This digital shopping assistant relocated to Texas last year to focus on the business-friendly market. Courtesy of ModeSens

Former Microsoft engineer Brian Li wanted to help his wife, Jing Leng, a personal shopper, make smart purchases for her clients seeking luxury clothing. The couple found it impractical and time consuming to sift through multiple websites in search of clothing that was the best fit.

Li, now CEO of ModeSens, was inspired in 2015 to develop a personal shopping tool. The name comes from rearranging the French phrase "sens de la mode," which means "fashion sense."

"It started out as something that Brian worked on in his free time. But after they started using it, they realized that other people would find it useful," says Krystle Craycraft, CMO of ModeSens. "Another resource like this does not exist. We are the only company that aggregates information at the product level, presenting information to consumers in a way that is easy to navigate, and all in one place."

Since launching in 2015 in Seattle, the company relocated to Texas last year. Now, headquartered in Dallas, the company is building a large pool of users in major cities throughout Texas. ModeSens sees a growing connection with Houston in terms of customers and fashion retailers.

Li moved the business "because Texas is a good place to do business," Craycraft says. "Many businesses are following the trend of moving to Texas because of the great climate to do business in. We love Texas."

ModeSens, using its database of information, gives luxury fashion shoppers important information about products as they search, making for a more efficient, satisfying purchase. For a given item, ModeSens provides members a list of retailers who have the item in stock, the price comparison across retailers, available colors, designer information, product reviews, special promotions, and more.

You can download the free app, create a free account, and start saving on luxury goods by searching the site or scanning barcodes in the store. As ModeSens specializes in luxury goods, they partner with almost 200 brands such as Neiman Marcus, SAKS, Gucci, Dolce & Gobana, Lane Crawford and other premier designers.

"We connect with clients through several different affiliate networks as well as direct partnerships," says Craycraft. ModeSens partners exclusively with high-end retailers, filling a specific niche for the first time.

Leng, serving as the Fashion Director at ModeSens, works with these retail partners, curating content and promoting their products in a way that helps customers buy confidently.

"The customer is the focus of ModeSens; getting them what they need to make an informed decision is our top priority," says Craycraft. "Other fashion shopping platforms show products from Forever 21 all the way up to luxury brands, but for our customers looking for luxury products, a lot of those stores are just not relevant to them. Sorting through them becomes tedious."

ModeSens puts the answers to at customers' questions at their fingertips, once signed up with a free membership.

With the brand-new release of the barcode scanning feature, customers can have access to the same comparative information while physically in a store, as well as online.

"This is a total game-changer in the industry; there is no one else doing this," says Craycraft.

Using the app, shoppers simply scan the barcode of any of the many retailers who are partnered with ModeSens, revealing detailed information that can guide their purchase.

ModeSens is building an online community of luxury shoppers that can collaborate to find exactly what they are looking for in an authentic way. Through the website, members can upload pictures of the products that they have acquired, write reviews, provide helpful information to others, and ask questions.

"We want this to be a place where anyone can share their thoughts, and photos without feeling too intimidated to contribute," Craycraft says.

OrchidBox's smart terrarium fits on your desktop. Courtesy OrchidBox

Desktop terrarium startup promises plants that never die

Growing business

A Dallas startup has invented a smart terrarium with minimal maintenance designed to keep your plants alive. Called OrchidBox, it handles everything from easy succulents to hard-to-grow plants like the Venus flytrap.

The technology senses when the plant needs water and syncs with the sun for proper lighting.

Founder Nathan Hollis, a 26-year-old Dallas native, used his background in computer science and his love of plants to create an acrylic box equipped with LED lighting and a watering system.

The box measures 4x4x7 inches — small enough to fit on your work desk or bedside table. You can grow any plant that fits inside the box. An app allows you to select a pre-designed environment for your plant, and you can set a schedule for how much light and water it needs.

Hollis has a huge plant collection at home, some of which he has owned for seven years.

"It's sad, I don't think young people understand just how diverse our wildlife is, and we are losing more and more plant species every day," he says.

The name OrchidBox was selected to educate people about plant varieties and endangered species.

"While most people think of the stereotypical store-bought orchids, there are actually 50,000 species of orchids, some that are very, very bizarre," he says. "Most people don't know that, and some don't even know what an orchid is, so we wanted to take the opportunity to teach people."

The mini terrarium concept has been three years in the making. When he was in college, Hollis utilized his programming and mechanical engineering education to make climate-controlled devices that were larger, before sizing down his design to something that could adorn people's tabletops.

The company has competitors, such as Biopod Smart Microhabitat and EcoQube Air, but OrchidBox is the only company with a patent, said Taylor Mason, whose company It Crowd Marketing is helping Hollis with the media buzz.

Hollis had a full-time job but quit in February to focus exclusively on this venture. The product is available for pre-order which you can do here.

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This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

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$100M Houston VC fund launches to back technical founders

show me the money

A new venture capital fund has launched with an initial $100 million mission of supporting founders with innovative critical infrastructure solutions.

Fathom Fund, which is looking to build out a portfolio of advanced computing, material science, climate resilience, and aerospace startups, announced they've launched with an initial close of over $100 million. The fund is founded by longtime investors Managing Partners Paul Sheng and Eric Bielke.

"We believe recent technological advances have accelerated the pace of scientific discovery, increasing the pool of technology companies that can produce venture-scale returns," Sheng says in a news release.

According to the fund, it hopes to bridge the gap for early stage capital for physical innovations and "moonshot" projects.

“What’s lacking in venture is rigorous technical diligence at the early stages and a playbook to scale these innovations at the pace necessary to lead industries," Bielke adds. "With this launch, we are looking forward to supporting founders with some of the most disruptive and novel ideas.”

The founder duo will bring each of the career expertise to their future portfolio companies. Sheng spent decades at McKinsey & Co and was the firm's head of the Global Energy & Materials practice. Bielke is a former director at Temasek’s Emerging Technologies Fund.

Houston is the 4th best U.S. city for Black professionals, report finds

Black History Month

In acknowledgement of Black History Month 2024, a new report compiled by Black employees at online rental marketplace Apartment List has ranked Houston the No. 4 best U.S. city for Black professionals.

Apartment List reviewed 76 cities across four major categories to determine the rankings: community and representation; economic opportunity; housing opportunity; and business environment.

Houston earned a score of 63.01 out of a total 100 points, making it the second-highest-ranked city in Texas for Black professionals, behind San Antonio (No. 3).

The city earned top-10 rankings in three out of the four main categories:

  • No. 3 – Business environment
  • No. 4 – Community and representation
  • No. 10 – Economic opportunity
  • No. 21 – Housing opportunity

Houston is commended for its strong Black business environment and economy, but there is some room for improvement when it comes to housing. Similarly to Apartment List's 2022 report – which also placed Houston at No. 4 – a little less than half (44 percent) of all Black Houston households are spending over 30 percent of their income on housing, which has increased two percent since 2019.

Houston has a larger Black population than San Antonio, at 19 percent, but its Black population share is overall lower than other cities in the top 10.

"Furthermore, the community is well-represented in some critical occupations: 20 percent of teachers are Black, as are 21 percent of doctors," the report said. "Houston is also home to the HBCU Texas Southern University, helping a job market when the median Black income is several thousand dollars above average."

Houston also has the highest rate of Black-owned businesses in the entire state, at 18 percent.

"From the Mitochondria Gallery to Ten Skyncare and Wisdom’s Vegan Bakery, Houston has it all!" the report said.

Here's how Houston stacked up in other metrics:

  • Black homeownership: 42 percent
  • Black lawyers: 14 percent
  • Black managers: 14 percent

Elsewhere in Texas
Texas cities dominated the overall top 10. San Antonio ranked just above Houston, with Dallas (No. 6) and Austin (No. 7) not too far behind.

San Antonio came in less than 2.5 points ahead of Houston with a total score of 65.44 points. The report praised San Antonio's scores across its economic opportunity (No. 2), housing opportunity (No. 7), and community and representation (No. 10). The city ranked No. 20 for its Black business environment.

But like Houston, San Antonio also fell behind in its Black homeownership rates, according to the study.

"While the Black homeownership rate is higher than average at 44 percent, the homeownership gap (Black homeownership rate - non-Black homeownership rate) quite low at -19 percent," the report's author wrote. "Perhaps this could be explained by San Antonio’s overall homeownership rate, which is also lower than the state’s average. Additionally, the lower homeownership gap could explain the cost burden rate also being lower than average at 41 percent."

The top 10 cities for Black professionals are:

  • No. 1 – Washington, D.C.
  • No. 2 – Atlanta, Georgia
  • No. 3 – San Antonio, Texas
  • No. 4 – Houston, Texas
  • No. 5 – Palm Bay, Florida
  • No. 6 – Dallas, Texas
  • No. 7 – Austin, Texas
  • No. 8 – Colorado Springs, Colorado
  • No. 9 – Lakeland, Florida
  • No. 10 – Charlotte, North Carolina
The full report and its methodology can be found on apartmentlist.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston expert: Can Houston replicate and surpass the success of Silicon Valley?

guest column

Anyone who knows me knows, as a Houston Startup Founder, I often muse about the still developing potential for startups in Houston, especially considering the amount of industry here, subject matter expertise, capital, and size.

For example, Houston is No. 2 in the country for Fortune 500 Companies — with 26 Bayou City companies on the list — behind only NYC, which has 47 ranked corporations, according to Fortune.

Considering layoffs, fund closings, and down rounds, things aren’t all that peachy in San Francisco for the first time in a long time, and despite being a Berkeley native, I’m rooting for Houston now that I’m a transplant.

Let’s start by looking at some stats.

While we’re not No. 1 in all areas, I believe we have the building blocks to be a major player in startups, and in tech (and not just energy and space tech). How? If the best predictor of future success is history, why not use the template of the GOAT of all startup cities: San Francisco and YCombinator. Sorry fellow founders – you’ve heard me talk about this repeatedly.

YCombinator is considered the GOAT of Startup Accelerators/Incubators based on:

  1. The Startup success rate: I’ve heard it’s as high as 75 percent (vs. the national average of 5 to 10 percent) Arc Search says 50 percent of YC Co’s fail within 12 years – not shabby.
  2. Their startup-to-unicorn ratio: 5 to 7 percent of YC startups become unicorns depending on the source — according to an Arc Search search (if you haven’t tried Arc Search do – super cool).
  3. Their network.

YC also parlayed that success into a "YC Startup School" offering:

  1. Free weekly lessons by YC partners — sometimes featuring unicorn alumni
  2. A document and video Library (YC SAFE, etc)
  3. Startup perks for students (AWS cloud credits, etc.)
  4. YC co-founder matching to help founders meet co-founders

Finally, there’s the over $80 billion in returns, according to Arc search, they’ve generated since their 2005 inception with a total of 4,000 companies in their portfolio at over $600 billion in value. So GOAT? Well just for perspective there were a jaw-dropping 18,000 startups in startup school the year I participated – so GOAT indeed.

So how do they do it? Based on anecdotal evidence, their winning formula is said to be the following well-oiled process:

  1. Bring over 282 startups (the number in last cohort) to San Francisco for 90 days to prototype, refine the product, and land on the go-to-market strategy. This includes a pre-seed YC SAFE investment of a phased $500,000 commitment for a fixed min 7 percent of equity, plus more equity at the next round’s valuation, according to YC.
  2. Over 50 percent of the latest cohort were idea stage and heavily AI focused.
  3. Traction day: inter-portfolio traction the company. YC has over 4,000 portfolio companies who can and do sign up for each other’s companies products because “they’re told to."
  4. Get beta testers and test from YC portfolio companies and YC network.
  5. If they see the traction scales to a massively scalable business, they lead the seed round and get this: schedule and attend the VC meetings with the founders.
  6. They create a "fear of missing out" mentality on Sand Hill Road as they casually mention who they’re meeting with next.
  7. They block competitors in the sector by getting the top VC’s to co-invest with then in the seed so competitors are locked out of the A list VC funding market, who then are up against the most well-funded and buzzed about players in the space.

If what I've seen is true, within a six-month period a startup idea is prototyped, tested, pivoted, launched, tractioned, seeded, and juiced for scale with people who can ‘make’ the company all in their corner, if not already on their board.

So how on earth can Houston best this?

  1. We have a massive amount of businesses — around 200,000 — and people — an estimated 7.3 million and growing.
  2. We have capital in search of an identity beyond oil.
  3. Our Fortune 500 companies that are hiring consultants for things that startups here that can do for free, quicker, and for a fraction of the extended cost.
  4. We have a growing base of tech talent for potential machine learning and artificial intelligence talent
  5. A sudden shot at the increasingly laid off big tech engineers.
  6. We have more accelerators and incubators.

What do we need to pull it off?

  1. An organized well-oiled YC-like process
  2. An inter-Houston traction process
  3. An "Adopt a Startup" program where local companies are willing to beta test and iterate with emerging startup products
  4. We have more accelerators but the cohorts are small — average five to 10 per cohort.
  5. Strategic pre-seed funding, possibly with corporate partners (who can make the company by being a client) and who de-risk the investment.
  6. Companies here to use Houston startup’s products first when they’re launched.
  7. A forum to match companies’ projects or labs groups etc., to startups who can solve them.
  8. A process in place to pull all these pieces together in an organized, structured sequence.

There is one thing missing in the list: there has to be an entity or a person who wants to make this happen. Someone who sees all the pieces, and has the desire, energy and clout to make it happen; and we all know this is the hardest part. And so for now, our hopes of besting YC may be up in the air as well.

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Jo Clark is the founder of Circle.ooo, a Houston-based tech startup that's streamlining events management.