This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Lori-Lee Elliott of Dauntless XR, Sandip Bordoloi of TrueLeap, and Stephanie Nolan of Square Robot. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: Every Monday, I'm introducing you to three Houston innovators to know — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Lori-Lee Elliott, CEO and co-founder of Dauntless XR

Lori-Lee Elliott of Dauntless XR joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share about her tech company's evolution. Photo via LinkedIn

As Lori-Lee Elliott was building out her company — an augmented reality software company to enhance industrial workflow — she was approached by a representative in the Air Force interested in her technology. That conversation would end up leading to a major rebrand and pivot, as well as multiple federal contracts and grants for the Houston startup.

Dauntless XR — originally founded as Future Sight AR in 2018 — has two software platforms that bring customers flexible mixed reality solutions. The Air Force uses the Aura platform to create 3D replays of missions, while NASA plans to utilize the technology for analyzing space weather data.

"Something that we realized when we built out this platform is that it doesn't have to be for just one thing," Elliott says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We can make it ingest all kind of data sources. It does require us as the developers and the architects to go in and learn about each application. And that's great because I get bored easily and it's an endless source of fascination." Continue reading.

Sandip Bordoloi, CEO and co-founder of TrueLeap

TrueLeap Inc., global digital education startup addressing the digital divide in education, has raised $610,000. Photo via LinkedIn

An edtech startup has just secured funding to further its mission of increasing accessibility to education.

TrueLeap Inc., global digital education startup addressing the digital divide in education, has raised $610,000, which is over its target of $500,000. The round was led by United Kingdom-based Maya Investments Limited.

"This oversubscribed funding round, led by Maya Investments Limited, is a testament to the urgent need for innovative educational technologies in emerging markets. Our commitment to providing affordable and integrated solutions is stronger than ever," says Sandip Bordoloi, CEO and Co-Founder of TrueLeap, in a news release. Continue reading.

Stephanie Nolan, director of sales at Square Robot

It's a different world for startups on the other side of the pandemic — especially for business development. One Houston innovator shares her lessons learned. Photo courtesy of Square Robot

The post-pandemic world of business development has evolved, as Stephanie Nolan, director of sales at Square Robot, has observed. In a guest column for InnovationMap, she shares her experience and lessons learned.

"When I joined the Houston team at Square Robot, a startup that was trying to disrupt an industry, I had to learn how to navigate a post-pandemic sales world — where hybrid work, reliance on emails, and video based web calls are now the norm — coupled with the challenges of working for a relatively new company," she writes.

She shares how she prioritizes in-person meetings and taps into important networking organizations. Continue reading.

It's a different world for startups on the other side of the pandemic — especially for business development. One Houston innovator shares her lessons learned. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: 3 priorities startup business development teams should focus on in new age of sales

guest column

The post-pandemic world of business development looks a lot different than it did in 2019. I started my first “sales” role in 2014 at a large, international company, and my days were filled with in-person meetings, often visiting four or five different prospects. The pandemic shifted this approach, as we all moved to web-based platforms and face-to-face meetings dwindled.

Fast forward to 2023, when I joined the Houston team at Square Robot, a startup that was trying to disrupt an industry. I had to learn how to navigate a post-pandemic sales world — where hybrid work, reliance on emails, and video based web calls are now the norm — coupled with the challenges of working for a relatively new company.

I think many working for startups will agree that the first barrier encountered in trying to build and grow your business is addressing the “who” in the equation. You are battling your prospect’s already busy schedule to earn a few minutes of their time, which is an uphill battle when the company is relatively unknown. Not to mention, startups often run into internal delays just from encountering a concern or problem that hasn't been sorted out before. A successful startup is made up of people who, when encountering that sort of a situation, instinctively and proactively figure out the way to solve it instead of sitting back and saying, "We don't have a tool I can use, so I can't get this accomplished.”

While there’s no perfect formula for how to drive sales at a startup, I can share my personal experience and success from the past 15 months at Square Robot. The company put their faith in me to develop business in an untapped market segment: the power industry. In one year, I grew this market by over 300 percent, despite the majority of prospects having never heard of Square Robot. There were a few key steps to my success, which included adjusting to the shift in work operations since Covid-19.

The power of developing a brand

My first focus was on developing my personal brand as an ambassador for Square Robot. Not only did I dive into learning all aspects of our robotic services, but I then did the same in the power industry. I heavily relied on LinkedIn to build my brand as a knowledge center, often creating short videos, posts and even articles about the benefits of Square Robot’s service for the power industry.

I found that in a business world that’s inundated with endless emails and cold calls, social media was an easy way to get in front of prospects without the pressure of calling as they’re stepping into a meeting or too busy to speak. The recognition of name and company from LinkedIn translated across the traditional platforms. I connected and messaged on LinkedIn, followed by email and phone outreach. Overall, about 75 percent of my closed opportunities in 2023 began with outreach on Linkedin.

Tapping into relevant organizations

As I continued to learn more about the power generation industry, I looked for associated research and non-profit groups. From there, I found the Electric Power Research Institute, and subsequently, Square Robot was accepted into a program to showcase new technology directly to the end user.

I also researched industry specific conferences and publications for either speaking submissions or written pieces, which are great avenues to grow the brand of a startup company while paying close attention to budgeting.

Making time for in-person meetings

While finding ways to raise the profile of Square Robot was important, I also wanted to make sure I still had the face-to-face connection that makes a lasting impact. True success in this role takes business development into relationship development, and I made it a priority to visit new clients when Square Robot was onsite providing service.

Taking the time to meet in person with the people and teams I’ve spoken with countless times — sometimes across months — helped to build trust and uncover additional opportunities. People are much more likely to answer emails or calls when they can put a face to a name. Many times I used this visit to extend my reach into a company, asking for introductions to other locations or areas.

Even though 2023 was an achievement for myself and Square Robot, it comes with the expectation of continued growth. In the startup world of business development, this means constantly engaging with potential audiences in new and different ways, not being deterred when things take time or you fail, and having creativity and tenacity to drive sales.

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Stephanie Nolan is director of sales at Square Robot, which is headquartered in Massachusetts but has a growing presence in Houston.

Want to work for one of the top startups in Houston? Some of the best in Houston are hiring. Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

Looking for a job? These 2023 Houston Innovation Awards finalists are hiring

calling all applicants

More than half of this year's startup finalists in the Houston Innovation Awards are hiring — who's looking for a job at one of the best startups in Houston?

When submitting their applications for the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards, which is taking place November 8 at Silver Street Studios, every startup was asked if it's hiring. Twenty-seven of the 35 startup honorees said yes, ranging from over 20 to just one positions open at each company.

Click here to secure your tickets to see which of these growing startups win.

Here's a look at which of the top startups in Houston are seeking new team members.

Double-digit growth

When it comes to the awards finalists looking to scale their team by 10 or more new hires, five finalists are growing rapidly.

Medical practice software platform RepeatMD, fresh off a $40 million raise — which included participation from Houston-based Mercury — is reportedly growing its team. The company, which has 115 employees already, is looking for over 20 new hires.

Female-owned business Feelit Technologies, which is using nanotechnology for preventive maintenance to eliminate leaks, fires and explosions, increase safety and reduce downtime, has 50 employees, and only three of which are in Houston – for now. The company hopes to grow its team by 12 to 15 employees in Houston alone.

Square Robot, an energy industry-focused robotics company that recently grew its presence in Houston, is hiring 10 to 30 new team members. It has 24 employees already in Houston.

Solugen, an alternative chemicals business, has around 140 of its 200 employees in Houston. The company, which has raised over $600 million to date, is hiring an additional 10 to 15 new hires.

Additionally, Blue People, also a finalist in last year's awards, is hiring 25 new employees. The company was founded in 2015 in Mexico and relocated its primary operations to Houston in 2020. Blue People, which develops software innovation for its clients, has over 150 employees — 10 of whom, including C-level executives, are based in Houston. Some of the company's new hires will be based in town.

Steady growth

Four Houston startups are hiring within the six to 10 team member range — all with fairly significant employee counts already.

A finalist in last year's awards too, Venus Aerospace, a hypersonics company on track to fly reusable hypersonic flight platforms by 2024, is again growing its team. With 48 on-site employees and 23 working remotely, Venus's team will add another five to 10 employees.

Syzygy Plasmonics, a deep decarbonization company that builds chemical reactors designed to use light instead of combustion to produce valuable chemicals like hydrogen and sustainable fuels, has 112 employees in Houston and plans to hire another eight to its team.

Lastly, Fervo Energy, which recently raised $10 million, has 63 full-time employees (34 in Houston, 29 outside of Houston) and looking to hire seven more.

Seeking selectively

The following awards finalists are looking to grow their teams by just a handful or so — between one and five — of new hires:

  • ALLY Energy, helping energy companies and climate startups find, develop, and retain great talent.
  • CaseCTRL, an AI-powered surgery scheduling and coordination software for optimized procedures.
  • CellChorus, using AI to evaluate immune cell function and performance to improve the development and delivery of therapeutics.
  • FluxWorks, making frictionless gearboxes for missions in any environment.
  • Helix Earth Technologies, decarbonizing the built environment and heavy industry.
  • Hope Biosciences, a clinical stage biotechnology company focused on the development and delivery of adult stem cell based therapeutics.
  • Innovapptive, empowering the deskless workers in operations, maintenance and warehouses by unlocking the power of SAP through mobility.
  • INOVUES, re-energizing building facades through its non-invasive window retrofit innovations, making building smarter, greener, and healthier for a better and sustainable future.
  • Koda Health, , a tech-enabled care coordination service to improve serious illness care planning and drive savings for value-based care at scale.
  • Molecule, an energy/commodity trading risk management software that provides users with an efficient, reliable, responsive platform for managing trade risk.
  • Rhythm Energy, 100 percent renewable electricity service for residential customers in Texas.
  • Starling Medical, bringing the future of a proactive and predictive home-based healthcare system to patients today through passive AI powered at home urine screening.
  • Taurus Vascular, pioneering a new era of aortic aneurysm treatment by developing minimally invasive catheter solutions to drive better long-term patient outcomes.
  • Tierra Climate, decarbonizing the power grid faster by helping grid-scale batteries monetize their environmental benefits and change their operational behavior to abate more carbon.
  • UpBrainery Technologies, an innovative educational technology company that provides personalized and adaptive learning experiences to learners
  • Utility Global, a technology company converting a range of waste gases into sustainable hydrogen and syngas.
  • Voyager Portal, helping commodity shippers identify root causes of demurrage, reduce risk and streamline the entire fixture process.

Square Robot's Houston office has the ability to showcase the technology to its potential customers. Photo courtesy of Square Robot

Boston-based tech company grows Houston team to deliver robotics to energy industry

do the robot

The robots are coming. Although the rise of Chat GPT has frightened plenty of professionals, we’re not on the precipice of the singularity just yet. And some of Houston’s coolest robots are contained in above-ground tanks, simply doing jobs that are too expensive and difficult for humans. The mechanical helpers in question come courtesy of Square Robot.

Square Robot co-founder and chief technology officer Jerome Vaganay started the company in 2016 in Boston. The company opened its Houston office in August of 2019.

“A lot of our partners and client base is out of here,” says director of operations, Matt Crist.

Karishma Prasad, director of technical operations, who joined the team in Houston earlier this year, adds “It’s a great centralized place for us. Houston is a great hub both nationally and internationally. There is so much energy transition innovation happening here.”

Square Robot is indeed a robotics company, but it trades in a very specific type of robot. The SR-1 is an innovative tank inspector.

“Since the ‘60s there’s been a traditional way of going into a tank. People would go inside and clean it with a variety of products," Crist explains. "Once it was clean, they would come in and inspect it repair it and that could take months.”

In fact, it could often cause a 15 or 16-week outage, he says.

Square Robot’s brainstorm was to take the human element out of the process. In other words, robots can do the job more safely, efficiently and quickly than a human ever could by collecting 18,000 data points per square foot, while allowing the product — most often diesel — to stay in the tank.

Square Robot saves those vast weeks of time, but perhaps even more importantly, says Prasad, “We’re avoiding emissions being released into the atmosphere.”

With its key location in Houston, Square Robot has worked with most of the major names in the energy world, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, and Crist’s former employer, Phillips 66.

The latest robot is the SR-3, which is currently being tested in Houston. Curious webwatchers can see its progress on Square Robot’s website. Unlike the flagship SR-1, the new robot boasts a side launcher that allows it to be completely immersed in a tank before being launched.

But perhaps the most exciting thing about Square Robot’s 15-human Houston office is its test tank. There, potential partners can see exactly what the company’s ingenious creation can do. Square Robot will participate in ILTA, the International Operating Conference & Trade Show, which takes place from May 21-24. On the 24th, the company will host an open house from noon to 3 p.m. to allow potential users to see the SR-3 in action in the 42-foot-long test tank.

Square Robot will complete its hundredth tank inspection in May. It is also growing beyond the oil and gas world to include work with the power industry and was recently selected as a finalist in the Incubatenergy Lab Start Up program. This is one robot that we will happily allow to take over formerly all-too-human responsibilities.

Square Robot has a team of 15 in Houston. Photo courtesy of Square Robot

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.