This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Emily Cisek of The Postage, Kevin Coker of Proxima Clinical Research, and Sylvia Kampshoff of Kanthaka. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — tech, health care, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Emily Cisek, founder of The Postage

The Postage — a Houston-based company that's streamlining afterlife planning — has rolled out a new app. Photo courtesy of The Postage

Emily Cisek had a mission when she founded The Postage. She wanted to make afterlife planning simpler — and she's taken one giant step toward that goal with the company's new app.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple."

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app. Click here to read more.

Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima Clinical Research

Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima Clinical Research, say his company transform from uncertainty to almost uncontrollable growth in just 12 months. He shares what happened on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Proxima

After a huge dip in business due to the pandemic, a Houston company focused on supporting innovative life science companies saw 12 months of unprecedented growth. Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima Clinical Research, says that's not only a good sign for the future of his business — but also of the future of Houston's life science sector.

"We're a good barometer for what's happening not only locally but across the country," Coker says. "As Proxima has grown, it's really show how the Houston life science market is growing."

Coker shares more about Proxima's growth and Houston's potential of being a major life science hub on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Sylvia Kampshoff, founder of Kanthaka

Sylvia Kampshoff has launched Kanthaka's first crowdfunding campaign. Photo courtesy of Kanthaka

Sylvia Kampshoff has lofty goals for her company Kanthaka, a platform for connecting users to personal trainers across over a dozen cities. With the launch of a new $1 million crowdfunding raise, Kampshoff is one step closer to growing her business according to these goals.

"Our vision is to become Amazon for health & fitness and the go-to provider to live a longer, happier and healthier life," Kampshoff says. "We couldn't be more excited about this journey." Click here to read more.

Sylvia Kampshoff has launched Kanthaka's first crowdfunding campaign. Photo courtesy of Kanthaka

Houston fitness tech startup launches $1M crowdfunding campaign

money moves

Calling all cardio lovers, yogis, and strength trainers alike — a Houston fitness platform is opening up investment opportunities through a new crowdfunding campaign.

Kanthaka, a Houston-based app that connects clients to personal trainers and yoga instructors on-demand, announced it will be launching a $1 million campaign through Republic, a crowdfunding platform. Kanthaka's users and trainers — or anyone interested — now have the option to become part owners in the company.

"We are very happy at Kanthaka to have been selected by Republic for their crowdfunding campaign," says Sylvia Kampshoff, founder and CEO of Kanthaka, in a press release. "I want our users as our evangelists.

"Since we started the company I've had clients reaching out wanting to invest but it was complicated — you had to be an accredited investor or VC," Kampshoff continues. "Now through this crowdfunding campaign, clients and trainers can participate in our journey."

According to the release, Republic, which is strategically partnered with Houston-based NextSeed, only accepts less than 1 percent of applicants interested in being funded on the platform. Kanthaka has reportedly raised over $850,000 from two venture capitalists and angels investors to date.

The company provides both live in-person and virtual sessions. Between March 2020 and March 2021, Kanthaka grew over 700 percent in sessions sold, per the release, and now, with the COVID-19 vaccines, the company is seeing a new spike in sessions.

"Our vision is to become Amazon for health & fitness and the go-to provider to live a longer, happier and healthier life," Kampshoff says in the release. "We couldn't be more excited about this journey."

Frustrated with the lack of ease in booking training sessions, Kampshoff launched Kanthaka in 2017 and has grown the company and expanded into 15 markets. Kanthaka participated in Austin-based accelerator Sputnik ATX.

Image via mykanthaka.com

This week's innovators to know are Allie Danziger, Sylvia Kampshoff, and Brittany Barreto. Courtesy photos

3 female Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

This one's for the ladies. InnovationMap's weekly roundup of innovators to know features three female founders — one is offering her advice on crisis communications, one is innovating the at-home workout, and one is planning on making Houston a city for femtech.

Allie Danziger, founder and president of Integrate Agency

Photo courtesy of Integrate

Now more than ever your company's message is extremely important, says communications expert Allie Danziger, and she and her company, Integrate Agency are focused on helping businesses at this trying time.

"Practicing what we preach, we understand that as communication experts, it is our mission and responsibility during this time to help our local business community," writes Danziger in her guest column. "We are putting our money where our mouth is and for the last week have been offering free communication and marketing consultation to any business in need."

Click here to read the rest of Danziger's column.

Sylvia Kampshoff, founder of Kanthaka

Photo courtesy of Kanthaka

Big-box gyms have the potential of being a breeding ground for the coronavirus, but smaller studios aren't immune from the disease's consequences either. While most fitness spots have closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Houston-based Kanthaka has been using tech to enable at-home exercise before it was the only option.

That's why the app's founder Sylvia Kampshoff says she saw a huge spike in numbers last week as things began to close. Kanthaka allows users to book personal training sessions to their home. The one-on-one interaction has become really popular in this time of social distancing, and Kampshoff say soon the app will go even further in their efforts allowing its personal trainers to give virtual one-on-one training.

Click here to read more about Kanthaka's latest initiatives.

Brittany Barreto, venture associate at Capital Factory

Photo courtesy of Brittany Barreto

Brittany Barreto is passionate about femtech, helping entrepreneurs, and, despite being from the Northeast, Houston. Barreto joined the Houston Innovators Podcast this week to discuss her passions and her use to the Houston innovation ecosystem as a former founder herself.

"I actually think Houston needs to figure out how to capitalize on these recycled founders and how to get them in more mentorship and leadership positions," Barreto says on the podcast. "We're in Houston, Texas, and the second question out of everyone's mouths is, 'How can I help you?'"

Click here to stream the episode and read more about Barreto.

A Houston company has seen a spike in sales in their on-demand fitness training sessions, and the startup is adding features to help users stay sane and healthy while stuck inside. Photo courtesy of Kanthaka

Houston on-demand fitness startup to launch virtual option for at-home exercise options

workout from home

Last week, Sylvia Kampshoff saw a spike in her sales — something very uncommon for companies at this time, unless they are selling hand sanitizer, face masks, or toilet paper.

Kampshoff's company isn't providing toiletries though. Houston-based Kanthaka is an on-demand personal trainer tool for users to book one-on-one sessions with fitness experts at their own homes. With the city of Houston announcing that all bars and restaurants close to patrons, fitness studios followed suit. And that for Kanthaka meant a rise in sessions bought in Houston, Austin, Denver, Chicago, or any of the fifteen cities the app has launched in.

While gyms might be closing, "people feel pretty safe about having people come into their home," Kampshoff says, "and on the other hand we are wanting to give more jobs to trainers who have lost their jobs."

Kanthaka now has two people on boarding new fitness professionals on the app, and trainers who are out of work because their gym closed can get in touch with Kanthaka about the opportunity.

This spike in sales is coming mostly from younger users — particularly those in their 20s — but usually, Kanthaka has about a third of its users in the 60 and up age group — a population of people most at-risk from the COVID-19, or coronavirus. With this in mind, Kampshoff started looking into non face-to-face options for people who aren't comfortable with in-home instruction.

Next week, Kampshoff will launch digital sessions on Kanthaka. The sessions will still be one-on-one, but virtual. They won't be any cheaper, but will still provide that individual, undivided attention from a professional trainer. Additionally, Kanthaka will host free group fitness broadcasts online, and some will even factor in kids who are also stuck inside without many options for activities.

In just one week, Kampshoff had to pivot and tap a third-party streaming provider for the new service, something she has been able to do thanks to Sputnik ATX, an Austin-based accelerator Kampshoff is a part of.

"They were the first ones to say, 'Hey you should go virtual,'" Kampshoff says. "We started talking about it for the first time on Friday."

Ultimately, Kampshoff hopes this pivot will allow people access to personal training, as well as provide work for fitness professionals during the uncertain times of the coronavirus outbreak.

Among this week's top stories is a feature on a Houston-based startup aiming to be the Uber or Lyft of personal trainers. Courtesy of Kanthaka

5 most popular innovation stories in Houston this week

Now trending

Editor's note: Houston saw big shake ups at some major innovation institutions this week, which made for some trending stories. And, per usual, readers enjoyed learning about local entrepreneurs fighting the good fight with their organizations.

Station Houston announces its transition into becoming a nonprofit

Station Houston's stakeholders voted in favor of the organization transitioning to a nonprofit. Station Houston/Facebook

Houston's startup scene just got a little more accessible. Station Houston's stakeholders voted to transition the organization to nonprofit status from the C-corp status it currently holds. The status change is effective January 1, 2019, for the acceleration hub, which is based in downtown Houston. The news was announced to its members in an email sent on December 13. Read the full story here.

Houston entrepreneur creates a network to link up with other blockchain professionals

The Houston Blockchain Alliance aims to connect and educate tech professionals in town. Getty Images

Houstonians traveling around the country might covet other cities for their mountain scapes, beaches, or more mild summers, but Mahesh Sashital envied the fact that other major cities had developed networks and organizations focused on connecting and educating tech professionals. Houston, it seems, was late to the party.

So, he decided to make his own blockchain-focused organization, and a few months ago, he launched the Houston Blockchain Alliance. Read the full story here.

3 Houston energy innovators to know this week

These energy startup leaders are the reason Houston will keep its "energy capital of the world" title. Courtesy images

Houston's known as the energy capital of the world, but it won't stay that way if the city as a whole doesn't work toward innovation. These three professionals started their own companies to improve efficiency and promote ingenuity in their fields. From drones and AI to quicker pipeline data access, this week's three innovators to know are the future of the energy industry. Read the full story here.

TMC Innovation Institute leader leaves the organization

Erik Halvorsen has reportedly left his position at the TMC Innovation Institute. Courtesy of TMC

Erik Halvorsen, director of the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute, has left his position, according to multiple reports.

TMC's medical device innovation team lead, Lance Black, was named as the interim replacement for Halvorsen, according to Xconomy. Black has been with TMC for almost two years. Read the full story here.

Get on-demand personal training from Houston-based app

Houston-based Kanthaka is the Uber or Lyft of personal training, and has recently expanded into the Austin market. Courtesy of Kanthaka

As a busy lawyer who traveled heavily for work, Sylvia Kampshoff found her workouts were often overlooked as she went from city to city, a casualty of long hours and a busy schedule. And, even though she did have a membership to a national gym with privileges at any of its locations, she hated the feeling of always being sold something and disliked that both the trainers and managers she worked with took very little interest in her personal needs and fitness goals.

She wanted something that allowed her to exercise with someone on her own schedule, and with people who valued customer service. That's how the idea for Kanthaka was born. Read the full story here.


Houston-based Kanthaka is the Uber or Lyft of personal training, and has recently expanded into the Austin market. Courtesy of Kanthaka

Get on-demand personal training from Houston-based app

Fitting in fitness

As a busy lawyer who traveled heavily for work, Sylvia Kampshoff found her workouts were often overlooked as she went from city to city, a casualty of long hours and a busy schedule. And, even though she did have a membership to a national gym with privileges at any of its locations, she hated the feeling of always being sold something and disliked that both the trainers and managers she worked with took very little interest in her personal needs and fitness goals.

She wanted something that allowed her to exercise with someone on her own schedule, and with people who valued customer service. That's how the idea for Kanthaka was born.

The app uses location technology similar to that of ride sharing apps to allow users to book training sessions with certified personal trainers, all of whom are heavily vetted and background checked by Kampshoff and her team.

"Many trainers at gyms or who work privately aren't certified," she says. "And that was important to me, that we have professionals who understand training and the body. And making sure our clients felt safe was a huge priority for me. We interview every trainer personally to ensure they not only meet our standards but also share our goals."

App users can select a trainer who will lead them in a Pilates, yoga, boxing, general training, or a pre- or post-natal workout. They select their location, as well as the date and they want to schedule a session. They can book a single session for $42 for a 45-minute session or $50 for an hour session or purchase a package of six or 12 workouts. There's no long-term commitment — although Kampshoff says that some clients are asking for a monthly subscription option — and the process is designed to be easy and user friendly. Trainers will arrive at a client's home, office, or their preferred gym, providing the gym allows outside trainers to work there.

The app launched in Houston in 2017 and then in Austin this fall. Over the last year, Kampshoff — who left the legal profession to concentrate on Kanthaka's success — says she's learned a lot about the market and her own preconceptions.

"I figured it was going to be business travelers who used it, people who were like me when I was doing all that travel," she says. "But it turns out that we're seeing people use it who want to schedule a session just like any other appointment. Many of our clients are women, who value the rigorous vetting process we have for our trainers."

In addition to vetting the trainers and confirming their certifications with the National Academy for Sports Medicine or the American Council on Exercise, each trainer is reviewed by app users, to help others determine whether that person would be a good fit for their needs. Kanthaka allows users to "favorite" trainers, and book them again, and user testimonials tout Kanthaka's easy of use and great training team.

In addition to individual users who find the app via social media or internet searches, Kampshoff has developed partnerships with hotels and apartments around Houston. Kanthaka provides personal training services to guests at the Post Oak Hotel, and Hanover apartment properties list the app as a feature for its residents.

As she continues to grow the business and expand in other cities, Kampshoff is excited to see others buying into her concept of fitness.

"There is a culture behind Kanthaka. It's about health and fitness, but also achieving the lifestyle you want that allows you to feel better and live in a more positive way."

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Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.