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."

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.

FanReact is now Truss, and the company will be able to reach a greater audience. Photo by PeopleImages

Exclusive: Houston sports tech company rebrands to attract a wider range of clients

Name change

A Houston company that's specialized in digital sports fan engagement is reinventing itself to grow its client base.

FanReact, which earlier this year spun off its esports business into a new company called Mainline, is now known as Truss. The transition opens doors for the company to reach new clients that aren't in the sports industry — but that maybe want to take a page out of the fan experience's book.

"Our team has done an incredible job creating great digital experiences for our customers in the sports and athletics space," says Patrick Schneidau, CEO of Truss, in a news release. "At the same time, we have heard from organizations outside of sports that they want to create a similar 'fan experience'' for their customers, employees, partners and volunteers by providing content and connections the same way that athletic teams do."

According to Schneidau, there's also some market dissatisfaction that has left Truss with this opportunity for growth.

"Those organizations and their audiences – while not wanting to sacrifice great user experience and engagement – don't trust current options that host their communities at the expense of a loss of privacy," he adds. "All of these organizations focus on the need for a privacy-focused community platform."

The rebranding ties into some technological expansions Truss now has to offer, including branded digital web and mobile experiences, verified user profiles, community-defined moderation standards, and person-to-person and group chats.

"With our new mission to serve people who share a passion for any organization, our customers can now create the same level of engagement already available with your favorite sports team," says Schneidau. "Whether your organization supports critically ill patients, service men and women, university students or people of faith, Truss can create the communication, collaboration and connections that so many organizations desire for their community."

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New Houston hub calls for collaboration for flood and hurricane prevention innovation

Houston innovators podcast episode 43

When it comes to insurance, most people's interaction is pretty limited buying a plan, filing claims when need be, and paying the monthly bill. However, unbeknownst to most of their insured clients, insurance companies are investing in insuratech and new innovations within the natural disaster space.

Richard Seline, managing director of ResilientH20, along with the Insurance Information Institute and The Cannon, to launch the Gulf Coast & Southwest Resilience Innovation Hub to foster this type of technology and bring insuratech startups and the big insurance players to the table — something that's not often done.

"It's two different languages," Seline says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There's a whole language and a whole mindset within the insurance industry that is not real well known."

The hub, which is based in downtown Houston's Cannon Tower, has been hard at work hosting virtual pitch events and networking opportunities since it launched in June just as the 2020 hurricane season commenced. Seline explains the mission is threefold: allow for reverse pitching where insurance companies tell innovators what their challenges are in hopes of inspiring new technology, introducing insuratech companies to potential investors or clients, and fostering innovation for new natural disaster prevention innovations.

On the podcast, Seline discusses new endeavors he's working on within his organization and explains the role his feels the new hub has in Houston's innovation ecosystem. To him, the city must work collaboratively to move the needle on growth of its innovation ecosystem.

"The good news is there is a lot of great activity underway in Houston right now — no questions asked," Seline says. "What we are doing can be seen as complimentary and not competitive with anyone else."

From game-changing startups to watch out for to upcoming events and partnerships for the Gulf Coast & Southwest Resilience Innovation Hub, check out the podcast. You can listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.



Houston tech companies have raised over $466M so far this year, new report finds

money moves

This year might be a wash for a lot of things, but according to a new fundraising report from Houston Exponential, the Bayou City has seen an increase in funding this year compared to 2019.

The HTX Funding Review found that Houston startups raised $466.33 million across 46 deals between January and July — compared to $437 in the same time frame last year. While the increase seems marginal, it's important to consider the effect of the pandemic and the few months of troubles for the oil and gas industry.

The 7 percent increase in funding is impressive compared to the national average of 2.5 percent, according to the report, which was organized by Serafina Lalany, HX chief of staff. Eighteen later stage deals made up for 76 percent of the total money raised, indicating key growth for the ecosystem.

"This expansion in Houston's relatively new and booming tech innovation ecosystem shows a strength and resilience that is really exciting," says Harvin Moore, president of HX, in the report. "We are seeing a maturation of our very young ecosystem, as rapidly growing tech companies increasingly access later stage venture capital, which often comes from outside the local area."

The report calls out 11 deals — ranging from angel to late stage — that have occured in Houston to date in 2020:

  • Preventice Solutions, a medical device company, raised a $137 million series B led by Palo Alto-based Vivo Capital along with support from existing investors, including Merck Global Health Innovation Fund, Boston Scientific, and the Samsung Catalyst Fund.
  • Fintech and software-as-a-service company HighRadius raised a $125 million series B led by ICONIQ Capital, with participation from existing investors Susquehanna Growth Equity and Citi Ventures.
  • Liongard, a SaaS company, raised a $17 million series B led by TDF Ventures, Integr8d Capital, and private investors.
  • Base Hologram, a provider of hologram concert experience, raised $15.4 million in an outsized angel round this past May.
  • ThoughtTrace, another SaaS company, raised $10 million in a series B led by McRock Capital and existing investors, as well as Chevron Technology Ventures.
  • Renewable energy company Quidnet also raised a $10 million series B. Bill Gates-backed Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Canada-based Evok Innovations, which both previously invested in the company, contributed to the round.
  • SmartAC.com emerged from stealth mode with a $10 million series A fundraising announcement.
  • Retina AI, an AI company focused on diagnostics for diseases such as diabetic retinopathy from pictures of the retina, raised $4.1 million in an angel round which closed mid-July.
  • E-commerce platform Goodfair raised $3.67 million from but the round was led by Imaginary, with support from MaC Venture Capital, Global Founders Capital, Willow Ventures, Watertower, Amplify.LA, Capital Factory, and Texas Ventures.
  • SecurityGate, a cybersecurity platform, raised funds from Houston Ventures in June, but wouldn't disclose how much.
  • Oil and gas software company, M1neral, raised $1.6 million pre-seed co-led by Amnis Ventures and Pheasant Energy, among a few other select investors and strategic partners.

While the pandemic has made funding and vetting new portfolio companies, Blair Garrou, managing director of Houston-based Mercury Fund, says venture capital firms are committed to backing the strongest startups already in their portfolio.

"We've seen many VCs focus on a 'flight to quality,'" Garrou says. "Specifically, VCs are focused more on making sure their best performing portfolio companies have cash, especially at the later stages, as well as investing in the later rounds of new deals that are clear over-performers during COVID."

Looking forward, the HX report predicts that fundraising growth will continue throughout the rest of the year.

"There are several very large local deals in final term sheet stage, and we expect full year 2020 to be the highest ever for venture capital in Houston; our ecosystem is really thriving," says Moore in the report.

Houston investor: Is this the golden age for B2B software?

Guest column

B2B software as a service, or SaaS, founders entered 2020 riding a wave of the longest economic expansion in United States history. Valuations increased to new highs, funding rounds continued getting larger at each stage, and forecasts went up and to the right fast. But then, March hit.

Quickly and seemingly out of nowhere, headlines became dominated by apocalyptic predictions of death, record levels of unemployment, shocking economic forecasts of GDP contraction, historic mass layoffs and furloughs, and unprecedented multi-trillion dollar economic stimulus packages. For founders every instinct began screaming to cut costs and hunker down.

But should B2B SaaS founders cut their organizations right now? Through analyzing a few key events and looking to the evidence in the market today, founders can develop a strategy for growing during this crisis. Not only is growth cheaper for most B2B SaaS against the backdrop of economic meltdown, but with the majority following a hunker-down instinct, a growing B2B SaaS firm will compare very favorably against a landscape of stale and stagnant competitors.

Reviewing the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic and the 2008 downturn

While the health implications vary widely between the current pandemic and the 1918 flu epidemic, the economic reactions share many similarities. The US response to 1918 was just as fractured as the states' reactions to COVID have been this year. As cities and states in 1918 shut down commerce to stem the spread of the flu, economic contraction quickly gave way to rebound, the so called "V-shaped recovery," despite the Spanish Flu having much higher death rates among working individuals than COVID-19.

There are major differences between 1918 and 2020, however. First, there is untapped potential in technology to replace workers. As businesses look for ways to cut costs, expect them to aggressively turn to automation, ultimately depressing real wages. Second, the 1918 response did not include shutdown measures as draconian as those we are experiencing in 2020. This could lead to permanent output loss across a wide range of industries, increasing real prices just as real wages decline. And third, the trillions of dollars in federal economic relief are unlike anything attempted in 1918.

The 2008 downturn that nearly brought the financial sector to a halt rippled through the economy as businesses in a wide range of industries made steep cuts to operations and capital expenditures. Despite this dangerous environment, SaaS firms increased profitability and continued to grow revenues each quarter. Growth slowed but remained positive while most other companies experienced absolute declines in revenue.

Customer acquisition for SaaS businesses usually gets more efficient during downturns, driving the potential for faster growth. The performance of all publicly traded B2B SaaS firms during 2008 illustrated in Figure 1 above proves the resilience of this category during a recession. While revenue continued to grow, profitability rose from a 10 percent loss on average to a 5 percent gain on average by 2010. This is likely due to firms freezing salaries and hiring and perhaps cutting down the sales and marketing budgets.

Downturn case study: Salesforce

Salesforce entered the downturn as a category leader in B2B SaaS with nearly $500M in revenue in 2007 and $3.5 million in operating losses. Throughout 2008, the company grew revenues by 51 percent to $748 million and operating profit surged to $20.3 million. And in 2009, the company repeated this stellar performance by growing revenues 44 percent to $1,077M and operating profit to $63 million. These results occurred against the backdrop of a global financial downturn and with a product focused on helping people sell more effectively (not something one would expect would sell well during a free-fall recession).

The revenue growth throughout those years followed the growth in sales and marketing spend. In 2008, the company grew sales and marketing by 49 percent, driving 51 percent revenue growth at about $1.50 of sales expense per $1 of recognized revenue added. In 2009, the company grew sales and marketing 42 percent resulting in 44 percent revenue growth at $1.63 of sales expense per $1 of recognized revenue. By 2010, the sales growth advantage was gone and Salesforce not only dropped its expense growth rate but also reverted to spending $2.64 per $1 of new revenue added.


Looking at these results Salesforce executed on the growth opportunities in 2008 and 2009 by ramping up sales expenses. The relative cost to acquire customers in 2008 and 2009 compared to 2010 proved significantly cheaper (approximately 40 percent less expensive). When faced with an advantage like that, every founder should charge ahead.

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Andrew Smith is vice president of Houston-based Golden Section Venture Capital.