Houston-based Sportlo is shooting for a one-stop-shop platform for sporting programs in Houston. Cade Martin/Getty Images

In virtually no time at all, Sportlo has built its reputation on the simplest of foundations: community.

Thilo Borgmann and Sebastian Henke founded the local hub for sports parents earlier this year as a tool for sports moms and dads to stay connected with local leagues, sports clubs, coaches, and other parents with children involved in youth sports in the greater Houston area.

"We make it easy for sports parents to keep up with what's happening in their local youth sports community," says Henke. "With our platform, they can discover tryouts, camps, and sports clubs. They can also join and create groups, find private coaches for their kids, and more."

Borgmann and Henke are both former NCAA Division 1 soccer players who starred while they were student athletes at Houston Baptist University, then went on to become well-known private coaches.

The sports-loving duo saw a dearth of useful information for sports parents on popular social media sites, so they created the platform to give users a central place to communicate with each other, join and create groups, discover tryouts and camps for their children and find private coaches across the city to help their young athletes reach their goals.

"We were both involved in sports for most of our lives and then got into private coaching," says Henke. "Overall, what we saw was that there is an entire ecosystem of youth sports and it was very much unorganized."

Henke says sports clubs weren't able to reach potential members and their parents. He says they envisioned a one-stop-shop approach to the sports ecosystem.

"So, Sportlo is focused on sports parents, but within the community, we try to connect persons with coaches, with clubs, with colleges and so on," Henke says. "That's the vision behind it, so people will have a place to have a community, to get advice and tips and then they will have access to certain services and information."

The plan for Sportlo has already evolved in its short life. Originally the platform was going to support just private coaching.

"After we got more feedback from parents and first users, we started to adapt the product and rebuilt the product," Henke says. "Based on the surveys we collected online, parents wanted us to find ways how to connect them with each other, so that's why we started building it as a new page and that's how we realized where it needed to go."

The biggest lesson in listening to their users was understanding that any initial vision to help a community must also be focused on or include what's intrinsically valuable to the users.

"Too often, people get focused on their own ideas and forget that feedback offers surprising moments," says Henke. "Users gave us a whole new path, which kept us from going in the direction where users wouldn't want the product to go."

Feedback from users is key, Henke says, and he recommends startup founders prioritize user experience and constructive criticism.

"All of the ideas that we had in our head, at some point we had to stop and reevaluate them and then focus on the most important thing first and then go from there," he says.

Still, the launch of Sportlo was not without its own unique challenges. Its March go-live date coincided in point of time with the spread of COVID-19, which ultimately turned into a worldwide pandemic.

"We haven't had to make any major changes," says Henke. "But groups on the platform have focused on that topic because there are no sports happening at the moment and they are eager to get them back. But other than that, it's not something we've had to focus on. But for parents, they've focused on related topics, like how to keep their kids busy at home doing exercises, things like that, or when discussing when their kids' clubs are starting back up and how to keep kids safe."

In addition to forming groups and sharing a variety of sports-related topics, parents can post pictures and videos of their child's latest tournament or game, get access to useful articles shared by fellow parents and find recommended sports products for themselves or their child.

"The main reason we added that social component was because we wanted to have a user timeline so when they log in, all the users can see something sports related," says Borgmann. "There's so much noise, with politics and posts that are only about the coronavirus and all that, so we wanted to focus on sports and have parents be able to show how their kid is doing, see other kids in action and support each other with a focus on sports without seeing all the other distractions that might be on other platforms."

For now, Sportlo is focused solely on keeping Houston informed, but it will look to expand to other cities and states when the time comes.

"We are focused right now only on Houston, because we know Houston and Texas and we've experienced different levels of sports in this area, so we want to stay local," says Henke. "Then, the next step is we intend to take it to other cities within Texas. And at some point, our vision is to have the entire youth ecosystem of the United States."

BBVA group executive chairman Carlos Torres Vila outside of BBVA Stadium in Houston. Photo courtesy of BBVA

Houston stadium rebrands with aspirational new logo to reflect city spirit

Name Change

Rebranding is no easy feat for any company, much less one with 75.5 million customers and a presence in over 30 countries. BBVA, formerly BBVA Compass in the United States, recently began the lofty endeavor of rebranding worldwide.

It launched its public rebranding efforts in Houston at an exclusive stadium event on June 13, during which the home of the Houston Dynamo, Houston Dash, and Texas Southern University football was renamed BBVA Stadium.

BBVA group executive chairman Carlos Torres Vila noted that with more than 160 years of history, this was a huge transition for BBVA, but a worthwhile one, as it would help the company live out its three key tenets: the customer comes first, think big, and we are one team.

"Our purpose at the bank is to bring the age of opportunity to everyone," says Vila.

BBVA USA president and CEO Javier Rodríguez Soler cited unity and technology as the two reasons for BBVA's worldwide rebranding.

"Having employees across the globe working under a single brand identity makes it very clear that we are indeed one team," says Soler. "It also underscores for all of us the importance of our commitment to provide our customers with global products and services, the best user experience, and the solutions that help our customers make the best decisions in their lives and in their businesses."

There are many parallels between BBVA and the stadium which shares its name. BBVA is an international company which desires to provide all its customers worldwide with the same level of service. It also tailors its community involvement to each location.

Similarly, BBVA Stadium itself has an international footprint. Per John Walker, Houston Dynamo president of business operations, the stadium is the most internationally programmed soccer stadium in the United States, yet it also maintains a focus on the city of Houston itself — East Downtown and the Greater East End in particular.

Former Houston Dynamo defender Bobby Boswell was on hand to applaud the stadium's impact on the city. Boswell noted that having a stadium contributes greatly to team and civic pride for both pro athletes and young kids who visit the stadium and may be inspired to one day play there.

"I chose to live back in Houston because of the community," says Boswell.

BBVA and the Dynamo and Dash's commitments to the neighborhood were on full display at the stadium renaming. Soler announced that a portion of the proceeds from the inaugural BBVA Classic, to be held on July 24 at 7:30 pm, will benefit the Tejano Center for Community Concerns. The Tejano Center works to develop education, social, health, and community institutions that empower families to transform their lives.

Among other programs, the center runs the Raul Yzaguirre Schools for Success (RYSS). At the stadium unveiling, students from the RYSS STEM Primary Academy's soccer teams stood onstage and helped count down to the official unveiling. When the countdown reached zero, blue confetti filled the room, while outside blue powder exploded in the air and a curtain was dropped to reveal the stadium's new logo.

Vila pointed out that the "A" in the logo is higher than the other three letters, standing for "aspirational." What better image to symbolize the city of Houston, a place of opportunity?

Photo courtesy of BBVA

Vila (left), former Dynamo player Bobby Boswell (center), and Soler (right) at the BBVA Stadium press conference.

A brother and sister team have created a digital tool to connect people on their outdoor adventures. Getty Images

This Houston app wants to connect outdoor sports hobbyists with its new platform

Hang up to hang out

Jeff Long had plenty of professional connections, but he struggled to find a network of people with similar outdoor hobbies.

"I'm a climber and I had no good way to meet other climbers," he says.

His sister, Sarah Long, had a similar problem when she was skiing at the Whistler Resort in British Columbia.

"I was alone and I was looking for people to ski with," she says. "So, I actually got on Tinder and made it a point to say, 'Not looking for a hookup, but if you're here and want to ski, so am I.'"

The siblings weren't alone in their dissatisfaction, and, within a few months of launching Axis Earth, the Houston-based app has over 1,500 users.

The app is part location finder, part social media channel and part professional networking tool. Designed for enthusiasts and professional athletes of individual sports (think: skiing, climbing, surfing, etc.), Axis Earth connects them with others in their area who share their interests, giving them running or climbing partners.

"We use information input by the users and geolocation software to find them the best connections," explained Jeff. "And our algorithm filters through what they've provided us about their interests and level of participation or competition so we can give them the people who seem most compatible."

The app launched on Sept. 15, but the siblings have put in nearly two years of development.

"The first year was really fleshing out the idea, and creating a business plan that allowed us to feel comfortable being able to bring it to market," says Sarah.

The pair divided their tasks for creating the app based on their own strengths. Sarah, who's based in the Washington D.C. area, handles the business development, logistics, and operations. She founded her marketing and communications services firm called Breck — named after the Colorado skiing resort, Breckenridge. Jeff, who Sarah calls "the face of Axis Earth" and is naturally more outgoing, dealt with marketing and brand awareness.

She and Jeff did multiple interviews with athletes about the kinds of things they wanted to see in a site like this. Software teams spent six months building the back-end mechanisms that would put those opinions into practice. Then came all the front-end design.

The result is an app that can appeal, the Longs feel, to users across multiple disciplines and at multiple skill levels. Users select the sport they're passionate about and choose their level of of participation from beginner, intermediate, or professional.

"And for those who select professional, we independently validate that," says Sarah.

The app is designed for those who enjoy being active. Jeff said that they wanted something that would use technology to get people away from technology.

"I want people to be able to use their phones to put down their phones," he says. "Whether you're using the app to find other people who want to do what you do, or if you're looking at a photo someone posted and it inspires you to get out there and be more active."

A new app, sEATz, is the UberEats of stadium food. You order right from your phone in your seat. Getty Images

Houston startup is making stadium food a whole new ballgame

Dining delivered

Marshall Law's wife, Melissa, surprised him and his two sons with tickets to see the Astros play at home in the 2017 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, but a rush to get to the game and a packed stadium lead to him waiting in a long concessions line in the second inning.

Law watched on a TV screen next to the food counter as the fourth pitch from Yu Darvish to Yuli Gurriel hit two rows past the Laws' seats, bouncing back toward where they were supposed to be sitting. Law couldn't shake the feeling of missing out on the homer. Why couldn't someone have brought them the food, he thought. He'd have paid $50 — maybe more — to not miss that moment.

"Everything gets delivered these days. Any kind of food to your groceries, all right to you. Why isn't someone doing this?" Law says he was thought as he walked out of the game.

From the parking lot, he called his friend, Aaron Knape, and an idea was born.

"I never want a dad to miss a moment as I did ever again," Law said.

Play in motion
Law and Knape set out on finding, designing, and implementing an app and process, now known as sEATz, that would keep fans from ever having to miss a moment of a game again.

Knape got his master's degree from Rice University and stayed in touch with his fellow alumni over the years. It was actually at Rice where Knape realized Houston might just be the perfect place for something like sEATz to get off the ground. Houston, he says, is in the midst of an entrepreneur revolution.

At the forefront of that revolution is Lawson Gow, founder, and CEO of The Cannon, a startup and tech hub for companies to grow and get support. Gow — son of David Gow, owner of InnovationMap's parent company Gow Media — says the Cannon houses almost 85 companies in a 20,000 square foot space where they attempt to meet all their companies needs. Cannon Ventures, one of those support systems, is an investment network which focuses on assisting startups.

"We ran into to Lawson at an event, and he loved the idea," Knape said.

Sports technology is a focus of one of The Cannon, and Gow says he feels like sEATz is "off to the races" as a startup, with hosting early events at Rice football and the Sugar Land Skeeters games.

Getting on base
Having met Tanner Gardner of Rice's athletics department, Knape approached him with the idea. When Gardner saw the opportunity to add concession stand deliveries to the Owls fan's experience with sEATz, he took it, though he said he was "cautiously optimistic."

"I told them I thought they had a solution to a problem that exists and the challenge for you is convincing the concessionaires that this is something worth their while."

He mentioned to sEATz he believed stadium concessions wasn't a type of business to easily to take innovation and change their style especially if they believed their model worked. Law said there were reservations from concessions at first but the vendors eventually saw the benefit. sEATz orders regularly exceeded the typical total of purchase by a customer.

Rice Stadium is the first of what Knape and Law hope will be many venues to offer sEATz compatibility. The two sEATz leaders aren't reinventing the wheel, but their wheel is finally ready for the road. For years, stadiums lagged behind the digital demands of fans. Many lacked the capability for in-venue phone usage just a couple of years ago. Most venues now support and even encourage the use of apps and phones to improve the fan experience.

"I think it's worked very well," Gardner added. "Often the best sign a new product or a new service is working at our events is the lack of complaints about it. People are always quick to provide you with constructive criticism on things that are not going well."

But Gardner hasn't heard much other than praise so far.

"I didn't hear one negative thing about sEATz during the season and I also heard positive things."

Gametime decisions
The positive feedback comes in part from the user-friendly interface of the app. From your seat, you open the app and select the venue you are in and then type in your section, row, and seat number. The next screen is the stadium's finest fare at your fingertips. While perusing the stadium's offerings — with pictures — you make your selections and head to your cart. There you check out with whatever credit or debit card you've added to your profile. Then, sit back and enjoy the game.

On the sEATz's end of things, their work has just started. One team member assigns the order to a runner. The runner can see the entire order on their phone through a web portal. They head to each vendor who has a particular item, sometimes involving stops at multiple locations. The runners have their own line. The vendors, depending on preference, either keep track of what sEATz picks up and settles at the end of the day or checks them out right there with a sEATz credit card. After all the items in the order are picked up the sEATz runner presses "picked up" in their web portal. Then they head off to the patron's seat to deliver the order. Then, after delivery, the runner presses "delivered" on their end and is ready to be assigned another order.

The sEATz runners currently carry their own trays which are repurposed drink crates. Law says that runners will eventually carry specially designed and branded sEATz trays. Runners have the option to call or text the person who has ordered through the sEATz app to clarify their location or if they aren't in their seat. Runners are assigned to different regions of the stadium, so they aren't running all around.

There's an educational component to the delivery process too.

"We get to teach the runners about the game while doing this too," Law said.

He says that when they are in Constellation Field for Sugar Land Skeeters games, runners try not to deliver in the middle of an at-bat or while the ball is in play. Law wants other fans to notice runners and be jealous by their speedy delivery — not angry for interrupting.

The sEATz runners are currently all Westbury High School football players. Law reached out to a friend to see if his athletes would be interested in making a few extra dollars on the weekends.

"You get into the game and you get to make a few bucks doing it, these kids have been great for us," Law said.

He mentioned initially there was concern over who would be the workforce for sEATz, but now both sides of the equation are happy. Users can tip the runner like most delivery services, and some runners have made over $100 in tips in one day. Eventually, sEATz wants to institute a runner grading system to assist in rewarding runners who consistently perform well.

The game plan
The immediate future is making sure all parties associated with sEATz are successful, according to Knape. He said they have to service the fan but also make sure the concession stand is successful as well. They never want to hinder the operating procedure of a vendor. They also want to continue to tweak the app's design to make it even easier to use for fans. Right now food and non-alcoholic beverages are available on the app. In the future, sEATz plans to deliver alcohol and even apparel from the team stores.

Then, of course, there is the process of scaling up for larger events. Right now, sEATz has run test events on about 5,000 fans. However, when Rice hosted Houston they easily handled the stadium full of nearly 10,000 fans. Law said being in every venue is the eventual goal, but, he always wants to be ready for the size of the crowd.

Gow says that sEATz will be able to scale its technology, which is far more advanced than most products this early in their lifespan.

"We've been doing some walking before we've been doing some running," Gow said. "But, you can imagine the domino effect of one major professional sports team embracing it and the fans almost demanding that it exists in other stadiums and other sports teams and it spreading like wildfire."

Law knew they were on to something bigger than just delivering a hot dog and a drink. During one event, a mother stopped him and mentioned she loved the idea of the app. Her son was special needs and required a wheelchair. She told Law she loved sEATz because her son now didn't have to miss a moment of the game and they didn't have to make the daunting trek to the concession stand and the inevitable line with his chair. Another time Law was stopped by an elderly Rice fan. She explained sEATz could take her order and deliver her food to her before she could even leave her seat in the first few rows and make it to the concourse.

"I was just thinking about dads and kids not missing the game," Law said. "I was blown away to hear those stories."

Ease of use

Courtesy of sEATz

Users can download the free app and pay a small fee to get food delivered to their seats.

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Photos: Here's a sneak peek at The Ion Houston's construction progress

eye on the ion

The Ion Houston is expected to open its doors this year, and the building's exterior is close to completion. Now, the construction team is focusing on interiors and then tenant build outs.

The 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub owned and managed by Rice Management Co. is slated to be a convening building for startups, corporations, academic partners, investors, and more. The building is organized as follows:

  • The underground Lower Level will act as academic flex space with a few classrooms and open-concept desks for The Ion's accelerators, including: The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, DivInc, the Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator, and the Aerospace Innovation Hub and Accelerator. There will also be an event space and The Ion's own programming.
  • On the first, street-level floor, The Ion's restaurant tenants will reside with access from both the greenspace as well as into the building. The Ion's first three restaurant tenants include: Late August, Common Bond, and STUFF'd Wings.
  • Additionally, the first floor will be home to a venture studio and the prototyping lab. There is additional space available for other tenants.
  • On the second floor, there will be 58,000 square feet of coworking space managed by Common Desk. Note: For floors 2 and up of the Ion, tenants will have access cards that allow them entrance. The first and lower floors will not require access cards.
  • The third floor of the building will house eight to 10 tenants each with 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space. Chevron was announced as the first tenant and will reside on this floor.
  • On the fourth and fifth floors, The Ion will house one to two larger tenants on each level. These levels of the building were added on to the existing structure. The fourth floor features two balconies that tenants will have access to. Microsoft is signed on to have its space on half of the fifth floor.
The Ion is still planning on an open date in late spring or summer. For leasing information, click here. Scroll through the slideshow of construction images and renderings to see the progress of the building.

Exterior nears completion

Photo by Natalie Harms

The building's exterior is almost complete and kept much of the original building's facade. The new materials brought in match the existing color scheme.

Texas winery taps Houston tech company for innovative AR experience

cheers

The Lone Star State is home to a vibrant and innovative wine scene, but, just like most hospitality businesses, winemakers missed the opportunity to engage with their patrons amid the pandemic. With a new idea of how to engage its customers, Messina Hof, an award-winning Texas winery, rolled out a new tech-optimized, at-home experience.

The winery partnered with VISION, a Houston-based production group, to create an augmented reality app. Combining the efforts of Messina Hof's in-house label design team and the animation capabilities of VISION, the app took four months to design.

"It was a labor of love for both parties to be able to experiment with this; it was uncharted territory," says Karen Bonarrigo, owner and chief administrative officer of Messina Hof.

The three wines released — Emblaze (Sweet Red), Vitality (Dry White), and Abounding (Dry Red) — each tells a story through the AR experience.

"We wanted to try not only and push the technology as far as we can push it, but also try to really incorporate some heavy storytelling," says Dan Pratt, VISION Creative Director.

The idea to incorporate technology felt like a natural one to Bonariggo.

"The earth, water, and sunshine all go into developing what the profile is for each wine," explains Bonarrigo.

Each of the three wines have scannable labels that bring up a VR experience for app users. Photo courtesy of Messina Hof

VISION, who worked alongside Messina Hof to develop the project, blended the winery's rich family ties with the Old World history of winemaking.

When customers download the app and hold their camera over the label, a trailing vine emerges onto the screen and wraps around the bottle. As vines grow around each bottle, the three each visually signify a different natural element of winemaking — earth, water and the sun. As a rustic sign emerges, it prompts users to then click for recipe pairing recommendations.

Rather than a single-use experience, Messina Hof and VISION wanted to create an app that users could both engage with and learn from. The AR app allows users to view recipes and browse wines in one place.

"We knew we wanted the app to be functional for people to be able to interact with both when they're doing the AR experience, but then also to be able to continue to come back to it later," shares Bonarrigo. While AR wine labels have emerged in some California vineyards, she says, "it's definitely uncharted territory for the Texas industry."

Overseeing the food and wine pairing at Messina Hof is one of Bonarrigo's passions, so it was a natural choice to include recipes in the app. Messina Hof offers a concept called Vineyard Cuisine, coined from the Bonarrigo family cookbook, and incorporates wine in every meal at the vineyard.

"The idea of tying [the wine] to a recipe gave us the opportunity to be able to share new ways [our customers] could use wines in their everyday cooking," she explains.

She hopes the app's recipe feature will help families connect together.

"So often we get used to sitting down at the table, eating really quickly, and then moving on to the next thing, but there's so much connection that can happen with each other when we can slow down a little bit and have a conversation," she continues.

To Pratt, AR was the perfect way to emphasize and expand on the shared experience of wine.

"We wanted this to be an extension of that experience for people. You know, based on the love of wine and laughter with friends," he says.

For those who can't currently gather in a room together, Bonarrigo has hopes that Messina Hof can bring people together from afar.

"I think now more than ever the ability for our regular customers, even within Texas, to then share those wines with family members or friends that are outside the state seems more intuitive," she explains.

"We are so used to being creatures of habit in sharing our wine face-to-face with people that when we had the unexpected opportunity to not do that, we realized that we still have ways to be able to connect with customers through technology," says Bonarrigo.

She finds the "ease of access of being able to connect with them through the online web store" has kept Messina Hof in touch with customers throughout the pandemic, as well as digital happy hours and tasting events.

Messina Hof Harvest Green Winery & Kitchen, the newest location, opened in February, becoming the Greater Houston-area's largest winery. The space features an expansive tasting room and 83-foot wine bar, full-service restaurant, covered patio, two private tasting rooms, a wine production, barrel room, and wine warehouse.

"We knew that when we launched that location that we wanted to be able to have a series of wines at that location that was special, but also out of the box," says Bonarrigo.

Bonarrigo and her husband Paul have ushered in the expansion of Messina Hof over the last nine years. The family business began in 1977 when Paul's parents, Paul Vincent and Merrill, started an experimental vineyard. Messina Hof has locations in Bryan, Grapevine, Fredericksburg, and Richmond.

"This is our largest winery expansion endeavor that we've done," she says. "We wanted the wines to be extra special."

Similar to Messina Hof, companies across industries are seeking to explore interactive technologies to reach their customer base. "A number of our clients, and also new clients that we may not have been able to reach before, have certainly reached out to us to figure out new ways to reach an audience," shares Pratt.

Winemaking may be an Old World skill, but Messina Hof is excited to bring Texas wine into the future.

"So much of winemaking is science, and so much of it is art. There's always this push and pull as to which is more of a majority in the end product," explains Bonarrigo, who notes that Messina Hof has been using technology to innovate and optimize the growing process. The new AR app is a push toward bringing the experience her family loves into the homes of customers.

"This definitely gives a new talking point to wine," she says.