University of Houston's RED Labs and Rice University's OwlSpark, which operate in tandem every summer, have had to re-imagine their accelerator programs in light of COVID-19. Photo courtesy of OwlSpark and RED Labs

It'll be a different kind of summer for two early-stage, university-affiliated accelerator programs that work in tandem to grow a cohort of startups.

University of Houston's RED Labs and Rice University's OwlSpark are re-imagining their programs this summer to make the most out of a virtual accelerator, which begins today, May 21, with 17 teams of startups.

"No doubt that COVID-19 will have a big impact on our program," says Kerri Smith, managing director of OwlSpark. "In the long run, there will always be the likely requirement of human-to-human interaction in the startup world — particular when it comes to generating business, meeting with customers, and securing investments — but from the training aspect, I think we are going to be able to provide something of value."

Smith says she has worked with Kelly McCormick, managing director of RED Labs, in preparing for this virtual programming in order to maintain the same level of support for the startups by using tools like Zoom, Skype, the Google Suite, and more.

McCormick, who is also an instructor at UH, has had the opportunity to test out having guest speakers in her class last semester and found that the virtual aspect was an opportunity to reach speakers that would otherwise be unavailable to come to campus.

"With challenges comes opportunities, and I think we're going to be able to deliver the same impactful content that we want to, just in a different way," McCormick says.

One challenge for the cohort will be conducting the customer engagement part of the experience virtually. Founders, Smith says, will have to focus on online customer discovery. Similarly, the startup pitch training will have to pivot to focus on pitching to a webcam.

"We've worked hard to design an experience around the reality that they are currently navigating, because it's a different reality right now," Smith says.

"Our primary goal is to create a culture of advocacy among our two cohorts, but also to help them develop some personal resiliency," Smith continues. "Challenging times reveal character in people and helping them develop some personal resiliency skills is going to come along with some of the things we are working with this summer."

The two programs were planned to have a new home in The Cannon Tower downtown this summer, which would have allows for face-to-face networking and collaboration. McCormick says they've planned virtual trivia, socials, and lunches to try to recreate the camaraderie of working together in a remote capacity.

"There's potential that we'll have some events in person, but that's really based on the guidance of our universities," McCormick says. "We'd love to have some opportunities in person, but it's really a matter if what's safe, and we're not going to require it."

Also new this year for Class 8 is a pilot program that incorporates startups from another university. Eight of the 17 teams in the cohort are from UH, while the other nine are representing Rice. However, through a partnership with the McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship at Texas A&M University, three of Rice's teams hail from A&M.

"It's an experiment to expand the program by inviting other university teams," Smith says, adding that the partnership also allows the accelerator to tap into A&M's network of advisers. "Depending on the data at the end of the summer and the experience and value add, we'll evaluate whether or not that's something we want to continue doing."

The new virtual nature of the program allows for remote access for those founders based in College Station, as well as the founders who, due to campus shutdowns, were sent home mid semester in light of COVID-19.

The recruiting process was also done virtually, and McCormick says she did see a decrease in applications compared to last year — but the quality of the applicants was strong.

"There were definitely some difficult decisions," McCormick says. "The teams that did apply were a high caliber. They were really dedicated to going through the program — whatever it might looked like."

The program takes place over 12 weeks and concludes with a pitch event called the Bayou City Showcase. At this point, the event, which is usually live-streamed and held in front of an audience, is planned to still take place, however, McCormick and Smith say they aren't sure if there will be a physical event or if it will be online only.

Below is a list of descriptions for the 17 teams and the solutions they are providing.

  • an affordable, portable, imaging system capable of diagnosing diabetic retinopathy for low-resourced and underserved communities
  • an agricultural platform for use in urban settings that enables horticulturists to measure and record plant growth, detect disease, and recommend corrective actions
  • a suite of imaging and software tools that detect bleeding vessels in real-time surgery enabling surgeons to precisely locate and prevent life-threatening hemorrhages
  • an imaging device that enables healthcare professionals performing endovascular procedures to accurately visualize vascular access in a patient
  • a screening device that predicts biological hazards in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics without the use of animal models
  • an exercise platform for use in analyzing, critiquing, and correcting the form of individuals and athletes performing stationary exercises
  • an interactive content platform that uses data analytics to enable creators and viewers to more selectively choose content
  • a non-invasive skincare system that profiles the molecular concentration of the skin and creates customized formulations of products
  • a centralized pharmaceutical resource that enables women to make personalized and more informed decisions in contraceptive care
  • an advanced, improved diagnostic tool for optometrists
  • a user friendly toothbrush that monitors oral health
  • a portable cooling device that provides relief for symptoms of menopause
  • a physical therapy device that aids individuals with arm injuries in recovering their mobility quickly
  • a software that uses existing wifi to detect and alert help when an individual falls in their home
  • an improved air filter that decreases the amount of time users have to change the filter
  • a program that helps individuals invest in dividend producing stocks
  • a device that attaches to wheelchairs and raises the user so they can reach higher surfaces
The Nap Bar offers "pay-by-snooze" rest. Photo by Dominique Monday

New Rice Village nap bar refreshes sleep-deprived Houstonians

Stay woke

Khaliah Guillory wants to put you to sleep. To clarify: She wants you to nap. And the power nap is all the rage right now. Busy workers, executives and entrepreneurs in New York, Europe, and Japan are all napping during the day — taking a short snooze that not only helps them be more productive in their daily tasks, but allows them to be healthier.

"Americans lose 1.2 million work days because of sleep deprivation," Guillory tells CultureMap. "That costs the economy $411 billion. And the Centers for Disease Control estimate that driving while you're sleep deprived is the equivalent of driving under the influence."

To counter the trends, Guillory will open Nap Bar in Rice Village. Slated for a late April unveiling, a pay-by-the-snooze napping facility will be at the back of New Living. Guillory has partnered with the company, already known for its commitment to sustainability. Nap Bar's custom-patented napping pods are designed with sound-proof materials and contain organic, nontoxic Bungaloom mattresses and bedding.

A Comfort Concierge will greet visitors and lead them to a private suite surrounded with T.L.C. There are also two shared nap pods with twin mattresses available. Naps are scheduled 20 to 26 minutes for short-term alertness, or longer, if needed. A 20-minute snooze will set you back $25, while 26 minutes run $32. (If you're looking for a full hour, that's available for $69). Sleeping pods have blackout curtains and are soundproof.

Guillory has also made the napping experience into a luxury one so Nap Bar nappers receive complimentary aromatherapy and custom brain wave therapy with every siesta. Other add-ons include, lymphatic massages, hot showers, espressos, and EarthCraft Juicery blends that are crafted from raw, healing ingredients. The all-organic experience all designed to provide gentle healing and peaceful rest.

"Our culture tells us that if you're napping during the day, you're either a kid or you're lazy," says Guillory. "But that's not true. If you take as little as 20 minutes to nap, you'll feel revitalized."

A snooze story
Guillory didn't intend to become a nap guru. Like many things in life, however, necessity became the mother of invention. While working as an executive for a Fortune 500 company, Guillory was traveling heavily, catching brief bits of shut-eye in airport lounges or her car. At one point she found herself in Richmond, with an hour and a half to kill before her next meeting in Houston. Driving straight into town would make her far too early for her appointment. There wasn't time to go home. And checking into a hotel seemed silly.

"That's when my wife said to me, Google nap spaces in Houston," she recalls. She did. There were none. And that's why she created her own. "I wanted a safe haven for people to unplug," Guillory says. "It doesn't have to be full-on sleep. It can be relaxation, meditation, whatever you need."

And far from resting on her own laurels with her business on the cusp of opening, Guillory is pursuing other nap-centric opportunities. She's looking to partner with area businesses to incorporate nap pods into their space for employees, and is planning a Nap Bar Snooze Unit, a mobile tour bus that will "roll through downtown and let people take power naps," she explains.

She generated a great deal of interest when she took her concept on the road to Bush Intercontinental Airport earlier this week, displaying the nap pod and sharing the feedback she'd received from Nap Bar's beta testers. That input is something she takes seriously; when Nap Bar debuts, it'll be with products that her testers recommended — and they had opinions on everything from the bedding to the materials used in the pod.

"I want to turn sustainable rest into sustained productivity," says Guillory. "And I think this is just what Houston needs."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Oils and scents help you relax. Photo by Dominique Monday

Startups have more cash flow options now than ever before. Getty Images

From credit to crowdfunding, experts discuss how startup lending has evolved

Houston Voices

For companies trying to get off the ground, one of the biggest hurdles normally revolves around acquiring funding. Whether it's a friends and family round, early seed stage or a full blown series round, finding funding is a difficult process. This augments the importance of entrepreneurs understanding the full arsenal of tools at their disposal.

Late last month, Cannon Ventures and Texas Citizens Bank teamed up to host a Lunch and Learn at The Cannon's Main Campus to help describe some of the different options for fundraising and explain the evolution of fundraising over the past few years.

This Cannon Lunch and Learn consisted of a panel of industry experts from varying backgrounds answering questions from the crowd about fundraising. The session was moderated by Cannon Ventures' investment analyst, Kristen Philips, where she was joined by the below panelists:

Each of the below strategies were highlighted by our panel of experts, offering a number of potential options for entrepreneurs in search of the best fundraising strategy for their company:

Factoring

Factoring is a form of financing in which a business will sell its accounts receivable (invoices) to a third-party at a discount. This option gives businesses access to immediate funds that can be used to pay for business expenses. This can be an effective option when working with a client who has outstanding invoices and may not be able to pay you back in a timely manner.

Credit insurance

Credit Insurance protects the policyholder in the event that a customer becomes insolvent. Insolvency in business can be a more common scenario than many realize, so credit insurance can serve as a solution if a customer isn't able to pay its debts. Industry standards for credit insurance will often cover around 90 percent of your accounts receivable.

SBA loans

Contrary to popular belief, SBA loans are not direct loans made by The Small Business Administration to entrepreneurs to grow a small business. Instead, an SBA loan provides a guarantee to banks and authorized SBA lenders for the money they lend to small businesses. If a business owner defaults on a loan, the SBA will promise to pay a portion of the loan back. This can alleviate the risk associated with lending money to small business owners and startups that may not qualify for traditional loans. SBA loans open up lending opportunities to thousands of entrepreneurs. In 2017 alone, SBA approved over 68,000 loans and provided over $30 billion to small businesses.

The evolution of lending

The panelists also remarked on how the industry of traditional lending has grown over the years and suggested to be wary of new predatory lending entities. When lending entities do not use depository funds, they are not subject to the same level of regulation that more traditional establishments like banks do. Because of this, predatory lenders can offer large amounts of capital quickly but lock founders into unsustainable interest rates and mechanisms that can trap clients into long-term agreements.

It is important for founders to do their homework and understand the terms whenever you are accepting a loan regardless of how established they may seem, or your need for capital.

Crowdfunding

Crowdfunding is a relatively new phenomenon that has started to become more mainstream after a change of regulation in 2016 by the SEC to allow non-accredited investment in private companies. Crowdfunding is typically done to supplement efforts to an offline fundraise and a way to both market your opportunity to a wider base as well as directly raise funds. These platforms offer the flexibility of either a straight equity raise or a convertible note.


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This is content from our partner, which originally ran on The Cannon.


via thecannonhouston.com

Nesh's digital assistant technology wants to make industry information more easily accessible for energy professionals. Photo courtesy of Thomas Miller/Breitling Energy

Houston startup creates the Alexa or Siri for oil and gas companies

Hey, Nesh?

When Sidd Gupta's friend lost his job and struggled to find a new position after the major oil downturn in 2014, Gupta noticed a systemic problem within the industry.

"A company rejected him because he was unfamiliar with the software they used in their operations," Gupta explains. "In our industry, companies will judge a potential hire's technical capabilities based on which software they know how to use rather than how good they would be at the job."

While software requirements for oilfield jobs are common, it made Gupta consider how we can make complex data and knowledge more accessible.

Gupta saw something else brewing in the energy industry that also piqued his interest.

"There was entrepreneurship in the oil and gas space and an interest in data science during the oil downturn. We saw startups created in Austin then Houston. There was an infectious entrepreneurial energy at that time," he says.

Last year, he took the entrepreneurial leap, quit his job and founded Nesh, a smart assistant like Alexa or Siri, but specifically for oil and gas companies. Nesh sources information from public data, vendor sources, technical papers, journal articles, news feeds and more to give answers to complex, technical questions related to energy.

Nesh explained
Because this tool is meant for businesses and not personal use, the software must be trustworthy, Gupta says, and he asked himself what he needs to do to make an engineer or a CEO of an energy company believe Nesh's response.

The answer: transparency. With Nesh, users can see how the smart assistant came to its answer. The software shows the data and workflow behind the answer as part of the user interface.

And Nesh learns from its users too. If an unfamiliar question is posed to Nesh, users can add new training phrases to teach Nesh what to do next time the question is posed.

"We created Nesh as something super-simple to use," Gupta says. "There's no learning curve, no technical knowledge required, you just need to speak plain English."

Gupta, who was raised in India, came to the United States to pursue his master's degree in petroleum engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. After working in oil and gas for over a decade, he started Nesh last year with co-founder and CTO Seth Anderson.

Gearing up for the future
This year, Nesh is in the process of fundraising, and, with the new funds, he plans to expand his workforce, which is currently five employees (including Gupta himself) based in Houston. Due to its size, Nesh currently can run only one pilot program at a time. With more employees, Nesh will be able to scale up its pilot programs and run multiple pilots in parallel. The larger user pool for these pilots will give Gupta and his team better insights into Nesh and allow them to continue refining the tool.

Right now, Gupta wants to commercialize in those operations where Nesh is already running pilot programs. He says he hopes for Nesh to have both internal and external growth, with the next surge of hiring and an expanded user pool for the product.

He plans to make Nesh available as a commercial product in fall of this year with a target market of small to mid-sized oil and gas companies.

Gupta says Nesh is different from anything in the market.

"With enterprise software in general, it can be very hard to get a demo version of software without talking to a sales representative—something that people dislike," he says. "I want to bring the B2C aspect of trying a software to the B2B world."

The business model goal for Nesh is for potential clients to be able to test the software themselves, Gupta says, and then contact the company if they're interested.

"I want transparent pricing to be visible on our website," he says. "I want potential customers to be able to experience the demo just by giving their information."

As Gupta sees it, one of the main advantages to being in Houston is the important support networks as well as the potential customer base. He's grateful to local organizations such as Station Houston and Capital Factory for connecting him with many resources.

"I'm seeing a lot of innovation here in Houston," Gupta says. "There's a lot of oil and gas companies, so as we begin looking for potential customers, that's a very important advantage of being here."

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."

What started as an idea to get kids to drink more water has turned into a profitable party favor company. Courtesy of My Drink Bomb

Houston startup makes a splash as wedding vendor

The biz of fizz

What started as a way for Chloé Di Leo to encourage her kids to drink more water is now — just a few months later — a startup making a splash on the wedding industry.

Di Leo, the founder, launched My Drink Bomb LLC in Houston at the beginning of summer 2018. She tells InnovationMap that the product was inspired by bath bombs, fizzing once added to a beverage. She created the company with her husband, William Roberts. Together, they own a few local businesses, and Di Leo also is also a jewelry designer at her own store, Chloé Di Leo & Co.

The first flavor created she created for The Bomb Squad, the line for children, was bubblegum, but now she has seven different flavors online, including Strawberry, Birthday Cake, Watermelon, and more.

"Our kids took some to school and came home with some pocket change," says Di Leo. "They weren't supposed to sell it, but the kids liked it."

One day, her kids came home with $40, and she knew the idea was taking off.

The Bomb Squad line quickly transformed into Mixologi, a version of the product meant to be added to alcohol for cocktails. Di Leo tells InnovationMap that the addition stemmed from dinner parties she was hosting with her husband. She put the five major ingredients of a cocktail into a drink bomb.

"It's basically a mixer you drop in," she says. "We wanted to make it super easy and fun to use."

There are currently 23 Mixologi flavors available online, including Margarita, Moscow Mule, Pina Colada, Cosmo, and more. Custom flavors are available and take six to eight weeks to perfect the flavor and recipe before delivery.

To begin crafting the cocktail flavors, Di Leo says that she traveled to Tulum to spend time with a mixologist in Mexico and came back to the states with recipes for the drink bombs.

"Six months later, here we are," says Di Leo.

The company also offers a hangover bomb, crafted from activated charcoal and zesty tangerine extract to reduce headaches and reduce and release toxins in your body, according to the My Drink Bomb website.

The company gained attention after Sabrina Bryan of The Cheetah Girls reached out to Di Leo after finding the company on Instagram. Bryan wanted Mixologi to supply drink bombs for her wedding in October 2018. Custom flavors are available and take six to eight weeks to perfect the flavor and recipe before delivery.

In Spring 2019, Di Leo shares that My Drink Bomb plans to create and launch a coffee and tea drink bomb. She also hopes to create a drink bombs geared toward detox, anti-aging, health, and fitness, and Di Leo wants to work with a mixologist and a health and fitness expert.

In addition to new flavors, My Drink Bomb is heading to local brick and mortar stores — and she has her eye on a few local boutiques and spas, as well as all 20 flagship Specs store.

"When you have an idea, just keep working hard," Di Leo says. "A simple idea can turn into something beautiful."

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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.