Several Houston startups claimed the top prizes at a recent competition — plus more Houston innovation news you may have missed. Photo courtesy of TNVC

It's been a busy season for the Houston innovation ecosystem, and for this reason, local startup and tech news may have fallen through some of the cracks.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, a consumer packaged goods startup is now on shelves across Texas, a Texas energy company gets fresh funding from Houston VCs, Texas Medical Center Innovation companies sweep at a recent competition, and more.

Houston health care startups sweep recent competition

Houston-based Starling Medical took home the top prize at a recent competition. Photo courtesy of TNVC

At the 2021 Texas A&M New Ventures Competition, several Houston companies claimed top prizes — essentially sweeping the competition. The top three winners were all member companies of Texas Medical Center Innovation:

  • First Place Finalist: Houston-based Starling Medical – $50,000
  • Second Place Finalist: Houston-based Ictero Medical – $35,000
  • Third Place Finalist: Koda Health – $25,000
Other Houston-area award winners included:
  • Fourth Place Finalist: Microsilicon – $15,000
  • Sixth Place Finalist: CodeWalker – $5,000
  • Elevator Pitch First Place: EmGenysis – $5,000
  • Elevator Pitch Fourth Place: TYBR Health – $1,00
Click here to view more details on the 2021 award results.

Houston CPG company scores Central Market placement

Central Market now carries this Houston startup's baked goods. Photo courtesy of ChipMonk Baking

As of this month, Central Market shoppers in Texas can purchase Houston-based ChipMonk Baking products products. Additionally, the company announced it has added added 1,100 square feet to its existing 2,300 square-foot facility.

Founded by David Downing and Jose Hernandez, ChipMonk Baking, is a local, mail-order bakery that makes cookies, brownie bites, and other snacks using monk fruit and allulose, a low-calorie (0.4 calories per gram) rare sugar that's found naturally in foods such as raisins, dried figs, and kiwi.

The nine open Central Market locations throughout Texas will carry all nine flavors of ChipMonk's Keto Cookie Bites.

"Here in Houston, ChipMonk is the healthy option — there is nothing else like our products being made in a city that's known around the world for food," says Downing in a press release. "When you consider Houston's diversity and international culinary reputation, the lack of local health-food representation and production just doesn't make sense. We love this city and are working to change that."

Houston Methodist doles out $2.5 million in grants

Houston Methodist has contributed a couple million dollars to Houston nonprofits. Courtesy of Methodist Hospital/Facebook

Houston Methodist announced a couple weeks ago that it has awarded nearly $2.5 million in community grant investment to 37 Houston-area nonprofit organizations, according to a news release from the health care organization.

Over 177 Houston nonprofits applied for the Houston Methodist Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Grant Program, a program created last year to address the social determinants of health that lead to health inequities within racial, ethnic and social minorities.

"We continuously strive to build and maintain a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment both within our hospital walls and within our communities," says Arianne Dowdell, vice-president, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Houston Methodist, in the release. "The grant program and all the deserving organizations awarded funds are critical in shaping our community, which Houston Methodist has proudly supported for decades. We look forward to fostering the growth and development of meaningful programs that will benefit underserved and underrepresented groups in Houston."

The program, which includes both DEI Grants and Social Equity Grants, is funded by a $25 million fund established by Houston Methodist to be doled out over five years to support underserved communities.

Innovative energy company receives funding from Houston venture capital

Houston-based Cottonwood Venture Partners and Chevron Technology Ventures have again invested in this Austin-area energy company. Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Two Houston venture capital groups recently went in on Round Rock, Texas-based Infinitum Electric's $40 million series C funding round. Houston-based Cottonwood Technology Fund and Chevron Technology Ventures — both existing investors for the company — doubled down on their support in the new round led by San Francisco-based Energy Innovation Capital.

The fresh funds will allow the company to scale production of its ultra-high-efficiency, lightweight motors and "expand production of the company's IEs Series motors for commercial and industrial applications and complete development of its IEm Series motors for the rapidly growing electric vehicle market," according to the company's news release.

"We're excited to ramp production of our motors after seeing significant demand in the commercial HVAC and industrial markets, as well as the growing interest from electric vehicle suppliers who see the potential a highly efficient, lightweight motor can deliver," says Ben Schuler, founder and CEO of Infinitum Electric, in the news release. "Partnering with Energy Innovation Capital, Rockwell Automation and our existing investors allows us to scale and power machines more efficiently and sustainably."

Houston nanotechnology startup scores distribution deal

Houston-based NanoTech, currently housed in Halliburton Labs, has a new distribution agreement. Photo via halliburtonlabs.com

NanoTech has announced a new distribution agreement with Warrior Ace Hardware, a supplier of specialty products for the commercial and residential building industries. NanoTech uses material science to create NanoShield, a fire-proofing and insulation product.

The new partnership offers a key opportunity for NanoTech, which recently closed a $5 million round of funding.

"Ace Hardware has close to 100 years of distribution and retail experience. We are excited to partner with such a respected brand to get us one step closer to saving a tremendous amount of lives, protecting infrastructure, and reducing energy consumption," says Mike Francis, CEO of NanoTech in a news release.

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Houston unicorn fintech company launches new B2B education platform

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Houston-based HighRadius — which recently hit $1 billion valuation, reaching unicorn status — has launched a new learning platform.

Highako Academy by HighRadius, launched the platform to help credit and collections teams build certain skills faster. Highako features over 650 expert-led videos, community forums, and resources. The new on-the-job training platform, which announced its launch this week, is used by more than 2,800 companies, according to a press release.

"Our customers have asked us for an online self-service learning platform, and that led us to launch highako.com as a beta platform last year," says HighRadius COO Urvish Vashi in the release. "With 10,000+ users on the platform and a vibrant partner ecosystem consisting of credit groups, collection agencies, attorneys and industry associations, we see this echoing a larger trend of millennials and Gen Z gravitating towards microlearning platforms."

In honor of the launch of Highako Academy, the organization has announced plans for Credit SkillCon '21, a lunch-and-learn event from June 16 to July 20. The 53 live workshops, panel discussions, and on-demand sessions will focus on topics including negotiations, credit risk assessment, bankruptcy litigation, collections strategy and more. .

"We continually hear from members about wanting more and different educational options," says Jon Flora, president and CEO of NACM Business Credit Service. "The last year has changed much about how we answer this call, and now we have a solution. We are the first NACM affiliate to partner with Highako Academy."

HighRadius and its AI-powered SaaS technology, which streamlines accounts-receivable and cash-management processes, are growing fast. The company, which processes over $2.23 trillion in receivables transactions annually, per the release, raised $300 million in March. At the time of that raise, HighRadius, founded in 2006, employed more than 1,000 people around the world — and was hiring.

"Our goal has always been to build a long-lasting business that outlasts all of us," Sashi Narahari, founder and CEO of HighRadius, said in the news release. "I look forward to working with [our] high-quality, long-term investors, who share a common vision of transforming the office of the CFO using a combination of artificial intelligence built on top of connected-finance workspaces and embedded analytics."

Autonomous delivery company joins forces with FedEx for new pilot in Houston

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A tech company with self-driving robots deployed across Houston delivering pizza, groceries, and more has yet again launched a new pilot program — this time focused on parcel delivery.

Nuro and FedEx announced a new partnership to deploy Nuro's technology for last-mile delivery at a large scale with FedEx.

"FedEx was built on innovation, and it continues to be an integral part of our culture and business strategy," says Rebecca Yeung, vice president of advanced technology and innovation at FedEx, in a news release. "We are excited to collaborate with an industry leader like Nuro as we continue to explore the use of autonomous technologies within our operations."

The new pilot, which began in April, according to the release, is the latest in the FedEx portfolio of autonomous same-day and specialty delivery devices. The partnership allows for FedEx to be able to explore various use cases for autonomous vehicle logistics, like multi-stop and appointment-based deliveries. Meanwhile for Nuro, it's the company's first expansion into parcel logistics.

"Working with FedEx—the global leader in logistics—is an incredible opportunity to rethink every aspect of local delivery. This multi-year commitment will allow us to truly collaborate and bring Nuro's powerful technology to more people in new ways, and eventually reach large-scale deployment," says Cosimo Leipold, Nuro's head of partnerships, in the release. "Our collaboration will enable innovative, industry-first product offerings that will better everyday life and help make communities safer and greener."

California-based Nuro has launched a few delivery pilots in Houston over the past few years, including the first Nuro pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched last summer. The most recent pilot program — pizza delivery with Domino's — officially went live in Woodland Heights earlier this year.

Nuro's expansion in Houston has a lot to do with the legislation that's happening at the state level. Last year, Nuro was granted its exemption petition from the United States Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This move is a first for DOT, and it allowed Nuro to roll out its vehicles on public roads without the features of traditional, passenger-carrying vehicles — like side mirrors or windshields, for instance.

The city also just offers a lot of opportunities to try out various neighborhoods and environments.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Nuro Product Operations Manager Sola Lawal says an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Lessons in prototyping: Figuring out the best type of prototype

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As you continue your journey of developing and bringing a new product to the market, you have a series of decisions to make when it comes to prototyping — whether you're going to launch a hardware or a software product, or the combination of both — you need to have a prototype made.

Before you begin, there are a number of things to consider. In an article for InnovationMap last week, I looked at major choice points and their implications that will help you navigate the process in the most efficient way.

After you successfully laid the foundation for the development process and got you CAD models ready, you arrive at the next choice. Prior to making a prototype of your invention you need to decide what type of prototype you're going to build. Whether you're making it yourself or hiring a rapid prototyping company, you need to know the purpose your prototype will fulfil because it will help to select proper methods, techniques, and materials for building. With that in mind, let's go through the types of prototypes and purposes behind building them.

Types of Prototypes

Mockup

This type is usually used as a simple representation of your product idea, to gauge physical dimensions and see its rough look. It's especially useful for making physical models of complex and large products without investing a significant amount from the start. Mockup is perfect for initial market research and various types of early testing.

Proof of concept

This type of prototype is built when you need to validate your idea and prove that it can be realized. It comes in handy when approaching potential partners and investors.

Functional prototype

This kind of prototype is also called a "looks- and works-like" model because it has both technical and visual features of the product presented. It is used for testing product's functionality, conducting consumer surveys, and fundraising campaigns.

Pre-production prototype

This is the most complex type that is made at the latest stage of product development. It's used for ergonomics, manufacturability, and material testing, as well as to minimize risks of defects during manufacturing. This is a model that manufacturers use to produce the final product.

Choosing to Partner with Prototyping Company

It's important to note that prototyping is an iterative process. It is a fusion of art and science that helps you to uncover the full potential of your product, which in turn increases its chances for market success. Therefore, you will likely go through several types of prototypes, with each kind usually requiring a few versions to achieve the parameters you set for the model.

And this process also requires help of a company that builds prototypes or of a professional product development team. You can start looking for the one after you made your first mockup or proof of concept. It is recommended because creating more complex prototypes implies the use of sophisticated equipment, sourcing of materials and components that could be too expensive or complicated to do without an established network of suppliers. Plus, skills and experience play a huge role in creating quality prototypes. Taking all three factors – equipment, experience and skills - into account, it's smart to outsource your prototyping needs to a professional company.

This article is a follow up article to my post from last week. I have also previously contributed to guest columns on the following:

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Onega Ulanova is the founder of OKGlobal.