For the second year, Curtis Jackson's program supported Houston student entrepreneurs. Photo courtesy of G-Unity

The 50 Cent-backed high school entrepreneurship program wrapped up its second year of operation after helping over 100 Houston-area students build their small business plans.

G-Unity Business Labs, sponsored by Curtis James Jackson III — better known as 50 Cent — and Horizon International Group, allowed participants to build their own small businesses from the ground up. This year's cohort featured a variety of businesses, from a Caribbean hot dog food truck to a financial literacy course on personal finance.

In its second year, the program encouraged innovation and taught business acumen to entrepreneurial-minded high school students, culminating in an opportunity to create their dream companies. During this 28 week entrepreneurial internship program, around 150 students from Madison, Worthing, Yates, Kashmere, Booker T. Washington, and Wheatley high schools learned how to transform an idea they were passionate about into a full fledged product they can pitch to investors.

The after-school program consists of three stages – the first 20 weeks are about getting familiar with business concepts and building connections with peers and teacher volunteers. The next eight weeks are spent in the incubation phase as students are split up into teams and local entrepreneurs lead lessons, helping them workshop their ideas into a fleshed out corporation, before finally the teams compete in Hustle Tank, where students pitch their ideas to a panel of celebrity and entrepreneurial judges. At the event in May, the panel included 50 Cent and Mattress Mack. The five winning teams are now eligible to split $500,000 in seed money for their companies.

Summer Reeves, VP of design of Umbridge, is in charge of managing the incubation phase and said she has noticed a significant shift in the ideas the student groups have come up with between the two cohorts of the program; the first year saw flashier tech pitches. But during the second year of the program, Reeves said the students sought to address issues they see in their day-to-day lives, including a group who worked to develop support services to aid formerly incarcerated individuals after they are released.

“This year, a lot of students were more on the practical side,” Reeves tells InnovationMap. “We actually had three teams that were focused on mental health apps which I think is a great example of what youth today are really focused on.”

Reeves started off as a mentor to four teams during the incubation phase of the program last year providing students with guidance on how to set up their business plans, create prototypes, and pitch their companies to investors. After three of her teams won the Hustle Tank competition previously, she took over planning the incubation phase and recruiting other local entrepreneurs to act as mentors.

“We give them recommendations on how to pitch and how to frame their pitch but they also have the ability to get creative so we had some students who did short skits — some that did raps and spoken word type things — lots of creativity,” Reeves says.

Patrice Allen, senior manager of G-Unity Business Labs, said they use the students’ individual strengths and creative thought processes to place them into their teams, including asking them in interviews at the beginning of the year to try to sell her a pen to understand their pitching process.

“That’s the question the students always remember,” Allen says. “‘Sell us this pen or pick something out and sell it to us.’ It’s the weirdest thing and they love it.”

In building the teams at each school, Allen worked with educators to make sure every team had students with a variety of communication and planning skills as well as financial awareness. But Allen felt students were most successful when they incorporated their personal interests into their product design. The first place team of Hustle Tank, Caribbean Hot Dog Boyz, was especially emblematic of this mindset as they combined one member's background of selling hotdogs with another’s Caribbean heritage to create a food truck that sells the unexpected combo of oxtail hotdogs.

The first place team of Hustle Tank 2023 was Caribbean Hot Dog Boyz. Photo via @gunitybusinesslab/Instagram

“To actually taste the food that they prepared was phenomenal,” Allen says “I have never ever thought that oxtails on a hotdog would be good but everybody was floored.”

Elizabeth Martin, director of communications and marketing for Horizon who runs the behind the scenes of funding, said students from the winning teams are now working on solidifying their business plans to qualify for the funds from the G-Unity foundation to develop their companies. Martin also said 50 Cent will retain a relationship with these teams, acting with varying levels of involvement depending on his deal with the students as anything from a silent partner to an investor.

“They do not walk home with $500,000 in their back pocket,” Martin explains. “We are investing in (them) — not giving — it’s an investment.”

The future of this program is uncertain as the Texas Education Association’s takeover of HISD is still in its transition phase but Martin advised to keep a lookout for an ABC Nightline interview of 50 Cent discussing G-Unity Business Labs, which is expected to release soon.

"I’ve spent years donating my time and energy to communities in need. I started G-Unity to do the same—to give back to kids so they have it a little easier than I did," Jackson writes on the website. "Team building and entrepreneurship are skills I learned along the way, but they are so important to develop early. I look forward to G-Unity supporting programs that are doing the crucial work of teaching kids to excel at life.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Allie Danziger of Ampersand Professionals, Jane Stricker of the Greater Houston Partnership, and Summer Reeves of Accenture's Houston Fjord Studio. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from energy to design innovation — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Allie Danziger, co-founder and CEO of Ampersand Professionals

The ongoing trend of businesses struggling to onboard new employees is likely going to continue through the new year. Allie Danziger shares what you need to know. Photo courtesy of Ampersand

The Great Resignation is among us, and companies need to respond accordingly, Allie Danziger, CEO and co-founder of Ampersand Professionals, writes in her guest column for InnovationMap.

"It has been particularly difficult to hire and retain Gen Z employees, the newest generation in the workforce, as we navigate the expectations of these employees, as compared to past generations," she writes. "Fortunately, businesses can bounce back from 'The Great Resignation' or protect themselves before they experience a similar mass exodus by taking the time to understand employees' preferences and motivations, and make a few small changes accordingly."

Danziger shares four tips with hiring and retaining talent in this challenging time. Click here to read more.

Jane Stricker, executive director of the Houston Energy Transition Initiative at the GHP

The former BP executive will lead Houston's role in the energy transition as the executive director of the Houston Energy Transition Initiative, a brand new position at the Greater Houston Partnership. Photo courtesy of GHP

Jane Stricker, a longtime Houston-based executive at oil and gas giant BP, has been tapped to be the executive director of the Houston Energy Transition Initiative and senior vice president of energy transition.

The Greater Houston Partnership unveiled HETI in June. As the partnership explained then, HETI "aims to drive sustainable and equitable economic growth in the Greater Houston region through a portfolio of technology, policy, and market initiatives that scale and export solutions for realizing a low-carbon energy world."

"This is an exciting time for Houston and our energy ecosystem as we focus our efforts on leading the global energy transition," Stricker says. "The challenge of our lifetime is addressing this dual challenge of meeting increased global energy demand while confronting global climate change. Houston is known for solving problems that matter. I believe through innovation, collaboration, and focus, our region can lead the way and deliver solutions that change the world." Click here to read more.

Summer Reeves, director of Accenture's Houston Fjord studio

Summer Reeves says Houston is changing for the better when it comes to attracting design talent. Photo courtesy of Accenture

The winds have changed in Houston when it comes to attracting design talent, Summer Reeves — the director of Accenture's Houston Fjord studio — says on last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Reeves is currently responsible for growing the team of Accenture's new Houston Fjord studio. She say she's excited for the way the design industry in Houston has developed. It's been second chair to Austin on the Texas landscape, but that's changing.

"There's a reason why Accenture is building a Fjord studio here in Houston — and now, versus in the past," Reeves says.

She describes Austin employers overly competitive for designers — making it hard to attract and retain design talent. This has caused a wave of designers coming to Houston. She's also seeing Houston employers — mostly in the energy industry — shift their thinking in hiring these types of positions. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Summer Reeves, the director of Accenture's Houston Fjord studio, says Houston is changing for the better when it comes to attracting design talent. Photo courtesy of Accenture

This expert shares why Houston has a bright future as a design-led innovation city

Houston innovators podcast episode 110

When you think of design in terms of the role it plays in innovation and technology, you might picture a graphic designer or maybe one step in a product's path to market. But for Summer Reeves, design is an integral part of the entire innovation process.

"When people think about design, they think about visual design — UX/UI digital products," Reeves says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "But what we do from a service design or, what I like to say, a holistic design approach is very different."

Reeves is the director of the Houston Fjord studio — which operates under Accenture Interactive. She's currently standing up the new studio in Houston, which has iterations across the world from Austin and New York to Barcelona and Singapore. The new studio in Houston will help Accenture clients think through the design of their solutions, rather than jump the gun on deploying a technology.

"We want to be a design-led company," Reeves says. "Fjord is what I call the tip of the spear of what we do."

Fjord's design team focus on understanding the root cause of the problem, who's impacted, and what the scale of the solution should be. On the podcast, she gives the example of a coffee shop that wants a mobile app to engage with customers. Reeves says rather than just creating the app, Fjord would look at what the customer wants via surveys and observations.

"It's human nature to jump to solutioning," she says, "but we need to do research to make sure that's the right call."

Reeves is currently responsible for growing the team of the studio — something not too unfamiliar to her. She was instrumental in setting up Accenture's Houston Innovation Center. She say she's excited for the way the design industry in Houston has developed. It's been second chair to Austin on the Texas landscape, but that's changing.

"There's a reason why Accenture is building a Fjord studio here in Houston — and now, versus in the past," Reeves says.

She describes Austin employers overly competitive for designers — making it hard to attract and retain design talent. This has caused a wave of designers coming to Houston. She's also seeing Houston employers — mostly in the energy industry — shift their thinking in hiring these types of positions.

Reeves shares more on the intersection between design and innovation — as well as how COVID-19 affected consulting — on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Houston cardiac health startup raises $43 million series B to grow AI-backed platform

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A Houston-based tech company that has a product line of software solutions for cardiac health has raised funding.

Octagos Health, the parent company of Atlas AI — a software platform for cardiac devices like pacemakers, defibrillators, ambulatory monitors and consumer wearables — has announced a $43 million series B raise that will bring their technology to many more hearts.

Morgan Stanley Investment Capital led the investment, which also included funds from Mucker Capital and other continuing strategic investors. The goal of the raise is to supply funds to accelerate Atlas AI’s growth across the United States and to expand into other areas of care, including ambulatory monitors, consumer wearables, and sleep.

"This investment will enable us to accelerate enhancements to our platform, in addition to scaling our commercial team and operations. We are currently the only company that helps cardiology practices migrate their historical data from legacy software providers and fully integrates with any EHR (exertion heart rate) system. We do this while enabling customized reporting supported by patient and practice decision-support analytics," says Eric Olsen, COO of Octagos Health, in a press release.

Octagos Health was founded by a team of healthcare pros including CEO Shanti Bansal, a cardiologist and founder of Houston Heart Rhythm, an atrial fibrillation center. The goal was to find a new way to deal with the massive amount of data that clinicians encounter each day in a way that combines software and the work of human doctors.

According to the Octagos Health website, “Our solution allows clinicians to focus on other ways of delivering meaningful healthcare and more efficiently manage their remotely monitored patients.”

It works thanks to customizable reporting features that allow patients’ healthcare teams to get help while monitoring them, but to do it precisely as they would if they were crunching numbers themselves.

"We are excited to partner with Octagos Health and support their vision of transforming cardiac care," says Melissa Daniels, managing director of Morgan Stanley Expansion Capital. "Octagos Health has demonstrated exceptional growth and innovation in a critical area of healthcare. We believe their platform and vertically integrated software and services significantly improve patient care and streamline cardiac monitoring processes for healthcare providers."

Will Hsu, co-founder and partner of Mucker Capital, agrees. “Octagos Health is poised for scale – industry leading gross margins, a very sticky product that doctors and clinical staff love, and a market ready for disruption with artificial intelligence. This is the new wave for diagnostic care,” he says. And with this raise, it will be available to even more clinicians and patients across the country.

Houston biotech company expands leadership as it commercializes sustainable products

joining the team

Houston-based biotech company Cemvita recently tapped two executives to help commercialize its sustainable fuel made from carbon waste.

Nádia Skorupa Parachin came aboard as vice president of industrial biotechnology, and Phil Garcia was promoted to vice president of commercialization.

Parachin most recently oversaw several projects at Boston-based biotech company Ginkjo Bioworks. She previously co-founded Brazilian biotech startup Integra Bioprocessos.

Parachin will lead the Cemvita team that’s developing technology for production of bio-manufactured oil.

“It’s a fantastic moment, as we’re poised to take our prototyping to the next level, and all under the innovative direction of our co-founder Tara Karimi,” Parachin says in a news release. “We will be bringing something truly remarkable to market and ensuring it’s cost-effective.”

Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita, says the hiring of Parachin represents “the natural next step” toward commercializing the startup’s carbon-to-oil process.

“Her background prepared her to bring the best out of the scientists at the inflection point of commercialization — really bringing things to life,” says Moji Karimi, Tara’s brother.

Parachin joins Garcia on Cemvita’s executive team.

Before being promoted to vice president of commercialization, Garcia was the startup’s commercial director and business development manager. He has a background in engineering and business development.

Founded in 2017, Cemvita recently announced a breakthrough that enables production of large quantities of oil derived from carbon waste.

In 2023, United Airlines agreed to buy up to one billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel from Cemvita’s first full-scale plant over the course of 20 years.

Cemvita’s investors include the UAV Sustainable Flight Fund, an investment arm of Chicago-based United; Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, an investment arm of Houston-based energy company Occidental Petroleum; and Japanese equipment and machinery manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a logistics startup founder, a marketing expert, and a solar energy innovator.

Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager Portal

Houston logistics SaaS innovator is making waves with its expanded maritime shipping platform. Photo courtesy of Voyager

For several years now, Matthew Costello has been navigating the maritime shipping industry looking for problems to solve for customers with his company, Voyager Portal.

Initially, that meant designing a software platform to enhance communications and organization of the many massive and intricate global shipments happening every day. Founded in 2018 by Costello and COO Bret Smart, Voyager Portal became a integral tool for the industry that helps users manage the full lifecycle of their voyages — from planning to delivery.

"The software landscape has changed tremendously in the maritime space. Back in 2018, we were one of a small handful of technology startups in this space," Costello, who serves as CEO of Voyager, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Now that's changed. ... There's really a huge wave of innovation happening in maritime right now." Read more.

Arielle Rogg, principal and founder of Rogg Enterprises

Arielle Rogg writes in a guest column for InnovationMap about AI in the workforce. Photo via LinkedIn

Arielle Rogg isn't worried about artificial intelligence coming for her job. In fact, she has three reasons why, and she outlines them in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"The advent of AI pushes us humans to acquire new skills and hone our existing abilities so we can work alongside these evolving technologies in a collaborative fashion. AI augments human capabilities rather than replacing us. I believe it will help our society embrace lifelong learning, creating new industries and jobs that have never existed before," she writes in the piece. Read more.

Nathan Childress, founder of Solar Slice

Solar Slice Founder Nathan Childress says his new venture offers a fulfilling way to encourage and promote solar energy and a greener planet. Photo via LinkedIn

Nuclear engineer and entrepreneur Nathan Childress wants consumers to capture their own ray of sunlight to brighten the prospect of making clean energy a bigger part of the power grid. That's why he founded Solar Slice. The new venture offers a fulfilling way to encourage and promote solar energy and a greener planet.

Although trained in nuclear power plant design, solar power drew his interest as a cheaper and more accessible alternative, and Childress tells InnovationMap that he thinks that the transition to cleaner energy, in Texas especially, needs to step up.

Recent studies show that 80 to 90 percent of the money invested into fighting climate change “aren’t going to things that people actually consider helpful,” Childress says, adding that “they’re more just projects that sound good, that are not actually taking any action." Read more.