Koda Health, Houston, uses AI to help guide difficult conversations in health care, starting with end-of-life care planning. Image via kodahealthcare.com

A new Houston-based digital advanced care planning company is streamlining some of the most difficult conversations in the health care industry around palliative care.

Founded by Tatiana Fofanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry, Koda Health uses AI to help patients create advance medical care directives and documents—such as a living will—through an easy to use web-based interface.

Koda Health uses a conversational platform where users can enter information about their values, living situations, quality of life wishes, and more while learning about different care options at their own speed. It also uses a proprietary machine learning approach that personalizes audio-video guided dialogue based on the patient's individual and cultural preferences.

The app then autogenerates legal and medical documents, which patients can notarize or electronically witness the forms through the app or on their own.

According to Fofanova, who earned her PhD in in Molecular Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and now acts as the company's CEO, what historically has been a time consuming and expensive process, through Koda Health, takes an average of 17 minutes and is completely free of charge to the end user.

"We hope to reduce any outstanding barriers to access that might exist," Fofanova says. "It is very frequently the oldest and the poorest that are the highest utilizers of health care that don't have access to these solutions."

The app is also projected to save health care systems roughly $9,500 per patient per year, as it allows for hospitals and organizations to better plan for what their patient population is seeking in end-of-life-care.

The B2B platform was born out of the TMC's Biodesign Fellowship, which tasked Koda's founding members with finding solutions to issues surrounding geriatric care in the medical center. In March 2020, Koda incorporated. Not long after ICU beds began to fill with COVID-19 patients, "galvanizing" the team's mission, Fofanova says.

"It was no longer this conceptual thing that we needed to address and write a report on. Now it was that people were winding up in the hospital at alarming rates and none of those individuals had advanced care planning in place," she says.

After accelerating the development of the product, Koda Health is now being used by health care systems in Houston, Texas, and Virginia.

The company recently received a Phase I grant of $256,000 from the National Science Foundation, which will allow Koda to deploy the platform at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist and test it against phone conversations with 900 patients. Fofanova says the company will also use the funds to continue to develop personalization algorithms to improve Kona's interface for users.

"We want to make this a platform that mimics a high quality conversation," she says.

After Koda completes the Phase I pilot program it will then be eligible to apply for a Phase II award of up to $1 million in about a year.

Koda Health was founded by Tatiana Fofanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry. Photos via kodahealthcare.com

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Emily Reiser of Texas Medical Center Innovation, Atul Varadhachary of Fannin Innovation Studio, and Vicki Knott of Crux OCM. 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 two local innovators, as well as one honorary Houstonian, across industries — energy, health care, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Emily Reiser, senior manager for innovation community and engagement for Texas Medical Center Innovation

Emily Reiser joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the latest at TMC Innovation. Photo courtesy of TMC Innovation

Over her past few years at Texas Medical Center Innovation, Emily Reiser has worked with over 1,000 startups. So, it's safe to say she knows what a good pitch looks like and what health tech startups need as far a support from mentors and experts goes.

She shares some of her advice and observations on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. She also explains how TMC Innovation is uniquely positioned to advance the best and brightest in life science innovation.

"When we think about how a startup is going to be successful, we think about how they are going to build new partnerships. But we also think about all the people they're going to need to activate and bring them to the next level," Reiser says. "What we do is curate a community of high-value resources that can help these companies elevate to that next level." Click here to read more.

Atul Varadhachary, managing partner of Houston's Fannin Innovation Studio

Atul Varadhachary, managing partner of Fannin Innovation Studio, says that now is the time to invest in life sciences. Photo via fannininnovation.com

Fannin Innovation Studio is hard at work finding, supporting, and accelerating life science innovations, but, according to Managing Partner Atul Varadhachary, the organization can be doing so much more — if only the budget allowed.

Varadhachary makes a case for tripling or even quadrupling the number of participants in Fannin's federally accredited fellowship program. He says this one relatively small investment could push Houston closer to Boston in the life sciences stratosphere.

"I can think of nothing that could give a bigger return on investment for the city," Varadhachary says of expanding Fannin's fellowship program. Click here to read more.

Vicki Knott, co-founder and CEO of Crux OCM

A Canadian software company is expanding its presence in Houston to meet the needs of its clients. Photo courtesy of Crux OCM

For six months of the year, Vicki Knott plans to take up residence in Houston. As the co-founder and CEO of Calgary-based Crux OCM, Knott saw a big opportunity to expand her control room operations automation software business — especially when she nabbed Houston-based Phillips 66 as a client.

Calgary and Houston have a lot in common, Knott says, and she sees a very natural connection to the two regions. Knott plans to work six months of the year in Houston with the local office.

"A lot of the companies that head offices in Houston, they have head offices in Calgary," she says. "If a startup in Houston is getting traction, I think there's a natural movement to start in the Calgary market and vice versa." Click here to read more.

Emily Reiser joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the latest at TMC Innovation. Photo courtesy of TMC Innovation

Houston innovator focuses on advancing health care innovation from the bench to the bedside

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 86

When it comes to the Texas Medical Center's innovation community, Emily Reiser is a professional dot connector. As senior manager for innovation community and engagement for TMC Innovation, she's tasked with connecting everyone within the accelerator, the biobridges, the coworking companies, and more with the resources they need.

"When we think about how a startup is going to be successful, we think about how they are going to build new partnerships. But we also think about all the people they're going to need to activate and bring them to the next level," Reiser says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "What we do is curate a community of high-value resources that can help these companies elevate to that next level."

Reiser explains this includes mentors, subject matter experts, consultants for regulatory needs, and more. On one hand, its providing curated support, but on the other hand, especially in non-COVID times, it's creating an atmosphere where people can run into each other at an event or onsite.

"My role is to help make sure that we bring all these people together and activate them so that everyone can get to that next level faster," Reiser says. "My favorite analogy is a switchboard operator. You take what someone needs on one end and connect it to what someone needs on the other end."

Health care in general has been greatly affected by the pandemic, Reiser says, and investment and innovation within health care hasn't been immune to challenges over the past year or so either. One of the greatest effect has been on telemedicine, she says.

"The fact is that this technology existed previously but had faced adoption hurdles — both by patients and providers themselves — prior to the pandemic, but when COVID hit and the policy changed how those visits were getting covered for reimbursement, that's opened up an entire wave of adoption," Reiser explains. "There's nothing like what happened this past year in terms of accelerating one component of health care innovation like this."

Telemedicine, as well as other emerging technologies that came out of the pandemic, are top of mind for Reiser and her team — as is advancing medical innovation across the TMC.

"When you think about the Texas Medical Center as just one example of where we sit in this entire environment, we have fantastic delivery of care," Reiser says. "We also have this incredible amount of research done on campus, a lot of federal funding for grants, and different innovations coming out at that early stage."

There was a unique opportunity in Houston to build upon another aspect of of the greater health care industry that existed between the research stage and the point of care,

"But up until about six years when TMC Innovation first opened, we didn't have a lot of in-between — how to go from the bench to the bedside," she explains. "We at TMC Innovation have been really focusing starting to fill in more of that in between."

Reiser shares more about the state of innovation in health care on the episode, as well as her advice for health tech startups and investors looking to connect. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

Over $1.4M in prizes awarded at Rice University's student startup competition

RBPC 2021

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

After a virtual bootcamp, the TMCx team selected seven startups to move forward in the accelerator. Photo courtesy of TMC

These are the 7 newest health tech companies to join TMCx

new to hou

Last year, TMCx, the Texas Medical Center's health tech startup accelerator pivoted to digital programming.

The accelerator revamped its program to allow for an initial Bootcamp stage that would bring in a larger group of startups and then, after the boot camp, the program would move forward with a smaller group through the official acceleration process.

"We hosted 21 companies, representing six countries and 10 states, who each engaged with subject matter experts, clinical leaders, and corporate partners," writes Emily Reiser, senior manager of Innovation Community Engagement at TMC Innovation, in a blog post. "Over half of which ended Bootcamp in advanced discussions with hospitals and/or corporate partners."

Through the bootcamp, TMCx has accepted seven startups into the program. These companies are currently engaged with the TMC community and are receiving support, mentorship, and other opportunities.

Cardiosense

Image via cardiosense.com

Chicago-based Cardiosense, a medical device company with heart health tracking technology, is familiar with Houston innovation. The company won sixth place in the 2020 Rice Business Plan Competition, and the TMC's prize at the event.

Cognetivity Neurosciences

Image via Getty Images

Cognetivity Neurosciences, founded in the United Kingdom, is a digital health platform that taps into neuroscience and artificial intelligence to measure cognitive performance of patients in order to more effectively allow for early detection and management of neurodegenerative disorders.

Eleos Health

Image via eleos.health

Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Eleos Health is focused on helping behavioral health clinicians to optimize their efforts with an all-in-one behavioral health platform. It combines telehealth, measurement-based, and evidence-based care in one holistic solution, and is powered by therapy-specific voice analysis and natural language processing.

Harmonic Bionics

Image via harmonicbionics.com

Harmonic Bionics is one of two Lone Star State companies in the program. The Austin-based robotics startup is working on technology that can help improve upper extremity rehabilitation for patients.

Native Cardio

Photo via Getty Images

Florida-based Native Cardio is tapping into technology to help find a solution to postoperative atrial fibrillation (POAF), which is the most frequent complication after cardiac surgery, occurring in up to 60 percent of patients, according to the company's website. The goal is to help reduce costs, increase accessibility, and improve quality of care.

Progenerative Medical

Image via progenerative.com

Progenerative Medical, based in San Antonio, is working on a clinically-proven reduced pressure therapy to spinal and orthopedic indications to significantly improve clinical outcomes.

RCE Technologies

Image via rce.ai

Atlanta-based RCE Technologies is an artificial intelligence-enabled medical device company that has created a technology that can detect heart attacks early using non-invasive wearables.

The 20th annual Rice Business Plan Competition took place virtually from June 17 to 19 and awarded over $1.2 million in investment and cash prizes. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University student startup competition names 2020 winners and awards over $1.2M in prizes

big money

For the 20th year, the Rice Business Plan Competition has awarded prizes and investments to student-led startups from around the ward. While this year's competition was postponed and virtually held, the show went on with 42 startups pitching virtually June 17 to 19.

After whittling down the 42 startups to seven finalists, the RBPC judges named the winners. And, this year, all seven finalists walked away with a monetary prize. Here's how the finalists cleaned up.

  • Aurign, which provides publishing services for recording artists and record labels, from Georgia State University, won first place and the $350,000 grand prize from GOOSE Capital. Aurign also won RG Advisory Partners' prize of $25,000, bringing the company's total to $375,000 won.
  • Coming in second place with a $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce) was Dartmouth College's nanopathdx, which is creating diagnostic tools for chronic and infectious diseases. Nanopathdx won two other monetary prizes — the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from Pearland Economic Development and Ncourage's $25,000 award focused on female entrepreneurs — for a total of $150,000 won. The company also won the Palo Alto Software Live Plan award and an award from SheSpace.
  • Harvard University's Fractal — a cloud computing tech company that enables powerful remote work tools — won third place and a $50,000 investment from Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce. The company also won an $100,000 investment from the Houston Angel Network, bringing their total prize to $150,000.
  • In fourth place was RefresherBoxx from RWTH Aachen University in Germany. The company has created disinfecting devices for clothing and recently pivoted to create a COVID-19 application. The startup won a $5,000 prize sponsored by Norton Rose Fulbright for placing in the finals, but also walked away with a $100,000 investment from TiE Houston Angels, bringing the startup's total prize money to $105,000.
  • The University of Chicago's Beltech, which has created a safer, longer lasting battery, won fifth place and a $5,000 award sponsored by EY. The company also won an $100,000 investment from the Houston Angel Network, bringing the total amount won to to $105,000.
  • Cardiosense from Northwestern University, which has created a wearable heart monitor device, took sixth place in the competition and won a $5,000 award sponsored by Chevron Technology Ventures. Cardiosense also won two other monetary prizes — TMC Innovation's $100K TMC Healthcare Innovation investment and NASA's $25,000 Human Health and Performance Award — bringing the total amount won to $130,000. The company also won OFW Law's prize.
  • Relavo, a safer home dialysis treatment company from Johns Hopkins University, came in seventh place and won a $5,000 prize sponsored by Shell Ventures. Relavo also won three other monetary prizes — the $25,000 Pediatric Device Prize from the Southwest National Pediatric Device Consortium, Ncourage's $25,000 award focused on female entrepreneurs, and Polsinelli's $15,000 technology prize — bringing the startup's total prize money to $70,000.
Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary prizes. Here's a list of those.
  • BIOMILQ, a female-founded startup out of Duke University that can cultivate breast milk outside of the body, won The Artemis Fund's $100,000 prize.
  • The University of Maryland's Algen Air — a natural air purifier that uses algae to filter air — won NASA's $25,000 Space Exploration Award.
  • SlumberFlow — a sleep apnea treatment device from the University of Michigan — won the the $25,000 Pediatric Device Prize from the Southwest National Pediatric Device Consortium.
  • Rice University's own EVA, which streamlines vascular access for medical professionals, won the Texas Business Hall of Fame's $25,000 prize.
  • Contraire — a predictive analysis control system for aeration process within municipal wastewater treatment plants — from Oklahoma State University won Polsinelli's $15,000 Energy Innovation prize.
While not ready to name investment recipients at the virtual event, the Owl Investment Group announced they will be inviting some companies to pitch to them directly.
Additional non-monetary prizes included:
  • Capital Factory's Golden Ticket prize to EVA from Rice University, NanoCare from Texas State University, and SeebeckCell Technologies from the University of Texas at Arlington.
  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch winners included: KnoNap from Georgetown University (first place), Steeroflex from the University of California San Diego (second place), Encapsulate from the University of Connecticut (third place), RefresherBoxx (fourth place), and NanoCare from Texas State University (fifth place).
The virtual event wrapped up with the announcement of the 21st annual RBPC, which is set for April 8 to 10 next year.
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Early-stage accelerator announces 5 startups to its fall 2021 Houston cohort

ready to grow

An early-stage accelerator has picked its latest cohort of five Houston companies.

The Fall 2020 cohort of gBETA Houston includes:

  • AllIDoIsCook is founded by Tobi Smith and focused on exposing the world to Africa's cuisine by manufacturing gourmet food products delivered directly to customer doors and available at grocers. Since launching, AllIDoIsCook has built out a manufacturing facility, shipped over 8,000 boxes and generated $1.1 million in revenue all without outside funding.
  • Chasing Watts makes it easy for cyclists to coordinate or find rides with fellow riders in their area with its web-based and native application. The company has over 3,000 users and grew 135 percent from Q2 to Q3 in new ride views.
  • DanceKard, founded by Erica Sinner, is a new dating platform that connects individuals and groups with one another by bringing the date to the forefront of the conversation and making scheduling faster and easier with special promotions featuring local establishments. Since launching in August of 2021, DanceKard has over 170 users on the platform.
  • Dollarito is a digital lending platform that helps the low-income Hispanic population with no credit history or low FICO score access fair credit. Founded by Carmen Roman, Dollarito applies AI into banking, transactional and behavioral data to evaluate the repayment capability more accurately than using FICO scores. The company has1,000 users on their waitlist and plans to beta test with 100 or more customers in early 2022.
  • SeekerPitch, founded by Samantha Hepler, operates with the idea that jobseekers' past job titles and resumes are not always indicative of their true capabilities. Launched last month, SeekerPitch empowers companies to see who jobseekers are as people, and get to know them through comprehensive profiles and virtual speed interviews, and the company already has 215 jobseekers and 20 companies on the platform, with one pilot at University of Houston and three more in the pipeline.

The companies kicked off their cohort in person on October 18, and the program concludes on December 14 with the gBETA Houston Fall 2021 Pitch Night. At this event, each company will present their five-minute pitch to an audience of mentors, investors, and community members.

"The five founding teams selected for our gBETA Houston Fall 2021 cohort are tackling unique problems they have each experienced personally, from finding access to cultural foods, fitness communities and authentic dating experiences to challenges with non-inclusive financing and hiring practices," says Kate Evinger, director of gBETA Houston, in the release. "The grit and passion these individuals bring to their roles as founders will undoubtedly have a tremendous impact in the Houston community and beyond."

The accelerator has supported 15 Houston startups since it launched in Houston in early 2020. The program, which is free and hosted out of the Downtown Launchpad, is under the umbrella of Madison, Wisconsin-based international accelerator, gener8tor.

"Downtown Launchpad is an innovation hub like no other, and I am so proud of what it is already and what it will become," says Robert Pieroni, director of economic development at Central Houston Inc., in the release. "The five startups selected for the gBETA Houston Fall 2021 cohort are exploring new challenges that can become high-impact Houston businesses."

gBETA announced its plan to launch in Houston in September 2019. The program's inaugural cohort premiered in May and conducted the first program this summer completely virtually. The second cohort took place last fall, and the third ran earlier this year.

"These founders are building their companies and benefiting from the resources Downtown Launchpad provides," Pieroni continues, "and the proof is in the data – companies in these programs are creating jobs, growing their revenues and exponentially increasing their funding, which means these small starts up of today, working in Downtown Launchpad, are growing into the successful companies of tomorrow."

Houston university's MBA program claims coveted top spot of annual ranking

top of class

Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business has raked in yet another top spot on an annual list of top MBA programs.

A new ranking from Poets & Quants, which covers news about business schools, puts Rice at No. 3 among the world's best MBA programs for entrepreneurship. That's up from No. 15 on last year's list.

The Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis grabbed the top spot in this year's ranking. Elsewhere in Texas, the University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business lands at No. 14, the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth at No. 35, and the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University in University Park at No. 36.

Poets & Quants judged the schools on 16 metrics related to their entrepreneurship initiatives.

Poets & Quants says Rice's Jones Graduate School of Business "itself is less than three decades old. But entrepreneurship was baked into its DNA from the get-go. The late Ed Williams and current professor Al Napier are credited with starting the entrepreneurial focus. But it wasn't until 2013 when Jones plucked Yael Hochberg from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management that the program really started to surge."

Rice's entrepreneurship offering combines academic courses and associated programs led by the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Lilie) with programs offered by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship.

"The ability to be a student while working on your startup in class, under the expert guidance of our world-class faculty, gives our Rice entrepreneurs a competitive advantage over any others out there," Hochberg, head of the Rice Entrepreneurship Initiative and academic director of the Rice Alliance, says in a news release.

The Rice Alliance's OwlSpark Accelerator supplements the MBA program. The accelerator serves as a capstone program and launchpad for students seeking to start their own businesses. Meanwhile, the Rice Business Plan Competition, the largest intercollegiate student startup competition in the world, lets students pitch their startups in front of more than 300 judges. And the Rice Alliance Technology Venture Forums allows students to showcase their startups to investors and corporations.

"The ability for students to launch their nascent startups, obtain mentoring from members of the Houston entrepreneurial ecosystem, and then pitch to hundreds of angel investors, venture capitalists, and corporations provides a unique opportunity that cannot be found on many campuses or in many regions," says Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance.

Houston entrepreneur amps up support for diverse businesses with new NAACP partnership

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 107

Carolyn Rodz didn't feel the need to rush into Hello Alice's series B raise. The company, which was co-founded by Rodz and Elizabeth Gore in 2017, closed its series B at $21 million this summer, but Rodz says they did so with a specific goal.

Rodz, who joined the Houston Innovators Podcast this week, says she didn't want to get on the cycle that is round after round of venture capital. Instead, she's prioritizing profitability. And to have that, Hello Alice — platform for small business owners to find capital, networks and business services — needed to be able to reach more small business owners.

"When we made the decision to raise, it was really about making sure that we had good, strong core fundamentals and that we felt like we were putting good money to work where we can scale the business," Rodz says on the show. "It's our belief that the more smalls business owners we can support, it gives us a more unified and stronger voice to go implement systemic change."

The round was led by Virginia-based QED Investors with participation from new investors including Backstage Capital, Green Book Ventures, Harbert Growth Partners, and How Women Invest. It followed what was not only a rollercoaster of a year for the small businesses Hello Alice exists to serve, but also the company itself.

"It changed us permanently as a company," Rodz says of the pandemic.

On the show, Rodz characterizes the time for Hello Alice, which included slimming down the company's overhead, while simultaneously offering thought leadership, support, and resources for companies. Within a few days of the shutdown, Hello Alice was helping to deploy grants to entrepreneurs affected by COVID-19.

As challenging as the pandemic was for Hello Alice, it was validating too. Rodz says the company had a 700 percent increase in revenue and an 1,100 percent acquisition growth.

"We'd never operated in a downcycle, but what we learned through that process was that we're a really valuable resource for business owners when times are great, but we're also a really valuable resource for them when times are tough," she explains.

This validation set the scene for the series B, but following that raise, and, due in part to the doors opened by new investor networks, a new partnership with the NAACP Empowerment Program. Rodz says that the NAACP was given a lot of resources to put to work to build racial equity through economic empowerment. The relationship began with an introduction from Hello Alice investor, Green Book.

"They are real co-builders of this platform with us, so we're making sure we're actually putting money back into those communities," Rodz says of the partnerships Hello Alice has had with the NAACP and other equitable organizations. "NAACP was a huge milestone for us, something we're really proud of as a business. And I think it's a partnership that will continue to grow and make sure that we're aligned with how we're working on how we can build better together.

Rodz shares more on Hello Alice's growth as well as her observations on how Houston has evolved as an innovation ecosystem. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.