3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Will Womble of Umbrage, Katie Mehnert of ALLY Energy, and James Reinstein of Saranas. Courtesy photos

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

Will Womble, CEO of Umbrage

Startup founder on how Houston has evolved as a software hub — and why there's no better place to be

Will Womble joins this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy

Will Womble describes his company, Umbrage, as fiercely loyal to Houston. The business, which publicly launched earlier this year, supports companies large and small with their software design, development, and more. Womble says he saw a void in Houston for this type of company, and he's attempting to fill it.

"What makes us different is speed to market — we're all onshore. We're all Houston-based, with the exception of five of our 40 employees," Womble says. "Houston was our focus and mission."

Womble has seen Houston evolve as an innovation ecosystem over the years, and now the game has changed. Click here to read more.

Katie Mehnert, founder and CEO of ALLY Energy

Katie Mehnert's company, ALLY Energy, has made an acquisition. Photo via Katie Mehnert

ALLY Energy announced it has acquired Clean Energy Social, a jobs and networking community for the clean energy industry. The deal expands ALLY's platform into the solar, wind, power, oil and gas, power and utilities, biofuels, hydrogen, geothermal, carbon capture, and other sectors that make up the energy transition.

"It's time to tackle the enormous challenge of the energy transition by connecting companies and candidates to resources so we can reduce the time and capital it takes to recruit and reskill," says Katie Mehnert, founder and CEO of ALLY Energy, in a news release. "We can speed up decarbonization by centralizing resources into one digital experience. This acquisition is a much-needed human capital investment to advance net-zero goals." Click here to read more.

James Reinstein, president and CEO of Saranas

Saranas closed its series B round this week. Photo via Saranas.com

Saranas Inc. announced that it closed a $12.8 million series B investment led by Wisconsin-based Baird Capital, the venture capital and global private equity arm of Baird, a global company with a location in Houston. Austin-based S3 Ventures also supported the round. The company will use the funds to continue its clinical trials, per a news release.

"We are pleased to announce this round of funding led by Baird Capital," says Saranas President and CEO James Reinstein in the release. "It underscores the importance of real-time monitoring of bleeding complications and our opportunity to accelerate the commercialization of Early Bird. We look forward to expanding our clinical evidence through prospective clinical trials and launching next generation products, including Bird on a Wire, to address a much broader range of endovascular procedures." Click here to read more.

Will Womble, CEO of Umbrage, joins this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy

Startup founder on how Houston has evolved as a software hub — and why there's no better place to be

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 94

It's no understatement to say that Will Womble is incredibly proud to be a Houstonian. The former actor and lawyer first got involved in the startup world by way of Austin — but he always advocated for his hometown.

"Houston is always third in line when it comes to the 'cool kid' in Texas," Womble says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "But when you look at what's here, there's not a city outside of New York City with as many Fortune 500 companies. ... I just wanted to go prove that Houston has some really talented software developers just clamoring for the opportunity to show the talent."

An early hire at Chaotic Moon — later acquired by Accenture, Womble co-founded Austin-based Hypergiant before founding his latest venture, Umbrage. The company, which publicly launched earlier this year, supports companies large and small with their software design, development, and more.

The company, which Womble describes as a service-focused, crafts-based digital studio, works with its clients to design, develop, and deliver enterprise software that's cutting edge and scalable. The other thing? Umbrage is fiercely loyal to Houston. Womble says he saw a void in Houston for this type of company, and he's attempting to fill it.

"What makes us different is speed to market — we're all onshore. We're all Houston-based, with the exception of five of our 40 employees," Womble says. "Houston was our focus and mission."

Womble has seen Houston evolve as an innovation ecosystem over the years, and now the game has changed — especially when it comes to hiring, which has gotten very competitive.

"You see all of these great companies that aren't just bootstrapping but raising significant venture funding," Womble says. "It's awesome, but it's also making the landscape from the talent perspective very competitive. It was hard enough for a lot of industrial enterprise to attract talent before all of these startups were infused with capital to build their own teams."

These types of challenges aren't a deterrant for Womble — it's exciting for him.

"It's a really awesome time to be called a Houstonian," he says.

Womble shares more on his circuitous career and how he's seen the Houston innovation ecosystem evolve on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


These Houston startups are starting the year off funded. Photo via Getty Images

5 Houston startups start 2021 strong with fresh funding

following the money

Houston startups saw a tumultuous year last year when it came to funding, but some local businesses are seeing an uptick in various stages of venture funding — from a $130 million series B round to a few seed and pre-seed fundings.

In case you missed some of these headlines, InnovationMap has rounded up these seven deals based on previous reporting. Scroll through to see which Houston startups are catching the eyes — and cashing the checks — of investors.

Houston software startup closes $7.5M series A led by two Houston-area​ VC firms

A Houston startup has closed a $7.5 million round of funding with mostly local investment. Photo courtesy of WizeHire

A Houston B2B software startup has closed a new round of funding led by two Houston venture capital firms.

WizeHire, a tech-enabled hiring solution for small businesses, closed a $7.5 million series A funding round that was led by Houston-based Mercury Fund and Amplo, which is based just north of Houston in Spring. Additional support came from existing backers Ruchit Shah and RigUp co-founder Sandeep Jain. The company was co-founded by Sid Upadhyay, Nick Carneiro, and Jay Niblick.

According to a news release, WizeHire will use the funds to scale their business, which is centered around providing personalized hiring resources to small businesses, as well as to hire more staff and expand its partner program.

"We're a small business helping small businesses with a team of people looking out for you," says Upadhyay, who serves the company as CEO, in the release. "Hiring is complex and personal. Our customers see what we do not just as software; they see us as a trusted advisor." Click here to continue reading.

Houston B2B software company raises $3.2M in seed funding to grow team and product

DocJuris has raised its first round of venture funding to grow its team to keep up with demand for its legal software platform. Image courtesy of DocJuris

A Houston-based software-as-a-service company that is revolutionizing the contract process has closed a round of funding this week.

DocJuris, founded in 2018, raised $3.2 million in seed funding led by New York-based RTP Seed with additional support from Houston-based Seed Round Capital, California-based Watertower Ventures, Maryland-based Crossbeam, and Remote First Capital.

It's the startup's first round of venture funding and Henal Patel, CEO of DocJuris, says he was looking for funds as well as support from investors who had experience with software and could open doors to new clients for the legal software. Click here to continue reading.

Houston space tech company raises $130M series B

Houston-based Axiom Space has raised more funds for its growing commercial space business. Image via axiomspace.com

Just around a year ago, Houston-based Axiom Space Inc. closed a $100 million series A round. Now, the space tech company has announced even more financing as it grows and scales to support a NASA-commissioned project.

Axiom raised $130 million in its series B round led by C5 Capital with support from TQS Advisors, Declaration Partners, Moelis Dynasty Investments, Washington University in St. Louis, The Venture Collective, Aidenlair Capital, Hemisphere Ventures, and Starbridge Venture Capital.

"Axiom Space is a force in the space sector, and it will become a centerpiece of the C5 Capital portfolio and enhance our vision for a secure global future," says C5 operating partner Rob Meyerson, who will join the Axiom board of directors, in a news release. "The Axiom Station will be the infrastructure upon which we will build many new businesses in space, and it will serve as the foundation for future exploration missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond." Click here to continue reading.

Houston construction staffing startup emerges from stealth with $1.5 pre-seed funding

Houston-based Buildforce is developing a technology to better connect contractors and the trade professionals they employ. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston startup has been quietly working on a tech solution for construction staffing and has now emerged from stealth mode to announce a recent funding round as well as an acquisition.

Launched in July of 2020, Buildforce is a construction staffing app that aims to more efficiently connect contractors to skilled workers in trades ranging from electrical, mechanical, and plumbing to flooring, concrete, painting, and more, according to a news release. The company raised a $1.5 million pre-seed round led by Houston-based Mercury Fund.

Co-founder and CEO Moody Heard, who previously served as senior investment analyst at Mercury, says the tech product — the Buildforce Contractor App — will have a big impact on Texas, which is experiencing growing construction volume across the state. Click here to continue reading.

Houston digital studio closes $2M seed round with local investment

Umbrage, a Houston-based developer of enterprise software, has closed its seed funding. Photo via umbrage.com

A software startup in Houston has leveled up thanks to new funding. Houston-based digital studio Umbrage has reportedly raised $2 million.

Founded in 2019 by Will Womble, Umbrage creates custom software solutions for companies within digitally transforming industries, such as oil and gas, healthcare, and supply chain.

"Umbrage is a new way that enterprises can overcome the inherent challenges of building and scaling digital solutions," Womble, who also serves as CEO, says in a news release. "Umbrage partners with internal technology teams to create scalable products that directly impact business' success. And by training our clients to effectively scale and improve these custom-built solutions, we're setting up our customers for long-term, sustainable success." Click here to continue reading.

Umbrage, a Houston-based developer of enterprise software, has closed its seed funding. Photo via umbrage.com

Houston digital studio closes $2M seed round with local investment

money moves

A software startup in Houston has leveled up thanks to new funding. Houston-based digital studio Umbrage has reportedly raised $2 million.

Founded in 2019 by Will Womble, Umbrage creates custom software solutions for companies within digitally transforming industries, such as oil and gas, healthcare, and supply chain.

"Umbrage is a new way that enterprises can overcome the inherent challenges of building and scaling digital solutions," Womble, who also serves as CEO, says in a news release. "Umbrage partners with internal technology teams to create scalable products that directly impact business' success. And by training our clients to effectively scale and improve these custom-built solutions, we're setting up our customers for long-term, sustainable success."

The round was led by Rice Investment Group — which, according to the release, has been a client of Umbrage as well as an investor.

"We've utilized Umbrage's custom solutions in our portfolio companies with great success and we can attest to the customer value proposition," says Danny Rice, a Partner of Rice Investment Group. "We're thrilled to support Umbrage's growth and enable forward-thinking businesses to unlock the business potential that digital solutions from Umbrage can deliver."

According to the release, Umbrage was able to be cash-flow-positive within weeks of starting and has already grown its team to nearly 40 employees. Clients include Cold Bore Technologies, Sumitomo Corp., and cpap.com.

"Umbrage brings a product-first mindset that continues to influence our organization far beyond what is expected from a software vendor," says Edwin Suarez, vice president and chief digital officer at SC Global Tubular Solutions. "Our team has been challenged with digital business models from ideation through product development and partnering with Umbrage helps us focus on long-term strategy while ensuring delivery on our immediate needs."

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Early-stage startup accelerator names latest Houston cohort, new local leader

new to Hou

A national startup accelerator has announced its fifth local cohort, which includes five Houston companies participating in the spring 2022 class.

Madison, Wisconsin-based gener8tor has announced today the five participating startups in gBETA Houston. The program will be led by Muriel Foster, the newly named director of gBETA Houston, which originally launched in Houston in 2020 thanks to a grant from from the Downtown Redevelopment Authority.

The program, which is designed to help guide early-stage startups find early customer traction, connect with mentors, and more, is based in the Downtown Launchpad, and is free and does not take equity in the participating companies. The cohort kicked off on April 21 and concludes on June 10.

The new cohort includes:

  • Founded by CEO Steffie Thomson a year ago, Getaway Sticks has designed a shoe that gives women the painless support they need using athletic foam to create a shoe that gives women the painless support they need. Getaway Sticks provides the solutions to women’s #1 wardrobe complaint of high heel pain. Since launch, the company has earned over $35,000 in revenue from over 150 customers.
  • Through a combination of software and hardware technology, LocBox is rethinking the shopping experience for online and local purchases. If you shop, ship, or have food delivered to your house, LocBox will make your life easier. Led by CEO Sterling Sansing, LocBox has previously participated in the Texas A&M MBA Venture Challenge.
  • SpeakHaus is focused on equipping young professionals and entrepreneurs with public speaking skills through its on-demand training platform and group coaching program. Since launching in October 2021, SpeakHaus has facilitated 6 corporate trainings and coached 61 business leaders generating over $49,000 in revenue. The company is led by CEO Christa Clarke.
  • Led by CEO LaGina Harris, The Us Space is creating spaces intentionally for women of color, women-led businesses, and women-centric organizations. Since launching in June 2021, The Us Space has created partnerships with more than a dozen community organizations, sustainable businesses, and organizations creating positive economic impact in the City of Houston.
  • Founded in August 2021, Urban Eatz Delivery is a food delivery service app that caters to the overlooked and underrepresented restaurants, food trucks, and home-based food vendors. Urban Eatz Delivery has earned over $88,000 in revenue, delivered to over 2,000 users, and worked with 36 restaurant and food vendors on the app. The company is led by CEO D’Andre Good.

“The five companies selected for the Spring 2022 cohort tackle unique problems that have propelled them to create a business that solves the issues they once faced," Foster says in a news release. "From public speaking, apparel comfort, and food delivery from underrepresented restaurant owners, these founders have found their niche and are ready to continue to make an enormous impact on the Houston ecosystem."

it's Foster's first cohort at the helm of the program. A Houston native, she has her master’s in public administration from Texas Southern University and a bachelor’s in marketing from Oklahoma State University. Her background includes work in the nonprofit sector and international business consulting in Cape Town, South Africa, and she's worked within programming at organizations such as MassChallenge, BLCK VC, and now gener8tor.

The program is housed at the Downtown Launchpad. The five startups will have access to the space to meet with mentors, attend events, and run their companies.

"Creating (the hub) was a little like a moonshot, but it’s paying off and contributing enormous impact to the city’s economy. The five startups selected for the gBETA Houston Spring cohort will continue that legacy,” says Robert Pieroni, director of economic development at Central Houston Inc., in the release. “As these entrepreneurs chase their dreams and create something epic, they will know Downtown Houston is standing behind them. I am so proud of what Downtown Launchpad is already, and what it will become.”

Muriel Foster, a native Houstonian, is the new director of gBETA Houston. Image via LinkedIn

Vote now for your favorite 2022 Houston science teacher

Rewarding the Spark

Since 2019, alliantgroup and the Houston Independent School District have been partnering for the SPARK Award, a program that rewards outstanding HISD science teachers who are increasing student engagement and achievement through innovative lesson plans that emphasize both the importance and fun aspects of science.

The overall winner receives a $3,500 personal award plus $500 for their classroom, and the other five finalists receive $1,300 each plus another $500 to spend on their classrooms.

Get to know this year's crop of nominees below, then be sure to cast your vote once a day here until May 25.

After working for three years as an accountant, Lynell Dillard taught a weekly finance class where her students became her inspiration to pursue a full-time career in the classroom.

She secured her first teaching position in 2002 and hasn’t looked back. For three years now, she has been teaching science and giving her students hands-on learning opportunities they may not experience outside of the classroom.

Dillard explains that for many of her students, her role as a teacher is to give them as many opportunities to interact with the natural environment as possible. She knows many of her students and their families would not have access to these resources if it were not for the school district.

"We all learn in a different way, so we have to be willing to help that other person if they don’t get what I get, and there’s no criticism in it," Dillard says. "I tell them they are my future. Every single part of your education is important."


"Before I went to foster care, I was not doing well in my education," Ruth Giles says. "My foster mom, Nancy, took the time to figure out how I learned. She figured out I’m good with memorization, flashcards, and practicing. I would not be here without her today."

Sadly, Nancy passed away in January from COVID-19. Now, more than ever, it’s important to Giles that she continue sharing her experiences with her students to keep Nancy’s legacy alive.

Giles says the best part of teaching fifth-grade science is helping her students view the world in a different way, just like Nancy did for her.


Melanie Jenkins has been a fifth grade ESL teacher at Katherine Smith Elementary School for three years, but first got started in substitute teaching. She then went on to fulfill her childhood dream of working in finance, but found it wasn’t all she thought it would be.

"I still had in the back of my mind these kids whose lives I touched and who remembered me and understood what I was trying to teach them," she says.

Now she can't imagine doing anything else. It's challenging that many of her students are learning English for the first time, but she focuses on vocabulary and giving them resources in both English and Spanish is key, along with truly forming relationships with them.

“I try to figure out who likes what and how I can bring that into the classroom,” says Jenkins. “If you are a hands-on learner, we have the opportunities to put our hands on things. If you are a project-based learner, you have the opportunity to do projects. So there’s no one size fits all.”


According to science teacher Mimi Muñoz, STEM education is important but learning to be kind should be first in any classroom environment.

She also works hard to get her fifth-grade students engaged in their lessons and understand why science is important to their everyday lives.

“They get so excited to do hands-on activities, experiments, and projects,” Muñoz explains. “One thing I really want them to understand is that you need learning every day of your life. And learning science, as well as the world around us, is their real life. The things I’m teaching you [in the classroom] are important.”

Muñoz has been teaching for three years and spent her entire career at Seguin Elementary. She says the last two years were very tough on her students because of the pandemic, but despite virtual learning, it has only strengthened the way she connects to her students.


An educator of 17 years, Gerjuan O’Neal is following in her family’s footsteps.

"My maternal grandmother was a second and third grade teacher, and my maternal grandfather was a high school government teacher," she says. "My great-aunt was an elementary teacher and then a homebound teacher. My favorite thing is that I teach kindergarten through fifth grade, so every day is different."

She loves teaching STEM to her students because they can see how it applies to the other subjects they are also learning in school.

"I really like for my students to be creative problem solvers, and I like to show them all the different components of STEM," O’Neal explains. "If we are doing a science technology map, everything fits together. If we do a Lego build, we’re doing estimating with numbers. If we are coding, they get to see where math is involved and where they must be critical thinkers."


Although this is her first year teaching at Bonner Elementary School, Leticia Sifuentes is a veteran of the classroom with 24 years of experience.

Her favorite part about teaching is seeing her students become just as passionate about science as she is.

“I tell my students I’m a science nerd. We watch a movie — where’s the science? We go somewhere — where’s the science? They’re able to bring science to everything they talk about. It’s in reading, it’s in math, it’s just the way we can incorporate science in everyday life.”

Sifuentes was named an honorable mention teacher for alliantgroup’s 2019 SPARK Award, but three years later she says she is a better educator after working through the challenges of a pandemic and virtual learning. She now realizes that as an educator it is not only her responsibility to ensure her students are performing well academically but also emotionally, socially, and mentally.

CAST YOUR VOTE ONCE A DAY HERE before May 25.

Houston ranks as No. 3 city for Asian American entrepreneurs

diverse city

Known for its diversity, Houston ranks as the third best major metro area in the U.S. for Asian American entrepreneurs, according to a new study.

Personal finance website SmartAsset analyzed data for 52 of the largest metro areas to come up with the ranking. The analysis looked at nine metrics in three categories: prevalence of Asian-owned businesses, success of new businesses, and income and job security.

About 9 percent of the Houston metro area’s residents identify as Asian.

The SmartAsset study puts Houston in fifth place for the number of Asian-owned businesses (nearly 19,900) and in fourth place for the share of Asian-owned businesses (almost 17.9 percent) among all businesses. Furthermore, Houston ranks 14th for the increase (nearly 9.6 percent) in the number of Asian-owned businesses from 2017 to 2019.

Leading the SmartAsset list is the San Francisco metro area, followed by Dallas-Fort Worth. Austin comes in at No. 11 and San Antonio at No. 14.

The largest minority-owned business in the Houston area, as ranked by annual revenue, is Asian-owned private equity firm ZT Corporate.

Founded in 1997 by Chairman and CEO Taseer Bada, who was born in Pakistan, ZT Corporate is valued at more than $1 billion. ZT Corporate generates more than $600 million in annual revenue and employs over 3,000 people.

“As we look ahead, the vision for ZT Corporate is limitless. Our team will continue pushing boundaries and finding the bright spots in the economy that produce consistent financial gains for our investors,” Bada says in a news release marking his company’s 25th anniversary.

ZT Corporate’s flagship businesses are:

  • Altus Community Healthcare, a provider of health care services.
  • ZT Financial Services, a wealth management firm.
  • ZT Motors, which owns and operates auto dealerships. Last year, ZT Motors bought three Ron Carter dealerships in the Houston area.

“ZT Corporate is a vital asset to our citizens as a longtime local employer,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says, “and has positively affected many lives through their health care organizations and philanthropic efforts.”