Houston. We're planning on growing our team here in Houston, but keeping the team remote. We believe in Houston."

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

Houston software startup closes $7.5M series A led by two Houston-area​ VC firms

money moves

A Houston B2B software startup has closed a new round of funding led by two Houston venture capital firms.

WizeHire, a tech-enabled hiring solution for small businesses, 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 company was co-founded by Sid Upadhyay, Nick Carneiro, and Jay Niblick.

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, as well as to hire more staff and expand its partner program.

"We're a small business helping small businesses with a team of people looking out for you," says Upadhyay, who serves the company as CEO, in the release. "Hiring is complex and personal. Our customers see what we do not just as software; they see us as a trusted advisor."

WizeHire's client base includes more than 7,000 businesses, and the company recorded $4.7 million in run rate in 2020, according to the press release, and it was the company's highest year-over-year growth.

"WizeHire is focused on a future where small business owners have easy access to the elevated hiring experience large corporations already have," says Amplo's Sam Garcia, who will join WizeHire's board, in the release. "They're not just creating a better alternative to current recruiting solutions; they're giving employers more peace of mind about the hiring process so they can get back to building their business."

Last year, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company launched a free version of its product and partnered with lenders to help increase accessibility for the Paycheck Protection Program. Now, in a new year, unemployment continues to soar and more than 10 million people remained out of work. As small businesses continue to recover and plan to rehire, WizeHire provides a service that is hyper-personalized for different industries.

"We are thrilled to support WizeHire's opportunity to define talent acquisition for small businesses," says Heath Butler, managing director at Mercury, who will also join WizeHire's board. "By systematically helping hiring managers align company values, behavioral competencies, technical skills and industry requirements to identify the best candidate, WizeHire is enabling their clients to maximize productivity, reduce turnover cost and increase customer loyalty."

This energy tech startup is using tech to change the game within the exploration and production industry. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based startup makes a splash with cloud technology for E&P in oil sector

big computing

A Houston area environmental and energy tech company offers a new pay-as-you-go SaaS application that uses chemistry, physics, artificial intelligence, and cloud technology to build simulation platforms for major exploration and production companies.

AquaNRG Consulting's new technology has already been used by major independent E&P companies, helping to increase energy production and optimization. With new products like aiRock™, it uses cloud-based technology to simulate the physical and chemical processes in natural and human-made porous media driven by data.

The company, founded in 2017 by Babak Shafei, a Ph.D. in Earth and Environmental Sciences, uses data chemistry-physics in a new scientific methodology that uses data-driven methods including machine learning to complement and enhance theoretical modeling on reactive transport modeling (RTM) principles.

"We have been working on the product while also thinking of new ways to provide services needed in the energy industry for a number of years," says Shafei.

Babak Shafei founded Houston-based AquaNRG. Photo courtesy of AquaNRG

AquaNRG has been awarded three prestigious Small Business Innovation Research grants totaling $1.4 million from the US Department of Energy and National Science Foundation.

Shafei says that his team of in the research lab continues to develop and improve the set of techniques that can optimize the oil and gas industry. The technology offers a number of solutions in the geology area, including geochemistry or petrophysical calculations, or even in the environmental area for biogeochemistry and remediation calculations.

"Our technology is oriented to big data and big computing," says Shafei. "The platform is armed machine learning and artificial intelligence that uses the chemistry-physics methodology while using a cloud-based application that is very popular and essential for the energy sector."

Shafei says that during the ongoing coronavirus crisis, the digitization of the energy industry has only increased, and helped AquaNRG grow their brand. They plan to use this upward push to their advantage, by expanding their business and thinking well into the future.

"Our team of researchers is focused on our product and our offerings," says Shafei. "There's a lot of exciting things on our mind, including different verticals in terms of new hiring and new facilities, we're looking forward to rolling forward with that."

Parents, coaches, recruiters — they all use sports footage differently. Houston-based VarsityHype is using tech to help them do that better. Photo via varsityhype.com

Houston SaaS company launches to enhance analytics for amateur sports video footage

sports tech

Something about youth sports produces unforgettable memories, but to be able to share them requires a little help. That's where Houston-based VarsityHype comes in.

Fueled by the tagline "capture the moment," the robust and affordable software-as-a-service, cloud-based solution empowers all users to create, interact, communicate, share and analyze their sports video content that matters most in exciting and meaningful ways.

CEO and founder of VarsityHype, Jorge Ortiz, previously founded a video production company, VYPE Media. Through this work, he realized people could be doing so much more with this footage.

"Last year, we covered and filmed or photographed over 13,000 games and through that, this idea for VarsityHype was born," says CEO Jorge Ortiz. "When we delivered footage for a lot of these organizations, we found that most platforms out there are not specifically tailored to sports, and those that are, are extremely convoluted, hard to use and super expensive."

To combat those systemic and costly roadblocks to the delivery of video footage, the analytics platform was launched as a tool for coaches, athletes, families and organizations, whether they're a league, team, middle school, high school, private, or public school, to be able to create their own private ecosystem centered around video.

Now is the perfect time to be a startup in the youth sports market, which is valued at $15.5 billion in the United States. Not surprisingly, video technology is a huge and growing component of that market.

"I've been in the youth space, tech space, youth, and tech space and the media space for the last four years of my career," says Ortiz. "My first company that I started, GameDay Films, was a filming company that basically democratized youth and high school sports films across the state of Texas and Oklahoma. Now, with VarstiyHype, users can upload their videos into a fluid system that allows every single user to tailor their experience to what they need."

That's apropos, because somewhere, someplace, especially in Texas, there is always a must-see youth football play that will blow everyone's mind in real time. But if it's not documented on video, no one not there to see it firsthand will believe it.

"If I'm a parent, I'm only interested in the memorabilia component of this piece of software," says Ortiz. "So now mom and dad can go in and create highlights of little Johnny's best plays to share with grandma and grandpa and invite their whole family to participate."

Users can create profiles and upload videos. Photo via varsityhype.com

Likewise, athletes themselves can go in and create their profile, update all their stats and create highlights from their workout footage, practice footage and game footage in order to promote themselves and possibly get recruited to the next level.

For coaches, there is an extensive tray of analytical tools that allow them to do what John Madden used to do on Monday Night Football, which is write on the actual footage to aggregate stats, look at heat maps and basically do an analytical performance review.

"From a league, school and team perspective, users can go in and organize the entire infrastructure for that organization from the platform," says Ortiz. "For example, a league can go in and create every single division, including non-athletic divisions like the color guard, band and drumline, etc.

"The application is very nimble and fluid to be able to provide whatever the user needs for a specific instance."

Depending on what the user needs, the platform allows them to create from a variety of templates to build out an entire infrastructure for all levels of competition.

All footage is owned by the users and once something is created on the servers, it will remain there indefinitely, allowing for access to the system even after an extended absence.

The system also connects to all social media platforms with one click of a button.

"You'll be able to share in real time when you're at a game and have the ability to check in," says Ortiz. "When someone shows up to a scheduled game, all that information is geo-targeted and time stamped, and you'll be able to build out a storyboard with all the pictures and videos collected."

As the platform that facilitates all video footage, VarsityHype makes it extremely simple for users to upload and manipulate film they've captured.

"Once the footage is up in the system, creating a highlight is very simple," says Ortiz. "Users can cut up and create footage, such as a game recap. We are the delivery mechanism, so to that extent we also have a partnership with a company here in Houston and across the country in certain different areas that go out and do the filming themselves."

For such an advanced platform, VarsityHype has a simple pricing model.

The first is an annual recurring revenue, which allows organizations, schools, league and teams to purchase a six- or 12-month subscription. The second is the individual plan, which is open to anyone for a monthly fee.

"Our ultimate goal in the next year is to be able to hit scale locally (Houston and Texas), with football being the backbone but then hitting on what we call 'passion pockets' or uniquely played sports that a lot of people don't participate in but have an incredibly passionate following like fencing. Our yearly goal is to have 100,000 plus athletes on the website.

"And from there, we want to scale it quick enough to start to layer in our next step which is a machine learning video component and our AI backend infrastructure that's already built out that allows coaches to break down footage and analyze opponents' scout footage to give them a better game plan."

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Houston company premieres new platform for gig economy workforce

tech support

As the independent workforce continues to grow, a Houston-based company is aiming to connect these workers with companies that match their specific needs with a new digital platform.

FlexTek, a 14-year old recruiting and staffing company, launched a first gig site tailored to the needs of the individual worker. The platform, Workz360, is built to be able to manage projects, maintain quality control, and manage billing and year-end financial reporting.The company is also working to expanding the platform to provide infrastructure to assist independent workers with education, access to savings programs, tax compliance through vetted third-party CPA firms, and hopes in the future to assist with access to liability and medical insurance.

With a younger workforce and a shifting economy, the “gig economy,” which is another way to describe how people can earn a living as a 1099 worker, offers an alternative option to the corporate grind in a post-pandemic workscape. Chief Marketing Officer Bill Penczak of Workz360 calls this era “Gig 2.0,” and attributes the success of this type of workforce to how during the COVID-19 pandemic people learned how to work, and thrive in non-traditional work environments. The site also boasts the fact it won’t take a bite out of the worker’s pay, which could be an attractive sell for many since other sites can take up to 65 percent of profit.

“In the past few years, with the advent of gig job platforms, the Independent workers have been squeezed by gig work platforms taking a disproportionate amount of the workers’ income,” said FlexTek CEO and founder Stephen Morel in a news release. “As a result, there has been what we refer to as ‘pay padding,’ a phenomenon in which workers are raising their hourly or project rates to compensate for the bite taken by other platforms.

"Workz360 is designed to promote greater transparency, and we believe the net result will be for workers to thrive and companies to save money by using the platform,” he continues.

As the workforce has continued to change over the years, a third of the current U.S. workforce are independent workers according to FlexTek, workers have gained the ability to have more freedom where and how they work. Workz360 aims to cater to this workforce by believing in a simple mantra of treating your workers well.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about this, but we like the Southwest Airlines model,” Penczak tells InnovationMap. “Southwest Airlines treats their people very well, and as a result those employees treat the passengers really well. We believe the same thing holds true. If we can provide resources, and transparency, and not take a bite out of what the gig worker is charging, then we will get the best and the brightest people since they feel like they won’t be taken advantage of. We think there is an opportunity to be a little different and put the people first.”

NASA launches new research projects toward astronauts on ISS

ready to research

For the 26th time, SpaceX has sent up supplies to the International Space Station, facilitating several new research projects that will bring valuable information to the future of space.

On Saturday at 1:20 pm, the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft launched on the Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida — bringing with it more than 7,700 pounds of science experiments, crew supplies, and other cargo. The anticipated docking time is Sunday morning, and the cargo spacecraft will remain aboard the ISS for 45 days, according to a news release from NASA.

Among the supplies delivered to the seven international astronauts residing on the ISS are six research experiments — from health tech to vegetation. Here's a glimpse of the new projects sent up to the scientists in orbit:

Moon Microscope

Image via NASA.gov

Seeing as astronauts are 254 miles away from a hospital on Earth — and astronauts on the moon would be almost 1,000 times further — the need for health technology in space is top of mind for researchers. One new device, the Moon Microscope, has just been sent up to provide in-flight medical diagnosis. The device includes a portable hand-held microscope and a small self-contained blood sample staining tool, which can communicate information to Earth for diagnosis.

"The kit could provide diagnostic capabilities for crew members in space or on the surface of the Moon or Mars," reads a news release. "The hardware also may provide a variety of other capabilities, such as testing water, food, and surfaces for contamination and imaging lunar surface samples."

Fresh produce production

Salads simply aren't on the ISS menu, but fresh technology might be changing that. Researchers have been testing a plant growth unit on station known as Veggie, which has successfully grown a variety of leafy greens, and the latest addition is Veg-05 — focused on growing dwarf tomatoes.

Expanded solar panels

Thanks to SpaceX's 22nd commercial resupply mission in 2021, the ISS installed Roll-Out Solar Arrays. Headed to the ISS is the second of three packages to complete the panels that will increase power for the station by 20 to 30 percent. This technology was first tested in space in 2017 and is a key ingredient in future ISS and lunar development.

Construction innovation

Image via NASA.gov

Due to the difference of gravity — and lack thereof — astronauts have had to rethink constructing structures in space. Through a process called extrusion, liquid resin is used to create shapes and forms that cannot be created on Earth. Photocurable resin, which uses light to harden the material into its final form, is injected into pre-made flexible forms and a camera captures footage of the process, per the news release.

"The capability for using these forms could enable in-space construction of structures such as space stations, solar arrays, and equipment," reads the release. "The experiment is packed inside a Nanoracks Black Box with several other experiments from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and is sponsored by the ISS National Lab."

Transition goggles

It's a bizarre transition to go from one gravity field to another — and one that can affect spatial orientation, head-eye and hand-eye coordination, balance, and locomotion, and cause some crew members to experience space motion sickness, according to the release.

"The Falcon Goggles hardware captures high-speed video of a subject’s eyes, providing precise data on ocular alignment and balance," reads the release.

On-demand nutrients

Image via NASA.gov

NASA is already thinking about long-term space missions, and vitamins, nutrients, and pharmaceuticals have limited shelf-life. The latest installment in the five-year BioNutrients program is BioNutrients-2 , which tests a system for producing key nutrients from yogurt, a fermented milk product known as kefir, and a yeast-based beverage, per the release.

"The researchers also are working to find efficient ways to use local resources to make bulk products such as plastics, construction binders, and feedstock chemicals. Such technologies are designed to reduce launch costs and increase self-sufficiency, extending the horizons of human exploration," reads the release.

3 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 three local innovators across industries — from esports to biomaterials — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Zimri Hinshaw, CEO of BUCHA BIO

Zimri T. Hinshaw, CEO of BUCHA BIO, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how he's planning to scale his biomaterials startup to reduce plastic waste. Photo courtesy of BUCHA BIO

After raising a seed round of funding, BUCHA BIO is gearing up to move into its new facility. The biomaterials company was founded in New York City in 2020, but CEO Zimri T. Hinshaw shares how he started looking for a new headquarters for the company — one that was more affordable, had a solid talent pool, and offered a better quality of life for employees. He narrowed it down from over 20 cities to two — San Diego and Houston — before ultimately deciding on the Bayou City.

Since officially relocating, Hinshaw says he's fully committed to the city's innovation ecosystem. BUCHA BIO has a presence at the University of Houston, Greentown Labs, and the East End Maker Hub — where the startup is building out a new space to fit the growing team.

"By the end of this month, our laboratories will be up and running, we'll have office space adjacent, as well as chemical storage," Hinshaw says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Listen to the episode and read more.

Kelly Klein, development director of Easter Seals Greater Houston

A nonprofit organization has rolled out an esports platform and event to raise awareness and funding for those with disabilities. Photo via Easter Seals

For many video games is getaway from reality, but for those with disabilities — thanks to a nonprofit organization —gaming can mean a lot more. On Saturday Dec. 3 — International Day of Persons with Disabilities — from 1 to 9 pm, Easter Seals Greater Houston will be joining forces with ES Gaming for the inaugural Game4Access Streamathon.

Gaming helps enhance cognitive skills, motor skills, improve mental well-being, and can help reduce feelings of social isolation due to the interactive nature of playing with others.

“This is really a unique way for (people) to form a community without having to leave their house, and being part of an inclusive environment,” says Kelly Klein, development director of Easter Seals Greater Houston. ”The adaptive equipment and specialized technology just does so many miraculous things for people with disabilities on so many levels — not just gaming. With gaming, it is an entrance into a whole new world.” Read more.

John Mooz, senior managing director at Hines

Levit Green has announced its latest to-be tenant. Photo courtesy

Levit Green, a 53-acre mixed-use life science district next to the Texas Medical Center and expected to deliver this year, has leased approximately 10,000 square feet of commercial lab and office space to Sino Biological Inc. The Bejing-based company is an international reagent supplier and service provider. Houston-based real estate investor, development, and property manager Hines announced the new lease in partnership with 2ML Real Estate Interests and Harrison Street.

“Levit Green was meticulously designed to provide best-in-class life science space that can accommodate a multitude of uses. Welcoming Sino Biological is a testament to the market need for sophisticated, flexible space that allows diversified firms to perform a variety of research,” says John Mooz, senior managing director at Hines, in a press release. “Sino is an excellent addition to the district’s growing life science ecosystem, and we look forward to supporting their continued growth and success.” Read more.Read more.