Investor Jason Calacanis lent his time and expertise to seven Houston startups. Photo via twitter.com/houex

Imagine having to pitch your company to a famed investor who has made investments in over 200 companies — seven of which achieved unicorn status. Now, imagine having to do that onstage in front of an audience — in person and virtually viewing.

That was seven Houston entrepreneurs' morning on March 4 during Houston Tech Rodeo. Jason Calacanis heard from the founders and gave his feedback on their business models, as well as general pitch advice. While some of his notes were in the realm of constructive criticism, he stayed pretty positive — for the most part.

"If you're a founder, you're signing up for a 70 percent failure. It's basically a suicide mission, except you don't actually die. You just hit the reset button and go again," Calacanis says to the crowd.

Calacanis also has a great deal of optimism for the region itself, noting on the potential of the innovation ecosystem, and, as an aside, the local basketball team.

"There's no reason Houston as big as a center as Austin has become," Calacanis says. "All it takes is for some of the rich people to say, 'instead of investing in some bond or Wall Street somewhere where they don't know what's going on and to take it and pay it forward with an entrepreneur."

Here are the seven Houston companies that pitched fir Calacanis, as well as some of his feedback.

Topper Luciani, CEO and founder of Goodfair

goodfair

Houston-based Goodfair sells bundles of used clothing at a low cost. Photo courtesy of Goodfair

Kicking things off was Topper Luciani, CEO and founder of Goodfair, CEO and founder of Goodfair. On a mission to counteract the pollution of fast fashion, the company, which launched in 2018, sells second-hand clothing using "mystery shopping," shipping all of their clothing in variety packs chosen according to a customer's size and taste. This eliminates the cost of photographing, measuring, lowering the price for both the customer and the company.

"Climate chance is Gen Z's crisis, and they are our customers," Luciani tells Calacanis and the crowd.

Goodfair expects to do $5 million in revenue this year, as well as raise its seed round. Calacanis give Luciani advice to make sure he answers the question of, in a world with recycled clothing stores and a growing need for environmentalism, why now?

Katharine Forth, CEO and founder of Zibrio

Balancing is important throughout your life, and Zibrio has the tools and tips for you to use to stay centered. Pexels

From NASA to your bathroom floor — Katharine Forth, CEO and founder of Zibrio, has found a new way to track balance. With her company, people can have the everyday ability to figure out how balanced they are on scale of 1 to 10. The scale gathers data from your weight, your postural control, your muscles and other factors to calculate the rating.

But Forth's business is split between two products — a consumer-focused scale and a scale made for medical professionals to use. Calacanis says it's one scale too many and to focus on just one for now. He compared the company to if Uber tried to launch its upgrades its made over the years all at once.

"You're coming out of the gate with UberPool and UberBlack. Big mistake," he says.

Amy Gross, founder and CEO, VineSleuth Inc

vinesleuth

Houston-based VineSleuth created a custom algorithm to match you with new wines based on wines you've had in the past. Courtesy of VineSleuth

Picking wine out isn't rocket science, and yet, "confusion is costing the industry billions," says Amy Gross, founder and CEO, VineSleuth Inc. The company's custom algorithm is backed by research from sensory scientists at Cornell University, and relies on both data collection and machine learning to determine specific wines that will match an individual customer's tastes.

The B2B approach has launched in a few restaurants around town and, as of this week, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo's Wine Garden. But how Gross is currently approaching business isn't exactly attractive to investors.

"The business comes across as a small niche business, which is going to cause investors to run," Calacanis explains.

His advice is to use the technology to prove to restaurants and bars that they are overpaying for their wines.

Panos Moutafis, CEO and co-founder, Zenus Biometrics

Zenus Biometrics uses its facial recognition software to provide seamless check in at events around the world. Courtesy of Zenus Biometrics

What started as a convenient way to check into events is now a facial recognition solution to event data. Zenus Biometrics can scan faces of event attendees for security — but also for data analytics, says Panos Moutafis, CEO and co-founder.

While the tech company has already evolved, Calacanis saw even more potential for the software, comparing it to the iPhone. The device is used more for a camera and app usage than an actual phone.

"As technologists we build something," Calacanis says. "Then we find out what people actually use it for."

While based in Houston now, Moutafis mentions that he will soon be relocated to Austin.

Safir Ali, co-founder and CEO of Hamper

Houston-based Hamper, which makes dry cleaning convenient, won the Rockets and BBVA Compass' LaunchPad competition. Courtesy of Hamper

Safir Ali grew up in his parents' dry cleaning store, and he observed that the biggest inconvenience for customers was them trying to make it to the cleaners to get their clothes before it closed. His company, Hamper, aims to provide a solution as "the Red Box of dry cleaning." Customers can deposit their dry cleaning in a kiosk in their office building, and it will be delivered to pick-up locations.

Calacanis liked that Ali has a background in the dry cleaning business."It takes somebody who is so obsessed that they aren't going to give up," he says, adding that he liked Ali's story.

"When you have something new – something that's novel, you could get a lot of attention," Calacanis says. "For things that are not novel, you have to use performance. You have to use the metrics."

Dyan Gibbens, founder and CEO, Trumbull Unmanned

Trumbull Unmanned equips energy companies with data-retrieving drones. Photo via trumbullunmanned.com

Trumbull Unmanned has created an enterprise software company to analyze data collected from drones flying over oil and gas sites. The technology allows workers to maintain a safe distance and still collect the information needed. Dyan Gibbens, founder and CEO, has secured some impressive contracts with companies, including Exxon.

Calacanis asked Gibbens about those contracts and how much they were usually for, but didn't like her first answer.

"Every answer we get as investors is, 'It depends,'" Calacanis says, explaining a "pro tip" for entrepreneurs. " You want to lead with some examples and get some ground truth. Sell us that ground truth."

Calacanis' next piece of advice for Gibbens was to add a second set of data collecting technology, such as a moisture sensor or heat sensor, creating two sets of data for clients.

"Being agnostic to how you solve the problem is [a big opportunity]. Also, that becomes an upsell," Calacanis says.

Ksenia Yudina, founder and CEO, UNest

UNest is a tax-free way to save money for your children's education. Photo via unestapp.com

UNest is using user-friendly app technology to set up college funds for millennial parents. And Founder Ksenia Yudina has gotten some great reception, which has caused financial advisers to take note and even reach out. But Calacanis says they are, in a way, the enemy for her product and she needs to not spread out her resources trying to partner with financial advisers.

"Part of being a successful founder is knowing what you need more and what to stay focused on," Calacanis says. "If you remain a product that people like, everyone is going to drown you in opportunities. And as CEO you have to know when to say no."

Yael Katz, Topper Luciani, and Dorit Donoviel are this week's Houston innovators to know. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Houston is full of innovative people looking to make an impact — whether it's in the health tech, fashion, or science industries.

This week's innovators to know represent different industries within Houston, but they are all looking to leave a legacy in making a difference.

Yael Katz, co-founder and CEO of BrainCheck

Photo courtesy of BrainCheck

Yael Katz has seen the company she co-founded grow tenfold in its almost five years, and now she's watching that growth from a corner office with a great view of Houston.

BrainCheck, a cognitive assessment startup that has developed a software tool for primary care doctors to use to assess their patients' cognitive health, has moved into a new office space in the West University area following a series A round of fundraising.

"It's pretty exciting to have reached this milestone where we need more space," Yael Katz, co-founder and CEO of BrainCheck, tells InnovationMap. "We were pretty much bursting at the seams in our old office." Read more.

Topper Luciani, founder and CEO of Goodfair

Photo courtesy of Goodfair

With the rise of fast fashion — in which huge clothing lines rapidly produce cheap clothing for consumers, humans are cycling through clothing at a detrimental rate.

According to a report from Business Insider, the fashion industry contributes 10 percent of the world's carbon emissions, is the second-largest user of the earth's water supply, and pollutes the oceans with microplastics.

"I realized that there was too much stuff out there," says Topper Luciani, founder and CEO of Houston-based Goodfair, "and there is an environmental crisis being caused by the clothing industry. They're manufacturing so many items, they're using slave labor, they're pumping dyes and other chemicals into rivers. It's absolutely wild." Read more.

Dorit Donoviel, director of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health

Libby Neder Photography

On the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Dorit Donoviel speaks of space health needs in ways that sound like futuristic science fiction. However, the director of the Translational Research Institute of Space Health is actively seeking solutions for issues and needs for living in space.

TRISH works hand in hand with NASA's Human Research Program to identify the program's biggest concerns, and then tap into professors, researchers, and scientists from Baylor College of Medicine, California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, and other partners in order to innovate solutions.

"Everyone tosses the word 'innovation' around, but that means, to us, taking risks in science. Health care, in particular, is very risk averse, but the space industry is taking risks every single day when they put people in a rocket and hurl them into space," Donoviel says on the podcast. "If we're going to mars, for example, we are going to put people at risk." Read more.

Houston-based Goodfair takes clothing that would otherwise end up in landfills and turns it into a "mystery shopping" thrift experience. Photo courtesy of Goodfair

Growing Houston thrift startup aims to impact the unsustainability of the fashion industry

do goodfair

A Houston-based online retailer for second-hand clothing is quickly growing, aiming to make "No New Things" the mantra of the fashion world.

As the popularity of "Fast Fashion," or cheap clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers, begins to decline, brands are refocusing on upcycled, recycled, and sustainable clothing — and Goodfair has bet its business plan on this movement.

"I realized that there was too much stuff out there," says Topper Luciani, founder and CEO of Goodfair, "and there is an environmental crisis being caused by the clothing industry. They're manufacturing so many items, they're using slave labor, they're pumping dyes and other chemicals into rivers. It's absolutely wild."

The fashion industry contributes 10 percent of the world's carbon emissions, is the second-largest user of the earth's water supply, and pollutes the oceans with microplastics according to a report from Business Insider in October 2019. Additionally, the outlet reports that 85 percent of all textiles go to the dump every year.

"Still, we have an enormous demand for these clothes that are being thrown away and that demand is just being filled by more cheap new clothes at malls and things like that, instead of reintroducing second-hand clothes," says Luciani. "I've been working really hard on creating a way to make a frictionless process for reintroducing those clothes."

Luciani, tells InnovationMap that he predicts the size of the recycled clothing industry will grow to $51 billion by 2023. Following in the footsteps of second-hand online retail giants such as thredUP and Poshmark, Luciani takes things to the next level by focusing on adding ease to the online shopping experience, telling InnovationMap that it should be as easy as clicking one button.

The idea of Goodfair was surprisingly not inspired by the apparel industry at all. Luciani tells InnovationMap that he was influenced by the founder of Uber, Garret Camp, and Camp's idea for a one-click car service.

"Their whole concept was to just hit a button and a taxi comes, says Luciani. "I wanted to look at a thrift store through that lens."

Goodfair, which launched in 2018, adds to the trend of second-hand clothing with the introduction of "mystery shopping," shipping all of their clothing in variety packs chosen according to a customer's size and taste. This eliminates the cost of photographing, measuring, lowering the price for both the customer and the company.

"I had this idea that not only would mystery shopping eliminate the paradox of choice, but everyone loves a surprise," he tells InnovationMap.

Luciani tells InnovationMap that he sees a trend among Gen Z, individuals born between 1995–2009, for buying second-hand, noting that about 90 percent of Goodfair customers are between the ages of 18 and 25. thredUP also reports that Gen Z and Millennials are driving the growth of used clothing retailers, noting that "18–37 year-olds are adopting second-hand clothing 2.5 times faster than other age groups" in the company's 2019 Resale Report.

"This was the generation that was forged in the Great Recession and they saw the ills of decadence," says Luciani. "They saw the ills of not having financial literacy. Ultimately, these woke kids are aware that branding is kind of a heist."

Goodfair taps into this market, leaning into social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat to promote the company. The company recently kicked off an Instagram series called "In the racks, in the rags" where followers can win a random item from their warehouse, located in Houston's East End.

Goodfair joins the growing roster of local companies focused on sustainable fashion. For example, Magpies & Peacocks, the nation's only nonprofit design house, opened a new store in the East End last year. Houston is home to a number of brick-and-mortar stores which line Westheimer Boulevard in the heart of the city, including Buffalo Exchange, Leopard Lounge, Pavement, and LO-FI.

Luciani, who moved to Houston from Brooklyn, New York, leads Goodfair with Emily Keeton, COO. Keeton joined the company in October 2019, leaving her previous leadership role at WeWork. The company announced in January 2020 that they will be adding a vice president of marketing to the team.

In the coming years, Luciani tells InnovationMap that he hopes to launch an app for the brand, and also expand into offering other goods.

"I have a vision of essentially creating a used Amazon," says Luciani, "Everything that gets donated to thrift stores can get donated in this mystery mechanic."

Luciani has a long history in the textile industry. In 2004 while in college, he launched a men's polo shirt brand, Sir Drake.

"When I reflected on the experience and as I educated myself about the clothing industry, this was right when fast fashion was taking off, I realized that if I launched another fashion brand that I would just be contributing to industrial pollution problem," he says.

He tells InnovationMap that he then started selling used neckties on eBay, launching his mission with sustainable fashion.

"We expect that a year from now we will be generating five times the sales we did in 2019 and become a multi-million dollar business," Luciani says.

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Houston startup raises $10M, A&M names TMC campus, and more innovation news

short stories

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and it's likely some might have fallen through the cracks. From a Texas university naming its burgeoning new campus to a Houston SaaS startup with fresh funds, here are some short stories in Houston innovation.

ThoughtTrace raises $10M series B

ThoughtTrace has received investment from Chevron Technology Ventures. Photo via thoughttrace.com

ThoughtTrace Inc., a Houston-based software-as-a-service startup closed a $10 million series B round led by Canadian venture capital fund McRock Capital with contribution from Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures.

"Chevron Technology Ventures (CTV) pursues externally-developed technologies and new business solutions that have the potential to enhance the way Chevron produces and delivers affordable, reliable and ever-cleaner energy," says Barbara Burger, president of CTV, in a release. "ThoughtTrace fits that mandate with the potential to automate the complex, time-consuming, and document-intensive workflows required for our ongoing business operations."

ThoughtTrace's software quickly analyzes documents and contracts and produces results at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional methods. With the fundraising deal, Scott MacDonald, McRock's co-founder and managing partner, will join ThoughtTrace's Board of Directors.

"We are extraordinarily excited to have both McRock and Chevron join the team. McRock brings a great background in the industrial space, which we see as a great fit. In the case of Chevron, they went from being a new customer in 2019 to an investor in 2020," says Nick Vandivere, ThoughtTrace CEO, in a release.

"With the new capital raise, ThoughtTrace will accelerate its investment in creating AI with unparalleled speed and accuracy, grow strategic partnerships and platform integrations, and add to its existing team of talented professionals, all of which will bring further value to the growing ThoughtTrace customer-base," Vandivere continues.

Texas A&M names its Texas Medical Center campus

The new campus will be called Texas A&M Innovation Plaza. Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University System

After announcing its plans for a $546 million medical complex in Houston's Texas Medical Center in February, Texas A&M University has released the name of the 5-acre campus rising at the intersection of Holcombe Boulevard and Main Street: Texas A&M Innovation Plaza.

The project will be completed in phases. The first phase, which will open later this year, is a renovation of an 18-floor building at 1020 Holcombe Blvd., which will to be the new home for EnMed, a dual degree program that produces both a master's in engineering and a medical degree.

"EnMed is just the first example of innovation that Texas A&M System intends to bring to the Texas A&M Innovation Plaza," says Chancellor John Sharp in a news release. "We are excited to have such a visible location in the Texas Medical Center."

Rice Business Plan Competition lays out virtual plans

The competition must go on. Photo via rbpc.rice.edu

This year's Rice Business Plan Competition, which was planned for March 26 to 28, was canceled due to COVID-19, but the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship has decided to offer up an alternative: A virtual RBPC. Forty two student teams will compete over three virtual events.

  • Elevator Pitch Competition on June 17 (Open to the public): Each team will deliver 60-second pitches.
  • Round 1 on June 18 (Open to startups and judges only ): Each team will deliver 10-minutes to pitch to a panel of judges followed by Q&A.
  • Live finals on June 19 (open to the public): The seven finalists will pitch to the judges, and following a round of questions from judges, the winners and prizes will be announced.

Two health care educational institutions team up for new program

Xavier University and Baylor College of Medicine have launched a collaborative medical track. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Louisiana's Xavier University and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston have joined forces to allow Xavier students a smooth transition into Baylor's graduate programs. Xavier students, including traditionally underrepresented minorities — according to a press release — will have the opportunity to apply for the program in November. Three students will be selected for the program, which facilitates acceptance into the medical school.

"Our commitment at Baylor College of Medicine to diversity and inclusion creates the best environment for success across our mission areas of healthcare, research, education and community outreach," says Dr. Paul Klotman, president, CEO and executive dean of Baylor College of Medicine, in the release. "This important collaboration with Xavier University will strengthen this commitment, and I look forward to welcoming students from this new partnership into the Baylor family."

Klotman continues to express how inclusiveness is a priority for BCM and for this partnership.

"We live in a world where healthcare is changing and evolving," says Dr. Anne McCall, provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs at Xavier, in the release. "This partnership will further equip our students with the diverse tools and training that they'll need to foster equity in the medical field and compete on an international level."

University of Houston begins offering virtual tours for perspective students

Potential UH Cougars can get the 411 on campus via a virtual tour tool. Photo via uh.edu

Before COVID-19 sent everyone home and canceled gatherings, classes, and events across the world, the University of Houston was already working on a way for potential students to tour and learn more about the campus. Now, in light of the pandemic, UH has released this virtual tour offering complete with live interaction from UH student ambassadors.

"I'm really excited about the live component we just added because prospective students can ask questions just like during a face-to-face campus tour and that interaction is invaluable," says Mardell Maxwell, executive director of UH Admissions, in a release. "UH is so committed to access, and we see this as a great opportunity not only for students in Houston and Texas, but for those coming from out of state. We are opening up access to campus across the world."

Anyone can sign up for a tour online through the university's website.

Report recognizes Houston as a top city to launch a career

starting out

First-time job hunters are facing a competitive job market with historic unemployment and an unstable economy amid the coronavirus pandemic. However, Houston, according to a recent report, might give its residents an advantage.

The report, released May 20 by career website LinkedIn, places Houston at No. 10 on a list of the places in the U.S. that are best suited for new college graduates who are diving into the job market. The list comes out as recent grads confront a job market that's "shaping up to become one of the worst in recent memory," according to The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news outlet that covers education.

LinkedIn considered three factors for its ranking: affordable rent, good starting salaries, and job availability. Houston's median rent sits at $1,377 per month (all types and sizes of rental properties), LinkedIn says, while its median annual salary for entry-level "career starter" jobs stands at $69,800.

Two other Texas metros appear in the top 15:

  • No. 13 San Antonio, where the median rent is $1,219 and the entry-level salary is $59,900
  • No. 15 Dallas-Fort Worth, where the median rent is $1,423 and the entry-level salary is $65,300

Austin, consistently touted as a magnet for college grads, failed to make the LinkedIn cut.

"What you [also] won't find on this list are the traditional coastal job magnets — New York, the Washington, D.C. area, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Los Angeles," LinkedIn points out. "Those cities may still offer some of the highest starting salaries, but their sky-high rents mean income doesn't stretch nearly as far."

Among the top occupations in the metro areas on LinkedIn's list are software engineer, registered nurse, teacher, project manager, project engineer, consultant, and analyst.

It might be difficult to find those jobs, though. The Conference Board, a research group that monitors business trends, says the number of new job postings in Texas declined from 255,000 in March to 175,000 in April.

To deal with the current economic realities, some new college grads are making sacrifices. In a survey by Monster.com and Wakefield Research, 55 percent of graduating seniors indicated they'd applied for a job they knew wasn't a good fit, and 52 percent said they would accept a lower salary.

"They're feeling desperate," Vicki Salemi, a career expert at Monster.com, told The Hill news website.

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This article original ran on CultureMap.

Houston expert shares tip for developing a circular economy within your company's tech

Guest column

Many organizations are interested in building a circular economy into their business model but aren't sure what steps to take to achieve this goal. I've worked in the technology industry for over 20 years, helping customers across all industries navigate the processes of buyback, recycling, and repair in order to create sustainable and profitable solutions to reduce e-waste.

The world produces 40 million tons of e-waste annually, and only 20 percent of that is being disposed of properly. A circular economy is a system in which all materials and components are kept at their highest value and where e-waste is essentially designed out of the system.

Building a circular economy for electronics requires attention to detail in the areas of design, buyback, or return systems, advanced recycling and recapturing, durability and repair, and urban mining.

Below, I'll discuss some key building blocks for implementing an effective and efficient circular economy.

Invest in technology that will last

Longevity is essential to maintaining sustainable products, and that is easily achievable through repair and refurbishment services. Upgrading or reworking existing equipment can save you time and money by enhancing its marketability or extending its useful life.

Rework service providers can replace components inside servers or PCs and rebuild them with new parts to meet your requirements. These services can boost your operations' speed or improve your servers' or PCs' performance through upgrading, while also saving your organization money by not having to purchase all-new equipment.

Recover value through the secondary market

When equipment must be replaced or retired, many electronic devices can be remarketed, either as whole products or individual parts. This system not only keeps electronics in use and out of landfills — it can also serve as an additional revenue stream for your organization.

Finding the right IT asset disposition partner is crucial for maximizing your return on investment. It can pay dividends to provide high-exposure opportunities to a vast network of customers through a mix of online sales, e-commerce tools, and inside sales when selling your retired equipment.

Utilize advanced recycling and recapturing programs

Retired electronics that are not remarketable can be collected and have their components reintegrated into new products, creating a closed-loop production system. ITAD partners who are certified to recognized green standards, such as R2 or e-Stewards, can ensure that IT equipment that no longer has value will be responsibly recycled.

No matter what industry you're in, a qualified ITAD partner can help optimize your organization and support your goals. From data centers to server rooms and beyond, sustainable solutions are available to manage the equipment you need to retire in compliance with all regulatory guidelines.

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Ed Wooten is Smith's director of ITAD, or IT asset disposition.