Houston-based sEATz has raised funding to help scale to the demands as fans safely return to stadiums. Photo courtesy of sEATz

When COVID-19 hit and shut down major events including sports and entertainment, a Houston tech startup that created a platform for in-stadium food and merchandise delivery hit a huge obstacle.

However, what seemed like an insurmountable challenge became sEATz's biggest opportunity. As sports management teams start to envision bringing in more fans, they've realized they have to prioritizing limiting crowds and enabling social distancing. SEATz — with its in-seat ordering app and backend software — enables fans to stay seated and avoid lines.

"We really started seeing how integral our platform was going to be for the safe return for sports and entertainment," says Aaron Knape, CEO and co-founder of sEATz."When we started getting that momentum and traction with our clients, our investor base and perspective investor base got really excited."

And those excited investors allowed the startup to raise a second seed round of venture capital to the tune of $1.6 million. In September 2019, sEATz closed a $1.3 million seed round led by Houston-based Valedor Partners. Valedor again led this round, says Knape, and, while the plan was just to raise $1 million, the bar was raised to give the company even more funds to scale.

"We didn't want to just idle through COVID," Knape tells InnovationMap. "We see a tremendous opportunity to grow in the market and to expand the capabilities if the platform."

The funds will go toward marketing opportunities as well as tech development. including integrating with various points of service systems.

"We didn't pivot. We expanded our capabilities," Knape says on how sEATz was always focused on mitigating lines in sports and entertainment settings. "This will in all likelihood will make us a much stronger company coming out of COVID."

sEATz In-seat food delivery is going to be a must as fans return to stadiums safely. Courtesy of sEATz

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."

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

Startup aims for goal of connecting Houston sports community

game on

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."

With sports offline, esports startup Mainline has seen an opportunity for growth during the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo courtesy of Mainline

Houston esports software startup poised to have best month amid pandemic

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 35

When you think about the types of industries that are having a moment during the COVID-19 crisis, it's hard to deny the growth in exposure and viewers esports and gaming has seen across the world.

Mainline, Houston startup that develops software for esports tournaments at the collegiate level has seen opportunity in the gaming sector's growth. This year, Mainline is poised to onboard over 100 schools to their system, and, while most of those schools were lined up before the pandemic, the process has been sped up, says Chris Buckner, co-founder and CEO of Mainline on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"Everyone is looking for how to get sports, or esports, in front of people because everyone is just missing [sports] so much," Buckner says. "We've been very fortunate to work in the industry we do."

On campuses this past spring, basketball was cut short, baseball was canceled, and football's status is currently unknown. Colleges are looking for a way to connect with and engage students, Buckner says. And, Mainline has even been able to attract interest on the professional level.

"Our June will pretty much be the best month of our company, and a lot of that is driven by the fact that everyone is looking for a digital solution rather than an in-person solution," Buckner says.

The business of esports was already growing, but COVID-19 has lit a fire for companies with solutions in the industry. Buckner says at the start of the pandemic, he had to lay off employees that were focused on physical events. Now, in light of the growth of business, he says he's looking to hire as well as raise another round of funding next spring.

Buckner shares more about the opportunities — as well as challenges — COVID-19 has posed for the esports startup on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


A new accelerator program is looking for startups that are using technology to enhance the sports industry. Getty Images

International accelerator launches sports tech program in Houston

on the right track

MassChallenge, an international accelerator with headquarters in Boston, is seeking startups with tech solutions in sports and athletics.

The MassChallenge SportsTech track is made possible with the organization's partnership with St. Louis, Missouri-based Stadia Ventures, an early stage investment and innovation hub focusing on sports and esports.

"Our goal with the MassChallenge SportsTech track is to provide a conduit for that knowledge to orient itself to the most promising sportstech startups from across the world," says Jon Nordby, who leads MassChallenge Texas in Houston.

The program is an additional track to MassChallenge's seed stage accelerator, which accepts innovative startups that have raised less than $1 million in funding and generated less than $2 million in revenue. Houston's program launched just over a year ago.

InnovationMap asked Nordby a few questions about what startups can expect from the program and why Texas

InnovationMap: Why is Texas a market for sports tech?

Jon Nordby: We have the great fortune of living in a part of the country where sports are not a hobby — they are a way of life. There are 10 professional sports teams across the Texas Triangle covering every major league sport. More importantly, the Texas business community has for decades worked at the intersection of industry and technology and there is a huge knowledge base here that can use the sportstech industry as a vehicle to have a major impact on the world.

The inventions, product, and discoveries being made on the field today will make their way to commercial markets within the next five years or so. These discoveries are possible only if these startups have access to experts in health, materials, analytics, and communications — all of which Texas has in droves.

IM: What type of startups is the program for?

JN: For the SportsTech Track we are looking for companies that fit that criteria and have a product, service, or offering for the sports world. This could include anything to help humans perform better in a competitive environment (field, arena or online) or teams and leagues to better support their players and fans.

The seed stage accelerator is open to all early-stage startups from any industry. MassChallenge defines early stage as young companies whose founders are building creative and disruptive solutions to meet a market need. They have raised less than $1 million in funding and generated less than $2 million in revenue.

IM: What does the partnership with Stadia Ventures bring to the table?

JN: Stadia Ventures is a premier force in the sportstech industry with their startup accelerator and investment fund. Together we are creating a pipeline of support for startups from seed stage, through scale-up, and beyond. Stadia's elite network of more than 200 professional sports and esports executives paired with MassChallenge's global startup programs and curriculum will offer benefits to entrepreneurs from all industries.

IM: How will this program differ from MassChallenge's industry agnostic programming?

JN: The SportsTech track is in addition to the core MassChallenge program. Startups invited to participate in the SportsTech track will have access to additional industry-specific programming, events, and dedicated experts. These startups are eligible to compete for the equity-free cash awards and receive all other benefits and access associated with being a MassChallenge finalist.

IM: What are you looking for in mentors?

JN: MassChallenge experts are the foundation for all MassChallenge accelerators. They serve as our judges, mentors, and curriculum facilitators, interfacing directly with the startups and helping them identify scalable solutions for their businesses. Experts come from a variety of backgrounds including business executives, industry experts, subject matter experts, local political leaders, lawyers, engineers and beyond. All of them share one common thread: they want to help create the future. Anyone interested in applying to be a MassChallenge expert and supporting the startups in this year's cohorts can apply online.

Hometown hero, George Springer, keeps in top shape thanks to a Houston organization's technology. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Two World Series athletes keep in shape thanks to this Houston-based technology

There's an app for that

As the Houston Astros head into game three of the World Series tonight, two players taking the field can credit a West Houston fitness training facility's mobile app for keeping them in shape both during the off season and between games.

Fairchild Sports Performance has been in the professional, collegiate, and amateur sports training business since 2012. A couple years ago, Founder Ben Fairchild decided he wanted to take things to the next level.

"The FSP app is for anybody who has a body," Fairchild says. "We want to find solutions for long-term health and fitness challenges for people of all walks of life."

While the app and the training is for everyone, Fairchild's app has been attractive to professionals. FSP has 15 professional athletes as clients. George Springer, right fielder for the Houston Astros, and Anthony Rendon, third baseman for the Washington Nationals, train with Fairchild — and they both rely on the app to tell them what their bodies need.

The app, which is run by FSP Online Director Steven Hamner, allows the athletes to log and track their progress, view workout demonstrations, and access Fairchild's fitness instruction from anywhere.

In the two seasons the app has been live, FSP's MLB clients have achieved career highs in different categories, All-Star game appearances, MLB debuts, and World Series wins.

"The in-season program and philosophy is based around having a training program year-round as opposed to just a few months out of the year in the offseason," explains Hamner. "In having a program year round it enables us to constantly progress through out the year with the offseason and in-season programs looking completely differently as it relates to frequency, volume, and intensity in the weight room."

While keeping in shape is key during the off season, the app is helpful to these professional athletes during the season too. And, since they have everything they need at their fingertips, it's convenient for away games as they travel across the country.

"The goal for training in-season is to facilitate recovery throughout the season, limit fatigue as much as possible, especially towards the end of the season, and set athletes up for a positive starting place in the offseason," says Hamner. "This will lead to a better physical state going into the following spring training. We always have the long-term best interest of the player in mind, this is their career earning potential, which is tied to their health and performance."

The sports technology business is booming, and Houston has become a hotbed for startups creating technology — like Truss, Integrated Bionics, and Win-Win. Fairchild says he has some interest in the power of data and technology for sports performance, but he won't be going overboard.

"Data gathering possibilities are enormous in this day and age," Fairchild tells InnovationMap. "However, data is only as valuable as one's ability to make use of the results and effect change. That said, we try to get the most valuable measuring tools, be it for evaluation of pitching biomechanics or rate of force delivery on an exercise, to help shape workouts. We don't get carried away with tech — we trust the eyes of experienced people. But we use tech to the level that is beneficial.

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Houston SaaS startup closes $12M series A funding round with support from local VC

money moves

A Houston startup with a software-as-a-service platform for the energy transition has announced it closed a funding round with participation from a local venture capital.

Molecule closed its $12 million series A, and Houston-based Mercury Fund was among the company's investors. The company has a cloud-based energy trading and risk management solution for the energy industry and supports power, natural gas, crude/refined products, chemicals, agricultural commodities, softs, metals, cryptocurrencies, and more.

"We led the seed round of Molecule upon their formation and are excited to participate in their series A," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release. "Molecule's success in the ETRM/CTRM industry, especially in relation to electricity and renewables, positions them as the company to beat for the energy transition in the 2020s."

The company will use its new funds to further build out its product as well as introduce offerings to manage renewables credits, according to the release.

"In 2020, we realized that electricity — the growth commodity of the 2020s — represented over half of Molecule's customer base, and we decided to double down," says Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule, in the release. "We were also rated the No. 1 SaaS ETRM/CTRM vendor. With this fundraise, we have the fuel to become No. 1 SaaS platform for power and renewables, and then the market leader overall.

"Molecule is ready to power the energy transition," Soleja continues.

Molecule's last round of funding closed in November 2014. The $1.1 million seed round was supported by Mercury Fund and the Houston Angel Network.

Houston-based afterlife planning startup launches new app

there's an app for that

The passing of a loved one is followed with grief — and paperwork. A Houston company that's simplifying the process of afterlife planning and decision making is making things even easier with a new smartphone app.

The Postage, a digital platform meant to ease with affair planning, recently launched a mobile app to make the service more accessible following a particularly deadly year. The United States recorded 3.2 million fatalities — the most deaths in its history, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After losing three family members back-to-back, Emily Cisek dealt first hand with the difficulty of wrapping up a loved one's life. She saw how afterlife planning interrupted her family's grieving and caused deep frustration. Soon, she began to envision a solution to help people have a plan and walk through the process of losing someone.

The Postage, which launched in September, provides a platform for people to plan their affairs and leave behind wishes for loved ones. The website includes document storage and organization, password management, funeral and last wishes planning, and the option to create afterlife messages to posthumously share with loved ones.

"Right now, as it stands ahead of this app, end-of-life planning is really challenging. It's this daunting thing you have to sit down and do at your computer," says Cisek. Not only is it "daunting," but it's time-consuming. According to The Postage, families can expect to spend nearly 500 hours on completing end-of-life details if there is no planning done in advance.

With more than 74 percent of The Postage's web traffic coming from mobile users, an app was a natural progression. In fact, Entrepreneur reports the average person will spend nine years on their mobile device. Cisek wanted to meet users where they are at with a user-friendly app that includes the same features as the desktop website.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple," she continued.

Cisek and her team focused on providing a "seamless experience" within the app, which took approximately four months to build, which mirrors the desktop platform.

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app.

After snapping a picture, "the next step inherently is sharing it with your loved ones," says Cisek. Photos, family recipes and videos can easily be shared securely with loved ones who accept your invitation to The Postage so "that legacy continues on," she says.

Since The Postage's fall launch, the company has grown a steady base of paid subscribers with plans to expand.

"We're really starting to change the way people plan for the future," says Cisek.