Three Houston-based startups logged on to pitch digitally this week since SXSW was canceled. Getty Images

When SXSW canceled a couple weeks ago, event organizers were sent into a frantic scramble of how to salvage some aspect of their plans while also balancing lost deposits, canceled travel, and so much more.

Three pitch events associated with SXSW and featuring Houston startups went on in a digital capacity, and the social distancing has only just began. Michele Price who leads Startup Grind Houston says the Google-backed organization with locations everywhere is aware of the need for digital networking options.

"We are all going to be in some education training ourselves learning how to deliver value to our communities from the digital space," Price says during her video pitch conference call, "and how to take our face-to-face opportunities and events and work them over so that they can meet the needs of where we all are right now."

Here are the Houston companies who had to switch up their pitches for an online audience this week.

Footprint App takes 3rd place in Hatch Pitch

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Climate change sparked a young Houstonian to create Footprint, an app that tracks a person's ecological impact. Photo courtesy of Footprint

On Monday, Houston-based Hatch Pitch was supposed to have its annual pitch competition from SXSW in Austin. Per usual, Hatch was going to stream the invite-only competition to online viewers. However, with SXSW being canceled, the program went completely online. The four entrepreneurs who were selected to pitch for the panel of judges presented online and each of the judges chimed in with questions and feedback.

The four startups that pitched were Los Angeles-based Mi Terra, Canada-based Byte Sight, New Jersey-based Well Power, and Houston-based Footprint. WellPower won first place, as well as the crowd award, Byte Sight took second and the audience award, and Footprint won third.

Dakota Stormer founded Footprint last year and said this was his first pitch competition. Footprint is an app that tracks the carbon footprints of users. It works similar to diet-tracking apps like MyFitnessPal, but it doesn't count the calories; instead, it logs the emissions of their eating and travel habits. Read more about Footprint here.

Hatch Pitch has plans to have a second pitch competition later next month focused on cybersecurity. It's, at the moment, still planned to take place in person at the Houston Cyber Summit.

For All Abilities pitches for Startup Grind Houston

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Betsy Furler founded For All Abilities to use technology to support employees with disabilities. Photo courtesy of For All Abilities

With so many startups' plans to attend SXSW ruined, Startup Grind Houston planned an online pitch event. There weren't any prizes, but it was a good way to virtually network and share stories. Houston-based For All Abilities founder, Betsy Furler, explained her software company that aims to help businesses support employees with ADHD, Dyslexia, learning differences, and Autism.

The company, which launched in April 2019, was founded by Betsy Furler, who specializes in workplace disability issues. Furler created a strengths, needs, and preferences assessment to uncover the needs and preferences of employees to prescribe specific, individualized, inexpensive, and easy-to-use support.

Furler called for potential partners as she scales her growth.

"Ideal customer is the large companies who care about their employees," she says in her pitch, explaining that she thinks companies on the West Coast would be particularly interested.

Velour Imports presents for The Established's Startup of the Year competition

Velour Imports makes it easier for big resorts to get wholesale craft drinks. Pexels

The Established House has hosted a pitch competition every year at SXSW, and this year was no different — except that it went on online only. Fourteen companies from across the country pitched, including one Houston representative.

Velour Imports is a beverage wholesale marketplace that uses a similar concept as Uber Eats to connect resorts and hospitality clients to pallets of craft beer, wine, hard cider, and spirits from a digital menu and then watch orders arrive from any smartphone or web device. It's usually quite difficult to order craft beverages on a large scale, and Velour Imports provides that solution in an innovative, digital form.

"Luxury resorts and hotels have an annual challenge of creating exciting, new food and beverage experiences to attract guests," says founder Brooke Sinclair in her pitch, "but rarely do they have the time and resources to go shopping."

While Velour didn't win any of the top five spots in the competition, she did get positive feedback on her presentation.

SXSW was canceled this year due to the rising threat of COVID19, aka the coronavirus, but these events are still ones to check out if you are still planning on attending. Marie Ketring/via sxsw.org

The show must go on with these SXSW-related events in Houston and Austin

Texas strong

With SXSW canceled — and now the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo has followed suit — and Austin and Houston entrepreneurs are reeling from the loss of networking, pitch competitions, and business opportunities. But unaffiliated organizations are trying to keep some of the spirit of SXSW alive in both Texas cities and online.

"Coronavirus dropped an economic bomb on Austin, and we are trying to triage the scraps," says Marc Nathan, vice president of client strategy at Egan Nelson, an Austin-based, startup-focused law firm.

The economic impact of SXSW 2019 was reported by the organization to have been over $350 million, and, even assuming this year's festival was on par with that, the city of Austin has lost more than that — from the affect on restaurants, lodging, and more. At this point, refunds are not being given out to badge holders.

Additionally, the organization itself is hurting. The 10-day festival has a year-round staff of over 150 people, and SXSW has recently laid off around 30 percent of those employees. Nathan, who says he highly suspects the organization will have to look into restructuring or even bankruptcy, also notes the cancelation will hurt individuals in a way that's not so easy to track.

"This did affect individuals," Nathan says. "Yes, the big brands were hurt and lost a lot of money, but it's not about them. It's about the little guys — the startups that wanted to launch, the bands that wanted to play, or the films that were selected for the contest. It's all the people who use SXSW as a platform, and that platform just disintegrated."

A group of scrappy Austinites have banded together to create Rally Austin and are putting together resources and events online for those still coming into the city and are looking to network responsibly. A few events are also taking place digitally. Here's a list of events to attend, and keep an eye on Rally Austin for any last-minute updates.

Houston-based WatchHerWork's Female Founders Day (March 12 in Austin)

Two Houston female founders — Reda Hicks and Denise Hamilton — saw an opportunity to make SXSW more female friendly, and that's what they've done by introducing this new unofficial SXSW event. Click here for more.

Hicks recently joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the opportunity. Click here to listen.

SoFin @ SXSW 2020 (March 13 in Austin)

Focused on fintech solutions, SoFin will go on as planned and will feature Houston-based iownit.us, a blockchain-enabled investment platform. Click here for more info.

The Austin Tech Happy Hour will also still be held on Friday, March 13, in Austin. Click here for more info.

Houston-based Hatch Pitch Competition (March 16 hosted online)

The annual pitch competition, which is usually streamed online, will switch to completely online only. Click here for more info.

Hatch Pitch is also expected to host a Houston-based, cybersecurity-focused competition next month. Click here to read more.

OpenCoffee Club (March 16 in Austin)

Open Coffee Club, a monthly networking opportunity, will continue as planned. Networking is encouraged, handshaking is not. Click here for more info.

Digital Pitch - An Alternative to SXSW2020 (March 17 hosted online)

Houston's Startup Grind has organized a digital pitch competition that will be hosted completely online. Click here for more info.

Startup of the Year Virtual Pitch Competition (March 17 hosted online)

The Established's annual pitch competition is going online, despite The Established House's physical location being canceled. A Houston-based company will still pitch and the competition has Houston judges involved as well. Click here for more info.

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Med tech firm expands footprint, Houston innovator assumes new role, and more local innovation news

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Houston's innovation ecosystem has had some big news this month, from new job titles for Houston innovators to expanding office space.

In this roundup of Houston startup and innovation news, a Houston organization expands its footprint in the TMC, Rice University opens applications for a cleantech accelerator, and more.

Organization expands footprint in Houston

Proxima CRO has announced its expansion within TMCi. Photo via Twitter

Proxima Clinical Research, a contract research organization headquartered in Houston, announced that it is expanding its office space in the Texas Medical Center Innovation Factory.

"Texas Medical Center is synonymous with innovation, and the TMC Innovation space has proven an ideal location for our CRO. It's an important part of our origin story and a big part of our success," says Kevin Coker, CEO and co-founder of Proxima CRO, in a news release.

The expansion will include around 7,500-square feet of additional office space.

"The resources found across TMC's campuses allow for companies such as Proxima Clinical Research to achieve clinical and business milestones that will continue to shape the future of life sciences both regionally and globally. We are excited for Proxima to expand their footprint at TMC Innovation Factory as they further services for their MedTech customers," says Tom Luby, director of TMC Innovation, in the release.

$20M grant fuels hardtech program's expansion

Activate is planting its roots in Houston with a plan to have its first set of fellows next year. Photo via Activate.org

A hardtech-focused nonprofit officially announced its Houston expansion this week. Activate, which InnovationMap reported was setting up its fifth program here last month, received a $20M commitment by the National Science Foundation to fuel its entrance into the Bayou City.

“Houston’s diversity offers great promise in expanding access for the next generation of science entrepreneurs and as a center of innovation for advanced energy," says NSF SBIR/STTR program director Ben Schrag in a news release.

The organization was founded in Berkeley, California, in 2015 to bridge the gap between the federal and public sectors to deploy capital and resources into the innovators creating transformative products. The nonprofit expanded its programs to Boston and New York before launching a virtual fellowship program — Activate Anywhere, which is for scientists 50 or more miles outside one of the three hubs.

“We are delighted to be opening our newest Activate community in Houston,” says Activate Anywhere managing director Hannah Murnen, speaking at the annual Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy Innovation Summit. “Houston is a city where innovation thrives, with an abundance of talent, capital, and infrastructure—the perfect setting for the Activate Fellowship.”

Activate is still looking its Houston’s first managing director is actively underway and will select fellows for Activate Houston in 2024.

TMC names new entrepreneur in residence

Zaffer Syed has assumed a new role at TMC. Photo via TMC.org

Houston health tech innovator has announced that he has joined the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Factory as entrepreneur in residence for medtech. Zaffer Syed assumed the new role this month, according to his LinkedIn, and he's been an adviser for the organization since 2017.

Syed has held a few leadership roles at Saranas Inc., a medical device company founded in Houston to detect internal bleeding following medical procedures. He now serves as adviser for the company.

"As CEO of Saranas, he led the recapitalization of the company that led to the FDA De Novo classification and commercial launch of a novel real-time internal bleed monitoring system for endovascular procedures," reads the TMC website. "Zaffer oversaw clinical development, regulatory affairs and strategic marketing at OrthoAccel Technologies, a private dental device startup focused on accelerating tooth movement in patients undergoing orthodontic treatment.

"Prior to working in startup ventures, Zaffer spent the first 13 years of his career in various operational roles at St. Jude Medical and Boston Scientific to support the development and commercialization of Class III implantable devices for cardiovascular and neuromodulation applications."

TMC is currently looking for an entrepreneur in residence for its TMCi Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics program.

Applications open for clean energy startup program

Calling all clean energy startups. Photo courtesy of The Ion

The Clean Energy Accelerator, an energy transition accelerator housed at the Ion and run by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, has opened applications for Class 3. The deadline to apply is April 14.

The accelerator, which helps early-stage ventures reach technical and commercial milestones through hybrid programming and mentorship, will host its Class 3 cohort from July 25 to Sept. 22.

“Accelerating the transition to a net-zero future is a key goal at Rice University. Through accelerating the commercial potential of our own research as well as supporting the further adoption of global technologies right here in Houston, the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator is proof of that commitment,” says Paul Cherukuri, vice president of innovation at Rice, in a news release. “The Rice Alliance has all the critical components early-stage energy ventures need for success: a corporate innovation network, energy investor network, access to mentors and a well-developed curriculum. This accelerator program is a unique opportunity for energy startups to successfully launch and build their ventures and get access to the Houston energy ecosystem.”

According to Rice, the 29 alumni companies from Class 1 and 2 have gone on to secure grants, partnerships, and investments, including more than $75 million in funding. Companies can apply here, learn more about the accelerator here or attend the virtual information session April 3 by registering here.

Houston-based real estate giant rolls out sustainability-focused business unit

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Houston-based real estate investor, developer, and manager Hines is stepping up its commitment to sustainability.

The company just formed a business unit, EXP by Hines, that is aimed at addressing “the disruptive changes in the built environment.”

EXP by Hines comprises two parts: Global ESG and the Global Venture Lab. Doug Holte, who was a senior partner at Hines from 1987 to 2009, has been hired as CEO of EXP.

“EXP by Hines is an engine of growth using the most innovative ideas in capital, culture, and environmental stewardship to connect every stakeholder in the built environment and create healthy, activated communities,” Holte says in a news release. “EXP is looking beyond the boundaries of real estate to solve complex problems while creating long-term value.”

Peter Epping, who joined Hines in 2001, is the company’s global head of ESG (environmental, social, and governance). A 2022 survey by professional services firm Deloitte found that ESG continues to gain ground in the corporate world. Business executives questioned for the survey believe ESG strategies will:

  • Strengthen stakeholder trust
  • Elevate brand reputation
  • Boost employee retention
  • Improve ROI
  • Reduce risk

Kathryn Scheckel, who joined Hines in 2019, leads the company’s new Global Venture Lab, which is tasked with identifying and accelerating ventures, partnerships and investments. The lab includes a startup incubator and a VC arm.

According to the news release, priorities of the Global Venture Lab include innovations in the use of physical space, development of ESG solutions, and creation of “revolutionary built-world technologies.”

The efforts being spearheaded by Holte, Epping, and Scheckel are geared in part toward Hines achieving net zero carbon by 2040 in its nearly 231 million-square-foot global portfolio without buying carbon credits.