3 Houston innovators to know this week

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This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Stephanie Tsuru of SheSpace, Fareed Zein of Unytag, and Libby Covington of The Craig Group. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from smart city tech to startup marketing — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Stephanie Tsuru, founder of SheSpace

Stephanie Tsuru joins this week's Houston Innovators Podcast to share her growth plans for 2023. Photo via LinkedIn

SheSpace opened with a splash, Founder Stephanie Tsure tells InnovationMap on last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. After surviving through the pandemic, the female-focused coworking hub expanded — with a new type of membership as well as physically.

"We had so many people who wanted to be a part of the community — so we started a social networking group," she says.

Now, the entrepreneur is looking to expand this year to open satellite locations. She shares more on the show. Read more.

Fareed Zein, founder of Unytag

Unytag celebrated a big win at the Ion recently — and has taking its prizes into the new year. Photo via LinkedIn

As the father of four competitive-tennis-playing daughters, Fareed Zein spent years driving “from California to Florida,” he says. Throughout those years, he and his wife racked up toll violation after toll violation. “I thought, there’s got to be an easier way,” he recalls.

Fortunately, Zein wasn’t just any sports dad with thousands of miles on his car. The University of Texas grad put in 26 years developing IT systems at Shell. He retired from that role in 2015, which allowed him to spend more time on the road with his youngest daughter, now playing for UT Austin. In 2019, he used his technology expertise to start Unytag, a company focused on making it easier to drive around the country as the Zein family had so many times.

Unytag is a system that allows users to trash their multiple toll tags in favor of just one RFID (radio-frequency identification) sticker and an app. The app, which Zein says is currently in its testing phase, will be available on both IOS and Android phones in the second half of the year.

“A phone is a device everyone has nowadays, right?” says Zein. “Just like you use your phone to pay for a latte at Starbucks, we are going to simplify how you pay tolls.” Read more.

Libby Covington, partner at The Craig Group

It's undeniable that businesses are facing economic uncertainty in 2023. Here's what marketing tools to tap into to navigate the challenges ahead. Photo via LinkedIn

Make 2023 the year of optimized marketing for your startup — that's Libby Covington's advice. Partner at The Craig Group, she outlined her tips in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"Continued growth starts with goal setting and coming up with a marketing and business development strategy that fits the unique needs of a business," she writes. "This works most effectively when a company’s management team ensures that marketing and sales are working in lockstep. They are two sides of the same coin and need to see themselves that way to maximize results and therefore profit." Read more.

It's undeniable that businesses are facing economic uncertainty in 2023. Here's what marketing tools to tap into to navigate the challenges ahead. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: 5 marketing musts for business growth plans in 2023

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All indications point to a fair amount of economic uncertainty in the coming months. I think a lot of B-to-B companies, across many industries, are going to retrench in their spending, and deals will likely be harder to close because more approvals will be required. Still, there are going to be those companies who will continue to grow because they are using the right go to market strategies and tactics.

Here are some of the things for high growth company management teams to consider doing.

Invest in a CRM tool — and the time to set it up

A customer relations management, or CRM, tool is an essential component of data measurement — and every company needs to closely track those key performance indicators towards revenue and growth goals.

A CRM tool doesn’t have to be expensive. There are many low initial investment options such as Hubspot, SharpSpring, and others. The investment then becomes the staff or consultant time to set it up correctly so that it meets a company’s needs and to continue to monitor it.

How much time is spent depends on what you want the system to do. Some companies run their website out of a CRM platform, or send automated emails, or do their other social media through it. Others only use it to track their contacts and sales.

Data may show desired progress — or it may show stagnation — and a team needs to be able to analyze information expediently to reformulate a plan, or pivot to a new one, if needed.

Prioritize the digital toolkit

While companies have a lot of different digital marketing tools at their disposal, there are five basic elements to consider optimizing. If the resources aren’t available to tackle them all at once, the management team needs to determine their top priorities.

Website design and content: Think about this as a company’s virtual lobby. A well-designed website with relevant content is essential for attracting new business. Ranking well in organic web searches — SEO — is also a very important component.

Social media: LinkedIn, with its business focus, is a great place to start. Companies can share their story, interact with potential investors, and build relationships with potential clients.

Email marketing: An email marketing newsletter is the logical step after developing a compelling company website. The content should benefit the reader. What can you do for them?

Content marketing: Blog posts, videos and ebooks are just some of the value added content you can share with potential investors and clients. What makes your company different from your competitors?

Paid advertising: Companies can use paid advertising to target potential new customers through online channels such as search engines and social media. The nice thing about paid advertising is that the attribution is there — companies can pinpoint exactly what messaging resonated with a potential client.

Let goals drive strategy

SEO and digital ads are not the solution for every company. Some companies need to make only a handful of deals each year to reach revenue goals. Broad-based digital marketing is not the best strategy for these players. What is? Often content.

The internet has given potential customers unparalleled ability to comparison shop. They want to know what a company does differently than its competitors. Whether a service or product is cheaper or faster or easier to work with. So tell them.

In addition to web content, speaking opportunities at conferences are a powerful way for companies to position themselves as differentiated in a given marketplace.

On the flip side, high volume players who require a lot of smaller deals would do very well with a far-reaching digital outreach approach.

Listen to experts

No one is an expert in all areas. And they shouldn’t try to be. Whether that is financial analysis or digital marketing, hiring the right people to fill in any deficiencies is the smart move.

Trying to wing it through effort and good intentions is often frustrating for everyone. With digital marketing and lead generation, a lack of expertise can sometimes result in implementing a product or service that’s not really going to generate the expected results.

If a company spends big money on a digital marketing tactic, and it fails to land new business, then the assumption might be that digital marketing doesn’t work. That’s often not the case. It was simply the wrong tool for the job. An expert would help pinpoint the correct one.

Measure success first by revenue

Digital marketing should primarily be responsible for moving potential customers down the sales funnel. And sales revenue is the best evidence that the marketing was effective.

There has always been that push and pull with sales and marketing about what actions actually contribute to closing a deal but a good CRM tool will help.

There are other ways to measure the success of any campaign:

  • The number of visitors to a company’s website or social media page
  • The level of engagement a campaign generates or the amount of time a prospect engages with content
  • The number of leads generated, along with the quality of that lead
  • The return on investment

Continued growth starts with goal setting and coming up with a marketing and business development strategy that fits the unique needs of a business. This works most effectively when a company’s management team ensures that marketing and sales are working in lockstep. They are two sides of the same coin and need to see themselves that way to maximize results and therefore profit.

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Libby Covington is partner at Houston-based The Craig Group, a strategic digital marketing solutions consulting firm. Her specialty is in understanding how sales and marketing work together effectively.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Allie Danziger of Ampersand, Wesley Okeke of CUBIO, and Libby Covington of The Craig Group. 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 health tech to future of work — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Allie Danziger, co-founder and CEO of Ampersand Professionals

Allie Danziger, is bridging the gap between the next generation — and their future employers. Photo courtesy of Ampersand

Allie Danziger has established herself as an expert in the future of work and all things Gen Z in the workplace. The founder of an internship matching and training platform called Ampersand, she's contributed numerous articles on related topics, including "The Great Resignation," which is affecting the workforce across industries. It's also something her platform can address, as she explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"When someone leaves, other people take on that work. If you don't hire proper support for the people still there, you see the trickle. You see more and more people leave, because they are just burnt out," Danziger says. "By hiring interns or entry-level support, it shows the employees still there that you've got them."

Danziger shares more on Ampersand's future and navigating the Gen Z workforce on the podcast. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Wesley Okeke, CEO of CUBIO Innovation Center

Wesley Okeke has established some much-needed new lab space in the Texas Medical Center. Photo courtesy

Look alive, Houston biotech innovators. CUBIO Innovation Center has some new space available for you. What originated as mostly coworking space, CUBIO has pivoted to provide more lab space for early stage biotech startups. The latest edition to CUBIO in the Texas Medical Center? A brand new wet lab.

“We have all the necessary equipment for a fully functioning biotech lab,” Okeke tells InnovationMap.

"For those working with cell culture, the dry lab provides almost no resources or infrastructure for you to build it out," he continues. "A wet lab brings in the necessary equipment and environment to be successful in developing pharmaceuticals, drug delivery devices, whatever you need in the biotech space.” Click here to read more.

Libby Covington, partner at The Craig Group

What should Houston startups know about marketing? Photo courtesy

How should startups be marketing themselves to venture capitalists? Libby Covington has some advice in a guest article for InnovationMap — from making your marketing plan and catering specifically to VCs.

"It is important to focus on efficient top line revenue growth as a business grows and scales," she writes. "Digital marketing is an important part of the overall growth plan, and should not be overlooked. The clock starts ticking on profitability growth once a business owner partners with investors. Make sure your business has an effective plan to meet the goals set out." Click here to read more.

What should Houston startups know about marketing? Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert weighs in on marketing from an investor’s perspective

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Just what do investors want to see from a startup with regards to the company’s marketing? I recently spoke on this topic to a cohort of early-stage technology startup entrepreneurs at Softeq Venture Studio, an accelerator program that helps founders build investable technologies and businesses.

Here are some of the highlights of our discussion.

Building the base for marketing efforts

It’s important for company founders to think about the bigger picture. When we’re talking to clients at Craig Group, we talk about market growth and revenue growth, not just marketing. Because that’s what the investors are thinking about.

Things like the EBITDA margin and recurring revenue are important to investors. They prefer predictable revenue growth rather than uneven or project based fluctuations . Investors also expect the founders to have a plan for the scalability of their business.

Entrepreneurs need to consider how they are going to scale and where they are going to scale. What markets are they going to address and what’s the plan for that — what’s the timeframe?

An exit plan is also a must because even if the founder is planning on staying in the business, investors are seeking a return on investment with another transaction after the successful growth, and profitability, of a company. Founders have to begin with the end in mind.

A marketing strategy that appeals to investors

There are hundreds of private equity firms interested in lower middle-market companies, defined by having between $2 million and $20 million in EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization. It’s competitive but there’s a lot of money to be put to work.

Startup founders need to focus on the basics first when setting the expectations for marketing investment. And they need to know who their customers are and where their ideal target audience is.

Considerations include the serviceable obtainable market (SOM) which is what the company thinks that they can logically support today. That is separate from the serviceable addressable market (SAM) and the total addressable market, which is what a company will work towards penetrating.

You want to know how many of these potential customers exist, and to do that, you need data. If you don’t have it, you can look at adjacent markets. Build the customer acquisition cost that you can afford. It’s not as important what the number starts out with but how it trends, as it should become more efficient over time.

The marketing investment will grow top-line revenue, target the most profitable customers, be able to reach potential customers in more scale and more quickly than sales efforts alone, and elevate the perception of the company prior to the investor’s exit.

Key parts of a strategic marketing plan

The most expensive customer is a new customer.

In the marketing cycle, "pre-awareness" requires the biggest marketing investment. If potential customers don’t understand what a product or service is, it is going to cost the company a lot to educate them on a new category, so that is best left to those with more resources than a middle-market startup.

A more cost-effective way to reach customers is during the research or comparison part of the marketing cycle. You can demonstrate what differentiates you from your competitors. Are you selling on price? Are you selling on service? Think about a side by side comparison.

Once the buyer has reached the decision and loyalty part of the sales funnel and purchased from the company, then the marketing has been effective, and customer retention becomes a key focus.

In complicated business to business sales cycles, there might be a number of people involved in making the decision to buy your product or service. What is important to the IT decision maker might not be important to the potential customer in finance or purchasing. You need to have compelling messaging for all of them, which means you need your marketing to be like your customer, and meet their needs directly.

Sales and marketing 101

Many middle market companies don’t pay enough attention to their front door, which is a company’s website.

Your potential customer is going to be on your website often but certainly 20 to 30 minutes before a sales meeting. And if they don’t find something compelling, they probably won’t be inclined to move forward with your product or service.

Digital strategy and content geared toward both awareness and lead generation can help with the ultimate goal of profitability.

Entrepreneurs shouldn’t spend on marketing tactics until they have a solid strategy, but once they do start investing in advertising or other marketing tactics, they should be able to get metrics and ROI on their campaigns from their marketing partners.

It is important to focus on efficient top line revenue growth as a business grows and scales. Digital marketing is an important part of the overall growth plan, and should not be overlooked. The clock starts ticking on profitability growth once a business owner partners with investors. Make sure your business has an effective plan to meet the goals set out.

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Libby Covington is partner at Houston-based The Craig Group, a strategic digital marketing solutions consulting firm. Her specialty is in understanding how sales and marketing work together effectively.

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10 can't-miss Houston business and innovation events for February

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It's time to look at what's on the agenda for February for Houston innovators — from pitch competitions to networking events.

Here's a roundup of events not to miss this month. Mark your calendars and register accordingly.

Note: This post might be updated to add more events.

Feb. 8 — Digital Marketing Luncheon

Join Insperity, a partner of The Cannon, and digital marketing expert, Danny Gavin, at The Cannon Downtown for a lunch and learn.

The event is Wednesday, February 8, at noon, at The Cannon Downtown. Click here to register.

Feb. 9 — Innovation on Tap: Fred Higgs, Engineering at Rice University

Discuss research in the speaker’s engineering lab at Rice University on key Industry 4.0 technologies, namely additive manufacturing.

The event is Thursday, February 9, at 4 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

February 10 — Women in Leadership Conference 

The 23rd annual Women in Leadership Conference will be held in-person at Rice University. The conference has been a beacon of inspiration in the Houston community, empowering women to accomplish their career goals. In panel discussions and interactive workshops, attendees hear from leaders across different industries, explore various approaches to leadership, and discuss future opportunities for success.

The event is Friday, February 10, at 8 am, at McNair Hall at Rice University. Click here to register.

Feb. 15 — Real Talk from Real VCs

Join this event for a candid fireside chat on venture capital and its role in supporting and growing innovative startups.

The event is Wednesday, February 15, at 5:30 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 16 — Engage VC: Lerer Hippeau

Lerer Hippeau is an early-stage venture capital firm founded and operated in New York City. Since 2010, they have invested in entrepreneurs who embody audacity, endurance, and winning mindset – good people with great ideas who aren't afraid to do hard things. Join the HX Venture Fund to hear Caitlin Strandberg, Partner at Lerer Hippeau discuss her perspective on how to build and scale a great company, what early-stage investors are looking for, why Houston, and market trends among other topics.

The event is Thursday, February 16, at 8:30 am, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 16 — Female Founders and Funders

Calling all rockstar female founders and investors in the Houston area. Mark your calendars for this month's Female Founders and Funders meetup. Coffee and breakfast is provided and the event is free to attend.

The event is Thursday, February 16, at 9 am, at Sesh Coworking. Click here to register.

Feb. 21 — Web3 & HOU: Demystifying the Web3 Space Panel I

Join us to learn more about Web3 and its numerous applications.

The event is Tuesday, February 21, at 6 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 22 — The Trailblazer’s Guide to Cultivating Authenticity

In this fun and interactive workshop presented by Erica D’Eramo of Two Peirs Consulting, we’ll look at how to foster a leadership style that works for you, even in the absence of role models.

The event is Wednesday, February 22, at 2 pm, at Sesh Coworking. Click here to register.

Feb. 22 — Houston Startup Showcase

The Houston Startup Showcase is a year-long series of monthly pitch competitions. Founders will pitch at the Ion and compete for the grand prize package. Watch the startups pitch their company and see who the judges will name the champion of the Houston Startup Showcase 2023.

The event is Wednesday, February 22, at 6 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 23 — Navigating Innovation in the Corporate World

Join us for a fireside chat with leaders from Houston's largest employers, including Microsoft and Chevron to discuss how they have navigated successful careers in technology and innovation.

The event is Thursday, February 23, at 11:30 am, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 27-March 2 — Houston Tech Rodeo

The Houston Tech Rodeo is a conference showcasing the best and brightest of the Houston startup community in the region and beyond by putting investors, entrepreneurs, industry leaders, and creative minds in a room to talk about the biggest innovations and the future of tech sandwiched by some happy hours and friendly competition.

The events run Monday, February 27, through Thursday, March 2, at various locations in Houston. Click here to register.

Note: This post might be updated to add more events.


Houston innovator aims to connect the dots between data science and phenomena

eyes to the sky

As artificial intelligence continues to expand its sphere of influence, Spring-based expert Joe Schurman is looking to take this technology to an out-of-this-world space.

With his background includes working with advising defense and aerospace organizations like NASA, Schurman's latest venture PhenomAInon is perfectly aligned with what he’s been working towards since 2019. The company aims to be a multi-tiered subscription service and application that will be the world’s first cloud native data and AI platform for phenomenon-based data analysis that can analyze data from any source for space domain awareness and threat detection, according to Schurman.

The platform aims to provide end-to-end data and AI analysis, publish insights, build community, and provide cloud, data, and software consulting. PhenomAInon deploys data and AI services alongside modern data and AI engineering, per the website, to surface insights to explorers, researchers, organizations, publications, and communities through advanced data and AI analysis. Schurman has worked with the U.S. government's task force for unidentified anomalous phenomenon — any perceived aerial phenomenon that cannot be immediately identified or explained — known as UAPTF. The tool will run sensitive information and then get back custom video analysis. The public version of the tool will give the public the option to view videos and cases, and form their own analysis.

“We are working together with multiple teams both public and private to continue to curate the data sets, clear documents for public review, and provide advanced analytics and AI capabilities never seen before to the public,” Schurman tells InnovationMap. “From a data and analytics perspective, we are applying machine learning and advanced analytics to find correlations and anomalies in the incident reports across multiple data sets.

"Some of these are public, some are private, and some we are clearing for public review," he continues. "The analytics will go far beyond incident reporting and showcase heat maps, correlative incident maps to key private and public sector facilities, and trends analysis never reported — e.g. incident reporting correlated with time, weather, FAA, and drone flight data, etc. We also have a new content analysis platform where users will be able to eventually run their own AI and ML analysis on their own videos.”

Schurman was first able to show this to the world in 2019, when as an adviser for To The Stars Academy of Arts and Science, or TTSA. He also appeared on History Channel’s “Unidentified: Inside America's UFO Investigation” to show the Pentagon’s former Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program head and TTSA Director of Special Programs Luis Elizondo how the AI platform could be helpful in tracking data related to Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.

Now, PhenomAInon's app is a work-in-progress. While it soft launched in May of 2022, Schurman says they have several data sets that are awaiting clearing from the U.S. government, as well as the content analysis tool in development to launch possibly by the summer. Schurman also hopes they will curate the largest library of incident videos, images, and audio recordings.

The subject of UAP continues to attract new discussions from government officials and industry professions across aerospace, academia, and more. In Houston, Rice University's Woodson Research Center and its humanities department host one of the largest archives of UAP and paranormal data, notes, and research that include documents from CIA programs on remote viewing.

Schurman says he's looking to provide even more data and information in this space.

“This phenomenon, it’s implications to multiple aspects of our lives and possible security threats, all come down to a data problem and the organizations that have been in place to-date just have not had the level of cloud, data and AI engineering capabilities we take for granted and have access to in the private sector,” says Schurman. “My goal is to bring this all together, starting with PhenomAInon.”

Houston expert: Build workforce resiliency by investing in a long-term, low-cost internship strategy

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Short-term talent shortages can feel overwhelming, especially if your company is navigating staff shortages, while also planning for future growth.

While internship programs can get a bad rap, there are many benefits to providing opportunities for early career professionals in any organization. By building a pipeline of eager, talented employees, and embedding institutional knowledge in your organization, you can reduce the burden of extra work on remaining employees and reinvigorate your business.

Get more engagement and develop champions at your company by incorporating three vital ingredients into your internship program strategy:

  1. Hire based on core values & interns’ ability to thrive at your company
  2. Invest in training
  3. Provide meaningful work

Build a strong team: hire based on ability to thrive 

To ensure your organization’s growth is coming from a diverse talent pool, build a hiring process around employees' future ability and core values, instead of what they have done in the past. Oftentimes, you’ll find that an intern’s coachability, willingness to learn and growth mindset are better determining factors towards future success than past experience.

During the recruitment and hiring process, ask your interns questions to probe values, interests, and passions. To determine if they have a growth mindset, you can ask, “What do you read in your time off to stay up to date with the latest trends in the industry? What did you learn yesterday?” or “Tell me about a time you received feedback. What did you do with this?”

Make sure that each intern that comes on board feels like a part of the team. Let them immerse themselves into your company’s culture, work environment, and industry by inviting them to your employee team-building activities, monthly company-wide conference calls, and other events that provide them with more context about your culture. Schedule weekly touchpoints with each intern to regularly check in on goals, their progress on tasks, and overall concerns. Not only will these meetings strengthen trust, but they will also position interns to succeed at your company.

Build resilience: invest in training

When you invest in a thoughtful, effective training experience, your interns will be more committed to the role because they’ll see the added effort you’re making towards their career.

Consider how your current training is structured and implemented so that your internship training experience is up to speed with the expectations of Gen-Z. Explore out-of-the-box training options, including coaching, virtual learning, and assessments that they will actually use.

In addition to the hard skills that are essential to supporting any company, ensure that you are training interns on core competencies. The National Association of Colleges and Employers identifies eight core competencies that are vital to career readiness: career & self-development, communication, critical thinking, equity & inclusion, leadership, professionalism, teamwork, and technology. When you teach interns these core competencies as soon as they join your organization, you will see an immediate boost in productivity, and you can objectively assess for future full-time employment.

Build momentum: provide meaningful work

After you’ve clearly mapped out your internship training experience, clearly outline projects from each of your company’s departments before you onboard interns. By planning ahead, and having a running list of projects that don’t require much explanation, you can give your interns a sense of purpose as soon as they join, which in turn will prevent bored interns from disengaging.

Ask interns what their goals are for their internship so you can not only help them make those goals a reality, but also tie their goals back to your company’s overall goals. As you offer meaningful enrichment opportunities, you will land top talent through your internship programs, and word will spread to bring in better talent for future internships.

Come out on top with a strong team

Businesses that take advantage of bringing on interns during a talent shortage can come out of hard times better prepared for the future. Once you have a strong and sustainable internship program, it will only grow and gain momentum.

Weather any storm that’s ahead by continuing to attract the best talent. Your company deserves it.

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Allie Danziger is the co-founder of Ampersand, an online training platform for businesses and professionals looking to level up their talent.