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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City council approves $24M for East End hub, TMCx opens apps, and more Houston innovation news

Short stories

Houston is busting at the seams with innovation news as the ecosystem prepares to wrap up its year of growth. From grants and M&A activity to expansions and awards, there's a lot of news you may have missed.

In this latest news roundup, millions of federal funds are doled out, a female networking app commits to Houston, an accelerator launches applications, and more.

Makerspace in the East End to receive $24 million in federal funds

The East End Maker Hub

The East End Maker Hub plans to move tenants in next summer. Courtesy of TXRX

Last week, the Houston City Council voted in approval of $24 million in federal funds going toward a makerspace in the East End. The renovated 307,000-square-foot East End Maker Hub will be a place for education, training, and small-batch manufacturing.

The project is a collaboration between Urban Partnerships Community Development Corp., or UP CDC, and TXRX Lab, which will occupy around 60,000 square feet in the facility. The rest of the space will be leased out to startups.

The $37 million project is also being funded by a $5 million grant from the Economic Development Association, $7 million from New Market Tax Credits, and around $1.25 of TXRX's funds, including funds the nonprofit raised in donations.

The new facility is expected to create over 400 jobs, reach 14,000 young people annually, and support 100 small urban manufacturers, including 20 startups. The purchase close is planned for this month, and construction will begin next month. The first tenants are slated to move in next summer.

TMCx opens applications for redesigned accelerator program

The revamped TMCx program is accepting applications until December 13. Courtesy of TMC

Applications for the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute's new and improved accelerator program are open for the spring 2020 cohort. Life science startups from around the world can apply online.

After celebrating five years of digital health and medical device startup acceleration, TMCx announced its team had been working to rethink the program to make it more something TMC's member institutions can benefit from.

Themes for the upcoming cohort include remote monitoring, virtual care, hospital efficiency, accessibility, and ideating for the clinics and operating rooms of the future.

Applications close on December 13, and finalists for an in-person bootcamp will be announced by the end of January for the two-week program from February 24 to March 6. After the program, TMCx will select the cohort members on March 20. The program then will run five sessions from April to August before a showcase slated for September.

Chevron Technology Ventures makes two strategic investments

Chevron Technology Ventures, lead by CEO Barbara Burger, has committed to two California-based companies. Courtesy of CTV

Chevron's Houston-based tech investment arm, Chevron Technology Ventures, made two moves recently. Silicon Valley-based NovoNutrients was invited to join the CTV Catalyst Program and Palo Alto, California-based Orbital Insight closed a recent round with help from CTV.

NuroNutrients, which has developed a way to create proteins through carbon capture, is the first biotech company to join CTV's Catalyst Program. The program will help advance the company's technology through market validating opportunities like pilot programs.

Orbital Insight, a geospatial analytics software company, closed its series D funding round at $50 million. The round was led by Sequoia Capital and Clearvision Ventures with contribution from CTV, as well as from Invicta Growth, Bunge Ventures Ltd, Goldman Sachs, Tech Pioneers Fund, and others. The company has raised over $125 million of funding since its founding in 2013.

Houston SaaS company makes acquisition

Coworking Space

A Houston company specializing in digital workplace software solutions has made a strategic acquisition following an exit to private equity. Getty Images

Houston-based iOFFICE, a software-as-a-service company providing solutions in the digital workplace experience, recently acquired Canadian management software entity, Hippo CMMS.

"Incorporating Hippo's solution into iOFFICE's broader application suite is a logical next stage in our company's evolution," says Mark Peterson, CEO of iOFFICE, in a news release. "As one of the leading native SaaS, asset management systems on the market today, Hippo is an ideal fit to join our brand. Their culture is very much like our own - they're strong and they move fast. Their offerings are robust, agile and they share our passion for disrupting the market with solutions that are unlike any other."

iOFFICE was recently acquired by Chicago-based private equity, Waud Capital, which has opened doors for the company to grow at a rapid pace.

Two Houston companies rank on Deloitte's annual Technology Fast 500 list

Two Houston companies made Deloitte's international list of growing tech companies. Shobeir Ansari/Getty Images

Two Houston companies have secured spots on Deloitte's annual Technology Fast 500 annual Technology Fast 500. Onit came in at No. 249, and symplr just made the list at No. 495. In its 25th year, the list represents the fastest-growing tech, media, life science, energy tech, and telecommunications companies from around the world.

The top company on the list was New York-based UiPath, which also has a large office in Houston. The company reported 37,458 percent growth. The 500 companies represent 41 states and provinces in North America, and Silicon Valley companies made up 19 percent of the list. New York City companies held on to 12 percent of the list, the New England region comprised 8 percent of the list, Washington D.C. companies were 7 percent of the list, and Los Angeles companies represented 5 percent of the 500 companies.


HerHeadquarters app plans to launch in Houston ahead of relocation

herheadquarters

HerHeadquarters is rolling out its app locally ahead of relocating to Houston. Courtesy of HerHeadquarters

Female-founded, female-focused tech company, HerHeadquarters, has plans to relocate its business operations to Houston — but first, it's rolling out its app to local female executives. The app plans to go live for the over 103,000 female CEOs in Houston on November 25.

The app's user experience is focused on making digital connections between women-run organizations. The app is live in Los Angeles, Miami, and New York City and is expected to launch simultaneously in San Francisco.

"These collaborations give them the power to increase revenue, company exposure, and expand their territory. We're excited Houston women entrepreneurs get to experience a faster and easier way to secure powerful partnerships, " says founder and CEO of HerHeadquarters, Carina Glover, in a news release.

HighRadius expands to Amsterdam

The Houston-based SaaS company is opening its fourth office to support its growth in Europe. Photo via highradius.com

Houston-based HighRadius Corp., a growing fintech software-as-a-service company, has announced a new office in Amsterdam just three years after opening its London office. Since entering the European market, the region has seen a 400 percent increase in bookings. The company, which has its headquarters in West Houston, also has an office in India.

"Automating order-to-cash and treasury management is a problem that transcends borders," says Sashi Narahari, founder and CEO of HighRadius, in a news release. "Building on the recent addition of Jon Keating as our general manager for EMEA, we continue to invest aggressively in the European market with the opening of our Amsterdam office."

Fannin Innovation Studio granted $2 million for new study

microscope

Getty Images

Houston-based Fannin Innovation Studio has received a $2,000,000 Phase II Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Institute of Health. The grant is for the development of the ChorioAnchor device, which is designed to reduce preterm birth and infections in fetal surgery.

The device is being developed in partnership with Fannin, Texas Children's Hospital, Baylor College of Medicine, and Texas A&M University. The grant will be delivered over the next two years to devlop the device for pre-clinical and clinical testing.

"The ChorioAnchor has the potential to reduce these complications by providing mechanical support to the chorioamniotic membranes following fetal surgery, thus reducing the risk for chorioamniotic separation and PPROM," says Dr. Jimmy Espinoza of Texas Children's and BCM in a news release. "The additional support from the NICHD in the form of a Phase II SBIR grant will significantly help in refining the ChorioAnchor device with the objective of obtaining an investigational device exemption from the FDA to evaluate the efficacy and safety of the device in fetal surgeries."

Zibrio named honoree at CES Innovation Awards

The Zibrio SmartScale received national recognition at CES this year. Courtesy of Zibrio

Houston-based Zibrio, which developed a scale for measuring balance, has been named an honoree for CES Innovation Awards. The company has been invited to exhibit in the 2020 showcase.

Zibrio, founded in 2015 by Katharine Forth and Erez Lieberman Aiden, has a technology that came out of the founders' research at NASA. The medical device allows users to keep track of their balancing abilities as its convenient for them, and is especially helpful for the aging population.

3 reasons venture capitalists say no, according to University of Houston research

Houston Voices

One of the most common questions that pops up in startup circles is, "Why did they turn me down?" There are myriad reasons why a venture capitalist might turn down pitches and decline funding. Here, I'll present the three most common.

They don't understand your business

Einstein once said, "If you cannot explain it to a six-year old, you don't understand it yourself."

If you spend an entire presentation showing well-researched facts and figures, talking about how groundbreaking your idea is, and presenting detailed charts and graphs, but your audience still has no idea what you do, you're in trouble.

Moreover, avoid overusing jargon and esoteric terms in your pitch. Speak simply.

If you cannot explain in simple terms what your startup does and why it's marketable, potential investors have no reason to believe you will know what you're doing with their money. To sum up, they'll think you don't understand your own business.

They don't think you've done the legwork

Some venture capitalists invest in early stage startups, so it's totally normal for them to sit through pitches where a product has not even been built yet. Consequently, the problem comes when it becomes evident the startup founder has failed to do any legwork. As a result, investors are likely to feel insecure about giving their money to someone who couldn't even do simple research.

Sure, the product hasn't been built, but that is not an excuse to sit back on cruise control. In other words, don't take your foot off the gas. Move forward constantly and don't stop learning more about your industry.

What have you done for customer development? Customer discovery? How many potential customers have you talked to? How much would they pay for your product or service? Have you studied the competitive dynamics of the market for which you will enter? Who is your competition and what are their strengths and weaknesses? You get the picture.

Certainly, one big misstep among startup founders is that they tend to believe work should not be done until they attain funding. Wrong. During your struggle to attain money, you should be busy learning everything about your industry, market, and customers. That way, once you finally get that meeting with an investor, they will feel much more confident that you will use their money intelligently.

They don't see that you have a strategy

It's an unfortunate commonality that a startup founder will put together a great pitch, get deep into it in front of a venture capitalist, and then unravel the entire presentation by exposing themselves as not having a plan of attack for the market. To clarify, it is a huge waste of your time to undo all your hard work by showing you don't have a strategy. Remember, investors are looking for reasons to pass on you.

When asked about their strategy for reaching the market, a common refrain is, "we will provide this awesome service (or make this awesome product) and the customers will roll right in." Or even "we will partner with this corporate giant who will sell our product because it's that amazing."

Above all, you must show your potential investor that you have the wherewithal to create, polish, and scale a reliable process that reaches your customer base.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Houston startup adds 2 big names to its board of directors

All aboard

A Houston startup specializing in digital community engagement has added two big names in Houston innovation to its board of directors.

Sandy Wallis and Gina Luna will both be key in moving forward Truss as new board members. Sandy Wallis is the co-founder and managing director of Weathergage Capital and the managing director of the HX Venture Fund, and Gina Luna is CEO of Luna Strategies and active member of several boards of directors.

"Our new board members are leaders in the Houston technology and innovation community, and their joining the Truss team is a testament to our compelling mission and broader market potential," says Patrick Schneidau, CEO of Truss, in a news release. Schneidau is a member if InnovationMap's board of directors.

Schneidau was tapped for his position as CEO in March and was tasked by former CEO Chris Buckner to grow the company. Schneidau is excited about the two additions to Truss's leadership.

"Gina has extensive experience across corporate, nonprofit and startup companies, as well as financial operations," Schneidau says in the release. "Sandy brings invaluable insights into capital raises; her experience in venture funding is unmatched in our city. Both new board members bring the expertise necessary to catapult our growth and expand our customer base."

In September, Truss announced its rebrand and name change from FanReact. The transition opens doors for the company to reach new clients that aren't in the sports industry — but that maybe want to take a page out of the fan experience's book.

Luna, who is the founding chairman of the board for Houston Exponential, has decades of pertinent experience and is very involved in the innovation ecosystem.

"Truss is leading in digital community experiences for athletics and is in a high-growth phase as they expand into other sectors," says Luna in the release. "I'm excited to join the board to help propel the mission and future direction of the company. The sky's the limit as groups of any kind can create the communication, collaboration and connections they desire with Truss."

Wallis has also been very invloved in the ecosystem and was named managing director of HX Venture Fund this summer. Weathergage Capital, a venture capital fund of funds with approximately $1 billion in venture partnership commitments, has been under her leadership for over 13 years.

"Truss is for organizations and their audiences who want better user experiences and levels of engagement in their digital communities," says Wallis in the release. "The market is ready for Truss's privacy-focused platform to serve these organizations. I appreciate the focus on diversity at the company and its passion for hiring the best talent across the board — goals from the company's leaders I look forward to seeing continue long term."