Here's your latest roundup of Houston startup and innovation news you may have missed. Photo via Getty Images

We're on the other side of the hill that is Houston's summer, but the Bayou City's still hot — especially in terms of innovation news, and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, a Houston venture capital fund has made its latest investment, Houston startups share big updates, and more.

Rivalry Technology rolls out mobile ordering at hot summer spot

You can now order poolside at this Houston-area resort. Image courtesy of Rivalry Tech

Lounging at Margaritaville Lake Resort at Lake Conroe was just made easier by Rivalry Tech, a Houston-based mobile ordering platform company. Rivalry Tech upgraded poolside ordering with its myEATz. According to a news release, customers can now order food and drinks from the 5 o’Clock Somewhere Bar and Lone Palm Bar via a custom QR code system for each lounge chair and table to increase operational efficiency for the Margaritaville Lake Resort staff.

“We wanted to be sure the rollout of the myEATz mobile ordering platform was helpful to the Margaritaville staff, not a hindrance to their existing process. We created custom QR codes and a color coded map to easily identify where the mobile orders are going,” says Charles Willis, COO of Rivalry Tech, in the release.

Rivalry, which provides mobile ordering at numerous sports stadiums and venues with sEATz, expanded into hospitality this year.

“The Rivalry Tech team helped us to seamlessly implement mobile ordering at Margaritaville Lake Resort. They created the marketing materials, established custom QR codes, uploaded mentors and trained our staff onsite. The whole process has been easy and collaborative,” says Amit Sen, director food and beverage for Margaritaville Lake Resort, in the release.

Mercury Fund invests in ReturnLogic's latest round

Mercury has led the latest fundraising round from a SaaS company. Image via Getty Images

Houston-based venture capital firm Mercury led Phillidelphia-based SaaS company ReturnLogic's $8.5 million series A funding round, which also had participation from Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Fund, White Rose Ventures, and Ben Franklin Technology Partners. The fresh funding will help the company double its workforce, accelerate product development, and expand Application Programming Interface capabilities, according to a news release.

Founded by CEO Peter Sobotta, Return Logic's SaaS platform, which can be plugged into existing e-commerce platforms, helps to enhance management of returns and prevent the challenging financial impacts of returns.

“While retailers have largely mastered forward logistics to get products into customers hands, the returns process remains an under-addressed, resource-draining problem that eats away at brands’ profits,” says Blair Garrou, managing director of Mercury, in a news release. “ReturnLogic is something entirely new to this market and uniquely built on Peter Sobotta’s deep operational experience in reverse logistics and supply chain management.

"While serving in the U.S. Navy, Peter specialized in reverse logistics and gained extensive expertise in ecommerce operations," Garrou continues. "With Peter at the helm, ReturnLogic’s innovative API-first returns solution is well-positioned to tackle the ever-growing operational returns problem facing retailers. We are excited to partner with Peter and his team as they continue to solve this massive problem for online retailers.”

Fluence Analytics named a top advanced manufacturing startup

Fluence Analytics was selected as one of 50 startups recognized. Graphic courtesy

Fluence Analytics, an analytics and process control solutions platform for the polymer and biopharmaceutical industries, was named as a Top 50 global advanced manufacturing startup by CB Insights. The Inaugural list breaks down 16 different cohorts, narrowed down from more than 6,000 companies who either submitted an application or were nominated. Fluence Analytics was one of three companies featured in the R&D Optimization category.

"Our team is very excited that our real-time process analytics, optimization and control products for the polymer and biopharma industries are included among such elite startups," says Jay Manouchehri, CEO of Fluence Analytics, in a statement to InnovationMap. "We wish to thank CB Insights for including Fluence Analytics in its inaugural list of the Top 50 global advanced manufacturing startups, as well as our customers and investors for supporting the development and roll-out of our transformative technology solutions."

Fluence Analytics moved to the Houston area from New Orleans last year. The company's tech platform allows for optimization and control products to polymer and biopharmaceutical customers worldwide.

HTX Labs secures $1.7M contract to expand within United States Air Force

HTX Labs' EMPACT product will be further developed to support the Air Force. Image courtesy of HTX Labs

HTX Labs, a Houston-based company that designs extended reality training for military and business purposes, that it has been awarded a $1.7 million Small Business Innovation Research Phase II Tactical Funding Increase with the US Air Force to enhance and operationalize to its product, EMPACT Immersive Learning Platform, in support of training modernization.

“We are very thankful to AFWERX and AFDT for this great opportunity to play an increasingly important role in helping the USAF accelerate training modernization," says Chris Verret, president HTX Labs, in a news release. "This TACFI award shows continued confidence in HTX Labs, with a strong commitment to accelerate usage and adoption of EMPACT.”

HTX Labs will leverage this contract to expand EMPACT's ability to rapidly create and distribute interactive, immersive training, collaborating closely with Advanced Force Development Technologies, per the release.

OpenStax to publish free edition of updated science textbook

OpenStax is growing its access to free online textbooks. Image via openstax.org

OpenStax, a tech initiative from Rice University that uploads free learning resources, has announced it will publish the 10th edition of an organic chemistry textbook by Cornell University professor emeritus John McMurry.

“This is a watershed moment for OpenStax and the open educational resources (OER) movement,” says Richard Baraniuk, founder and director of OpenStax, in a news release. “This publication will quickly provide a free, openly licensed, high-quality resource to hundreds of thousands of students in the U.S. taking organic chemistry, removing what can be a considerable cost and access barrier.”

Usually a big expense for organic chemistry students, McMurry, with the support of publisher Cengage, made the decision to offer the latest edition online as a tribute to his son, Peter McMurry, who died in 2019 after a long struggle with cystic fibrosis.

“If Peter were still alive, I have no doubt that he would want me to work on this 10th edition with a publisher that made the book free to students,” McMurry says in the release. “To make this possible, I am not receiving any payment for this book, and generous supporters have covered not only the production costs but have also made a donation of $500,000 to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation to help find a cure for this terrible disease.”

Contributing to Texas’ better showing on this year's ranking is an increase in female-focused VC investments. Photo via Getty Images

Texas named No. 2 state for women-led startups thanks to increased VC investment

who runs the world?

A more than 120 percent surge in female-focused venture capital investments helped push up Texas’ ranking in an annual study of the best states for women-led startups.

In Merchant Maverick’s 2021 report on the best states for women-led startups, Texas lands at No. 2, up from No. 6 the previous year. Colorado retains its No. 1 ranking from last year. Merchant Maverick judged each state based on several gender-specific metrics, such as VC funding.

Contributing to Texas’ better showing this year is the increase in female-focused VC investments. Merchant Maverick says the state’s five-year total for female-focused VC investments grew from the $365 million reflected in the 2020 report to $814 million in this year’s report. That’s a jump of 123 percent.

The $814 million total puts Texas in fourth place among the states in terms of female-focused VC investments over a five-year span. California leads this category ($6.7 billion), followed by New York ($4.7 billion), and Massachusetts ($1 billion).

The Lone Star State “has cultivated a business-friendly reputation that appears to be attracting a high volume of women-led organizations and startups,” says Merchant Maverick, a product comparison website for small businesses.

The state doesn’t do as well when it comes to average income, according to Merchant Maverick, but with no state income tax, women business owners can expect an average $62,945 yearly income to go further in Texas than it would in most other states.

Across the country, Merchant Maverick says that thanks to rising startup hubs like Houston, Miami, Phoenix, and Boulder, Colorado, “more funding opportunities are available to female entrepreneurs than ever before.”

Here are some of the Texas statistics cited in this year’s report:

  • 27 percent of businesses with employees are led by women, putting Texas at No. 13 among the states.
  • At 1.55 percent, Texas sits at No. 22 for the share of women business owners.
  • Texas ranks 19th for the average yearly income of women business owners ($62,945).
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Early-stage accelerator names finalists for its second Houston cohort

ready to grow

A traveling seed-stage accelerator has announced its return to Houston and named its second cohort.

CodeLaunch, produced by Dallas-based constant and software development company Improving and presented by Ohio-based VC network Cyrannus, is returning to Houston. The company's second Houston accelerator event will be held on March 2.

Putting a fresh spin on the seed accelerator model, CodeLaunch combines a startup competition with a tech tradeshow, as well as allows for networking among attendees. Since its inception ten years ago, the touring competition has doled out over $1.4 million in services to its finalists and overall winners.

"CodeLaunch is a startup and rock-n-roll show like nothing you've ever seen before," says CodeLaunch President and Founder Jason W. Taylor in a news release.

The competition pairs six startups with six startup consulting companies. This year's finalists and mentor pairings are as follows:

  • Lake Charles, Louisiana-based GOPHR's consultant mentor is Softeq
  • Port Arthur, Texas-based DrinKicks is paired with BJSS
  • Energy360, based in Houston, has been matched with Honeycomb Software
  • Inpathy, based in Detroit and Tyler, Texas, will work with Contollo
  • Drivingo, led by a student founder from Virginia Tech, is selected to collaborate with Blue People
  • Houston-based AnyShift's consultant mentor is Improving

Houston-based Softeq is returning to the event after working with software startup Codiac.

“CodeLaunch was great. We gained customers, investors, and a lot of local notoriety. It was the best event we had all last year," says Ben Ghazi, founder of Codiac about the event.

ResQ TRX, a Houston startup that provides solutions for the logistics industry, won CodeLaunch HOU 2022. Houston-based Clutch won Judges' Choice in last year's competition.

This year, investment is also on the line. Presenting partner Cyrannus announced that all startup founders who advance to the semifinal round of CodeLaunch will be competing in a $100,000 investment challenge, as well as the $50,000 challenge for impact startups. There would be one or two winners — either a winner for each award or, if a company scores top marks in both categories, one company can take home the entire $150,000.

“Not only will (a winner) get the cash, but also be introduced to a network that will help them refine their idea and get ready for their first big fundraiser," says Lee Mosbacker, founder of Cyrannus, in a news release.

This year's CodeLaunch event will be a part of Houston Tech Rodeo, which is taking place February 27 to March 2 this year. Tech Rodeo, which announced its schedule this week, will conclude its programming with the CodeLaunch event.

"Houston Exponential could not be more excited about our partnership with CodeLaunch Houston," says Houston Exponential CEO Natara Branch in the release. "They are a fantastic ally in Houston’s efforts to serve its growing startup community and CodeLaunch is an incredible fit for the capstone of the 2022 Tech Rodeo. Finishing off Tech Rodeo with CodeLaunch's exciting atmosphere will be a highly anticipated event for the Houston innovation ecosystem after an engaging week of programming."

Here's the income it takes to live among the top 1 percent in Texas

isn't that rich?

Wondering how "the other half lives" is so outdated, especially when we we can easily peek into what life is like for the "one percent." A new report from SmartAsset reveals how much money you'll need to be considered the top one percent in Texas.

With two Houston suburbs landing among the richest cities in Texas in a recent report, it's obvious that the Lone Star State is dotted with pockets of wealth. But how much do you actually need in your pocket to have a top one percent income?

In Texas, an annual income of $641,400 will land you at the top, while $258,400 only gets you to the top five percent.

To come up with those numbers, SmartAsset analyzed 2019 data from IRS tax units and adjusted the figures to 2022 dollars using the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For comparison, "the average American household earns a median income of under $70,000," according to the study. And per the latest figures from the U. S. Census Bureau, the median household income in Texas (in 2021 dollars) is $67,321. That leaves plenty of us with a long way to go in our financial striving.

So now we know how we compare to our neighbors, but where does that put the affluent population of Texas in comparison with other states?

For starters, Texas claimed the 10th highest income required to reach top income levels.

The one percent income threshold is hardest to meet in Connecticut ($955,000), Massachusetts ($900,000), New Jersey ($825,965), New York ($817,796), and California ($805,519). Only these five states have thresholds that exceed $800,00, and it's a pretty steep drop down to Texas ($641,400) in 10th place.

The five states where it's easiest to attain one percent status (even though that doesn't seem like good news) are Kentucky ($447,300), Arkansas ($446,276), New Mexico ($418,970), Mississippi ($383,128), and West Virginia ($374,712).

The SmartAsset report also included average tax rates for top earners in each state. There was surprisingly little variance in the top 10 states, with Washington state having the lowest rate (25.02%) and Connecticut collecting the highest tax rate (27.77%).

Texas was in the middle of the pack with a tax rate of 25.71% levied on top one percent incomes.

The 10 states with the highest earnings required to be a one-percenter and their tax rates are:

  1. Connecticut ($955.3K, Tax rate 27.77%)
  2. Massachusetts ($896.9K, Tax rate 26.4%)
  3. New Jersey ($826K, Tax rate 27.36%)
  4. New York ($817.8K, Tax rate 27.48%)
  5. California ($805.5K, Tax rate 26.78%)
  6. Washington ($736.1K, Tax rate 25.02%)
  7. Colorado ($682.9K, Tax rate 25.24%)
  8. Florida ($678.8K, Tax rate 25.23%)
  9. Illinois ($666.2K, Tax rate 26.23%)
  10. Texas ($641.4K, Tax rate 25.71%)
If you're on your way to being a top earner and want to do a deeper dive on those numbers, you can view the full report on the SmartAsset website.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

How Houston businesses can support employee mental health in 2023, according to expert

guest column

In 2023, it is imperative leaders keep the wellbeing of their workforce at the forefront of their minds.

According to an October 2022 publication from the McKinsey Health Institute, 59 percent of the global workforce report having at least one mental health challenge either now or in the past. These challenges not only threaten employee wellbeing but can also impact performance by a reduction in productivity.

Numerous factors outside of work impact individual mental health. Nonetheless, employers can make a difference with a few key steps, such as properly training management to mitigate toxic behaviors, prioritizing inclusivity and providing mental health resources.

Management training

To start, leaders need to prepare their managers to set the tone for employees. Frontline managers can have a large influence on employee wellbeing through their daily interactions with their teams. Even if organizations offer a host of mental health benefits, employees might not take advantage if their managers do not buy in. There is no substitute for the genuine care and concern that a supportive manager offers their employees, and they can tell the difference when they are authentically cared for or not.

Although the vast majority of managers have good intentions toward their employees, managers also may hold themselves and their teams to high standards without realizing the impact on mental health. Managers should receive training in how to respect work-life balance, help employees prioritize their duties, and create and maintain a supportive, positive work environment. These things may not have been on the radar for management in the past, but it is now the norm to lead with the wellness of the whole person in mind.

Beyond helping employees balance their lives, managers also need support in balancing their own, particularly to avoid burnout. Employees and managers may both face pressure to perform, and leaders need to make sure mental health initiatives for junior employees do not simply transfer excessive workloads to their supervisors. To accomplish that, train managers in time- and stress-management techniques and keep the lines of communication open with the executive team. Staying in tune with the pulse of wellness at work requires open communication and the commitment to support work-life balance by all members of the organization.

Prioritize inclusivity

Since 2020, inclusivity has become a bigger and bigger part of the conversation about workplace culture. The impact of a discriminatory workplace on mental health can be profound. When employees experience or indirectly experience discrimination in the workplace, their overall wellbeing suffers, with engagement and satisfaction decreasing as well, according to a 2021 survey from Gallup. The good news is most workplaces already have policies in place to prevent and report discriminatory practices.

However, a truly inclusive workplace will go beyond anti-discrimination policies to create an affirmative environment where employees can fully embrace their identities. Steps to promote inclusivity include celebrating holidays of various cultures, creating opportunities for employees to discuss their heritage and traditions, organizing relationship-focused exercises and offering educational opportunities in the workplace. To promote unity in the workplace, leaders should take care to discourage the formation of cliques and ensure all employees feel welcomed and not judged or mistreated by coworkers. Valuing diversity and honoring the individual drives the culture of tolerance and acceptance, which promotes a harmonious and productive work environment and team.

Provide mental health resources

To promote mental health and wellness, employees need access to the right resources and the knowledge to navigate those resources. In many cases, employees with the biggest mental health challenges may also face the most obstacles in receiving care. For employers offering health care benefits, employees may need training on how to find mental health practitioners in their area. What is more, employees accustomed to inconvenient appointment times or long wait lists for therapists may benefit from learning about online therapy platforms, which can offer care sooner and outside of typical work hours.

Many employers also choose to offer an employee assistance plan, or EAP, which can offer further mental health programs, free of charge. Despite their relevance to employees in need, EAPs are often overlooked and underutilized, making it even more necessary for managers or HR to proactively reach out to employees and educate them about their EAP benefits.

For organizations without the budget to provide health care benefits or EAPs, their leadership should investigate free or low-cost mental health resources in their region. In many cases, local government will provide free access or subsidies for mental health care. Nonprofit organizations may also offer free programs for those meeting eligibility requirements.

Employers should keep in mind employees may feel afraid to use mental health benefits for fear of stigma. While managers should be careful not to intrude on employees’ personal lives, managers can still gently offer caring support to employees who show signs of struggling with mental health, including chronic tardiness, absenteeism, low mood and a sudden change in personality or work performance. The ability to know if a behavior is out of the norm for an employee, the manager needs to have built a relationship with them and to care enough to notice the change.

As employees continue to face mental health challenges in their personal lives, employers can be part of the solution by educating managers, emphasizing inclusivity and offering mental health resources and support. Being a caring human being goes a long way, even at work.

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Karen Leal is a performance specialist with Houston-based Insperity, a provider of human resources offering a suite of scalable HR solutions available in the marketplace.