After a weeks-long, COVID-caused intermission, Texas-based Vonlane is hitting highways with daily routes starting July 1. Photo courtesy of Vonlane

Vonlane buses are revving their engines again. After weeks without service due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Dallas-based luxury bus operator will restart all routes serving Texas on July 1.

In a June 9 message to customers, Vonlane said daily departures resuming July 1 would include:

  • Houston-Dallas
  • Houston-Fort Worth
  • Houston-Austin
  • Houston-San Antonio
  • Dallas-Austin
  • Dallas-Oklahoma City
  • Fort Worth-Austin

Coming soon are routes to Nashville and Atlanta, with details to be announced, the company says.

As the coronavirus started to cripple travel in March, Vonlane temporarily eliminated four routes serving Texas. "While we are significantly impacted by the circumstances of the day," Vonlane founder and CEO Alex Danza said then. "Our goal is to be a solution for your urgent personal travel."

But by April 15, when most of Texas was sheltering in place, Vonlane suspended operations due to lack of demand. Limited routes between Dallas, Austin, and Houston resumed May 29.

Like many businesses, Vonlane also pivoted its operation in new directions during the shutdown.

On Memorial Day, the company announced it was expanding its services to include out-of-state charters. It now offers bespoke charter service to popular destinations across the continental U.S. like Colorado, Florida, and New Orleans, as an alternative to flying.

Passengers who book a private charter have access to up to 22 seats, can leave from a specific departure point of their choice, and travel to any destination, the company says.

Vonlane also rolled out a parcel shipping service in Texas. "Need to get something to a loved one, friend, or business associate in Austin, Dallas, or Houston today?" Danza said in the announcement. "Send it aboard the next Vonlane departure for a flat fee." More details on the service are outlined here.

In putting its luxury buses back on the road, Vonlane is adopting a number of measures designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, such as limiting the passenger count to 13 by blocking all aisle seats through June 30; requiring passengers and employees to wear face coverings; and checking passengers' temperatures before boarding.

"As one of our core values, the safety of our passengers, crew, and fellow over-the-road travelers is our top priority," Danza said in a May 26 release announcing the charters. "In light of the current coronavirus situation, Vonlane is maximizing our efforts to make sure the Vonlane experience is as responsible, safe, and comfortable as our passengers have come to expect."

Vonlane launched its high-end bus service in 2014 with the Dallas-to-Austin route. Each bus, which holds fewer than two dozen passengers, features amenities like WiFi, satellite TV and radio, and leather seats.

Reservations can be booked online, and may be canceled and fully refunded up to 24 hours before departure.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Vonlane is now driving beyond Texas. Courtesy photo

Texas travel company revs up for out-of-state expansion

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

In response to pandemic-triggered travel interruptions, Dallas-based high-end bus operator Vonlane is expanding its services to include out-of-state charters and in-state parcel shipping.

In a Memorial Day message to customers, Vonlane founder and CEO Alex Danza said the company now offers charter service to destinations across the continental U.S., citing examples like Colorado, Florida, and New Orleans. Danza says this provides long-distance travel when airline flights aren't an option.

"These bespoke trips allow you to travel privately with your friends, family, and business associates aboard your own Private Jet on Wheels," Danza wrote. "You name the pickup location, destination, and dates while we handle all of the logistics."

Vonlane has also rolled out a same-day parcel shipping service in Texas, where packages basically hitch a ride with the motor coaches.

"Need to get something to a loved one, friend, or business associate in Austin, Dallas, or Houston today?" Danza said. "Send it aboard the next Vonlane departure for a flat fee."

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Vonlane halted its city-to-city bus service due to a lack of demand. Some routes returned on May 29, including Dallas-Austin, Dallas-Houston, and Houston-Austin.

In putting its luxury buses back on the road, Vonlane is adopting a number of measures designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, such as limiting the passenger count to 13 by blocking all aisle seats through June 30; requiring passengers and employees to wear face coverings; and checking passengers' temperatures before boarding.

"As one of our core values, the safety of our passengers, crew, and fellow over-the-road travelers is our top priority," Danza says in a May 26 release. "In light of the current coronavirus situation, Vonlane is maximizing our efforts to make sure the Vonlane experience is as responsible, safe, and comfortable as our passengers have come to expect."

Danza says Vonlane hopes to resurrect its Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City routes "as soon as feasible."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Lodgeur provides its guests with hotel luxury with room to breathe. Courtesy of Lodgeur

Hospitality startup adds a new luxe approach to Houston's apartment rental market

City living

In 2018, Houston set a new tourism record with 22.3 million visitors to the city. That same year, Sébastien Long was finishing his Cambridge thesis on home-sharing companies like Airbnb and falling in love with a classmate. When the couple moved to Houston after graduation, Long brought his ideas with him, and that's how Lodgeur was born.

Lodgeur works as an upscale home-sharing startup that offers luxury apartments in midtown and downtown Houston for nightly rent. It doesn't replace Airbnb; customers can browse through and book the properties through the familiar website. Guests can also book short or extended stays directly with Lodgeur's website.

In short, Long's research found that most Airbnb's have high guest experience ratings, but those user reviews don't work to inspire the 90 percent of Americans who haven't used a homestay service. Those people have worries — mostly about what to expect, about safety, and about having to interact with homeowners. Long believes he can calm those fears by building a trusted brand that customers recognize on Airbnb, and Houston turned out to be the perfect place to do that: his main inspiration, Conrad Hilton, did the same with hotels over the last century.

"Houston has been a city that's been overlooked. Most companies didn't come here first," Long says. "Actually, people are coming to Houston every week of the year, prices don't fluctuate too much, and you're probably going to be running at a high occupancy every week of the year."

So Long drove around the city, looking for apartment buildings he liked and hoped his guests would, too. Having grown up working at the campground-turned-resort started by his parents in the French Mediterranean, he had an eye for what tourists found attractive — buildings with character, high-end aesthetics and clean designs like a hotel, but with modern kitchen appliances and more space.

"We're roughly split between leisure guests and business travelers," Long says. "They want to feel like they're staying in a home away from home."

Getting that experience is about the same price as a hotel. The properties range from $90 per night to a $200 apartment with 50 feet of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking downtown. The apartments have not just attracted outside visitors; people have come from around Houston to stay during home renovations or when their houses have flooded, Long says.

The first guests arrived in mid-April. Long wanted to open by managing just a few properties, to make sure the company could ensure great guest experiences.

Last week, he hired his first full-time employee — an ex-marine who graduated from the University of Houston's Conrad Hilton College of Hospitality — and has contracted a marketing agency to turn up Lodgeur's social media presence. For now, Lodgeur relies on a freelance interior designer to fashion the apartments and a local housekeeping company to keep them clean.

Long — who is a Station Houston and WeWork Labs member — says he is looking to expand, but he wants to do so organically: Many of the owners of properties he's already renting own other apartment complexes, and he plans to work with them to move Lodgeur out of inner Houston, and then to other cities. Lodgeur isn't raising funds yet, but Long says he'll be looking for investors this summer.

Recently, Long stayed at Hilton in Austin — his first time at a hotel since launching Lodgeur. He booked a room with a king-sized bed, but it felt small. Business requires him to carry a tape measure, so he measured the mattress: it was six inches smaller than the mattresses Lodgeur uses. He laughed, thinking of how much more comfortable guests would be in an apartment with bigger beds and more space.

"I don't know how people would go back (to hotels)," he says.

ElecTrip uses eco-friendly Teslas to shuttle business people to and fro across the state. Courtesy of Electrip

Texas startup using Tesla cars for more efficient and eco-friendly travel

Rethinking roadtrips

A Texas startup shuffling business men and women across the state in style has created an elevated road trip experience for its customers.

Founded in 2018 and based in Austin, ElecTrip aims to add luxury and convenience to regional commutes between major Texas cities by providing transportation in Teslas equipped with WiFi, complimentary snacks, and professional drivers.

Mandeep Patel, a University of Texas at Austin student, had the idea for the company just about a year ago while completing an internship. Patel had the company up and running just a few months later.

Patel serves as founder and CEO, along with his classmate and co-founder, Eliott Lee, who is COO. Lee tells InnovationMap that he and Patel had gotten tired of the stress of airport travel, the restrictive schedule of buses, and the soul-draining fatigue of driving. ElecTrip's no-compromise solution is cost effective, comfortable, and carbon neutral.

"One thing we really pride ourselves on is being sustainable, energy-efficient, and having no emissions," Lee says.

ElecTrip offers door-to-door service for their customers, who can customize pickup and drop-off locations in any major Texas city. The company has eight routes between Houston, Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio, but customers can book a custom route within a 300-mile radius of those cities. Prices range from $249.99 to $429.99, but customers can opt to share rides to cut down on cost, with cars seating three to five riders.

"We emphasize on B2B, geared more towards businesses," says Lee, explaining that customers can customize their trip with food and beverage requests.

The company offers three different Tesla models: Tesla Model S, Tesla Model X, and Tesla Model 3, each offering a specific number of passenger seats, luggage capacity, and mileage range.

"The main reason why we chose Tesla is because of the supercharger network," says Lee in referring to Tesla's 1,422 Supercharger Stations throughout the United States.

Clients don't have to worry about the charging process, Lee says. The company plans the trips around these charging stations, which are free to any Tesla user.

ElecTrip is less than a year old and has already coordinated hundreds of rides, according to the website. While starting the company while still juggling classes — Lee expects to graduate from UT in 2020, while Patel is graduating this year — Lee says being a student-run startup has its perks.

"We find a lot of funding in startup competitions that only students have access to," said Lee.

Additional initial funding for the company came out of Patel's savings account, Lee says. ElecTrip owns one Tesla and rents out additional vehicles to cover the demand of rides. Lee explains that renting vehicles instead of owning them would cut back on the company's real estate while providing additional income for Tesla owners that aren't using their cars.

Patel and Lee are the only two full-time employees at ElecTrip, as all drivers work on a contract-basis. Lee tells InnovationMap that in the future, ElecTrip will focus on business partnerships.

"A lot of these other services are geared towards consumers," says Lee. "We hope to be geared toward mainly towards businesses in the long run."

ElecTrip is gearing up for growing its partnerships with local small businesses in Austin and Houston to provide food and drink products for rides.

"It is something we're looking at targeting in the next one or two months," says Lee.

Mandeep Patel (left) and Eliott Lee are the co-founders of ElecTrip, a travel company that uses Teslas across Texas.Courtesy of ElecTrip

Houston-based entrepreneurs have launched Guzo, a travel social networking app. Getty Images

Updated: Houston startup relaunches to connect the dots for travelers

All aboard

This story has been updated to reflect new information.

A year or so ago, Gordon Taylor had thousands of college students using his rideshare app focused on roadtrips, Croozen, across almost 20 universities in the United States. But, as the company grew to the general population, he realized his concept wasn't sustainable for a wider range of people.

First of all, the average Houstonian doesn't drive across Texas too frequently. And, if they do, they look to busses, planes, or driving themselves, Taylor says. Plus, Americans are very conditioned to fear rides from strangers.

"There are successful platforms in Europe that were doing this, but Americans are so different in terms of cultures," he says.

Six months ago, Taylor, along with his brother, Joshua, decided to pivot his travel company and relaunch it as Guzo — "melkam guzo" means "have a great trip" in Ethiopia.

"One of the things that got Gordan and I excited in the beginning of Croozen was just the idea of someone else in the car with you and that shared experience," Joshua Taylor says. "Looking past that, just being focused on the car was hindering us. Let's divorce the car and focus on travel as a whole."

Guzo is a collaborative social network that will be a one-stop platform for experiencing and planning travel. Users can register to the app and connect with friends, acquaintances, and even strangers to solicit ideas for different vacation spots. Rather than spread across apps like text message, Google Docs, Instagram, and Pinterest, for example, you can have all your ideas right in one app. The brothers asked their friends, family, and previous Croozen users to see what they'd want from a travel app, and that played into how they designed Guzo.

The new app launched January 29 at a party at City Hall. The mayor has even declared it Guzo Day. Both native Houstonians, the Taylor brothers say Guzo will focus solely on travel in Houston at first, but they will branch out to other cities, states, and international destinations down the road.

The brothers have a lot of ideas and goals for the app, including Guzo Guides, which will be a select number of influencers in each city that can offer their professional advice on things to do. More details on the app and the guides will become available when the app launches.

For the Taylor brothers, Guzo is all about connecting people when they travel.

"Whatever business you run, there are people involved," Joshua Taylor says. "So, we want to be able to use our platform to bring people together and have them travel more efficiently."


B2B travel company grows its Houston presence

travel tech

Real-time inventory software enables travelers to book a last minute flight and have their boarding passes in hand at security a few minutes later. But that technology isn't utilized in other aspects of a vacation — tour companies, for example. That's where San Francisco-based Xola comes in.

Scott Zimmerman and his co-founder Anush Ramani realized real-time technology was a glaring hole in a multi-billion-dollar business. It's why they founded Xola, a booking and marketing software system designed for tour and activity companies.

"So many smaller tour companies operate with pen and paper," Zimmerman explained. "And for many cities and countries, tourism is the number-two or number-three industry — it's a huge driver of economic growth. It's a $120 billion global market."

They created Xola as a B2B solution that created a platform for operators to promote their offerings, and allow customers to purchase tours and activities. Meanwhile, Xola's custom-design software platform managed the tour inventory and payments, providing real-time inventory management.

Since its inception in 2011, Xola has emerged as a leading B2B solution for travel industry operators. The company started in San Francisco, but opened an office in Houston in 2016 in the Heights Clock Tower. Xola's Houston operation began with six people; today, it employs 17. Zimmerman says he sees potential to grow the team with additional marketing, sales, and support staff.

"We serve customers around the world, and Houston has everything we need to continue our growth."

Zimmerman acknowledged the cost of doing business in the Bay Area is expensive, but when he went looking for cities in which to expand, price wasn't his only concern.

"We wanted a large metropolitan area, with a diverse ecosystem, good universities, a great talent pool, a high quality of life and an affordable cost of living. Houston has all these things. And the more I get to know the city, I realize just how much it has going on."

Zimmerman said that the city has "totally exceeded" his expectations in terms of Xola's growth. He said every one of the Houston employees is wonderful to work with, and loves that they come from diverse cultural and educational backgrounds.

"I can't quite describe what the office is like, but there's a great energy and enthusiasm. [The team] easy to work with. It's been fun in that regard."

Zimmerman said that Houston's talent pool is so extensive, he can't imagine "ever exhausting" the city's resources. He also sees Houston as an asset for Xola's continued growth. The company currently has offices in San Francisco, Houston, Bangalore, and Belgrade and anticipates more expansion in the coming years. Xola's ticketing and software system has received multiple five-star reviews from its customers, who praise not only its ease of operation, but also the company's stellar customer service. In fact, Xola just won a 2018 Ease of Use Award from Capterra.

"In addition to Xola's core booking system, we're building next-generation automated marketing features that help our customers maintain a competitive edge. And our Houston team will continue to grow as we do, so we can continue to serve markets around the world."

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New Houston-based venture capital firm emerges to focus on energy transition

money moves

Two Texas entrepreneurs recently announced what they say is the first venture fund in Texas exclusively dedicated to investing in energy transition technologies.

Houston-based Energy Transition Ventures — led by Craig Lawrence and Neal Dikeman — officially emerged from stealth mode with anchor investment from two operating companies from the GS Group of Korea. The fund closed its first capital in February this, completed its first investment in March, and looks to close new investors for a total fund size of $75 million, according to a press release.

"In the near future, energy is going to be delivered and used completely differently. Marginal and average energy and CO2e prices are now on a long term deflationary trend," says Dikeman in the release. "There are 500 multi-billion dollar energy companies globally, and massive portions of global GDP, that are going to get disrupted in the energy transition, from energy & power, transport, real estate, industrial to consumer to agriculture."

Dikeman, who is the managing partner at Old Growth Ventures, a family office investor, also chairs the board at nonprofit cleantech accelerator Cleantech.org, virtual research institute. In 2001, he co-founded San Francisco based cleantech investment firm Jane Capital in 2001.

"We've been successful being highly selective as investors, and using our deep networks and understanding of energy and technology to avoid pitfalls other investors faced. It is exciting to be off the bench to do it again," he continues.

Lawrence, who's also been a part of the cleantech revolution for a chunk of his career, previously started and led the cleantech investing effort at Accel Partners and was previously vice president of product at software company Treverity. The duo chose the Energy Capital of the World to headquarter ETV.

"Texas is the energy capital of the world, and outside of corporate venture capital, there are not many venture funds in the state," says Lawrence. "So it makes sense to start an energy transition focused fund here as the latest wave of clean technology investing accelerates."

ETV will fund from seed to series B with select late-stage opportunities, according to the release, and will colocate a Silicon Valley office with GS Futures, the Silicon Valley-based corporate venture capital arm of energy, construction, and retail conglomerate GS Group of Korea.

"We're excited to be investing in ETV and in the future of energy," says Tae Huh, managing director of GS Futures, in the release. "Energy Transition Ventures is our first investment from the new GS Futures fund, and we've already run successful pilots in Korea with three US startups even before this fund closed an investment – we are working to accelerate the old model of corporate venture dramatically."

Jon Wellinghoff, former chair of FERC, and Deb Merril, president of EDF Retail and co-founder and former co-CEO of Just Energy, have also joined ETV as advisors. GS Energy executive Q Song moves from Seoul, Korea, to join the Houston ETV investment team, according to the release.

Self-driving pizza delivery goes live in Houston

innovation delivered

After announcing their partnership to work on pizza deliveries via self-driving robots in 2019, Dominos and Nuro have officially rolled out their technology to one part of town.

Beginning this week, if you place a prepaid order from Domino's in Woodland Heights (3209 Houston Ave.), you might have the option to have one of Nuro's R2 robot come to your door. This vehicle is the first do deliver completely autonomously without occupants with a regulatory approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to a news release.

"We're excited to continue innovating the delivery experience for Domino's customers by testing autonomous delivery with Nuro in Houston," says Dennis Maloney, Domino's senior vice president and chief innovation officer, in the release. "There is still so much for our brand to learn about the autonomous delivery space. This program will allow us to better understand how customers respond to the deliveries, how they interact with the robot and how it affects store operations."

Orders placed at select dates and times will have the option to be delivered autonomously. Photo courtesy of Nuro

The Nuro deliveries will be available on select days and times, and users will be able to opt for the autonomous deliveries when they make their prepaid orders online. They will then receive a code via text message to use on the robot to open the hatch to retrieve their order.

"Nuro's mission is to better everyday life through robotics. Now, for the first time, we're launching real world, autonomous deliveries with R2 and Domino's," says Dave Ferguson, Nuro co-founder and president, in the release. "We're excited to introduce our autonomous delivery bots to a select set of Domino's customers in Houston. We can't wait to see what they think."

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.

From being located in a state open to rolling out new AV regulations to Houston's diversity — both in its inhabitants to its roadways, the Bayou City stood out to Nuro, says Sola Lawal, product operations manager at Nuro.

"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," Lawal says on an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Steam the episode here.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — startup development, fintech, and health care — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston

Impact Hub Houston has two new initiatives for female founders. Photo courtesy of Impact Hub Houston

Two accelerator programs were recently announced and they both are aimed at supporting female founders — and one Houston organization is behind them both. Impact Hub Houston announced that it has partnered up with Frost Bank to sponsor eight female founders to participate in Impact Hub's new Accelerate Membership Program.

Additionally, Impact Hub Houston has teamed up with MassChallenge for their own initiative supporting female founders in the Houston-Galveston region in partnership with Houston-based Workforce Solutions. The three organizations are collaborating to launch launch a bootcamp to support female founders in the greater Houston region.

"As a female founder myself, I'm incredibly excited about this opportunity to support and uplift more women entrepreneurs and women-led businesses in our region," says Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston, in a news release. "By now, it's no secret that women, and especially women of color, are under-invested in; and this is our chance to change that by helping more women strengthen their businesses and prepare to seek funding." Click here to read more.

Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed and COO of Republic

What does the future of investment look like? That's something Youngro Lee thinks about daily – and he shares his thoughts on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of NextSeed

The world of investing is changing — and the power shift is tilting from the rich elite to individuals. Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed and COO of Republic, has seen the change starting several years ago.

"Investing is traditionally seen as something you can't do unless you're rich," Lee says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There was a certain understanding of what anyone (looking to invest) should do. … But now the world is so different."

Lee shares more about the future of investing and how he's watched the Houston innovation ecosystem develop over the years on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Liz Youngblood, president of Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and senior vice president and COO of St. Luke's Health

As we enter year two of the pandemic, the way hospitals function now and in the future is forever changed. Photo courtesy

No industry has been unaffected by COVID-19, Liz Youngblood, president of Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and senior vice president and COO of St. Luke's Health, observes in a guest column for InnovationMap. But hospitals — they've had a spotlight shown on them and their technology adoption since day one of the pandemic.

"The pace of innovation for hospitals has been at breakneck speed — from the evolution of new treatment protocols to the need to reconfigure physical spaces to support an influx of patients while also promoting a healing environment during this unprecedented time," she writes.

Hospitals, she says, look and feel completely different now than they did last year and the year before that. Click here to read more.