Tradeblock — launched in Houston by three childhood friends — coordinates sales of sneakers for collectors across the country. Image via tradeblock.us

Mbiyimoh Ghogomu remembers the moment he fell in love with his first pair of sneakers in the eighth grade. Growing up, he says "frugality was a virtue" in his household. "I was not rocking heat on feet for most of my childhood," he explains. On a mission for new basketball shoes, he found a brand new pair of Adidas T-Mac IIs, and his entry into sneaker culture was sealed.

Like Ghogomu, his childhood friends Tony Malveaux and Darren Smith each had their own awakening into the sartorial fascination of sneakers. The self-proclaimed sneakerheads founded Tradeblock in 2020, a new sneaker trading platform that provides collectors with a secure way to collect and trade shoes. After a successful beta, the Houston-based startup has recently launched a new mobile app available for iOS and Android users.

Malveaux, co-founder and director of authentication, started growing his sneaker collection during his job at Footlocker and currently owns nearly 40 pairs.

"My first paycheck came the same day that the Foamposites dropped in the electrolime colorway and let's just say my check wasn't too much bigger than the retail price," says Malveaux.

The former retail employee was using the ESPN Trade Machine in 2009, a website that lets you play the role of a team manager by creating different trade scenarios for players, when the idea for Tradeblock came to him. Malveaux shared his idea with best friend Smith, co-founder and COO, and the two held it in their back pocket for a decade.

"An entrepreneur to his very core, D was slanging Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh cards all the way back in elementary school," says Ghogomu of Smith. "After spending a few years in the dark cubicles of corporate America following his college graduation, he realized that he would never be truly happy or fulfilled unless he was building his own thing," he says.

Smith eventually escaped those dark cubicles and approached Malveaux about making Tradeblock a reality. The two started an Instagram and began a cross-country trip, visiting every sneaker event they could to research the needs of the marketplace. To cover the cost of travel, they sold off the majority of the impressive sneaker collection they'd built over the years and sometimes slept in their car to avoid extra expenses.

That year, the two also brought in their high school friend Ghogomu as a co-founder and CEO.

Tradeblock's three co-founders have known each other since childhood. Photo via tradeblock.us

Tradeblock started with the three founders playing the middleman in trades through Instagram direct messages, and it soon grew into a fully functional web platform.

Kicks as currency

Sneaker collecting is no small expense, due in part to the enormous resale market. According to GQ, the coveted 2020 Dior x Air Jordan 1 sneakers retailed at $2,000 but skyrocketed to $10,103 at resale value. Even moderately priced items like the $140 Nike SB Dunk High "Reverse Skunk," a 4/20-themed release with a limited 420 pairs available, have a resale price of $4,500.

High demand and exclusivity have created a barrier to access. Some opportunists have even purchased online bots to scour websites for sneaker releases so they can make bulk purchases and resell the rest at premium costs.

"Besides the fact that nobody had taken on trading, which was already a known behavior in the sneaker community, we saw the exorbitant prices that sneakers were starting to sell at in the resell market," says Ghogomu. "We realized that a ton of true blue sneakerheads, people who were in the game for the love of kicks more than anything, were basically getting priced out of every shoe they wanted," he explains.

By providing a platform for sneaker collectors to trade shoes in their collection, the founders "could provide another outlet for them to acquire the shoes they wanted without having to spend next month's rent check," says Ghogomu.

The app allows you to explore other user collections, follow collectors to keep track of their newly added shoes, and create your own closet featuring your collection. "I think the biggest social aspect of our app today is the fact that sneakerheads can actually curate a unique profile and persona for themselves on Tradeblock, and then they can explore other sneakerheads' collections," says Ghogomu.

When wanting to pursue a trade, Tradeblock allows you to manage your offers from an inbox, review trade status, and review your trade history. Users can also negotiate monetary payment if a trade isn't quite equal with shoes alone.

Once a trade takes place, authentication is a priority.

"The market for fake sneakers is itself a billion-dollar market. If you're trying to acquire a shoe that's worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars, you need to be absolutely certain that what you're getting is the real thing," says Ghogomu.

To ensure customers are getting authentic sneakers, Tradeblock has a "two-factor authentication" where every shoe goes through a physical and digital inspection.

More than a throwback

Sneaker collecting dates back to the late 1970s, coinciding with the surge in popularity of the National Basketball League and the hip hop movement of New York City.

The first-ever Air Jordans were created in 1984 and worn exclusively by former NBA star Michael Jordan, and released to the public in 1985. Just last year, Jordan's original pair sold for a record $560,000 in a Sotheby's auction, according to Reuters.

Music heavily influenced a profusion of sneakerheads. Run-DMC released the popular song "My Adidas" in 1986, which stayed on top of the Billboard music charts for 16 weeks. The trend carried into the aughts, with the rapper Nelly debuting his 2000 hit "Air Force Ones."

The shoe style has even succeeded in permeating internet culture, with a slew of memes and influencers arriving to meet the moment.

"Damn Daniel," a viral video from 2016, has solidified its place in the ever-evolving online vault of cultural moments. The video which shows then-high schooler Daniel Lara's shoe collection led him to become one of TIME's "30 Most Influential People on the Internet" that year.

Sneakerheads have since found a community using online communication platforms like Instagram, Discord, and Facebook.

"We also noticed that sneakerheads were spending a ton of time on social media platforms showing off their kicks, exploring other people's collections, and just generally looking to connect with people who shared their passion for shoes," explains Ghogomu. "We thought that if we could capture that social energy in a platform that also facilitated trading, we could create something truly revolutionary for the culture," he says.

The most popular sneaker reviewers on YouTube have grown communities of hundreds of thousands of followers, earning a living off their connoisseurship. "Shoe-tubers are an integral part of the sneaker culture today. In many ways, they're like the sherpas of the sneaker world," says Ghogomu.

The growing social authority of sneakerheads has also helped fuel Tradeblock's launch. The company has seen success in driving awareness by creating an online community and building relationships with influential YouTubers.

Existing online sellers from eBay to Poshmark have provided a way for users to sell and buy items, but the process is transactional. Understanding the passionate community of collectors, Ghogomu says they wanted to "build not just a product, but a company and brand that genuinely put the people first and harkened back to the days when being a sneakerhead was just as much about the community as it was about the kicks in your closet."

Growing a community

Tradeblock currently has more than 23,000 collectors in its database, a number that is steadily increasing by the day. "What has really blown me away is just how supportive people have been from [the] jump," says Ghogomu.

The app currently has thousands of shoes in its database, including rare releases like the Nike Dunk Lobster collection and the Art Basel Jordan 1.

"We've even got a few pairs of the original Jordan 1s in the Chicago colorway from 1985… but you'll have to come correct if you want to trade for those," jokes Ghogomu.

Through the roadblocks that come with building a startup, Tradeblock users have been loyal.

"I genuinely couldn't count the number of times we've heard people say things like, 'I want to see y'all win,' but we never get tired of it," he continues.

"When you're trying to build something unlike anything else that exists in the world, it's easy to let doubt creep in. Any entrepreneur who says they've never asked themselves the question, 'Is this really possible or are we insane?' is lying to you," says Ghogomu. "I think that as people of color, those internal barriers are even higher because we have so few examples to look to in terms of seeing people who look like us building massively successful businesses," he continues.

As the company grows, the co-founders hope to strengthen the bonds of the sneaker community — a common factor that has strengthened their own friendship.

"When most people think about sneaker culture, they think about the shoes. When we think about sneaker culture, we think about the people," says Ghogomu.

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Houston Methodist to open health innovation center in the Ion

coming soon

The Houston Methodist healthcare system has teamed up with the Ion innovation hub to open a health care innovation center.

The 1,200-square-foot tech hub is expected to open later this year. It initially will be geared toward activities like entrepreneurial programming, networking, mentoring, and pitching.

The space will be modeled after Houston Methodist’s Center for Innovation Technology Hub, which opened in 2020. In fact, the new hub will be a smaller “twin” of the existing hub, according to a news release.

Jan Odegard, executive director of the Ion, says the collaboration with Houston Methodist “will advance the Ion’s ability to support entrepreneurs and innovators that are already at the Ion as we embark on a new focus in health care innovation.”

Amid the rise of artificial intelligence and other tech advancements, along with the health care sector’s continuing drive to cut costs, one forecast indicates the value of the global market for digital health care will jump from $216.4 billion in 2022 to $441 billion by 2026. That would represent an increase of 104 percent.

Houston Methodist is the Ion’s first health care partner. The Ion already has partnerships in the aerospace and energy sectors.

“We are advancing the evolution of the hospital’s role in health care through digital transformation,” said Michelle Stansbury, vice president of innovation and IT applications at Houston Methodist. “Having a footprint at the Ion will not only provide the Ion’s network and Houston community with a window into what we are doing for patients, consumers and providers, but also gives The Ion community and rising innovators an opportunity to bring its own ingenuity and ideas to life with ours.”

Houston Methodist operates eight hospitals in the Houston area.

The 266,000-square-foot Ion anchors a 16-acre innovation district in Midtown. Rice Management Co. developed the district on behalf of Rice University.

“By enhancing opportunities for our network of academics, businesses, entrepreneurs, and innovators to collaborate across the Ion District and globally, we’re creating a more resilient future economy for our region,” says Bryson Grover, investment manager of real estate at Rice Management.

The space will be modeled after Houston Methodist’s Center for Innovation Technology Hub, which opened in 2020. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

4 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 four local startup founders across industries — from electric vehicles to app development— recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Jeff James, co-founder and CEO of PickleJar

Jeff James and his company, PickleJar, are streamlining and strengthening the connection between performer and audience. Photo courtesy of PickleJar

Jeff James had the idea for a platform that allows musicians to engage with their audiences — specifically when it came to receiving tips. Right when he started working on the idea for PickleJar, an app-based, performer-focused platform where fans can conduct cashless tips, the pandemic hit.

"As the pandemic lingered on, we realized the project wasn't just about tipping or on-stage engagement, it's about something greater than that," James says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's all the different ways how artists are being disenfranchised. We really set out on a mission to help artists make more money."

As distracting as the pandemic was at first to PickleJar, which officially launched in May of 2021, the company ended up having a huge opportunity to be a revenue stream for artists when they needed it most. The duo decided they had to build the company — even during the pandemic and uncertain times. Click here to read more and listen to the episode.

Madison Long and Simone May, co-founders of Clutch

Madison Long, left, and Simone May co-founded Clutch to democratize side gig success on college campuses. Photo courtesy of Clutch

Clutch, a digital marketplace startup founded by Simone May and Madison Long, has fresh funding after closing its pre-seed round of funding at $1.2 million. The investment from this round will support Clutch’s national open beta launch of its platform for brands and student creators nationwide and its continued investment in customer and product strategy.

“We are at this inflection point where marketing is changing,” May says in a press release. “We know that the next generation can clearly see that and I think a lot of marketing agencies are starting to catch on.

"We need to be prioritizing the next generation’s opinion because they are driving who is interested in what they buy. This upcoming generation does not want to be sold to and they don’t like inorganic, inauthentic advertisements. That’s why user generated content is so big, it feels authentic.” Click here to continue reading.

Tarun Girish, founder and CEO of Sparks Spaces

Houston-based Spark Spaces is looking to build out luxury spots for electric vehicle charging. Rendering courtesy of Spark Spaces

Tarun Girish wanted to upgrade EV drivers' charging experiences. His idea became Sparks Spaces, a startup formed in 2021 looking to shake up the EV charging game — the company aims to elevate the experience of charging electric vehicles by focusing on the space between car and charger by creating an airport lounge-type space for drivers. These EV lounges would include luxury waiting areas, clean restrooms, high-end food options, and availability to utilize them 24/7.

“We’ve seen a huge issue in the EV charging space where the experience side has been neglected,” says Girish, founder and CEO of Sparks Spaces.

Currently, Sparks Spaces is operating out of The Ion and installed a charging point outside of the building to help collect insights into what drivers are needing and are wanting to learn more about their customer base. Click here to learn more.

Houston tech company's venture studio secures $5M investment, expands out of state

investing in investors

A Houston tech services company has announced fresh funding and a new location for its venture studio focused on growing startups.

Softeq Development Corp. announced an additional commitment of $5 million to the Softeq Venture Fund. With the investment, Softeq has a new partnership that will work toward creating a satellite venture studio in New Hampshire with local investors. Launch New Hampshire will leverage the Softeq Venture Studio platform to back qualified startups from within and outside New Hampshire, according to a news release from Softeq.

“It’s a great time to invest in startup companies, and we saw an opportunity to bridge the gap between the growing innovation community here in Houston and the untapped investment community in New Hampshire,” says Christopher A. Howard, founder and CEO of Softeq, in the release. “We’re excited about this partnership because it provides the Softeq Venture Studio with a source of high-quality startups while also fostering the innovation ecosystem in New Hampshire and New England.”

The Softeq Venture Studio announced its inaugural cohort last year, launching to act as an investor and accelerator program that provides mentors, resources, and workspaces for promising tech startups. This is the first expansion of the program and the latest investment into the Softeq Venture Fund, which has raised over $25 million of its $40 million goal.

Michael and Jamie Simchik, New Hampshire real estate developers, and Terry Anderton, an experienced technology entrepreneur, are the founders of Launch NH. The satellite cohort will work out of HRKNSScowork in Concord, New Hampshire.

“New Hampshire has been slow to adopt an innovation ecosystem, but with nearby Boston enjoying continued startup successes, we have the unique opportunity to leverage what is happening in Massachusetts, as well as in Vermont and Maine,” says Simchik, founder and CEO of HRKNSScowork. “By working with Softeq, we want to help build the innovation community statewide and drive broad-based startup activity in the region, similar to what Softeq has accomplished in its Houston headquarters.”

Anderton founded Wagz, which was recently acquired, an early participant in the Softeq accelerator program. Through his experience with Softeq, the company says he wanted to help bring the program other startups in the region.

The Softeq Venture Studio has made investments into 27 startups from across the globe since it launched in 2021. Over the next three years, per the release, Softeq intends to invest in 40 companies each year, including at least 12 via Launch NH.