3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's innovators to know in Houston all have new and exciting things to announce. Courtesy photos

Who are Houston's innovators to know? Well this week, here's who made headlines, from a well-known Houston software entrepreneur and investor rolling out a new line of business for his company to a new podcast network with Houston roots.

Gabriella Rowe, executive director of operations at The Ion

ION Accelerator ribbon cutting event, with Mayor Sylvester Turner and business partners.

Photo by Carter Smith/Station Houston

The entrepreneurial hub dubbed the Ion that's expected to premiere in Houston's innovation district in 2021 has a new operating organization and the Rice Management Company has tapped Station Houston CEO Gabriella Rowe to run it.

"To ensure that The Ion is a catalyst for the continued growth of the innovation ecosystem, we've been collaborating with Gaby and her team as well as civic leaders, Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County commissioners and Midtown Houston," says Allison Thacker, president and chief investment officer of the RMC, in a news release. "We know that under Gaby's leadership The Ion will become an innovation hub for not only all Houstonians, but for anybody looking to thrive and collaborate in an entrepreneur-first, tech-forward environment." Read more.

Rakesh Agrawal, founder and CEO of SnapStream

Photo courtesy of SnapStream

Houston-based SnapStream has expanded its services, and CEO and Co-founder Rakesh Agrawal appears on the third episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his company's growth and the role he plays in the Houston innovation ecosystem.

"A lot of people go to this question of, 'What's wrong with the Houston ecosystem?' If there's anything that's a fundamental characteristic of Houston that we need to change that would really help the startup and innovation ecosystem is that often in Houston, the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing," Agrawal says on the podcast. Read more.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs, co-founder of Lemonada Media

Photo via Twitter

It's safe to say that Stephanie Wittels Wachs didn't have start and run a podcast network in her life's master plan. Nonetheless, the Houstonian can check that box after she launched Lemonada Media with her business partner, Jessica Cordova Kramer. The network is about creating provoking, uncensored content about life and humanity.

"This is everything I've done in my whole life," she tells InnovationMap. "It sort of combines my writing and my education background and my artistic background and some voiceover background and my activism. It's everything." Read more.

Lemonada, founded by Houstonian Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer, wants to air content that takes an unfiltered approach to life. Pexels

Houstonian launches her podcast network to talk about the tough stuff

unfiltered and on air

Even before Stephanie Wittels Wachs' Lemonada Media launched its first podcast on September 25, the network got a shout-out from none other than the New York Times, which listed its "Last Day" offering as one of seven new podcasts to listen to this fall.

The media company, which Wachs built with award-winning podcaster Jessica Cordova Kramer, takes aim at the human experience in all its messiness: addictions, the troubles of raising decent children, how we develop empathy. Its three shows will be distributed by The team has partnered with Westwood One on distribution, and upcoming guests include such star power as Jamie Lee Curtis, comedians Sarah Silverman, Tig Notaro, and Aziz Ansari, author Reza Aslan, actress Mara Wilson, activist DeRay McKesson, songwriter Justin Tranter and filmmaker Kulap Vilaysack.

None of it, however, is what Wachs set out to do in her life. But she knows it's exactly where life led her.

"This is everything I've done in my whole life," she tells InnovationMap. "It sort of combines my writing and my education background and my artistic background and some voiceover background and my activism. It's everything."

A part of that everything is her brother Harris Wittels, a creative force in his own right, known for his works on Parks and Rec, who died of a drug overdose (Wachs used her reaction to that to write Everything is Horrible and Wonderful, which not only chronicles Harris' addiction, but also how she processed her grief). He was a podcaster as well, and Wachs says this venture helps continue that legacy.

"But it's also about activism," she says. "About opioids and every other epidemic we're going through that feels so unsolvable. And that's how I roll."

Since her brother's death, Wachs has looked for ways not only to process the grief and anger she felt, but also found herself more and more drawn to finding ways to educate people and advocate for better understanding of addiction and ways to treat it. When her two young children were diagnosed with hearing disorders, she found herself advocating for having hearing aids covered by health care. So, while she may not have wanted to step into an activist role, once she found herself there, she threw herself into it with her characteristic energy and intelligence and not a little humor.

"Our goal is to make shows that help people get out of bed in the morning, that help people deal with the hardest shit in their lives," says Kramer in a press release announcing the podcast launch.

Kramer and Wachs met in 2017. Kramer had heard Wachs on another podcast, and as the two continued talking, they realized they were developing a shared mission. Lemonada takes its name from the idea of taking life's lemons and making them into lemonade – incorporating the bitter and the sweet.

To make the transition from writer and artist to media maven, Wachs drew on her already established strengths of community building and a desire to create high-quality content.

"We really wanted to bring a community flavor into the mix," she says. "And, as a women-run company, it was huge for us to have women's voices."

Houstonian Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer launched Lemonada this fall. Photo via lemonadamedia.com

The result is a podcast network that brings to bear what Wachs calls incredible talent. The starting lineup includes "Last Day," which launched Sept. 25. Wachs confronts massive epidemics with humanity, wit, and a quest for progress. Starting with the opioid crisis, the show zooms in on a person's last day of life, exploring how they got there and how we, as a society, have gotten here.

Debuting on October 24, "As Me with Sinéad" explores the concept of empathy and how listening brings us closer. Academic, TED alum, and advocate Sinéad Burke leads candid conversations with diverse, notable guests who explain what it's like to be them. They challenge us to confront our biases, deepen our humanity, and feel empowered to impact and change the world around us.

And later in the year, with a debut date of November 26, comes "Good Kids: How Not to Raise an A**hole." For 15 minutes each week, a diverse set of parents, teachers, policy makers, and world shapers grab the mic and offer relevant advice, rants, and reflections. "Think of this as a quasi-manual for how to raise better humans," read the show's description in the press release.

"It feels almost non-profit in flavor," Wachs says of the endeavor. "I mean, we are a for-profit company, but it's mission driven, and that was important to both of us."

That mission, it seems, has also taken over the Wachs household. Over the summer, Wach's husband, Mike Wachs quit his job to work full-time with Lemonada, and Kramer's husband works in Lemonada's leadership, as well. That sense of family is galvanizing to Wachs, who loves that the new venture gives her time and space to watch her children grow. She's also crazy about how technology – everything from audio editing programs to conference calling to texting and FaceTime – has made Lemonada possible. Kramer took a safari as she and Wachs were planning the launch.

"I love that!" says Wachs. "We put everything on Slack and even though she was halfway around the world, it was like she was in my house."

The partnership with Westwood One gave Wachs her own tiny studio at 104 KRBE.

"It's really, truly miraculous," she says of the way the business was built. "And I know we all bring all these great gifts to the table. Mine is that I am able to talk all day," she quips."

Both she and Kramer are baking on the idea that there are a lot of people out there who feel like they do, that it's easier to survive life's challenges when you know you're not alone, who are ready to tune in and listen.

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Overheard: Fintech company with Houston ties sees opportunity for growth in new work-from-home age

Eavesdropping in Houston

From esports to telemedicine, some technologies are having a major moment during the COVID-19 crisis. As many businesses are operating remotely with work-from-home policies in place indefinitely, payments automation is another technology that's seen an opportunity amid the pandemic.

AvidXchange, which has invoice and payment processes automation software for mid-market businesses, is one of the companies in this payment automation space that's seen growth in spite of the economic downturn caused by the virus. The Charlotte, North Carolina-based company was founded in 2000 and went on to acquire Houston-founded Strongroom Solutions Inc. in 2015.

Since the acquisition, AvidXchange has quadrupled its presence in Houston and does a good deal of business locally. Equipping companies with tools for remote work is crucial — now and especially in light of Houston's propensity for challenges. Tyler Gill, vice president of sales for AvidXchange based in the Houston office and former CEO of Strongroom, joined Houston Exponential on a virtual panel to discuss this topic.

"We've had a history of disasters in Houston. Any time we can help businesses move to a more cloud-based infrastructure is going to be better," Gill says on the livestream. "I think working from home is maybe the new normal for a lot of employees — so how do we enable this?"

Gill and his colleague, Chris Elmore, senior sales performance director at AvidXchange, joined Joey Sanchez of HX for the talk about the acquisition, the pandemic, and growth for the company. If you missed it or don't have time to stream the whole conversation, here are some impactful moments of the chat.

“Economic downturns have a tendency to put a very bright light on a feature set or a product or a service that’s underperforming."

— Elmore says on how the pandemic affects innovation and startups. "My hope is that entrepreneurs will see this as a real time to get focused on their business — what's working well and what's not working well — and my hope is that they'll say, 'I need to fix that,' not 'I wish this was better,'" he says.

“For a young entrepreneur looking to build a business, make sure you’re looking for the people who are germane to your business.”

— Gill says about starting his business in Houston. At first, he was trying to find investors in oil and gas, but he found more success working with companies with a background in finance technology. "Houston has a history and density in fintech — I just had to find it."

“The fact that Strongroom owned the automated payment process in HOA that made them so attractive to AvidXchange because we didn’t.”

— Elmore says on the 2015 acquisition. He explains that AvidXchange had set up a presence in multifamily and commercial real estate, while Strongroom had a hold on homeowner's association, or HOA, business. The two companies competed for a while, and if Strongroom hadn't had their HOA specialty that made the company ideal for acquisition, Elmore says the two companies would still be competing today.

“When Strongroom was added to AvidXchange, our culture improved. By the way, we went from 40 employees to 1,000 within 14 months, and Strongroom was right at the beginning of that.”

— Elmore says on growth following the acquisition. The company now has 1,500 employees across seven offices and just closed a $128 million round of fundraising in April.

“Customers don’t care how big you get or how much money you raise from investors. They care about if your service is still doing the things they need to operate their business.”

— Gill says, reminding entrepreneurs to always prioritize and be focused on the client experience — through mergers or acquisitions, fundraising rounds, growth, etc.

“When you replace human interaction with technology, what you have to do, is to now move that person on to something more impactful and more important for the business. I don’t like tech for tech’s sake.”

— Elmore says on the importance of automation. "When you automate something, the output of automation is time," he adds.

“Houston couldn’t be a better place to build a business — I found great investors and employees here. It’s a city that’s used to risk. But it’s got to be you, the entrepreneur, that’s got something festering — that’s how you know it’s a great idea.”

— Gill says on inspiring future innovators. "What kept me motivated was I wanted to win. I felt like we had a great product, and we had a big market to serve. … I wanted to build something lasting and build a great team."

“We continue to be a great Houston story — some of my angel investors in Houston are still benefiting."

— Gill says on AvidXchange's presence in Houston. He adds that he's proud of how his former Strongroom team members have risen through the ranks of the company following the acquisition and that he sees the company, which is still privately held, moving toward IPO.

Houston startup teams up with Austin company on medical device amid COVID-19 crisis

texans teaming up

Two Texas companies with NASA roots are joining forces on a technology that can be used to monitor vital signs of seniors or others that are at-risk of contracting COVID-19.

Houston-based Galen Data Inc., which has developed a cloud platform for medical devices, and Austin-based Advanced TeleSensors Inc., the creator of the Cardi/o touchless monitor. Together, the two health tech companies are collaborating to take ATS's device and adding Galen Data's cloud technology.

"We wish we had found Galen Data sooner. We had been building our own cloud for six months, thinking a custom solution would best meet our needs," says Sajol Ghoshal, CEO and president of ATS, in a news release. "Getting up-and-running with them was very easy, and it allowed us to focus on our core competency — which is data-signal processing."

ATS's technology uses radio frequency in its remote, touchless monitoring. The company's founders developed the core technology at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. Initially, the technology was intended for assisted living facilities. Now, amid the COVID-19 crisis, monitoring isolated seniors or at-risk patients is even more relevant.

Galen Data, which launched in 2016, also has NASA roots as the founders met as software contractors working on NASA's safety systems. The company has developed and marketed its cloud-based platform for connecting medical devices to the internet, including pacemakers and glucose monitors.

Chris DuPont, co-founder and CEO, has led the company to meet compliance standards set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA), cybersecurity organizations, and others.

"We knew that our platform would be a great fit for Cardi/o," Chris DuPont, CEO of Galen Data, says. "Speed was critical, accentuated by the COVID-19 crisis. We were well positioned to address ATS' needs, and help those at-risk in the process."

Sajol Ghoshal (left), CEO and president of ATS, and Chris Dupont, (CEO of Galen Data), are bringing together their technologies. Photos courtesy

These are the risks and rewards of prototyping, according to Houston expert

Guest column

We live in a digital world. Music, movies, and even family photos have become primarily digital. Computer software offers us a range of comfort and efficiency and has become part of our daily routine. So, why would anyone want to build a career around physical product development?

Simple, almost every software product or next big thing relies on a well-executed physical product development project. Apps need a place to run, games need a console to be played, and pictures need a camera to be taken.

Physical product development means dreaming of something that does not yet exist and solves an existing problem. It means taking an intangible idea and making it into a physical item that people can see, touch, and use.

The journey from ideation to creation, and then manufacturing can be difficult, but rewarding. By understanding the process, you'll find that not only is your inspiration worth pursuing, but it may be one of the most fulfilling things you will ever do.

From inspiration to perspiration

Every product development project begins with a vision, the identification of a problem and a solution for that problem. That initial spark of inspiration is what drives the entire project.

Look for a problem that hasn't been solved and solve that problem, or try the reverse. Think of a product idea, and then work backwards to find the need. Regardless, one cannot be successful without the other.

Projects require this problem, or need, because it embodies the product's target market. A product idea without a well-defined need has no reason to exist, and if it did, it would be downright perplexing.

Once you identify your need and idea, start your research.

Test the validity of your idea. How much of a market exists for your problem-solving miracle? Send out surveys, look at various markets, conduct data analyses, and generally, do everything in your power to ensure that your product should be made.

Then, start making something.

From concept to reality

The design, prototype and manufacturing stages are what bring your inspiration closer to reality. Turning it into a concrete product means letting go, and that can be scary.

Initial concept designs can be done in a variety of different ways. Detailed sketches and blueprints could be drawn up, or CAD drawings can be created. This concept design can help you explain your idea to others, including partners and investors. What works even better, though, are prototypes.

A prototype is a preliminary model of your product that can help you determine the feasibility of different aspects of your design. You can make a functional prototype, which acts as a proof-of-concept for your idea, or you may create aesthetic prototypes that will test the look and feel of your product.

Once you nail down the ideal appearance and physicality of your product, you will need to combine the two disciplines as seamlessly as possible. This performance prototype will effectively demo your final product.

Finally, you can prepare your product for production. Designing for manufacturability (DFM) means ensuring that your product can be made efficiently and cost-effectively. DFM allows you to mistake-proof your product by choosing the best manufacturing materials and methods, while keeping in mind the appropriate regulations for your desired market.

From nothing into something

The product development process often changes. Trends like crowdsourcing and innovative fast-to-market solutions constantly upend the process and make it new again. Some automakers, for example, want to innovate the design process using existing customer data — similar to how companies like Microsoft and Apple create iterative versions of their software product development projects.

Getting your product to market can be tough, but certain approaches can ease the burden. Create a simpler product. Fail fast and fail cheap with lean development, meaning limit your risk to maximize your return. Also, never underestimate the importance of customer feedback and intellectual property protection throughout the process.

With that said, invest in yourself and your inspiration, and you will avoid that nagging what if-mentality that drives regret. Great reward always requires risk, but there are also ways to invest smarter. Use available resources and give your dream the best chance for success.

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Onega Ulanova is the founder of OKGlobal.