The idea for Splay, a unique device perfect for a mobile workforce, was born on the Rice University campus. Images courtesy

A Houston company born out of Rice University has crowdfunded its way into the manufacturing phase of its startup journey.

Arovia, founded by Alex Wesley and George Zhu, has a product that solves some major obstacles people on the go face as they work — or entertain — from home, a hotel, coffee shop, etc. Splay is a unique collapsable, portable device that doubles as both a display and projector.

The founders first launched their product in 2016 and raised over $700,000 from backers on their crowdfunding campaign. After raising investment funding, including an investment from the Texas Halo Fund, Wesley and Zhu recently returned to their crowdfunding roots and ran a 30-day pre-order campaign on Kickstarter during which they sold over $300,000 worth of product.

“We couldn't have made Splay without the Houston Startup Community," Wesley says.

Wesley was an MBA student when he met Zhu, who was working towards a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, after posting a job description in search of a co-founder, a requirement of the Owlspark program.

“Owlspark accepted the business idea, with the stipulation that I needed to find a co-founder,” says Wesley. “I sent out a job description, and a big part of the application process was to provide ideas for making this crazy idea work. I sent the job description at around 9 pm and received an email from George at around 1 am with an extremely detailed proposal. That was the start; and since then, we’ve basically been like brothers — I’ve even lived with him and his parents in China.”

Wesley credits Owlspark as an important part of their formation, beyond the impetus for their partnership.

“It was a great experience for us. The focus on customer interviews is something that is very easy to avoid, but it’s extremely important. You don’t have a product if nobody wants to buy it — you don’t have a company without customers," Wesley says. "During our time at Owlspark, we did over 100 customer interviews, which gave a lot of insight into the viability of the idea and who it would be useful for. We still utilize many of those insights today.”

But Owlspark wasn’t the only accelerator program that Wesley and Zhu joined. They also participated in Hax, a top hardware-focused accelerator, and Luminate, a top optics-focused accelerator. They also competed in the Rice Business Plan Competition, which Wesley says helped them refine their pitch which ultimately secured their funding.

“We pitched at angel groups including the Houston Angel Network and their fund The Halo Fund, Keiretsu Forum and their fund Keiretsu Capital, Rochester Angel Network, and the GOOSE Society. We also won the Texas A&M New Venture Competition,” says Wesley.

With this financial backing, Arovia received the necessary support for the R&D phase for Splay, taking the product into its manufacturing process and pre-sale campaign.

“Yes, it went very well,” shares Wesley, adding that they are still looking for support on the Indiegogo campaign. “Now we are focusing on pre-selling in other markets, like Japan."

Splay can be used as a portable screen, or the projector can be removed to be used on its own. Photo via Splay

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes John Chappell of BlockApps, Kyra Doolan of Texas HALO Fund, and Shaun Noorian of Empower Pharmacy. 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 venture capital to pharmacy — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

John Chappell, director of energy business development at BlockApps

Siloed data, lack of consistency, and confusing regulations are all challenges blockchain can address, says this expert. Photo courtesy

Houston has all the potential to lead the energy transition — it just needs to make sure it has all the right ingredients. According to John Chappell, a key ingredient is blockchain. He explains in a guest article for InnovationMap.

"Houston has earned its title as the Energy Transition Capital of the world, and now it has an opportunity to be a global leader of technology innovation when it comes to carbon emissions reporting," Chappell writes. "The oil and gas industry has set ambitious goals to reduce its carbon footprint, but the need for trustworthy emissions data to demonstrate progress is growing more apparent — and blockchain may hold the keys to enhanced transparency." Click here to read more.

Kyra Doolan, managing director at Texas HALO Fund

Kyra Doolan joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the huge opportunities for innovation within femtech. Photo via LinkedIn

When venture capitalist and angel investing expert Kyra Doolan started navigating her own fertility journey, her eyes were opened to a huge market opportunity across femtech. As managing director at Houston-based Texas HALO Fund, she took these opportunities to her team of investors.

"A lot of the issues that face women, are things that are not talked about," she says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, referencing things like miscarriage, injury during childbirth, etc. "For a lot time, women just sat back if they had these issues, and they kept it to themselves, so those problems weren't being addressed."

Doolan says she and other women aren't taught how to manage their own fertility journey, but it doesn't have to be that way. Click here to read more.

Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy

Empower Pharmacy has opened its new 86,000-square-foot facility features innovative technology for purifying water, automation, and more. Photo courtesy of Empower Pharmacy

Houston-based Empower Pharmacy has celebrated the grand opening of its new $55 million, 86,000-square-foot facility that includes extensive automation, a top-of-the line cleanroom, and equipment that generates purified water, clean steam, and clean compressed air. The space also features a warehouse capable of storing at least nine months of raw pharmaceutical ingredients to minimize supply chain problems.

"This innovative facility, combined with our more than 500 dedicated employees, enables us to increase our operational capacity, allowing us to prepare thousands of custom prescriptions each day for millions of patients across the country," Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy, says in a news release. "We are setting a new standard for compounded medicine, striving to achieve a superior pharmaceutical experience, from order placement to delivery."

The new Empower Pharmacy facility, at 7601 N. Sam Houston Parkway W., opened earlier this month. Click here to read more.

Kyra Doolan joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the huge opportunities for innovation within femtech. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston investor shares why she's focused on funding the future of femtech

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 98

Successful investors find gaps in the marketplace and direct funds into startups and technologies resolving those gaps. For Kyra Doolan, managing director at Houston-based Texas HALO Fund, femtech represents a huge opportunity for innovation.

"A lot of the issues that face women, are things that are not talked about," she says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, referencing things like miscarriage, injury during childbirth, etc. "For a lot time, women just sat back if they had these issues, and they kept it to themselves, so those problems weren't being addressed."

While Texas HALO Fund has invested in femtech since its first fund in 2012, Doolan shares on the show how she personally saw an investment opportunity with kegg, a fertility tracking device. Doolan says she and other women aren't taught how to manage their own fertility journey, but it doesn't have to be that way.

"I was at a stage in my life where my eyes were open to the gaps that are out there and the conversations that weren't being had," she says. "In looking into Kegg, it showed me what the market was and how many gapes there were in the market just around fertility."

Texas HALO Fund has a few femtech companies in its portfolio now, and the most recent addition is Houston-based Work & Mother, a company that builds out fully-equipped nursing accommodations in office buildings.

Despite it's growing femtech portfolio, the fund is industry agnostic, though, Doolan says, about a third of the companies Texas HALO Fund invests in reside in the health tech space. What makes HALO different is its focus on early-stage startups.

"We like to get in early," Doolan says. "We're, what you would historically consider 'pre-VC,' but now that's getting a little bit blurred. ... We're some of the earlier capital that's invested, and we continue to make investment as the companies continue to subsequent rounds."

Doolan shares more on her passion for femtech, as well as her advice for founders looking for funding and potential female investors looking to get into investing on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Unlike past awards programs hosted by Ignite Healthcare Network, the Ignite Madness winners accepted their awards via video call. Photo courtesy of Ignite

Houston female-focused health tech pitch competition names big winners

winner, winner

From the comfort of their own homes, several female entrepreneurs accepted investment and pitch prizes at the finals of an inaugural awards program created by a Houston-based, woman-focused health organization.

Ahead of the Ignite Madness finals on Thursday, October 29, Houston-based Ignite Healthcare Network named nine finalists that then pitched for three investment prizes. The finalists included:

  • Eden Prairie, Minnesota-based Abilitech Medical — medical device company that creates assistive devices to aid those with upper-limb neuromuscular conditions or injuries.
  • New Orleans, Louisiana-based Chosen Diagnostics — a biotech company focusing on custom treatment. First, Chosen is focused on creating two novel biomarker diagnostic kits — one for gastrointestinal disease in premature infants.
  • San Francisco, California-based Ejenta — which uses NASA tech and artificial intelligence to enhance connected care.
  • Highland, Maryland-based Emergency Medical Innovation — a company focused on emergency medicine like Bleed Freeze, a novel device for more efficiently treating nosebleeds.
  • Columbia, Missouri-based Healium — an app to quickly reduce burnout, self-manage anxiety, and stress.
  • Farmington, Connecticut-based Nest Collaborative — digital lactation solutions and support.
  • Palo Alto, California-based Nyquist Data — a smart search engine to enable medical device companies to get FDA approvals faster.
  • New Orleans-Louisiana based Obatala Sciences — a biotech startup working with research institutions across the globe to advance tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.
  • Perth, Australia-based OncoRes — a company that's developing a technology to provide surgeons with real-time assessment of tissue microstructure.
The inaugural event that mixed health care and basketball — two vastly different industries with strong connections to women — attracted support from partners and sponsors, such as Intel, Accenture, Morgan Lewis, Houston Methodist, Johnson & Johnson Innovation, and more, according to Ayse McCracken, founder and board chair of Ignite.

"Our partners and sponsors are an integral part of our organization" says McCracken. "Without each and every one of them, the networks, resources, and commitment to advancing women leaders, we would not have grown so rapidly in just four years and our IGNITE Madness event would not enjoy this vibrant ecosystem that now surrounds female entrepreneurs."

First up in selecting their winner for their investment was Texas Halo Fund. Chosen Diagnostics took home the $50,000 investment.

"While we were impressed by everyone who pitched tonight, one company stood out to us," says Kyra Doolan, managing partner. "[Chosen Diagnostics] exemplifies what we are looking for: an innovative solution, a strong CEO, and a real addressable market."

The second monetary award was presented by Tom Luby, director of TMC Innovation. The award was an $100,000 investment from the TMC Venture Fund, as well as admission to TMCx. The recipient of the investment was OncoRes.

"We are absolutely blown away," says Katharine Giles, founder of Onco. "We've already got a great link to Texas and looking forward to more."

The largest monetary award that was on the table was presented by Wavemaker Three-Sixty Health, a leading Southern-California based, early stage venture capital firm, for $150,000. However, at the time of the announcement, Managing Partner Jay Goss decided to award four startups an undisclosed amount of investment. Goss says he and his team will meet with each company to establish an investment.
The companies that were recognized by Wavemaker were: Healium, Ejenta, Emergency Medical Innovation, and Nest Collaborative.
Lastly, Ignite itself had $27,500 cash awards to give out to the pitch competition winners. The funds will be distributed between the winners. OncoRes took first place, Abilitech came in second place, and Obatala Sciences took third place.
From a Houston startup exit to the growth of a Rice University startup, here's the short stories of Houston innovation news you may have missed. Pexels

Houston energy company exits, 3 recent investments from local fund, and more innovation news

Short stories

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and it's likely some might have fallen through the cracks.

For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, Texas Halo Fund makes three new investments, a Houston energy company exits, a growing Rice University startup gets grants, and more.

Octopus Energy acquires Houston-founded Evolve Energy

The $5 million deal means a new focus on Texas for the new parent company. Photo via evolvemyenergy.com

London-based renewable energy company Octopus Energy announced that it's acquired Houston-founded Evolve Energy in a $5 million deal, which represents Octopus's $100 million expansion into the United States market.

Octopus, which reached Unicorn status with a $1 billion valuation in April, will start its expansion in Texas, according to a news release, operating under the new name Octopus Energy US. Evolve Energy, which was founded in 2018 by Michael Lee, is a Texas-based Capital Factory portfolio company and finished first place in the 2019 EarthX startup competition. The company also has a Silicon Valley office, in addition to its local operation in Houston's Galleria area.

"Octopus Energy is inspirational in growing a customer base of over 1 million households in just four years. It has done so while also achieving customer satisfaction scores similar to Netflix and Amazon. It matches our aspiration for innovation and we're thrilled to be part of the Octopus family," says Lee in the release. "The US energy market is rapidly moving towards ultra-low cost renewable energy and is prime for a true digital transformation."

Texas Halo Fund makes three new investments

Texas Money

Here are the three latest investments from Texas Halo Fund. Getty Images

Houston-based Texas Halo Fund has made three recent investments in August and September.

  • Nexus AI, based in Chicago, the workforce management tech company uses artificial intelligence and organizational behavioral science to predict the best teams or individuals for a project on the startup's cloud-based platform.
  • Rellevate is a Connecticut-based digital fintech company that optimizes employer-based digital account and financial services.
  • MFB Fertility, a Colorado company, has created game-changing at-home test stripts for assaying the hormone progesterone branded as Proov.

Rice University program seeking data projects

The Rice D2K Lab wants to help startups and small businesses solve business concerns with data science. Photo courtesy of Rice

Adata-focused lab at Rice University is seeking data challenges for its group of next generation of data scientists to solve. The Rice D2K Lab is looking for sponsors for its Rice D2K Capstone project in Spring 2021. Rice's D2K Capstone program forms interdisciplinary teams of advanced undergraduate and graduate students to solve pressing real-world data science challenges. The program is accepting project proposals for the Spring 2021 semester through Monday, October 19.

Click here to learn more about the program, and click here to get involved.

California startup joins Chevron's Catalyst Program

CTV has a new startup in its Catalyst Program. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures announced that Oakland, California-based Brimstone Energy Inc. has joined CTV's Catalyst Program to continue its development of its decarbonization platform, which focuses on the generation of low-emissions hydrogen, as well as various commodity products, according to a release.

"Brimstone Energy is excited to be supported by Chevron, a multi-national industrial company," says Cody Finke, Ph.D., co-founder and CEO of Brimstone Energy, in the release. "It is good to see Chevron continue to back companies with decarbonization in their mission."

Rice University-born startup racks up $12.5 million in grants

OpenStax is growing its access to free online textbooks. Image via openstax.org

Rice University's OpenStax is able to greatly expand its library of free online textbooks thanks to new grants totaling $12.5 million. The funds derive from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation and the Stand Together community, according to a press release from Rice.

The new funds will more than double OpenStax's files from 42 books to 90. Already, the platform has saved 14 million students around the world more than $1 billion.

"Nine years ago, we dreamed about solving the textbook affordability and access crisis for students," says Richard Baraniuk, the Victor E. Cameron Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice and founder and director of OpenStax, in the release. "Now, with this tremendous investment in open education, we will be able to not only accelerate educational access for tens of millions of students but also drive innovation in high-quality digital learning, which has become commonplace due to COVID-19."

OpenStax is planning to raise $30 million for continued library expansion as it aims to lower the barrier to higher education.

Here's what interactive, virtual events to log on to this month. Getty Images

10+ can't-miss virtual business and innovation events in Houston for September

Where to be online

While September 1 might mean nearing fall to some, here in Houston we've got several more weeks of summer weather. However, encroaching fall also means the beginning of many annual events that happen in the Houston innovation ecosystem. This year, they'll be pivoting to virtual programming as social distancing continues to be encouraged in light of the pandemic.

With that in mind, here are over 10 Houston innovation events you can attend virtually via online meetings. Be sure to register in advance, as most will send an access link ahead of the events.

September 3 — Going From Target to Drug Candidate: A Protocol for Early Drug Development

Join TMC's ACT program to discuss the step-by-step considerations when designing an early stage drug molecule, led by Entrepreneur in Residence Sarah Hein, PhD. This session will give an overview of the early discovery process, including considerations before starting. Attendees are encouraged to dialogue throughout the session, and to bring their own real-life examples and challenges.

The event will take place online on Thursday, September 3, at 6 pm. Register here.

September 8 — Prophetic City Lecture with Dr. Steven L. Klineberg

Join The Ion and Stephen L. Klineberg, founding director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, for a discussion on how Houston exemplifies the trends that are transforming the social and political landscape across America. Klineberg recently released his book, Prophetic City: Houston on the Cusp of a Changing America, that explores over 30 years of research on Houston.

The event will take place online on Tuesday, September 8, at noon. Register here.

September 8 — Capital Factory's Latinx in Tech Summit

Capital Factory welcomes you to its first virtual Latinx in Tech Summit. Attendees can look forward to a keynote chat from a serial entrepreneur or investor, insightful discussion sessions, a startup showcase pitch competition, Epic Office Hours, and panels on relevant topics facing the tech ecosystem.

The event will take place online on Tuesday, September 8, at noon. Register here.

September 10 — HXTV| VC Ask Me Anything Virtual Event featuring Texas HALO Fund

Get some virtual face time with Texas HALO Fund's four managing directors at this free, livestreamed event.

The event will take place online on Thursday, September 10, at 1 pm. Register here.

September 14-18 — General Assembly's Shift[ED] Summit

Now more than ever Texans need to be able to shift in their careers. From the current rate of unemployment due to COVID-19 to the rising need to be able to learn new technologies, careers aren't linear any more. Learn to shift your skill set through a week long of programming with experts across the Lone Star State from General Assembly.

This event will take place online from Monday, September 14, to Friday, September 18. Register here.

September 15-17 — 18th Annual Rice Alliance Energy Tech Venture Forum

Meet the future of energy tech at the annual Rice Alliance Energy Tech Venture Forum. For three days, 40 companies will pitch virtually across energy technology, from power storage and carbon modeling to hydrogen innovations and solar energy.

The event will take place online from Tuesday, September 15, to Thursday, September 17. Register here.

September 17 — Now What? Resilience and Transformation Strategies for Small Businesses

The landscape of how business gets done has undeniably changed in the era of COVID-19 - quite likely for years to come. Going digital means more than just digital calls, but instead requires a transformation in how companies should grow and ensure business continuity. Join The Ion and its guest speakers as they discuss how they've adapted to this brave new digital world and what companies can do not only to survive but thrive within it.

The event will take place online on Thursday, September 17, at 1 pm. Register here.

September 22 — Venture Debt Workshop

The Houston Angel Network has teamed up with Silicon Valley Bank to explore venture debt and how it can support your investments and company.

The event will take place online on Tuesday, September 22, at 11:30 am. Register here.

September 23 — Why Venture Capitalists are Investing in "Software Beyond the Screen"

Software has had an amazing decade, as it has transitioned from desktop computers into the cloud and onto smartphones. In the process, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists have smartly capitalized on this trend. The next decade will focus on software making an even more important jump: moving beyond the screen and into the real world around us. In this talk hosted by Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Lilie), Sunil Nagaraj of Ubiquity Ventures will explore how software is beginning to animate, understand and navigate the real world with profound implications.

The event will take place online on Wednesday, September 23, at 4 pm. Register here.

September 25 — Design Thinking for Tech and Innovation Workshop | Idea Generation

Join The Ion and speaker Tanveer Chaudhary to get a hands on lesson on how to generate ideas to solve your problem and how to express the finer details of the ideas to gain more clarity.

The event will take place online on Tuesday, September 29, at 7 pm. Register here.

September 29 — Startups and Venture Capital Investing in a Pandemic Environment

Join the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Rice's Computer Science department, and featured Rice alumni as we discuss how COVID19 has affected launching and investing in startups.

The event will take place online on Friday, September 25, at 11:30 am. Register here.

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Report: Houstonians lose days-worth of time each year due to rush hour

not in the fast lane

Traffic is a part of life in Houston. But a new study quantifies just how much time the average Bayou City dweller spends sitting in rush hour gridlock every year—and the results are eye opening.

According to a study released this month by CoPilot, Houstonians lose nearly four days of time each year due to rush hour commuting.

The report found that rush hour extends Houstonians' commute by an extra 22 minutes per day. Annually, that totaled an additional 91.6 hours commuting due to rush hour.

This earned the Houston area (including the Woodlands and Sugar Land) a No. 8 spot on CoPilot's list of cities where commuters lose the most time to rush hour.

Evening commutes saw the highest increase in time in Houston, with the average commuter spending 14 additional minutes on roadways due to rush hour. Morning rush hour in Houston added about eight minutes to commuters' daily drives.

Houston was the only Texas city to make CoPilot's list of the top 15 cities that lost the most time to rush hour traffic. New York drivers lost the most time to rush hour, which adds about 32 minutes to daily commutes and 132 hours a year, according to the report. Los Angeles drivers lost the second-most time, followed by urban Honolulu, Miami, Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Birmingham, Alabama.

The report found that drivers in Houston spend about eight more minutes commuting during rush hour than the average driver in the county. That totals to about 30 more hours per year than the average U.S. driver.

Commute times have been dropping nationally, reaching a low of 25.6 minutes in 2021 compared to 27.6 minutes in 2019, as more workers have transitioned to hybrid schedules or working from home, according to CoPilot

In 2020, Houston drivers even witnessed a 33 percent drop in traffic compared to in 2019, according to a study from Rice.

Still, Houston roadways are consistently ranked among the most congested in the country. Last year, a similar study found that the typical Houston driver wasted 46 hours due to traffic congestion.

Portions of the 610 West Loop are notorious for being ranked as the state's most congested roadways, and other stretches of roads are known as some of the worst bottlenecks in Texas.

Houston-based creator economy platform goes live nationally

so clutch

An app that originally launched on Houston college campuses has announced it's now live nationwide.

Clutch founders Madison Long and Simone May set out to make it easier for the younger generation to earn money with their skill sets. After launching a beta at local universities last fall, Clutch's digital marketplace is now live for others to join in.

The platform connects brands to its network of creators for reliable and authentic work — everything from social media management, video creation, video editing, content creation, graphic design projects, and more. With weekly payments to creators and an inclusive platform for users on both sides of the equation, Clutch aims to make digital collaboration easier and more reliable for everyone.

“We’re thrilled to bring our product to market to make sustainable, authentic lifestyles available to everyone through the creator economy," says May, CTO and co-founder of Clutch. "We’re honored to be part of the thriving innovation community here in Houston and get to bring more on-your-own-terms work opportunities to all creators and businesses through our platform.”

In its beta, Clutch facilitated collaborations for over 200 student creators and 50 brands — such as DIGITS and nama. The company is founded with a mission of "democratizing access to information and technology and elevating the next generation for all people," according to a news release from Clutch. In the beta, 75 percent of the creators were people of color and around half of the businesses were owned by women and people of color.

“As a Clutch Creator, I set my own pricing, schedule and services when collaborating on projects for brands,” says Cathy Syfert, a creator through Clutch. “Clutch Creators embrace the benefits of being a brand ambassador as we create content about the products we love, but do it on behalf of the brands to help the brands grow authentically."

The newly launched product has the following features:

  • Creator profile, where users can share their services, pricing, and skills and review inquiries from brands.
  • Curated matching from the Clutch admin team.
  • Collab initiation, where users can accept or reject incoming collab requests with brands.
  • Collab management — communication, timing, review cycles — all within the platform.
  • In-app payments with a weekly amount selected by the creators themselves.
  • Seamless cancellation for both brands and creators.
Clutch raised $1.2 million in seed funding from Precursor Ventures, Capital Factory, HearstLab, and more. Clutch was originally founded as Campus Concierge in 2021 and has gone through the DivInc Houston program at the Ion.

Madison Long, left, and Simone May co-founded Clutch. Photo courtesy of Clutch