This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Jeff James of PickleJar, Madison Long and Simone May of Clutch, and Tarun Girish of Spark Spaces. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to four local startup founders across industries — from electric vehicles to app development— recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Jeff James, co-founder and CEO of PickleJar

Jeff James and his company, PickleJar, are streamlining and strengthening the connection between performer and audience. Photo courtesy of PickleJar

Jeff James had the idea for a platform that allows musicians to engage with their audiences — specifically when it came to receiving tips. Right when he started working on the idea for PickleJar, an app-based, performer-focused platform where fans can conduct cashless tips, the pandemic hit.

"As the pandemic lingered on, we realized the project wasn't just about tipping or on-stage engagement, it's about something greater than that," James says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's all the different ways how artists are being disenfranchised. We really set out on a mission to help artists make more money."

As distracting as the pandemic was at first to PickleJar, which officially launched in May of 2021, the company ended up having a huge opportunity to be a revenue stream for artists when they needed it most. The duo decided they had to build the company — even during the pandemic and uncertain times. Click here to read more and listen to the episode.

Madison Long and Simone May, co-founders of Clutch

Madison Long, left, and Simone May co-founded Clutch to democratize side gig success on college campuses. Photo courtesy of Clutch

Clutch, a digital marketplace startup founded by Simone May and Madison Long, has fresh funding after closing its pre-seed round of funding at $1.2 million. The investment from this round will support Clutch’s national open beta launch of its platform for brands and student creators nationwide and its continued investment in customer and product strategy.

“We are at this inflection point where marketing is changing,” May says in a press release. “We know that the next generation can clearly see that and I think a lot of marketing agencies are starting to catch on.

"We need to be prioritizing the next generation’s opinion because they are driving who is interested in what they buy. This upcoming generation does not want to be sold to and they don’t like inorganic, inauthentic advertisements. That’s why user generated content is so big, it feels authentic.” Click here to continue reading.

Tarun Girish, founder and CEO of Sparks Spaces

Houston-based Spark Spaces is looking to build out luxury spots for electric vehicle charging. Rendering courtesy of Spark Spaces

Tarun Girish wanted to upgrade EV drivers' charging experiences. His idea became Sparks Spaces, a startup formed in 2021 looking to shake up the EV charging game — the company aims to elevate the experience of charging electric vehicles by focusing on the space between car and charger by creating an airport lounge-type space for drivers. These EV lounges would include luxury waiting areas, clean restrooms, high-end food options, and availability to utilize them 24/7.

“We’ve seen a huge issue in the EV charging space where the experience side has been neglected,” says Girish, founder and CEO of Sparks Spaces.

Currently, Sparks Spaces is operating out of The Ion and installed a charging point outside of the building to help collect insights into what drivers are needing and are wanting to learn more about their customer base. Click here to learn more.

Houston-based Spark Spaces is looking to build out luxury spots for electric vehicle charging. Rendering courtesy of Spark Spaces

Local startup to upgrade EV charging in Houston and beyond

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At 3 a.m. one night, just as he had many nights before, Tarun Girish found himself leaving his Houston apartment in search of an EV charger.

Once he located one, he would sit in his car for an hour and a half while his vehicle charged — with not much to do but wait.

But it was on this night he wondered if there was a way to use his previous hospitality experience to build a new kind of experience for EV drivers. He then developed his first iteration of a business plan — all while sitting in his driver’s seat.

His idea became Sparks Spaces, a startup formed in 2021 looking to shake up the EV charging game — the company aims to elevate the experience of charging electric vehicles by focusing on the space between car and charger by creating an airport lounge-type space for drivers. These EV lounges would include luxury waiting areas, clean restrooms, high-end food options, and availability to utilize them 24/7.

“We’ve seen a huge issue in the EV charging space where the experience side has been neglected,” says Girish, founder and CEO of Sparks Spaces.

Currently, Sparks Spaces is operating out of The Ion and installed a charging point outside of the building to help collect insights into what drivers are needing and are wanting to learn more about their customer base.

Eventually, the company’s goal is to take forgotten buildings and transition them into becoming EV charging hubs.

“The Ion is giving us a lot of resources to make sure that we are tailoring the solution to the right problem,” he says. “We’ve learned how to build a frictionless experience where the driver scans a QR code, pays for the duration of the charging session and then plugs in.”

When Sparks Spaces scales out, the team is eyeing two locations inside The Loop — one in Montrose and one on Shepherd Drive. The design would focus on natural lighting, safety and security.

The startup went through the Smart City Ion Accelerator but will be applying to a couple more accelerators that have more exposure into the EV construction space.

“We’re trying to provide a brand consistent experience from the time a driver drives into a lot to the time they leave,” he says. “We’ll be providing all fast-charging and level 2 charging services for drivers and will be completely universal so that any EV can utilize us.”

Sparks Spaces is looking to raise a $1.1 million seed round that will focus on research and development, the case studies and the architectural designs for a prototype that can be implemented in its locations.

“We want to be the definition of charging and lounges and experiences should be the forefront of EV charging,” he says. “The average household who owns an EV expects a certain level of luxury and expectations on experience. They are used to airport lounges when traveling. We want to reflect that in the EV charging space.”

Tarun Girish is on a mission to make EV charging easier and more comfortable. Photo courtesy

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TMC Innovation announces second cohort of promising Danish health tech companies

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A new cohort of scientists from the Texas-Denmark BioBridge has been selected to join a Texas Medical Center Accelerator, joining forces with some of Houston’s best advisers and mentors.

This is the second year that four Danish companies have been chosen to join a special TMC Innovation Accelerator program with plans to bring their technologies to the American market. In a joint press release, the Texas Medical Center (TMC) and the BioInnovation Institute (BII), announced that the participants are scheduled to arrive in Houston on May 13 for their first session, in which they’ll work on US customer validation. After that, they’ll take part in the full program, which will allow the founders to make their plans for strategic development over the course of six months.

Just as the TMC Innovation Factory offers help for founders who have set their sights on success in the US market, the Danish BioInnovation Institute provides life science startups with the connections, infrastructure and financial support necessary to bring their ideas to the public.

The companies selected include:

  • Alba Health is pioneering a gut microbiome test for young children that’s informed by AI.
  • AMPA Medical has created InterPoc, a more discrete alternative to types of stoma bags currently available for ileostomy patients.
  • Droplet IV is a medical device that automatically flushes IV lines, reducing waste and making nurses’ jobs easier.
  • Metsystem is a cancer metastasis platform aimed at predicting what the most effective cancer drug is for each patient.

“We are excited to welcome these startups to TMC as Danish companies are making significant strides in drug discovery and health tech developments” says Devin Dunn, head of the accelerator for Health Tech, in the release. “As they look to expand into the US market, the collaborative environment fostered by our dedicated team, programs, and clinical community will help them advance their innovations, foster research collaborations, and further develop their technologies here in Houston.”

The program for the accelerator is based on the successes of the TMC Innovation (TMCi) Health Tech Accelerator program. The TMC Denmark BioBridge was established in 2019 as a collaboration between TMC and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark.

Houston hospital flies in drone delivery service for medical supplies, prescriptions

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A Houston hospital system has announced that it has plans to launch a drone delivery service for specialty prescriptions and medical supplies in 2026.

Memorial Hermann Health System announced that it intends to be the first health care provider in Houston to roll out drone delivery services from San Francisco-based Zipline, a venture capital-backed tech company founded in 2014 that's completed 1 million drone deliveries.

"As a system, we are continuously seeking ways to improve the patient experience and bring greater health and value to the communities we serve. Zipline provides an innovative solution to helping our patients access the medications they need, quickly and conveniently, at no added cost to them," Alec King, executive vice president and CFO for Memorial Hermann, says in a news release.

Zipline boasts of achieving delivery times seven times faster than traditional car deliveries and can usually drop off packages at a rate of a mile a minute. The drones, called Zips, can navigate any weather conditions and complete their missions with zero emissions.

Per the release, the service will be used to deliver items to patients or supplies or samples between its locations.

"Completing more than one million commercial deliveries has shown us that when you improve health care logistics, you improve every level of the patient experience. It means people get better, faster, more convenient care, even from the comfort of their own home," adds Keller Rinaudo Cliffton, co-founder and CEO of Zipline. "Innovators like Memorial Hermann are leading the way to bring better care to the U.S., and it's going to happen much faster than you might expect."

Houston tech founder shines spotlight on small businesses with new awards initiative

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For decades, small businesses have operated in essentially the same manner — handwritten notes to request time off, manual punch cards to clock in, and verbal agreements to swap shifts. And 10 years ago, Houstonian Rushi Patel thought it was time to upgrade these local shops, eateries, and other businesses.

Homebase, which was founded in San Francisco in 2014 and has its largest office in Houston, provides a suite of software tools for employee scheduling, time tracking, communication, and task management for its users, most of which are small businesses.

After a decade of growing its technology and clientbase, Patel, co-founder and COO of the company, explains the unique challenges these small businesses face on the Houston Innovators Podcast — as well as how Homebase helps.

"It's a bit of an orchestra in terms of what entrepreneurs have to do. Your job is to compose a little, but conduct as well," Patel says on the show. "You've built the song of what you want to have happen, but you're conducting lots of different things to make it a reality as a small business owner."



Patel explains how optimizing these personnel aspects of the business frees up founders and managers and improves the employee experience too. Currently, the job market is competitive for these types of businesses, and retention and hiring are major focus points for entrepreneurs.

With 10 years of data and experience of working with small businesses, Homebase introduced a new awards program this week in honor of National Small Business Week. The inaugural Top Local Workplace Awards honored over 50,000 businesses across the country for a range of positive workplace factors — like pay transparency and employee engagement.

"There are over 2 million employee-centric, main street type of businesses in the United States," Patel says, "these are the restaurants, the retailers, and the service providers. They employ north of 70 million people, so there's a lot of impact that these businesses can have. But what we found was they deserve recognition, and there wasn't recognition for the good practices that these employers were doing."

Using its data, which includes over 2.5 million hourly worker data points, Homebase's team implemented the awards to highlight the companies providing their employees — who are in most cases considered a work family, as Patel says — with a great experience.