Here's your latest roundup of innovation news you may have missed. Photo via Getty Images

It's been a busy month so far with plenty of Houston startup news, major ecosystem events, and more — and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, three startups join three different accelerator programs, a Houston innovator publishes a book, and a PE-backed tech company makes changes to its C-suite.

Rivalry Tech snags spot in Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech Accelerator

Rivalry Tech, the parent company for stadium mobile ordering platform sEATz, was selected for a prestigious program. Photo via rivalrytech.com

A Houston-based startup has been selected for the third cohort for the Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech Accelerator. Rivalry Tech, a software company that provides mobile ordering technology platform sEATz to stadiums, is one of 10 startups in the program.

The new cohort was selected from over 920 applicants across 40 countries. The six-month program — expanded from its previous 12-week format — allows access to access to leaders and decision makers from across the partner consortium, including NBC Sports, Sky Sports, Comcast Spectacor, Golf, NASCAR, WWE, PGA TOUR, U.S. Ski & Snowboard, USA Swimming, and USA Cycling.

Since the first class in 2021, SportsTech startup alumni have participated in 90 pilots, partnerships, and commercial deals with consortium partners.

"Our alumni from the first two classes of the Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech accelerator continue to display a prowess for delivering impactful technology while unlocking new revenue opportunities, and I look forward to seeing what powerful innovations and unique partnerships emerge from this year’s program,” says Jenna Kurath, vice president of Startup Partnerships and Head of Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech, in a news release. "As we evaluated how to bring even more value to our startups and SportsTech partners, a clear need emerged - more time collaborating to tackle complex business challenges. The new six-month format creates additional space for focused testing and experimentation with a curriculum designed for business refinement while allowing the enterprise-ready startups we've selected to continue serving their existing customers.”

PE-backed HungerRush names new execs

HungerRush has a handful of new execs. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based HungerRush, a cloud software provider for the restaurant industry, announced new leaders within its C-suite. The company, recently backed by New York City-based private equity firm Corsair Capital New York City-based private equity firm Corsair Capital, announced three new executives.

  • David Tabachnick has been named CFO. He joins the company from Acoustic where he most recently served as CAO. He brings more than 20 years’ experience to his new role as CFO, including extensive private equity experience through Vista Equity Partners.
  • Patrick Hughes joins as vice president of finance. He will focus on emphasizing longstanding partnerships, reporting, automation, and environment of controls and advise on growth paths for HungerRush. With more than 15 years’ experience in both accounting and FP&A, he excels in high growth environments focused on technology advancements.
  • Jim DaBroi has been appointed COO. He has more than 25 years of experience in developing and growing customer support operations for various SaaS and payments companies. In his role at HungerRush he will be focused on leading the deployment and installations of customer success and technical support efforts.
  • Ashishh Desai has been named vice president of independent operators sales following the company's acquisition of Menufy acquisition. He was previously a co-founder of Kansas City-based Menufy, an industry-leading online food ordering platform acquired in October 2021 and will continue to build and grow HungerRush’s I/O sector.

“We are excited to attract this caliber of world-class Fintech and PE-based talent with the addition of David and Patrick, who together will be key to our rapid growth strategy. In addition, the appointments of Jim and Ashishh bring deep experience in SaaS, payments and sales to our team that is unmatched," says HungerRush CEO Perry Turbes in a news release. "With our now robust leadership team, we will continue to accelerate our commitment to elevate the restaurant technology space and meet the evolving needs of our customers to help them achieve their own goals in the restaurant industry.”

Heroshe named to nonprofit accelerator's spring cohort

The Heroshe team will participate in a hybrid accelerator program. Photo via heroshe.com

A Houston-based tech startup called Heroshe has joined Virgina-based hybrid accelerator Lighthouse Labs for their spring 2023 cohort. Heroshe, according to its website, is a purpose-driven technology company solving the problem of access to global commerce for African businesses.

"We are on a mission to bridge the commerce gap, simplify imports and empower Africans to access global markets," reads the website.

Its eleventh year, Lighthouse Labs, a nonprofit organization, named eight companies to its Batch 14, which begins March 13 in Richmond, Virginia, and ends with Demo Day on May 23.

“This cohort’s companies offer bold solutions to address current-day problems in industries ranging from logistics to cybersecurity, health/wellness to retail, and real estate to software,” says Paul Nolde, managing executive director at Lighthouse Labs, in a news release. “This group of startups represents the best of innovation and entrepreneurship across the Commonwealth and beyond.”

Around 200 companies applied and were evaluated. Of the applications, 49 moved forward to the first round of reviews, and 17 participated in interviews. All companies will receive $20,000 in equity-free funding, participate in weekly educational programming, get mentorship from Lighthouse’s extensive mentor network, and connect directly with local partners and investors.

Houston innovator publishes first book

Kara Branch's book is available on Amazon. Image via Amazon

A Houston innovator — an award-winning one at that — has published a book Kara Branch is the CEO of Black Girls Do Engineer, an organization on a mission to inspire future women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.She released her first book, “What is S.T.E.M.?”

"Many are familiar with the acronym S.T.E.M. but don’t necessarily understand what the term means," reads the book's description. "This book will help you understand what is S.T.E.M. and introduce you to S.T.E.M. careers that falls under each letter."

IncentiFind finds spot in growth-focused program

IncentiFind was selected for a new program. Photo courtesy of IncentiFind

IncentiFind, a Houston-based startup that helps the real estate industry find grant opportunities, has joined Chicago-based Moderne Ventures' inaugural "Passport Class," which is a six-month program providing its participants education, exposure, insight, and relationships to drive customer growth.

"Unlike a traditional accelerator, Moderne Passport is a comprehensive industry immersion program that helps companies of all stages – seed through pre-IPO – hone their go-to-market strategies in the real estate sector, build relationships with industry leaders and execute pilot programs and customer relationships with some of the largest companies in the world," says Carolyn Kwon, Moderne Passport director, in a news release.

IncentiFind, founded by Natalie Goodman, is one of six companies selected for the first batch of startups. Moderne Ventures is a venture capital firm focused on the industries of real estate, finance, insurance, ESG, and home services.

"Moderne most often looks outside its industries to find technologies that can be applicable within them," says Constance Freedman, founder and managing partner at Moderne Ventures. "This latest Passport cohort was curated to include innovative solutions that are highly applicable to some of our industry's most pressing challenges. We look forward to helping these companies optimize their products and services and connect with partners in the Moderne Network who can benefit most from them."

Joy Jones is opening her Oak Forest location of Code Wiz later this month. Screenshot via Code Wiz

Houston business woman brings STEM-focused programming to town

stemming education

A Houstonian has switched up her career to focus on inspiring and equipping children STEM-focused skills.

Joy Jones, who has worked for a decade in the corporate world, is starting the new year with a new career — this one focused on her passion of providing more STEM programming access to students. In 2021, she came across Code Wiz, a coding school franchise based in Massachusetts with 19 locations across the country, and met with Ruth Agbaji, CEO and "nerd-in-chief" of the company.

“Talking with Ruth and hearing the story of her mission to touch 1 million kids through Code Wiz, I found exactly what I’ve been looking for, a mission that aligned with mine,” says Jones, in a news release.

Code Wiz features a Montessori-style approach, according to the release, and classes are project-based so that students are able to explore at their own pace while building confidence and interest. Here are some of the things Code Wiz students engage with:

  • Build multi-level video games
  • Create animation
  • Introduction to Python
  • Website development in HTML, CSS, and Javascript
  • Enroll in classes for Roblox, Minecraft and Unity
  • Enter robotics competitions
  • Celebrate birthday parties and programs for local Girl Scout troops

The Houston area is already home to two Code Wiz locations — one in Cypress and the other in Katy — and Jones is bringing the third oneto Houston proper in Oak Forest on the northside of Houston later this month.

"We have a chance to teach young learners in Oak Forest and the surrounding central Houston area, the language of the future – coding – in a language they already understand in games and robotics,” she continues.

Classes at Code Wiz Oak Forest begin next week, and the location is celebrating its grand opening on Saturday, January 14, from 10 am to 1 pm. with classes starting the week before. Per the release, Founding Family memberships are currently available to the first 50 families who sign up to receive 31.4 percent off a lifetime membership.

A new program at UH is providing Houston students with access to research tools and mentorship. Photo via UH.edu

Houston high school students step into STEM thanks to UH program

science friction

A group of Houston high schoolers aren't taking a break this summer. Instead, they are researching the human body thanks to a new program from the University of Houston.

The STEM Research Inquiry Summer Experience was launched to encourage future STEM leaders and combat the underrepresentation of people of color working in science, technology, engineering and math. Students from Jack Yates High School in Houston's Third Ward are researching hypertension, breast cancer, the spleen, and more during the summer program, according to a news release.

“STEM RISE was inspired by the goal to broaden participation in STEM teaching and learning, and to inspire students from our neighborhood community of Third Ward to envision themselves with futures at UH and ultimately in promising STEM careers,” says Mariam Manuel, director of STEM RISE student success, in the release.

UH students from across STEM fields and departments — science, math, medical, etc. — serve as mentors for the program, which received funding from the National Science Foundation.

“This unique opportunity also gives the young visitors a glimpse into college life,” says Jacqueline Ekeoba, director of STEM RISE instruction, in the release.

In collaboration with UH’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, teachHOUSTON, the Tilman J. Fertitta Family College of Medicine, and Jack Yates High School, the program provides the students with hands-on experience and access to research equipment and lab space.

“Creating safe and supportive learning experiences for the next generation of scientists and doctors is crucial for ensuring diversity in science and medicine," says Thomas Thesen, director of STEM RISE research experience and associate professor of neuroscience at the Fertitta Family College of Medicine. "Not only is this a valuable experience for our high school participants, but our UH students receive training in culturally responsive pedagogy by acting as near-peer mentors."

From left to right, the UH STEM RISE team includes Jacqueline Ekeoba, Mariam Manuel, and Thomas Thesen. Photo via UH.edu

Over 450 student teams competed in an annual international robotics competition in Houston last weekend. Photo by Argenis Apolinario/FIRST

International robotics competition brings STEM students to Houston

automation nation

Adolescents from 40-plus countries convened in Houston to put their robotic skills to test at the annual FIRST Championship last week.

The massive robotics championship returned this year to the George R. Brown to conclude the 2021-22 season of the international program, which is aimed at preparing youth ages 12 to 18 for the future through various robotics challenges and competitions.

The theme of this year’s season was FIRST FORWARD, in which students were challenged to think of new ways to overcome transportation challenges, “from the shipment of packages in rural and urban areas, to disaster relief delivery and high-tech space transit,” according to a release from the STEM organization.

The season was sponsored by California-based semiconductor company Qualcomm and was inspired in part by the UN Sustainable Development Goal of building resilient infrastructure, promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and fostering innovation, according to the statement.

“I have met so many great students, volunteers, mentors, alumni, and sponsors who truly embody the FIRST mission and core Values," FIRST CEO Chris Moore says in a statement after the event. "People who strive to be gracious professionals who innovate, compete, and collaborate with equal energy. People who share our common passion for science and technology as a force for good with the world. The rewards of your efforts don’t stop at this event.”

Teams competed in final matches for FIRST's two major competitions.

In the FIRST Robotics Competition, which featured the RAPID REACT Game presented by Boeing, students were required to reimagine the future of his-speed transport with strict rules, limited resources, and time limits and using autonomous and driver-operated skills.

More than 3,200 teams competed during this game throughout the 2002 FIRST season and 454 teams advanced to the championship at the GRB. Team 1629 from Accident, Maryland, took home the top prize in this competition. Other teams from Austin, New York, Hawaii, Mexico, and Turkey were finalists.

In the FIRST Tech Challenge, teams were asked to think like engineers, building robots from reusables kits in the game FREIGHT FRENZY presented by Raytheon Technologies. Thousands of teams competed in this event throughout the season with 160 teams advancing to Houston. Team 8565 (the TechnicBots) from Plano won the top award.

A FIRST LEGO League challenge was also open to younger students, ages 4 to 16, and the championship. Also during the event, actress and director Gillian Jacobs accepted an award for the film "More Than Robots," which follows four teams as they prepare for the 2020 FIRST competition. The film premiered at SXSW last month and is featured on Disney+.

“I named this documentary ‘More Than Robots’ because as you all well know better than anyone, FIRST is about so much more than robots. I learned that it's about teamwork, compassion, friendship, learning new skills, and challenging yourself to do things you never dreamed you were capable of," Jacobs said at the event.

FIRST's 2022-23 season, dubbed FIRST ENERGIZE, will focus on innovative energy solutions. The season opens in May. Learn more here.

The theme of this year’s season was FIRST FORWARD, in which students were challenged to think of new ways to overcome transportation challenges. Photo by Argenis Apolinario/FIRST

Local kids can pursue STEM and space dreams thanks to the generous gift. Photo courtesy of Space Center Houston

Jeff Bezos' foundation gifts Space Center Houston with $1 million grant

space funds

Billionaires such as Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos may be blasting off into the beyond, but for now, space travel is still primarily relegated to the expert astronauts who train here in Houston.

Now, a new $1 million grant to our beloved hub of all things cosmic may just inspire local kids to rocket towards a career in space exploration or STEM careers. Space Center Houston has just received the generous, two-comma grant from Blue Origin, Bezos' company.

Blue Origin auctioned off seats on first crew New Shepard suborbital flight, which yielded an impressive $28 million. Bezos, his brother Mark, and Wally Funk, one of the Mercury 13 women will join the auction winner on the upcoming trip.

With the $28 million proceeds, Blue Origin then awarded $1 million to 19 organizations (each) through its foundation, Club for the Future.

"This donation is enabling Club for the Future to rapidly expand its reach by partnering with 19 organizations to develop and inspire the next generation of space professionals," said Bob Smith, Blue Origin CEO, in a statement. "Our generation will build the road to space and these efforts will ensure the next generation is ready to go even further."

The $1 million Space Center Houston received will go towards the center's Title 1 school field trip program, enabling students with access to the center's extensive space artifact collection, per a press release. Space Center Houston's Girls STEM Pathway initiative, which promotes learning experiences for girls in STEM careers, will also receive funds. The comprehensive, six-phase initiative includes an introductory elementary school experience, a middle school project-based STEM experience, a summer bridge program with mentoring support, and a program for high school girls to engage in scientific research, the center notes.

"Blue Origin's grant will further enable Space Center Houston to provide immersive science learning experiences for underserved Houston area youth," said the center's president and CEO, William T. Harris, in a release. "We are very thankful to Blue Origin for helping us inspire and prepare students for future STEM careers. With Blue Origin's support, we can empower students with hands-on STEM learning opportunities through the wonders of space exploration."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are well represented in Houston, according to a recent report. Photo via Christina Morillo/Pexels

Houston named a top city for women in STEM fields

who runs the world?

If you're a woman in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics and you call Houston home, according to a new report, you're doing it right.

In honor of Women's History Month, CommercialCafe updated its 2020 ranking of the top U.S. cities for women working in STEM. According to the report, Houston ranks at No. 5 on the list of the best southern cities in the United States for women in STEM. The Bayou City also claims the No. 19 spot nationally.

Here are some other key findings about Houston on the report:

  • STEM jobs in Houston account for 7 percent of all jobs, and a little less than a third of these positions are held by women.
  • About 23,964 women work in STEM in Houston — which is the most out of any other city in the South.
  • Houston gained 4,318 new women STEM employees since 2015, the third-highest number in this regional ranking.
  • The median annual income for women in STEM here is $68,172.
Texas makes up about half of the top 10 Southern states — Austin places in second, while Frisco (No. 7), Dallas (No. 8) and Plano (No. 10) fall behind Houston. Nationally, New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle take the top three spots, respectively.

Women working in STEM - South 2021 - Infograminfogram.com

Houston has been recognized for its STEM fields before, and last fall, SmartAsset ranked Houston as No. 7 in STEM nationally based on workforce size. And, in 2019, Houston placed sixth for STEM workforce diversity. Last year Houston also ranked No. 6 for women in tech, also according to SmartAsset.

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Houston immuno-oncology company reaches next FDA milestone, heads to phase 2 trial

green light

A Houston immuno-oncology company has recently made major headway with the FDA, including both a fast track and an orphan drug designation. It will soon start a phase 2 trial of its promising cancer fighting innovation.

Diakonos Oncology was born in 2016, the brainchild of Baylor researchers already hard at work in the realm of dendritic cell vaccines. Drs. Will Decker, Matt Halpert, and Vanaja Konduri partnered with Dan Faust, a Houston businessman and pharmacist, to bring their treatment to the public, says COO Jay Hartenbach.

The name Diakonos means “deacon or servant in Greek,” he explains. “A lot of companies end up focusing on treating a specific disease or cancer and what you end up having is a significant amount of potential but with a lot of tradeoffs and downsides. And so our goal is we need to eliminate the cancer but we can't harm or dramatically malign the patient in doing so.”

How do they do that? Because the therapy catalyzes a natural immune response, it’s the patient’s own body that’s fighting the cancer. Hartenbach credits Decker with the idea of educating dendritic cells to attack cancer, in this case, glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), one of the most aggressive cancers with which doctors and patients are forced to tangle.

“Our bodies are already very good at responding very quickly and aggressively to what it perceives as virally infected cells. And so what Dr. Decker did was basically trick the immune system by infecting these dendritic cells with the cancer specific protein and mRNA,” details Hartenbach.

Jay Hartenbach is the COO of Diakonos Oncology. Photo courtesy of Diakonos Oncology

But GBM isn’t the only cancer on which Diakonos Oncology has its sights set. Other notably stubborn-to-treat cancers that they’re working on include pancreatic cancer and angiosarcoma. The scientists are focused on meeting unmet medical needs, but also realize that treating such cancers would allow for the fastest determination of whether or not the treatment was effective.

The fast track designation, originally received last fall, means that the drug approval time for DOC1021, Diakonos’ glioblastoma vaccine, will be only six months. But Hartenbach highlights an additional boon, the fact that the special designation also allows for more frequent communications with the FDA.

“That’s very helpful for us, right as we're contemplating how to design the upcoming trials. From a business standpoint, it also is incredibly helpful because it provides a third party validation of what we're doing and the results that we're seeing,” he says.

What they’re seeing includes the survival of 13 out of 16 patients from the initial October 2021 enrollment. The three patients who passed away received the lowest dose of DOC1021. Hartenbach says that the remaining patients are thriving, with no serious adverse effects. With a median survival rate of 15 to 21 months, it’s hard to understate the significance of these patients’ success.

Diakonos Oncology is headquartered in Houston, with a staff of 10 in Space City and an additional eight distributed employees. Hartenbach says that the company’s hometown has been instrumental in its success. He mentions that the robust innovation of the Texas Medical Center meant that as the company has grown, there has never been a motivation to leave Houston.

“You're having a lot of both investment and companies actually moving to Houston,” Hartenbach says. “So we’ve been fortunate to have started there. There are bigger traditional biotech hubs, San Diego, Boston, and San Francisco, but Houston really is now putting itself on the map and it's getting a lot of attention.”

One of the companies responsible for that improved reputation? Diakonos Oncology and its promising approach to aggressive cancers.

Houston professor earns competitive NSF award, nearly $700,000 grant

science supported

An assistant professor at Rice University has won one of the highly competitive National Science Foundation's CAREER Awards.

The award grants $670,406 over five years to Amanda Marciel, the William Marsh Rice Trustee Chair of chemical and biomolecular engineering, to continue her research in designing branch elastomers that return to their original shape after being stretched, according to a statement from Rice. The research has applications in stretchable electronics and biomimetic tissues.

“My goal is to create a new paradigm for designing elastomers,” Marciel said in a statement. “The research has four aims: to determine the role of comb polymer topology in forming elastomers, understanding the effects of that topology on elastomer mechanics, characterizing its effects on elastomer structure and increasing the intellectual diversity in soft matter research.”

Marciel, who joined the faculty at Rice in 2019, is one of about 500 researchers to receive the NSF's CAREER Award each year. The award recognizes early-career faculty members who “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the NSF.

In addition to supporting Marciel's research, the funds will also go toward creating opportunities in soft matter research for undergraduates and underrepresented scientists. It will establish a new annual symposium called the Texas Soft Matter Meeting, where community college teachers can participate in a soft matter laboratory module and students in the Research Experiences for Undergrads program at Rice will present their summer research.

Recently, Rice also launched the new Rice Synthetic Biology Institute, which aims to strengthen the synthetic biology community across disciplines at the university. It is part of an $82 million investment the university put toward synthetic biology, neuroengineering and physical biology in 2018.

A fellow team or Rice researcher is also working on wearable haptic accessories. A member of the team was recently named to the 2024 cohort of Rice Innovation Fellows. Click here to learn more.