The five finalists for Mentor of the Year in the Houston Innovation Awards sound off on their best advice. Photos courtesy

Houston is home to many great mentors — all hailing for completely different backgrounds.

At the Houston Innovation Awards Gala on November 9, InnovationMap and Houston Exponential are honoring five finalists selected by judges — and naming one winner — who have dedicated at least a portion of their lives to supporting others within the startup and tech scene in Houston.

Here are some words of wisdom from our awards honorees from the Mentor of the Year category for the 2022 Houston Innovation Awards.

"I always remind people to be open and ask for help. There is a common misconception that if you disclose your idea, someone else will quickly run with it and beat you to market! ... Don’t alienate yourself by overprotecting the idea and keeping it all to yourself. The more you open up about your idea the more feedback you’ll get, good and bad, both of which are vital in the success of the product long term."

Photo courtesy

- Alfredo Arvide, Blue People and HOUnited. Arvide, who's been an advisor for over a decade, adds, that "most markets are big enough to allow competition to thrive, so keeping your idea behind close doors until you launch may hurt you as the market may not be ready for it. Having multiple players competing in the market will help you in the long run, as long as you have a great product and a sound marketing strategy."

"Understand the problem you are trying to solve. Build a team that works well together and has the intellect, drive, and willingness to develop and bring to market a solution for that problem. Leadership is not about giving orders and making all the decisions. It is about creating the environment for your team members individually and collectively to do their best work and be most fulfilled."

Photo courtesy

- Barbara Burger, adviser and board member for several startups and organizations. With over 20 years of experience supporting startups, Burger says she is mostly focused on startups dedicated to decarbonizing the energy system.

"Don't have 'rocking chair regret.' What I mean is when you are old and in a rocking chair, you aren't going to regret the year (or less) you took away from a guaranteed salary to test if your idea worked. So, take the time and follow your dreams — you never know what could happen!"

Photo courtesy

- Craig Ceccanti, T-Minus Solutions. Ceccanti, who also co-founded Pinot's Palette and Rivalry Technologies, has been mentoring for over a decade. "I love helping people and always have so helping others achieve their dreams is a natural progression for me, he says. "I've also had incredible mentors and I like to pay it forward every chance I get. I feel that mentoring is fun, therapeutic, and mutually beneficial as I feel I learn from the smart people I get to talk to daily!

"Bring great people on your journey with you — team members, advisors, investors, mentors, consultants, etc."

Photo courtesy

- Emily Reiser, Texas Medical Center and Enventure. Reiser, who's mentored companies for several years, says it's her own mentors that inspired her. "I had excellent mentors who generously gave their time for me, especially Upendra Marathi, and it's just a given that I mentor others. It's a privilege to learn from the people I mentor and see them become successful."

"Be your own cheerleader. Stay true to yourself and don't give up."

Photo courtesy

Kara Branch, founder of Black Girls Do Engineer Corp. "I have always been the only black woman in all my roles. As a mother of three daughters, my oldest daughter inspired Black Girls Do Engineer Corp.," Branch says. "When she daughter was 9, she came to me and said she wanted to be a software engineer. ... If anyone can help her achieve her dreams is her mom and I wanted to create a space for girls who look like my daughter to come together and do the things they love and are passionate about."

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Craig Ceccanti of T-Minus Solutions, Katie Eick of Rockin' Pets, Rollin' Vets, and Blair Garrou of Mercury. Photos courtesy

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 venture capital to software — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Craig Ceccanti, founder and CEO of T-Minus Solutions

Words of wisdom from a founder who's done this all before. And then again. And again. Photo courtesy of T-Minus Solutions

After starting a company or two — or three — Craig Ceccanti has some observations on his own entrepreneurial journey. He also has some hard lessons learned, and he shared four of them in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"I’m not immune to making mistakes," he writes. "As a serial entrepreneur and having started, led, and mentored various successful companies, I have made some mistakes and have been lucky enough to learn from them." Read more.

Katie Eick, founder and CEO of Rockin' Pets, Rollin' Vets

Katie Eick, founder and CEO of Rockin' Pets Rollin' Vets joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss her company's growth. Photo courtesy of Rollin' Vets

For years, Dr. Katie Eick wanted to provide mobile veterinary care for her patients, but the technology wasn't where it needed to be. She took a gamble and bought her first truck in 2016 as ridesharing and mobile ordering took off. A new business of convenience was booming, before blasting off again amid the pandemic.

Now, the founder and CEO of Rockin' Pets, Rollin' Vets says she's got the equipment, the market demand, and a $5 million round of investment to expand her business model.

The other challenge Eick says she faced early on was a misconception that mobile vet care was limited to vaccinations.

"We provide the highest level of veterinary care — right in your driveway," Eick says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, explaining how each of her trucks — she now has five — have the capability to provide all sorts of treatment. Read more.

Blair Garrou, founder and managing partner of Mercury

Blair Garrou will be recognized as the 2022 Trailblazer Award recipient at the Houston Innovation Awards Gala on November 9. Photo courtesy

The name Blair Garrou is quite familiar to most within Houston's startup and innovation ecosystem. As co-founder of Mercury, which launched in 2005, he's seen the city's tech world expand tenfold.

"Although we are in the midst of a recession, Houston continues to grow in three key industrial sectors of innovation – EnergyTech/ClimateTech, HealthTech, and SpaceTech. Our city has the opportunity to be a national leader in each of these sectors, and drive tremendous job growth in the future," he tells InnovationMap.

Garrou was nominated and selected by a group of judges to be the 2022 Trailblazer Award recipient, and will be honored at the Houston Innovation Awards Gala on November 9. Read more.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Craig Ceccanti of T-Minus Solutions, Ben Jawdat of Revterra, and Sam Sabbahi of Thermocuff. Photos courtesy

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 software development to medical devices — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Craig Ceccanti, founder of T-Minus Solutions

Craig Ceccanti joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share what he's learned in his time as an entrepreneur in Houston — and what he's focused on now. Photo courtesy of Craig Ceccanti

When deciding what his passion project would be, Craig Ceccanti looked back at his career. He's always been interested in tech, and grew a small business — Pinot's Palette — to a national franchise. Combining his skills and expertise, he founded T-Minus Solutions to provide entrepreneurs with software consulting and support.

"I love technology and mentoring other entrepreneurs — those were two big factors," Ceccanti says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "So, starting a consulting agency where we could help startups and mid sized-growth companies build custom software was kind of my perfect unicorn."

He shares more about the his career — from franchising to tech startups — as well as why he's bullish on Houston's business economy on the podcast. Click here to read more and listen to the episode.

Ben Jawdat, CEO and founder of Revterra

Revterra Corp. closed a $6 million series A round led by Equinor Ventures. Photo via LinkedIn

Revterra Corp. has raised $6 million in its series A funding round to propel development of its battery for electric vehicle charging stations. Norway’s Equinor Ventures led the round, with participation from Houston-based SCF Ventures. Previously, Revterra raised nearly $500,000 through a combination of angel investments and a National Science Foundation grant.

“There is an urgent need to reduce carbon emissions globally,” physicist Ben Jawdat, founder and CEO of Revterra, says in a news release. “Our goal at Revterra is to deploy scalable energy storage solutions that facilitate the shift to renewables and EVs while hardening our electric grid. Our systems enable these ambitions while utilizing materials that are recyclable and based on a secure supply chain.” Click here to read more.

Thermocuff has several patents and expects FDA approval at the end of the year. Image via LinkedIn.com

Necessity is the mother of invention — and Sam Sabbahi needed a better way to heat and cool common joint injuries. Sabbahi, a physical therapist by trade, wanted to optimize the traditional way of using ice or heat packs.

“In the field, we were always getting people coming in trying to get us to purchase different medical devices and we wondered, ‘who knows what we need better than we do?’” he says. “A patient asked me ‘what a cold pack does’ and I was thinking in my head that a cold pack just cools the skin to three millimeters depth.”

Sabbahi then developed and invented a portable convection-based heating and cooling system device that could be used for joint injury rehabilitation – the device, dubbed Thermocuff, works much in the way that an air fryer circulates the air to get an even temperature. Click here to read more.

Craig Ceccanti joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share what he's learned in his time as an entrepreneur in Houston — and what he's focused on now. Photo courtesy of Craig Ceccanti

Serial Houston entrepreneur's latest venture combines his passions for startups and software

houston innovators podcast episode 144

In 2020, Craig Ceccanti sat down to consider what his next career move would be. Former CEO and co-founder of national franchise Pinot's Palette and a co-founder of Houston sports tech startup sEATz, Ceccanti wanted a passion project.

His background is in software and computer science and, with years of experience in entrepreneurship, he decided a combination of his passions would be a software-focused consulting firm for startups and growing businesses. He founded T-Minus Solutions in November of 2020.

Ceccanti says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast that at Pinot's Palette, he built the software himself, using freelancers to help build out and support his work. These developers were inconsistent and never lasted long, and Ceccanti says he experienced this challenge again when developing sEATz's software. He had the idea of providing a more reliable software outsourcing service for companies.

"I love technology and mentoring other entrepreneurs — those were two big factors," Ceccanti says on the show. "So, starting a consulting agency where we could help startups and mid sized-growth companies build custom software was kind of my perfect unicorn."

T-Minus Solutions, which is bootstrapped so far, has a team of six employees, and Ceccanti says they are specifically focused on working with impactful businesses. As a passion project, he explains he's less driven by revenue and more focused on the help and guidance he can provide his clients, whether it's building software for them or helping navigate a major business decision.

"Our statement is to empower entrepreneurs," he explains. "We want to make the accessibility to technology easy for them and have a trusted technology partner for them to come to."

Ceccanti, who's a mentor at Rice University, is dedicated to helping fellow Houston entrepreneurs and aspiring founders. He says over the years as he's doled out advice over coffee or beers, he got the idea to write down some of his lessons learned. The book, “A Founder’s Guide to A Software Startup,” is expected to release later this year.

Originally from Louisiana, Ceccanti — who moved to Houston after Hurricane Katrina — is enthusiastic about Houston's innovation ecosystem. He says he's seen so much progress for startups and entrepreneurs, and Houston has so many industries represented here — something extremely valuable when it comes to access to consumers.

"Houston is really unique — when you think about Dallas and Austin or even the West Coast or the Northeast — with the demand of our consumerbase. You can test out anything here — you can't say that about Austin or Dallas the way you can here," Ceccanti says. "Industrial, medical, consumer, retail, restaurant — you're in the right place. If you can make it work here, it's going to do good."

He shares more about the his career — from franchising to tech startups — as well as why he's bullish on Houston's business economy on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


These three startups walked away from a pitch competition with thousands of dollars in equity-free prizes. Photo courtesy of Rice University

3 alumni-founded startups claim cash prizes at Rice University pitch competition

winner, winner

Three startups founded by Rice University graduates have won investment prizes at an annual pitch competition.

The annual H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge, or NRLC, welcomed a panel of judges to hear from six alumni-founded startups in the finals last week. The prizes on the line totaled $65,000 in equity-free funding. The event, which is separate from the student version of the competition, is hosted by Rice’s Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

The big winner of the 2022 competition was Rhythio Medical, a preventative heart arrhythmias treatment startup. The company won first place, which included $30,000 in equity-free funding, as well as the Audience Choice Award that came with $1,500.

Taking second place, Synopic, which facilitates faster and more accurate surgical procedures through improved endoscopic vision technology, won $20,000 in equity-free funding. Lastly, Green Room, a platform that streamlines taxes and payments for touring artists, clinched third place and $15,000.

The event, named for Rice professor emeritus and entrepreneurship program founder H. Albert Napier, was sponsored by Mercury Fund, T-Minus Solutions and Chevron Technology Ventures. This year's finalists were selected by judges made up of Rice alumni. Three judges — Danielle Conkling, director at Silicon Valley Bank, Paul Manwell, senior director at Google, and Joanna Nathan, manager of new ventures at Johnson & Johnson — listened to and evaluated each company's five-minute pitch and followed up with questions.

Rhythio Medical was founded by CEO Kunal Shah, class of 2022, and Savannah Esteve, who also serves as head of product. The technology includes a surgically injected wire that makes an irregular heart work like a healthy one. It works alongside a traditional implantable cardioverter defibrillator, however, the wire but works to prevent arrhythmias, while ICDs treat arrhythmias with a painful shock to the patient’s heart. The company lists the Texas Heart Institute and the University of Texas at Austin as its research partners.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston startup teams up with nonprofit research for decarbonization pilot

seeing green

A Houston tech company has joined forces with a nonprofit to test a new sustainable fuel production process.

The project is a joint effort from Houston-based Syzygy Plasmonics and nonprofit research institute RTI International and sponsored by Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corporation of Americas. Based in the RTI facility in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, the six-month pilot is testing a way to convert two potent greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) — into low-carbon-intensity fuels, which have the potential to replace petroleum-based jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

"This demonstration will be the first of its kind and represents a disruptive step in carbon utilization. The sustainable fuels produced are expected to quickly achieve cost parity with today's fossil fuels," says Syzygy CEO Trevor Best in a news release. "Integrating our technology with RTI's Fischer-Tropsch synthesis system has the potential to significantly reduce the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation without requiring major fleet modifications."

According to Syzygy, the pilot is a step toward being able to scale the process to a commercial-ready Syzygy e-fuels plant.

"By making minor adjustments in the process, we also expect to produce sustainable methanol using the same technology," Best continues.

An independent research institute, RTI International's focus is on improving the human condition. The multidisciplinary nonprofit seeks to support science-based solutions like Syzygy's technology, which has already proven its scale-up capabilities in earlier testing.

Through the partnership, RTI will assist Syzygy with process design and systems integration for the pilot-scale demonstration. Once it reaches commercial scale, the technology is expected to turn millions of tons of CO2 per year to produce sustainable fuels.

"We are excited about the opportunity to collaborate with Syzygy to test and assist in the scale-up of this promising technology," says Sameer Parvathikar, Ph.D., the director of the Renewable Energy and Energy Storage program in RTI's Technology Advancement and Commercialization business unit. "This work aligns with our capabilities, our goals of helping de-risk and commercialize novel technologies, and our vision to address the world's most critical problems with science-based solutions."

Houston researcher tapped for prestigious fellowship for offshore safety innovation

big win

A University of Houston professor has been selected by a national organization to “contribute to the understanding, management and reduction of systemic risk in offshore energy activities.”

The Gulf Research Program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine announced that Harish Krishnamoorthy, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is one of four selected early-career research fellows in the Offshore Energy Safety track. Krishnamoorthy is the first researcher from UH selected for the recognition.

“I am happy and honored to be the first one, but hopefully there will be a lot more in the coming years,” Krishnamoorthy says in a UH news release.

The award, which isn't granted based on a specific project, includes a $76,000 grant, mentor support, and access to a network of current and past cohorts.

Created in 2013, the program is an independent, science-based program founded as part of legal settlements with the companies involved in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. Its goal is "to enhance offshore energy system safety and protect human health and the environment by catalyzing advances in science, practice and capacity, generating long-term benefits for the Gulf of Mexico region and the nation," the release reads.

“These exceptional individuals are working hard to pursue new research, technical capabilities, and approaches that address some of the greatest challenges facing the Gulf and Alaska regions today,” says Karena Mary Mothershed, senior program manager for the Gulf Research Program’s Board on Gulf Education and Engagement. “We are incredibly excited to announce these new Early-Career Research Fellows, and to continue supporting them as they make lasting impacts.”

Krishnamoorthy, who also serves as associate director of the Power Electronics, Microgrids and Subsea Electric Systems Center at UH, has expertise is in power electronics, power converters, and offshore technologies. His research interests include high-density power conversion for grid interface of energy systems, machine learning-based methods for improvement in quality and reliability of power electronics, advanced electronics and control for mission-critical applications.

According to Krishnamoorthy, there are around 1,500 offshore rigs — with a large amount located North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. There's a need to improve existing systems, according to Krishnamoorthy, and this process of evolving the grid comes with safety risks and challenges.

“When there are so many electronics involved, safety and reliability are going to be very critical,” Krishnamoorthy says in he release. “I have been looking at safety aspects a lot in my research as well as how to connect subsea oil and gas systems with offshore renewable systems.”

In 2022, Krishnamoorthy was recognized as an OTC Emerging Leader at the Offshore Technology Conference for his contributions to offshore safety and workforce development in offshore, as well as reducing the carbon emissions.

Pitch perfect: What investors are looking for, according to Houston research

houston voices

Pitching to a venture capitalist is not only the most challenging part of building a startup, it’s also the most important. You can have the next pet rock idea, but nobody will ever experience it and you’ll never make a dime if the genius of this product cannot be expressed in an investor pitch. Okay, so pet rock isn’t the best example.

Let’s say you have a product that gets rid of stretch marks overnight. Great idea, right? Of course. But if you’re in front of an investor and they ask you how your product works, and you can’t answer them, your idea will forever remain just that: an idea. It’ll never manifest itself materially, which is your goal.

Did you know that the average venture capitalist holds around 500 in-person meetings per year? Further, did you know that only one in every 10 startups will make it past the first meeting?

With so many meetings with startup founders, you better believe that investors are virtually looking for reasons to pass on you and your cordless extension cord. Or whatever fakakta contraption you’ve developed in your garage.

Well, with so much importance placed on first impressions, here are some of the most important things investors look for and notice when you pitch to them:

Value proposition

This is what separates you from the pack. This is what makes your startup a standout. A value proposition shows an investor your company’s competitive advantage. If you can explain to your potential investor why it would be their folly if they invested in a competitor over your startup, then you’ll be that much closer to rolling out your product to market. Investors want to see a product or service that is unique because that means less competition, and less risk involved.

Entrepreneurship

Sure, you might be a brilliant scientist. You may have developed nanotechnology that eviscerates dirt and bacteria so you don’t have to shower anymore. But have you put together a team that can make your company a successful business? Do you have team members with experience in whatever it is your startup does? Do you have people with credibility congruent with your startup? Your pitch is a way for investors to find these things out. If you can show them that your team has experience, passion, insightfulness, and expertise, investors will feel much better about taking a chance on you.

Confidence is key

Investors can tell if a founder is confident, but not overconfident about how far they’ve come and how far they know they can go. During a pitch, investors can tell if your team is a cohesive unit or parts of a fractured whole.

Anatomy of an investor pitch

Your potential investor will notice if your pitch is structured well. He or she will take not of whether or not your pitch is designed well. They’ll ask themselves if it’s authentic. Does it cover business metrics? Is it concise and to the point? Is the founder communicating something complex in a simple way? Doing so shows absolute understanding and a total grasp of your product and the science behind it, plus the business aspect of it.


------

This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu was the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.