A Texas startup joins another Houston accelerator — and more Houston innovation news. Photo via Getty Images

Houston's summer has been heating up in terms of innovation news, and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, a Houston accelerator program taps an Austin energy tech startup, a health tech company names a new C-level exec, and more.

Houston-founded startup raises $26M, names new CEO

Spruce has fresh funding and a new CEO. Photo via GetSpruce.com

Houston-founded multifamily service provider Spruce has raised a $26 million series B round of funding. Additionally, the company has named seasoned technology executive and board member Steven Pho as CEO. His previous experience includes Favor Delivery and RetailMeNot. Former CEO and founder, Ben Johnson, will transition to president.

“For the past two years, I’ve been able to guide Spruce as a board member and am honored to continue to do that as CEO,” says Pho in a news release. “Ben’s vision for Spruce ensured the company’s incredible growth to date, as well as the outsized positive impact on local economies and small businesses Spruce partners with across the country. I am excited to continue to partner with him as he transitions to President of the company. ”

The series B round was led by Sweat Equity Partners, with participation from SoftBank Corp., Mercury Fund, Fitz Gate Ventures, Seamless Capital, Raven One Ventures, and New Age Ventures. The funding will be used to grow the company's team to support expansion. Spruce reportedly plans to nearly double its headcount.

“We believe Spruce has established the right formula for working with local businesses, consumers, and rental properties alike,” says Manish Narula of SoftBank Corp. “We are looking forward to Spruce’s continued growth as it scales with this latest investment round.”

Spruce has raised $40 million to date, including its $8 million series A, which was led by Houston-based Mercury Fund in 2020. The company, which was founded as Apartment Butler, rebranded and relocated its HQ to Austin a couple years ago.

Texas tech startup joins Chevron Technology Ventures Catalyst Program

Houston startup aims to prepare the energy industry's future workforce From Rex Tillerson's thoughts on leadership and politics to Houston's role in the low-carbon energy movement, check out these powerful quotes from the 2020 KPMG Global Energy Conference. Getty Images

An innovative Austin company has doubled down on its acceleration and incubation activity in Houston.

Parasanti Inc. was selected to participate in the Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures Catalyst Program. The company is a member of Greentown Houston and participated in Halliburton Labs. The company's edge computing technology provides secure solutions for remote work — such as off-the-grid oilfield operations.

Through CTV's Catalyst Program, which was founded in 2017 to help mature early-stage technology destined to impact the energy industry, Parasanti be tasked with further developing its software and expand into new projects.

“Parasanti is honored to receive support from a global energy technology leader like Chevron through this program,” says Carrie Horazeck, president of Parasanti’s commercial division, in a news release. “The CTV team has been incredibly helpful as we adapt our technology for the advanced energy solutions market. This program further demonstrates Chevron’s commitment to enabling the energy transition through technological advancement.”

Houston founders can apply for $100,000

Calling all diverse founders in Houston. Photo via Getty Images

Houston founders have until July 25 to apply for Founders First CDC's Job Creators Quest Grant, which will dole out $100,000 to support minority and underrepresented business owners throughout the state of Texas. The nonprofit is looking for Texas companies that:

  • are diverse-led (Black, indigenous, a person of color, LGBTQIA+, military veteran, a woman or located in a low to moderate income area)
  • employ two to 20 people
  • are located in the north, central east, or south Texas regions
  • have annual revenues between $100,000 to $3 million

The grant program was established to help business owners create premium wage jobs and reward diverse-led businesses throughout the state of Texas. Since its launch in early 2021, Founders First CDC has awarded more than $400,000 to minority and underserved business owners throughout the United States.

“With the rising cost of living, it can be challenging for families let alone business owners to stay afloat, particularly when it costs them more to provide goods and services for their consumers,” says Shaylon Scott, executive director of Founders First, in a news release. “We are happy to be able to invest money and resources in hard working business owners throughout Texas to help them thrive, even during uncertain economic times. Investing in diverse entrepreneurs is not only an impactful way to create jobs but is a pivotal way to close the general wealth gap in underserved communities.”

Qualified business owners, particularly those in the Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio markets can learn more and apply online.

Houston tech startup snags military award

This online learning platform just partnered up with a government entity. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based UpBrainery Technologies, an online learning platform, received an award from the Department of Defense Education Activity as the premiere provider of Career Technology Education for 52 military middle Schools across the world. CTE provides middle school students with critical academic and technical skills, knowledge, and training.

"UpBrainery's skills-based training is delivered through the proprietary artificial intelligence-based technology, BrainLab," the company reports in a news release. "The blend of cutting-edge technology and skills training content provides an engaging experience for students delivered through TikTok-style videos, gamified learning, and augmented reality."

The agreement builds upon DODEA's vision of educating, engaging, and empowering military-connected student in order to ensure that "all school-aged children of military families are provided a world-class education that prepares them for post-secondary education and/or career success," the release continues.

Specific details on the partnership were not released.

Houston oncology company names new C-suite leader

Aravive Inc. has a new chief medical officer. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston-based late clinical-stage oncology company has a new C-level exec.

Aravive Inc. (Nasdaq: ARAV), which is developing targeted therapeutics to treat metastatic disease, announced its new chief medical officer, Dr. Robert B. Geller. A medical oncologist with over 30 years of drug development experience, Geller will lead all aspects of clinical and medical affairs, including commercialization preparedness and launch of novel therapeutics, according to a news release.

“I feel very fortunate and proud that I am able to join Aravive at this critical juncture, as the company nears key value inflection points,” says Geller in the release. “As a medical oncologist, I have devoted my career to caring for patients, and developing and commercializing new therapies for cancer patients. Based upon the clinical data to date on batiraxcept, I am convinced that batiraxcept has the potential to meet the high unmet medical needs of patients with advanced cancers, and potentially become a best-in-class medicine across a range of tumors, including ovarian, renal and pancreatic cancer, which require new treatment approaches.”

Geller was most recently senior vice president of medical affairs at California-based Coherus Biosciences. He's authored over 200 publications and abstracts and has served as reviewer for numerous medical journals.

Spruce, founded by Ben Johnson in Houston, has announced a $8 million series A round and a plan to continue expansion. Photo courtesy of Spruce

Houston venture group leads Austin-based tech company's $8M series A round

spruced

A Houston-founded startup that designed an app-based service for apartment dwellers has closed an $8 million series A led by Houston-based Mercury Fund.

Spruce, which was founded in Houston in 2016 as Apartment Butler before rebranding and relocating to Austin, announced the close of its latest round this week. The startup partners with multifamily companies to provide concierge-like services, such as cleaning, dog walking, and even COVID-19 sanitation.

"Spruce is changing how people live in their homes," says Ben Johnson, founder and CEO, in a news release. "Today's apartment community is a vibrant micro-economy for services and goods, and Spruce efficiently channels these interactions into a single marketplace. This Series A will expand our offerings to more residents and properties as well as continue our national roll-out."

Mercury Fund also invested in the company's seed round last year, and since that funding, Spruce has expanded out of state and into nine new markets. According to the release, the company, which still has an office in houston, has 40 employees and over 760 properties with 230,000 units on its platform.

"Spruce has perfected their market model and built a best-in-class team. Their resilience and growth during this unprecedented time have impressed us, and we are excited to continue on this journey with them," says Blair Garrou, managing director at Mercury Fund, in the release.

Houston-based Sweat Equity Partners, a new Spruce investor, also contributed to the round. Andrew White, president of the investment group, will also join the board of directors.

"Spruce is building a valuable platform focused on delivering outstanding home services under the unique requirements of the multi-family segment," says White in the release.

Steven Pho, an Austin-based entrepreneur and investor previously with Favor Delivery and RetailMeNot, will also join the board.

"Spruce has an amazing opportunity to quickly and cost effectively reach a mass market through their partnerships with national property managers," Pho says in the release. "This unique channel strategy differentiates Spruce from their competitors and enables them to rapidly achieve scale and density in new markets."

Spruce's platform is available across 760 multifamily properties. Photo via GetSpruce.com

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Houston named a market to watch within the life science sector

h-town on the rise

Houston is receiving more kudos for its robust life sciences sector.

Bayou City lands at No. 13 in JLL’s 2022 ranking of the country’s top 15 metro areas for life sciences. JLL says Houston “is poised for further growth” in life sciences.

Here’s how Houston fares in each of the ranking’s three categories:

  • No. 12 for supply of life sciences-oriented commercial real estate
  • No. 14 for access to life sciences talent
  • No. 15 for life sciences grant funding and venture capital

Earlier this year, Houston scored a 13th-place ranking on a list released by JLL competitor CBRE of the country’s top 25 life sciences markets. Meanwhile, commercial real estate platform CommercialCafe recently placed Houston at No. 10 among the top U.S. metros for life sciences.

JLL applauds Houston for strong growth in the amount of life sciences talent along with “an impressive base of research institutions and medical centers.” But it faults Houston for limited VC interest in life sciences startups and a small inventory of lab space.

“Houston is getting a boost [in life sciences] from the growing Texas Medical Center and an influx of venture capital earmarked for life sciences research,” the Greater Houston Partnership recently noted.

Boston appears at No. 1 in this year’s JLL ranking, followed by the San Francisco Bay Area, San Diego, Washington, D.C./Baltimore, and Philadelphia.

Last year’s JLL list included only 10 life sciences markets; Houston wasn’t among them.

“The long-term potential of the sector remains materially unchanged since 2021,” Travis McCready, head of life sciences for JLL’s Americas markets, says in a news release.

“Innovation is happening at a more rapid pace than ever before, the fruits of research into cell and gene therapy are just now being harvested, and revenue growth has taken off in the past five years as the sector becomes larger, an atypical growth track.”

Texas startup developing lab-grown brisket earns national spotlight

futuristic food

Brisket, a barbecue staple in Texas, is as synonymous with the Lone Star State as the Alamo and oil wells. A Texas company recently recognized as the state’s most innovative startup wants to elevate this barbecue staple to a new high-tech level.

BioBQ is working on technology to bring its lab-created, cell-cultured brisket to the market in 2023. The Austin-based company made the Bloomberg news service’s new list of the 50 startups to watch in the U.S. — one startup for each state.

The co-founders of BioBQ are Austin native Katie Kam, a vegan with five college degrees (four from the University of Texas and one from Texas A&M University), and Janet Zoldan, a “hardcore carnivore” who’s a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. Kam is the CEO, and Zoldan is the chief science officer.

This kind of meat is genuine animal meat that’s produced by cultivating animal cells in a lab, according to the Good Food Institute.

“This production method eliminates the need to raise and farm animals for food. Cultivated meat is made of the same cell types arranged in the same or similar structure as animal tissues, thus replicating the sensory and nutritional profiles of conventional meat,” the institute says.

It turns that before becoming a vegan, Kam worked at the now-closed BB’s Smokehouse in Northwest Austin as a high school student. She’d chow down on sauce-slathered brisket and banana pudding during on-the-job breaks.

“But then over time, as I learned more about factory farming and could no longer make the distinction between my dogs and cats I loved and the animals that were on my plate, I decided to become vegan,” Kam writes on the BioBQ website.

Hearing about the 2013 rollout of the first cell-cultured hamburger set Kam off on her path toward starting BioBQ in 2018. Zoldan joined the startup as co-founder the following year.

Now, BioBQ aims to be the first company in the world to sell brisket and other barbecue meats, such as jerky, made from cultured cells rather than slaughtered animals.

According to BioBQ’s profile on the Crunchbase website, the startup relies on proprietary technology to efficiently produce meat products in weeks rather than the year or more it takes to raise and slaughter cattle. This process “allows control of meat content and taste, reduces environmental impacts of meat production, and takes BBQ to the next tasty, sustainable level consumers want,” the profile says.

In 2020, Texas Monthly writer Daniel Vaughn questioned BioBQ’s premise.

He wrote that “there is something about the idea of lab-grown brisket that keeps bothering me, and it has nothing to do with science fiction. If you could design any cut of beef from scratch, why choose one that’s so difficult to make delicious? Why not a whole steer’s worth of ribeyes?”

Kam offered a very entrepreneur-like response.

“I’m from Austin, and I know that brisket’s kind of a big deal here,” Kam told Vaughn. “It seemed like a great, challenging meat to demonstrate this technology working.”

Meanwhile, Zoldan came up with a more marketing-slanted reaction to Vaughn’s bewilderment.

“I don’t think cell-based meats will take over the market, but I think there’s a place for it on the market,” Zoldan she told Vaughn.

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This article originally ran on CultureMapCultureMap.

Why the banking biz is ripe for innovation, according to this Houston founder

guest column

After our doctor and our child’s school, a bank is an institution with which we share the relationship that is most personal and vital to our well-being in this world. Some might put a good vet third, but other than that, no private entity is more responsible for escorting us to a healthier and happier outcome over the course of our lives.

The bank vault is a traditional symbol of security and prosperity, and not just for our pennies. We safeguard possessions in banks that are so important we don’t even trust keeping them in our own houses. Wills, birth certificates, and the precious family heirlooms of countless families are held in safety deposit boxes behind those giant vault doors, and banks have been the traditional guardians not only of our wealth but our identity and future as well.

The importance of relationship banking

Faith and confidence in our banks is so fundamental to the customer relationship that it has evolved into a unique and otherwise unthinkable arrangement for any good capitalist in a healthy marketplace: banks pay us to be their customers. Imagine a doctor offering you $20 for trusting them to give you a colonoscopy and you’re on the road to understanding the sacrosanct union between bank and customer.

In fact, this trust is so deeply anchored in the American psyche that a new generation of digital banking companies has sprung up on the idea that it doesn’t need to exist in physical reality. The fintech industry has exploded in the last decade, and today, over 75 percent of Americans are engaged in online banking in one form or another. Every single one of those 200 million customers are taking for granted that they will be well served, despite having no personal guidance through any of the financial products and services that these online entities provide.

Benefits of fostering relationships with banking customers

In the late 90s and early 2000s brick-and-mortar banks realized that greater personalized care for their customers was going to be a critical point of competition. The in-person experience is an opportunity to offer advice and incentives for a wide range of products and financial management assistance. It’s rooted in an incredibly simple axiom that is taking hold in every aspect of modern society: everyone benefits if we all get along better.

There’s a lot of statistical traction behind this theory. Customers who report they are “financially healthy” are down 20 percent over the last year, which means people are looking for guidance. 73 percent of customers who visit a local bank branch report having a personal relationship with their bank, while only 53 percent say the same of their digital institution. Most importantly, although many digital banks are offering similar products and services to their real-world counterparts, customer engagement remains very low.

It starts with your products

The truth is, today’s bank customers still want that same personal relationship their great-grandparents had before they engage with deeper financial products and services. They believe it makes them more financially successful, and confirm that human connections and economic prosperity go hand-in-hand.

Products that are Challenging for Digital Markets

Residential mortgages, for example, are an $18 trillion dollar industry that deals in durations longer than most digital banking services have even existed. The perception of continuity and stability is highly valued by clients in the mortgage relationship. Today, most customers feel that only comes with a handshake and a smile from an employee who has to fit in a meeting before they pick their kids up from school.

While digital firms have proven themselves capable of offering savings and checking services, most have fallen flat on the mortgage front because of the premium on personal relationships. Loyalty is the reward for time, service, and shared experience, and financial institutions that cannot provide that package for their customers are never going to access a deeper and more meaningful portfolio of services.

Finding Well-suited Products for Digital Finance

The message for the digital finance world is as clear as it is pressing. The future of the industry will revolve around more personalized experiences, interactions, and long-term products. At the same time, the American public has embraced digital banking, and we are looking at a new generation of bank users who may never walk through a branch door in their life.

In order to compete, the digital industry will need to identify and develop a range of long-term products and services that make sense for customers in today’s environment. Mortgages may be out of the question, but the safety deposit box holds great promise for industry in-roads. Optimal services for deeper, more personal customer engagement include things like:

  • Legacy and estate planning
  • Will preparation and safeguarding
  • Preservation of cherished photos and videos
  • Important personal data storage


Because these things are product-based, they are well suited to the digital ecosystem. The cryptocurrency industry and modern online banking have solidified consumer confidence in the digital bank vault, and there is a great deal of faith in the perpetuity of electronic documents and storage.

The IRS estimates that upwards of 90 percent of Americans are E-filing their taxes and that only comes with a widespread belief that our highly sensitive information can and will be preserved and protected by digital architecture.

Secure your future

Digital banking firms that want to thrive in the upcoming decades are going to need to innovate in long-term financial planning products that bring their customers into a closer, more personal relationship with them.

The finance world will continue to change and develop, but the hopes, fears, and dreams of people trying to build and secure a better future for themselves and their children will remain the same for tomorrow’s customers as they were for their parents and grandparents.

It is up to the digital finance industry to adapt and develop to provide the customers of today—and tomorrow— with these invaluable services and securities.

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Emily Cisek is the founder and CEO of The Postage, a tech-enabled, easy-to-use estate planning tool.